Academic journal article Japanese Journal of Religious Studies

Neither Nun nor Laywoman: The Good Wives and Wise Mothers of Jodo Shinshu Temples

Academic journal article Japanese Journal of Religious Studies

Neither Nun nor Laywoman: The Good Wives and Wise Mothers of Jodo Shinshu Temples

Article excerpt

At the intersection of two important questions in the study of Japanese Buddhism today-namely, the matter of who may be called a nun, and the problem of how to appraise the widespread phenomenon of clerical marriage and family-run temples in contemporary Japan-lies the story of a relatively unknown religious professional, the Shin temple wife, or bomori. This article seeks to analyze the legal and educational descriptions of bomori produced from the Meiji to the early Showa periods in order to locate this female religious professional both within the spectrum of Buddhist practitioners and in the context of early twentieth-century gender norms in Japan. These documents proudly enumerate the special religious status of the temple wife, while expressing some ambivalence about how women may simultaneously inhabit the roles of good wives, wise mothers, and supporting priests. As public documents, these sources tend to mirror the normative discourse on women's roles in Japan at large, but they also hint at the untold story of the bomori's religious authority.

Keywords: temple wives-bomori-Jodo Shinshu-ordination-Bukkyo fujinkai-clerical marriage

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Our religious institution was organized around temples and teaching assemblies, and one can take the family system to be an exceptional cus- tom of our sect. As it is clear that the establishment of the elements of our organization has rested in actuality on the power of both men and women, we can imagine that in their numbers, too, men and women have occupied equal positions.... Despite that, according to the con- ventional custom, the leadership of our temples and churches has been limited to male priests only, and in the Shinsh? there is no system of permitting so-called "nuns" [nis? ...]. However, in the background we can imagine the strong working of women, so-called "temple guard- ians" [b?mori ...], who might as well be called "untonsured nuns" [uhatsu-ni ...]. But the name of temple guardian is a passive title not adequate to the duty of protecting our institution, and as an expression of the vocation to actively propagate the great teachings, it is unsatisfactory.

From a 1929 unsigned feature entitled, "Women's activities within the organization," in the Honganji-ha's monthly journal, the Ky?kai ichiran ...

Recent studies of female ordination in the Heian (794-1185) and Kama- kura (1185-1333) periods have provided compelling evidence to trouble a simplistic view of "nuns" and "laywomen" as two clearly distinguishable groups within Japanese Buddhism, illuminating instead a spectrum of ordination practices and an active negotiation of ritual authenticity (Katsuura 1989; 2002; Groner 2002; Meeks 2006). However, the situation of female religious profes- sionals in the J?do Shinsh? ..., a tradition that has doctrinally eschewed but practically manifest the distinction between lay and cleric since its emergence in the thirteenth century, has scarcely been investigated.1

Shin priests,2 despite commonly being dubbed "neither monk nor layman" according to the founder Shinran's ...(1173-1262) self-description, have none- theless been regulated, ordained, and even ranked in accordance with legal requirements for Buddhist clerics since the early modern period. However, as noted in the above passage from the monthly journal of the J?do Shinsh? Hon- ganji denomination (hereafter "Honganji-ha"), there is no strong tradition in the Shinsh? of ordination for women, and the closest thing to a nun that has existed since the medieval period is the Shin temple wife, known as the b?mori or temple guardian.3 This brief passage alludes to two difficulties faced by the sect in defining the b?mori as a religious professional: first, how to describe such a position using the terms available in the Buddhist tradition; and second, how to overcome the contradictions inherent in investing such a domestic figure as the temple wife and mother with the authority and vocation of a religious professional. …

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