Buddhist studies scholars since the 19th century have paid noticeably less attention to Buddhist laywomen than to other practitioners. Most scholarship has been concerned with men, but even the studies that do discuss Buddhist women have focused largely on nuns or female renunciants, with laywomen—wives, mothers, and caregivers in their communities—receiving scant attention. The implicit assumption is that women’s most authentic spiritual selves must exist independently of their families.

But Jessica Starling, an associate professor of religious studies and Asian studies at Lewis & Clark College, is addressing this dearth of scholarship with her research on Japanese Shin Buddhist temple wives.

There is no strong tradition of ordination for women in the Jodo Shinshu (“True Pure Land school”) tradition, and since Buddhist monks can and do marry in Japan, the closest thing to a nun is the resident priest’s wife, known as bomori, or “temple guardian.” Starling’s book, Guardians of the Buddha’s Home: Domestic Religion in Contemporary Jodo Shinshu, chronicles her interactions with bomori and shows how they navigate culturally and religiously mandated domesticity. Bomori are expected to stay at home and tend to the temple—and to bring up multiple children, one of whom (probably the oldest son) will one day be the next resident priest (jushoku).

Starling’s close examination of Pure Land households, however, revealed an unforeseen gender dynamic. Feminist thinkers have long debated the role that domestic labor plays in inequality: first-wave feminists championed waged work as the key to escaping culturally mandated domesticity, while second-wave feminists argued that we ought to uplift the dignity of the labor traditionally relegated to women. Bomori complicate this picture: by staying at home, they actually gain status as ecclesiastic figures.

“The very gender ideology that divides labor along gender lines and ‘confines’ women to staying at home in fact renders temple wives de facto religious professionals,” Starling writes. When the resident priest leaves the temple to perform ceremonies or visit the laity, bomori become the highest authority. They use their knowledge of Buddhist doctrine as well as their skills as housewives (serving tea, chatting with visitors) to both welcome laypeople and educate them in the dharma.

Tricycle spoke to Starling about what bomori do, how having a family can be a way of spreading the dharma, and why it’s important for scholars to decenter the role of male priests.

Who are bomori? Officially, the term refers to the spouse of the resident priest of a Jodo Shinshu temple. Because resident priests are overwhelmingly male, bomori basically means the wife. How someone performs the role is very individualized: there’s no strict prescription from the Jodo Shinshu higher-ups. Bomori do a lot of the behind-the-scenes work of running the temple, maintaining the community, and making sure parishioners feel invited. They keep the atmosphere, making the temple a warm, friendly, and hospitable place to be, and they organize events such as the meals that follow services. Many also clean and decorate the altar.

The boundary between the religious and domestic spheres of a Jodo Shinshu temple is far more permeable than one might think. A bomori’s work extends from the “private,” domestic realm into the space for Buddhist worship; it’s impossible to draw a hard line between the two.

What does her day typically look like? The structure of the bomori’s day will depend on whether her husband is a full-time priest who’s busy visiting parishioners’ houses and doing ritual services, such as funerals, traveling to give dharma talks, or hosting events at the temple. Some temples aren’t that busy, so the husband might take an office job or become a teacher at a local high school or something like that.

But most bomori tend to the temple all day long. The temple is essentially a public institution, and most temples want to keep the main hall open all the time. She needs to be around to receive visitors to the temple, answer their questions, and serve them tea if they want to talk for a little bit. There’s also clerical work to do, phone calls to place for scheduling services, and deliveries to be received. So the bomori is just kind of there. She holds down the fort. And that’s where her name comes from—bomori, meaning “guardian or protector of the temple.”

Your book highlights the role of family as the connective tissue of Pure Land Buddhist communities. But speaking generally, a non-Asian practitioner or scholar steeped in Buddhist modernist ideals might not recognize a mom with a kid squirming in her arms as a “true Buddhist practitioner,” at least not at first. Yes. I certainly have been questioned by both Western and Japanese scholars about how “Buddhist” my research material actually is. There continues to be a sense that authentic Buddhism is grounded in texts. For most of its existence, the field of Buddhist studies has tended to define its object of study in relation to the Buddhist doctrine that’s been written down. This has been changing, at least in the past two decades or so, but it’s been a big challenge for scholars to bring women fully into the picture. This is partially because of the dearth of doctrinal texts written by Buddhist women. And Buddhist texts are relatively ambivalent about women and women’s bodies, if not overtly misogynistic.

“The chanting happening in the main hall is not separate from the cooking going on in the kitchen—the scriptures are not self-contained.”

Japanese Buddhist texts include some sutras and some of the writings of the founders of the various schools of Buddhism, such as Shinran (1173–1262), the founder of Jodo Shinshu; Nichiren (1222–1282); and Eihei Dogen (1200–1253). Unfortunately, virtually no important Buddhist texts have been written by women, so scholars have had to look elsewhere to make sense of women’s religious activity.

I knew I had to look closely at what happens in the domestic sphere and the importance of interpersonal relationships—which is such a crucial part of women’s role at the temple—in sustaining the Buddhist tradition.

Domestic labor is not really considered “work,” let alone anything spiritual. How does your book make the bomori’s work legible as religious activity? What I felt I needed to do with this book was help my audience—who I imagined would be mainly Western scholars—take more seriously these practices, which get overlooked because of their place in the domestic world. I wanted the reader to see that the meaning of the chanting happening in the main hall is not separate from the cooking going on in the kitchen—that the scriptures are not self-contained. Meaning emerges in social contexts, so within a family-run temple particular kinds of meanings are made.

For a few decades now, academics have pushed for the study of “lived religion,” arguing that the classic spirit-matter divide has continued to inform our views of religion and that these views were shaped by a Protestant bias concerning what constitutes religion’s authentic sphere of activity—namely, the disembodied, nonmaterial realm.

A bomori and her son hold their hands in gassho, a sign of piety. | Photograph courtesy Jessica Starling

Many people who are less familiar with Japanese Buddhism may be surprised to learn not only that priests marry and have families but that the temple system itself largely depends on an inheritance system in which a priest passes his temple down to his son. This has been the case for all established Buddhist traditions or sects since the Meiji period (1868–1912), even if they were historically more monastic. In most parish temples in Japan today the family temple system is used, whereby the jushoku, resident priest, is expected to be succeeded by one of his children, usually his oldest son. (They often call the eldest son “young successor” or “junior jushoku.”) While the temple is like a public institution and the center of a religious community to some extent, it’s also his home. There isn’t a clear demarcation between the priest’s family affairs and the affairs of the temple, and his wife helps with all of them.

Other Buddhist schools had to readjust to the practice of priests marrying, but in the Jodo Shinshu this family system has been around for much longer. Shinran had already set a new standard for the religious professional in this tradition. He, like other Buddhist reformers in medieval Japan, subscribed to the idea of mappo, or the degenerate age of the dharma. Under mappo, he thought, practitioners were no longer spiritually capable of mastering the difficult path to enlightenment. It was in your interest to give yourself entirely to the working of Amida Buddha. He was articulating a path away from what is called jiriki, or “self-power,” toward tariki, or “other power.”

Shinran embraced his own inability to live a truly pure, celibate life, and he was open about having a wife and kids. He basically said, “I’m not a monk or a layperson, I’m just a devotee of Amida.” And so the movement that followed him didn’t have any expectation that the priest had to be celibate. During the Tokugawa period (1603–1867), Jodo Shinshu was the one Buddhist tradition that was given an exemption by the government so that the head of a temple could be married and still have the status of priest.

You note that other recently published academic texts focusing on contemporary Japanese temple Buddhism have mostly looked at the men. Most of these studies concentrate on the priest’s official activities—taking ordination, giving sermons, performing rituals. But you write, “I wanted to go even further by asking what Buddhism looks like if we do not put male priests at the center of our story at all.” How did you come to that question? At the time of my first trip to Japan, I was maybe 21 years old. I had a job teaching English in a little fishing village. A coworker in the school board office found out that I had studied religion in college and took me to a Buddhist temple. When we got there, the priest came in, and he had just slipped on his robes, one of my first indicators that this place was his home. He lit some incense and tried to explain what Amida was. He invited us to sit down in a room to the side. Then this woman came in, brought us tea and some delicious sweet, and just left. She wasn’t dressed in robes or anything, and no one introduced her. I know now that she was the bomori.

Before that encounter I had assumed that a Buddhist priest would be celibate and living alone. That clearly wasn’t the case, so I started to question everything I had learned about Buddhism up to that point. Years later, I went back to that temple and interviewed the priest and the bomori for my book. They told me their son was slated to become the successor, but he was off working a regular job while his parents were still able to run the temple. In this case, it’s obvious that family relationships are the connective tissue of the tradition: they’re what are sustaining the temples.

Scholars often stop at that first introduction to the temple, where the priest presents Buddhism to the outsider, sort of like my first encounter: “This is what we do here.” But there’s this backstage thing happening, and I thought that was equally important. With my research, I had an advantage: my daughter was 9 months old when I started doing my fieldwork, and she would come with me. So the women I was interviewing would play with her and feed her, and it usually felt very natural and casual. Being a mother myself, I was able to access that other realm of the temple in a way that other scholars perhaps hadn’t even seen.

Can a temple wife become a resident priest? It is possible for a woman to become the head priest of her family’s temple. In that case, the temple either doesn’t have a bomori or she asks her husband or mother-in-law to be the bomori. Often a bomori has the same religious credentials as her husband, even if she’s not technically the head priest. That means from an institutional perspective, she’s just as qualified as her husband to do rituals and hold services. There is a group of Jodo Shinshu women, now mostly in their seventies, who were part of second-wave feminism in Japan. They spent the 1990s working for institutional recognition and created a kind of feminist movement within the Jodo Shinshu. Temple wives were already very organized—the history of fujinkai, or women’s associations, dates back to the early 20th century, and there are bomori associations especially for temple wives—and they used these networks to raise institutional consciousness about the fact that their tradition was so behind on gender equality.

Many women at the time got their kyoshi degree, or teaching degree, which takes one or two years at an accredited Jodo Shinshu university and makes one eligible to become jushoku of a temple. One of the reasons their generation did this was to make a point—they wanted, in principle, to be equal to their husbands. However, the percentage of female jushokus who currently occupy the main administrative and social role at a temple remains quite small. More frequently a woman receives ordination just in case a male member of her family cannot fulfill the role of priest. And when a woman does become a jushoku, it’s often seen as a temporary fix until a male priest can take over the line.

“Some bomori think it’s too exhausting to try to break the glass ceiling. Others see it as their mission.”

But there’s a longer history of the Jodo Shinshu opening up these kinds of channels for women. In 1909, the Hongwanji-ha, a major Pure Land subsect, amended its bylaws to make it possible for women who had taken kikyoshiki (lay ordination) to become certified as female lay instructors. It was not clear what function these new titles were expected to serve, although allowing women to do these things encouraged doctrinal study among Buddhist women’s groups and offered an official position for lay leaders, both male and female. Around this time, the bomori’s role was becoming increasingly codified, and there was a lot written about the importance of an education in Buddhist doctrine so that the bomori could not only support her husband but also educate her son—the future jushoku—as well as the temple’s parishioners.

How are these ideas put to work in a bomori’s life today? Most of the acculturation to roles at the temple happens within the family. Many bomori learn from their mothers-in-law what is expected of them, and those informal internships are how ideals for the role get passed down across generations. Interestingly, most bomori are apologetic about how they fail to live up to whatever ideal they have in their minds for the role. They would often show me how they did things in practice, while claiming that “really” (honto wa) it should be done some other way, but that they unfortunately couldn’t achieve that ideal themselves.

Ideas about the gendered division of labor within temple families have certainly been shaped by the dominant gender norms of the 20th century. But the role of the temple wife is also unique in some ways. Her home is also a religious institution, so nothing she does is strictly confined to the private realm in terms of its religious significance.

I think bomori “feel their gender” the most when they step out of their sanctioned role as housewives. The response from laypeople is often dismissive, so there’s some discomfort and dissonance. Say a parishioner comes by and asks for a ritual, but the jushoku is away, so the bomori offers to do it in his stead. The layperson, feeling uncomfortable with a woman doing the jushoku’s role, might be like, “Oh, you don’t need to do all that; I can just wait until your husband’s available.” There’s still resistance to having the wife fulfill the ritual role or having the husband do things like serve tea.

Some bomori think it’s too exhausting to try to break through that glass ceiling. They are more comfortable inhabiting the slightly less visible and more expected role as bomori, one that doesn’t involve those awkward confrontations. Others, however, want to do it—they see it as their mission to keep practicing with and despite those pressures and help their congregations become more accustomed to seeing a woman take the lead at the temple. And others aren’t choosing to become a priest for feminist reasons at all: it’s because of some family situation such as illness that causes them to take on that extra responsibility as jushoku, because no male successor is available.

It’s fascinating that the division of labor that confines women to the home turns these temple wives into the religious professionals of the temple, because when their husbands aren’t there they often end up stepping into the role of jushoku. Interestingly, if you ask one, “Are you a professional?” she’ll likely say, “No, no, I don’t know what I’m doing.” But it’s clearly the case that everyone perceives her as being an expert in what she does and having a special identity and status for the position she occupies. In the wider community, when people see one out and about, they say, “Oh, there’s the bomori” or sometimes just “Otera-san” (“Temple person”). That’s a status and an identity, whether she likes it or not. She is the temple, to some extent.

It’s disappointing that in scholarship about religion, women’s domestic activities are often held up as an example about how oppressed or contingent a woman’s position is. The sense is that if she’s not acting fully independently of her family, then her religious activities aren’t significant. What happens when we really look at what the women are doing? Part of what makes a bomori so fully identified with the temple is that she’s always there; she’s the face that greets you. She’s a center and coordinator of community and an important point of contact for the laity. Presumably if the person who took me to the temple during that first visit when I was 21 hadn’t called ahead and told the priest, “I’m bringing this American, get your robes on”—if I had just wandered in—the bomori would have been there, and she would have made the tea and tried to answer my questions, even while demurring that she was not a real priest. Most of them are very reluctant to claim any special authority. But they have all kinds of expertise in running a Buddhist temple. The bomori is an essential worker who is keeping Buddhism alive in Japan.

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