Edited by the Medieval Japanese Studies Institute 

The Rinzai Zen nun Mugai Nyodai (1223–1298) was a trailblazer in Japanese Buddhism. Under her strict tutelage, the convent she founded in Kyoto, Keiaiji, served as a Zen training center for women. Her enlightenment was certified by the eminent Chinese priest Wuxue Zuyuan (Jp: Mugaku Sogen or Bukkō Kokushi, 1226–1286), who designated her as one of his dharma successors. In addition, the memorial temple she founded for her mentor, Shōmyakuan (later Shinnyoji), became the Kyoto center for followers of the Bukkō line of Zen Buddhism. 

This fully bilingual book reassesses Nyodai’s life, background, and achievements based on a thorough review of extant primary sources, many of which are published here in full for the first time. It clearly separates her story from with those of two other nuns (Mujaku and Chiyono), who, as her legend evolved, were mistakenly incorporated into her biography. This publication now places Nyodai among the Kyoto nobility rather than the Kamakura military aristocracy and highlights the high esteem with which she was held not only among Zen prelates of her own time, but also in subsequent centuries by Zen nuns and priests in the five temples that regard her as their founder. 

Nyodai had previously been located erroneously among the elite military families in Kamakura, but the document on which this premise was based, the Shijuin okubumi, actually notes facts about the nun Mujaku. Through an analysis and contextualization of this document, Mujaku is given her own independent biography here for the first time. 

Legends of Nyodai’s piercing Zen insights often mirrored those of her Chinese predecessors, but what endeared her to generations of Zen aspirants was her association with the story of Chiyono, in which a young girl in search of enlightenment has an epiphany when the bottom falls out of her water bucket and the reflection held there of the moon vanishes. By addressing how and when a fully developed, though erroneous, biography of Nyodai was written, new insights emerge documenting how the legend of Chiyono came to be incorporated into Nyodai’s life story.

High quality color photographs of related documents and material objects such as paintings, statues, and textiles relate a greatly enlarged and updated story of this extraordinary woman. Complete transcriptions and English translations accompany all of the important documents. As such, it serves as a reference book intended to open further doors of inquiry. 

With chapters by Monica Bethe, Patricia Fister, Masatoshi Harada, Mariko Yoneda, Karen Gerhart, and Barbara Ruch, the book is a must-read for scholars and adepts interested in early Japanese Zen, in women and Buddhism, and in medieval Japanese society. It will also appeal to the general reader intrigued by how history gets rewritten over the centuries. 

Product Details

Publisher: 思文閣出版 Shibunkaku Publishing Co., Ltd.

Publication date: March 30, 2024

Language: Japanese and English

Softcover book: 448 pages, full color, codex binding

ISBN 978-4-7842-2079-3

Medieval Japanese Studies Institute: The Kyoto branch of the Institute for Medieval Japanese Studies at Columbia University (founded in 1968 by Professor Barbara Ruch) was established in 2000 and focuses on the Imperial Convents in Kyoto and Nara.

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