Ama (nun) (尼)

An ama is an unmarried woman over the age of 20 or a woman who becomes a priestess after the period of Shamini (a female Buddhist novice), even though she has been married. She is also called Bikuni. A nun of Christianity is also called Ama in some cases.

The type of woman who had her hair cut around shoulders was called 'Amasogi,' and girls with such a hairstyle were called 'Ama' in some cases. Additionally, in recent times the word 'ama' was used in reference to a prostitute girl or woman.

The origin of the word 'ama'

The origin of the word 'ama' could be considered a transcription of the slang expression of 'ambaa' in Sanskrit, which means 'a good woman.'
Originally it meant Bikuni (bhikSuNii in Sanskrit) and a female Buddhist disciple opposite Biku, a male Buddhist disciple.

According to tradition, the first Bikuni were Makahajadai, Mahaprajapati, (Mahaaprajaapatii in Sanskrit), Shaka's adopted mother, and 500 women of the Shaka clan. Shaka did not permit women to become priestesses at first, but admitted them based on their passion and meditationof Anan (Ananda) on the condition that they would keep eight promises, such as respecting Biku without slander. By this, Yashotara (Yashodhara), Shaka's ex-wife, Bhadraa-Kapilaanii, ex-wife of Daikasho (Mahakasyapa), and Sama (Ksemaa) who was the princess of Bimbisara, Sister Uppalavanna and others became priestesses one after another and established a priestess group.

Ama in Japan

In Japan Ama generally means a woman who becomes a priestess, shaves her head, puts on clerical garment and practices ascetic training at Ama-dera Temple. They are called Ama Nyudo, Ama Nyobo, Ama Goze or Ama Midai and so on.

The first ama in Japan were three women including Zenshin-ni, a daughter of Tatto SHIBA, who SOGA no Umako made them become priestess in 584. They crossed to Kudara in order to learn Buddhism precepts (戒法), and lived at Sakurai-ji Temple after their return to Japan in 590. At the beginning of Buddhism in Japan, the ama seemed to play the same role as a shrine maiden who worshiped God. In 741 provincial monasteries were built around the country by an order of emperor Shomu, and provincial monasteries were built at the same time. However, in accordance with the idea of the guard of nation becoming stronger, people tended to dislike that women (including ama) approached Buddhism from the standpoint of emphasizing that priests kept the precepts of Buddhism. Therefore, giving Buddhist precepts (授戒) against ama was rejected and ama had been denied as priestess in Buddhism society for a long time in spite of the fact that there were many ama at that age. Against this situation, Princess Shoshi, the empress of Emperor Junna, tried to make Kaidan (Ama Kaidan), the Buddhist ordination platform for women, but due to objections she could not. FUJIWARA no Shoshi (a daughter of FUJIWARA no Michinaga), of the Palace of the Empress of Emperor Ichijo, placed Ama Kaidan at Hojo-ji Temple, which was built by Michinaga, when she became priestess in 1027, but it was lost in the devastation of the temple. In medieval times, aristocratic women could become 'ama' called Sage Ama by having her hair cut around shoulders (of course they couldn't become ama formally because they could not be given the precepts of Buddhism). Subsequently this custom became widespread, and women who were bereaved of husbands, divorced or had grown old were called 'ama' based on their appearance. For example, Masako HOJO, a wife of MINAMOTO no Yoritomo, became an ama and was called Ama Shogun because she wielded influence over government.

Kamakura new Buddhism regretted the former position to depreciate women and preached to relieve women, and Honen showed deep sentiment against Ama Nyudo, which was seemed to be a slang term for fools, as it were. In addition, Eison built Ama Kaidan at Hokke-ji Temple, which was the Great Head Temple of old provincial nunneries, when it was rebuilt (in 1249). Influenced by the missionary works of his Shingon Risshu sect, giving Buddhist precepts to ama had been gradually admitted. In the Kanakura and Muromachi periods, Ama Gozan was determined in Kyoto and Kamakura.

A private shrine maiden, married with an itinerant Buddhist monk of Shugen, performed worship and divine revelation together, and also adopted the custom of having her hair cut so that a Shugen shrine maiden was called Bikuni. Such bikuni went around the country, which led to the creation of the Haooyaku-bikuni (Yao-bikuni) legend.

Kumano-bikuni, who propagated the Kumano faith in various places, lectured on Rokudo-zu (i.e., paintings of the six paths of existence) are also called the "six realms" of reincarnation or Kumano Mandala (i.e., devotional paintings of the three shrines of Kumano). During the Edo period, Uta Bikuni who served at a banquet appeared and some ama fell into prostitution.

Ama was seen in nearly every Buddhist sect in Japan, but after the Meiji Restoration the values of patriarchal authority based on Confucianism became widespread among people other than those of the former warrior class, so there was an example that ama was abolished, such as occurred in the Nichiren Shoshu sect in the Showa period, when nationalism also became influential.