Guardians of the Buddha's Home

Domestic Religion in Contemporary Jōdo Shinshū

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Jessica Starling
Contemporary Buddhism
  • Honolulu, HI: 
    University of Hawai'i Press
    , February
     2019.
     200 pages.
     $62.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    97808248666921.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Bōmori or “guardians of the temple” are the (conventionally female) spouses of the head clerics at temples of the large Jōdoshinshū (JDSS) Pure Land Buddhist tradition in Japan. Jessica Starling’s Guardians of the Buddha’s Home is a ground-breaking contemporary study of this institution. Rooted in first-hand ethnographic observation, it provides a gold mine of information and analysis by combining personal stories and thematic chapters.

Focusing on the life of one clerical family called the Nagai, Starling proceeds to analyze matters such as the material exchange life of the temple, challenges faced by outsider non-temple women in the role, the situations of women who achieve the higher status of formal priestly ordination which nominally enables full priestly headship, and the productive give and take with postwar feminist thinking in Japan.

Despite the fact that they have less of the formal prestige of the standardly ordained ministers (who are by convention mostly male) bōmori stand at the center of temple communities. Typically seen as more sympathetic and accessible in heart-to-heart pastoral communications than their husbands, they occupy a demanding, respected position summarizable as “staying at home for Buddhist propagation” (35). A conscientious multi-tasking bōmori can have an indefinitely large number of responsibilities ranging from event preparation and budgeting to routine cleaning, but the heart of the job is that the temple is expected to be an ever-receptive, eternally-hospitable community center, managing complex, sometime conflicted, social interrelationships and interdependencies (19, 54).

Starling elucidates that like the best of the male ministers, bōmori can have a deep sense of Buddhist existential vocation combined with concern for preservation of what they see as a uniquely valuable (albeit baggage-loaded) tradition (35). However, has not been a static world: the system today is partly a descendant of the Tokugawa period, but also partly a reflection of a conservative ideal of Japanese domesticity which prevailed in the early 20th century (encapsulated in the phrase ryōsai kenbō, which means good wife, wise mother) which was a modernist cultural invention allied with the new nation-state (15, 69).

Of course, bōmori are shaped or even “created” by their special cultural environment (81). As Starling notes, to fully acquire the role is to achieve a very special sense of self-transcending “malleability” or “docility” (106). Although non-intellectual, it is a complex practical (often physically embodied) role which poses a hard training challenge, particularly for women (now more numerous than in the past) who are not brought up inside temple life, but rather who marry “untrained” into temple life without inheriting the relevant masses of unconscious assumptions. To support each other, many bōmori participate in associations which provide intellectual supplementation, develop the role identity, and mediate hardships of adaptation (97).

Although historically the normal, formal headships were occupied by males, there had long occurred special circumstances where women took on the position. In the 20th century this trend advanced because of a vacuum of male clerics during war or more recently because a male member of a family may have to serve as breadwinner outside the temple (107). In the final chapter, Starling engages with how, in the past couple of decades, women in the Ōtani-ha branch of the JDSS organization became acutely aware of gender inequality issues in professionalized temple work and interacted with postwar feminist thought (129).

The author displays a comprehensive knowledge of secondary literature and the academic discourse structure. The bōmori topic is more profoundly challenging than it might first appear. Like some other aspects of JDSS, it violates several conventional assumptions in (Western-based) academics. In general, JDSS is a non-vinaya line of Buddhism, which means it does not have “monks” or “nuns” in the usual sense of the English word—a fact which has often flummoxed Western observers who are naturally unfamiliar with nonmonastic religious institutions. Further, the work done as “guardian of the temple” defies easy categorization into public and private (61).

Starling’s anthropological attention to domesticity not only addresses an obvious political question of “women in religion” but also addresses a deeper disciplinary methodological/epistemological matter of balancing “text” phenomena versus “life” phenomena (13). Beyond that, while JDSS tradition does allow for a considerable degree of practical personal autonomy (128), its underlying premises are that “self” (and sex/gender identities) are ultimately contingent and relational, not ontologically absolute, which leads to a somewhat different type of reasoning than in the liberal tradition from which Western rights theory is derived (130).

Thus, according to the author, trained bōmori recognize the ambiguity of personal agency (intuitively, if not theoretically) while at the same time reform-minded bōmori have been concerned about gender imbalances in the concrete opportunities available to women within the institutional system. Yet if running a temple community is understood as a complex multi-dimensional relational job of spiritual service placed in an inherited social world of high de facto gendered consciousness, it is easy to see how it is difficult in the everyday to equalize tasks according to ideology (128).

Certain aspects of the book might await further expansion. Starling follows the established use of Christianesque language to refer to JDSS doctrine. The presentation of the Buddhist philosophical/imaginative tradition and its subtleties of personal agency is relatively cursory, though it definitely gestures toward deep issues found in philosophical feminism (153). Shinran’s eschewing of celibacy can be overdramatized, as well as other allegedly unique JDSS points in general (10). Overall, however, this is a highly impressive, bountiful, path-finding, multi-dimensional contribution to studies of women, Japanese Buddhism, and even methodology in religion (13).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Galen Amstutz is an Adjunct Instructor at the Institute of Buddhist Studies, Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif.

Date of Review: 
May 21, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jessica Starling is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Asian studies at Lewis & Clark College.

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