Can Nuns Get Married (academically)?

A lot of people have been asking me these days if nuns can get married. When people ask me this, I’ve come to realize that sometimes the question is academic, and sometimes it’s personal. The academic version wants to know something like, “What are the precepts for monastics in Japan? Are they different for men and women? What is the societal expectation? What is the history?” But then there are other people who are asking if I personally want to get married. I’m going to try my best to answer this question the “objective” or “academic” way, because I don’t really feel comfortable discussing the other one openly on the internet. Another related question I get a lot these days is “Are nuns celibate?” which is… uh… usually NOT an academic question. It’s usually men asking. And so I will tell you that the answer to that question is the same as the koan “Does a dog have Buddha-nature?” 

But the marriage question I will try my best to actually answer. Let’s start with terminology. The word “nun” is the translation of the Japanese “nisou” (尼僧), which literally means “female monastic.” It’s an imperfect word because it brings to mind the image of cloistered, Catholic nuns. But it’s the most accurate term, and, importantly, it’s the term Japanese nuns use to describe themselves when speaking in English. A gender-neutral term we also use is “obousan” (お坊さん), which is probably the word that gets translated into English as “priest.” The precepts for male and female obousan in Soto Zen are the same. At the time of ordination, obousan take the 16 Bodhisattva Precepts and shave their heads. There are a lot of translations and interpretations of the precepts, but here is a link to the party line. 

Hardly anyone interprets the precept about sex to mean celibacy these days, especially since most monks marry. For hundreds of years in Japan, though, this wasn’t the case. The precept about sexuality meant celibacy, and this was actually enforced by the government as well as the sangha. If a monk or nun had sex, they were breaking the law. There were so many infractions though that this law was repealed in 1873, along with the prohibition against eating meat. Male monastics responded by getting married in steadily increasing numbers. The same law was lifted for women a few years later, but nuns did not start marrying.

So the easy answer to the question “Can nuns get married” is “yes.” There is no law against nuns marrying, nor is there a precept against having sex. Nuns can do anything. Nuns are women, and human beings, and as adults living in the free world we “can” do anything within the limitations of the laws of physics. We can jay-walk. We can eat chocolate for breakfast. We can wear T-shirts. We can get married.

But most of us don’t.

I don’t know a single nun in Japan who’s gotten married after she’s ordained. I know OF one woman. Only one. She married a monk. I'm sure there are a couple more like her out there. More frequently, married women will ordain after their children are grown, but even this is kind of rare. So it does happen, but very rarely. 

The culture at the women’s monastery emphasized life-long devoted practice. Nuns take pride in being nuns full time— in not getting married, in shaving their heads, and in wearing monastic clothing even after they leave the monastery. Aoyama Roshi speaks pretty openly and explicitly about how “true monks and nuns” shouldn’t get married. She believes that we are descendants from the historical Buddha, and that even though this is Mahayana Buddhism, we have an obligation to uphold the teachings and practices of the original sangha. Celibacy is a big part of this because it's how the Buddha and Dogen believed we should practice. For most nuns, there is no conception of “family time” versus “practice” or “monastery time.” Being a nun is full-time, for life. 

Another reason for not marrying is practicality, personal ambition, and economics. Most of my teachers at Nisodo are nuns over the age of seventy, who would have grown up at a time when women did not have opportunities to have careers or even necessarily pursue higher education. Becoming a nun provided another option. Aoyama Roshi was one of the first women to ever receive the equivalent of a Master’s degree from Komazawa Daigaku, the Soto Zen University. She was of course unmarried at the time- it’s hard for me to imagine what Japanese man, in the 1950’s, would have allowed his wife to get a Master’s degree in Buddhist studies instead of raising his children. Other nuns of that generation established missions and temples internationally- something that would be unthinkable had they had family obligations. By not marrying, nuns had the opportunity to educate themselves, work and travel in the world, and make their own choices. As the scholar Paula Arai wrote in a review of Richard Jaffe’s book on clerical marriage, “Men escape domestic duties by marrying. Women escape domestic duties by taking monastic vows!” 

The issue of marriage and celibacy keep coming up for me because they are the focal point around which most of my questions about Buddhism resolve. Questions like, what are we doing? What is the Buddha-way? Is it something that we make by walking or something that we follow? Dogen wrote that the Buddha-way is right under our feet, so one way of viewing this is that we are discovering for ourselves what leads to liberation. We make the road. But he was also pretty clear about the importance of following the way of the Buddhas and ancestors. For Dogen, and for others like him, the Buddha-way is what the Buddhist ancestors before him did. In Zuimonki he wrote, "Even if it is difficult to do or to endure, you should do it being forced to by the buddha-dharma. Even if you really want to do something, you should give it up if it is not in accordance with the buddha-dharma." So how can we say that this path is something we make by walking? If we're not actually following a predetermined path, can we say that we're practicing the Way? 

It seems pretty clear to me though that within traditional, religious, Japanese culture, there is little to no conception of interpersonal, intimate relationships as a site of personal growth. I’m not sure there’s even a concept of “personal growth”- that idea seems like something that originated in a Northern California meditation center. And I should know- I grew up in San Francisco with hippie, Buddhist parents. My parents have been together for more than thirty years and always used their relationship as a way to improve themselves, to become better communicators, to learn about their own faults and grow spiritually. They quote Rumi and Rilke to each other. A lot. This is the view of intimate relationships that I have inherited. 

But I’m pretty sure that this kind of partnership didn’t exist throughout most of Japanese history (does it exist in Japan now?). The monk who ordained me, for example, grew up in a temple. His father married his mother in an arranged marriage. When his father went to pick up his mother for the first time from the train station, he brought a cow with him for her to ride on. He was too poor to own a horse, so she had to ride a cow from the train station, up the mountain to the temple. She always remembered that she had to ride a cow to the temple, and would tell her kids that story. She was unhappy in the marriage. When her husband wanted something, he would just ring a bell and she would come to him. I think this must have been a pretty standard marriage in Japan at the time, and not so much has changed since then. Actually, the birth rate in Japan is declining because fewer and fewer women are getting married, and they are having children later. Women don't seem to want to get married in Japan.

So I’m conflicted. On the one hand, I do believe that intimate relationships are useful. I watched my parents grow and become better people through their marriage, and I’ve also been in love and been changed by that. And this is not Kamakura-period Japan.

On the other hand, I know that if I really want to learn something, it’s better to just concentrate on that one thing. There is nothing for me quite like just doing Buddhism. Just living in a monastery. Just being a nun. There is no substitute for me emotionally and spiritually than that all-encompassing, all-consuming level of dedication and concentration. If I am thinking and worrying about a partner, I can’t do that. I have to divide my time. And what if I don’t want to divide my time? I’m also beginning to suspect that for me there is no one man, and no possible intimate relationship, that would be more fulfilling in the long run than studying the Buddhadharma. Nothing compares. How could one human be better than the entire dharma?

I don’t want to get married, and I probably won’t, but not because I’m a nun. I don’t want to get married because... well, you can look at this feminist Ryan Gosling picture and get an idea. And I feel really Joni Mitchell about marriage. You know, “We don’t need no piece of paper from the city hall, keeping us tied and true.” I've pretty much always felt this way, even before I started practicing Buddhism. 

But love, on the other hand… love and attachment I have no control over. I can’t chose who I love, or when, or why. Delusions are inexhaustible, and I'm worried that until some chemist invents a drug to suppress the production of oxytocin, I’m totally screwed.

Oops, so much for being academic about this.


  1. Very nice blog! You could even write a book I suppose

  2. My teacher was a Soto zen priest. She was confident in being celibate. She was proposed by a famous priest of a different sect. He had been celibate until old. But when he met her, he decided to propose her.
    She refused his proposal. She could have married him after returning to lay life and supported that famous priest' religious life. I don't know the reasons of refusal. She knew her religious life was very important though people didn't understand it. When she died many people gathered for the funeral and understood something very important disappeared.
    What disappeared. I don't think it was not necessarily religion. Utiyama roshi wrote many books on Zen. He said about her. She does't talk a lot, even never writes a book.
    But when one sees her life , one can understand how good a Buddhist life is.
    She lived old style Buddhist life. People have forgotten it. In today's materialistic society ,people say it was a poor life. But it was not of that kind.

    Does a dog have a buddha nature?
    It is a strange koan. What is the meaning of the koan?
    When we chant "shujo" , it means all the creatures , doesn't it?

  3. "How could one human be better than the entire dharma?" It is my good fortune that one human being can be the entire dharma.

  4. wow - i'm such a dinosaur i don't know how to make a comment on this blog so i don't know if you will actually be able to read this. but i LIKE it!! really appreciate all your mulling, speculation, and ideas. lots of insights, lots of information, lots of intuition. keep it up. and THANKS!!

  5. 'On the other hand, I know that if I really want to learn something, it’s better to just concentrate on that one thing. There is nothing for me quite like just doing Buddhism. Just living in a monastery. Just being a nun. There is no substitute for me emotionally and spiritually than that all-encompassing, all-consuming level of dedication and concentration. If I am thinking and worrying about a partner, I can’t do that. I have to divide my time. And what if I don’t want to divide my time?'
    I find this sort of attitude dualistic and narrowminded on the one hand- as if there is anything in anyone's life that is not dharma springing forth- and on the other personally offensive- as if someone living in a monastery, simply by the virtue of doing so, is more dedicated to the practice than someone who isn't. My struggle to be awake every moment in the face of my selfishness while stumbling out of bed, navigating a crowded city to get to my job and having a fight then makeup sex with my girlfriend is the exact same struggle that a monastic undertakes. I've always believed that Zen needed the west with its democracy, socialism and feminism as much as vice versa, so it's a little frustrating to read westerners who 'go Japanese' and take the discourse around lay vs monastic practice back a century or so.


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