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

The history of Buddhism spans around 2,500 years. The history of nuns spans the same 2,500 years. Returning to the eternal present requires getting rid of all cultural assumptions. The obvious then becomes: 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, they paved the way for them to achieve.

The lack of written historical sources recounting the lives of past Zen nuns indicates the extent of the loss regarding 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 have decided that the monk should be called so and the nun niso. So is in fact a general term, without gender, which means “monastic”. Men have therefore designated themselves as referents for all monastics, while the exact term for the monk is nanso; this term indeed corresponds more to the Sanskrit word bhiksu, which designates a male beggar monk.

Some translators therefore speculated that Dogen and other authors had little to say about women, since they only used the term sô. That’s not the truth.

If we go directly back to the time of Buddha in India, among his main disciples are many women; and in the first place his mother-in-law, 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 shiho from his hand, and of these four disciples, one was a woman named Soji; she was the daughter of Emperor Bu. We got this from Dogen who mentioned it in the Shobogenzo. Buddhism took root in China, then spread to Korea, then from Korea to Japan, when King Song (in the first half of the 6th century, almost 700 years before Dogen’s birth) sent to the Emperor Kinmei sutras and Buddhist sculptures. The first ordained Buddhist in Japan was a woman.

The first person to be ordained into this brand new religion of 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 possible in Japan to receive full ordination as it required the presence of ten monks and ten nuns.

The Gangoji Chronicles relate that these three women traveled 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 a amadera, a Buddhist temple for women, run by a woman named Sakurai-ji. In 623, there were 569 nuns and 816 monks in Japan, and in 674, at a ceremony, a large gathering of 2,400 nuns took place.

This was taking place in pre-Confucian Japan, an era where spiritual power and governmental power were not separate and where women exerted their influence in both realms. Women were considered to possess shamanic powers, and during the Asuka (550-710) and Nara (710-784) periods there were eight empresses in government. They put all their energy at the service of the development of Buddhism. Thus Zenshin-ni had as her models, many examples of women engaged in both religious and political affairs.

The Lotus Sutra was of inestimable value to women: the story of Princess Naga who became a Buddha was interpreted as proof that women could achieve 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 figure which rose to twenty after 766. These temples received economic aid from the government. Empress Komyo also founded charitable institutions responsible for providing medical aid and providing relief to the needy. 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 feelings for women. Of the seven temples he was said to have built, five were reserved for women (amadera) and the most famous, Chugu-ji, still exists today in Nara.

By this 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 dating from the 9th century, it is clear that women did not remain passive in the face of such deprivation and injustice; and yet, in Dogen’s time, Confucian values still dominated Japanese society.

The Kamakura period

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

(Dogen: Taisho, vol.82)

Dogen was compelled to go back to Pre-Confucian times to convince his followers that women were capable of teaching men. He used examples inspired by his stay in China:

Myoshi-ni had seventeen monks as disciples and it was thanks to her that during the 9th century these monks were granted enlightenment.

Massan Ryonen-ni was the educator 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 no woman received ordination from his hand, Egi-ni spent twenty years by his side. Dogen showed her the deepest respect, as well as several other nuns. She was at his bedside when, towards the end of his life, he fell ill, and she was an important part of taking charge of the next generation, led by Ejo. She was also the “Dharma aunt” of Gikai, who followed Ejo to the temple of Eihei-ji.

Two chapters of the Shobogenzo, Bendowa and Raihaitokuzui, affirm the equality of women and men in the practice of Zen. In addition, Dogen completely reinterpreted how we can 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 was a nun, Ryonen-ni, who is said to have mainly influenced him to write, in Bendowa, his most explicit teaching about women. Dogen praised her over and over again, saying she possessed a “rare aspiration to beil ”(bodaishin). In the Eihei Koroku he writes that Ryonen-ni was deeply devoted to the Great Path of the Buddhas. She is sometimes compared to Massan. Ryonen-ni in China; it was from the marrow of her bones that the nun would have known Zen.

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

This is just one example of the support women gave Dogen and the influence they had over him.

Ekan Daishi was Keizan’s mother. She was nun and Abbess of Joju-ji at the time of Gikai’s funeral in 1309; It is from this that Keizan derived his religious devotion. Myoshi-ni, Ekan’s niece, was named Abbess of the first amadera of Soto School, Hoo-ji, which was built by Keizan in honor of his mother. On May 23, 1325, in memory of her, Keizan vowed to help women in the three worlds and in 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 into the Muromachi period, thanks to their successors.

Source: Paula Kane Robinson Arai’s new book on soto nuns: Women Living Zen, published by Oxford University Press. The author, who is fluent in Japanese, wrote his dissertation on the subject at Harvard University and lived for a year in and near 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 Ryoken and they fell in love. He was then 70 years old. Teishin was a poet; the two of them wrote poems together and discussed literature and religion for hours. Teishin never published his own poems but instead chose to collect some of them from Ryoken, after the latter’s death in 1831. The collection is titled Hasu no tsuyu or Hachisu no tsuyu. This selfless act made Ryoken known to a wide audience, while Teishin remained relatively in the shadows.

The moon, I’m sure,
Shines with its bright light
High above the mountains,
But dark clouds envelop the peaks in their darkness.
Here with you
I will stay
Days and years without number
Silent like this bright moon
That together we have contemplated.

~Love poem to Dogen

Jade Reidy