Voices of Modern Shinshu Women

Despite the many women actively involved with Jodo Shinshu temples, written expressions of their faith are rarely studied. Such works provide insight into their religious understanding and feelings on spiritual liberation, male sexism, and changing social mores. Now we can glimpse at those sentiments, thanks to a recently published work.

In “Voices of Buddhist Women in Modern Japan,” Professor Michihiro Ama, unveils poems, short stories, and confessions written by various women during the early twentieth century. His essay appears as a chapter in the book, Adding Flesh to Bones, Kiyozawa Manshi’s Seishinshugi in Modern Japanese Buddhist Thought, edited by Mark L. Blum and Michael Conway, published earlier this year.

These women were participants in Kiyozawa Manshi’s groundbreaking Seishinshugi (“Cultivating Spirituality”) movement that reinvigorated Shinshu teachings, which had become moribund, tradition-bound, and institutionalized. The movement shook up the religious establishment by challenging its authority, interpreting the teachings through Western reasoning, focusing on personal experience, and encouraging the free expression of feelings and ideas.

Ama, Japanese studies professor at the University of Montana, wrote: “Shin Buddhist women participated actively in the Seishinshugi movement and helped modernize Jōdo Shinshū. They were not just wives of ministers assisting their husband—cleaning the temple, serving food after major services, raising their children, and helping the congregation—but educated individuals, as represented by Akegarasu Fusako, who sought new Buddhist expressions through poetry.”

Fusako was married to Akegarasu Haya (1877-1954), a well-known and controversial Buddhist teacher, who studied directly under Kiyozawa. His writings were sometimes shockingly frank and confessional, exposing his egregious, sinful behavior, and sensual thoughts. Fusako married him in 1902 at the age of 17 and her poetry shows the same flair. She writes:

When separated / I wish only for the day we are together again. / When we meet again, / Not only am I reluctant to part, / My body literally aches for you.

 Wakarete wa / au hi o negai / aeba tata / wakaruru oshimu / modae no kono mi

Fusako, who constantly suffered bad health, served as bōmori (temple wife) and oversaw Sunday school at Myōtatsu, Akegarasu’s temple in Ishikawa prefecture. She was younger sister to Sasaki Gesshō (1875-1926), third president of Higashi Honganji’s Ōtani University. Fusako passed away from tuberculosis at age 26.

Kiyozawa had started a journal called “Seishinkai,” which Akegarasu edited, featuring writings of young progressive Shinshu priests searching for a new identity. Many submissions were from female writers, which served as the basis for Ama’s research. According to Ama: “The institutionalization of the founder’s teaching and the bureaucratization of the Honganji as a powerful religious organization had until then prevented young priests from freely expressing their ideas and feelings.”

Another of Fusako’s poems reads:

How delighted I am! / Even though this sinful body / Is hopelessly lost in the wilderness, / I can cling to the warm hands / Of the compassionate Buddha!

 Ana ureshi / tsumi no are no ni / mayou mi mo / jihi no mioya no / ote ni sugareba

Ama writes, “Female followers generally accepted the religious ideas developed by the clergy, but they were extremely diverse and dynamic in their spiritual expressions.”

Shinshu priests typically viewed women differently than men, who were seen as afflicted with “evil” nature (Japanese: akunin). By contrast, women were burdened with “Five Hindrances,” (i.e. sensual desires, ill will, apathy, laziness) and “Three Forms of Obedience,” (from Confucianism: obedience to father before marriage, to husband after marriage, and to son after death of husband), which made them especially weak and sinful. “Male priests considered female spirituality to be inferior to male spirituality,” Ama writes.

He adds, “Today scholars would agree that Shin Buddhist priests during the early twentieth century took a sexist stance when educating female Shin followers.”

Despite that atmosphere, the women writers profiled by Ama show no signs of such tradition-bound burdens. Fusako, for example, broke barriers in her writing. “Through her poetry she forged a new image of Shin Buddhist women similar to how her husband attempted to restructure the Higashi Honganji organization.”

Likewise, Akiyama Keiko’s short stories reflect how women confronted hardships and awakened to spiritual liberation, guided by Buddhist teachings. Women in her stories don’t consider themselves sinful or spiritually weak. By contrast, men appear lost and mired in ignorance and are guided to the Buddhist teachings by women.

Akiyama’s short story, “Garlands of Salvation” (1908) begins with a scene in which young Atsuko meets with friends, who plan to show off their flower garlands by wearing Western style dresses. Fumiko is worried about Atsuko—whose father died leaving the family impoverished and who lacks such a dress—thinks to console her friend.

However, Atsuko is unperturbed. When asked why, she responds:

“Mama always says this… The Buddha arranges for us a house, clothes, meals, dolls, and everything, just in the right way. If I don’t have things that others have, that means the Buddha thinks it’s better for me not to have them. So, I don’t need them.”

She also says:

“Besides, I no longer miss my father. I don’t cry anymore. I don’t wish to go back to the big house where we lived before. Mama told me to recite the name of my father and the Buddha when I’m alone. I often say it while in bed or when I look at the garden.”

 “What is that name?”

 “It’s Namu Amida Butsu.”

Later, Fumiko attends a wedding banquet, where she sees other women wearing much fancier clothes and jewelry. She begins lamenting her choice in husbands, feeling perhaps she could have done better. Remembering Atsuko’s wise words, she visits Atsuko’s mother, who tells her about the Buddhist teachings.

Fumiko and her husband move to a different city. She discovers her husband is having an affair with another women and is greatly troubled. She remembers Atsuko’s words, that “everything is arranged by the Tathāgata” [Buddha].

Later, Atsuko’s mother receives a letter from Fumiko, who writes:

Two days ago, I was devastated. But since yesterday, I have gained a new perspective on life. I am full of joy, and I feel as if everything is being illuminated by light. Looking back, I have realized that the Tathāgata arranged everything just in the right way. The heart of the Tathāgata will someday affect my husband—as it did me—and I am looking forward to it now. Ah, the bitter tears, which gushed from my eyes before yesterday, have now turned into my source of joy. How inconceivable the Buddha’s compassion is!

In Akiyama’s stories, the Buddhist teachings awaken and bring together family members, and they include efforts by female characters to direct men towards spiritual realization. They are unbothered by the so-called Five Hindrances and Three Obstructions. “Akiyama used fiction to reinvigorate female spirituality in Buddhism in the milieu of gender inequality in modern Japan where women’s spirituality was assumed to be inferior,” Ama writes.

“Confessions” are a writing form found universally in religion in which people express their innermost feelings and shortcomings, along with their spiritual understanding. Shinran Shonin, Jodo Shinshu’s founder, sprinkles his writings with confessions, for example:

 I know truly how grievous it is that I, Gutoku Shinran, am sinking in an immense ocean of desires and attachments and am lost in vast mountains of fame and advantage, so that I rejoice not at all at entering the stage of the truly settled, and feel no happiness at coming nearer the realization of true enlightenment. How ugly it is! How wretched!

(Collected Works of Shinran I, page 125)

In “My Confession” (1912), Kobayashi Shige wrote how she studied various Buddhist texts and “felt superior when I compared myself to others.” Still, she felt troubled and unfulfilled.

She wrote:

The only thing that bothered me was my inability to practice what the Buddha had practiced. I grew tired, because I relied solely on myself. I made myself busy and always felt it necessary to do this and do that, but I hardly accomplished anything the way I wanted. I thus became irritated…

 I confessed my problems to my friend, but she ignored me—or, rather, she gave me a smile of smug satisfaction, as she saw me struggling. I saw my old self in her—previously, I had always looked down on her—but at the same time, I sensed the presence of nyorai-sama [Tathāgata] in her mean behavior. Because she refused to criticize me, I began to repent. I then realized my shortcomings and finally accepted that I was bound by unwholesome karma. I was not happy about it, because I had considered myself a superior person. This sense of unhappiness was, however, different from the sense of awkwardness I felt whenever I boasted of my superiority. When I accepted myself as a person of unwholesome karma, I felt welcomed I was embraced by the nyorai-sama’s compassion, just as the sunlight has always illuminated me.

Writings by these female writers at the turn of the twentieth century did not mentioned Shinran, Honganji, Amida, Jōdo Shinshū or any specific temple, thereby maintaining universal appeal by not identifying with any particular religious denomination.

Women in Shinshu were eventually allowed expanded roles of responsibility within their denominations. For example, Nishi Honganji granted the ordination of female followers for the first time in 1931, but they weren’t allowed to be resident priests or hold governing positions within the denomination. Today both Higashi Honganji and Nishi Honganji have relaxed such rules, but parity remains elusive.

In another book, Immigrants to the Pure Land, The Modernization, Acculturation, and Globalization of Shin Buddhism, 1868-1941, Ama writes about Sunya Pratt, who was born in England in 1868, and who became North America’s first female Shinshu priest, ordained at the Tacoma Buddhist Church in 1936. Today in North America, female priests have become commonplace.

In Jodo Shinshu, we’ve heard many voices of male teachers and priests. Now it’s time to hear from the women. Thank you, Professor Ama.

[ed. note: All proper names stated follow the Japanese style of “last name first”]

-Rev. Ken Yamada, editor at Higashi Honganji’s Shinshu Center of America