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Great Teacher Yodo-ni

“There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.” - David M. Eagleman. An American neuroscientist, author, and science communicator. This is not so for the Masters, as their names are forever chanted. We call upon them collectively whenever we sit with; “All Awakened Ones throughout space and time, Honored Ones, Great Beings, Who help all to awaken. Together may we realize, Wisdom beyond wisdom.”

Rising Lotus Sangha is connected to the venerable ones before Bodhidharma (5th or 6th century CE) who brought Buddhism from India to China. To Eihei Dōgen (1200-1253) who brought Chan (Chinese Buddhism) to Japan, and through Dr. Soyu Matsuoka (1912–1997) who brought Soto Zen Buddhism to America.

This connection that goes back to the Buddha is done through Dharma transmission. An important ceremony in which a teacher passes on his recognition and empowerments to a student. On and on throughout time this has been the practice, since Buddha gave transmission to Mahākāśyapa, as recorded in the Flower Sermon.


On Western shores we followed suit, chanting the patriarchal lineage in many ceremonies, ranging from morning service to lay and priest ordination.

At Fusatsu service around the time of the full moon, each month, RLS most commonly, will participate in chanting the names of the lineage and ancestors.

The bell rings after each name, we bow deeply, hands in Gassho, then move on to the next name. Name, bell, bow. There is a rhythm to this offering. A paying of respect to those who brought us the Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha).


The lineage is a type of family tree helping to connect Zen practitioners, personally, to the essential teachings, by knowing the names and stories of these inspiring teachers. We learn their names and hear their stories in Dharma talks, books, and koans that the male line brought to us. Traditionally, this is how we have come to know, connect, and touch our historical Zen Masters. Over centuries we have come to know and experience the love and energy of the patriarchal lineage, flowing through us and supporting us as we practice in our everyday lives. By chanting their names there is a celebration of the intimacy, continuity, and authenticity of practice. As Buddhists, their teachings influence our daily lives. And yet, something vital was missing! Where were the women? Where were the matriarchs? As in, so many other cultures: they were omitted from history. It was not just in the East that women were seen as second-class citizens! For many years we are told; they were refused ordination. For many years women across the globe were refused financial freedom, the right to hold property, to have a bank account, to have the right to vote, or any sense of autonomy. Women were a commodity. In some places and in many ways this is still the case. Today, our ‘femaleness” still remains an “issue” for men to try to manage and control. 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 are able to chant through approximately 30 female ancestor names, as we proceed with the same reverence for all our Transmission lines. Feeling that intimacy, continuity, and authenticity in a more complete way. All the while acknowledging that many names and stories are lost to the Kalpas of time. Our Sangha has been looking at the female ancestors through the stories in Jiko Sallie Tisdale’s, “Women of the Way” and “The Hidden Lamp” by Zenshin Florence Caplow and Reigetsu Susan Moon. In The Hidden Lamp 100 modern-day Buddhist women each take a story and reflect upon what it means to them. Many of these stories involve lay women and nuns being enlightened while doing the mundane; selling teacakes, tending the field, the oil spitting whilst they cook, and even buckets breaking. All of them being with their emotions and coming through the other side, just like us! Zen is life! In this way we don’t just get to sample the past, we also get an idea of how our contemporary sisters come to apply the Dharma of all the ancestors to their daily lives, throughout the different schools of Buddhism. In these ways, our historical and global Sangha sisters are beginning to be known by us. It is clear they endured, not only through the tests of their times but in recorded documents confined to dusty halls, just as the likes of Dogen’s writings once had been. Kyoji and I have written other blog posts under the category of Buddhist Women. This is particularly important as we are an online sangha, not in any way cloistered in the monasteries of old. Today, I’d like to tell The Story of Ancestor Great Teacher Yōdō

Let us journey back to medieval Japan, a time of knights, princesses, and feudal systems. While the West had its kings and queens ruling over a feudal society, Japan had its own unique history and cultural heritage. In this story, we delve into the life of Princess Yōdō, a member of the Imperial family during a tumultuous period in Japanese history. Through her story, we explore interconnectedness, history, family legacies, and socially engaged Zen. For eons, the Emperors of Japan claimed a divine right to rule as descendants of Amaterasu, the Shinto sun goddess. They were Sons of Heaven. As you can imagine this wasn’t always popular with the people, nor was the way some Emperors chose to rule. So, early on in Mediaeval Japan, the Imperial court gave way to the rise of the samurai class, which became the most powerful social group. The country experienced long periods of civil wars as warlords and daimyo (large estate owners) vied for control. Within this era, the Hojo clan akin to the Medici dynasty of their time, emerged as influential regents for the Minamoto clan. They, along with other clans, sought stability amid the power struggles between the Emperors and the Kamakura Shogunate. - It was during this period that the Patriarch Eihei Dōgen and the Matriarch Mugai Nodai (Chiyono) emerged as important figures, amongst others, in the Thirteenth Century.

In the middle of the medieval era, Princess Yōdō was born into a world where the Imperial Court's power was again in question. There had been a number of Emperors who had abdicated, causing not only instability in the country’s ruling powers but also rivalries, dividing the Imperial family; certainly the males. The Shogunate eventually forced the two branches of the family to accept a compromise, with the throne and heir alternating between them.

Princess Yōdō's father, Emperor Go-Daigo, of the junior line, asserted his authority the year she was born, declaring his intention to rule for life. This act of defiance against the Shogunate led to further conflicts, as the Shogunate viewed it as a challenge to their power. The years of civil war and political unrest shaped Yōdō ́s formative years, imposing rules and regulations on her life.


She most likely grew up within the confines of the Imperial Palace, sheltered and protected in the Concubine and Children Compounds. One of approximately 50 children to the Emperor, her mother was one of his concubines.

He need only produce one male heir to the Empress.

Yōdō will have had to follow strict rules and regulations that dictated her behavior, clothing, social interactions, and even her future based on gender and birth order. This was a time when concepts of hierarchy and gender roles were deeply ingrained in the feudal system. Her younger years saw her father ‘clean house’ in an attempt to clarify his position and establish his rule. When Yōdō was roughly a 3-year-old toddler, Emperor Go-Daigo abolished the cloister system, their offices were taken over by Imperial appointees and new advisory councils were created. Removing the power from the increasing number of abdicated former emperors. His uncles and cousins. He ‘swept in’ and claimed the limited, yet far-reaching, powers that remained with them. Essentially disarming them from any chance to undermine his rule. It was a move that showed everyone he was no longer to be considered just ceremonial and had meant what he had said. He was going nowhere, and no one could make him. He had the divine right to do this. Who were they to challenge him? One can only imagine how that was received by everyone. Talk about kicking up a hornet's nest! Did Yōdō witness a decline in numbers within the halls of the imperial court? How aware of her father’s actions was she? Were some of her playmates there one day and simply gone the next?

Over the next ten years the Emperor tried to control the people’s view of him and reform the Imperial government; He revived the Record Office, which had once been an important body of government, and made it into a court of law. In 1324, his plans to overthrow the Kamakura shogunate, known as the Shōchū Incident, were foiled. They were not impressed. Retribution loomed over the Imperial household.

One of her many siblings was Prince Moriyoshi (or Morinaga) – Head Priest of Enryakuji (Buddhist name: Prince Son'un) who became Head Abbot at Hieizan Enryaku-ji in 1327, he was nineteen. Yōdō would have been about nine years old at that time. We’re led to believe that she held him in deep affection. He was just one of her male siblings that entered the monasteries. Imperial Prince Seijo – Head Priest of Onjō-ji, Imperial Prince Kōshō – priest, Imperial Prince Gen'en – Head Priest of Kōfuku-ji, Imperial Prince Saikei – priest in Myōhō-in, Mumon Gensen – founder of Hōkō-ji (Shizuoka), Imperial Prince Hōnin – priest in Ninna-ji, Imperial Prince Jōson aka Prince Keison – priest in Shōgoin, Some of these were appointed Abbotship as part of their father’s way to control the masses.

"Considering Go-Daigo’s frequent visits to Enryakuji during Moriyoshi’s tenure, there can be little doubt that the abbotship was a means to recruit support and control valuable resources." - page 111 "The Teeth and Claws of the Buddha".


Monks could hold a court office position too. Some of her sisters became Buddhist nuns - they did not have the same authority, more on this later.

Buddhism played a significant role in Princess Yōdō's life. Long before it had been introduced to Japan, the imperial courts had adopted its mystical practices, seeking magical protection.

For example; her father received a ritual called the Yu-Gi-Kanjo, in 1330, at Jounieh-Den in the palace by Bunkanbo Koshin. Just as his father before him had. This was the most sacred ritual of Shingon Buddhism at the time. It was said to be the "ultimate perfumation" and "the highest attainment of esoteric Buddhism. The only thing considered higher than this was the attainment of Buddhahood. Just twelve at the time, Yōdō may well have attended the ceremony along with the imperial court. I wonder what she made of it all. It is probable that as Princess Yōdō, grew up in a Buddhist-based household, amongst the sheltered walls of the palace, she developed an affinity with Prince Siddartha Gautama. Leading to a curious nature and a desire to help others, as he went on to do. Did the monks and nuns who shaped her ‘education’ in Buddhism try to develop a more holistic view amongst their students within the Imperial court?

They would have had more contact with the people of the time and potentially could have been her older brothers and sisters. Free to come and go from the Palace due to their monastic standing. In the Genkō Incident of 1331, Emperor Go-Daigo's plans were again discovered. He quickly hid the Imperial Sacred Treasures in a secluded castle in Kasagiyama and raised an army, but the castle fell to the shogunate's army the following year, exiling Daigo to Oki Province. Yōdō was 13. The shogunate was still controlled by the Hōjō clan. We’ll probably be bringing our own teenage angst into the mix when we consider being seen as a young woman, throughout years of political unrest, and civil dis-ease within Japan. Was Yōdō part of those who were exiled along with her father? or was she kept at the Imperial palace as a teenage commodity, or hostage? Maybe she already had ties with a monastery that may have helped her escape any form of persecution. This is a part of her story lost to the Kalpas of time. Who can say now, with certainty, what she experienced and saw during all the unease of her formative years. Not much is said beyond the fact that she was a brave and wise Princess. In 1333, Emperor Go-Daigo escaped from Oki with an army. They laid waste to the Shogate’s secret police and laid siege to Kamakura. Was she within the walls of the besieged city? If so, how did this impact her life? When the city finally fell the shogunal regent fled to Tōshō temple and ended Hōjō power. Paving the way for a new military regime under the Emperor. But it was short-lived. He died in 1339.

Jiko Sallie Tisdale writes that after the war “Confucian ideals were officially in place again, and their promoters disliked the idea of women entering spiritual life.” The influences of Confucianism had been part of the ebb and flow of Chinese and Japanese Buddhist life for some time. Once again the Governmental stipulations prevented women from even visiting a temple until they were over forty years of age and past childbearing age. One scholar wrote that “[Women] should concentrate on performing human duties.” Basically, having and raising children and not concerning themselves with “invisible spiritual beings”. We know that Engaku-ji closed its gates to women students.

If women of the imperial court were not to marry, a custom held that they could be ordained at an early age: into Buddhism. Ordination was seen as a way to reduce imperial births and therefore male contenders for the throne. A form of contraception if you will. Monastics were essentially deemed to be celibate. It is quite likely that due to this; lay women were banned from ordination, for a long time. We do know that convents offered a life freer in many ways than marriage or Imperial Court life. Imperial nuns weren’t cloistered; they came and went from court and family rather freely. Perhaps it was seen as being preferential to being married? We do know that some of her sisters were ordained. Imperial Princess Shoshi – later a nun in Hōan-ji, Imperial Princess Ishi – nun in Imabayashi, Imperial Princess Tamako – nun, Imperial Princess Kinshi – nun in Imabayashi Nuns did not have any particular sway over the government or the people per se.

After the war there was more stability and longer periods of peace, therefore men turned their attention to the arts. Pastimes of women folk; flower arranging and the tea ceremony became a man’s art, as do other arts that become “Zen”; painting and calligraphy. All of the arts were increasingly kept from lay women. They were spiritual in nature. For the women of Zen, the nuns, it will have become part of their training. Consider those arts named within the “Eight Gates of Zen” by Daido Loori.

Many lay people were illiterate, schooling was for boys that would go into official government positions. So many women could also not read. What did they have to do with any free time? In addition, as within much of the world at that time, men controlled much of a family’s finances and property. I have to wonder what teenage Yōdō and other women of this time thought and felt about the power of men over their lives.


There appears to be no records of a marriage, for Yōdō, or of her bearing any children. What is documented is that she found a way to pursue her passion for Buddhism by regularly praying at Tōkei-ji for her Abbot brother, Prince Son'un, who met his untimely death as part of the aftermath of the Genkō War. He was later enshrined at Kamakura-gū, built at the location of the cave where he was held captive. Hence, Tōkei-ji was often called "Kamakura Palace" or "Matsugaoka Palace", according to the name of the local area. The distance between Tōkei-ji and Kyōto is 5 hr 32 min (430.5 km) by car these days. I wonder how long it took her to travel there from the Palace and what the terrain was like.

Tōkei-ji temple was a prestigious Buddhist temple, founded by a nun named Kakuzan Shido, who believed that women could achieve enlightenment, just like men. Kakuzan Shido had been the wife of Hōjō Tokimune (1251 – 1284), a regent of the Shogun. For a time, Hōjō Tokimune was the de facto ruler of Japan.

Yōdō was inspired by Kakuzan Shido's view on women and enlightenment and wanted to follow in her footsteps.

After years of dedicated study and practice, Yōdō became the 5th abbess of Tōkei-ji, becoming Yōdō-ni, (‘ni’ is the Japanese for nun). There is some evidence to say she was 27. An important aspect of Yōdō-ni's leadership was her dedication to helping women who were in difficult situations.

Tōkei-ji was known as a sanctuary for women who were escaping abusive husbands or trying to break free from the constraints of a patriarchal society, and she worked tirelessly to support them. She encouraged their education, probably ensuring that they had access to things previously denied them, and petitioned government officials to reduce the time to divorce through the processes at Tōkei-ji. She was able to have it reduced from three years to two. It was both a disappointment and a huge win, given the view of women and the temple. In the Kamakura Era, husbands only needed to write a formal divorce letter (三行半 mikudarihan), a "three-lines-and-a-half notice", to dissolve their wedding without giving any reasons. Women, on the other hand, had no such right.

Tōkei-ji is still there, nestled in the hillsides of Kamakura. She and the other women at the temple would have had the opportunity to admire each day’s changes and to see the seasons creep onto the land. The tiniest buds forming and opening, the stretching shoots within the tended gardens, a myriad of things leading to the change in color and the falling leaves, and the snows of winter.

The clouds coming and going.

Doing things very similar to how they are done in Zendos, both online and bricks and mortar, around the world today. At Fusatsu: Name, bell, bow. Name, bell, bow.


The nuns of Tokeiji were famous for their beautiful and elaborate flower decorations on Buddha’s birthday for the service and rituals of Hanamatsuri. Abbess Yōdō wrote a verse for this occasion:

“Decorate the heart of the beholder, for the Buddha of the flower hall is nowhere else.”

In The Hidden Lamp - 34. “The Zen Mirror of Tokei-ji” the story indicates that Kakuzan Shido would meditate before a great mirror in order to “see into her own nature.” Later generations of nuns would practice zazen in front of the mirror, concentrating on Kakuzan’s question,

“Where is a single feeling, a single thought, in the mirror image at which I gaze?”

Each abbess would write a verse in response, Yōdō’s was:

“Heart unclouded, heart clouded; Rising and falling are yet the same body.”

For me, Yōdō’s verses remind us all, that each and every one of us has that “True Self”,

that “Noble Self",

our “Buddha Nature”

We are already enlightened.

Whether we see it (unclouded) or not (clouded).

Sometimes we will have awareness of it, sometimes we will not. Sometimes our emotions want to take precedence.

She invites us to consider both the eternal and ephemeral. The concept of Ri and Ji.


Her story reminds us that no matter what we inherit and endure, we have choices. We can make that choice to unhook ourselves and participate in socially engaged Zen.

We can do this by taking time to ‘decorate the heart of the beholder’, appreciating the universe that is within us and around us, and reconnecting with the vastness of interconnectedness through the practice of Zazen, as Dogen promoted. Before, during (sacred pause), and after our busy days. In Summary: It’s hard to know if Princess Yōdō was a war-torn, second-class citizen with little to no autonomy. Just as some of us feel today. It seems to be the legacy of being a woman. Our female body autonomy is regularly on the debate floor of our political houses. The way those that abuse their ‘power’ over it - systemically shambolic.

Our countries are still subject to war, driven by greed, hate, and delusions. We are encouraged by the media to be at dis-ease through a variety of divisions. They invest in the multitude of ways they have to try and discredit.

Shame and guilt are used to subdue us into conforming to our inherited cultures. Occasionally they are used to shake us to our core.

Civil uprising seems to be just a heartbeat away - we have righteous indignation, a sacred rage. We feel it needs urgent release. But does it?

When we look at it Patriarch and Matriarch lineages are terms of division - the lineage is ALL the ancestors. East and West, North and South. The boundaries of nations. Time Zones. Even eras. These are all ways we separate the world into comprehensible little pieces. Division via pigeon-holed labels. Fearful when our methods of controlling our understanding of the whole are pushed or questioned. We have no way of knowing where every ancestor came from, nor does it matter for we ARE people, ALL struggling to get by.

We can be inspired by Abbess Yōdō. She used what life had given her to dedicate herself to others through Buddhism. One of the ways she did this was by taking up activism to petition the government officials of her time to reduce the divorce wait period.

Right View and Intention: We can be there in some way on the ground with those in need. Right Speech, and Action: We can write to our politicians. We can communicate without forcing our ideas. Forcing ourselves and our voices. Without being keyboard warriors taking people into hand. We can protest through non-violent means.

Right Livelihood, Effort, Mindfulness, and Concentration: We can be patient. Change will come, as it inevitably does. We can do our part to find the Truth, support it and be kind and helpful. We can continue practicing Zazen and the precepts to keep us on the Middle Path. We will be tested. We can make conscious choices that support the causes of our times.


When I chant the names of Dharma Transmission I recall that like my personal ancestors: Their bodies may have ceased to function. Their bodies may be consigned to the grave. But they live on forever when we say their names and recall their stories. They were so much more than we can ever hold on paper, or call to mind.

Name, bell, bow.

All the while acknowledging that many names and stories are lost to the Kalpas of time


For Great Teacher Yodo is more than:

“Princess Yodo: Daughter of the Emperor who became Abbess at Tokeiji.”

"Decorate the heart of the beholder, the Buddha of the flower hall is nowhere else.”

And so are you. She invites us to explore the concept of no-self.

Gassho, Shinjin 🙏




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