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Religion Library: Zen

Gender and Sexuality

Written by: Julia Hardy

Several women were among the first, if not the first, Japanese Buddhists to be ordained, having traveled to Korea in the 6th century for that purpose. By the 9th century in Japan, however, before Zen had been established as a separate sect, the sacred mountains of both Tendai and Shingon Buddhism were declared off-limits to women. These restrictions were not lifted until early in the 20th century. Many establishments also refused to ordain women. Japanese women were not deterred, and they created a new category of Buddhist clergy for themselves: they shaved their heads, wore robes, and practiced as rigorously as did the men.

The 11th century Japanese founder of Soto Zen, Dogen, was known to have accepted female monastics and lay students. There are some contradictions in his writings, but at times he actively encouraged Zen practice by women. However, women were generally not steered toward the Buddhist clergy as an avocation. As in China, Japanese women who became nuns did so for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they wished to avoid marriage; sometimes they longed for an education; sometimes they were widowed at an early age or were in impoverished circumstances. Occasionally women from noble families became nuns, and their presence could bring fame, visitors, and financial benefits to the temples where they resided.

At the dawn of the 20th century, Buddhist nuns in Japan were required to wear the robes of novices regardless of age or experience. Soto Zen nuns had no training facilities and were not allowed to attend the main university of the sect. At that time, as Japan began to modernize and was influenced by an active feminist discourse, groups of Soto nuns began to organize and build their own training facilities and schools, and were able to get them accredited. They demanded the right to designate dharma heirs, participate in Soto governance, wear different robes, and be heads of temples. They also began to hold Soto Sect National Assemblies of Monastic Women. Today the largest community of nuns in Japan is a Soto convent in Nagoya that houses around 3,000 nuns.

Like all Buddhist monastics, Zen monks and nuns took the precept to avoid sexual activity, but the precept was not always followed. Some had liaisons, either heterosexual or homosexual, and a few, like Ikkyu, were famous for their sexual exploits, but these were the exception, rather than the rule.

After the Meiji Restoration in Japan, Zen monks, like the monks of all other Japanese Buddhist sects, began to marry and have families. As Japanese influence extended into Korea, Korean Buddhist monks also began to marry. Buddhist monks in Vietnam and China have continued to take the vow of celibacy. Zen and other Buddhist nuns in Japan and Korea have chosen to remain celibate as well. At this time, there is no tradition of married female monastics anywhere in the Buddhist world, but the wives of Japanese priests sometimes go through a period of spiritual training similar to that of nuns, and are sometimes referred to as nuns.

Study Questions:
1.     What is the relationship between family lineage and Buddhist rule?
2.     How have gender roles affected the participation of women within Zen?
3.     How did Dogen view the role of women?
4.     Is celibacy important to Zen monks? Why or why not?


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