The Urban Dharma Newsletter - October 25, 2006


In This Issue: Women in Buddhism

1. Thich Man Giac, 77; U.S. Buddhist Leader - By Mary Rourke

2. New Podcast - My interview with Rev. Sandra Yarlott

3. WOMEN IN BUDDHISM -- By Rev. Patti Nakai

4. WOMEN IN ZEN BUDDHISM: Chinese Bhiksunis


1. Thich Man Giac, 77; U.S. Buddhist Leader - By Mary Rourke, Times Staff Writer - October 20, 2006


Thich Man Giac, the Supreme Patriarch of the Vietnamese United Buddhist Churches of America, died Oct. 13 at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles. He was 77.

The cause was cancer, said the Rev. Chan Tu, an American Buddhist disciple of the patriarch. For some years Man Giac resided at the International Buddhist Meditation Center in Los Angeles.

In 1977 he was one of 79 Vietnamese who fled their country in a fishing boat, after he and other leaders of the Buddhist community sent government officials a list of 85 cases of rights violations against Buddhist monks, nuns and others.

The fishing boat was so crowded, "there was no room to lie down," Man Giac recalled in a 1978 interview with the Washington Post. "We were at sea for eight days."

The group landed in Malaysia, where Man Giac spent three months in a refugee camp before Thich Nhat Hanh, a prominent Vietnamese Buddhist monk living in France, arranged for Man Giac to go to Paris. From there he toured Europe with the help of Amnesty International and spoke about religious intolerance in his home country.

Man Giac had been a peace activist from the outset of the Vietnam War in the late 1950s. He went on a hunger strike in 1964 in solidarity with prominent Vietnamese monks in France and India to protest oppression of Buddhist monks, nuns and others by the Vietnamese government.

"His whole impetus was to end suffering in this world, a vow that all Buddhists take. Man Giac was not at all political," Chan Tu told The Times on Thursday.

Man Giac came to Los Angeles in 1978 and was appointed abbot of the Vietnamese Buddhist Temple that had been founded two years earlier by his longtime friend and fellow monk Thich Thien-An. There are now more than 20 Vietnamese Buddhist temples in cities throughout the United States.

Man Giac became a U.S. citizen in 1978.

Born Vo Viet Tin on Sept. 29, 1929, in Hué, Vietnam, he came from a traditional Buddhist family and was deeply drawn to the religion. He entered the monastery at 10 and was fully ordained at 20.

He went to Japan in 1960 to attend Toyo University in Tokyo, where he majored in Buddhist philosophy. After graduation he earned a master's degree in philosophy at the University of Tokyo.

He returned to Vietnam in 1967 and joined the faculty at the Buddhist Van Hanh University in Saigon. He taught philosophy and later became vice president of the school.

When he settled in Los Angeles, Man Giac worked with Vietnamese refugees, helping them locate relatives who were already in the city, as well as find temporary housing and jobs. He translated several Buddhist texts into Vietnamese and published a number of poems under the pen name Huyen Khong.

A wake for Man Giac will be held from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. today at the Vietnamese Buddhist Temple, 863 S. Berendo St. in Los Angeles.

A farewell ceremony is scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday at the Buddhist Chapel on the grounds of the Turner & Stevens Live Oak Memorial Park and Mortuary, 200 E. Duarte Road in Monrovia.

2. New Podcast at - www.DharmaTalks.infoMaking A Difference - 10/2006 - 49 min - MP3 - 11.4 MB ... My interview with Rev. Sandra Yarlott, Director of the UCLA Medical Center Spiritual Care Dept... Rev. Yarlott speaks on the challenges of running a Spiritual Care Dept. in Los Angeles... The importance of training new hospital chaplains and some of the religious issues patients face in getting well or dying.

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3. WOMEN IN BUDDHISM -- By Rev. Patti Nakai


Part One: Prajapati, the First Buddhist Nun

If anyone wanted to present Buddhism as a viciously sexist religion, they could easily do so by quoting out of context passages from numerous sutras or from more recent texts such as Shinran's wasan (poems) or the by-laws of the Shinshu Otani-ha (Higashi Honganji's denomination) which denies female clergy the same status as male priests. But I believe the essential spirit of Buddhism absolutely includes all beings, male and female, in its vision of enlightenment. If I did not believe in that then I would not want to be a part of this religious tradition. In this intermittent series, I hope to make it clear that women have always been involved in Buddhist history and that their role has been very crucial even if often overlooked.

The first Buddhist nun is said to be Prajapati, Shakamuni Buddha's aunt who had raised him after the death of his mother Maya. Instead of letting his dear stepmother join his Sangha when she asked to become one of his disciples, Shakamuni's response was a declaration of the mental inferiority of women, saying they lacked the capacity to understand and practice the teachings of non-attachment to self. The BCA Dharma School textbook, Long Ago in India, glosses over this harsh refusal with the argument of "a woman's place is in the home and she can be a good Buddhist there," the typical statement heard in the Japanese cultural context. However, in the U.S., the American followers of Tibetan Buddhism have been at the forefront of dealing with women's issues and their textbook presentation of Buddha's life for young people does not shy away from quoting Shakamuni's denunciation of women. They then go on to explain why they think Shakamuni spoke that way to his own aunt. From the time he was a boy, he was taught that women were only objects, like domesticated animals trained to breed, nurture and entertain men. From his stepmother to his wife, to all the dancing girls and servants of the palace, Shakamuni as a young prince viewed women only as creatures who lived for the rewards of pleasing men. In the Tibetan American book on Buddha's life, Shakamuni is not blamed for his sexist attitude but is recognized as someone whose cultural conditioning allowed for no other view.

Prajapati is reluctantly allowed into the Sangha after Buddha's cousin Ananda says, "Give women a chance; we cannot say for sure that they will fail unless they have a chance to study and follow the Dharma." Although Ananda had the same cultural conditioning as his cousin, here he speaks from his awareness of impermanence, that because of continual change, the world in each moment is new and we cannot judge the present based on the conceptions of the past. One concrete instance of impermanence which shakes up Shakamuni's view of women as pets/slaves of men is the death of his father. Prajapati now stands before him stripped of her former identity as mother and wife, no longer having a man for her life to revolve around. (As most people know, the ancient Indian custom was to throw the widow on her husband's funeral pyre since her life without a man was considered useless.)

It is my feeling that Prajapati was the person who fostered Shakamuni's interest in religion. Anyone reading the life of Buddha has to wonder why the young prince becomes so resolved to be a religious seeker when his father gave him a purely materialistic upbringing. Most ministers will say Shakamuni's spiritual sensitivity came about because of his mother's death, but Maya died when he was only a week old, too young to have much of a bond to her. Although the king surely grieved over the loss of his wife, it was not long before he had the perfect replacement for Maya - her younger sister Prajapati, called in to be his new consort and the nurturer of his son.

If anyone was greatly impacted by Maya's death, it had to be Prajapati. Because of her sister's sudden death, she had to give up whatever plans and dreams she had for herself and was expected to live up to the whole kingdom's expectation to be another Maya. The experience of impermanence- that Life does not go according to our own wishes - was clearly felt by Prajapati and to learn from it and somehow go on living, she must have had to seek spiritual guidance from the religious traditions of the time. The king probably had no use for such spiritual guidance except for gaining good luck in battle and fortune-telling, but for Prajapati, she needed to seek out something to make her disrupted life meaningful. If this view of Prajapati is true, it could explain why she was the first to ask the Buddha to become a disciple immediately after hearing his teachings, and persisted in her request even after his brusque refusal.

As for Shakamuni, he later came to appreciate more deeply the many elements that led him to his awakening, saying there were many Buddhas before him and that their legacy made his awakening possible. This legacy could not have come to him only during his six years of ascetic practice, but there must have been some prior exposure to the religious influences of his time. In his acknowledgment of this legacy, Shakamuni must have realized that the first woman he reluctantly let into the Sangha was actually his first teacher.

Obviously, Prajapati as the first nun, and the other women of the palace who joined the Sangha along with her, succeeded in breaking down Shakamuni's cultural conditioning and enabled him to see women as equal to men in their ability to grasp and practice the teachings. Shakamuni's sexist view had to have been completely eliminated by the time of the famous sutra stories of his encounters with women such as Kisa Gotami (in the tale of the mustard seed) and Queen vaidehi (Meditation Sutra). In those stories, he would have failed to relate to them if he had held any prejudices against them as women.

Part Two: Negative Depictions and Positive Contributions of Women in Theravada Buddhism

The historical Buddha, Shakamuni, enjoyed a life of complete freedom. He did not pursue or cling to luxuries that were unessential to his basic survival, but he also did not make a big fuss trying to avoid or refuse those things when he encountered them. However, in the earliest form of Buddhism, called Theravada (also known as Hinayana), there was a conscious effort to emulate the Buddha's sparse lifestyle as closely as possible. The ever-increasing amount of rules and regulations came to be known as the Vinaya. As all scholars of Buddhism are quick to point out, there were many more rules for women than for men; in one version, there are about 250 rules for monks and 348 rules for nuns.

Nuns and the Vinaya

Why were nuns more restricted than monks when, in Buddha's lifetime, the Sangha had transcended society's view of women as inferior? One reason, I think, was the way society treated nuns as opposed to monks. A monk going to meditate in the woods carrying only a begging bowl of table scraps would be an unlikely target for muggers. But nuns, wherever they went, were subjected to much harassment; the verbal taunts about their chastity, which Indian society considered unnatural, sometimes escalated into physical assault. Probably because of several violent incidents, monks were asked to chaperone nuns in their various activities in and out of the nunnery. The monks may have started out in the spirit of giving assistance to their sister disciples, but the Vinaya rules requiring a male presence at the nuns' religious ceremonies only reinforced the prejudiced view that women were unable to make any kind of spiritual progress without the guidance of men.

In an English translation of the Vinaya that I looked through at Otani University, I was surprised that many of the rules for nuns were about avoiding any behavior that could be taken as sexually suggestive. Some rules about what not to do were so graphic that it read more like someone's X-rated fantasies than guidelines to feminine modesty. This aspect of the Vinaya reflects the belief in ancient India that, because women existed mainly to please men and have babies, they were much more sex-driven than men. Due to this belief, the compilers of the Vinaya felt women needed many and more specific rules about controlling their sexuality than men did.

Women as Objects of Revulsion

I think most women would agree with me that it seemed to be the monks who had a problem with sex, rather than the nuns. This would explain why a large part of Theravada texts is devoted to the depiction of women as disgusting creatures too repulsive to touch.

A good analogy to this situation is the desperate dieter trying to imagine all food as oozing, rotting substances too nauseating to eat. Since sexual desires were considered a great hindrance in the striving for enlightenment, the monks believed the only way to eliminate their desire was to make the objects of their attachment less attractive in their minds. The historical Buddha used this approach in some instances. There was a courtesan who became a Buddhist follower and donated all her wealth to the Sangha. However, many males in the Sangha were too obsessed with her beauty and reputation to see her as a fellow disciple. When she died, the Buddha had her corpse put on display for those disciples and told them to observe the process of decay so that they would see how transient the qualities of beauty and sexuality were. Towards the woman herself, though, Buddha meant no disrespect - he knew that during her last years she had been a sincere follower of the Teachings. The problem for the Theravada monks was that in psyching themselves into seeing women's bodies as repulsive, they also came to see all other aspects of women as unworthy, making it increasingly difficult for monks to relate to nuns as human beings with the same religious aspirations as they had.

The Lost History of Theravada Nuns

According to research by female scholars of early Buddhism such as I.B. Horner, there were a large number of nuns during the first few centuries after Buddha's death. However, due to the growing hostility of secular society and of the monks, nunneries were phased out and eliminated. For almost two thousand years in India, the birthplace of Buddhism, and in Sri Lanka, where it first spread, there were no ordained women. Only in recent times has there been a reappearance of Buddhist nuns inspired by their sisters in other countries.

In the feminist view of world history, the accomplishments of women have been either ignored or appropriated by male-dominated cultures. This could very well be true for the early nuns. The only surviving text of Theravada Buddhism that is positively attributed to nuns is a compilation of songs. Who knows what other works they produced that were lost when Hinduism and Islam drove Buddhism out of favor in South Asia? It is unlikely that the monks trying to keep Buddhism alive were concerned with the works of women when so many other texts needed to be saved from destruction. Yet it is a testament to the nuns' spiritual insight and expressive power that their book of songs was respected enough to be preserved through all the upheavals in South Asia.

Part Three: The Power and Participation of Women in Mahayana Buddhism

In the last installment, I talked about the early form of Buddhism called Theravada ("the elders"). This form was later called Hinayana ("small vehicle") by the movement which developed a few hundred years after Buddha's death. This movement, known as Mahayana ("large vehicle"), grew as more and more serious seekers realized that Theravada's insistence on following hundreds of rules and suppressing physical desires was really an attachment to fixed ideas. What was desired was a path to experiencing the ultimate truth of impermanence which the Buddha taught. In Mahayana Buddhism, since discrimination between beings was a delusion that must be transcended, lay people had as much potential to be enlightened as clergy. "Lay" and "clergy" were only artificial categories created by karmic conditions. For women this meant a new opportunity to be recognized as seekers because women were less free to leave their obligations in the secular world than men.

Northern India (Ghandara)

While Theravada Buddhism became established in southern India and neighboring countries, Mahayana flourished in northern India. This region, called Ghandara, was active in the commerce along the route between the Mediterranean and China known as the Silk Road. With the interaction between people of various cultural backgrounds along the Silk Road, the people of Central Asia in the early centuries (A.D.) were more cosmopolitan than traditional. (Ghandara Buddhist sculptures are easily recognized for their Greco-Roman characteristics.) In the rising merchant class, it was the women who were very involved in supporting Buddhist temples. It may be crass to say, but because women were in a position of economic power, Buddhist institutions had to pay attention to their spiritual needs. This explains the emphasis on sutras featuring women such as the Meditation Sutra and the Queen Srimala Sutra.


Mahayana Buddhism spread to China from Central Asia. In China, one of the most powerful champions of Buddhism was the Empress Wu (late 7th century). She knew that a woman seizing control of the throne went against Confucian tradition, so she used Buddhist scriptures to justify her rule. Although she was ruthlessly using Buddhism for her own political gain, the new sutras which declared the spiritual potential of women benefited the nuns in various Chinese sects. It was not uncommon for nuns to practice and work alongside monks in the monasteries, and for male and female clergy to participate together in rituals. In Chinese temples, nuns enjoyed a high degree of respect and equality, a situation that was not to be in Japan.


Ironically, when Buddhism was first established in Japan in the 6th century, the three sutras emphasized by Prince Shotoku were the Lotus Sutra, Vimalakirti Sutra and the Queen Srimala Sutra. The latter two described the acceptance in Buddha's time of female seekers as being the equal of men.

In one episode of the Vimalakirti Sutra, a woman creates the illusion of changing bodies with one of the Buddha's disciples in order to prove that the physical form of a person has nothing to do with their spiritual insight. In doing this, the woman teaches the disciple that his prejudice against women was an attachment to fixed ideas, which goes against the basic Mahayana teaching of transcending artificial categories. (I have not read the Queen Srimala Sutra, but an English translation was published a few years ago.)

Unfortunately for women in Japan, a certain episode in the Lotus Sutra was used to justify discrimination against them in Buddhist institutions. In that episode, the Princess Naga, despite her devoted practice, is told she cannot attain enlightenment because her defiled female body is a hindrance. However, when she proves how earnestly she follows the Buddha's teachings, she is "rewarded" with the sudden transformation into a male.

During the Heian period in Japan, women produced honored literary works like The Tale of Genji. After that however, the position of women steadily declined. By the Kamakura period of Shinran's day, nuns were segregated from monks, and all women, clerical and lay, were out of consideration for enlightenment unless they could repeat the "miracle" of Princess Naga.

Shinran and the 35th Vow -- Revised September, 2002

So profound is Amida’s great compassion

That, manifesting inconceivable Buddha-wisdom,

The Buddha established the Vow of transformation into men,

Thereby vowing to enable women to attain Buddhahood

-- From Jodo Wasan (p. 341, The Collected Works of Shinran, Vol. 1, Dennis Hirota et. al., trans., Kyoto: Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha, 1997)

According to the ceremonial rulebooks for priests, the above wasan (type of Japanese verse) is supposed to be chanted at the funerals for women, but there was considerable objection to the practice in Japan and most temples in America tend to chant a more standard wasan at funerals regardless of the deceased’s gender. But the above wasan is important in revealing how Shinran felt about women who were very much alive.

In the Chinese version of the Immeasurable Life Sutra (also known as the Larger Sukhavativyuha Sutra), there are 48 vows made by the seeker Dharmakara to his teacher Lokesvararaja. The most essential of these is the 18th vow, known as Hongan (main-vow), where Dharmakara proclaims that his enlightenment cannot be complete unless he can be called by the Name "Namu Amida Butsu" (meaning, the one who bows down, namu, to all beings, Amida, as enlightened, Butsu).

In the same spirit of Hongan's reverent view of all beings as existing in the state of enlightenment (Pure Land), the other vows deal with overcoming specific forms of discrimination which prevent us from seeing certain people as Pure Land residents. For example, vow #3 deals with racism ("all skin colors will be seen as glowing like precious gold") and vow #38 deals with dress codes ("all garments will be considered acceptable for Buddhas to wear no matter how torn, discolored or dirty").

Although the 35th vow represents Dharmakara’s overcoming of his sexist view, in Japanese Buddhist history, the text of the vow has been interpreted as a rationale for discrimination against women. One widely accepted translation reads:

"If...women of the [Buddha-worlds] who, having heard my Name, rejoice in faith, awaken aspiration for Enlightenment, and wish to renounce womanhood* should be reborn again as women**, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment." -- (p. 37, The Three Pure Land Sutras, Hisao Inagaki, trans., Berkeley: Numata Center, 1995)

In the above interpretation, life as a woman is a terrible state of existence that must be renounced and avoided in future rebirths in order to attain enlightenment. You can see how this became a justification for Buddhist sects to limit the role of women in the temples. Yet at the same time, the men in control assured women that their contributions of money and labor to the temples were not in vain since they still had a future chance of salvation. With this attitude directed at them, women felt unworthy of enlightenment because of their female bodies. It was sad to read in one book about Japanese Buddhism that the writer overheard one female temple member say to another while hard at work at a benefit function, "I really hate being a woman, don't you?"

During my studies in Japan, I found there is a different way of interpreting the 35th vow. One of my professors at Otani University, Akira Hataya, said the use of the word nyonin in Chinese translations of Buddhist texts, though normally read as a compound noun "female-person" (i.e., woman), could also be read as an adjective and noun memeshii hito, "effeminate (weak, wimpy) person," referring to either a man or a woman. From this, I came to feel that Buddhist texts are not trying to exclude women from the path to enlightenment, but rather the Teachings admonish both sexes not to fall into the negative traits stereotyped as "feminine" - that is, being cowardly, manipulative, or parasitic on others. There are plenty of passages in the sutras which encourage both sexes to emulate the positive aspects of femininity - to be nurturing, compassionate and sensitive towards others.

From ancient times to the present, women much more than men have been relegated to the role of "sex object," existing only to be pleasing to men's sight and other senses. The woman who seeks enlightenment, however, must break free of the mad pursuit to live up to that stereotype, and see that she is not just an object for others' pleasure. In other words, in the enlightened world, the Pure Land, women will be seen and see themselves as human beings equal to men, not as inferior objects. See how different the 35th vow sounds when we put in an objectifying term such as "bimbo."

"May I attain the highest enlightenment only when women who hear my Name realize how demeaning it is to be seen as a bimbo and in their new life of seeking the Dharma, their joy and faith will keep them from ever wanting to be seen as a bimbo again."

Shinran in his day did not have the benefit of such a progressive interpretation, but he came to a similar conclusion through his own experience of the Nembutsu. Shinran did not question the prevailing belief that women were too defiled to be enlightened. However, to think that a woman's body would be more corrupt than a man's did not matter much when Shinran already felt that the human body itself was irredeemably corrupt - full of desires and angers which cannot be quieted for more than a few moments at a time. He questioned the claims that there were actual people who totally conquered their bodily functions and manifested the so-called "marks of the Buddha" (such as special swirls on the feet and the retraction of private parts).

According to Shinran, complete enlightenment cannot be attained as long as we exist as biological creatures, yet once we awaken to the truth that our individual lives are embraced by Infinite Life (Amida), it means complete enlightenment will definitely occur. Shinran often uses the phrase, "equal to Maitreya," meaning that despite our defiled bodies, we are on the brink of enlightenment like the prototype Maitreya, the "Buddha-to-be." To Shinran, since each "Buddha-to-be" will inevitably arrive at the Pure Land like Maitreya, they can start enjoying the benefits of enlightenment here and now, rather than waiting for the distant future.

This absorption of a future inevitability into the present moment also characterizes Shinran's attitude towards women. In the above wasan, Shinran praises Amida's power to change a being in a separate category labeled "women" to a someone in the same "Buddha-to-be" category of all men. Since Shinran believes this will definitely occur, he can consider all women as "Buddhas-to-be" equal to any man. The power of the all-encompassing Infinite Life breaks down what the people of Shinran's time saw as women's biological obstacle on the spiritual path.

I believe that due to cultural conditioning, some women may require different approaches to religion than most men, just like some Americans need to approach Buddhism differently than most Japanese. But whatever your gender, race, economic status, etc., the 48 vows in the Immeasurable Life Sutra point out that there is no discrimination against anyone on the path to spiritual truth. If anyone tries to tell you otherwise, be assured that the Buddha's words won't support them.


*In the Chinese text of the 35th vow, what Prof. Inagaki translated as "womanhood" is actually "female-body" (nyo-shin) which can be taken as the objectified physical form.

** Here the Chinese text has "female-image" (nyo-zo) referring again to the form seen as object and not to the real substance of a person.

Women In Buddhism, by Rev. Patti Nakai


4. WOMEN IN ZEN BUDDHISM: Chinese Bhiksunis in the Ch'an Tradition

 Heng-Ching Shih


The spirit of essential Mahayana Buddhist doctrines assumes equality between male and female, although in the mundane world the position of Buddhist women is lower than that of Buddhist men. The Chinese Ch'an Buddhist tradition, following the egalitarian teaching of One-Mind of enlightenment, advocates non-discriminating, universal Buddhahood accessible to every sentient being, whether male or female.

Nevertheless, women's status and spiritual capacities have not been upheld as highly in Buddhist history as they have by the Chinese Ch'an School. Although the Buddha acknowledges that "women, having gone forth from home into homelessness in the Dharma and discipline proclamined by the Truth-finder, are able to realize the fruit of stream-attainment or the fruit of once-returning or the fruit of non-returning or perfection,"1 women have not been regarded as equal in spiritual development in Buddhist literature.

Buddhist women in early Buddhism enjoyed a higher position than their later counterparts, yet in numerous early Buddhist texts they are portrayed as jealous, stupid, passionate and full of hatred. The prototypes for the negative image of women are the Daughters of Mara, Tanha (desire), Raga (lust), and Arati (aversion). Male practitioners who set their bodies and minds on the path to liberation were advised to keep women at a distance.2 Women are said to have five obstacles, namely being incapable of becoming a Brahma King, `Sakra` , King `Mara` , Cakravartin or Buddha. The body of woman is considered impure and shameful. In Mahayana literature we see a gradual evolution of a positive concept of women in terms of their wisdom and practice. This change is based on the doctrine and philosophy of Mahayana Buddhism. Whereas the pre-Mahayana literature represents the traditional views of an established monastic institution dominated by monks, Mahayana adovcates the Bodhisattva figure who embodies the highest state of wisdom and compassion in which all sexual and social discrimination ceases to exist. Every one, whether male or female, monk or layperson, is regarded as a potential Buddha. However, the Mahayana literature, although propounding an egalitarian view, does not unanimously uphold the equal status of women. The spiritual status of women is presented differently from sutra to sutra within the Mahayana tradition.3 Generally speaking, the Mahayana sutras which depict women's spiritual progress may be classified into four types, illustrating the gradual improvement in the attitudes toward women.4

1. The Sutras Which Hold a Negative Attitude toward Women.

In these sutras women are protrayed as representing the profane world, `samsara` , and thus as potential obstacles to spiritual growth. In the `Udayanavatsaraja-parivartah` (The Tale of King Udayana of Vastasa) from the `Maharatnakuta` we read,

Women can destroy pure precepts.

They retreat from doing merits and honor.

Preventing others from rebirth in heaven,

They are the source of hell.5

The Ta-cheng Chou-hsiang kung-te ching ( `Mahayana Stura` on the Merits of Making the Images of the Buddha) depicts women as narror-minded, jealous and hateful. They do not forgive nor repay kindness. Even if they seek Enlightenment, they are not persistent. It is true that Mahayana was more sympathetic toward women, still the element of misogyny remained in some of its literature. However, this extreme prejudice against women is no longer the predominent attitude.


2. The Sutras which Deny a Women's Presence in the Buddhaland.

The Pure Land scriptures are the most notable in this class. For example, the thirty-fourth vow of the `Larger Sukhavativyuha-sutra` states,

O Bhagavat, if, after I have obtained Bodhi, women in immeasurable, innumerable, inconceivable, immense Buddha countries on all sides after having heard my name, should allow carelessness to arise, should not turn their thoughts toward Bodhi, should, when they are free from birth, not despise their female nature, and if they being born again, should assume a second female nature, then may I not obtain the highest perfect knowledge."6

The `Smaller Sukhavativyuha` also explicitly declares that there are no women in the Pure Land. Although the possibility of being born in the Pure Land is not denied to women, the implication here is that a male-nature is necessary for progress on the Bodhisattva path in the Pure Land.


3. The Sutras that Accept Women as Lower State Bodhisattvas.

Most of the Mahayana sutras fall into this category. This includes such texts as the `Saddharmapundarika` , the `Sumatidarikapariprccha` , the `Astasaharikaprajna-paramita` , etc. In these sutras women are acknowledged as "good-knowing advisors" or spiritual "good friends" ( `kalyanamitra` ), but they are relegated to the lower Bodhisattva stages. To be consistent with the Mahayanist egalitarian view toward all sentient beings, the motif of sex transformation was introduced into these sutras. If a woman's virtue, merit and wisdom are extraordinary, she may, through a sex change, become a Bodhisattva or a Buddha in her present or future life. Transformation of gender symbolizes a transition from the imperfect condition of a human being represented by the female body to the mental perfection of a Bodhisattva and Buddha represented by the male body. Thus, in response to the challenge from `Sariputra` , who represented the traditionally negative attitude toward women, the Dragon Girl in the Lotus sutra, who is depicted as very intelligent and having penetrated into the most profound Dharma, changes herself into a male Bodhisattva and then immediately becomes a Buddha.7

Here the transformation of gender from female to male is a prerequisite for the Dragon Girl's realization of Buddhahood. Though the case of the Dragon Girl demonstrates the possibility of women's realization of Buddhahood, the notion of the dichotomy, namely, the notion of maleness and femaleness still exists. For more on the Dragon Girl theme see The Anonymous Bhiksuni.


4. The Sutras that accept Women as Advanced Bodhisattva and imminent Buddhas.

The `Vimalakirti Sutra` and the `Srimala Sutra` belong to this category. In these two `sutras` the position of the female reaches its hightest peak. The doctrinal basis for this culmination lies in the Mahayana doctrines of Sunyata (emptiness), `Tathagatagarbha` , non-duality, etc. Instead of attempting to identify maleness with Bodhisattvahood and Buddhahood, the sutras in this category claim that notions of duality--either male or female, subject or object, etc.--are merely mental attachments contradicting the teaching of emptiness. The characteristics of "maleness" and "femaleness" are simply illusory and irrelevant. On this basis, the female bodhisattva refuses to undergo sexual change. When asked by `Sariputra` to transform herself, the Goddess in the `Vimalakirti Sutra` said, "I have been here for twelve years and have looked for the innate characteristics of femaleness but have not been able to find them. How can I change them?"8 Then the Goddess changed `Sariputra` into a female. This is to reinforce her assertion that every one and every thing transcends gender distinctions when one views the world as empty. This Viewpoint is concretely illustrated by `Sariputra's` transformation.

The Ch'an School belongs to the tradition of `Tathagatagarbha` thought which advocates the universal enlightenment and the transcendence of differences in the realm of hsiang or external characteristics. No wonder that it is in the Ch'an School that Chinese Buddhist nuns received more recognition and respect than in any other schools. This positive attitude toward women is definitely related to the doctrines on which the Ch'an School is based.

Most of the records of the Ch'an Bhiksuni masters are found in the collections of biographies of the Ch'an masters, such as the Cheng-te ch'uan-teng lu, Hsu-ch'uan-teng lu (the Sequal of the Transmission of Lamp), Wu-teng-huei-yuan (the Collection of the Five Lamps), Wu-teng ch'uan shu (the Complete Collection of the Five Lamps), and many others. There are about three dozen of `bhiksunis` recorded in these historical Ch'an literature. Most of these records, with a few exceptions, are brief. They do not provide much information of life stories about these female Ch'an masters, but they contain their concise Ch'an talk. Of the recorded Ch'an bhiksuni masters, we find only Tsung-chih, Liao-jan, Liao T'ieh-mo, Yuan-chi, Shih-chi and the anonymous nun, who had an encounter with T'an-kung, are prior to the T'ang dynasty. The others belong to the five post-T'ang sub-sects of the Ch'an School, mostly Lin-chi Sect, of the Ming and Ch'ing dynasties.

In the teaching of the First Patriarch of the Ch'an School one finds the doctrine that laid the foundation of Ch'an's positive attitude toward women. The First Patriarch Bodhidharma's teaching is contained in the Two Entrances and Four Practices, which was recorded by his disciple T'an Lin and cited in the Leng-chia shih-tsu chi (Records of the Masters and Disciples of the Lanka School). According to this text, Bodhidharma taught that although there are many enter the Way, they can be summarized in two categories, namely, the Entrance by Principle and entrance by Practice.

The Entrance by Principle means to realize the Principle through the teaching (chiao), that is, to have a firm belief that all sentient beings possess the same true-nature, which however, is not manifested, because it is obscured by afflictions. If one is able to forsake the false, return to the true, abide in "wall-contemplation", reach a state of equality between oneself and others, the worthies and the worldlings, one is in accord with the Principle.9

The innately pure nature of enlightenment possessed by all sentient beings is the core of Ch'an teaching. It transcends all dualites and distinguishing characteristics ( `laksana` ), including maleness and femaleness. As the Sung Ch'an master Ta-hui Tsung-kao (1089-1163) said in his instruction to his female disciple Miao-yuan:

"Concerning this matter, every one is equal, regardless of being a man or woman, noble. Why? At the assembly for the preaching of the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha simply helps one girl to become a Buddha, and at the assembly for preaching the Nirvana Sutra, he only helps one butcher to become a Buddha."10

Again he said,

"Can you say that she is a woman, and women have no share [in enlightenment]? You must believe that this matter has nothing to do with [whether one is] male or female, old or young. Ours is an egalitarian Dharma-gate that has only one flavor." 11

Ch'an masters not only recognized women's spiritual capabilities, but also in some cases were so open-minded that they were willing to request instruction from `bhiksunis`. This liberal attitude toward women actually is consistent with Ch'an's anti-authoritorian spirit. The Ch'an literature mentions enlightened women who challenged, confounded and inspired monks to become enlightened. These records not only indicate the women's self-confidence and spiritual achievement, but also shows the liberal and open-minded attitude of the Ch'an School toward women.


The first `bhiksuni` mentioned in the Ch'an literature was a disciple of the First Patriarch of of Chinese Ch'an Bodhidharma, known as Tsung-chih. The Ching-te chuan-teng lu tells us that before returning to India after many years of teaching in China, Bodhidharma asked his disciples to relate their realization of the Dharma.

Tao-fu said, "I perceive that the Buddhist path is transcending language and words and yet not separating from language and words." Bodhidharma said, "You have attained my skin."

The Bhiksuni Tsung-chih said, "What I comprehend is like joyfully seeing the `Aksobya's` Buddha-land." After seeing it once, you never see it again.

"You have attained my flesh," said Bodhidharma. Tao-yu said, "The four elements are originally empty and the five aggregates are non-existent. Not even one thing of what I comprehend is attainable."

"You have attained my bone," said Bodhidharma. Finally Hui-k'o made a bow to the teacher and stood aside in silence.

Bodhidharma said, "You have attained my marrow."12

This is the story of how the Dharma was transmitted to the Second Patriarch Hui-k'o. Bhiksuni Tsung-chih was one of Bodhidharma's most advanced students. Although she was not the top disciple, the mere fact that she played a role in the scene of the Dharma-transmission is itself very significant. We might say this makes a good beginning for `bhiksunis` in the Ch'an tradition.


The most well-known female Ch'an master is Mo-shan Liao-jan.13 Her story is very revealing. Actually she is the only nun who is given a record of her own in the Ching-te ch'uan-teng lu. The story goes like this:

When the monk Kuan-ch'i Chih-hsien14 was travelling from place to place [looking for a teacher] he came to Mo-shan. Before [meeting Liao-jan, the abbess of Mo-shan] he said to himself, "If this place is all right, then I will stay. If not, then I will overturn the Ch'an plaftform (that is, show up the ignorance of the teacher)." So saying, he entered the hall.

Liao-jan sent an attendant nun to ask: "Are you merely sightseeing, or did you come for the Buddha Dharma?"

Chih-hsien replied, "For the Buddha Dharma." Liao-jan then ascended to her seat. Chih-hsien asked for instruction. Liao-jan asked,

"Where did you start your journey today?" Chih-hsien replied, "From the entrance to the road (lit., from the mouth of the road)."

Liao-jan said, " Why didn't you cover it?" Chih-hsien had no reply. He then for the first time performed a kneeling bow to her. He asked,

"What is Mo-shan (lit., summit mountain)?" Liao-jan said, "Its peak is not exposed." Chih-hsien said, "What is the occupant of Mo-shan like?" Liao-jan replied, "(S)he has neither male nor female form (hsiang.)" Chih-hsien shouted,

"Why doesn't she transform herself?" Liao-jan replied, "She is not a spirit, nor a ghost. What would you have her become?"

Chih-hsien at this could only submit. He became a gardener at the nunnery, where he stayed for three years.15

Later after Chih-hsien became a Ch'an master, he acknowledged Liao-jan's instruction to his disciples. He said, "When I was at Lin-chi's place I got half a ladle, and when I was at Mo-shan's place I got another half-ladle. Obtaining the full ladle that has enabled me to satisfy my hunger until today."16

The encounter of Mo-shan and Chih-hsien is very significant in that firstly, a Ch'an monk was, in his pursuit of enlightenment, was willing to break the tradition against a monk's learning from or bowing to a nun. Secondly, after obtaining enlightening instruction, he publically gave her credit, and lastly, the Ch'an School as a whole was willing to acknowledge the spiritual superiority of the nun by documenting this event.17

According to the tradition, the Buddha set eight rules as pre-conditions before he admitted women to the Sangha. These rules put the Bhiksuni Sangha in a subservant position to Bhiksu Sangha. Five of the rules specify that the bhiksunis should get instruction or certification from bhiksus on such matters as the Vassa, Uposatha ceremony, Upasampada initiation and so forth. Nowhere in the Buddhist scriptures does it indicate that a bhiksu should request instruction from a bhiksuni. The monk's bowing to a nun was unacceptable in Buddhist tradition. Thus, what Chih-hsien did represented a radical breaking away from male-dominant mentality.

However, one can still sense the attachment to the hsiang between male and female from the conversation between Liao-jan and Chih-hsien. Liao-jan's anwser of "its peak is not exposed" to Chih-hsien's question of "what is Mo-shan?" implies the invisibility or transcendence of hsiang. Yet Chih-hsien did not get the message. So he asked what the occupant of Mo-shan (lit. summit mountain) was like. In reply Miao-jan spelled out clearly that she (Mo-shan) had neither male nor female form. Still Chih-hsien was not satisfied with the answer and therefore pushed her further by asking her to transform herself. The implication was that to prove her realization, she should transform herself into a male before she could get enlightened as the Dragon Girl did. Liao-jan flatly rejected the idea. It is not known whether she had the supernatural powers to perform a sex transformation. But this is not the point. Her refusal to even accept the idea of the transformation indicates that she had already comprehended the irrelevance of gender to the realization of Buddhahood.

Another significant point that Liao-jan made in the encounter was that she had no interest in supernatural powers, because it had nothing to do with Enlightenment.

It is true that Buddhism teaches that after a practitioner achieves a certain degree of realization, spiritual power (siddhis) develops. An Arhat is said to possess six supernatural powers (`sadabhijna`): l. the ability to see anything anywhere, 2. the ability to hear any sound anywhere, 3. the ability to know the things in all other minds, 4. the knowledge of all former existences of self and others, 5. the power to be anywhere or do anything at will, and 6. the supernatural consciousness of the waning of vicious propensities. (for additional information and sources regard the above, please click footnote 18)(See also III. Chalabhinna (sixfold knowledge of the worthy ones) Number 5, above)

Even so, Liao-jan understood that it is through Enlightenment that supernatural powers are manifested, rather than that supernatural powers enhance Enlightenment. Furthermore, supernatural powers are not attainable exclusively by Buddhists. It is possible for anyone who has deep religious and spiritual cultivation to develop some kind of super-normal powers.

As mentioned above, the status of women culminates in the triumphant appearance of Srimala in the `Srimala-Sutra` and the Goddess in the `Vimalakir-nirdesa Sutra`. `Srimala`, an advanced female Bodhisattva, not only is the leading character in a Buddhist sutra, but actually teaches the very important doctrine of `Tathagatagarbha` thought, which happens to advocate the existence of universal Buddhahood. The Goddess, a symobolic figure, represents a liberal "feminist" who boldly teaches the doctrine of `sunyata` to `Sariputra` , a representative of the conservative traditon. It emphasizes that all conventional distinctions-maleness versus femaleness, good versus evil, `samsara` versus nirvana and so forth--are simply illusory. Liao-jan, although he lived in a male-dominated Chinese society, had fully comprehended the Buddhist teaching of `sunyata` and the unconventional spirit of Ch'an. She truly demonstrated that she had the same calibre, vision and insight as `Srimala` and the Goddess.

In Ch'an literature, Liao-jan's story was cited often in the Dharma-instruction given by Ch'an masters. For example, Hung-chih mentioned it several times in the Hung-chih Ch'an-shih kuang-lu.19 Ta-hui and Yuan-wu also recounted her story as examplary when they were giving instruction.20 This liberal and open-minded attitude is characteristic of Ch'an as is clearly illustrated in Ch'an Master Wu-hsiang's instruction to a woman.

The daughter of an official named Mu-jung was very interested in Buddhist teaching. She came to Wu-hsiang and said, "As a woman, I am not free in that I have the obstacles and The Five Hindrances. I am restricted by the female body. Now I come to you for the purpose of cutting off the source of transmigration [in the cycle of life and death]."

Wu-hsiang then said, "Since you have the aspiration [to seek liberation], you are already a great 'man'.....Non-thought is non-male; non-thought is non-female."21

As the story indicates, the woman had accepted the traditional image of women and the idea of the inferiority of the female body. To counteract this stereotyped misconception, Wu-hsiang pointed out that as soon as she had brought forth the aspiration for Enlightenment, she trancended the gender limitation. The realm of Enlightenment, which Wu-hsiang interpreted as non-thought, is neither male nor female.


It is interesting that a story with similar theme is also recorded in the Cheng-te ch'uan-teng lu. However, in this case, discrimination against bhiksunis is apparent, at least outwardly. When an anonymous bhiksuni wanted to give a formal Ch'an lecture, the monk T'an-kung said to her, " A `bhkiksuni` , as a woman, should not give a Ch'an teaching." The `bhiksuni` said,

"What do you have to say about the eight-year-old Dragon Girl becoming a Buddha?"

"The Dragon Girl can do eighteen kinds of transformations. Can you just make one transformation for this old monk?"

"Even one can transform oneself, one is nothing but a wild-fox spirit.22" said the `bhiksuni.

T'an-kung then kicked her out.23

From the dialogue we can see that T'an-kung, first of all, challenged the ability and right of the `bhiksuni` to teach. Then when she rebutted that even an eight-year-old girl can realize Buddhahood, T'an-kung brought up the traditional view of sexual transformation, which signifies the identity of maleness with enlightenment. Like Liao-jan, the `bhiksuni` simply denied the validity, relevance and necessity of such transformation. However, the two stories turn out differently. One ends in the monk's paying homage to the nun, while the other ends in the monk's kicking out the nun. When we say that the Ch'an School takes a more liberal and sympathetic attitude toward women, it does not necessarily mean that every Ch'an monk does so.


Page One

1. I.B. Horner, Tr. The Book of the Discipline, Pali Text Society, London, 1975, vol.5, p.354.

2. In the Sutra of Forty-two Sections, the Buddha said to the monks, "Be careful not to look at women. If you happen to see them, do not look at them . Be careful not to talk to them. If you talk to them, be sure to guard your minds and behaviors.

3. There have been many studies of Buddhist women by scholars in recent years. The following are just a few. Dianna Paul, Women in Buddhism, Lancaster-miller, 1980. Rita M. Gross, "Buddhism and Feminism�G Toward their Mutual Thansformation," Eastern Buddhist, no.1. (spring, 1986). pp. "Changing the Female Body�G Women and the Bodhisattva Career in Some `Maharatnakutasutra` ," Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, 1981.

4. Pual, Women in Buddhism, pp.169-171.

5. T. 11, p.543. (

6. F. Max Muller, Tr. The Bon-so-wa-ei Gappei Jodo Sun-bukyo, Taitong Press, 1961, p.390.

7. The Miao-fa lien-hua ching, The Lotus Sutra, T. 9, p.35.

At that time Shariputra said to the dragon girl, "You suppose that in this short time you have been able to attain the unsurpassed way. But this is difficult to believe. Why? Because a woman's body is soiled and defiled, not a vessel for the Law. How could you attain the unsurpassed bodhi? The road to Buddhahood is long and far-reaching. Only after one has spent immeasurable kalpas pursuing austerities, accumulating deeds, practicing all kinds of paramitas, can one finally achieve success. Moreover, a woman is subject to the five obstacles. First, she cannot become a Brahma heavenly king. Second, she cannot become the king Shakra. Third, she cannot become a devil king. Fourth, she cannot become a wheel-turning sage king. Fifth, she cannot become a Buddha. How then could a woman like you be able to attain Buddhahood so quickly?"

At that time the dragon girl had a precious jewel worth as much as the thousand-million-fold world which she presented to the Buddha. The Buddha immediately excepted it. The dragon girl said to Bodhisattva Wisdom Accumulated to the venerable one, Shariputra, "I presented the precious jewel and the World-Honored One accepted it - was that not quickly done?"

They replied, "Very quickly!"

The girls said, "employ your supernatural powers and watch me attain Buddhahood. It shall be even quicker than that!"

At that time the members of the assembly all saw the dragon girl in the space of an instant change into a man and carry out all the practices of a bodhisattva, immediately proceeding to the Spotless World of the south, taking a seat on a jeweled lotus, and attaining impartial and correct enlightenment. With the thirty-two features and the eighty characteristics, he expounded the wonderful Law for all living beings everywhere in the ten directions.

8. The Wei-mo-chi ching (`Vimalakirti-nirdesa sutra`), T.14, p.574b.

9. T.85, pp.1283-1291.

10.Ta-hui p'u-chueh ch'an-shih yu-lu, chuan 23, T.47, p.909b.

11.Ta-hui p'u-chueh ch'an-shih p'u-shuo, Dainihon zokazokyo 1, 31, 5, p.455a. The translation is taken from Miriam L. Levering, "The Dragon Girl and the Abbess of Mo-shan: Gender and Status in the Ch'an Buddhist Tradition," Jorunal of fthe International Association of Buddhist Studies, vol.5, no.1, 1982, p.20.

12.The Ching-te ch'uan-teng lu (thereafter abbreviated as CTCTL) , T.51, p.219b-c.

13.Mo-shan is also the name of the mountain where Liaojan lived. It is a Chinese Buddhist custom that monks and nuns are referred to by either the name of the place or the monastery where they live. See also Mo-Shan Liao-Jan

14.For Chin-Hsien's biography, see CTCTL, chuan, 12.

15.CTCTL, T. 51, p.289a. The translation is taken from Levering, "The Dragon Girl," p.28.

    16.Hsu Ju-chi, comp., Chih-yueh-lu (Taipei: Chen Shanmei cn'u pan she, 1959), chuan 13 (vol.2), pp. 932-933. (BACK)

    17.The famous Japanese Zen master Dogen was also very liberal with regard to paying respect to women or bhiksunis. He said, "When you make Dharma-inquiries of a nun who transmits the treasury of the eye of the true Dharma,....who has reached the stages of the bodhisattva's last ten stages, and you pay homage to her, the nun will naturally receive your homage."(Levering, p.30). See also: Dogen Zenji (BACK)

    18.Ma Tin Hla, M.A., THE SIX SUPERNATURAL POWERS OF THE BUDDHA, Vol. III, Nos. 4 & 6, 1958. Equally as important, please see also IN THE WAY OF ENLIGHTENMENT: The Ten Fetters of Buddhism. See as well THE FOUR TYPES OF ARHAHATS

The following should be of interest as well:


If a Bhikkhu should desire, Brethren, to exercise one by one each of the different Siddhis, being one to become multiform, being multiform to become one; to become visible, or to become invisible; to go without being stopped to the further side of a wall, or a fence, or a mountain, as if through air; to penetrate up and down through solid ground, as if through water; to walk on the water without dividing it, as if on solid ground; to travel through the sky like the birds on wing; to touch and feel with the hand even the sun and the moon, mighty and powerful though they be; and to reach in the body even up to the heaven of Brahma; let him then fulfil all righteousness, let him be devoted to that quietude of heart which springs from within, let him not drive back the ecstasy of contemplation, let him look through things, let him be much alone!

AKANKHEYYA SUTTA, Vol. XI of The Sacred Books of the East [14]

19.See T.48, p.16b, p.32b, p.42b, p.44c and p.47b. (BACK)

20.See the Hung-chih ch'an-shih kung-lu, T.48. p.32b. p.44c, and p. 94b. The Yuan-wu fo-kuo ch'an-shih yu-lu retells the story (T.48, p.779b.) (BACK)

21.The Li-tai fa-pao chi, T.51, p.192a-b. (BACK)

22.According to Chinese mythodology, the wild-fox spirit is capable of many kinds of self-transformation (BACK) . See also: ENLIGHTENMENT AND KARMA: Their Role in the Awakening Experience

23.CTCTL, T.51, p.294c.

PAGE 2: Continued


WOMEN IN ZEN BUDDHISM: Chinese Bhiksunis in the Ch'an Tradition

Heng-Ching Shih

Another nun who played an important role in the process of a monk's seeking for enlightenment is named Shih-chi. Her biography cannot be found anywhere in the Buddhist literature. However, she is mentioned in the biography of the monk Chu-chih. Chu-chih lived in a hut at Chin-hua Mountain. One day Shih-chi, wearing a bamboo hat and holding a metal staff,24 showed up in the front of his hut. She circumambulated Chu-chih three times and said to him,

"If you can say it, I will take off the hat [to pay homage to you]"

She asked three times, but Chu-chih was not able to say anything. As she was leaving, Chu-chih said to her,

"It is getting late. Please stay overnight.”

"If you can say it, I will stay," she said.

Again, he could not say anything. After the nun left, he said to himself,

"Although I have the physical form of a man, I do not have the insight of a man."

He then decided to leave the hut to look for teachers for instructions. However, that very night a mountain spirit told him that he did not need to go away, for a great monk would come soon. A few days later, a monk named T'ien-lung came to the hut. Chu-chih greeted him and told him about the encounter with Shih-chi. T'ien-lung said nothing, but pointed with one finger. Seeing this gesture, Chu-chih was immediately enlightened. After that, every time a monk came to him for Dharma instruction, he said and did nothing but point with one finger. His unique instruction was later called "One-finger Ch'an".25

As we can see from this story, `Bhiksuni` Shih-chi must have been an enlightened Ch'an practitioner and had enough confidence in herself to challenge a monk. What she pressed Chu-chih to express was his understanding of the essence of Ch'an; in other words, what insight he had attained. After he failed the test, he felt ashamed to have a male's body but not the insight of a male, while Shih-chi, who had a female body, had the insight of a male. His feeling reflects the male's sense of superiority. It was his sense of inferiority in terms of spiritual achievement that urged him to seek enlightenment. In this case, feminist insight plays a very positive and helpful role.

Again, there is an account of a nun named Yuan-chi, recorded in connection with a monk. According to the Fo-tsu-kuang-mu, Yuan-chi lived in Ching-chu Ssu and had practiced meditation in a cave at the T'a-jih Mountain.26 She and her brother, a monk named Yuan-chueh, had studied with Huei-neng, the Sixth Patriarch of the Ch'an School. She wrote a book called Yuan-ming-ke (the Sound of Perfect Enlightenment), which was said to be comparable in insight to the Cheng-tao-ke (The Sound of Realizing the Way) by the famous monk Yung-chia. Later, when Yuan-chueh died in Wu-t'ai Mountain, he stood upside down, and nobody was able to overturn his dead body. His sister Yuan-chi went to Wu-t'ai Mountain, scolded the body and knocked it down.27 This story showed that Yuan-chi had a better understanding of the spirit of Ch'an than her brother.

The Chiao-t'ai pu-teng lu recorded an encounter between Bhiksuni Yuan-chi and the Ch'an master Tsueh-feng Yi-ts'un. It says that Yuan-chi was ordained during the Ching-yun period in the T'ang Dynasty (710-711). After practicing meditation in the T'ai-jih Mountain for some time, she went to see Tsueh-fung. He asked her,

"Where did you come from?"

"The T'ai-jih Shan (the Mountain of Great Sun)," she replied.

"Has the sun risen?"

"When the sun has risen, it will melt Tsueh-fung (literally, the peak of the snow mountain)," she said,

"What is your name?" Tsueh-fung asked.

"Yuan-chi (literally, a good weaver)."

"How much can you weave a day?" Tsueh-feng asked.

"Stark naked," she said

After saying this, Yuan-chi paid her homage and went out. After she had taken a few steps, Tsueh-fung said, "Your robe is dragging on the floor. "Upon hearing this, Yuan-chi turned her head immediately and looked at the hem of her robe. Hsueh-fung burst into laught and said, "How stark naked!"28 In this story Yuan-chi and Tsueh-fung challenged each other to unveil the subtlety of Ch'an by using double-entendre, one of the typical techniques employed by Ch'an masters to instruct their students and also by the students to indicate their insight. By answering "stark naked", Yuan-chi demonstrated a good grasp of Ch'an's essence. Yet she instinctively turned around to check her robe when Tsueh-feng tricked her by telling her that it was dragging on the floor. This reaction, of course, shows that she was not completely free of attachment. Apparently, Tsueh-feng got the upper-hand in this "match".

Another Ch'an `Bhiksuni` master who had a difficult encounter with a enlightened Ch'an monk is Iron Grindston Liu (Liu T'ieh-mo). The dates of her birth and death are unknown. She lived in a hut ten miles from Kuei Mountain where the famous Ch'an master Kuei-shan Lin-yu (771-853 A.D.) 29 lived. She had practiced Ch'an for a long time and her insight was said to be very deep. One day she went to visit Kuei-shan. The Pi-yen lu records their conversation:

Iron Grindstone Liu arrived at Kuei-shan. (Commentary: Being unaware of the difficulty of getting accommodations, this old lady was out of her depth.)

Kuei-shan said, "Old cow, you've come!" (Comm. Check! A probing pole, a reedshade. Where should you look to see the obscurity?)

The Grindstone said, "Tomorrow there's a great communal feast on (Wu) T'ai Shan; are you going to go, teacher?" (Comm. The arrow is not shot to no purpose. In China they beat the drum, in Korea they dance. The letting go was too fast, the gathering in is too slow.)

Kuei-Shan relaxed his body and lay down. (Comm. The arrow got him. Where will you see Kuei Shan? Who realizes that in the far-off misty waves there is another more excellent realm of thought?) The Grindstone immediately left. (Comm. She's gone. She saw the opportunity and acted.)30

What is the meaning of all this? The author of the Pi-yen Lu cited a Ch'an master named Feng-hsueh who commented as follows:

Haven't you heard how a monk asked Feng Hsueh, "When Kuei-shan said, 'Old cow, so you've come' What was his inner meaning?" Feng Hsueh said, "In the depths of the white clouds the golden dragon leaps." The monk asked, "When Iron Grindstone Liu said, 'Tommorrow there's is a great communal feast on T'ai Shan; are you going to go, Teacher?' what was her inner meaning?" Hsueh said, "In the heart of the blue waves the Jade Rabbit bolts."The monk asked, "When Kuei Shan immediately lay down, what was his inner meaning?" Hsueh said, "Old and worn-out, decrepit and lazy, days without concern; lying idly deep in sleep, facing the blue mountains."31

`Bhiksuni` Iron Grindstone Liu was described as being like a "stone-struck spark, like a lightening flesh." What she said in the Ch'an conversation must mean something. Kuei Mountain is over six hundred miles from Mt. T'ai; how then did she expect Kuei-shan to go to the feast? The question was nothing but a response to Kuei-shan's statement on her arrival: one "gathering in", one "letting out". Kuei-shan answered her question by doing nothing but lying down. This is another "gathering in" and when she left in silent. this symbolizes "letting out". They "answer back to each other like two mirrors reflecting each other, without any reflection image to be seen."

Iron Grindstone Liu had another encoutner with yet another Ch'an teacher named Tsu-hu.

Tsu-hu said, "Are you Iron Grindstone Liu?"

She answered, "Yes."

Tsu-hu said, "Turn right and turn left."

She said, "Venerable, don't be upside down (meaning unreasonable)."

Tsu-hu then struck her.32

An encounter between the great master Chao-cho and an anonymous nun is recorded in the Wu-teng hui-yuan33. One day the nun asked Chao-cho, "What is the meaning of the secret meaning?" Chao-cho made a gesture of pulling out something. The nun said, "Your Venerable still has this." Chao-cho said, "It is you who still have this."34

The secret meaning here refers to the ultimate truth, which according to Buddhist teaching transcends words. This is why Chao-cho used a gesture, instead of words, to express the inexpressible truth. However, the nun disagreed that Chao-cho still needed a gesture to point out the ultimate truth, for the use of an action to indicate truth is unnecessary and, in fact, an attachment. Chao-cho refuted her by saying that her attachment to the notion of unattachment is an even greater attachment.

As we can see from the above disscussion, the tension between sexual discrimination and Buddhist ideals of egalitarianism exists throughout Buddhist literature, including the Chinese Ch'an tradition. Comparatively speaking, the Ch'an School espouses the most sympathetic and liberal attitude toward women. In a tradition full of misogynist prejudice, as found in Chinese society, it is very significant that Chinese Buddhist women not only found their places on the path leading to religious fulfillment and self-realization, but also have played an active and instructive role in helping their male counterparts to achieve their religious goal. When one's genuine spiritual achievement, rather than human gender and social status, is taken as the sole criterion, human civilization makes a great step forward. For making this contribution, the Ch'an School deserves recognition.


24.The metal staff is one of the eighteen items that a monk or nun can possess. It is partly of metal, expecially with metal rings for shaking to announce one's presence. It is also used as symbol for the expulsion of demons.

25.CTCTL, chuan 11, T.51, p.288a-b.

26.See Ku-chin tu-shu chi-cheng, vol.63, p.24.

27.There is a very similar story recorded in the Sungkao-seng chuan. Ying-fung was a Ch'an monk who had received instruction from Ch'an master Nan-chuan. From his meditative practice, Ying-fung attained some supernatural powers. Once he saw two armies fighting each other. In order to stop the fight, he flew over the battlefield and the soldiers were too busy looking at him flying to fight. He did many unusual things like this. To show his miraculous power, he died standing on his head and nobody was able to overturn him. His sister was a nun, who came and scolded him, "Old brother, when you were alive you did not behave according to the rules. Now when you died, you still want to show off and confuse people." After saying this, she touched the body lighly, and it fell down immediately. (T.50, p.847a) (BACK) See also: Do You Think Flying in the Sky Is Magical?

28.The Chia-t'ai p'u-teng lu, chuan, 24, vol.137, p.170.

29.Lin-yu (771-853) was the fourth generation after the Sixth Patriarch. For brief online biography click HERE.

30.The Pi-yen-lu, T. 48, p. 164-165. The translation is taken from Thomas and J.C. Cleary, tr., The Blue Cliff Record, Shambhala, London, p.159.

31.Ibid. p.163. (BACK)

32.The Is'ung-yung-lu, T.48, p.264c-265a.

33.The Wu-teng huei-yuan is a collection of five separate records. They are kthe Ch'uan-teng yu-yin chi, T'ien-sheng kung teng lu, Chian chung ching kuo chu teng lu, Tsung-men lien teng huei yiao, and Chiat'ai p'u-teng lu. It was compiled by T'ai-ch'uan Pu-chi of the Sung dynasty and was published in 1253 A. D. It includes most of the important masters of the five Ch'an sects up to the Sung dynasty. (BACK) See also: ENLIGHTENMENT: Can You Do It?

34.See Ch'an yuan mung ch'io, Dainihon Zokazokyo, vol.148, p.133.


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