Mugai Nyodai

Mugai Nyodai

Lady Chiyo (Nyodai) and the Broken Water Bucket, by Yoshitoshi

Mugai Nyodai (1223 – 1298 CE) was the first Zen abbess and the first female Zen master in the world.[1][2][3]

Early life

Some details of her life are not certain, but it is generally believed that she was given the childhood name Chiyono, and her father was Adachi Yasumori (1231–1285), a samurai warrior of the mid-Kamakura period.[4][1] She married and had a child (a daughter) at a young age, as was expected for warrior-class Japanese women at the time; she certainly married into the Kanezawa Hōjō clan, which then governed Echigo, but there is some dispute as to whether her husband was Hōjō Sanetoki or Hōjō Akitoki.[4][1] She was highly educated in both Japanese and Chinese.[3]

Successor to Wu-hsueh Tsu-yuan

Nyodai received the teachings of Rinzai master Wu-hsüeh Tsu-yuan (Mugaku Sōgen) shortly before his death in 1286.[5][3] At this time he conferred upon her the character "mu", meaning nothingness, from his own name, and designated Nyodai as his successor. Despite resistance by the monks, Nyodai eventually founded and served as abbess of the Keiaiji Temple and its subtemples in Northern Kyoto.[3][6][1] The Keiaiji Temple was the head temple complex of the Five Mountain Rinzai Zen Convent Association.[1] Nyodai was the first woman to successfully propagate Rinzai Zen teachings.[3]

Poem of enlightenment

A poem Nyodai wrote about her enlightenment (which occurred when a water pail broke) has become one of the better known writings of its type; an English translation by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki (from "Zen Flesh, Zen Bones") reads as follows:


Nyodai was also active in calligraphy, and her calligraphy was prized second only to Taira-no-Masako, a matriarch of the Kamakura shogunate.[7]


As was customary for all monastic leaders at the time, a portrait statue was made of Nyodai with shaved head and monk's robes. This statue was carved toward the end of her life, around 1298; it is now enshrined in Hojiin convent in Kyoto.[8][1]

1998 memorial ceremony

In 1998 Buddhist nuns from Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, and Tokyo visited the United States for the first time, in order to conduct a rare Buddhist ceremony in St. Paul's Chapel in New York City in memory of Mugai Nyodai, as it was the 700th anniversary of her death.[9] The nuns conducted Buddhist rituals never before seen outside Japan, and never viewed by the general public, even in Japan. The nuns' rituals included a rare performance of the scattering of paper lotus petals in a circumambulation to gagaku music, led by Abbess Shozui Rokujo of Domyoji Convent. Chief Abbot Keido Fukushima of Tōfuku-ji monastery performed a special incense burning and poetic invocation.

There was also the world premiere of "Mind in Mirror: Nyodai's Dream", composed by Yuriko Hase Kojima for Columbia University President); Ambassador Seiichiro Otsuka (Consul General of Japan in New York); Rev. T. Kenjitsu Nakagaki (Buddhist Council of New York); The Very Rev. James Parks Morton (Interfaith Center of New York); and High Priest Shunsho Manabe (Kanazawa Bunko).[9]

Further reading

  • Tisdale, Sallie. Women of the Way: Discovering 2,500 Years of Buddhist Wisdom, HarperOne, 2006. ISBN 978-0-06-059816-7


  1. ^ a b c d e f g "Mugai Nyodai, First Woman to Head a Zen Order – Buddhism". Retrieved 11 November 2011. 
  2. ^ "Japanese Zen Master Honored by Her Followers – New York Times". The New York Times. 22 November 1998. Retrieved 11 November 2011. 
  3. ^ a b c d e "Handbook to life in medieval and ... – William E. Deal – Google Books". Google Books. Retrieved 11 November 2011. 
  4. ^ a b "Mugai". Retrieved 11 November 2011. 
  5. ^ "Parable of the Ferryboat". Retrieved 11 November 2011. 
  6. ^ "The women's ancestors in the Zen Tradition – Version 2". 8 May 1903. Retrieved 11 November 2011. 
  7. ^ "Catalogue Entry – MIHO MUSEUM". Retrieved 11 November 2011. 
  8. ^ "The Life of Abbess Mugai Nyodai". Retrieved 11 November 2011. 
  9. ^ a b "Institute for Medieval Japanese Studies – Abbess Nyodai's 700th Memorial". Retrieved 11 November 2011.