There were many grievances among Zen nuns at the dawn of the 20th century. Under the rules of the Soto tradition women were required to wear only the black robes of novices; they had no access to any teaching, secular or monastic; they could not 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 inequity of their position, Japanese nuns nevertheless chose to express their gratitude for this injustice, which offered 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 modernisation whose currents of tradition and westernisation 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 Dogen’s tradition and strengthen his egalitarian teaching of the monastic system. They found in it a strategy for recognition and the means to change the power structures.

As for monks, they had no need to establish their own legitimacy within the Soto school. For them it was more important to be modern, to prove that they still had a place in a changing society. Thus, they became priests with families: they married and spent little time in the monasteries, raising children who would later become the heirs to their temples, a practice encouraged by the government. For these priest-monks, there was no question of scaring off the laity with zazen or the rigours of monastic life.

This modernisation of monastic life may have led people to believe that Dogen Zen hardly existed in Japan any more. This ignores the nunneries of the Soto tradition which is the largest and most organised school of nuns with a thousand ordained women and three training monasteries. These women continue to wear robes and shave their heads because they have fought so hard over the past hundred years to be treated according to Dogen’s guidelines and to gain equality in monastic life.

In the Zuimonki, Dogen said, “No monk or nun can attain it [Buddha, Dharma] unless he or she has the mind of 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 who demanded equal status for women, education was the main obstacle. Hori Mitsujo, Ando Dokai, Yamaguchi Kokan and Mizuno Jorin therefore set up a small temple in Nagoya in 1904 to train women in zen practice and lay education. They claimed this right based on the title of ni-osho (high ranking zen nun) given 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 teachers and twenty-two novices lived there, in two rooms with six tatami mats and no electricity. Living in a very small space, they ate frugally and had few books.

More and more women began to attend the Nagoya temple even though it was far from everything, and Hori Mitsujo began to go to a nearby temple: 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 waiting for. He offered her land and building materials. The nuns built their school themselves, which was destroyed by a typhoon in 1912 and then by an air raid in 1945. For the next two years, the nuns were unsui (clouds and water), homeless until their new building was completed.

A nun named Kojima Kendo entered the Nagoya training school. In 1925, Kojima, who was ordained at the age of 12, was the first nun to enter Komazawa University, the Soto University of Senior Zen Teachers.

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

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

“Brilliant as the sun
Pure as a lotus in bloom
True well-being
Arises from compassion
From wisdom
From liberation”

She travelled by train standing up for days on end to attend 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 Dharma heirs from among their disciples and obtained equal degrees. They were allowed to wear robes of appropriate and correct colours and to vote on Soto School matters. They were given the right to be elected to head a main temple, which was particularly important as it meant that they were supported by lay people and so had financial resources. Kojima Kendo was the first nun allowed to lead a ceremony at Eihei-ji. It was for Ejo’s 700th memorial service, but it was not until 1980 that this happened.

Shundo Aoyama

Aoyama Shundo, who has written half a dozen books on Zen, including Zen Seeds, became the most famous nun in Japan. 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: wake up
4:15: zazen
5:00: chanting the morning sutras
6:15: daily cleaning of the monastery
7:30: breakfast
8:00-12:00: lessons, samu or personal study
12:00: lunch
12:30-15:00: lessons, samu or personal study
15:00 tea
16:00: chanting the evening sutras
16:30: cleaning the dojo
17:30: yakuseki, leftovers from lunch
18:00-20:00: personal study
20:15: evening zazen
21:00: lights out

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

“They saw it as a means to self-realisation and found it 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 most countries and cultures, the life of a nun is rich in meaning and women continue to make a significant contribution 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 nuns is rich with loss and success, in devotion to the Buddha Way.

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