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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` , personified as Lust, Greed and Craving. 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.

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 Bodhidharma's disciple Tsung-chih. Her life-story is unknown. 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 Huei-k'e 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 Huei-k'e. 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 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.18 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. In some cases even non-human beings, such as gods, spirits or ghosts, have supernatural powers that ordinary human beings do not have. This is why she insisted that she was neither a spirit nor a ghost.

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 Ching-t'e chuan-ting 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.


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

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. (BACK)

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 FeminismˇG Toward their Mutual Thansformation," Eastern Buddhist, no.1. (spring, 1986). pp. "Changing the Female BodyˇG Women and the Bodhisattva Career in Some `Maharatnakutasutra` ," Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, 1981. (BACK)

4. Pual, Women in Buddhism, pp.169-171. (BACK)

5. T. 11, p.543. (BACK)

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

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

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

9. T.85, pp.1283-1291. (BACK)

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

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. (BACK)

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

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. (BACK)

14.For chin-hsien's biography, see CTCTL, chuan, 12. (BACK)

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

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). (BACK) See also: Dogen Zenji

18.William G. Soothill and Lewis Hodous, ed., A Dictionary of Chinese Terms, p.123, and p.138. (BACK)

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) .

23.CTCTL, T.51, p.294c. (BACK)


Updated: 1-2-2001

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