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Unforced Devotions

Unforced Devotions

Ritual-filled lives of 13th-century Japanese nuns at Hokkeji were rich, says USC scholar Lori Meeks.

Nuns in medieval Japan were not, as one modern Buddhologist put it, “simply passing the days till they died…lethargically reading the sutras [Buddhist scripture]” within the bleak confines of their temples, argued USC Professor of Religion Lori Meeks at a Nov. 7 colloquium sponsored by the Center for Japanese Studies. Meeks held the quotation up as representative of a tendency among historians to dismiss and underestimate Buddhist nuns of the Heian and Kamakura periods in Japan.

Meeks presented evidence for her point from a liturgical calendar describing the daily schedule of the nuns and a first-person account by a lady of the Imperial court, Lady Nijo, herself later a nun.

Gender bias in thirteenth-century Buddhism might lead historians to presume that nuns were less devoted than they otherwise would have been, Meeks admitted. After all, it was impossible for a woman to achieve enlightenment according to the conception of the age. “They could only pray to be reincarnated as a man,” Meeks explained.

Further ammunition for those historians is the condition under which most women entered the nunnery: necessity. The time was full of upheaval, an era of bloody transition from the rule of the Heian period (794–1185) to the Kamakura Shogunate (1185–1333). As powerful lords were displaced and killed, the widowed wives and fatherless daughters would often end up in a nunnery, expected to perform post-mortem rituals and accrue good Karma for the men, Meeks said.

However, Meeks argued that entries in a liturgical calendar from the Great Nunnery Hokkeji defy the notion that these women trudged through their days without devotion. Located in Nara, Hokkeji, in the thirteenth century was a very prominent nunnery, with hundreds of practicing women living there; it also served as the headquarters of a network of Buddhist nunneries. Among other rigors, the women were expected to master very difficult Chinese chants, Meeks pointed out.

And far from moping around in dark and depressing halls, according to the accounts Meeks presented of Lady Nijo from her autobiographical Confessions, the nuns lived in a bright place that was a pleasant respite from the capital. Lady Nijo recalls the sutras they chanted as moving, saying her uncle came to tears upon hearing the chanting—“and not out of pity for these women,” Meeks joked.

Meeks concluded that historians who summarily dismissed the nuns' devotion had not looked deeply enough.