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Hokkeji and the Reemergence of Female Monastic Orders in Premodern Japan

Lori R. Meeks

Publication Year: 2010

Hokkeji, an ancient Nara temple that once stood at the apex of a state convent network established by Queen-Consort Komyo (701–760), possesses a history that in some ways is bigger than itself. Its development is emblematic of larger patterns in the history of female monasticism in Japan. In Hokkeji and the Reemergence of Female Monastic Orders in Premodern Japan, Lori Meeks explores the revival of Japan’s most famous convent, an institution that had endured some four hundred years of decline following its establishment. With the help of the Ritsu (Vinaya)-revivalist priest Eison (1201–1290), privately professed women who had taken up residence at Hokkeji succeeded in reestablishing a nuns’ ordination lineage in Japan. Meeks considers a broad range of issues surrounding women’s engagement with Buddhism during a time when their status within the tradition was undergoing significant change. The thirteenth century brought women greater opportunities for ordination and institutional leadership, but it also saw the spread of increasingly androcentric Buddhist doctrine. Hokkeji explores these contradictions. In addition to addressing the socio-cultural, economic, and ritual life of the convent, Hokkeji examines how women interpreted, used, and "talked past" canonical Buddhist doctrines, which posited women’s bodies as unfit for buddhahood and the salvation of women to be unattainable without the mediation of male priests. Texts associated with Hokkeji, Meeks argues, suggest that nuns there pursued a spiritual life untroubled by the so-called soteriological obstacles of womanhood. With little concern for the alleged karmic defilements of their gender, the female community at Hokkeji practiced Buddhism in ways resembling male priests: they performed regular liturgies, offered memorial and other priestly services to local lay believers, and promoted their temple as a center for devotional practice. What distinguished Hokkeji nuns from their male counterparts was that many of their daily practices focused on the veneration of a female deity, their founder Queen-Consort Komyo, whom they regarded as a manifestation of the bodhisattva Kannon. Hokkeji rejects the commonly accepted notion that women simply internalized orthodox Buddhist discourses meant to discourage female practice and offers new perspectives on the religious lives of women in premodern Japan. Its attention to the relationship between doctrine and socio-cultural practice produces a fuller view of Buddhism as it was practiced on the ground, outside the rarefied world of Buddhist scholasticism.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press

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pp. vii-ix

MY RESEARCH ON THE NUNS of Hokkeji grew out of a broader, cross-cultural interest in the nature of women’s roles in the social lives of religious institutions. Exposed from an early age to doctrines preaching the inferiority of women, I struggled as a young adult to reconcile the moral insights of the tradition in which I had been raised with its oppressive social policies. In ...

Abbreviations and Conventions

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pp. xi

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pp. 1-26

DURING THE SECOND MONTH of the first year of the Kenchō era (1249), twelve women received the complete nuns’ monastic precepts (bikuni gusokukai) of the Four-Part Vinaya (Sifenlü, Jpns. Shibun ritsu) from the priest Eison (also “Eizon,” 1201–1290, aka Shien Shōnin, Kōshō Bosatsu). For several years, these women had been living as lay monastics in the dilapidated buildings ...

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1 Pilgrimage, Popular Devotion, and the Reemergence of Hokkeji

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pp. 27-58

LIKE MOST TEMPLES BUILT in the southern capital of Heijō-kyō (Nara) during the eighth century, Hokkeji’s years of flourishing were limited. Although documentary and archaeological evidence indicates that construction continued on the grounds of the convent even into the early years of the ninth century, the convent lost its financial and political support base with the ...

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2 Envisioning Nuns: Views from the Court

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pp. 59-90

PREVIOUS SCHOLARSHIP HAS VIEWED the revival of Hokkeji primarily through the lens of androcentric Buddhist rhetoric. Following the assumption that nuns and other female practitioners at Hokkeji internalized the androcentric Buddhist teachings propagated by Saidaiji monks and incorporated these doctrines into their daily lives and practices, earlier studies tend ...

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3 Envisioning Nuns: Views from the Male Monastic Order

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pp. 91-116

THE MOST POWERFUL POSITION in the Buddhist world that women of the Heian and early Kamakura periods could hope to attain was that of a great lay patron. As demonstrated in the last chapter, nyoin, as political players whose wealth and influence rivaled that of tennō and retired sovereigns, came to play significant roles in the Buddhist...

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4 Hokkeji's Place in Eison's Vinaya Revival Movement

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pp. 117-155

THE LAST TWO CHAPTERS examined the historical development of two dis-crete discourses on nunhood and women’s religiosity. The first, explored in chapter 2, was that adopted by men and women connected to the elite world of the court. Within these circles, women tended to downplay disadvantages ascribed to female practice in doctrinal texts and focused instead ...

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5 Social and Economic Life at Hokkeji and Its Branch Convents

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pp. 156-209

WERE IT NOT FOR SUBTLE CLUES found in passages such as the one above, the Hokke metsuzaiji engi might leave readers with the impression that Hokkeji’s medieval restoration was a rarefied event, a small-scale revival undertaken by a handful of elite women committed to the veneration of Queen-Consort Kōmyō.1 Insofar as her primary goal was that of a hagiographer, Hokke metsuzaiji engi author Enkyō...

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6 Ritual Life at Medieval Hokkeji

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pp. 210-249

THE ABOVE NARRATIVE, recounted in a 938 entry from Fujiwara no Michinori’s (1106–1160) state history, Honchō seiki, goes on to tell how the main shrine of Iwashimizu Hachiman punished a charismatic nun for ritual performance. By the year 938, it had been at least a century since Japanese nuns had been given the opportunity to receive official state...

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7 Representations of Women and Gender in Ritsu Literature

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pp. 250-300

PREVIOUS CHAPTERS have demonstrated the success with which Hokkeji nuns re-created an institutional framework for female monastic life. In restoring Hokkeji, they tended to adopt the structures and practices of male institutions. Before association with Eison, women at Hokkeji revived the convent as a pilgrimage site, following the broader patterns by which ...

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pp. 301-310

UNTIL RECENTLY, studies of Buddhist convents in premodern Japan tended to accept one or both of the following premises: (1) that convents served the social function of housing socially problematic women—illegitimate or unmarriageable daughters, widows, and unwanted wives—and (2) that women who entered convents internalized androcentric doctrines. These ...


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pp. 311-347

Character Glossary

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pp. 349-355

Works Cited and Consulted

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pp. 357-390


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pp. 391-408

E-ISBN-13: 9780824860646
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824833947

Publication Year: 2010

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Buddhist nuns -- Japan -- Hokkeji (Nara-shi).
  • Buddhist monasticism and religious orders for women -- Japan -- Hokkeji (Nara-shi).
  • Monastic and religious life (Buddhism) -- Japan -- Hokkeji (Nara-shi).
  • Hokkeji (Nara-shi, Japan) -- Religion.
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