by Sourajit Ghosh

This piece is part of the East Asia Solidarity blog series, “Look East”, which highlights gender knowledge and studies of the East and Southeast Asia region. The initiative was conceptualised and led by MSc students of the LSE Gender Department in the summer of 2023, and explores themes around locating identity, heritage and (re/newed) knowledge of gender studies in the region. The series hopes to be a platform for those with links to the region to not only express themselves but contribute to the decolonisation of gender knowledge.


“Civilization is not the development of electricity, nor the building of airplanes, nor the production of nuclear bombs. Civilization is rather not taking the life of others, not destroying things, not engaging in warfare, and creating mutual intimacy and friendship as well as mutual respect.”

Ven. Nichidatsu Fujii

The above quoted words belong to the prominent Buddhist pacifist Ven.Nichidatsu Fujii[1] (1885-1985), the founder of the ‘Nipponzan Myōhōji Daisanga’ order, a sub-sect of the Nichiren Japanese school of Buddhism[2]. The order formed the base inspiration of new spiritual peace movements in Japan at the dawn of the cold war period after the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6th and 9th, 1945 respectively.

Unlike many orthodox Buddhist traditions, the order promoted participation of Buddhist nuns (anjyusan)[3] who are ordained based on acceptance of the ten precepts of Buddhism along with the adaptation of Bodhissattva vows in shaping up the identity of the ‘nuclear disarmament advocacy-based spiritual movement ’. This is very significant because in many countries, due to lack of quorum of fully ordained Skt. bhikṣuṇīs (requirements as per monastic legal codes); women monastic aspirants are not recognized as fully ordained nuns, but rather as novices called śrāmāṇerikā. By virtue of their lack of status of fully ordained nun, the women renunciant face lack of access to higher monastic education, leadership and administrative positions in the order. The active participation of Japanese Buddhist Nuns as contemporary peace builders thus ensured development of women’s agency in Buddhist monastic orders.[4] However, the early Pāli canon states that a woman cannot attain Buddhahood as they are considered impure due to their biological constitution. This adds on to the misogynistic and androcentric framework that leads to the marginalization of Buddhist woman renunciant.

In this article, I will show how a gender-inclusive Spiritual Buddhist Peace Movement shaped the emerging identity of Japan[5] and impacted India after WWII in confluence with Gandhian ahimsa and Satyagraha movements. It is indeed a complex task to define what exactly defines the New Religious Order in Japan, as the topic has received little attention in scholarly literature. Therefore, this piece represents a sincere attempt to illuminate this silent gender inclusive movement that positively benefitted and impacted many people at the beginning of the Cold war era.

Spiritual Movements in Post-WWII Japan and Buddhist Reflections on Gender Equality: A Brief History

The spiritual Buddhist peace movement became a prominent symbol of pacifism, not only by pushing abandonment of nuclear weapons but also by promoting gender equality and women’s agency in Buddhist faith systems traditionally dominated by men. The key principles and motivations of Nipponzan Myōhōji School of Buddhism are discussed as follows:

  1. The School contributed to the shaping up of Japanese national identity in the aftermath of WWII by embracing the dhamma and peaceful teachings of Buddha as the way to non-violent civil movements. They did that by advocating for nuclear disarmament (for a nuclear weapon free peaceful world) based on the principle of fussesho (prohibition of killing any life form) and Tangyō Rahai (the cultivation of compassion to change violent destructive motives and adhere to reverence for humanity considering the world as a pure land following Buddhist faith).
  2. It contributed to promote women-based leadership (conferring responsibilities to Buddhist Nuns) in monastic spaces but also as global peacebuilders, breaking gender stereotypes of early Buddhist canons and patriarchal societal frameworks. The order became a prominent gender-inclusive peace movement following the Bodhisattva compassionate path of pacifism in the nuclear age.
  3. The distinct peace activism of the order lies in its anti-nuclear and disarmament activism through the symbolism of revering the golden Lotus Law of the Buddha, and revering his bodily relics (symbolized as Peace Pagodas) as the ultimate symbolism of enlightenment and non-duality, prohibiting any sort of biology-based discrimination.

The realization of the defeat of Japan in WWII and the impermanence of life forms as a result of the nuclear devastation made Rev. Fujii reorient the principal aim and motive of the order to promote activism on nuclear disarmament and the abolition of warfare. The order is popularly known for its peace marches, fasting prayers, and construction of Peace Pagodas all over the world in sites that have witnessed violence, war, and trauma of loss. The order puts its faith in the chanting of the daimoku (seven syllables of the heart of the golden law of the Lotus) ‘Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō’by beating a hand drum called uchiwa-daiko.

Presently after the 1970s, the Japanese Buddhists’ Monastic orders focus much more on the adaptation of green renewable sources of energy and regenerative agriculture, and has actively promoted Buddhist monastic women in taking up leadership positions. This, I argue, is quite an appreciable step given the patriarchal nature of early Buddhist canon and allied ritualistic practices, which put women’s practitioners in a secondary detrimental position.

Buddhist nuns in the order have led marches, engaged in peace dialogues, performed roles of liturgy and served as community peace activists all over the world, one of the most prominent ones being the 1978 peace march in the U.S ranging from San Francisco, California, to Washington D.C, which was led by a Buddhist nun named Jun Yusuda who put up non-violent demonstration in support of Native Americans. She is also credited with the construction of the Peace Pagoda at Grafton, New York, where she mobilized labor and resources to construct the structure as the order is not allowed to ask for monetary assistance for its construction. The order regularly holds a peace march advocating nuclear disarmament all over Japan in 2011 covering demonstrations in front of 54 nuclear reactors over six months between Fukushima to Hiroshima.

Photograph by author

The order, on a doctrinal stance, derives its primary inspiration from the philosophical teachings of the Buddha in the “Lotus Sūtra”, as interpreted and taught by the Buddhist philosopher and priest of 13th Century, C.E Kamakura period Nichiren Shōnin (1222-1282). Traditional and orthodox Japanese Buddhism has a patriarchal history and mostly male priests as patriarchs dominated the spiritual practice. Based on the early Buddhist canon, it is believed that women cannot achieve Buddhahood due to their biological constitution and, thereby, must gain a rebirth as men to be eligible for Buddhahood. From this, I contend, it follows that the prime purpose of a woman monastic in Buddhism is to gain merit and achieve a male rebirth so that she qualifies for Buddhahood in a future birth. However, an excerpt from the Lotus Sūtra makes a positive prophecy related to women’s potential to achieve the highest states of awakening. In the Lotus Sūtra, the Buddha affirms that the spiritual wisdom of women can be better than men by declaring the excellent faculties of the daughter of the sea dragon named Śagara. This prophecy inspired Nichiren and later Rev. Nichidatsu Fujii to recognize the potential of faith-based monastic women in peacebuilding and non-violent peaceful resistance movements all over Japan and the US in the aftermath of WWII.

The founder of the order Rev. Fujii Guruji, as popularly known, was highly impressed with the Gandhian non-violence movement when he met Mahatma Gandhi in 1933 at Wardha, Maharashtra, India, and chose to construct the Peace Pagoda[6] as the symbol of peace activism, promoting the idea of the abolition of all nuclear weapons. War-based aggression and violence were seen as the period of decline of the good dhamma (age of degeneration), referred to by both the 13th Century propagator Nichiren of the Japanese Kamakura period, and Nichidatsu Fujii as Mappō. The aim of Ven. Fuji was to propagate a Gandhian non-violent peace movement along with the philosophy of the Lotus Sūtra (risshō-ankoku).

For him, it was a call to promote the essence of the Buddha’s compassion from a self-liberation framework and to promote inter-state ties to protect humanity from nuclear destruction. He criticized both the imperialist/colonial mindset of Japan in the times of World War as well as the US engagement in further warfare in Asia (Vietnam War) after Japan’s defeat.[7]

Gender-inclusive Narratives and Placing Buddhist Nuns on Bodhisattva Roles: 

The Bodhisattva[8] path forms an essential part of Mahāyāna Buddhism which is followed by the Nipponzan Myōhōji Sect. However, in the Buddhist canon, most of the Bodhisattvas are male, except two who receive the prediction of future Buddhahood in a coming birth on their rebirth as a male, which is considered favorable for the attainment of Buddhahood according to the early Buddhist canon. Given the rigid religious fundamentalism and blind faiths, a burden on women’s monasticism has always been a matter of concern.

Despite this tradition, Ven. Nichidatsu Fujii advocated the full participation of monastic women in both ritualistic as well as social matters. The active participation of Japanese Nipponzan Myōhōji Nuns in peace movements can be seen as a very significant step towards gender-inclusive peacebuilding. In this regard, the philosophical stand of the Lotus Sūtra is very pertinent as it takes the consideration that all sentient beings have the Buddha’s nature in them and are capable of Buddhahood through the cultivation of the right compassion and acts of kindness towards all life forms. Nichiren, the 13th Century priest of the Kamakura period (1185-1333), abolished all discrimination against women and refuted the early Buddhist belief that women cannot attain Buddhahood. He advocated that men should follow women on spiritual paths. Though there are strong affirmations of women’s potential in the path of spiritual awakening, misogynistic practices such as the depiction of women as corpse in several art forms were prevalent in Japanese Buddhist imagery. An example of these is Kusōzu paintings, which symbolize the female body in nine aspects of decay.

Building on the principles of gender equality as reflected by the Lotus Sūtra, the nuns actively took part in teaching, ritualistic as well as social activities. This is a significant effort in the Asian Buddhist traditions as it puts the predictions of the Lotus Sūtra of gender equality into practice.

The Nipponzan Myōhōji order, unique and distinct from the other heirs of Nichiren Buddhism (Sōka Gakkai and Risshō Kōseikai) for its gender inclusive, action based application of the philosophy of Lotus Sūtra in contemporary times, lays focus on interfaith pilgrimage promoting harmony among all nationalities and communities. Monks and nuns of the order often serve as cultural diplomats and peace activists to prevent hatred based on racism, sexuality, religiosity, gender, etc. on several global platforms. The small order of 1500 monks and nuns gained prominence with the 1954 civil protest for the anti-atomic weapon peace movement. The group of monastic widely represented by Buddhist nuns actively participated in hunger strikes during the Gulf War and participated actively in the continental walk in 1976 for disarmament and ensuring social justice.

Given the challenges in the path of women’s monasticism in the Asian Buddhist context, the Japanese Nipponzan Myōhōji has highlighted women’s potential by promoting women as peacebuilders, environmentalists, and social workers following principles of engaged Buddhism and putting the philosophy of gender equality in the Lotus Sūtra in action. The order has been exemplary in putting monastic women in diplomatic and administrative roles along with engagement in interfaith dialogues, and humanitarian aid activities acting toward a more peaceful inclusive world.

Conclusion and Way Forward:

The order of Buddhist Nuns started with the foster mother of the Buddha and later on travelled to Sri Lanka from India and then through Central Asia to Japan. The establishment of the order of nuns 2500 years ago by the Buddha helped women to explore an independent spiritual career, breaking male-centric identities of daughter, wife and mother. The path of a woman Buddhist renunciant has always been a path of fire—a struggle against burden of misogynistic early texts. However, the Mahāyāna text Lotus Sūtra has portrayed social justice over the ages in terms of eradicating all sorts of gender-based discrimination. All sentient beings are capable of samyaksaṃbodhi. The most celebrated narrative of the Sūtra is that of the recognition of the daughter of the Sea Dragon Śagara who is praised by the Bodhisattva Maṅjushrī for her excellent perfection of the dhamma. According to the Lotus Sūtra, she proves her wisdom in front of the Buddha. This extraordinary narrative of women achieving the highest state of awakening remains to-date one of the greatest sources of inspiration for women monastics in Buddhism to tread the path of dhamma. It is mentioned in the chapter on ‘Devadatta’ in the Lotus Sūtra that she, the daughter of the Sea Dragon Śagara, attained Buddhahood by listening to the teachings of the Buddha. This narrative is in direct contrast with the declaration in early Pāli canon that women cannot attain enlightenment and achieve Buddhahood.[9] Further, in many patriarchal societies, the so-called ‘noble ones’ face discriminative attitudes merely based on the societal outlook that they have failed social roles as they do not adhere to contemporary professions taken up by women. Such an effort by Japanese Nipponzan Myōhōji to promote Buddhist Nuns as social leaders and Peacebuilders opens up the scope of engagement of Buddhist nuns in diplomatic missions, fostering Asian networks of Peacebuilding and Gender Inclusive policymaking towards conflict mediation, accelerating the role of cultural heritage as an important parameter in social impact policy.

Sourajit Ghosh is a PhD Candidate in the Global PhD Program in The School of Buddhist Studies, Philosophy and Comparative Religions at Nālandā University, India. He was a GURUKUL Fellow 2018 of The Foundation of Universal Responsibility of HH The Dalai Lama.



Yuri, Inose. “Gender and New Religions in Modern Japan.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 44, no. 1 (2017): 15–35.

Kato, Bunno. Yoshiro Tamura, Kojiro Miyasaka, W. E. Soothill, Wilhelm Schiffer, and Pier P. Del Campana, translated. The Three Fold Lotus Sutra: Innumerable Meanings, Flower of The Wonderful Law, and the Sutra of Meditation on the Bodhisattva Universal Virtue.Tokyo: Kosei Publishing Co, 1975.

Kisala, Robert. Prophets Of Peace: Pacifism and Cultural Identity in Japan’s New Religions.Honululu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999.

[1]He was a consistent advocate of non-violent co-existence during WWII. He greatly preached the teachings of Buddha on compassion not only to be practiced at individual level but also between nations.

[2] Offshoot of Tendai sect of Bodhissattva precept holders.

[3]The first group of Japanese Nuns were ordained by their acceptance of ten precepts in the 6th Century C.E by emperor Kin –Myo. They were called Zenshin –ni, and although they were not fully ordained nuns, they received their tonsure as novice nuns, accepting the bodhisattva vows to serve all life forms, and generating limitless compassion and kindness as per the Buddhist faith.

[4] In India many Indian Women also joined the Bharat Japan Nipponzan Myohoji Order as Buddhist Nuns inspiredby the peaceful principles ‘ahimsa’ of Mahatma Gandhi.

[5]With the new Japanese religious groups and peace movements, the notion of gendered identity in spiritual spaces, in reflection of the entire Japanese society, has experienced shifts and transformation in the post WWII scenario. See the details at Inose Yuri 猪瀬優理. “Gender and New Religions in Modern Japan”.

[6] The first Peace Pagoda was established after the World War II in 1954 at Kumamoto.

[7] Vietnam War (1955-1975) and Korean War (1950-1953).

[8] A human being with a Buddha nature, extremely compassionate to serve all life forms for cessation of their suffering. A Buddha in a coming birth as per the Buddhist pantheon.

[9]The ability of the daughter of the Dragon King to achieve the state of Buddhahood was questioned by Shariputra, based on the textual declaration that women could not attain Buddhahood. In early texts, women’s body is considered a source of impurity not eligible to reach the state of Buddhahood. See Burton Watson., translated The Lotus Sutra.