Photo/IllutrationJunko Minamoto, center, discusses the content of the answer to her open letter from the head of the religious affairs division of the Otani school of the Jodo Shinshu sect of Buddhism at a symposium in Kyoto on May 29. (Kumiko Nakatsuka)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

When a Kyoto temple organized a special exhibition themed on discrimination in Buddhism texts, a researcher hoped to present her findings about sexism there.

But the exhibition panel by Junko Minamoto, 71, a temporary researcher at the Kyoto Human Rights Research Institute, was removed at the direction of the Otani school of the Jodo Shinshu sect of Buddhism, which operates the Higashi-Honganji temple,

Minamoto, believing the school “does not think sufficiently about the issue in the name of Buddhism,” asked why her research results were not allowed to be presented at the exhibit in an open letter of inquiry.

Responding to the question, the head of the school’s religious affairs division admitted that sacred texts and other materials “deeply reflect social circumstances of the time and contain expressions that are difficult for those living in the modern world to accept.”

The details of the reply were discussed at a symposium in late May.

With the religious affairs division head vowing to “continue research to eventually release our official view” over the problem, Minamoto said she will carefully monitor what kind of steps the school will take.

The exhibition came at a time as the global “#MeToo” movement and scandals over sexism in Japan’s college entrance exams are drawing attention, Buddhism is reviewing its teachings that could be regarded as discriminative from a modern perspective.

With a growing sentiment toward gender equality, monks at temples throughout the country have started thinking of how to deal with sacred texts including discriminatory expressions and how to compromise with society.

SEXISM IN TRADITIONAL BUDDHISM

The Higashi-Honganji temple organized the special exhibition, which ran between December last year and February this year.

The panel that Minamoto wanted to be included details the Buddhism idea known as “nyonin gosho” that women can never become Buddhas even though they engage in Buddhism training; the “sansho” principle, which urges wives to obey their parents, husbands and children; and the “henjo nanshi” teaching, which says that women can attain buddhahood only after being reborn as men.

Those doctrines, which can be deemed as discriminatory from a modern standpoint, are said to have been imported into the Buddhism system from sexist ideas in ancient Indian society.

Buddhism texts are based on stories disciples of Buddha heard from the founder of the religion.

Masayuki Taira, a specially appointed professor of the ancient and medieval history of Buddhism at the Kyoto University of Advanced Science, pointed out that some of those texts were developed in far later eras.

“They thus include many contradictions,” Taira said. “Numerous texts were dismissed and sections that are seen as important are different in different ages.”

According to Taira, the nyonin gosho and sansho principles started to be accepted widely, as the Japanese aristocracy was increasingly dominated by men during the Heian Period (794-1185).

Under such circumstances, various Buddhism sects promoted the discriminatory “salvation doctrine” that states women will be "salvaged" after being reborn as men.

Taira believes the view that being a woman is a sin further spread when patriarchy became common even among ordinary citizens.

Still, Taira noted Buddhism is so flexible that the issue of sexism in sacred texts can be overcome.

“Doctrines that used to have some value in olden days could be understood differently in modern society,” said Taira. “It is not difficult for Buddhism sects to explain the historical background. Continuing to change will help tradition to survive.”

Meanwhile, Toshihiro Omi, an associate professor of religious studies at Musashino University, who is an editor of a book themed on Buddhism and women in modern Japan, published by Hozokan in March, argued that sufficient surveys have not been carried out on the issue of sexism in the religion.

“Most researchers are male,” Omi said. “They are actively involved in research under the major academic themes of antiwar and other topics, but they should also pay attention to sexual discrimination and other common issues in society.”

Omi added that temples throughout the nation can play a leading role in solving the problem.

“Temples are like centers to pass down culture,” Omi said. “Buddhism could lead the movement to eliminate sexism if monks’ attention is changed and a theoretical foundation developed.”

TEMPLES’ EFFORTS

Temples around the country have been seeking ways to overcome the challenge.

Katsuhiko Sakai, 75, chief priest of the Sogenji temple in Tanba-Sasayama, Hyogo Prefecture, which belongs to the Otani school of the Jodo Shinshu sect, said he is determined not to read aloud the henjo nanshi section in sacred texts in funerals.

Sakai even questions the importance of the sansho doctrine in front of his disciples during lectures on Buddhist teachings, asking, “Don’t you think it is inappropriate to preserve the doctrine in Buddhism although it has been forced out of society?”

“It is improper for temples concerned with the issue to leave everything to the main temple,” Sakai said. “All monks should raise their voices so that Buddhism will not be dismissed in society.”

The Jodo Shinshu sect’s Honganji school, whose main temple is Nishi-Honganji in Kyoto, revised its funeral rule and ritual manual in 1986 to remove gender differences in the material.

Mayumi Miura, 57, chief monk of the Saijunji temple in Kitagata, Gifu Prefecture, welcomed the move.

“It is impossible to completely forget them (discriminative expressions), but sentences that could mentally damage those who hear them do not need to be read aloud,” Miura said.

Last year, the Bukkyo Fujinkai Sorenmei, a group of female Buddhist officials in the Honganji school, amended its platform developed in 1966 to erase the problematic words and sentences, such as “the mother of Buddhism teachings” and “establishing the family in accordance with Buddhism prayer to raise children of Buddha.”

The group had set up a panel and held talks over the wording, because there were concerns that such expressions mistakenly make outsiders believe that the organization is a group for only married women.

The association was also worried that those expressions “do not match modern society in expanding the organization and nurturing personnel in the next generation.”

In a similar effort, the Otani school in 2008 began using the word “bomori,” which was traditionally used only to refer to wives of male chief priests, to describe husbands of female chief monks as well.

REASONS BEHIND REFORM

As movements are spreading in the Buddhism community to realize gender equality in the male-dominated temple management, Yuri Horie, a sociologist and Christian pastor, explained why Buddhism is currently moving so aggressively to adjust to society.

“Religions often underline masculinity and femininity stronger than in ordinary society,” Horie said. “Members who continue questioning sexist aspects of the religions will be isolated, drawing criticism that they understand teachings in a wrong manner and do not devote themselves to prayer.

“But religions are comprised of members of society so they can be deemed as a microcosm of society. They thus have no choice but to readjust themselves to survive in an era of gender equality.”

Horie went on to talk about what should be done first to eradicate sexism in Buddhism.

“Funerals, marriage ceremonies and local events are sometimes unconsciously based on religious rules that could be considered as sexually discriminative,” she said. “They should first of all realize and pay attention to the fact and hold careful discussions.”