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Hokkeji and the Reemergence of Female Monastic Orders in Premodern Japan (review)

From: Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies
Volume 72, Number 1, June 2012
pp. 164-170 | 10.1353/jas.2012.0012

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Since their beginning in the nineteenth century, Buddhist studies in the West have been pervaded by a sense, more or less explicitly stated, of male centrality, if not male superiority. This was largely because the discipline was primarily concerned with doctrinal texts, which are animated by a misogynistic rhetoric and emphasize male figures. In addition, modern scholars have tended to identify (whether consciously or not) with the premodern authors of the texts they studied. Of course, such rhetoric, if not the texts themselves, originated in communities of celibate men who had renounced home and who tended to see women as temptresses—both in sexual terms, and, more generally, as powerful symbols of worldly ties. Nevertheless, women were not the only targets of this rhetoric; also targeted were all kinds of attachments and self-centeredness, from fame and power to wealth and self-satisfaction.

This male-centered rhetoric keeps resurfacing in various forms. For instance, Japanese Marxist historiography has long argued that Buddhist misogynistic doctrines were the basis for actual forms of social discrimination against women and that convents were institutions of women's oppression. Most Marxist intellectuals took for granted that women had, against their own interests, completely absorbed the rhetoric and accepted the social discriminations—that women were either consentient participants in their own discrimination or passive objects of male domination.

The agency of women in religious discourses and activities is a rather recent subject of study. Investigations of female religious agency are generally informed by Marxist assumptions about female oppression and women's lack of agency in society, but a new scholarly trend envisions convents as spaces where women members exercised a degree of freedom from social constraints and oppression. Japanese women might have become nuns in order to escape from their husbands or to avoid social marginalization and poverty after the death of their husbands; but once in the convent, they discovered there a dimension of personal agency and autonomy. Indeed, society generally accorded to nuns a degree of authority not normally granted to ordinary laywomen.

Lori Meeks situates her long-awaited book, Hokkeji and the Reemergence of Female Monastic Orders in Premodern Japan, within the growing field of studies on women and Buddhism, but she also introduces several innovative elements. She focuses on Hokkeji, a Japanese Buddhist convent in Nara and one of the oldest Buddhist institutions in Japan. Hokkeji was founded in 741 by Emperor Shomu as part of a national network of Buddhist temples and convents. It served as the institutional center for the convents in this network and was closely associated with the religious activities of Shōmu's Queen-consort Kōmyō. After the ninth century the convent declined, but in the early thirteenth century it was revived through the efforts of Eison (or Eizon, 1201-1290), the leader of the newly formed Ritsu sect. Meeks's is a micro-historical approach to a specific female religious institution, the Hokkeji convent, and its female monastic order, in a carefully delimited time frame—approximately one hundred years between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries—that constitutes the convent's period of greatest prosperity. Because of this setting, Meeks avoids making sweeping claims about women and Buddhism in society at large—something that is not easy anyway, given the fragmentation of medieval Japanese society based on, among other factors, class, age, profession, and locality.

In her book, Meeks examines the interactions between male and female members of the same denomination, the Risshū (Ritsu or Vinaya sect), vividly showing differences and similarities between the two genders. She successfully challenges received understandings about the relationship between Buddhism and gender. Earlier studies either posited the standard male-centered interpretation as normative and unquestioned by men and women throughout Japanese society, or upheld assumptions about supposed differences in the religious attitudes of men and women, as if gender automatically produced different outlooks toward the sacred. Meeks argues convincingly that most people seldom interpreted Buddhist doctrines, including those normally understood as misogynistic, literally (Buddhist fundamentalism being virtually non-existent in medieval Japan), but instead allowed for ample margins of individual exegesis. At the same time, by presenting various forms of women's religiosity and attitudes toward the sacred, she demonstrates...

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