by Dr Lai Suat Yan
This article is written by Dr Lai Suat Yan in conjunction with 2014 International Bhikkhuni Day Celebration at Gotami Vihara Society Malaysia Honouring Eminent Asian Buddhist Women in the Modern Era.
“Can a woman can be a priest in Buddhism?” and “What is Buddhism?” were some of the questions directed at Rev. Ikuko Hibino when she was studying language in France. These queries and the suggestion that she became a priest irrespective of her marital status piqued her curiosity and planted the seeds for her eventual path to be one. While her father is the head priest of the Kayadera Temple in Kuramae, Tokyo, as a woman she is expected to marry a priest who will eventually succeed her father. This is due to the cultural succession of temples that passes along the male lines. Although there is no prohibition for women to be priests in the Jodo school, this cultural practice is the mechanism in operation. Furthermore, a wife of a priest is generally expected to play a supportive role and produce male heirs to succeed the temple. In this context, Rev. Ikuko Hibino’s aspiration to be a priest was and still is an uncommon one.
As a university student, she majored in English literature in Atomi Gakuen Women’s College. Following her father’s footstep and recommendation she studied the English poet, William Wordsworth. She is considered an obedient daughter and while happy with her literary study, part of her wanted to do something different. She became involved with a theater group that she joined every afternoon after her classes. Her father sometimes attended her theater performances. It was her dream to become a theater producer then. Unfortunately, her father had a heart attack and passed away the year she graduated. She suffered as things were good for her until then. As she described it, “It was like a clear sky was suddenly covered with a black cloud.” This prompted her to think and find a meaningful life for herself. Her uncle then succeeded her father until she married a priest. She took the time to travel and examined herself and her culture from outside of Japan in different contexts, first to England and then later to France, also to attend a language school.
The questions and suggestions posed to her in France related to Buddhism and the possibility for a woman to be a priest led to her joining a training course organized by the headquarters of Jodo school after her return. She completed the three yearly sessions of training which included reading sutras, chanting meditation, Buddhist philosophy and history as well as performing Buddhist ceremonies and hymns. At the end of each of the yearly training course there were exams which she passed. After that she attended a final retreat course and the qualification as a Jodo school priest was conferred upon its completion. So, at age 26, in 1975 Rev, Ikuko Hibino officially became a priest. It took nearly 30 years later before she moved up the ranks and be certified as the chief priest of the Kayadera temple in 2002.
While there were those, usually male priests or lay people, who were not supportive of her decision to be a priest, they were in the minority and she did not heed them. Instead she focused her attention on 90 per cent of those who supported and protected her. Those supportive told her that if she needed help and if there was anything or custom she did not understand or not used to in the priest group, she could always asked them. In this context, she is thankful to these priests who were kind and protected her. Indeed, Rev. Ikuko Hibino was fortunate as she did not face any legal challenge to her succession of the temple as could be faced by a female priest. Or this could be analyzed as the testament of her ability to win over those around her.
The institutional practice of Buddhism is gendered male in another aspect–besides the succession of temple along male lines–as generally men are the ones allowed to lead in a religious ceremony as the pitch favored is that of the male voice. In this context, women faced an additional challenge but Rev. Ikuko Hibino surmounted this as well. According to her, “My voice is not different from that of a male priest, when we read the sutra, it is the same as male priests’ voice. Very often, women cannot…I was trained by an opera singer for that pitch when I was younger.” While changes may be forthcoming with the discussion of having two keys at the Jodo school headquarter, it is clear that the path to be a priest is much more difficult for women. Given these circumstances, there is a scarcity of female priests in comparison to male priests. In the area surrounding Rev. Ikuko Hibino’s temple in Kuramae, there are 36 Jodo sect temples but only two of the chief priests are female.
Rev. Ikuko Hibino’s presence signifies the possibility for women to be a female priest, rare as it maybe. She serves as a role model for other women in the Jodo sect in particular and younger female priests in this tradition consult her when needed. In addition, female Buddhists followers of her tradition or other tradition also consult her on various issues.
Service to All Beings Nationally and Internationally
Rev. Ikuko Hibino, like her male priest counterpart, conducts funeral rites and memorial ceremony for families of the departed. As the chief priest she oversees the development of the temple and presides over various Buddhist rituals and ceremonies such as the Ojuya ceremony that pays homage to the Buddha or the Segakie (hungry ghosts) ceremony. In addition, she is also a dharma speaker and a counselor. Trained as a counselor in the neuro-linguistic tradition she attends to those with problems by active listening and using language to encourage those suffering to open up, talk more, explore and find the answer that is within them.
From 1981-1989, she was the international committee member of the All Japan Young Buddhist Association and embodying the spirit of compassion was involved in refugee relief work at the Cambodian border. During this period, she was active in various international exchange activities with, for example, the Malaysian Youth Buddhist Association, Thai Youth Buddhist Association and the Taiwanese Youth Buddhist Association to foster international understanding. Besides her leadership ability, she is in a unique position to contribute at the international arena due to her command of English. From 1988-1990, she was the Deputy Secretary General of the World Fellowship of Buddhist Youth with objectives that includes promoting unity and solidarity among Buddhists globally, promoting peace and harmony among Buddhists youth as well as carrying out activities in various spheres from a humanitarian angle. As the Chairperson of the Standing Committee for Humanitarian Services of the World Fellowship of Buddhists, she chaired the adoption of the resolution to extend humanitarian services to all living beings to promote and strengthen animal welfare in 2012. The resolution was sponsored by Mr. Senaka Weeraratna of the German Dhammaduta Society.
Reflecting her leadership qualities, openness to the diversity of culture and Buddhist traditions, since the late 2000s she has been one of the Board of Directors of the International Ladies of Buddhist Association, Japan. The association organizes cultural, academic and educational activities to learn and educate others of the Buddhist culture and practices of various denominations to promote understanding and transcend differences. One of the tasks of the organization is to nurture female Buddhists to be future leaders of society. As a female Buddhist priest in a leadership position, Rev. Ikuko Hibino’s contribution is invaluable particularly, in a world marked by differences of various kind, be it gender, nationality, sectarianism, race, economic or culture.
Dr Lai Suat Yan
Vice-President Gotami Vihara
and Asian Public Intellectual (API) Fellow Year 13 (2013/14)
Materials for write-up was collected during the API Fellow grant
 For this sharing and more details please see the article by Rev. Ikuko Hibino on the Jodo school website http://www.jodo.org/events/buddhism_8.html in an article titled “The Daily Life of a Female Buddhist Priest”.
 For details see Janaka Perera, “World Fellowship of Buddhists takes steps towards promotion of animal welfare,” LankaWeb, 22 July, 2012 at http://www.buddhistchannel.tv/index.php?id=43,11001,0,0,1,0#.VAi1z_ldVwY accessed 11 August, 2014.
 For details of ILAB and its inauguration see Padmasari, Vol. 11, June 2009.