PAGE 2: Continued

Chinese Bhiksunis in the Ch'an Tradition

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.

See also: Man and Women in the Teachings of the Buddha

As well as: AVYAAKATA: The Buddha's Ten Indeterminate Questions




Above article courtesy:
Digital Buddhist Library


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. (BACK)

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

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

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. (BACK)

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

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. (BACK)

31.Ibid. p.163. (BACK)

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

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. (BACK)