Female priest’s service stretches back five decades

by Komaki Niregane

Kyodo

Hinonishi Koson, chief priest of Chugu Temple in the ancient town of Ikaruga, Nara Prefecture, has served at the temple for more than five decades.

“I must be the happiest person in the world as I am allowed to live each day in the arms of the Buddha,” says the 83-year-old priest who has served at the temple since 1961.

She recently compiled a photo book about her life at the temple, which is known for a Buddhist statue designated as a national treasure.

She hopes the photo collection, which is not for sale, will serve as “a useful reference to those who are destined to serve at temples” in the future.

Koson, whose grandfather was chamberlain to Emperor Mutsuhito in the Meiji Era, said she had no hesitation about becoming a priest at the temple, which has been served by daughters from Imperial and other noble families.

“When people heard the words ‘a nun,’ they may have a sad impression,” she said. “But as I had relatives who were nuns, I didn’t have any special feelings about them.

“Regardless of whether you are a male priest or female priest, your task should be to save people from pain,” she said.

Koson lost her mother when she was 3 and her stepmother during the war.

After becoming a priest at the age of 30, she trained and worked hard while loving the temple’s smiling Buddha as if it were her mother and hoping “to become a person whose existence simply can make people happy like the Buddha.”

But Koson thought of killing herself when she had problems in relationships at the temple and when her prayers were hampered by her earthly desires.

She also once attempted to leave the temple but realized what she had to do as a priest after being told by her teacher on Mount Koya, “You must sacrifice yourself to the temple even if it means it costs you your own life.”

After that, she spent 10 years building a training hall and started schools for children where they can experience what it is like to serve the Buddha and workshops for women where they can learn to be a nun.

Koson, a cat lover, cares for a black one named Nozomi (Hope).