Hokkeji and the Reemergence of Female Monastic Orders in Premodern Japan

Hokkeji and the Reemergence of Female Monastic Orders in Premodern Japan

Lori Meeks
Copyright Date: 2010
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    Hokkeji and the Reemergence of Female Monastic Orders in Premodern Japan
    Book Description:

    Hokkeji, an ancient Nara temple that once stood at the apex of a state convent network established by Queen-Consort Komyo (701–760), possesses a history that in some ways is bigger than itself. Its development is emblematic of larger patterns in the history of female monasticism in Japan. In Hokkeji and the Reemergence of Female Monastic Orders in Premodern Japan, Lori Meeks explores the revival of Japan’s most famous convent, an institution that had endured some four hundred years of decline following its establishment. With the help of the Ritsu (Vinaya)-revivalist priest Eison (1201–1290), privately professed women who had taken up residence at Hokkeji succeeded in reestablishing a nuns’ ordination lineage in Japan. Meeks considers a broad range of issues surrounding women’s engagement with Buddhism during a time when their status within the tradition was undergoing significant change. The thirteenth century brought women greater opportunities for ordination and institutional leadership, but it also saw the spread of increasingly androcentric Buddhist doctrine. Hokkeji explores these contradictions. In addition to addressing the socio-cultural, economic, and ritual life of the convent, Hokkeji examines how women interpreted, used, and "talked past" canonical Buddhist doctrines, which posited women’s bodies as unfit for buddhahood and the salvation of women to be unattainable without the mediation of male priests. Texts associated with Hokkeji, Meeks argues, suggest that nuns there pursued a spiritual life untroubled by the so-called soteriological obstacles of womanhood. With little concern for the alleged karmic defilements of their gender, the female community at Hokkeji practiced Buddhism in ways resembling male priests: they performed regular liturgies, offered memorial and other priestly services to local lay believers, and promoted their temple as a center for devotional practice. What distinguished Hokkeji nuns from their male counterparts was that many of their daily practices focused on the veneration of a female deity, their founder Queen-Consort Komyo, whom they regarded as a manifestation of the bodhisattva Kannon. Hokkeji rejects the commonly accepted notion that women simply internalized orthodox Buddhist discourses meant to discourage female practice and offers new perspectives on the religious lives of women in premodern Japan. Its attention to the relationship between doctrine and socio-cultural practice produces a fuller view of Buddhism as it was practiced on the ground, outside the rarefied world of Buddhist scholasticism.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6064-6
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Abbreviations and Conventions
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-26)

    During the seciond month of the first year of the Kenchō era (1249), twelve women received the complete nuns’ monastic precepts (bikuni gusokukai) of theFour-Part Vinaya(Sifenlü, Jpns.Shibun ritsu) from the priest Eison (also “Eizon,” 1201–1290, aka Shien Shōnin, Kōshō Bosatsu). For several years, these women had been living as lay monastics in the dilapidated buildings of the ancient temple Hokkeji (the Lotus Temple) in Japan’s southern capital of Nara. Taking 348 vows from Eison in 1249, they received conferral not as privately professed nuns, as had long been customary for women pursuing the religious life in...

  6. 1 Pilgrimage, Popular Devotion, and the Reemergence of Hokkeji
    (pp. 27-58)

    Like most temples built in the southern capital of Heijō-kyō (Nara) during the eighth century, Hokkeji’s years of flourishing were limited. Although documentary and archaeological evidence indicates that construction continued on the grounds of the convent even into the early years of the ninth century, the convent lost its financial and political support base with the passing of its two major patrons, Queen-Consort Kōmyō and her daughter, the sovereign Kōken-Shōtoku, in 760 and 770, respectively. Moreover, Hokkeji, like many other great temple complexes that had been built in Nara, suffered when the court left the southern capital in 784, moving...

  7. 2 Envisioning Nuns: Views from the Court
    (pp. 59-90)

    Previous scholarship has viewed the revival of Hokkeji primarily through the lens of androcentric Buddhist rhetoric. Following the assumption that nuns and other female practitioners at Hokkeji internalized the androcentric Buddhist teachings propagated by Saidaiji monks and incorporated these doctrines into their daily lives and practices, earlier studies tend to view Hokkeji’s nuns with pity (e.g., Hosokawa 1987, 1989b; Hosokawa and Tabata 2002; Matsuo 2001; Ishida 1978). But these studies overlook an important factor: Hokkeji’s first medieval nuns approached Buddhism with a set of cultural assumptions that diverged from those held by scholastic priests. Many of the women involved in...

  8. 3 Envisioning Nuns: Views from the Male Monastic Order
    (pp. 91-116)

    The most powerful position in the Buddhist world that women of the Heian and early Kamakura periods could hope to attain was that of a great lay patron. As demonstrated in the last chapter,nyoin, as political players whose wealth and influence rivaled that oftennōand retired sovereigns, came to play significant roles in the Buddhist world from the late Heian period forward. But their model of female religiosity—that of the patron who conveys her faith through political and financial support—came under scrutiny during Kamakura period. This chapter examines the question of women’s religiosity from the other...

  9. 4 Hokkeji’s Place in Eison’s Vinaya Revival Movement
    (pp. 117-155)

    The last two chapters examined the historical development of two discrete discourses on nunhood and women’s religiosity. The first, explored in chapter 2, was that adopted by men and women connected to the elite world of the court. Within these circles, women tended to downplay disadvantages ascribed to female practice in doctrinal texts and focused instead on the prestige afforded to powerful female patrons and on alternative methods of salvation, such as rebirth into Maitreya’s Tuṣita realm. Chapter 3 treated issues of women’s religiosity from the other side by looking at the ways in which members of the male monastic...

  10. 5 Social and Economic Life at Hokkeji and Its Branch Convents
    (pp. 156-209)

    Were it not for subtle clues found in passages such as the one above, theHokke metsuzaiji engimight leave readers with the impression that Hokkeji’s medieval restoration was a rarefied event, a small-scale revival undertaken by a handful of elite women committed to the veneration of Queen-Consort Kōmyō.¹ Insofar as her primary goal was that of a hagiographer,Hokke metsuzaiji engiauthor Enkyō did not treat the institutional or social history of Hokkeji in any depth. Her concerns were twofold: first, she enumerated the noble and miraculous qualities of Kōmyō, and secondly, she explained how the nun-architects of Hokkeji’s...

  11. 6 Ritual Life at Medieval Hokkeji
    (pp. 210-249)

    The above narrative, recounted in a 938 entry from Fujiwara no Michinori’s (1106–1160) state history,Honchō seiki, goes on to tell how the main shrine of Iwashimizu Hachiman punished a charismatic nun for ritual performance. By the year 938, it had been at least a century since Japanese nuns had been given the opportunity to receive official state ordinations asbikuni. But according to this story, the disappearance of an official ecclesiastical path for nuns did not prevent women from styling themselves as unofficial members of the clergy or from organizing popular religious activities—and rituals—on the ground....

  12. 7 Representations of Women and Gender in Ritsu Literature
    (pp. 250-300)

    Previous chapters have demonstrated the success with which Hokkeji nuns re-created an institutional framework for female monastic life. In restoring Hokkeji, they tended to adopt the structures and practices of male institutions. Before association with Eison, women at Hokkeji revived the convent as a pilgrimage site, following the broader patterns by which male temples in Nara also re-created themselves as pilgrimage destinations. In the mid-Kamakura period, when Hokkeji nuns joined Eison’s movement, they integrated Ritsu texts, practices, and ordination categories. As chapters 5 and 6 illustrate, the economic and ritual operations in place at Hokkeji also followed patterns evident at...

  13. Epilogue
    (pp. 301-310)

    Until recently, studies of Buddhist convents in premodern Japan tended to accept one or both of the following premises: (1) that convents served the social function of housing socially problematic women—illegitimate or unmarriageable daughters, widows, and unwanted wives—and (2) that women who entered convents internalized androcentric doctrines. These assumptions led numerous scholars to the same conclusion: that nuns, forced into convent life, left without better options, and taught to lament the obstacles of their sex, would have found it extremely difficult to create meaningful lives as religious specialists.

    Close attention to the discourses and practices taken up by...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 311-348)
  15. Character Glossary
    (pp. 349-356)
  16. Works Cited and Consulted
    (pp. 357-390)
  17. Index
    (pp. 391-408)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 409-412)