Rights, centers, and peripheries: experimental moves in Japanese Buddhism
Starling International Journal of Dharma Studies
Rights, centers, and peripheries: experimental moves in Japanese Buddhism
In this paper I examine how the Japanese True Pure Land Buddhist school (J?do Shinsh? or Shin Buddhism) has attempted to come to terms with the position of temple wife (b?mori), which has historically been a local position based solely on marriage ties to the resident priest of a temple, in a way that accommodates the modern principles of individual rights and freedom of religion. The central J?do Shinsh? institutions of the ?tani-ha and Honganji-ha have responded to demands to recognize the autonomous choice of temple wives to undertake a life of service to the parish temple by formulating an initiation ceremony meant to encourage the temple wife's self-awareness as a religious professional. Utilizing ethnographic fieldwork conducted from 2009 to 2013, I survey the various sites where Buddhism is lived and experimented in contemporary Japan. I highlight the interplay between local and central sources of religious meaning and authenticity.
Modernity; Pure Land; J?do Shinsh?; Temple wives; Karma; Nishi Honganji; Japanese Buddhism
innovations or reforms ?on the ground? ? at the local place of practice, referred to
in Japanese as genba ? have in my observation been somewhat limited.1
In this paper I will demonstrate the proclivity in Japanese Temple Buddhism for
topdown experimentation by giving an account of how one modern Buddhist sect has
attempted to come to terms with the position of temple wife ? terms that
accommodate the modern principle of individual rights ? and to what extent those efforts have
concretely affected temple wives themselves. From 2009 to 2013, I spent a total of
thirty months in Japan interviewing and conducting participant observation among
temple wives in various regions. I was based in Kyoto, where the head temples of the
two major denominations of the J?do Shinsh?, the ?tani-ha (Higashi Honganji
Temple) and the Honganji-ha (Nishi Honganji Temple), are both located. At these two
sectarian headquarters I met upwards of sixty women as they attended national
conferences of temple wives or training retreats for new temple wives; I would subsequently
visit many of these women at their home temples in areas, both rural and urban, which
were far-flung from Kyoto. In this way I was able to collect narratives from women
both at the center and the periphery of the religious institution. It is only by attending
to the dialectical interaction between center and periphery that we can understand how
Buddhist institutions, practices and religious vocabularies are deployed in response to
Family temples, temple wives and the problem of individual rights
It is by now fairly well known that priests in Japan no longer observe vows of celibacy;
most priests marry and have children, who live together with them in the temple.
Temples are usually passed down, ideally at least, according to the principle of male
primogeniture. What this means is that in nearly every temple that one finds a priest in
Japan, one can also find the priest?s wife, whose life is no less immersed in and
dedicated to the operation of the temple than that of her husband.
Priests in the J?do Shinsh?, also known as Shin Buddhism, have embraced lay
practices such as meat eating and marriage ever since the founder Shinran (1173?
1263) declared that such a lifestyle was most appropriate for religious practitioners in
what he believed was the degenerate age of the dharma.2 Although temple wives are
largely absent from historical documents, we can read between the lines and assume
that these clerics have always been accompanied by their female partners, who in this
tradition are known as b?mori or ?temple guardians?.
Throughout the centuries of Shin Buddhist history, the wives of Shin temple priests
performed a myriad of untold services to the temple and its congregation. Among these
were raising the next generation of temple priests and temple wives (i.e., their sons and
daughters), managing contributions to the temple, receiving parishioners with tea and
conversation, servicing the temple?s altar with flowers and rice, and assisting with the
execution of memorial services and yearly rituals. All of this they did without receiving
official consideration of their choice to do so, and without any training or credentials
from a central Buddhist authority. Until the 20th century, a b?mori?s preparation and
identity as a temple person were entirely local, grounded in her physical residence in
the temple, and her married relationship to the temple?s priest.
After World War II, the religious and ideological landscape in Japan was transformed,
due in part to the new national constitution, which enshrined the unconditional right
to ?freedom of religion? (shinky? no jiy?) for all individuals. In addition, the increasing
salience of human rights discourse globally ? the United Nations? Universal Declaration
of Human Rights is frequently referred to by activist groups in Japan ? bolstered the
claims of reform-minded activists and sectarian leaders, particularly in the J?do
Shinsh?.3 Perusing the publications of the Otani-ha and Honganji-ha (the two major
denominations of the J?do Shinsh?) over the second half of the 20th century, one can
clearly observe an increase in sensitivity to the individual rights of practitioners, and
the importance of personal, individualized faith over the early modern model of
religious affiliation centered on the family. The principles of individual freedom and
egalitarianism ? and the relatively novel concept that religion was a private, subjective
matter that was to be freely chosen by each individual ? had by the 1960s and 1970s
become well-established in the world of administrators and leaders of the Shin
This new sensibility ? which one might call a modern imperative ? presented
problems for the traditional understanding of the position of the temple wife. Now Buddhist
institutions were being pressed to recognize the ?autonomous choice? (shutaiteki
sentaku) of priests? wives to undertake a life of service to its parish temples. As part of
their response, both of the major J?do Shinsh? sects formulated a b?mori registration
system and initiation ceremonies. The ?tani-ha responded to a surge of feminist
activism arising from its national temple wife network in the 1990s by reviving a previously
dormant ritual called the b?mori initiation ceremony (b?mori shuninshiki), whose
purpose was to recognize the contributions and individual faith of temple wives
(Starling 2017). The Honganji-ha created a similar ritual ? in theory, at least ? as soon as
its postwar sectarian constitution went in to effect, although the ritual?s administration
was very limited for the first few decades. According to a 1977 article in Honganji-ha?s
newspaper Sh?h?, the new ritual?s purpose was for wives ?to declare before the Buddha
[i.e., the image of Amida] their intention to dedicate themselves to the duties of a b?mori?
(b?mori toshite no honbun o tsukusu shi wo butsuzen ni keiyaku suru gishiki).
Ritual innovation at Nishi Honganji
A description of a 2011 administration of the Honganji-ha b?mori ceremony I attended
will give the reader a more concrete image of the ritual. On a morning in early spring,
41 women, ranging in age from 30 to 70, gathered inside of the Amida Hall of Nishi
Honganji in Kyoto. They sat on their knees in the formal style in tidy rows, wearing lay
clothing along with their newly issued temple wife clerical collars. As they ran through
a rehearsal, many fumbled with their prayer beads, self-consciously bowing to the
Buddhist image from the proper depth of their waists as a teacher from the sect?s Ritual
Department had recently instructed them to do. They had just completed a 24-h
workshop at the conference facility next to Nishi Honganji. They had come alone,
unattended by friends or family members, and the only witnesses of the ceremony were
the conference staff, myself, a reporter for the sect?s newspaper (the biweekly
journal gets sent to the 12,000 parish temples affiliated with the sect), and a
handful of lay pilgrims and tourists who happened to wander in to worship the image of
As the ceremony proper began, the Urakata, a stately figure who is the wife of Nishi
Honganji?s abbot, entered the Amida Hall dressed immaculately in the manner of a
prime minister?s wife. She was followed by a retinue of high-ranking priests in
colorful robes. She lit some incense before the image of Amida, joined her hands
and bowed expertly to the Buddha before retiring to her seat in a special gallery to
the side of the altar.
The initiates rose to sing a musical arrangement of Buddhist hymns; next, one initiate
walked to the front to accept on behalf of all the participants her certificate from the
sect?s administrative chief; another initiate took her place and held a microphone to
lead the group in the recitation of a vow, which stated that the initiates intended to
work tirelessly as temple wives to serve the Pure Land Buddhist teachings. Finally, the
Urakata gave a brief address, reminding the women that they were crucial to J?do
Shinsh? temples? ability to thrive in contemporary society.
The ceremony closed with the singing of the Ondokusan, a gently haunting song of
gratitude adapted from verses written by Shinran, the 13th-century founder of the J?do
Shinsh?. After taking a commemorative group photograph along with their teachers in
front of Amida Hall, the women retired to the conference center to reflect on the
previous twenty-four hours of training and initiation in a round-circle discussion.
This is a Buddhist ritual comprised of old technologies and old actors, but conducted
with a novel purpose. It resembles to some extent the initiation given to new monks at
the tokudo or initial ordination ceremony; on the other hand it also bears resemblance
to the refuge ceremony conferred upon laypeople for a fee of 10,000 yen (about $80).
This kind of ?halfway in between? ceremony is perhaps most appropriate for marking
the b?mori?s change in status, since she as a domestic religious professional is ranked
somewhere between a priest and a layperson. The training that accompanies the ritual
is also somewhere in between: wives? one day of ?training? (kensh?) consists of a
1hour sermon on the J?do Shinsh? teachings; an hour-long tea ceremony
demonstration; an hour-long lecture on the arrangement, upkeep, and etiquette surrounding the
temple?s altar; and finally a 40-min lecture on the Kikan und?, the Honganji-ha?s
postwar institutional reform movement, followed by small group discussions of their
experiences at the temple. This rite of initiation and the professional enrichment that
accompanies it are not intended to confer religious status, but to commemorate and
support the ?autonomous choice? of a woman to become a religious professional in the
Shin Buddhist tradition.
So what are we to make of this instance of ritual innovation? We might describe it as
an example of ?Buddhist Modernism? or ?Modern Buddhism.? Much as in the
descriptions of Buddhist modernism given by David McMahan (2012) and Donald Lopez
(2002), Buddhist elites or activist members of the middle class have moved to respond
to the prevailing global discourse of human rights, gender equality, and individual
freedoms by formulating a new ritual stitched together from traditional Shin Buddhist
threads. The feminists applauded the new ritual as a welcome first step, and the central
sectarian institution no longer seemed quite so ?feudal? as to assume that women
would automatically adopt the faith and religious vocation of their husbands, whether
they were recognized or not.
But what relevance does the event have to a temple wife?s experience on the ground?
To understand whether we can describe this ceremony as ?experimental religion? in
the sense in which that term is being used across this symposium, we must find out if
it has anything at all to do with the local strategies by which religious specialists and
lay persons construct meaning in their everyday lives. In the following sections, I
describe interviews with participants who explain the meaning of the ceremony to
them personally and to the parishioners back at their home temples. By surveying the
various sites where Buddhism is lived and experimented in contemporary Japan, the
interplay (and sometimes disconnect) between local and central sources of religious
meaning and authenticity will become apparent.
Family and the karmic ties that bind temple wives
At the local site of practice of Japanese Buddhism ? the immediate social world where
temple wives negotiate authority and identity in their localized interactions with the
Buddhist tradition ? family continues to be the dominant context in which Buddhist
selves are produced. Shin Buddhism?s lay followers and clerical families, whose
connection to Buddhism has been defined for generations by ancestral affiliation, continue to
be drawn and anchored to the religion (and their religious career, as in the case of the
b?mori and priest) by family ties rather than by individual choice. Because the
priesthood (and temple wifehood) is a family enterprise in contemporary Japan (Starling
2015), the experiences of temple residents resemble those of Dorinne Kondo?s
informants in her 1990 study of Japanese individuals involved in family trades:
For people engaged in family enterprise, ie [household] and uchi [family as a circle of
attachment] create and constrain, providing the arena in which to enact compelling
dramas of guilt, pride, happiness, jealousy, competition, frustration, scorn, despair,
and resignation. As long as this is so, ie and uchi will be constitutive of my
informants? realities, a site of the play of the simultaneously creative and coercive
effects of meaning. The ie and uchi are sites, in short, for the disciplinary production
of selves. (Kondo 1990, p. 160).
At the level of the family (and work groups modeled on families), Kondo has shown
that achieving mature Japanese adulthood hinges upon demonstrating the willingness
and ability to submit one?s selfish desires to the greater good of the group.4 Indeed, it is
difficult to imagine a culture where hierarchical modes of complementarity ? rather
than an underlying assumption of the primacy of individual rights ? are more at play
in shaping individual selves.5
In other words, the context for constructing selfhood in Japan is still at base the
?uchi,? one?s circle of social attachment and obligation. For people who construe the
world through the Buddhist lenses of karma, as most of my informants do, family
connections are seen as the shape that the karmic conditions (innen) that bind them to
Buddhism are most apt to take. In this section, I examine the two interrelated forces
that structure the production of my informants? Buddhist identities: family and karma.
In prescriptive texts for b?mori dating back to the important 15th-century figure
Rennyo (1411?1499), the sense that being a b?mori is a karmically privileged and
predetermined existence is quite clear. From a premodern doctrinal standpoint, therefore,
it is not truly an autonomously chosen position, as the more modern language of the
postwar Honganji-ha and ?tani-ha?s institutional documents would dictate, but rather
the result of an unknowable chain of connections to Buddhism resulting from actions
carried out in previous lives. In light of these traditional accounts of the temple wife as
a unique, semi-clerical birth for women, I sought in my fieldwork to discover whether
the women themselves (at least contemporary ones) shared this sense of karmic destiny
with regards to their position at the temple.
The term en ? whose dictionary definitions include connection, bond, affinity, fate,
destiny, opportunity, and chance ? has Buddhist origins, but its usage is not limited to
those who consciously embrace a Buddhist view of the causal mechanism governing
the universe. As Mark Rowe puts it:
The term en signifies connections, both concrete and mysterious. To have en (en ga
aru) is to be linked by fate or destiny. To bind en (enmusubi) is to marry? Regional en
(chien) refers to the connections with those in one?s village or hometown, while families
are connected by blood bonds (ketsuen)?. [Engi is a Buddhist doctrinal term, meaning
dependent origination.]? Bonds, in both the doctrinal and societal sense, are thus both
positive (underlying links between everyone and everything) and negative (fetters and
attachments that prevent us from true insight or freedom). (2011, p. 46)
The term en is frequently heard in discussions among b?mori, in relation to both
building lasting connections between parishioners and the temple, and to the events
that led to their personally coming to live in a temple. Popular Japanese explanations of
how en plays into the karmic equation often liken en to the water that moistens the soil
into which one?s karmic seeds (previous actions) have been planted. Thus, en represents
the conditions that help bring one?s karma to fruition. In the Shin Buddhist tradition,
with its emphasis on the radical nature of other-power (tariki), however, one?s own past
actions are de-emphasized and the mysterious workings of Amida?s vow are favored
instead in explaining how one arrived at one?s destiny.
In the Shin Buddhist world, a commonly heard expression when describing one?s life
path or current circumstances is, ?go-en o itadaita,? or, ?I received this
connection/opportunity.? Marriage is certainly seen as one such opportunity. For example, a woman who
contributed a feature to Nishi Honganji?s biweekly Honganji shinp? newspaper explained
her experience of marrying a temple j?shoku, whom she met at her own father?s funeral,
when she was middle-aged, and going on to become a certified Shinsh? priest: ?I?ve truly
received a mysterious connection? (hont? ni fushigina go-en o itadakimashita) (Hasegawa
2009). Its implication when used in a Shinsh? context is that one?s life course is the result
of unknowable events in past lives, and in particular the mysterious workings of Amida?s
limitless compassion in providing opportunities to encounter the Pure Land teachings.
Roughly 40% of the Honganji-ha?s current b?mori were born in a Buddhist temple other
than the one they married into, primarily of the same Shinsh? sect, but 5.5% are from
another sect within Shinsh?, and 4% are from another school of Buddhism altogether
(Sh?sei ch?sa h?koku 2010). A woman who was born in a temple may have expected to
become a temple wife since she was young, whether because she liked the temple or because
it was the only life she knew. More commonly among the generation of women who are
now in their sixties or older, the decision to marry another temple?s priest, and the selection
of the young man, came as much from their parents as it did from their own desires.
But hasn?t the situation in contemporary Japanese Temple Buddhism changed? This
is the 21st century, after all, and we are told that Japanese families, especially in urban
settings, are changing rapidly. Japanese women now have a say in whom to marry, and
more women are reportedly choosing to resist or delay marriage because they are
unable to find a satisfactory partner (Nakano 2011). Even in Buddhist temple families,
in which the continuation of the temple is at stake in a successful marriage and the
production of a successor, young Japanese are reasonably free to make their own choice
of spouse. This does not mean, however, that these individuals see themselves as
completely free to chart their own destinies.
At a National B?mori Convention (Zenkoku b?mori taikai ??????) I attended
in May of 2011, several hundred members of the various district b?mori associations
converged upon Higashi Honganji by bus, train, or airplane. A representative from each
local group stood in front of her peers hoisting a flag imprinted with the group?s unique
slogan for the event, as participants filed across the grounds and into the Founders
Hall. The district association from Tokyo had inscribed their banner with the slogan,
?Receiving a fortuitous connection? (Tama tama no go-en o itadaite). Intrigued, I
sought an interview with women from this group at another event the following month.
Two officers, one temple-born and one lay-born, gladly answered my questions in
between lectures at a b?mori workshop at Higashi Honganji?s conference facilities.
[a temple], how would you like to come here [get married].? I thought, that?s the
kind of place I could marry into, and I accepted. From there I encountered
Shinran. That was my departure point. I didn?t intentionally choose it, but in the
end I suppose I did choose it.
Temple-born Woman: So in the end, it?s tama tama isn?t it?
Although I have translated tama tama as ?accidental? or ?fortuitous,? it may just as
easily be rendered ?predestined,? as the women who are reconciled to the Shin
Buddhist understanding of Amida?s powerful compassion would consider even
seemingly ?random? events and encounters as part of Amida?s destiny for them (and indeed
the sense of karmic predestination resides to more or less explicit degrees in the
common Japanese usage of tama tama). Though the sense that the circumstances that
one encounters in one?s life are mysteriously preordained is strong here, it is also
important to note that my informants frame these as opportunities rather than destiny.
It is possible to reject, or perhaps resist for a while, the openings for the attainment of
faith that Amida provides. In other words, two levels of agency ? that of Amida, and
that of the woman herself ? are seen as operating simultaneously and dialectically to
direct one?s life path.
In an overwhelming number of cases, by the time a woman reaches middle age, she
comes to embrace her position as a temple professional and has achieved a resolution
to take on the responsibility that it entails. This is frequently connected to her personal
faith (shinjin) ? however, it is often the faith that comes second, sometimes after years
of working out of a sense of obligation to their in-laws and their parishioners.
For the vast majority of Buddhist clerics in contemporary Japan, the primary context
through which their career is inherited and learned is that of the family and local parish
community; their religious lineage is for most practical purposes a local one. And in
their explanations of the chain of connections that led to their Buddhist vocation,
family frequently plays a central role. In the final section I consider how even those
temple wives who attend national conferences and initiation ceremonies in Kyoto are
shaped and constrained by local forces, a constraint that liberalizing discourses at the
national and local levels have done little to relieve.
Identity and authenticity between the center and the place of practice
In a very real sense, the b?mori initiation ceremony and the regulations that require it
are nothing more than an added layer of bureaucracy in the religious institution. The
Honganji-ha denomination?s postwar constitution included a new central registration
system for temple wives, by which each woman was to register with the central
sectarian authority (Nishi Honganji) in order to receive a clerical collar (shikish?)
authenticating her as a b?mori. The Honganji-ha?s b?mori ceremony (described above)
is a part of this registration system, and has been technically required to become an
?official? b?mori since 1948.
Perhaps more than any other top-down development, however, the temple wife
initiation ceremony reveals the large disconnect between the Buddhist sect?s
centralized bureaucratic administration and the reality of religious life ?on the ground?
at local family-run temples. An opinion piece (presumably by a female author) in
Nishi Honganji?s newspaper published soon after the first centralized administration
of the ceremony in 1977 attests to this. The writer observes, somewhat wryly:
This thing has been on the books since 1964, but they never administered the
ceremony in my district ? so that means all of us who have always been called
?b?mori-san? [i.e., who were called ?Mrs. B?mori? by their temple?s parishioners]
were not actually ?b?mori? [B?mori ga b?mori to yobareru y? ni, 16 (1977)].
The author points out the ironic disconnect between the official, bureaucratic definition
of ?b?mori? (which would require that a woman undergo this ceremony in order to
receive her b?mori credentials from the sect) and the local, lived definition of a b?mori.
The b?mori seki (registry) located at the sectarian headquarters at Nishi Honganji very
much resembles the bureaucratically idealized version of Japanese families that appears in
koseki, the civil registry required of all Japanese citizens since the Meiji period. As
Krogness (2011) has shown, ?real? Japanese families do not always fit neatly into the fields
of the forms that are kept on file at city hall. Temple families are no different.
The temple wife clerical collar that b?mori receive at the ceremony is another rich
example of the negotiation of authenticity and identity both at the center and the
periphery of the Buddhist institution. From the perspective of the central J?do Shinsh?
Honganji-ha?s bylaws, the b?mori ceremony at Nishi Honganji is required for the
endorsement of the b?mori?s clerical collar and the entry of her name into the registry
held at temple headquarters. But in fact, the collars can be (and often are) purchased at
a Buddhist clothier, and a woman who resides in the temple and is married to the priest
is certain to be called b?mori and expected to do the work of the b?mori regardless of
her institutional credentials.
Some comments from the temple wives who attended the 2011 ceremony I
described above will illustrate the complex relationship between the local temple
where b?mori spend their entire careers as temple wives, and the center, where
some temple wives are able to visit occasionally for pilgrimage, training retreats,
or ordination. After witnessing the initiation ceremony in Amida Hall, I ran into
Atsuko, a 45-year-old temple wife who I happened to know from my fieldwork in
the south of Japan. A few months previously I had visited her rural, hilltop
temple in Kyushu through the introduction of her daughter, who had been living in
Kyoto while she attended seminary. We greeted each other warmly, and I asked
Atsuko, who radiated an excited glow from the ceremony and several
congratulatory exchanges with her peers afterwards, if she felt differently now that she had
received the initiation. She explained:
Like many attendees, Atsuko was eager to test her local knowledge against a
centralized standard. We should not presume that her attendance at the ceremony meant
that she was in any way a ?beginner? in her position, however. Atsuko went on:
Actually, I?ve already been the b?mori of my temple for a while ? it?s been 8 years
since my husband took over as head priest. And before that his mother was not
around so I?ve been doing the b?mori?s work in practice now for almost 20 years.
I asked her if her parishioners had urged to come here to get the official recognition
from the sect. She replied no, that she wasn?t sure if any of them even knew she had
come. Eager not to leave me with the impression that the whole thing had been
meaningless, however, she quickly added: ?But I?m really glad I came, anyway. I feel I?ve
gotten a new awareness from this, and I want to try my hardest when I go back to the
It is clear that in Atsuko?s case, the efficacy of this ritual was not of an objective
nature. The benefit instead was that it catalyzed her consciousness and sense of
responsibility for the temple and the Buddhist tradition as a b?mori. This catalytic effect
resulted from her inclusion in a community of b?mori peers and her access to teachers
of doctrine, institutional history, and ritual etiquette, who seemed to her to be
authoritative. Extracted from her local context, where family obligations had required her
decades ago to take over for her mother-in-law without any ceremony or training,
Atsuko felt for the first time recognized as an autonomous religious practitioner.
During her visit to Nishi Honganji, more importance was placed on her individual
selfawareness at the temple headquarters than is done at her home temple, where
obligation to family and parishioners is paramount. In this case, the center is more
?liberal? than the periphery.
As I inquired with other women after the event, they voiced similar sentiments. One
elderly b?mori (who had presumably been at her job for several decades back home)
expressed profound relief that there was no exam at the end of the training. Another
younger woman noted that before coming here, the only b?mori she had met was her
own mother-in-law, who had assured her that all b?mori were expected to wear a skirt,
even when performing manual labor at the temple. (After inquiring with her peers at
the conference, she was relieved to find that this was not universally true.) Although it
may not have been the primary reason the ceremony was created, the 2-day experience
had nonetheless provided these women with a network and an imagined community of
practitioners ? all primarily local temple professionals ? across Japan.
As I circulated through the breakout discussion groups listening to women?s
impressions and lingering questions that they posed to the staff leaders, one woman?s
comment grabbed my attention. ?This may sound like a silly question,? she apologized,
?but I was wondering if this ceremony is actually required. I was told it was ? we read
it in our temple?s bylaws [received from the head temple] ? and that?s why I came.?
The staff member equivocated. ?Well,? he said kindly, ?In order for you to be registered
here at the central headquarters, we ask that you undergo the ceremony, either here or
in your district office.? (The benefit of being registered is that the sect is then able to
provide compensation ? like an insurance policy ? if a temple wife?s husband passes
away and she is unable to remain in the temple herself.) To this, a few other women
chimed in somewhat unhelpful and often contradictory interpretations of whether the
ceremony was required. All seemed to be concerned to answer this question, however,
suggesting that the (arguably) compulsory nature of the ceremony was at least in part
why they had come.
The b?mori initiation ceremony is required, then, in only the narrowest bureaucratic
sense. Indeed, I first unearthed the existence of this ceremony in my library research
rather than in my conversations with temple families. Once I saw the 1977 feature in
the sect?s journal Sh?h? (quoted above), I began asking my informants what they knew
about it, but most were unaware of it. I interviewed more than a dozen temple wives
and several employees of Nishi Honganji before I spoke to anyone who had even heard
of this temple wife initiation. Statistically, more current b?mori in the Honganji-ha have
taken their initial priestly ordination, or tokudo, than have undergone the b?mori
ceremony itself.6 The ceremony?s failure to take hold in any kind of universal way
among b?mori, and the fact that it is not practically required for recognition by
parishioners or temple family members, points to the highly localized and familial nature of
these women?s identities as b?mori.
In their everyday experiences as temples wives, these women are located in the
lineage of their own mothers-in-law rather than being held to some national standard.
This is why a temple wife?s clerical collar is effectively endorsed by her identity as her
husband?s wife and her mother-in-law?s successor. Her authenticity as a b?mori is
further confirmed by her daily fulfilling of her parishioners? expectations for her as
temple guardian, hostess, community liaison, counselor, event coordinator, and mother
of the successor-priest.
The fact that temple wives feel empowered to buy and wear the b?mori clerical collar
by virtue of their being the head female professional in residence at the temple points
to the impotence of the initiation ritual at the sect?s central temple to either confer or
withhold status on this very local figure. Those who are able to attend the b?mori
conference and training retreat can be seen as the ?middle class? of temple wives: their
temple has some resources to spare, and a liberal enough understanding of social roles
to use those resources to send their temple wife to a self-enrichment workshop and
initiation ceremony. Atsuko and the other attendees were able to use the resources
offered at the center to cope with or resist the local pressures they felt in their position
as family-based religious professionals.
starting with individuals and conceiv[ing] society as established for their sake? This
individualism signifies a rejection of the previously dominant notion of hierarchy,
according to which a human being can be a proper moral agent only when
embedded in a larger social whole, whose very nature is to exhibit a hierarchical
complementarity. (Taylor 2004, pp. 19?20)
This modern understanding manifests in the discourse of individual rights, which is
propounded mainly at the level of the sectarian institutions of Japanese Buddhism, who
through their regulation by the Japanese government and their interactions with
religious institutions globally are players on a world stage where the principle of individual
rights is regnant. And yet, in the local hereditary groups that dominate the ?ground
level? of Buddhist practice, modes of ?hierarchical complementary? ? manifested in and
transmitted through family structures ? are still stubbornly entrenched.
Increasingly, as documented by Mark Rowe (2011) and John Nelson, Buddhist priests
and nuns in Japan are contriving new ways that laypeople can come into contact with
Buddhism through individual attraction to certain Buddhist ideas or an expanded
repertoire of services and occasions for getting people ?through the doors of a temple?
(Nelson 2013 p. 68). But if such methods are effective ? in other words, if the
individual encounters Buddhism in a substantive enough way for him to appropriate the
teachings as a compelling imaginary for his life experiences, then it will cease to have
been a rational choice at all. In other words, for the Buddhists I interviewed in Japan,
not only are individuals? encounters with Buddhism not rationally and freely chosen,
they are in fact quite the opposite: nothing could be less rational or knowable, and that
is precisely the point. To the extent that their narratives are Buddhist, they draw on a
discourse of connectedness, contingency, and karmic determinism.7
The causal worldview of karma and the social given of one?s circle of attachment and
obligation (family, temple congregation, etc.) are in Japan intimately interrelated.
Though the language of human rights has become available to many of my informants
through consumption of global media, their participation in national and global
networks, and through their encounters with the sect?s headquarters and its regional
bureaucracy, such a discourse operates in a dialectic with their local identity and the
standards to which they are held by the day-to-day temple community. When the ritual
at Nishi Honganji was experienced as ?really moving? to Atsuko, its effect was not only
to stimulate her individual consciousness of her role as a religious professional, but also
to enlarge the scope of her circle of attachment and obligation from her family and
local congregation to encompass also the Buddhist tradition as embodied by her J?do
Shinsh? sect, which has Nishi Honganji as its center.
While in some ways the top-down experimental model found in the J?do Shinsh?
exhibits a bureaucratic disconnect between the center and periphery (hence the wives?
questions, ?Is this actually required for us to be b?mori?? and ?Actually I have been the
b?mori at my temple for many years now?), it is also an important site of interaction
between central temple bureaucracies and the everyday individual practice that takes
place in family contexts. For those women who come to see their marriage to a priest
as a fortuitous event having led to their becoming religious professionals at a Pure Land
temple, family, karma, and the Buddha?s compassion coalesce into a meaningful
narrative of embededness in a larger social and cosmic whole.
1In some ways this observation stands in contrast to the findings of John K. Nelson,
whose work is also featured in this symposium. In his 2013 book, Experimental
Buddhism, Nelson found ? or rather predicted ? that it was only from ground level
experimentation by individual priests that innovations were likely to bubble up and
transform the shape of Japanese Buddhism on a national scale. While admitted that
some institutional headquarters, such as that of the Pure Land School (J?dosh?), were
attempting to make top-down changes, Nelson noted that this was mainly in response
to the unflagging persistence of his experimental informant, Reverend Akita (p. 74). In
the majority of cases, Nelson described the bureaucratic centers of institutional
Buddhism as being slow to respond to or incorporate the creative strategies of these
ground-level innovators (for example, in his discussion of the S?t?sh? and Tendaish?,
pp. 58?63). Nelson does not address the national J?do Shinsh? institution in his book,
although some of his individual informants are affiliated with this school.
2See Nattier 1991 for a survey of Indian and Chinese Buddhist theories of the
decline of the dharma; on its reception in Japan, see Marra 1988.
3For more detail on the processes of modern institutional change in the J?do
Shinsh?, see Heidegger 2010 and Main 2010.
4Kondo 1990, p. 160. Kondo points that the distinction between ?uchi? (inside one?s
circle) and ?soto? (outside) is in fact the ?zero point of discourse? in the Japanese
language, upon which one?s very verb conjugations hinge. One literally cannot speak
without locating oneself in relation to one?s audience vis a vis the circle of attachment
? and accountability ? known as the uchi (pp. 141?147).
5This is certainly not unique to Japan, nor to Buddhism. Studies of Hinduism have
highlighted similar processes of structuring selves in submission to duty ? to God, caste,
and upholding the cosmic order ? with models of hierarchical complementarity found in
the Bhagavad Gita providing a quintessential example. See Harlan 1992. Ethnographies of
the last few years have finally begun to reveal the wear and tear of neoliberal policies on the
institution of the patrilineal family in Japan (Borovoy 2010, Alexy 2011), but in the temple
world the ie remains regnant in structuring social relations.
6The Honganji-ha?s most recent survey indicates that only 46% percent of current
b?mori have taken the initiation, while more than 50% have taken tokudo (?Sh?sei
ch?sa h?koku,? Special addendum to Sh?h? No. 521: 57). To date, some 10,774 women
have taken the initiation. This is far fewer than the actual number of women who have
served as b?mori in that time. 1,755 women have received it at the head temple, and
7,958 at their respective district office. Another 1,061 young women have received the
initiation as ?successor b?mori? (Internal statistics received from the Honganji Ky?ka
Dend? Kenky? Sent?, current as of November 27, 2009).
7Determinism is perhaps too strong of an adjective ? as seen in the examples
above, human-divine (in this case, Amida Buddha) agency forms a dialectic.
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