Many were the subjects of grievances of the Zen nuns at the dawn of the 20th century. According to the regulations of the Soto tradition, women had to wear only the black robe of the novices; they had no access to any teaching, even lay or monastic; they could neither lead a temple nor participate in decision-making concerning their tradition; and their training as nuns was much longer than that of their male counterparts, sometimes three years longer.

Aware of the unfairness of their position, the Japanese nuns nevertheless chose to express their gratitude for this injustice, which gave them the opportunity to “polish the stone”, to deepen their practice and to take action.

Beginning in 1880, the Meiji era breathed a wind of modernization whose currents of tradition and westernization were to create many upheavals and divergences in Zen. The Meiji government allowed nuns and monks to marry. The nuns, who were not allowed to participate fully in the religious life of the Soto school, decided to return to the tradition of Dogen and to strengthen his egalitarian teaching of the monastic system. They drew from this a strategy of recognition and the means to change the power structures.

As for the monks, they did not need to establish their own legitimacy within the Soto school. For them, it was important to be modern, to prove that they still had a place in a changing society. Thus, they became priests in charge of their families: they married and devoted little time to the monasteries, raising children who would later become the heirs of their temples, a practice encouraged by the government. For these monk priests, there was no question of frightening the laity away with zazen or the rigours of monastic life.

This modernization of monastic life may have led people to believe that Dogen Zen almost no longer existed in Japan. It is to ignore the nunneries of the Soto tradition, which is the largest and most organised of the nunnery schools, with a thousand women having received ordination and three monasteries of formation. These women continue to wear robes and shave their heads because they have fought so hard over the last hundred years to be treated according to Dogen’s directives and to achieve equality in monastic life.

In the Zuimonki, Dogen said: “No monk, no nun can reach him [Buddha, Dharma] unless he has the mind of the one who has left home. A monk or nun who has the mind of a lay person has twice as many faults. Their attitude should be very different. »

For those claiming equal status for women, education was the main obstacle. Hori Mitsujo, Ando Dokai, Yamaguchi Kokan and Mizuno Jorin therefore established a small temple in Nagoya in 1904 to train women in Zen practice and lay education. They claimed this right on the basis of the title of ni-osho (Buddhist tutor) awarded to them by the head of Eihei-ji – despite the regulations – because of their practice, which was quite exceptional.

These four women, as intelligent as they were devoted, were very much supported by their families. They had established their temple in the countryside, in the middle of a bamboo forest. Eight female teachers and twenty-two novices lived there, in two rooms covered with six tatamis and without electricity. Living in a very small space, they ate frugally and had few books at their disposal.

More and more women began to frequent the temple in Nagoya, even though it was far from everything, and Hori Mitsujo began to visit a temple in the vicinity: she came every day to pray to Kannon for a miracle to enlarge the community’s premises. One day a wealthy man asked her what kind of miracle she was expecting. He offered her land and building materials. The nuns built their own school, which was destroyed by a typhoon in 1912 and then by an air raid in 1945. For the next two years, the nuns were left without a home (clouds and water), waiting for their new construction to be completed.

A nun by the name of Kojima Kendo entered the training school in Nagoya. In 1925, Kojima, who had been ordained at the age of 12, was the first nun to enter Komazawa University, the Soto University of Higher Zen Teachers.

“We will not allow the flow of history to stop us and leave us in our present situation. We monastery women must also wake up from our deep sleep. We must succeed in reaching our primary destiny. »

Kojima Kendo was the director of the Pan Japanese Buddhist Nuns Association whose motto was :

Bright as the sun
As pure as the lotus in bloom
True well-being
Comes from compassion
Of liberation

She travelled standing, by train, for days on end to go to many meetings and did not hesitate to bang her fist on the table. In 1945, conditions began to change. The women were able to choose among their disciples the heirs of the Dharma and obtained equal degrees. They were allowed to wear dresses in appropriate colours and to vote on Soto school matters. They were given the right to be elected as heads of a main temple, which was particularly important because it meant that they were supported by lay people and now had financial resources. Kojima Kendo was the first nun allowed to lead a ceremony at Eihei-ji, at the 700th Ejo memorial service, but it was not until 1980 that she was allowed to do so.

Shundo Aoyama

Aoyama Shundo, who has written half a dozen books on Zen, including Quiet Talk on Zen Tea, became Japan’s most famous nun. She became an abbess at the age of 37, and ran an institute in Nagoya that trained nuns in higher Zen education. She herself devoted 15 years to the study of Zen.

The typical day for the women of these three monasteries is as follows:

  • 4:00 a.m.: awakening
  • 4:15 a.m.: zazen
  • 5:00 am: singing of the morning sutras 
  • 6.15 am: daily cleaning of the monastery 
  • 7:30 am : breakfast 
  • 8:00-12:00: classes, samu or personal study
  • 12:00 noon: lunch
  • 12.30-15.00: lessons, samu or personal study 
  • 15.00: tea 
  • 16.00: singing of the evening sutras
  • 4:30 p.m.: cleaning of the dojo 
  • 17:30: yakuseki, leftovers from lunch
  • 18:00-20:00: personal study
  • 8:15 pm: evening zazen
  • 21:00: lights out

Many women have become nuns in Japan at the beginning of the 21st century. They are in search of a deeper and more meaningful life. The writings of the nuns of ancient India (interpreted in Terigatha), modern Japan and the nuns now living in Europe and America have the same quality of research that cannot be taken for a desire to escape from society.

“They saw it as a means of achieving self-realisation and found a wider and more intense field in which to exercise their mental activity. They knew that this was the life they wanted to live above all else. Renunciation is seen as a privilege that also brings freedom, knowledge and peace” (Terigatha).

For women from many different countries and cultures, the life of a nun is rich in meaning and women continue to contribute significantly to Japanese religious life. In fact, for many lay Buddhists, Soto nuns are true “living treasures” personifying the Dharma. From the time of Sakyamuni Buddha, through the first ordained Buddhist in Japan in the 6th century, to the nuns of today, the history of the nuns is rich in loss and success in devotion to the Buddha’s Way.

+ The information in this article is taken from Paula Kane Robinson Arai’s book, Women Living Zen, Japanese Soto Buddhist Nuns, Oxford University Press, 1999.

(English translation: Élise Poquet)