Inherently, the teachings of Buddhism point the way to equality among all human beings.
We must not lose sight of the fact that the Buddha did not discriminate among human beings
by their birth regardless of race, ethnic group, gender, or anything else.
In any discussion of Buddhism in modern Japan, one must confront the fact that it is common for monks to marry. Japanese Buddhism is made exceptional by this phenomenon of clerical marriage and by the resulting spread of hereditary succession in Buddhism. In such a country as Bhutan, where Mahayana Buddhism is the state religion, monks do not marry. They follow the practice of renouncing secular life and living communally in monasteries and convents. Yoshiro Imaeda, an authority on Bhutanese Buddhism, relates a question he was asked in Bhutan about Japanese monks: "If they have a wife and children, how are they any different from ordinary lay believers?" (Butan bukkyo kara mita Nihon bukkyo [Japanese Buddhism Seen from Bhutanese Buddhism], [Tokyo: Japan Broadcast Publishing Co., 2005]). As Bhutanese see it, if you have a family, you are not a monk.
Inherently, it should not be possible to separate clerical marriage from questions about how marriage comes to be reflected in one's discipline as a monk and one's personal life. Strictly interpreted, although modern Japanese seem scarcely aware of it, Buddhist precepts prevent anyone who becomes a monk from entering into a sexual relationship and leading a married life. Secular Japanese law permits marriage, although this also is exceptional in the world history of Buddhism. During the Meiji era (1868-1912), a government decree of 1872 allowed monks to take wives, and nuns became able to take husbands in 1873. Surprising as it may be, however, even today almost all traditional Japanese Buddhist orders (with the exception of the lay school of Jodo Shin) portray themselves as so-called renunciate orders, upholding the ideal that monks renounce secular life. The fact is that these orders have not given official recognition to the marriage of monks as one aspect of their religious activities. The reality of the married life of monks has been hidden behind a claim of strict adherence to religious doctrine. I refer to this as the fictitious principle of priestly renunciation of secular life, or fictitious celibacy ("Feminist Buddhism as Praxis: Women in Traditional Buddhism," Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 30, nos. 3-4 ).
In the actual world, of course, it is taken for granted that priests of Japanese temples have wives. Commonly referred to as temple wives, they are shown in movies and other media sweeping temple grounds with bamboo brooms and serving tea to entertain temple patrons, thereby adding a special touch to the scene. That is by no means all that is done by these priests' wives, who are not supposed to even exist according to official doctrine. In addition to performing household chores and raising children, they act as all-around caretakers who carry out various duties in the work of temple management. In almost all of the orders, the wife is expected to bear and bring up the successor to the chief priest and serve as assistant to the chief priest in the temple's administration. Furthermore, it is implicitly assumed that only male priests can serve as instructors and that their wives (and women in general) can only be recipients of instruction. In short, gender roles are assigned virtually uniformly to men and women in a dichotomy where men serve as teachers and women as the recipients of teaching.
This division of labor by gender is similar to the role sharing between male ministers and their wives in most Christian denominations. In general, it is assumed that the minister's wife will act as an assistant in the church school; take care of cleaning, cooking, and other chores; serve as receptionist and hostess; and perform such office tasks as printing materials for distribution. Sociologist of religion Toshinori Kawamata, who has researched the life histories of ministers' wives, reports that while some have the credentials to offer religious instruction, even those who do not are regarded as being special. Although they ought to be seen as just one of the ordinary worshippers, many members of the congregation do not regard them that way, gazing on them instead as the wife in what is presumed to be the minister's model family. The heavy pressure from this expectation causes some ministers' wives to suffer psychologically ("Kirisuto kyokai o tsugu mono no katari" [Narrative Accounts of Successors to Christian Churches], in Raifu hisutori no shukyo shakaigaku [The Religious Sociology of Life Histories], ed. Toshinori Kawamata et al. [Tokyo: Harvest-sha, 2006]).
When one compares the wives of Japanese Buddhist priests with the wives of Christian ministers, one encounters such questions as whether priests' wives are merely parishioners who happen to live in temples or whether they are instructors working together with the priests, albeit instructors who do not enjoy equal standing. In the case of the minister's wife, it will be expected that she share her husband's sense of being called to a religious career, his vocation. She faces tacit pressure to devote herself to her husband's work with selfless dedication, as if being told, "This is something only you, the minister's wife, can do." The male priests I am acquainted with rarely exhibit such a sense of vocation and mission in life, as most of them attained their position merely by inheriting the family's temple. But it is not unusual for the wives of these priests to be expected to work for the temple with selfless devotion, conforming to the ideal of the order. Because wives who had a career before they married are asked to give up their work and remain constantly on hand in the temple, one of my friends was forced to step down from her position as an elected member of a municipal assembly. The temple is a living space that, like the rectory of a church, blurs the distinction between public and private. "Within the temple compound with its broad main sanctuary," a priest's wife is apt to lament, "there is no place I can feel at home."
Such feelings among wives are not limited to the closed world of the temple; they have points in common with a problem sensed by many women in society in general. The roles assigned to temple women, such as handling the temple's daily chores as assistant to the priest and rearing the successor to the priest, are of the same nature as the unpaid work undertaken by women in general, who raise children, look after the elderly, and perform countless other household tasks. Perhaps the only difference is that whereas temple women are called on to do this unpaid work in the name of faith, wives in ordinary families are expected to undertake it out of a sense of love and affection. Just as temple wives who raise objections, complaining about or questioning the roles assigned to them, will be accused of a lack of faith, wives in ordinary families, for their own support in their unpaid labor, are called on to strengthen their feelings of devotion. Both are being told, in short, that if their faith or their love is sufficient, such things as gender imbalance ought not to bother them. The sanctification of unpaid labor in the name of faith or love obstructs women's natural aspiration to find a sensible balance between family life and social life, and as a result, it narrows the choices among diverse lifestyles. In this sense, the issues temple women confront clearly intersect with the issues faced by women in general.
The various gender-equality movements in modern Japanese society normally have only a very thin religious dimension. Phenomena of bickering in temples may seem at first glance a trifling problem, but if we understood that they have the same roots as the gender issues structurally embedded in Japanese society, would it not become possible for temple women and other women to join forces and march toward gender equality together?
Inherently, the teachings of Buddhism point the way to equality among all human beings. We must not lose sight of the fact that the Buddha did not discriminate among human beings by their birth regardless of race, ethnic group, gender, or anything else. Furthermore, Buddhism emphasizes the importance of relying on one's own self and Buddhist Dharma in the conduct of life. This should make it an encouraging message for modern women in general, who aspire to live as independent beings. But in the real world we also come across male priests who endorse the anachronistic pronouncements often bandied about in backlash fashion, loudly proclaiming, for instance, "The world of Buddhism must not tolerate the use of separate surnames by a married couple." If these men are unable to perceive the various difficulties modern women find themselves struggling with, and if they cannot even understand that the social environment surrounding their orders is in the process of change, that is most regrettable.
At the same time, the women in the Buddhist world need to give much more thought to what is necessary to make the Sangha, the community of Buddhist followers, open to a broader spectrum of people. When the Japan Buddhist Women's Federation, for instance, expresses the ideals behind its activities, it frequently draws on the "mother" metaphor. If you visit its Web site or browse through its literature, you will come across numerous uses of the phrase "we, the mothers of the temple" and encounter much talk about how only women, who bring life into being and raise children, could possibly undertake such activities. Certainly the altruistic activities of these women are highly valuable, but might they not be robbing their well-meant endeavors of meaning if their manner of expression has the effect of alienating and excluding women who do not have children?
In addition, men and women both need to look more closely at the harsh realities confronting unmarried nuns. Japan's nuns are aging, and their numbers are on the decline in traditional Buddhist orders. The main reason for this lies in the inferior place accorded to nuns relative to male priests in the structure of their orders. Apart from the financial difficulties convents find themselves in, nuns suffer from inferior treatment. It is taken for granted that even older nuns with many years of training will sit in lower-ranking seats, below those for monks much younger than they. In the performance of rites, even today there has been little change in the limitation of nuns to auxiliary roles. Recently there has been something of a "Buddhist nun boom" in Japan, and young women seek quite casually to get a taste of the experience of nun training, imagining that becoming a nun would be fascinating (see, for instance, Marunouchi Hannyakai, ed., Kokoro-yasuragu "bukkyo joshi" nyumon [An Introduction to Restful Buddhism for Women] [Tokyo: Yosensha, 2010]; a volume compiled by female office workers). But I would also hope that young women would acquaint themselves with the real world of actual nuns. Knowing about the discrimination nuns must put up with in the Buddhist community would, I imagine, disillusion many of them.
Another noteworthy recent development is the sight of young monks who are calling for the creation of new temples open to society and eagerly engaging in activities to make social contributions. Unfortunately, most of them appear to have little interest in the problems of discrimination and gender imbalance or inequality in society and Buddhist orders. Among these male priests, some declare that their first duty as a priest is to guide their wife to true Buddhist faith. One comes across couples in which the spouse seems to have been indoctrinated in the belief that her role in life is to protect and care for her husband as the priest. Such couples have engaged in no rethinking of the gender roles separating the instructors from the instructed. What sort of social contributions can we anticipate from practice that preserves this imbalanced structure and lacks a gender perspective? It is as if the priest has declared, "You must take care of affairs in the temple, because I must go out to battle for social justice." If male priests brag about how they are going to contribute to society while their eyes are closed to the gender issues immediately before them, never doubting the male supremacy in their orders, will not their contributions come to naught?
The way of education that permeates the training system of the traditional Buddhist community and its young people's associations has a firmly embedded structure of vertical relationships. In the more democratic orders of the new schools of lay Buddhism, however, the situation is quite different. I would further emphasize that even in traditional Buddhism, a variety of activities are under way to refashion Buddhism from the perspective of women. The goal of the women involved is to transform modern Buddhism so as to make it compatible with gender equality (see my "Feminist Buddhism as Praxis" cited above). By acting and speaking on their own initiative in this way, these women may be able to open the eyes of male priests and harness energy for traditional Buddhism's rebirth. The young male priests who have thrown themselves into social activities, taking up such causes as providing aid for the self-reliance of women in developing countries, are sometimes quite oblivious of problems in their immediate vicinity, such as domestic violence in nearby temples. As temple women have already been sensitized to the existence of the socially weak, are they not in a good position to alert these male priests to the suffering of weak people near at hand, motivating them to try to improve the situation? Driven not by an urge to make some magnificent social contribution but by necessity arising from their own experience, Buddhist women have begun to speak out from their vantage point of being socially weak themselves, and they, too, have their sights set on changing society.
Noriko Kawahashi is an associate professor at the Graduate School of the Nagoya Institute of Technology. She received a PhD from Princeton University and specializes in religion and gender studies. She is a member of the Board of Directors of the Japanese Association for Religious Studies and of the Advisory Committee on International Exchange of the Japan Buddhist Federation. She has authored and edited several books on religion and gender issues.