Winner of the John Whitney Hall Prize, Association for Asian Studies
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.
11 illus.Studies in East Asian Buddhism,
Published in association with the Kuroda Institute
“Lori Meeks’ excellent study of the reemergence of fully ordained female monastic orders in Japan beginning in the thirteenth century deserves to win a prize. It may be the best book on Buddhism in pre-modern Japan published in recent years. . . . To my knowledge, no other book so successfully reveals the actual intersections of monastery, court, and society in Kamakura Japan.” —Monumenta Nipponica (66:1, 2011)
"This book makes major contributions to at least three key topics: women and Buddhism, mainstream Buddhism in premodern Japan, and religious institutions as settings for cultural and religious life. It is the first study to provide readers with a detailed and comprehensive overview of a single specific religious site and the women who lived there. Although the number of works that deal with women and Buddhism continues to grow (testifying to the on-going interest in this topic), none to my knowledge have yet attempted such a sustained analysis of a female religious order. While the so-called new Buddhism of the Kamakura period attracts the most attention from scholars, this study demonstrates the importance of the mainstream religious centers of Nara (and Kyoto) for our understanding of religions in premodern Japan." —William M. Bodiford, University of California, Los Angeles
"This is one of the best books on Japanese Buddhism I have read in recent years. There are a number of books and collections of essays that deal with the relationship between women and Buddhism, but Lori Meeks’study of Hokkeji surpasses anything else I have seen. While earlier studies have frequently focused on the lives or works of a particular person, Meeks draws on a broad range of sources, both primary and secondary, to reveal some of the presuppositions underlying these earlier studies. In doing so, she gives us a much clearer vision of how medieval women related to Buddhism. Her book should appeal to a wide variety of readers, including those interested in Buddhism, Japanese history, Japanese literature, and gender, and will establish her as a leading figure in the field of women and Buddhism and Japanese Buddhist history." —Paul Groner, University of Virginia
Author: Meeks, Lori;Lori R. Meeks
is assistant professor in the School of Religion and the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, University of Southern California.