This research project focuses on the renowned Rinzai Zen nun Mugai Nyodi (1223-1298) and her veneration over the centuries. She studied with the eminent Chinese priest Wuxue Zuyuan (Jp: Mugaku Sogen or Bukkō Kokushi, 1226-1286), who designated her as his dharma successor. Nyodai is one of the few women to be included in the official dharma lineage of the Rinzai school. She eventually settled in Kyoto where she founded a large convent called Keiaiji. Legends of her piercing Zen insights emerged over time, often mirroring those of Chinese predecessors, but what endeared her to generations of Zen aspirates was the association of Nyodai with the story of Chiyono, a tale about a young girl in search of enlightenment who has an epiphany when the bottom falls out of her water bucket and the reflection there of the moon vanishes.
Since the few hard historical facts about her have become intermingled with fiction, we are at a critical juncture with regard to Nyodai’s position in religious and cultural history. It is imperative that further research, involving a team of scholars from various disciplines, be undertaken so that we can do a thorough reading of historical sources and fully document her legacy. Our investigation centers upon the material objects and documents preserved at three Kyoto imperial convents (Daishōji, Hōkyōji, Hōjiin) and two other temples historically connected with the abbess (Shinnyoji in Kyoto and Shōkenji in Gifu). In particular, materials from the latter two temples have not yet been fully studied and/or published.
Our goal is to produce a bilingual publication (Japanese and English) that can serve as the definition sourcebook on Mugai Nyodai, with scholarly articles, transcriptions/translations of biographical texts, letters, and poetry, and high quality photographs of the extant portraits of her and material objects associated with her. We intend to have this book ready by 2023, the year of Nyodai’s eight hundredth birth anniversary when the Kyoto convents and Shōkenji and Shinnyoji plan to hold a large-scale commemorative service in her honor. To highlight this important research, the Chūsei Nihon Kenkyūjo also is planning a symposium.