Abstract: Between State Control and State Neglect: Nuns in Ancient and Early Mediaeval Japan

by Prof. Dr. Florin Deleanu

It seems rather paradoxical that in contrast to the less prominent and often neglected role of nuns in the history of Japanese Buddhism, the first native of the Land of the Rising Sun to be ordained was a girl. Her lay name was Shima 島, and she took the tonsure at the age of eleven assuming the religious name of Zenshin-ni 善信尼 (‘The Nun of Good Faith’). This happened in the 13th year of the reign of Emperor Bidatsu 敏達天皇 (i.e., 584 C.E.). The order of nuns kept growing steadily reaching its first apogee during the Nara 奈良 period (710-794). The lavish state patronage brought prosperity to the Buddhist order, but it also meant that the monks and nuns came under strict state control. Actually, quite of a few of the Vinaya regulations were promulgated as official regulations (ryō 令) whose violation by the clerics was legally punishable.
In contradistinction to the early days of steady development, the Heian 平安 age (794-1192) marked a dramatic decline in the activities and institutions of the nuns mainly brought about by the discontinuation of the state support. Most of the convents became derelict or turned into monasteries run by monks, and the state-sponsored ordination of women came to a virtual halt. The Kamakura 鎌倉 period (1192-1336), on the other hand, saw a gradual revival of the bhikṣuṇī order and increase in the number of convents. This trend was to attain a new peak in the late mediaeval times when some of the nunneries once again received official patronage and attained national prominence.
The ordination procedures in Ancient and Early Mediaeval Japan mostly followed the Dharmaguptaka 法藏部Fourfold Vinaya 四部律藏 (especially for the state-sponsored ordination platforms and in the Ritsu School 律宗) or the Fang wang jing (Ch.)/ Bon mō kyō (Jp.) (*Brahmajālasūtra 梵網經) (mainly in the Tendai 天台 tradition). After a survey of the early developments, my paper will focus upon the revival of the bhikṣuṇī ordinations in the Kamakura period. Special attention will be paid to the Hokke Nunnery 法華寺 and the strategies employed by Eison 叡尊 (1201-1290), the famous reformer of the Ritsu School, in order to re-establish the order of nuns even when the Vinaya regulations could not be followed in all details.