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Letters of the Nun Eshinni, by James Dobbins.

August 11, 2012

Letters of the Nun Eshinni : Images of Pure Land Buddhism in Medieval Japan, by James C. Dobbins, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, c2004.

A scholarly study of Buddhism in medieval Japan, which highlights the letters written by a nun and discussion of the daily lives and religion of women.

Eshinni (1182-1268) was a nun and the wife of Shinran, a leader of Shin Buddhism, a type of Pure Land Buddhism.  In this book, Dobbins translates her letters and places them in the context other historical sources to present a revised understanding of the history of Japanese Buddhism.   He argues that the way Eshinni and others practiced their religion differed from the abstractions and pronouncements of leaders.   It differed even more from the assumptions that historians have made about Shin Buddhism in medieval Japan.  Life was hard during this period, contributing to the appeal of the promise of a good life after death.  Superstition remained rife, although recent religious scholars have underplayed its importance.

Most interesting to me was Dobbins’ discussion of women in medieval Japan, particularly their religious practices.  According to him, the whole medieval period witnessed a gradual uneven shift from earlier matriarchal practices to more modern patriarchal ones.  Marriage itself was being understood in new ways and the power of the husband was growing. As Eshinni demonstrates, however, some woman still had strong ties to their family of origin. Eshinni herself returned to manage her family’s lands.

While Buddhism contained beliefs and practices that were demeaning toward women, these had little support among some ordinary people.  Women found within Buddhism, as they have found in other patriarchal religions like Christianity and Islam, validation for themselves.  Eshinni was a nun, but in medieval Japan, what that meant was flexible and varied.  She did not live a cloistered life in a nunnery and may or may not have been formally ordained.  In addition, her husband had left his own celibate life to marry her.  Their Buddhist beliefs encourage sexuality as meaningful.  Lastly, formal Buddhism stated that for a woman to be transported to the Pureland, she must be transformed into a male body.  In her letters, Eshinni makes clear she does not share this belief.

Dobbins writes for both scholarly and non-scholarly audiences.  I find his claims convincing and his book accessible, but I know nothing of the positions of those whom he challenges.  What he says about patterns in women’s lives fit well with what I know of what was happening in other parts of the world.  I found his book engaging because of its insights into the lives of women.  I learned much that I hadn’t known.

I recommend Letters of a Nun to anyone interested in the lives of little known women from the past or in Japan and Buddhism.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. August 11, 2012 11:47 am

    I have been very interested in Buddhism since I took an intro course in university. thanks for posting this review. I’ll definitely be looking for this book!

    • August 14, 2012 11:53 am

      Me, too. But be warned. While fascinating, this book gets a bit dense and scholarly at times.

  2. August 12, 2012 3:35 pm

    You always review such interesting books!

  3. August 15, 2012 5:37 am

    A good and interesting review about a topic that I knew little about. Thanks for sharing

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