Telling the Story of Women in Japanese Religions – By Jessica Starling

Jessica Starling on Ambros’s Women in Japanese Religions

Barbara R. Ambros, Women in Japanese Religions, NYU Press, 2015, 240pp., $17
Barbara R. Ambros, Women in Japanese Religions, NYU Press, 2015, 240pp., $17
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This spring I was invited to give a talk at a public library in Central Oregon on the topic of Women in Japanese Buddhism. As I struggled with how to put together an engaging and accessible presentation for a general audience, I struck upon the theme of “ambivalence,” the idea that women are alternately marginalized and exalted in the Japanese Buddhist tradition. Once I had landed on this framework, the presentation wrote itself: each example of prominent or not-so-prominent women from the history of Buddhism in Japan pulled the narrative in one direction or the other: women in one case were heroines and saints, and in the next they were defiled and helpless beings doomed to a lifetime of subservience. How could this be anything other than a fun and educational ride for my listening audience, who had just read Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, a novel that prominently featured a Japanese nun and several realistic descriptions of life in a Japanese Zen convent?

And yet, when I stood up to begin my talk, the audience looked bewildered, even crestfallen. Wasn’t Buddhism a fundamentally egalitarian and undiscriminating religion? Hadn’t they just read about a wise Japanese nun who radiated enlightenment and spouted the words of the thirteenth-century Zen master Dogen to her teenage granddaughter? Weren’t female religious professionals in Japan liberated souls who had transcended the worldly fetters imposed by gender?

In the hopeful expressions of my audience of Pacific Northwest baby-boomers, I saw reflected the idealism Westerners often project onto Asian religions. Such idealism certainly characterizes the undergraduate students at the small liberal arts college where I teach. Even professional scholars, especially feminist ones, have for decades struggled to tell the story of women in Asian religions without falling into one of two narrative traps. For instance, in Buddhism After Patriarchy, Rita Gross — herself a converted Buddhist — identifies the resources for gender equality that exist within the Buddhist tradition, but which Asian Buddhist women seem not to have noticed. This narrative renders Asian women as little more than unknowing victims of patriarchal systems of oppression, which are nevertheless painfully apparent to Western observers. Meanwhile, scholars such as Wei-Yi Cheng and Nirmala Salgado have pointed out the colonialist reverberations in this kind of narrative.

The second common approach isolates certain actions by women that seem to be evidence of resistance to patriarchal oppression and makes the story about these empowered and empowering activities. (Paula Arai’s study of an “empowerment ritual” conducted by Japanese Sōtō nuns in Ellison Banks Findly’s volume, Women’s Buddhism, Buddhism’s Women, comes to mind as an example of this strategy.) The problem with this approach is that it presumes that the desire for a certain type of freedom must be universal — and that Western liberal politics uncontroversially define that particular freedom. As Saba Mahmood warns in her important 2005 work, Politics of Piety, “we cannot treat as natural and imitable only those desires that ensure the emergence of a feminist politics.”

Westerners’ tendency to interpret the relationship of Buddhism and gender either too idealistically or too pessimistically is what Bernard Faure means in a wonderful quotation from the first page of his book, The Power of Denial: Buddhism, Purity, and Gender, that I place at the top of my Women in Buddhism syllabus: “Buddhism is paradoxically neither as sexist nor as egalitarian as is usually thought.”

Barbara Ambros’s new book, Women in Japanese Religions, at the risk of disappointing a potential readership of Westerners who have high hopes that Eastern traditions might have succeeded in promoting the wellbeing and equality of women where Western ones have not, commendably embraces the ambiguity of women’s roles — both prescribed and actual — in Japanese religious history. This book is the third in NYU’s Women in Religions series, edited by Catherine Wessinger, which also includes works on women in Christian traditions and new religions, and has slated further volumes to be released on Native American religion, Judaism, and Islam. Ambros’s interests and accomplishments in the field of Japanese religion are extraordinarily broad-ranging, making her an excellent choice to author this sort of history.

In nine crisp, lucid chapters, Ambros chronicles the history of Japanese religion from the perspective of women’s history. Among many other things, this volume is a long-overdue corrective to the androcentric histories we are used to reading. But it does more than tell us about gender; it gives us a fresh view of Japanese religion itself. The book follows along with the periodization used in most textbooks and courses on Japanese religions, this time rereading those historical periods through the lens of what women have been doing all that time. Ambros fruitfully uses the tactic of focusing on women’s activities to reveal “strikingly different vistas” of Japanese religion than have previous studies, which nearly all “foreground[ed] male religious figures and male-dominated institutions.” It is refreshing and enlightening to re-read Japanese religious history in this way.

The book manages to be comprehensive without being overwhelming, or boring. It begins by describing the foggy, uncertain images of women in Japan’s prehistoric periods, such as the semi-mythical shaman-princess Himiko, whose existence is recorded in the Chinese chronicle Wei zhi (ca. 297). Because of the cloudy nature of the sources for this period, the first chapter is necessarily speculative, but the author is duly modest in her claims, carefully describing what the available sources can and cannot tell us about women in this period, and offering several viable interpretations. Intriguing and yet unsubstantiated stories of powerful women from Japan’s prehistoric past could easily become fodder for projecting an idealized image of what women’s power might have looked like in pre-patriarchal times, but Ambros resists such an easy narrative — which might be more appealing to some readers — and thereby establishes her credibility early in the book as an even-handed historian of women’s roles.

Himiko. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Himiko. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The bulk of Ambros’s book concerns that long stretch of Japanese religious history in which Buddhism becomes an integral part of the story. From the foreign religion’s earliest transmission from the Korean Paekche kingdom in the sixth century CE and for the next few centuries, women seem to have played relatively public roles in the emerging Buddhist institutions. As Ambros surveys women’s activities from the Heian (798-1185) to the medieval (1185-1600) periods, she presents evidence for women having receded from the more public roles they might have played in earlier Buddhist institutions and into less visible religious roles as privately ordained nuns, shamans, itinerant proselytizers, and devout laywomen. During Japan’s medieval period, we also see the normalization of the Buddhist concept of Five Obstructions and Three Obediences, which pairs women’s social subjugation to men with their intrinsic karmic inferiority.

If the general reader needs any more reason to be interested in the topic of women in Japanese religions, they will read in Ambros’s book about the fascinating cult of the Blood Pool Sutra. This apocryphal Buddhist text warns that women are condemned to a horrific term of suffering in a special hell comprised of pools of blood, because of their pollution of the earth with their menstrual and parturient emissions — unless, of course, they seek the ritual intervention of a Buddhist priest. Ambros’s even-handedness is again on display in her evaluation of this sutra, which enjoyed a widespread following among Japanese women in the late medieval and early modern (ca. 1600–1867) periods:

There is definitely a tension between the sutra’s salvific message and its inherent misogyny that condemns women based on their natural reproductive functions. It is tempting to assume that the text was a prime example of Buddhist misogyny that took advantage of vulnerable women aware of the ever-present risks of childbirth. But not all women who propagated the text were vulnerable victims of sexist propaganda. For female itinerant preachers, the Blood Pool Sutra was perhaps a graphic and gripping tool for proselytization and a means to encourage women to take their posthumous salvation into their own hands through devotion to the sutra.

With the Edo period (ca. 1600-1867) begins Ambros’s own historical period of expertise. While early modern developments have still not adequately been brought into most Japanese religious histories (some textbooks simply stop just before it), Ambros does an admirable job of making this episode intelligible from the perspective of women’s history. Focusing on gender in this period proves to be a remarkably effective way of dislodging the tired old tropes of “Buddhist decline” on which historians often lean. Instead, Ambros presents a more textured picture of Edo religion that includes popular pilgrimage and mountain cults, the propagation of Neo-Confucian tracts on filial piety, and the uneven transformation of the Japanese family (ie) system through the enforcement of the compulsory temple registration system.

Finally, Ambros tackles the modern period, whose abundance of historical sources and overwhelming amount of secondary scholarship on topics such as the “good wife, wise mother” paradigm for women, invented by the Meiji (1868–1912) state, make it a difficult period to give a fresh, succinct account of. I especially applaud Ambros’s treatment of post-war Japan, so often neglected in historical surveys. A focus on gender and women’s roles lends coherence to Ambros’s narrative of these decades, and also allows her to integrate her account of New Religious Movements (NRMs) with that of the older religious traditions. (Frequently scholars analyze NRMs in isolation from other religious movements, a tactic that is increasingly recognized as problematic.)

The only other book to have attempted to tackle this topic in any kind of comprehensive way is Bernard Faure’s 2003 The Power of Denial: Buddhism, Purity, and Gender. While this book’s title suggests that it concerns the structural orientation of Buddhism toward gender, it is actually about the ambivalent place of women in the pre-modern religious landscape of Japan (of which Buddhism is of course an inextricable part). Faure’s presentation of the material, while full of rich and suggestive analysis, is largely devoid of historical context or examples after the medieval period. Ambros’s book, by contrast, takes the myriad fascinating topics surveyed by Faure’s study, adds material from 1600 to the present, and makes the entire story intelligible to a general audience. As such, Ambros’s book is an important new teaching tool for educators who want to enrich their students’ understanding of the complexities surrounding gender in East Asian religions, a topic that eludes easy interpretation.

Altogether, this is an extremely effective, engaging text that has much to offer scholars, educators, and general readers alike. In fact, Ambros’s book is so effective at communicating both the general history of Japanese religions and at telling us about gender in Japan that I plan to use it this year as the central textbook in my course on Japanese religions. I had not planned to make gender a central organizing concept for the course, but when I read this book, I realized nothing could be more natural. While reading the usual primary texts for this course — which are written almost exclusively by male monks — students’ sense of the story of Japanese religious history will be grounded in questions of gender, and guided by Ambros’s excellent, nuanced, and readable narrative.