It is hard to track down any known facts about this woman before she came to serve under Master Keizan. What I can trace comes from accounts in Sallie Tisdale's “Women of the Way”, “Women Living Zen” by Paula Kane Robinson Arai, Grace Schireson’s “Zen Women: Beyond Tea Ladies, Iron Maidens, and Macho Masters” and Keizan Study Material for the 2010 National Conference of The Sōtō Zen Buddhist Association.
Ekyū -ni’s story is another tied to 4th Patriarch Keizan Jokin Zenji. (1268-1325) Whereas Dogen is the founder of Sōtō Zen and is referred to as the Highest Patriarch, Keizan is often called the Great Patriarch.
Dogen (1200 -1253) and his heirs never formed official monastic centers for training large groups of nuns. Due to this, he is said to have been an ‘internal’ supporter of women.
Keizan on the other hand is responsible for increasing respect for nuns by actively implementing Dogen's teachings on male-female equality, quite possibly spurred on by his admiration for the women in his early life. I wrote about his grandmother Myochi-ni last time. She and his mother were responsible for nurturing his devotion to Avaloketeshvara (Quan Yin) and Sōtō Zen Buddhism.
Keizan founded several temples during his lifetime. He dedicated some of the halls in his temples to the women of his life. Due to his proactive inclusion, he is seen as an ‘external’ supporter of women.
Women outnumber men by a significant margin in the records of early donations, we know that Myochi-ni was one, as she supported Dogen. Records of Sōtō funeral sermons reveal that the vast majority of lay funerals conducted by rural Zen teachers were for women. Clearly, without the backing and religious commitment of numerous women, Zen establishments (and perhaps most other Buddhist institutions as well) could never have flourished to the extent that they did.
Today we know the names of only a few of these vital female patrons: their biographies have rarely survived.
Therefore Keizan's writings which include his grandmother and his mother amongst other nuns, provide rare insights into the vital role played by women in the propagation of Buddhism in Japan.
Whether Ekyū was a patron or a nun in another institution, in 1321 she made her way to Hōō-ji temple, which was under construction at the time. She immediately made herself at home, as though she had always lived there. Keizan records her as Kontō Ekyū-ni indicating she was already a nun. It seems she was well-trained in the ways of Buddhist monasteries.
Month by month, season by season, the number of buildings and altars increased. Soon dozens of monks and almost thirty nuns lived in the sangha. Ekyū -ni began to organize the nuns and manage their work.
Some of those nun's names were recorded in Keizan’s writings and therefore they are remembered too: Sonin-ni, En'i-ni, Shozen-ni, Myosho-ni, Ninkai-ni, Shinmyo-ni, Shinsho-ni, Jonin-ni, Myoshin-ni.
At Hōō-ji the men and women sat together for morning services, then separated to do their work and study. Sitting together again for meals and evening service. All residents studied seven particular texts, including the Lotus Sutra.
Keizan instructed them on Dōgen’s ‘rules’ for the daily life of a monastery. These detail such things as how to behave in the zendo, with each other, and during meals. We might review these instructions within the pages of Dogen’s Shōbōgenzō.
To support Ekyū ’s training, Keizan translated Dogen’s explanations on the Buddhist precepts from kanji to hiragana. Therefore we can safely conclude that any education Ekyū had received before this did not include Chinese characters, the kanji. Hiragana, also known as women’s script, is a phonetic syllabary, designed for use by people who were not fully educated. It was not unusual for women of the 1300s to be uneducated, as they were expected to tend the fields and raise children if not of noble birth. Even if they were of aristocratic birth it was not guaranteed that their parents would pay for tutorage beyond an expected standard; to hold conversations with other dignitaries and secure a husband of standing. Not many Japanese women were taught Chinese kanji even if they had a tutor, though trade and religious exchange were established. Hiragana was first widely used among courtwomen in the writing of personal communications and literature.
Perhaps it was Keizan’s mother, Ekan, a devout nun and Abbess who taught him kanji and hiragana? Or did his grandfather have the training and more time to do so? Or was he training in the monasteries he attended so that he could translate for the Japanese lay folk?
In an era where ‘merit’ was accredited by priests, the main purpose of Hōō-ji temple was to conduct ceremonies to ‘save the souls’ of lay donors, patrons, and their families. Money for buildings, altars, bells, and statues was donated by laypeople with specific requests for rites. The more rituals performed by a temple the bigger the complex could grow and the more souls could be ‘saved’. Both the men and women performed ceremonies jointly, and the seniors sat together in the public rites without regard to gender.
Four years after she’d entered Hōō-ji, Keizan bowed to Ekyū after the morning service. He then asked her to come to his reception room for tea. Ekyū would have accepted, and routinely yet respectfully folded her formal robes and put them away. As her temple role decreed she would also have spoken concisely, but not hurriedly, with the other nuns about the work projects for the day. Then walked methodically along the wooden monastery’s dark floors, cold beneath her feet, for spring had only just begun.
Keizan’s rooms lay behind sliding rice-paper doors (shoji screens). She knocked once and waited. He called her in. She entered, bowed, and knelt on the other side, closing the screens before joining him at the low table. She was comfortably his student and he was her teacher and trustworthy confidant. Both had respect for the other so nothing needed to be said, whilst he prepared the tea.
As he whisked the matcha, she looked beyond him into the tiny courtyard between this room and the next. Observing a plant under the single tree, both larger than the last time she was here, naturally. The raked gravel’s curving lines resembled a stream, freshly done by one of the nuns.
The rooms beyond. Over them the brown tiled roof. Above those the swaying top of a red maple glinting in the morning light, and beyond the dark wall of evergreen trees in the forests. Her eyes gently drank it all in.
All rested easy in knowing mountains and streams lay further beyond. Birds flying, fish swimming. Farmers tending fields. Scholar apprentices preparing ink and paper. Clouds coming and going. The light washed over all it touched.
Keizan poured the tea into the small cups and watched her while she savored the first few sips. Did she spot a wry smile in the corners of his mouth?
In the breeze was a hint of the season ripening. It gently wafted around the room. The incense smoke spiraled more unevenly. The single piece of hanging calligraphy gently bounced on the wall like a faint drum.
Eventually breaking the moment with his ageing, low gravelly, voice: “I’m giving you this… Here.”
He offered her a scroll, in a way that encouraged her to open it there and then.
It was a document of succession that declared her his Dharma heir. She received it gravely, but he could see the smile in the corners of her eyes.
Then he gave a self-portrait with a line or two of scripture, in his penmanship, for her to put with her few belongings.
They finished their tea, and she rose. Bowed. Leaving the room as she had entered. Then went to work. The first Japanese woman to receive full Sōtō transmission.
He went on to write the ordination manual in kana for her too. This meant that she could confer ordination herself. She receives special treatment also when Keizan decides what funeral services will be offered to nuns. Keizan passed later in the same year (1325).
A few years later in 1334, about 100 years after Dogen accepted his first nun disciple several powerful nuns established the Soto-shu Nisodan, the Sōtō Sect Nuns’ Organization. All the nuns before them had paved the way. Ekyū-ni among them. Representing them in her own ways. For many reasons, it wasn’t until October 2010, after years of discussion and research, that a female ancestors document was compiled and approved by the Soto Zen Buddhist Association. The women listed in this document date back 2,500 years from India, China, and Japan. Finally, the women were included in the Soto Zen curriculum, ritual, and training offered to Western Zen students.
Name, bell, bow.
Now we can chant through approximately 30 female ancestor names, as we proceed with the same reverence for all our Transmission lines.
All the while acknowledging that many names and stories are lost to the Kalpas of time.
Through what we can piece together of Ekyū's journey we learn that lack of education does not hinder deep practice. Anyone may notice the call of spring when their sap rises and the willingness to blossom calls. Like Ekyū if you can find a supportive teacher who will help you take deep roots, you too will blossom—no doubt lighting the way for others. Rising Lotus Sangha would like to be as accessible as it can. If you encounter a barrier please let us know so that we can meet you where you are.
May you feel encouraged to take the next step.