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  • Guardians of the Buddha's Home: Domestic Religion in Contemporary Jōdo Shinshū by Jessica Starling
  • Eisho Nasu (bio)
Guardians of the Buddha's Home: Domestic Religion in Contemporary Jōdo Shinshū. By Jessica Starling. University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu, 2019. xii, 186 pages. $62.00, cloth; $28.00, paper.

Jessica Starling's Guardians of the Buddha's Home: Domestic Religion in Contemporary Jōdo Shinshū is a welcome addition to the small but growing literature on domestic spheres in contemporary Japanese Buddhism. The "guardians" who are the subject of Starling's study are the bōmori (temple guardians), the wives of priests of the Jōdo Shinshū tradition, one of the [End Page 136] largest forms of "domestic" Buddhism in Japan. The founder of this tradition, Shinran (1173–1262), consciously rejected monastic norms and chose marriage and family as the basis of his Buddhist practice. Using her extensive ethnographic research, Starling skillfully and conscientiously presents her informants' voices so that readers can reimagine and reevaluate the stereotypical image of Buddhist traditions dominated so far by the collective voices of male priests.

Starling's work stands out for its focus on mainly nonordained, nonmonastic women. Much of the literature on women in Buddhism has justifiably centered on the lives of Buddhist nuns (whether ordained or not). Starling's study of temple wives instead opens the door to the Buddhist home, an area still underrepresented in the field of Japanese Buddhism (with Paula Arai's Bringing Zen Home: The Healing Heart of Japanese Women's Rituals being another excellent example of studies of domestic Buddhism1). While the women Starling introduces are not nuns and ordination is not required (although increasingly bōmori are obtaining ordination), they are nevertheless "domestic religious professionals" who live in temples, which perhaps still differentiates them from other laywomen. As temple wives married to temple priests/husbands, their work is defined in part by traditional gender roles and expectations. But, ironically, it is these expectations, Starling asserts, that make the temple wife into a professional: "One of the surprising discoveries of my fieldwork was that the very gender ideology that divides labor along gender lines and 'confines' women to staying at home in fact renders temple wives de facto religious professionals" (p. 16). That is, bōmori work to propagate Buddhism from within the home, for example by welcoming people into the temple with hospitality that will foster connections with the temple and Amida (pp. 44–46); furthermore, whenever the priest/husband is away from the home (or dies), the wife becomes the de facto priest, conducting rituals and services (chapter 5). Starling's work explores how women navigate these various roles, their attitudes toward their work, and the problems they face within institutions and society that still tend to devalue women's contributions to traditionally male work.

In the "Introduction," Starling is careful to set out the limits of her position as a Western scholar studying Asian subjects. She draws on works by Wei-Yi Cheng and Nirmala Salgado that have pointed out the tendency of Western scholars to apply their own feminist ideas and expectations to Asian Buddhist women,2 thereby (consciously or unconsciously) making [End Page 137] a discourse of Asian women's self-empowerment, agency, resistance, and freedom that Asian women themselves may not recognize. To avoid mischaracterization, Starling tries to "enter into the everyday lives of her informants with an honest sense of humility in order to discover the categories and concepts that operate for them on a practical level" (p. 7). Overall, this is a strength of Starling's work (although I have one criticism; see below), and she listens to the actual voices of the women (and men) she interviews. She seeks to understand their lives broadly through the "intimacy and intersubjectivity" that is at the core of their many family and community relationships and that gives them relational agency (p. 11). Readers find an alternative vision of contemporary Japanese Buddhist practice in the context of domestic life, in which temple wives cultivate skills of interpersonal communication rather than scripted doctrine.

Starling constructs all six chapters around her interviews with 60 women from temple families, which...