Suzanne Trimel

For immediate release


(212) 854-6579

Nov. 10, 1998



Buddhist Nuns Hold Service For Female Zen Master

At Columbia Nov. 21; First Such Event Outside Japan


For the first time outside Japan, nuns from Imperial Buddhist Convents will perform a special memorial service in honor of their 13th century spiritual founder, the first female Zen master, on Saturday, Nov. 21, at Columbia University.

The Institute for Medieval Japanese Studies at Columbia is hosting the nuns for its weekend-long celebration of 30 years of groundbreaking research on medieval Japan cultural history. Highlights of the Institute's 30th anniversary events include a three-day international conference on the history of nuns and convents in Japan and two art exhibitions on the Columbia campus: a display of treasures and everyday objects on loan from eight Imperial Convents at the C.V. Starr East Asian Library November 6 through December 4 and Buddhist sculptures from the University's own collections on display in the Rotunda Gallery of Low Memorial Library November 13 through January 31, 1999. The public is welcome at all events.

The 700th Anniversary Memorial for Abbess Mugai Nyodai, who died in November, 1298, will take place in St. Paul's Chapel at 1160 Amsterdam Avenue on the Columbia campus from 10 A.M. to noon. It will be the first time the ritual has been performed o utside Japan and the first visit of Imperial Buddhist nuns to the United States.

Ambassador Seiichiro Otsuka, Consul General of Japan in New York, will join Columbia University President George Rupp, Rev. T. Kenjitsu Nakagaki of the Buddhist Council of New York and others at the ceremony.

Professor Barbara Ruch, Institute Director and Professor of Japanese Literature and Culture in Columbia's Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, is the first scholar to have gained access to the tightly closed Japanese Imperial Buddhist C onvents, 13 of which remain today. Nuns and abbesses from eight of them will come to New York to participate in the service at Columbia.

Over the last decade the Institute's work has focused on one of the most neglected areas of Japanese religious and cultural history: the vital role of Japanese religious women and nuns in the establishment and spread of Buddhism in Japan, their con tributions as institution builders and patrons, and, specifically, the legacy of Abbess Mugai Nyodai as founder of a major network of convent-temples to which present-day Imperial Buddhist Convents trace back their roots. "To date the history of Japan ese Buddhism has been written based exclusively on the writings of Japanese monks and the study of the archives of male monastic institutions," said Professor Ruch. "The whole other half of religious history -- that of ecclesiastical women -- has been our challenge."

The 700th anniversary service will include special rituals by Abbess Shozni Rokujo of Domyoji convent, and offerings of flowers, incense, and arrowroot and green tea, the chanting of the Kannon Sutra, and the scattering of flower petals. Chief Abbo tt Keido Fukushima of Tofukuji Monastery will offer a geju, or song of veneration to a spiritual master, composed for the occasion, and a special incense burning of precious fragrant wood. Also participating will be Dr. Peter Haskel of The First Zendo of America, who will chant the Heart Sutra, one of the most fundamental texts of Buddhism.

The composer Yuriko Hase Kojima, a doctoral candidate in musical composition at Columbia and winner of the Rappaport Composition Prize, has composed a score, "Mind Mirror: Nyodai's Dream," expressly for the service, which will be performed on tradi tional Japanese and Chinese instruments, the shakuhachi, pipa and bass koto. Min Xiao Fen, from Nanjing, who has been a top prize winner at pipa competitions throughout China, will be among the performers. A resident of the United States since 1992, she h as performed with the Brooklyn Philharmonic and the San Francisco Opera Symphony Orchestra. Two well-known musicians will join her: Ned Rothenberg will perform on the shakuhachi and Masayo Ishigure on the koto.

The international conference on "The Culture of Convents in Japanese History" will open following the memorial service on Saturday from 2:30-6:30 P.M. in the Kellogg Conference Center, 15th floor, School of International and Public Affairs, 420 Wes t 118th Street between Amsterdam Avenue and Morningside Drive. The conference continues on Sunday and Monday as more than 60 scholars from Japan and the West will examine Abbess Mugai Nyodai and herlegacy and the role of nuns and convents in Japanese cult ural history, including the art, calligraphy and poetry produced by nuns over the centuries. The hours are 9:30 A.M. to 5:30 P.M. on Sunday, Nov. 22 and 9:30 A.M. to 2:30 P.M. on Monday, Nov. 23.

The exhibition of convent items, "Days of Discipline and Grace: Treasures From the Imperial Buddhist Convents of Kyoto," will be on display in the Kress Room and Rare Book Gallery of the Starr Library through December 4. Featured are 25 items, incl uding calligraphy, ritual objects, never-before-exhibited portraits of abbesses; furnishings of their daily lives, including books, games and utensils created over the centuries by the nuns themselves. The exhibition is open Saturdays and Sundays 1-5 P.M. , Wednesday 1-7 P.M. and Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, 11 A.M.-5 P.M. Closed Monday. Hours may vary. Call (212) 854-7403 to confirm hours.

The second exhibition, "Images of the Dharma: Buddhist Art from Columbia University Collections" will be on display November 13 through January 31 in the Rotunda Gallery of Low Memorial Library, Monday through Friday, 9 A.M. to 5 P.M. The show feat ures Buddhist sculpture from various Asian countries, gifts to Columbia from J.G. Stokes Phelps and Arthur M. Sackler.

Professor Ruch established an international research team that since 1993 has been studying convent archives in Kyoto that date back to the 13th century and are rich in historical significance. During the conference scholars from Europe and the Uni ted States associated with the Imperial Buddhist Convent Survey will discuss materials now emerging from their work.

The Institute's work on Buddhist convents began in December 1989 with a small academic conference in New York. "The great breakthrough came when, due to our research concerning Abbess Mugai Nyodai, the Imperial Convents in Kyoto, who consider her t heir spiritual founder, opened their doors to us," said Professor Ruch.

Abbess Mugai Nyodai (1223-1298) was the first female Zen master in Japan. She was a disciple and spiritual heir of the Chinese monk Wu-hsueh Tsu-yuan, who had been invited to Japan to teach Rinzai Zen, then considered by the Japanese shogunal elite to be the most advanced form of Buddhism. She became founding Abbess of Keiaiji, the highest ranking Zen convent in Kyoto.

The discovery of a life-size 13th century portrait statue of Abbess Mugai Nyodai, now designated an "important cultural treasure" by the Japanese government, was one of the initial revelatory events that drew scholarly attention to the female insti tutions of Buddhism and, more broadly, to the role of women in Japanese religious history. "In many ways, she has been the inspiration, or patron saint, to the Institute's research," said Professor Ruch.

A replica of the statue from the collection of the Kanazawa Bunko Museum will be on display on the altar during the service and will remain in the Starr Library through December.

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