How does a high school student in Franklin, Ohio, develop a keen interest in everything related to Japan? For Brian Ruppert, it began by reading about Gestalt psychology, then trying to make sense of Zen Buddhism.
By the time Ruppert entered Wright State as a religion major, he realized that he wanted to learn about Japanese Buddhism and speak Japanese, and immerse himself in Japan’s history, religion, and culture.
Since earning a Master of Humanities degree in religion and philosophy, followed by his doctorate from Princeton University, Ruppert has researched and published on Buddhism in Japanese cultural history. He also spent six years in Japan, where he studied, taught, and met his wife, Junko.
Ruppert is associate professor and director of graduate studies in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Illinois.
In his book Jewel in the Ashes: Buddha Relics and Power in Early Medieval Japan, Ruppert addresses the relationship between the veneration of Buddha relics and the appropriation of power in Japan.
“Relics could either bring people together or tear them apart because of the special allure these objects had for people in the Japanese royal family, the aristocracy, and in samurai society,” Ruppert says.
In today’s Japan, Ruppert notes, people still express their place in society by using the proper honorific language or by carrying business cards. During his interactions in Japan, Ruppert discovered the name card with a person’s title determines how others address you—and how you should address them. The Japanese use different levels of their language to speak to persons of different status. They adjust levels of praise and humility accordingly.
Ruppert is now completing another book, which will examine Buddhist ritual exchange in medieval Japan and its connection with Buddhist notions of loyalty and indebtedness.