The Life of Abbess Mugai Nyodai

By High Priest Shunsho Manabe


I would like to express my heartfelt congratulations that the 700th anniversary memorial service of this eminent representative of Japan, Abbess Mugai Nyodai, the great Japanese female Zen master, is being held here in the United States, so far from her home land.

Here before you on the altar is the portrait statue of Abbess Mugai Nyodai, and I would like to tell you a little bit about what sort of a nun she was. 

According to Enpo dento-roku, her husband had belonged to the Kanezawa Hojo family; "Mugai Nyodai" is her "homei" or religious name. She was the daughter of Adachi Yasumori (1231-1285), a warrior of the mid-Kamakura period, and her name as a child was Chiyono. She married into the Kanezawa Hojo family, which then governed Echigo, and later she started to learn Zen Buddhism under the guidance of Wu-hsueh Tsu-yuan (known in Japan as Mugaku Sogen [Bukko Kokushi] (1226 1285)) and became known as the first nun who mastered Zen. Wu-hsueh Tsu-yuan's own records (Bukko Kokushi goroku, and Ju Kenchoji goroku) clearly mention Mugai Nyodai as both his disciple and spiritual heir. According to Shomyakuin Himei, Abbess Mugai Nyodai founded Keiaiji Convent, head temple complex of the Five Mountain Rinzai Zen Convent Association and died at the age of 76 in 1298 (Einin 6).

At the Kanagawa Prefectural Kanazawa Bunko Museum, where the Hojo family of Kamakura has long been studied, opinion is divided as to who Abbess Mugai Nyodai's husband was: Was he Hojo Sanetoki or Hojo Akitoki? Since it was Akitoki among the Kanezawa Hojo family who showed a strong interest in Zen Buddhism, he is a strong candidate as her husband. However, given that Abbess Mugai was 25 years older than Akitoki, this is a theory hard to support. This is where the Sanetoki candidacy emerges. 

The style of the portrait statue of Abbess Mugai indicates that it was carved in her late years, around 1298. A cursory glimpse may give you the impression that it is a statue of a male; but further perusal reveals a slightly plump, gentle woman with her hands resting in proper Zen contemplative form. Judging from her face and the line of her back, to me Abbess Mugai does not look 76 years old but at least 10 years younger. 

The Kanazawa Bunko Museum spent almost one year creating this exact replica of the original statue enshrined in Hojiin convent in Kyoto. The replica was so wonderfully made that even the Abbess of Hojiin mistook it for the original and nearly brought the replica back to her convent.

In all manner of ways, Abbess Nugai Nyodai, even to this very day, exerts an immeasurably great influence, having been for all practical purposes the initiator of the orders of nuns of Kyoto and because of her lifetime achievements.