Classic and Contemporary Buddhist Works

Daughters of Emptiness - Introduction

Poems of Chinese Buddhist Nuns


Many Western readers are familiar with poetry written by Chinese Buddhist monks, perhaps the most famous of which is that collected under the name of the elusive Buddhist recluse Hanshan, or Cold Mountain. They may also be familiar with poetry written by Japanese Buddhist nuns such as the sixteenth-century Rengetsu. Until now, however, there have been no translations of poetry written by Chinese Buddhist nuns. That such poetry exists may come as a surprise to some, given the widely held belief that, unlike the case of Japan, there were very few women writers in China before the modern period. However, the fact that there are now two anthologies of translations into English of Chinese women’s writing of the imperial period, both of which are many hundreds of pages long, should put that misapprehension firmly to rest. Poetry writing assumes, of course, a fairly high degree of literacy. This is particularly true in the case of traditional Chinese poetry, which requires a mastery not only of the classical language but also, because of the frequent use of inter-textual references and allusion, of the larger literary tradition, including poetry, history, and philosophy. This is one of the reasons why women poets are considerably less represented in the Chinese poetic tradition. In China, literacy and literature were traditionally looked upon largely as a means to an end, the end being not so much self-expression and aesthetic fulfillment as an official post in the imperial bureaucracy. Because women were excluded from this career goal, it was not considered vital— indeed many felt it to be morally dangerous—that they be provided more than a rudimentary education, if any at all.

Nevertheless, a significant number of women, mostly from elite families, of course, did manage to obtain the classical education that was necessary if they were to write. Such educated women writers can be found throughout the entire imperial period; one of the earliest was Ban Zhao (ca. 45–116). For many women writers from the earlier periods we have only a handful of poems, or even just a single poem. From the seventeenth century and onward, however, we have significantly more poems by Chinese women writers: we know the titles of at least three thousand collections of poetry composed by women, one third of which are still preserved. This was due to momentous economic and social changes in Chinese society (which meant that more elite women were afforded education in the literary arts as well as the domestic ones) and to a veritable explosion in book-printing technology and publishing. Not surprisingly, we find the same pattern in the case of Buddhist nun-poets. Although the records contain the names of Buddhist nuns from the earlier periods of Chinese history known to have been highly educated and even famous for their literary talents, only rarely were any of their writings preserved. Of the many women of later periods whose writings have been collected and anthologized, there was also a small but significant number of Buddhist nuns. Indeed, many of these nuns had established reputations as cainü, or “talented women,” even before they entered the religious life.

The reason the writings of these Buddhist nuns has received so little attention is due, in part, to the fact that Buddhist nuns in general have occupied a marginal place in the eyes of both male scholar-officials and Buddhist monastics; over the long span of Chinese history the men were the ones responsible for compiling official histories, genealogical records, and poetic anthologies. Thus, although the percentage of Buddhist nunpoets was quite small compared to that of their male counterparts, it was probably always greater than the extant texts and records would indicate. In any case, the reader needs to bear in mind that the nuns and the poems presented in this translation are shadows and echoes of a world that, given the paucity of sources, we will never be able to recover fully.

Writing Nuns in China: A Brief History

Buddhism found its way to China in the first century of the Common Era, and although the orthodox lineages of nuns did not begin until several centuries later, according to at least one source, a Chinese woman by the name of A Pan became a Buddhist nun as early as 67 C.E. The first ordained Chinese Buddhist nun, however, is traditionally considered to be Jingjian (ca. 292–ca. 361), a woman from an educated, elite family who was inspired by reading some of the Buddhist sutras that had been translated into Chinese. She sought out a monk from Kashmir who explained to her that since the Buddhist monastic code or vinaya with the rules and regulations had not yet come to China, he would not be able to give her a full ordination. She would, however, be able to take the preliminary vows of a novice, that is, the ten precepts (to refrain from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, intoxicants, indulging in singing, dancing, or the playing of music, self-adornment, sleeping on a high bed, eating after midday, and handling money). Jingjian took the tonsure, along with twenty other women of similar resolve, and the women took up residence in the Bamboo Grove Convent, located in the capital of Loyang. Subsequently, she “supported and cared for her community of disciples [and] observed the monastic rules with purity and distinction.” Moreover, the power of her preaching was likened to the power of the wind under which the grass cannot help but bend. We know about Jingjian and other eminent nuns from this formative period of Chinese Buddhism thanks to Baochang, a monk at the court of the Liang dynasty, who in the year 516 compiled a collection of sixty-five accounts of nuns from the two preceding centuries entitled Lives of the Nuns (Biqiuni zhuan). Although these accounts are indisputably hagiographic in nature, the factual detail they contain is enough to provide a vivid picture of the first Chinese Buddhist nuns. What quickly becomes evident is that these first nuns exerted unprecedented authority, political and social as well as moral, not only within their own monastic communities, but in society at large. The nun Miaoyin, for example, was in the year 385 appointed the abbess of a convent in Loyang that had been built for her by the grand tutor. Subsequently, many people, both monastic and lay, aristocratic and common, rich and poor, came to her bearing gifts and hoping that she would use her influence on their behalf. As Baochang tells us, every day would find over a hundred horse-drawn chariots at the doors of her convent. Fifty-three of the sixty-five nuns represented in Baochang’s collection are described as being able to read and write—at a time when girls and women were rarely afforded an education. Lingshou (fourth century), for example, is said to have “widely perused all kinds of books, and, having read a book through only once, she was always able to chant it by heart.” A near contemporary text, A Record of Buddhist Monasteries in Loyang, compiled in the year 547 by Yang Xuanzhi, also provides a glimpse into these often quite wealthy convents. In the Jingluo Convent, for example, “Halls and corridors encircled each other, while inner rooms followed one after another. Soft branches brushed the windows; blooming flowers covered [every inch] of the courtyard…as this was a nunnery, no male visitors were [ordinarily] admitted, but those who were permitted to come in for a look considered themselves as having paid a visit to paradise.” Of the Hutong Convent in Loyang, we are told that “with its many suites of spacious rooms, fitted with symmetrical windows and doors, red pillars and white walls, it was the height of elegance and beauty. The nuns here were among the most renowned and accomplished in the imperial city, skillful at preaching and discussing Buddhist principles. They often came to the palace to lecture on Dharma….” These nuns were known for a wide diversity of talents, including chanting, preaching, asceticism, monastic discipline, and meditation. Several were also admired for their literary gifts. Daoyi (fourth century), for example, is described as being “intelligent, quick-witted, widely learned, and [possessing an] excellent memory.” Miaoyin, the influential abbess mentioned above, was “well versed in subjects both inner and outer [secular and sacred] and was skilled at composing literary essays” and often “would engage in discussions and write compositions” in the company of court scholar-officials and even the emperor himself. This early period can, in many ways, be considered the heyday of Buddhist nuns in China, a time when they were accorded a respect and exerted an influence unheard of again until contemporary times. Unfortunately, however, no writings by these early Chinese nuns—apart from the one poem by Huixu (431–99) included in this book—have been preserved.

After the Liang dynasty (502–57), either the number of Buddhist nuns engaged in literary and intellectual activities diminished considerably, or else, in the absence of another Baochang, no record was kept of their activities. One of several possible reasons for this was the stricter enforcement of the vinaya for women in the late sixth century and afterward. According to some scholars, this female monastic code, burdened as it was with the so-called Eight Special Rules, which ensured the subservience of nuns to monks, reinforced the indigenous Confucian emphasis on the social submission of women to men and in so doing greatly restricted the social mobility of Buddhist nuns.

Sometime between 335 and 342 a monk named Sengjian acquired a copy of a Mahasanghika vinaya for nuns (no longer extant), which was translated into Chinese in Loyang in 357. It was only after the translation of this text that Chinese Buddhists began to have a clearer notion of the rules of the female sangha, and in particular the stages of ordination, beginning with that of novice and culminating in full ordination and the taking of the full range of precepts. That same year Jingjian and four other women received a more formal ordination by a foreign monk named Tanmojie. Baochang points out that although some objected to the fact that these women were not being ordained in the presence of the requisite number of senior nuns and monks, this did not deter Jingjian and her Dharma sisters from devoting themselves to the religious life with complete dedication.

In the year 429 a missionary monk and eight nuns from Sri Lanka arrived in China and asked how it was that the Chinese nuns had been able to be ordained. According to Baochang’s account, a nun named Huikuo (ca. 364–433) explained to him that, in the absence of an established Chinese female sangha, they had accepted the monastic rules in the same way that Mahaprajapati Gotami, the Buddha’s aunt, traditionally considered to be the first Buddhist nun, had accepted ordination directly from the Buddha. Unwilling to cast doubt on the authenticity of her predecessors, Huikuo nevertheless became concerned about the validity of the ordination of both herself and her disciples. In 434 eleven more nuns came from Sri Lanka, and three hundred Chinese nuns were re-ordained according to the orthodox procedures.

If authenticity was a concern for Huikuo, lay donors may have been equally concerned with the purity and moral discipline that a stricter monastic code could presumably provide. It is probably safe to say that this concern for the enforcement of vinaya rules reflects the traditional suspicion, in Buddhist India as well as China, about the morality of women living in independent communities without the supervision of fathers, husbands, and sons. In fact, during the Tang dynasty (618–907), we find that much of this obsession with the supposed moral laxity of both monks and nuns, but in particularly the latter, was to be found among (largely Confucian) opponents of Buddhism. Their concerns were not entirely without foundation.

For one thing, convents had increasingly become havens not only for women with strong religious vocations, but also, and perhaps even primarily, for women in need of refuge, whether from poverty, the vulnerability of the childless widow, or other sorts of familial and social discord. The number of nuns increased greatly during this period. According to one account, during the reign of the emperor Xuanzong (r. 713–41), there were at least 50,567 registered nuns in comparison to 75,524 monks, making up 40 percent of the entire monastic population. The significantly larger number of inhabitants in these nunneries resulted in a lower level of education and, consequently, an overall lower standing in the eyes not only of the male Buddhist clergy but also of lay donors. This may explain the relative absence of references to spiritually and intellectually accomplished Buddhist nuns in the official records of the time, although given these large numbers of nuns, surely there must have been at least a few. As Valentina Georgieva notes, “monks deemed the deeds of nuns neither significant nor useful in propagating the religion and attracting more donations.” Another reason for the invisibility of writing nuns at this time is that many educated Buddhist nuns served primarily as preachers and educators in the many special religious establishments that were set up within the inner quarters of the palace precincts during this period. These convents were designed primarily to serve the needs of the many thousands of women who made up the imperial harem, as well as women of the royal family or of high officials associated with the court. Given the secluded and largely hidden world of the palace in general and its women’s quarters in particular, coupled with the traditional Confucian inhibition against women teaching and speaking in public, few of these women ever had the opportunity to reach a larger audience, either through their preaching or their writings.

Despite the absence of extant writings, there were literate and literary nuns during the Tang dynasty. Feng Yuan, whose Dharma name is unknown, was the daughter of a high official from Loyang. After the death of her husband, also a high official, she was inducted into the Inner Palace where, unwilling to join the ranks of palace women, she became a Buddhist nun. She left behind a collection of poetry, which unfortunately has not survived. Another daughter of a high official surnamed Xue who decided to become a nun after being inducted into the Inner Palace was known for her “talent and learning.” Another eminent nun was Fadeng (640–729), who apparently divorced her husband in order to enter the religious life. She was subsequently appointed abbess of the Xingsheng Convent in Chang’an by Emperor Xuanzong, who also received religious instruction from her. She later retired from her duties and devoted herself to the recitation, copying, and explication of the sutras, for which she gained recognition among both monastics and lay followers. There are also references to women embedded in the many stories of the Tang-dynasty Chan Buddhist masters. (Note that although the Chinese romanization “Chan” is familiar to most readers in its Japanese romanized form of “Zen,” “Chan” will be used throughout this book.) They include Liu Tiemo, or Grindstone Liu, a disciple of the famous Chan master Guishan Lingyou (771–853), whose nickname gives some indication of her powerful charisma, and Moshan Liaoran, who became famous for the “Dharma battle” in which she bested the arrogant monk Guanqi Zhixian, who, in admiration of her insight, became a gardener at her convent for three years. In this dialogue Moshan tries to get Guanqi Zhixian to understand that there is no essential, unchanging essence that one can call “man” or “woman.” Moshan Liaoran is the only Tang-dynasty nun who has a record of her own in the Jingde chuandeng lu (The Transmission of the Lamp of the Jingde [Period]). There was a fair number of literate women during the Tang both from the upper echelons of society and from the courtesan quarters. However, most of the few well-known women poets from this period, including Xue Tao (758–831), Li Jilan (d. 784), and Yu Xuanji (b. 848?), were Daoist, rather than Buddhist, nuns. When it comes to poetry written by Buddhist nuns, the only example included in the massive Quan Tang shi (Complete Poetry of the Tang Dynasty) is by Haiyin, who lived during the last part of the Tang dynasty and was associated with the Ciguang Convent in what is today Sichuan Province.

There continued to be a large number of Buddhist nuns during the Song dynasty (960–1279) as well. According to one source, in 1019 there were at least 15,643 fully ordained nuns, and only two years later there were 61,239 fully ordained nuns, making up about 13 percent of the entire monastic population at that time. These figures do not include postulants and novices, or nuns who may have been privately ordained and thus not officially registered. It would seem, moreover, that in the Song dynasty convents offered women a far more respectable social role than they did during the Tang. Part of the reason for this, according to one scholar, is that having a daughter enter the convent became an acceptable way of resolving the financial dilemma posed by the growing trend of providing handsome dowries in order to cement relations between the families of the newly emergent scholar-official class. As Ding-hwa E. Hsieh notes, “the fact that these scholar-officials did not hesitate to include pious daughters in their funerary eulogies for the deceased may indicate that during the [Song] the upper class in general…viewed the monastic life as an acceptable vocation for its women to pursue.” Another reason was clearly related to the Song court’s establishment of a new policy whereby nuns were allowed not only to ordain their own female disciples, but also to run their convents without having to rely on the authority of the male monastic sangha. According to the Eight Special Rules, nuns were required not only to defer to monks, but also to be ordained in the presence of at least ten senior monks as well as at least ten senior nuns—the so-called dual ordination. This tradition had been maintained ever since the fifth century, when the arrival of a group of Singhalese nuns in China made possible the full ordination of women. However, in 972 Emperor Taizu (r. 960–72) issued an edict to the effect that from that time onward qualified women who desired to enter the Buddhist monastic order should receive ordination in convents and from nuns only.

There were both male and female clergy who opposed this edict, and, in fact, it seems not to have always been strictly enforced, although it was incorporated into Song-dynasty legal code. As Hsieh notes, one of the positive results of this new policy, contrary as it was to the Buddhist vinaya, was that it “not only allowed women to gain some control…over their own religious lives, but also enabled them to establish their leadership in the Buddhist community.” As was true in earlier periods, it is very likely that the majority of these nuns were from poor, uneducated families. Nevertheless, there was also a significant number of women from aristocratic or elite backgrounds, who were thus likely to have been at least partially literate. There were also nuns who were quite active as both teachers and abbesses and whose reputation was such as to attract sufficient donations from lay believers to enlarge their nunneries and construct stupas and reliquaries. Daojian, for example, was ordained in 983 and the following year was honored with a purple robe by Emperor Taizong (r. 976–97). In fact, several of Taizong’s own female relatives, including several of his daughters, also became Buddhist nuns. One of them, Qingyu (d. 1024), later presented by the court with the honorific title of Eminent Master Baoci Zhengjue, was known not only for her religious attainments, but apparently also for her poetic talents.

Apart from the many convents officially recognized by the court, there were also many smaller, private nunneries or cloisters during the Song. Many of these smaller establishments were established by elite families for pious daughters who either did not want to or could not marry, or widowed relatives without children to care for them. Others were founded by wealthy Buddhist lay women, since during the Song dynasty, married elite women were allowed to “maintain separate ownership of their personal assets, including their dowries and other land or goods purchased after marriage.” Not surprisingly, many of these female patrons were members of the imperial family. In addition, since women who were divorced or widowed were also allowed to dispose of their dowries as they wished, those with the inclination for the religious life could also build cloisters for themselves. Other nuns increased their financial resources by renting their land, or by spinning silk: the nuns of the Lotus Convent in Fuzhou (in presentday Jiangxi Province), for example, were known for producing a delicate variety of silk known as “lotus silk.” And finally, nuns were themselves also patrons, using their money to sponsor the printing of Buddhist texts, the building or renovation of Buddhist temples and statues, or feasts for both monastics and lay believers.

Given their upper-class background, many of these nuns were highly educated. As scholars have noted, many elite women of the Song were at least partially literate, a fact that is not reflected in the paucity of written works by Song women included in anthologies and collections of the time. Moreover, it would seem that Song women also had somewhat more mobility than their Tang-dynasty counterparts. In the case of at least a few Buddhist nuns, this meant that they were able to study under some of the great Buddhist masters of the time. In fact, it would seem that during the Song, at least a few male clergy were more willing to acknowledge publicly the ability of women not only to engage in spiritual practice and to be considered exemplars of morality and piety, but also to serve as Dharma teachers, ascending the Dharma hall platform to deliver sermons, accept disciples, and formally pass on the Dharma lineage. It was during the Song dynasty that, for the first time, we find the names of Buddhist nuns, although admittedly very few, formally listed as official Dharma heirs in the venerable lineages of Chan masters. The male Chan master credited with doing the most to legitimize women’s participation in the “public” sphere of Chan religious life was the Linji Chan master Dahui Zonggao (1089–1163), generally acknowledged as one of the greatest Buddhist figures of his day. Among Dahui’s formal Dharma heirs were two extraordinary women, Chan master Miaodao (fl. early twelfth century.), and Chan master Miaozong (1095–1170). Both women were known not only for their spiritual attainments and skillful teaching, but also for their literary talents. Miaozong in particular appears to have had an impressive command not only of Buddhist literature, but also of the Confucian classics and Daoist texts. There is also mention of a yulu or “recorded sayings” for Miaozong, which may well have been printed and circulated during her lifetime. Such discourse records included accounts of a master’s exchanges with his or her disciples, sermons, hymns, letters, and also poetry, both religious and secular. Although Miaozong’s collection is unfortunately no longer extant in its entirety, we do have over forty poetic commentaries or songgu on well-known Chan Buddhist stories and “public cases” or koan.

Complete collections of recorded sayings apparently existed for other eminent Song-dynasty nuns as well, although none remain extant today. One example is the twelfth-century Buddhist nun Huiguang from Chengdu, whose uncle was the Confucian scholar-official Fan Zuyu (1041–98) and author of The Mirror of the Tang (Tang jian). Huiguang herself was known for her erudition and eloquence, and in 1121 was appointed abbess of the Miaohui Convent in the capital Kaifeng by the emperor Huizong, who greatly admired her learning. The famous Song-dynasty poet Lu You (1125–1210), who wrote a piece in her honor, mentions having visited the nun’s burial site on West Mountain (in Jiangxi Province) in 1165 and then, in 1172, coming across a collection of her writings in Chengdu—writings that he found to be truly extraordinary. He goes so far as to compare their overall tone and spirit to the poetry of the Songdynasty writer Fan Zhen (1007–88).

In 1279, the beleaguered Southern Song dynasty fell to the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1260–1368). Although China’s new overlords adopted Buddhism as their official religion, it is not until the subsequent Ming dynasty (1368–1644) that we find any significant references to Buddhist nuns. The first Ming emperor had himself begun as a Buddhist monk and although astute enough to realize the importance of exercising a firm control over its institutions, he was in general favorably disposed toward its activities: an edition of the Buddhist canon was reprinted on his command and distributed to many of the larger monasteries. Buddhism continued to flourish under subsequent emperors as well, and the numbers of temples, monasteries, and clergy grew rapidly.

During the sixteenth century, however, with the ascent of the Jiajing emperor (r. 1522–66) to the throne, Buddhism went into eclipse. Although the emperor appears to have been completely obsessed with his desire to obtain Daoist immortality for himself, a number of dedicated Confucian officials took advantage of their emperor’s undisguised anti-Buddhist feelings to impose what were often quite draconian measures on the many Buddhist establishments that dotted the Chinese physical and social landscape. Many of these men found their orthodox Confucian sensibilities particularly offended by the ubiquitous presence of convents. Perhaps the most vivid illustration of this is an official named Huo Tao, who in 1536 assumed the post of secretary of the Nanjing Board of Rites. After taking a count of the nunneries (nearly seventy) and nuns (nearly five hundred) in the Nanjing area, he launched a determined campaign to return all of them to their proper Confucian places. His reasoning—no doubt shared by many of his counterparts—was as follows:

Men and women are different; this is the norm of the ancients. As for nuns, within they lack a husband and family; above, they lack a father and mother; below, they lack descendents. Is this not pathetic? They call [what they are doing] religious cultivation, but in actuality, they are transgressing the norms. And, moreover, they also contaminate the wives and daughters of others. Is this not disgusting?

Huo Tao issued orders for all nuns under the age of fifty to marry and all those over this age to return to live with their families or, if they had no families, to take up residence in charity houses. In the meantime, a concerted effort was made to destroy all of the nunneries, large and small. By 1537, after only one year in office, he was able to announce that “Now all of the nuns fifty and below have been returned to their natal families; their pernicious influence has been mitigated, and there are no longer any cloisters or temples into which people’s wives and daughters can secretly repair.” The death of the Jiajing emperor put a halt to this persecution, and Buddhism flourished again during the subsequent Wanli period (1572–1619) and continuing on until the end of the Ming dynasty and the beginning of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911). This period of Buddhist revival coincided with a period of significant social and cultural upheaval, often referred to simply as the Ming-Qing transition. It also coincided with a number of momentous changes in Chinese society, including an unprecedented expansion of commerce and trade, which led to growing urbanization and private wealth. This was accompanied by an explosion in writing and publishing of all sorts. In their eagerness to cater to the needs of a burgeoning readership, especially in the urban areas of southeast China, publishers, editors, and anthologists for the first time began to pay attention to the writing, in particular the poetry, of women. Yet another of the consequences of the socioeconomic changes of this period was that, although still denied access to schools and academies, many women from elite families—again, especially those in the highly urbanized regions of southeast China—were afforded the education required not only to read widely, but also to write themselves and even to circulate and publish their writings. In a bibliography compiled by the modern Chinese scholar Hu Wenkai, we find the names of four hundred women writers for the Ming dynasty and more than three thousand names (as well as more than two thousand titles of extant collections) for the Qing dynasty. Among these names are a number of Buddhist nuns, and among the titles are several collections of sermons, letters, and poems composed by female Chan Buddhist masters. Although many of these writings are lost, fortunately a significant number are still extant today. Of particular interest are the seven collections of discourse records found in a privately published seventeenthcentury edition of the Buddhist canon printed in a temple in the city of Jiaxing, in what is today Zhejiang Province. These women represent a brief but vigorous revival of Chan Buddhism that took place at the end of the Ming and the first decades of the Qing dynasty. Most of these women were firstor second-generation Dharma heirs of the most important figure in this revival, the influential Linji Chan master named Miyun Yuanwu (1566–1642) and his twelve Dharma heirs. In terms of time, they span the entire seventeenth century and three generations of Linji Chan masters. Their lives reflect many of the trends and concerns of this volatile period of Chinese religious, social, and literary history, which we normally see only through the eyes of male scholars, writers, and officials. The appearance of female Chan masters can in large part be attributed to the fact that this revival coincided both with the explosion of publishing and women’s writing in general during this period, and with the political turmoil and social upheaval of this transitional period between dynasties. These events helped to loosen many of the traditional restrictions on women’s lives. As such, it might be compared to the Six Dynasties, also a time when the grip of the Confucian orthodoxy was loosened by political upheavals. And just as the reunification of the empire in the Tang dynasty resulted in a significant diminishing of the public presence of religious women, so the reassertion of traditional Confucian gender restrictions from the last half of the seventeenth century onward put a virtual end to this brief flourishing of female Chan masters.

In general, the Buddhism of most of the Qing dynasty was largely in the hands of lay believers. The most outstanding figures of this period were neither monks nor nuns, but rather, with few exceptions, devout lay men and women. The latter are most vividly represented by a collection entitled The Biographies of Pious Women (Shannüren zhuan) compiled by one of the most well known Buddhist laymen of the time, Peng Shaosheng (1740–96). Unlike the collection of biographies compiled by the monk Baochang over a thousand years earlier, Peng’s collection of biographies offers as spiritual role models not nuns of independent mind (although he does mention Tang-dynasty Buddhist women such as Moshan Liaoran), but rather pious laywomen. Some of these laywomen were indeed commended for their literary talents—the wife of Peng’s nephew, Tao Shan (1756–80), left a collection of Buddhist poems that he praised most highly. The primary justification for their inclusion in this collection of exemplary women was, however, the fact that they managed to somehow embody both the ideals of proper Confucian womanly behavior—including serving their husbands and in-laws and bearing children—and the ideals of Pure Land piety, which allowed them at the moment of death, at least, to detach themselves from these domestic concerns and single-mindedly focus on obtaining birth in the Pure Land.

Toward the end of the imperial period, when the Qing dynasty was on its last legs and society was again plunged into turmoil, the religious life again appears as a last resort, if not always a choice, for intelligent women caught up in the chaos and uncertainty of the times. I have included a few selections from Buddhist nuns who were born in the last days of the Qing dynasty, including Longlian (b. 1909), a famous abbess who is, as of this writing, still alive and active. Recently the female monastic sangha has experienced a dramatic revival, especially in Taiwan, but also in the People’s Republic of China. Many if not most of these contemporary nuns are highly educated and no doubt many of them find time from their busy schedules as administrators, educators, preachers, and teachers to write poetry. Translations of their poems will, however, have to wait for another book and another time.

A Note on the Translations

There are a number of Chinese anthologies of monk-poets, but there are no such anthologies of poetry written by nuns. As we have seen, there is only one poem attributed to a nun included in the voluminous Complete Poetry of the Tang Dynasty. Nuns are somewhat better represented in anthologies of women’s poetry compiled during the Qing dynasty by women anthologists, such as Wang Duanshu’s Mingyuan shiwei (The Longitudinal Canon of Poetry by Noteworthy Women) compiled in 1667, Wanyan Yun Zhu’s Guochao guixiu zhengshi ji (Correct Beginnings: Poems by the Women of Our Dynasty) published in 1831, and its sequel Guochao guixiu zhengshi xu ji (Continuation of Correct Beginnings: Poems by the Women of Our Dynasty) published in 1836. Most of the poems in the present translation, however, are to be found embedded in the brief accounts of these nuns’ lives found scattered in various official and unofficial records, such as Baochang’s Lives of the Nuns, and in later Buddhist genealogical histories, such as the Jingde chuangdeng lu and the Wudeng quanshu (The Complete Records of the Five Lamps), compiled by the monk Chaoyong in 1699. They are also to be found in the few complete collections of female Chan masters’ writings preserved in the privately sponsored Jiaxing edition of the Buddhist canon first printed in 1676. Many of the sources for both the biographical material and the writings of nuns from the seventh century and onward can be found in the Xu biqiuni zhuan (Continuation of the Lives of the Nuns) compiled by Zhenhua (b. 1921) in the early part of the twentieth century. I have checked Zhenhua’s original sources wherever possible, but, for the sake of expediency, have refrained from providing all of the citations from these other sources in the notes.

That these poems should be embedded in other sorts of texts should come as no surprise, however. Many of these nuns, and in particular those from the seventeenth century and onward, were known for their literary talents before entering the religious life. Some women actually gave up the writing of poetry after becoming nuns, regarding it as an inherently secular activity incompatible with their religious aspirations. For those who continued to write, poetry became above all a vehicle for either the expression of their own religious understanding or the conveyance of Dharma lessons to their disciples.

It is worth noting in this regard that the majority of these nun-poets were practitioners of Chan Buddhism, although clearly Pure Land devotions also found a place in their activities. Chan Buddhism, as is well known, distinguished itself from other forms of Buddhism in its emphasis on a mind-to-mind transmission that transcended language. The great irony is that, despite its claim of independence from words and letters, from the Song dynasty onward Chan produced a staggering number of written texts. One of the justifications for this, of course, is that language, and in particular poetic and paradoxical language, could be used as a tool with which students might be jolted out of their rational ruts as well as a means by which masters and students alike could demonstrate the depth and authenticity of their realization. Many of these texts, for example, sought to record examples and exemplars of dialogues between masters and disciples, known as public cases, or gong’an, more familiar to Western readers as koan, the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese term. These koan were designed not so much to be studied as to be meditated upon and experienced, ideally under the guidance of an enlightened master. In other words, these koan, and the poetic verses by later commentators designed to explicate or rather embody them, were not primarily vehicles for the expression of personal emotions or biographical dilemmas. Rather, they sought to touch on the ultimate nonduality (including, at least theoretically, the transcendence of the duality of male and female) that was considered to be the essence of the enlightened state.

This does not mean, however, that these poems can tell us nothing about their authors as women. What biographical information we have on the Chan Buddhist nuns in particular demonstrates that these women overcame tremendous odds in order to find themselves a place in a tradition that was largely defined in masculine, even martial, terms. This is reflected in the fact that many of these women were praised not for being great women, but rather for being “great heroes” (da zhangfu). Unlike Pure Land practice, which could be carried out in the home if necessary, Chan practice required rigorous training and extended periods of meditation under the tutelage of a master. It also required a thorough internalization of the experience of previous masters as embodied in Chan texts and, as such, presupposed a high degree of literacy. Indeed, we find that many of these women first became interested in Chan after having read one or another compilation of records by eminent Chan masters. In other words, the ability to write a religious poem meant both that these women had thoroughly mastered the written tradition and that they felt they had the spiritual authority to express their personal realization of the truths embodied in that tradition in their own writing.

Many of the poems composed by Buddhist nuns are virtually indistinguishable from those composed by Buddhist monks. Rarely do they refer to gender, except to remind their readers of its irrelevance. It is important to note, however, that monks rarely if ever feel a need to stress the irrelevance of gender distinctions (except when they are addressing their few female disciples). In other words, a nun stressing the irrelevance of gender means something quite different from a monk doing so. Both may be seen as a form of rhetoric, but the practical implications are very different: men could take it for granted, women most certainly could not. In a poem titled “Writing of My Feelings Within the Convent” by the Qing-dynasty nun Wanxian, we find the following lines: “The red cord that stretches a thousand li is at this very second cut in two:/ In this sublime setting, it is pointless to speak of the Thrice-Following.” The red cord in these lines refers to the traditional belief that couples karmically destined to be together are bound together with a cord of red silk; the “Thrice-Following” refers to the traditional Confucian assumption that as a daughter, a woman should submit to her father, as a wife, to her husband, and as a mother, to her son. This kind of direct and personal reference to being a woman is, however, very rare: most of the nun-poets mention gender only as an example of the sort of duality that they aspire to transcend. For example, the seventeenth-century nun known as One-Eyed Jingang, having lost the sight in one eye due to her repeated reading of the Diamond Sutra (Jingang jing), writes:

Male or female: what need to distinguish false and true? When Guanyin manifests, what sort of person can it be? Even if you peeled away the skin, it would be to no avail: I ask you: is it the body of a man or the body of a woman?

That direct and personal reference to being a woman is rare does not mean, however, that there is no indication at all of gender in these poems. For one thing, often these nuns refer to previous Buddhist nuns or lay women as spiritual exemplars, an indication that there was a sense of there being a female lineage to which they belonged as well. The seventeenth-century abbess Jizong, for example, reminds a lay disciple that “the pearl-offering Dragon Girl was bound to become a buddha./ The sapling-planting wife of Pang was fond of studying Chan.” The first reference here is to the daughter of the dragon king who, when she hears the bodhisattva Manjushri preach the Lotus Sutra, attains immediate and supreme enlightenment. Later, another of the Buddha’s eminent disciples, Shariputra, questions how it could be that a person could attain enlightenment so quickly when it took the Buddha many lifetimes, and more importantly, how this person could be a woman, since women were supposedly subject to the five hindrances, the last of which specifically stated that they could not become a buddha. The dragon king’s daughter replies not in words but in an action: she quickly turns herself into a man, thus demonstrating that her spiritual insight has endowed her with the ability to determine her own gender, since she has transcended both. The second allusion is to the wife of the eighth-century layman and poet Pang Yün, who, along with their daughter, Lingzhao, was considered to be as dedicated to the spiritual life as Pang himself. Another thing that readers should note is that these nuns often addressed poems to their female disciples, both lay and monastic, as well as to their “Dharma masters” and “Dharma sisters.” (It is telling that relationships within the female sangha were often described using male kinship terms, such as “Dharma younger brother” (fadi) and “Dharma older brother” (faxiong).) Such poems point to the shared aspirations and, in many cases, strong bonds of religious community among women within a largely male-dominated tradition. In short, although I believe that many of these poems can certainly be enjoyed on their own, in order to be fully appreciated, they should be read with an understanding of the larger context in which they were written.

Finally, a note on the technicalities of the translations themselves. These poems, like all traditional Chinese poetry, are written in rhyme and, in most cases, contain either five or eight syllables (or words, since in classical Chinese, the literary language, most words consist of only one syllable) per line. Moreover, they rely considerably on inter-textual allusions and references both to Buddhist texts and Chinese historical and literary texts, to lend their sometimes rather bland (or bewilderingly opaque) surfaces a texture and resonance that is often lost in translation.

Many translators of Chinese poetry are tempted to vary line length and even, in some cases, to spice up the language in order to make the poems more palatable to a non-Chinese reader. Many such translations do indeed capture the spirit of the originals, often, if truth be told, more fully than translations that are more faithful to the letter. In this book, however, I have tried to preserve the original form (rhyme is, of course, impossible to translate) and adhere as closely as possible to the text without sacrificing readability. I have tried to refrain from depicting the lives of these nuns as being more feminine or feminist than they were. I have also tried to refrain from making their poems sound more entrancing (or enlightened) than they appear in the original. I have done so not primarily out of allegiance to rigid academic or scholarly standards, but rather because I feel that presenting these nuns as realistically as possible (given, of course, the limited number and the largely hagiographic nature of many of the primary sources) in the end does them a greater justice. The nun-poets presented in this small book represent only a small percentage of the thousands of nuns who lived in imperial times, many of whom could not read or write. Moreover, the poems in this collection represent only a small percentage of the poetry written by this small minority of nun-poets. I hope, however, that this selection of poems, along with the brief biographical accounts that accompany them, will afford readers a glimpse into the extraordinary diversity and sometimes startling richness of these women’s lives.


How to cite this document:
© Beata Grant, Daughters of Emptiness (Wisdom Publications, 2003)

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