The Story of Nun Zenshin-ni

The emergence of Nun Zenshin-ni

An 11-year-old girl becomes the nation’s first Buddhist priest, marking the dawn of Buddhism in Japan

Zenshin-ni becomes the first Japanese Buddhist priest to pursue the Three Jewels

The official introduction of Buddhism to Japan is generally equated with the gifting to the emperor of sutras and a Buddha statue by King Seong of Baekje. But in fact long before then Buddhism had been observed privately by immigrants from China and Korea. Shiba Tatto, who had come to Japan from China during Emperor Keitai’s reign, was one such adherent. His daughter Shima was also familiar with the religion. Buddhists traditionally take refuge in the “Three Jewels”: the Buddha, the Dharma (the teachings), and the Sangha (the Buddhist community). Soga no Umako had already obtained the first two of these, in the form of Buddhist statues and sutras. Now all he needed was a priest. His request for priests to proselytize on behalf of Buddhism was met by Shima and two other girls, who were also the daughters of immigrants.

Is a Buddhist nun like a miko in the service of god?

So why was a girl selected as the first Japanese Buddhist priest? In ancient Japan, the role of intermediating between the gods and humans was traditionally taken by a miko (female shaman). A typical example was Himiko, the third-century shamanistic queen of Wakoku (ancient Japan). It is therefore little surprise that people considered a miko to be qualified at interpreting the Buddha—a “foreign god”—and spreading his teachings. People equated a Buddhist nun to a miko. In those days, there were already a number of bhikkhunis (nuns) in Baekje; female priests were not especially rare. It was Japan’s unique historical circumstances that paved the way for Zenshin-ni and her compatriots to enter nunhood.

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