The oral tradition and lineage of Zen is passed down through the kusen and stories told over and over again during zazen by godos and masters. These stories are collected by disciples and often published after the master’s death. Thus living traditions are imbued with cultural ideas inseparable from the prejudices of time and place. One such prejudice, and one that is presented to us as historical fact, is the idea that women were not involved at the highest levels of Buddhism and Zen’s development in Japan. Historical sources show us that this is false.

The history of Buddhism spans about 2500 years. The history of nuns covers the same 2500 years. To return to the eternal present requires that we get rid of all cultural assumptions. It is obvious that women have played a vital and constant role in the history of Zen; they have been an integral part of Buddhism in India, China and Japan, even when society has gone against this trend. Women actually taught men respect for women and, as the documents show us, paved the way for their awakening.

The lack of written historical sources relating the lives of Zen nuns in the past indicates the extent of the loss of information about our entire lineage; it cannot prove that women were not essential agents of the monastic tradition.

One of the reasons that women have completely disappeared from Zen writings in Japan is that men decided that the monk should be called so and the nun niso. So is actually a general, genderless term that means “monastic”. The men have therefore designated themselves as the referent for all monastics, whereas the correct term for monks is nanso; this term corresponds more closely to the Sanskrit word bhiksu, which refers to a male mendicant monk.

Some translators have therefore assumed that Dogen and other authors had little to say about women, since they only used the term so. This is not true.

If we go back to Buddha’s time in India, we find many women among his main disciples; first of all his step mother, the one who raised Shakyamuni, Mahaprajapati, and his wife Yasodara. When Bodhidharma brought the Buddhist teachings to China, there were only four disciples who received the shiho from him in person, and of these four disciples, one was a woman named Soji; she was the daughter of the Emperor Bu. We hear this through Dogen who mentioned it in the Shobogenzo. Buddhism took root in China, then spread to Korea, then from Korea to Japan, when the Song King (in the first half of the 6th century, almost 700 years before Dogen’s birth) had Buddhist sutras and sculptures sent to Emperor Kinmei. The first ordained Buddhist in Japan was a woman.

The first person to be ordained into this brand new religion in Buddhism in Japan (in 584) was a woman named Shima, from a powerful family of the Soga tribe. After her two other women, Toyome and Ishime, took the names of Zenzo-ni and Ezen-ni. It was not yet possible to receive full ordination within Japan because it required the presence of ten monks and ten nuns.

The Gangoji Chronicles report that these three women travelled alone to Paekche in Korea, where Buddhism was well established, and received full ordination there in 587. Upon their return to Japan, they lived together in Yamoto in an amadera, a Buddhist temple for women, led by a woman named Sakurai-ji. In 623 there were 569 nuns and 816 monks in Japan and in 674, on the occasion of a ceremony, a great gathering of 2400 nuns took place.

This was taking place in pre-Confucian Japan, an era when spiritual power and governmental power were not separated and women exercised influence in both areas. Women were considered to possess shamanic powers and during the Asuka (550-710) and Nara (710-784) periods there were eight female empresses in government. They put all their energy into the development of Buddhism. Thus Zenshin-ni had many role models, women involved in both religious and political affairs.

The Lotus Sutra was invaluable to women: the story of Princess Naga who became a Buddha was interpreted as proof that women could attain enlightenment. The nuns’ temples founded by Empress Komyo in 740 were called “Lotus Temples for the Absolution of Sins” (Hokke Metsuzaishi-ji) and each temple housed ten nuns, a number which rose to twenty after 766. These temples received economic aid from the government. Empress Komyo also founded charitable institutions to provide medical aid and relief to the poor. She herself was ordained at the main temple of Todai-ji in 749.

Shotoku Taishi, who was a leading figure in the formation of Japan, had deep regard for women. Of the seven temples he built, five were reserved for women (amadera) and the most famous one, Chugu-ji, still exists today in Nara.

By that time, Confucian values had already penetrated the interior of the country for a hundred years and with the Taika Reform Edict in 646, women were gradually deprived of institutional powers. According to documents from the 9th century, it is clear that women did not remain passive in the face of such deprivation and injustice; yet, in Dogen’s time, Confucian values still dominated Japanese society.

The Kamakura period

“By what right are only males noble? The empty sky is the empty sky; being female is exactly the same.”

(Dogen: Taisho, vol.82)

Dogen had to go back to pre-Confucian times to convince his disciples that women were capable of teaching men. He used examples inspired by his time in China:

  • Myoshi-ni had seventeen monks as disciples and it was thanks to her that during the 9th century these monks obtained enlightenment.
  • Massan Ryonen-ni was the teacher of the great Chinese Zen master Kankei Shikan Zenji.

Throughout his life Dogen himself was influenced by female monastics. A month before he died he wrote that Egi-ni was the “Dharma sister” of Ekan, Ejo and Esho. Although he did not ordain any women, Egi-ni spent twenty years by his side. Dogen showed her the deepest respect and respected many other nuns too. She was at his bedside when he fell ill towards the end of his life and she played an important role in empowering the next generation, led by Ejo. She was also the “Dharma Aunt” of Gikai, who followed Ejo to Eihei-ji temple.

Two chapters of the Shobogenzo, Bendowa and Raihaitokuzui, affirm the equality of women and men in Zen practice. In addition, Dogen has completely reinterpreted how we read this sentence from the Nirvana Sutra: “All existences are buddha nature.”

One of Ryōnen’s calligraphic works tells her story in her ownwords, followed
by poems she composed at the time in both Chinese and Japanese styles – Source:

It is the nun Ryonen-ni who is said to have been the main influence on his writing, in Bendowa, his most explicit teaching about women. Dogen continued to praise her, saying that she possessed a “rare aspiration to enlightenment” (bodaishin). In the Eihei Koroku he writes that Ryonen-ni was deeply devoted to the Great Buddha Way. She is sometimes compared to Massan. Ryonen-ni in China; the nun knew Zen from the marrow of her bones.

Thanks to the money donated by a woman named Shogaku Zenni, Dogen was able to build the dharma hall in his first temple at Kosho-ji, and upon his ordination in 1225, Shogaku Zenni gave Dogen the rest of her fortune.

These are just examples of the support and influence of women on Dogen.

Ekan Daishi was Keizan’s mother. She was a nun and abbess of Joju-ji at the time of Gikai’s funeral in 1309; it is from her that Keizan got his religious devotion. Myoshi-ni, Ekan’s niece, was appointed abbess of the first amadera of the Soto school, Hoo-ji, which was built by Keizan in honour of his mother. On 23rd May 1325, in memory of her, Keizan vowed to help women in the three worlds and the ten directions. About thirty nuns followed his teaching; the introduction of nuns into Soto practice, as established by Dogen and Keizan through the influence of their mothers, continued during the Muromachi period thanks to their successors.

Source: Paula Kane Robinson Arai’s book on Soto nuns, Women Living Zen, published by Oxford University Press. The author, who is fluent in Japanese, wrote her dissertation on the subject at Harvard University and lived for a year in and around a community of Soto nuns in Nagoya, Japan, in 1989.

“Ryōkan and Nun Teishin” by Yasuda Yukihiko – source:

Teishin (1798-1872)

Teishin became a nun at the age of 23. She was 29 when she met Ryokan and they fell in love. He was then 70 years old. Teishin was a poet; both of them composed poems together and discussed literature and religion for hours. Teishin never published her own poems but chose instead to collect some of Ryokan’s poems after Ryokan’s death in 1831. The collection is entitled Hasu no tsuyu or Hachisu no tsuyu. This selfless act allowed Ryokan to become known to a large audience, while Teishin remained relatively in the shadows.

The moon, I’m sure,
Shines brightly
High above the mountains,
But gloomy clouds
Shroud the peaks in darkness.

Here with you
I will stay
Days and years without number
Silent as that bright moon
That we contemplated together.

~Love poem to Ryokan

Jade Reidy