Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Research on Buddhist Nuns in Japan, Past and Present by Wacker Monika

Research on Buddhist Nuns in Japan, Past and Present
Wacker, Monika
2853 words
1 July 2005
Asian Folklore Studies
Volume 64; Issue 2; ISSN: 03852342
Copyright (c) 2005 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

Research on Buddhist Nuns in Japan, Past and Present RUCH, BARBARA, General Editor. Engendering Faith: Women and Buddhism in Premodern Japan. Michigan Monograph Series in Japanese Studies, NO. 43. Ann Arbor: Center for Japanese Studies, The University of Michigan, 2002. Ixxviii + 706 pages. Map, plates, list of characters, selected bibliography, index. Cloth US$69.00; ISBN 1-929280-15-7.

WHEN SCHOLARS of Religious Studies talk about Buddhism the focus is usually on Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhism of South and Southeast Asia, Tibet, and Japan. Traditionally they concentrate on monks and doctrines. A fairly comprehensive bibliography listing the scarce literature in Western languages on women in Buddhism can be found in Barbara Ruch's monumental reader, Engendering Faith, one of the publications under review.

While conducting research for my PhD thesis in Japan, I heard of a friend staying at a convent in Kyoto during her research there. From my perspective, the nuns themselves were invisible in modern Japanese society. I clearly recall my astonishment, while on Taketomi Island in the Yaeyama Archipelago of the Ryukyu Islands in the first half of the 19905, when I learned that the Buddhist temple on that island was inhabited by a nun and her husband, a monk. While he ran the local museum she was not to be seen in public.

On the other hand, there is quite a tradition of research of women involved with Shinto and Japanese folk religion. My own studies clearly revealed that women had played an important role in religion even as late as the twentieth century in Okinawa (WACKER 2001). Nevertheless, I still did not suspect nuns of earlier times to have had as a great impact on Japanese Buddhism as the monumental volume edited by Barbara Ruch demonstrates.

In this short article I will first take up the epoch-making volume by Barbara Ruch together with the catalogues of two exhibits that took place in 2003 in direct relation with this volume-one held in Kyoto entitled "Art by Buddhist Nuns," the other held in Nara entitled "Women and Buddhism." Then I will discuss two publications by modern Buddhist nuns and lay women. The latter publications approach the topic of "Women in Buddhism" from a socio-religious point of view.


The publication of this reader is the first in a series of projects of the Institute of Medieval Japanese Studies (IMJS) of Columbia University, New York, headed by the editor, Professor Emerita Barbara Ruch. A specialist on medieval Japanese literature and cultural history, she is also the director of the international Imperial Buddhist Convents Survey Project. The prologue of the volume reveals some initial findings of this project. In the year 2000 the IMJS opened a small branch office in Kyoto, which serves as a base for the work with Imperial Buddhist Convents in the area and the Restoration of Convent Treasures Projects, which are funded by the World Heritage Foundation. In 2002 the Center for the Study of Women, Buddhism, and Culture, which serves as an archive for microfilm and research materials on convent culture, was opened in Kyoto. It is also a meeting place for Buddhist nuns from Southeast Asia, Taiwan, the People's Republic of China, Korea, and Japan, as well as a resource center for graduate students from Europe, Asia, and the Americas. As such it also is the location for public lectures, exhibitions, and programs related to the culture of convents (IMJS report 2000/12). All this happened just in time to celebrate the thirty-fifth anniversary of the IMJS and the tenth installment of the international Imperial Buddhist Convents Survey Project in October 2003. But let us now turn to the book itself.

This volume is the outcome of a unique collaboration between Japanese and North American scholars. It brings together the results of long-term research by two study groups that first held a meeting in 1989. The Japanese study group, led by Nishiguchi and Osumi, had already published four volumes of essays (OSUMI, NISHIGUCHI 1989) of which ten were selected, translated, and adapted for this reader. The North American study group added ten more essays to make up a veritable treasure trove of new information in English, capable of dissolving any prejudice against the religious practice of nuns and lay women in medieval Japan.

The contributors as well as the translators are briefly introduced in the appendix. It is a truly interdisciplinary work spanning from social history, history of religions, and art of medieval Japan to archaeology (Nicole Fabricand-Person) and literature (Marian Ury, and most of the translators with the exception of Philip Yampolsky). Only one author (Nagata Mizu) is a Buddhologist. It is also a highly egalitarian project: The contributors and the translators are of both sexes, and the deep insights of professors emeriti as well as the brilliant and fresh views from young promising scholars are bound up into one volume.

The volume is well-structured, starting off with a three-page table of contents, notes to the reader, remarks on transliteration, and pronunciation, which is especially important for readers not familiar with Japanese language. Chronological tables and a map of Japan delineate the historical and regional setting for the following chapters. In the appendix the scholar of Japanese studies finds a very useful and extensive list of characters for names and terms used throughout, a selected bibliography containing mostly but not only literature in Japanese. A thirty-odd-page index finishes off the more than seven hundred pages of this volume.

The main body of the volume is made up of twenty chapters in five sections according to their focus. Section I, "Women in Early Chinese and Japanese Buddhism," by Chikusa Masaaki, starts out with Buddhist nun communities in China. The other two chapters are about court women and Buddhism in Japan from the seventh to ninth centuries (Hongo Masatsugu), and Empress Komyo and the development in state Buddhism (Mikoshiba Daisuke). This certainly leaves the impression that early Buddhism was mainly focused on an aristocratic elite. However, one must take into consideration the dearth of material on the lives of the lower classes in general, and especially the non-tangible aspects of culture that hinder their study. This data illustrates how aristocratic women acted independently of the men in both their natal and marital families and had great political influence.

There are also very basic questions that need to be answered: Who is considered a nun? How and why do women become nuns? How are they portrayed in literature? The chapters of Section II, "Nuns and Nunneries," offer some answers looking at the various forms of tonsure (Katsuura Noriko), the procedures of ordination (Paul Groner), convents or living quarters being converted into a temple (Ushiyama Yoshiyuki), widowhood (Ushiyama, Martin Collcutt) and divorce (Anne Dutton, Diana E. Wright) as points in life when women decide to dedicate at least some time if not the rest of their lives to practicing Buddhism.

The two chapters of Section IV, "Deities and Icons," take their starting point in iconography but both also relate to female believers and sponsors by taking a look at the context in which such art might be produced by a female artist and/or a female sponsor. (Fabricand-Person, Hank Classman). Readers interested in more visual signs of Buddhist nuns' faith can refer to the catalogues of the two exhibitions I mentioned, which will be introduced in some detail later on.

The Section V is dedicated to "Faith and Practice," with a strong focus on death (Nishiguchi Juno) and the hereafter (Obara Hitoshi, Susan Matisoff, Endo Hajime, and Ruch). Both recipients of rituals and practitioners are-at least in part-women. Endo's essay also is the only one that focuses explicitly on nonaristocratic women, or rather couples. His study looks at the True Pure Land sect (Jodo Shin Shu) founded in the Kamakura era. It is well known that during this period, the introduction of faith as a main element sufficient for salvation made possible the spread of Buddhist teachings to the masses. Ruch's essay shows that women at that time were active proselytizers who aimed their sermons especially toward women and taught them the promises of the Lotus Sutra.

As a whole the volumes articles teach the reader one main message: Even in medieval Buddhism Japanese women never were reduced to being mere passive recipients of teachings. Throughout medieval history Japanese women could maintain important roles in religion and society: They were the first to go abroad to study Buddhism in Korea (Osumi), and they were active proselytizers (Ruch section v). Through patronizing temples they helped to bequeath a truely rich material culture as can still be witnessed nowadays. The Lotus Sutra, and more precisely the Devadatta chapter, promises Buddhahood to women (Nagata) and its influence on Japanese women penetrates the whole volume: Besides Yoshida's essay on the Devadatta Chapter of the Lotus Sutra, it is also mentioned by Osumi, Chikusa, Mikoshiba, Groner, Katsuura, Ury, Nagata, Classman, Nishiguchi, and Obara. Wives and daughters played important socio-religious roles in their True Pure Land Congregations (Endo). Nishiguchi demonstrates that after death one's sex was considered irrelevant as women, especially mothers of monks, were interred within the holy precincts that they could not enter while alive. This, too, is a sign of medieval Japan being a basically egalitarian society in which social power was evenly distributed among the sexes. Neither political and military power wielded by men nor religious and political power of (aristocratic) women dominated the other sex. Taking the vows and tonsure was always done through the will of women, most often in early childhood, or after being widowed. Yet it could also be used as a means to sever marital ties during the husband's lifetime (Dutton, Wright) After all, both male and female powers not only coexisted but enhanced each other. The means may be different but the tendency is similar to what I found in the Kingdom of Ryukyu as late as the nineteenth century before it was annexed to mainland Japan to become the modern prefecture of Okinawa. While men were prominent in politics and scholarship, women were important social and religious leaders with respect to practicing faith (WACKER 2001).

I am not the only one who considers this reader to be epoch-making: This is the first time such findings of Japanese and Western (American and Canadian) scholars are published together, and thus the volume makes a fine introduction into the matter. Haruko Wakabayashi "strongly recommends [it] to scholars of all fields related to premodern Japan" (WAKABAYASHI 2005; 204). Ford is a little more critical of the work because he feels it lacks a concluding essay that sums up the implications of the studies presented in this volume for methodology, thus providing an outlook on further investigation into the field (FORD 2004, 452). However, as the editor, Ruch, already gives a detailed introduction into the chapters that make up the main body of the volume, this seems needless. Actually, in an interdisciplinary collaboration such as this, discussion of traditional methodologies used in the various disciplines might very well have distracted the authors from their goal: To publish their findings in a field of studies neglected so far.


The same year Engendering Faith was published, there were two exhibitions of works of art by Buddhist nuns. "Art by Buddhist Nuns: Treasures from the Imperial Convents of Japan" was held in April in Kyoto at the Nomura Art Museum. As the subtitle suggests, this exhibition is closely linked to the imperial Buddhist Convent Research and Restoration project, which in turn is conducted by the Medieval Japanese Studies Institute at the University of Michigan (MJSI) headed by Ruch. Due to limited space it was a small exhibition, but the catalogue was put together with much care. As it also serves as an anniversary publication to commemorate the thirty-fifth of the MJSI and the first of the Center for the Study of Women, Buddhism, and Culture, it is bilingual, with English following the Japanese text.

The titles of the exhibits are listed in English, but for detailed explanations again the reader has to go to the explanatory section in Japanese. So while the Kyoto catalogue is clearly dedicated to both readers of English and Japanese, the Nara catalogue provides only a short introduction to those not able to read Japanese. This is a pity, as valuable information is only available to the specialist in the field.


The first volume, which was published in 1999, was the first document of discussions on the role of women in Buddhism between women and men across the borders of the various Buddhist schools. Imai Masaharu, professor at Tsukuba University who specializes in the medieval history of Buddhism explains the subtitle of the book. "Nyozegamon," which can be translated as "Such I heard," is taken from the first words of each sutra. Therefore, "onnatachi no nyozegamon" [such women heard] reflects the purpose of both these publications: To make known to the public how women understand the Buddhist teachings and how they propose to reform Buddhism. The goal of volume 1 is to take stock: How do nuns and lay women live within the various schools, what are the restrictions they encounter, and where do they feel discriminated against?

The prologue by Kawahashi Noriko explains a little more about the discrimination against wives of priests. Chapter 1 is entitled "Women in the Scriptures" and comprises two theoretical essays: Nagata Mizu explores Shakamuni's view of women. His fellow Buddhologist Tsuruoka Ei puts the misogynist view in Japanese Buddhism into the context of the late Kamakura era, the age of mappo.

The main sections of this book are made up of very personal accounts of how women experience Buddhism in their everyday lives. Chapter II comprises three essays on women in history and doctrine as seen from the point of view of women. Chapter III explores the position of women in the congregation and the system, and mainly discusses nuns. Chapter IV reports on the situation of women in the temples where they call for a gender-equal Buddhism. The last section, "In search of a revival of Buddhism," records a discussion between five members of the two study groups.

So while Buddhist nuns and lay women of medieval times spoke though their writings and art work of hope and devotion, modern Buddhist women in Japan add their words of hope and devotion free of complaint on their situations. These two volumes are important material from within the Buddhist world and make good reading for a scholar interested in how Buddhist women live and think about their lives nowadays.


The studies taken up in this essay show vividly how interest in the subject of women in Buddhism has risen in the past two to three decades in both Japan and the Western world. It is definitely not just a pet subject of feminist scholars, as the sizeable number of male contributors, scholars and monks alike, represented in all the studies demonstrates. As Buddhism is mainly an Asiatic religion, it is only natural that discussion on the joys and woes of living a life in faith in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries began in an Asian country such as Japan and was first published in Japanese only. The narration of modern Buddhist women on their experience makes good material for further studies by Western scholars of comparative religious studies or Japanese social studies in general.

A symposium on "Constructing Gender in Religious Symbolic Systems," scheduled to take place in Zurich in May 2006, indicates that interest in the rest of the academic world in the lives and practice of female Buddhists has been stimulated. These volumes are the first on a new shelf in one's library that could be labeled "Women in Buddhism through the Ages." We should now be on the lookout for more publications about women in other Buddhist countries, and for similar ones on women in Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Taoism, and so on.

WACKER, Monika

2001 Onarigami. Holy Woman in the Kingdom of Ryukyu: A Pacific Culture with Chinese Influences. In Ryukyu in World History, ed. Kreiner, Josef, ed, 41-67. Bier'sche Verlagsanstalt, Bonn.


2005 Book Review: "Engendering Faith: Women and Buddhism in Premodern Japan," edited by Barbara Ruch. The Journal of Asian Studies 64: 202-204.

A fairly comprehensive bibliography listing the scarce literature in Western languages on women in Buddhism can be found in Barbara Ruch's monumental reader, Engendering Faith, one of the publications under review. A specialist on medieval Japanese literature and cultural history, she is also the director of the international Imperial Buddhist Convents Survey Project. The narration of modern Buddhist women on their experience makes good material for further studies by Western scholars of comparative religious studies or Japanese social studies in general.

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