Zen Echoes - Introduction

Classic Koans with Verse Commentaries by Three Female Zen Masters

The voices of three female Zen masters reverberate in this much-needed collection.

 

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Introduction
This is a translation of a work that in Chinese is titled Songgu hexiang
ji 頌古合響集 or The Concordant Sounds Collection of Verse Commentaries.
Verse commentaries, or songgu 頌古, are poems inspired by stories
or kōans about buddhas, bodhisattvas, and above all, the great Chan
(Zen) masters of the classical period. They were composed primarily by
Chan masters, the vast majority of whom historically have been male.
The verses in this collection, however, are unique in that they were composed
by three female Chan masters, Chan master Miaozong 妙總 from
the twelfth century and Chan Masters Baochi 寶持 and Zukui 祖揆 from
the seventeenth.
Miaozong (1095–1170) is famous for being one of the first officially recognized
female Chan masters in Chinese history. She was also known for
her literary talents as well as her religious achievements, and although
much of her writing has been lost, many of her verse commentaries were
preserved in a fourteenth-century anthology of such verses. Over five
hundred years after Miaozong’s death, the two Dharma companions Baochi
and Zukui were so inspired by these verses that they each composed
their own verse commentaries on the same kōans originally commented
upon by Miaozong. These kōans, together with the verse commentaries by
all three women, were then compiled into a collection, and the literatus-official
and Buddhist layman Zhang Dayuan 張大圓 (1589–1669), who knew and admired Baochi and Zukui, wrote a preface for it and arranged for it to be printed. It is unclear how widely the printed collection circulated as an independent text, but fortunately it was considered important enough to be included in the Jiaxing Canon (Jiaxing dazangjing 嘉興大 藏經), a multi-volume collection of Buddhist canonical writings collated and printed during the end of the seventeenth century and the beginning
of the eighteenth. There they have lain tucked away since then, largely
unnoticed and, until now, never translated into English.
Miaozong (1095–1170) is famous for being one of the first officially recognized
female Chan masters in Chinese history. She was also known for
her literary talents as well as her religious achievements, and although
much of her writing has been lost, many of her verse commentaries were
preserved in a fourteenth-century anthology of such verses. Over five
hundred years after Miaozong’s death, the two Dharma companions Baochi
and Zukui were so inspired by these verses that they each composed
their own verse commentaries on the same kōans originally commented
upon by Miaozong. These kōans, together with the verse commentaries by
all three women, were then compiled into a collection, and the literatus-official
and Buddhist layman Zhang Dayuan 張大圓 (1589–1669), who knew and admired Baochi and Zukui, wrote a preface for it and arranged for it to be printed. It is unclear how widely the printed collection circulated as an independent text, but fortunately it was considered important enough to be included in the Jiaxing Canon (Jiaxing dazangjing 嘉興大 藏經), a multi-volume collection of Buddhist canonical writings collated and printed during the end of the seventeenth century and the beginning
of the eighteenth. There they have lain tucked away since then, largely
unnoticed and, until now, never translated into English.

Of primary interest in this book are the verses: the kōans to which they
are written are all relatively well known, and annotated English translations
of most of them are widely available. For this reason, and because
this book is intended primarily for a general audience, I have not provided
overly detailed annotations of either the kōans or the verses. It is
also important to note that while these verse commentaries are unique in
being authored by female Chan masters, this is not to say that they offer a
distinctively female perspective on the Chan experience. But perhaps they
should not be expected to, since this experience was, theoretically at least,
supposed to be one unmarked by gender distinctions. What they do offer
is an eloquent illustration of the fact that, in a religious milieu made up
overwhelmingly of men, there were women who were just as dedicated to
Chan practice, just as advanced in their spiritual realization, and just as
gifted at using language to convey that which is beyond language.

The popular, if undoubtedly romanticized, image of the Chan master
responding to a bewildered student’s earnest queries with seemingly
irrelevant statements, or alternatively, with deafening shouts and painful
blows, was largely a literary product of Song dynasty China (960–1279). It
was in the Song that the biographies, sermons, and above all, records of the
lively encounters with great masters of the Tang dynasty (618–907) such as
Linji 臨濟 and Mazu 馬祖 were widely collected, compiled (and sometimes
elaborated or even invented) and circulated as individual texts.5 In addition,
selections of these texts were collected in comprehensive anthologies,
one of the first of which was The Jingde Transmission of the Lamp (Jingde
chuandeng lu 景德傳燈錄) published in 1004. This collection was followed
by numerous other “lamp transmissions,” as well as anthologies comprised
of accounts selected from these larger collections and designed primarily
for the purpose of training Chan practitioners, although they were also
widely appreciated by educated lay readers who may or may not have been
interested in engaging in intensive Chan practice. These selected accounts,
often in the form of so-called encounter dialogues between master and
disciple, came to be known as kōan (the Japanese pronunciation of the
Chinese term gong’an 公案, which means, literally, “public case” or “precedent”).
By the Song dynasty, it became common practice for commentaries
in both prose and verse to be appended to these kōans. These commentaries
were for the most part written by men who were Chan masters themselves,
and as such could inspire and instruct aspiring students of the Way
as much as the original cases themselves.

One of the earliest of these anthologies was Xuedou’s Collection of
Verse Commentaries (Xuedou songgu ji 雪竇頌古集 ) compiled by the Song
dynasty Chan master Xuedou Zhongxian 雪竇重顯 (980–1052). It was
comprised of one hundred cases, the great majority of which were selected
from the The Jingde Transmission of the Lamp collection mentioned above.
Xuedou, who had received a classical Confucian literary education before
becoming ordained at the age of twenty-three, often chose to write his commentaries in verse. Although he was not the first to do so, it is with
Xuedou that the verse commentary emerged as a fully distinct genre of
Chinese Chan literature.

Several decades after its publication, we find Xuedou’s collection of
cases being used extensively by Chan Master Yuanwu Keqin 圜悟克勤
(1063–1135) as a basis for his own teachings. Yuanwu Keqin added his own
commentaries to those made by Xuedou, and together they would become
the anthology that in English is often translated as The Blue Cliff Record
(Biyan lu 碧岩籙).7 The Blue Cliff Record inspired several other similar
anthologies of cases appended by commentaries in both verse and prose,
such as The Gateless Gate (Wumen guan 無門關), a collection of forty-eight
cases compiled by Chan Master Wumen Huikai 無門慧開 (1183–1260), and
published in 1228, and The Book of Serenity (Congrong lu 從容錄) compiled
by Chan Master Wansong Xingxiu 萬松行秀 (1166–1246).

These three anthologies, and especially the first two, enjoyed a great
popularity in East Asia, not only among monastic Chan practitioners, but
also the educated elite who delighted in the poetic, if often puzzling, language
of these texts. In fact, so great was their popularity that some Chan
teachers, including Chan Master Dahui Zonggao 大慧宗皋 (1089–1163),
generally regarded to be the greatest of all the Song dynasty masters and a
Dharma heir of Yuanwu Keqin himself, began to worry that their literary
attractions were more of a hindrance than an aid to realization—it’s said
that he even went so far as to destroy his copy of The Blue Cliff Record and
strongly caution his disciples against reading it. Dahui is known for his
use of a practice that involved not meditating on (much less memorizing)
a complete kōan, but rather using a single word or phrase (referred to
in Chinese as huatou 話頭 ) from the kōan as a tool with which to overcome
the limitations of purely discursive thought and experience a reality
unbounded by words. For instance, one of the most famous kōan is an
encounter dialogue that already seems to be pared down to its absolute
essentials: A monk asked Zhaozhou, “Does a dog have Buddha-nature
or
not?” Zhaozhou replied, “He does not.” Dahui, however, pares it down
even further, and selects the key phrase “He does not,” which in Chinese
is just one word: wu 無 (in Japanese pronounced “mu”). It is with this
word that the practitioner must grapple, with a great intensity and sense of
urgency, building up a tremendous “great doubt” that, if all goes well, will
at some point result in a shattering insight into the true nature of reality.
This method of meditative inquiry on the huatou did not originate with
Dahui. However, it was he who is largely responsible for perfecting and
popularizing its use—in many cases with the help of some of his female
disciples, among whom the most well known was none other than Miaozong,
the first of the three women Chan masters whose verse commentaries
are translated in this book.

After Dahui, the use of the huatou became central to many forms of
Chan practice, especially in the Linji (Rinzai in Japanese) school. Nevertheless,
anthologies comprised of kōans accompanied by verse and prose
commentaries such as The Blue Cliff Record continued to be read, studied,
and savored by lay and monastic alike. Moreover, many of the individual
collections of writings and sermons (known as “discourse records”
or yulu, 語錄) of Chan masters from the twelfth century down to recent
times include entire sections of verse commentaries. Such was the popularity
of these verses even in the Song dynasty that a Chan monk by the
name of Faying 法應 (exact dates unknown) devoted thirty years of his
life to collecting 2,100 verses by 122 different Chan monks. This collection,
the original edition of which is unfortunately no longer extant, was
published in 1175 under the title of The String of Pearls Collection of Verses
from the Chan School (Chanzong songgu lianzhu ji 禪宗頌古聯珠集). Nearly
a century later, an otherwise unknown Yuan dynasty (1271–1368) monk
by the name of Puhui 普會 edited and expanded Faying’s original collection,
resulting in an anthology composed of 3,050 verses by 426 different
authors. Published in 1317 under the title of The Comprehensive String of
Pearls Collection of Verse Commentaries from the Chan School (Chanzong
songgu lianzhu tongji 禪宗頌古聯珠通集), this expanded collection was
eventually incorporated into the Chinese Buddhist Canon, where it can
be found today. Among the verses added by Puhui were many composed
after the 1175 publication of Faying’s original collection—including, for the
first time, the verses composed by Miaozong, the most well known of the
three female Dharma successors of Dahui Zonggao. It is these verses that,
many centuries later, would inspire the seventeenth-century
nuns Baochi and Zukui to each compose verses in response both to the original cases
selected by Miaozong and to the verses she wrote to accompany them.

Miaozong was arguably the most well known of the three women Dharma
heirs of the eminent Song dynasty Chan master Dahui Zonggao (to whom
I will refer simply as Dahui from now on). Dahui was a teacher who both
nourished and acknowledged the spiritual potential of his female disciples.
In the numerous collections of his sermons, letters, and writings, one
can find numerous accounts of his interactions with his women students,
including at least fourteen nuns and twenty-seven
laywomen. In one Dharma instruction, for example, we find him telling a female lay disciple about Miaozong’s spiritual attainments and suggesting that if the disciple
made a real effort, she might well become a second Miaozong. (Nearly five
centuries later, we find Zhang Dayuan claiming that Baochi and Zukui had
indeed achieved this goal and could be regarded as spiritual “reincarnations”
of their twelfth-century predecessor.)

The most important source for biographical The most important source for biographical information regarding Miaozong is a biographical account found in the Precious Mirror of Gods and Humans (Rentian baojian 人天寶鑑) compiled by the Northern Song dynasty poet-monk Tanxiu 曇秀 and first published in 1230. The information
provided by Tanxiu’s account, when supplemented by additional bits
of information gleaned from other sources, and in particular, the writings
and letters of Dahui himself, makes it possible to paint a fairly detailed
portrait of Miaozong Miaozong came from a very illustrious and scholarly family: her grandfather,
for example, was the scholar-official
Su Song 蘇頌 (1020–1101),
who after passing the highest national civil examinations in 1042, subsequently
held a series of high official posts, including that of Vice Prime
Minister. Su Song was a veritable polymath, known among other things
for his poetry writing, his art collecting, and his scholarship in the areas
of astronomy, pharmacology, and cartography. He was also a mechanical
genius of sorts, famous for having devised, and later written a treatise
about, a water-driven
astronomical clock. While we know very little about
Miaozong’s early life, we can assume that, like other women of her time
who were born to distinguished gentry families and unlike most of their
less-privileged
sisters, she was afforded a solid education, which included
studying the classic works of Chinese literature, philosophy, and history,
and learning to write poetry. In this account, we are told that even as an
adolescent, Miaozong had already begun to ponder such existential questions
such as where and what we are before we take birth, and where and
what we will be after we die. After contemplating these questions with
great intensity, she apparently had what one might call a first experience of
awakened insight. Unaware that this experience represented anything out
of the ordinary, she kept it to herself and dutifully acquiesced to her family’s
arrangements for her to be married to a young scholar-official
from a good family like hers. Even after marriage, Miaozong’s early religious
inclinations continued unabated, and she began to visit different eminent
Chan monks in search of spiritual guidance.

According to Tanxiu, one of these masters opened their interview by
asking Miaozong pointblank, “How can a beautiful woman from the
inner quarters expect to engage in the matters of great gentleman?” Miaozong’s
reply was equally straightforward: “Is the Buddhadharma divided
into male and female forms?” Master and student then embarked on a
“Dharma exchange” from which, we are told, Miaozong emerged victorious.
In the Dharma instruction addressed to one of his female lay disciples
quoted earlier, Dahui even goes so far as to state that Miaozong received
confirmation of her enlightenment from each and every one of the eminent
masters that she visited during this time.

Although after her marriage Miaozong visited many eminent masters
from the Jiangsu and Zhejiang area, she did not meet Dahui until sometime
in 1137 when she was living in Jiahe 嘉禾 (present-day
Jiaxing 嘉興, in Zhejiang province), where her husband had been assigned a new official post. It so happened that around this time, Dahui happened to stop in
Jiahe on his way to take up a post as abbot at a monastery on Mount Jing
徑山, located just outside of Hangzhou. When Miaozong heard about this,
she immediately went to pay her respects, but when she saw Dahui, she
simply bowed and left without saying a word. Something about her caught
Dahui’s attention, however, and turning to a lay official who had studied
with Dahui for many years and who was now accompanying him on his
journey, he remarked, “That laywoman who was just here has definitely
seen something that is as startling as a ghost or spirit. However, because
she has yet to face the hammer and tongs, the forge and bellows, like a ten-thousand-
tonship in a blocked harbor, she is still unable budge.” In other
words, Dahui recognized that Miaozong had already attained a degree of
realization, but that without the guidance and challenge of a master, she
would be able to go no further.
It was customary for local officials to request visiting monks, especially
if they were as eminent as Dahui, to deliver a public sermon while they
were in the area. Thus it happened that the following day, Miaozong’s husband—
perhaps at the urging of his wife—invited Dahui to give a Dharma
talk. Both he and his wife were in attendance, of course, and at one point in his talk—again according to Tanxiu’s account—Dahui looked out over
the assembled audience and said, “Today among you there is a person
who has seen something. I inspect people as would a customs official—
no sooner do I see them coming, then I know whether or not they have
dutiable goods.” After the talk was over, Miaozong, knowing that she was
the person being referred to, approached Dahui and requested that he
select a Dharma name for her, thus indicating her desire to study with
him. Dahui then gave her the Dharma name Wuzhuo 無著, which means
“nonattachment.”

The connection made, the following year, Miaozong made her way to
Mount Jing, where Dahui was now living, in order to participate in the
three-month intensive summer retreat.12 Miaozong’s subsequent exchanges,
or so-called“Dharma battles,” with Dahui in many ways form the heart of
her biographical accounts, as indeed they do of most biographies/hagiographies
of eminent monastics, and would become quite famous. Dahui
himself describes many of these exchanges in his own writings, often using
them to instruct and inspire other practitioners, especially other female
practitioners. One of the first of these, which I here paraphrase rather than
translate, took place during the summer retreat mentioned above.

According to Dahui’s account, during one of his sermons he raised the
story of Yaoshan Weiyan 藥山惟儼 (774–827) who, intrigued by this new
Chan teaching that claimed not to rely on study of the scriptures, went
to the great master Shitou Xiqian 石頭希遷 (700–790) seeking further
elucidation. However, instead of explaining it to Yaoshan, Shitou simply
commented: “Being this way won’t do; not being this way won’t do. Being
this way and not being this way both won’t do.” Seeing Yaoshan’s utter
confusion, Shitou sent him off to the great Mazu and eventually Yaoshan
“got it.” As she listened to Dahui recount this story of Yaoshan and Shitou,
Miaozong also “got it,” although she at first she kept her realization to
herself. However, another member of the congregation, an official and lay
practitioner, was convinced that he too had “got it,” went immediately to
Dahui’s quarters and said, “I understand it!” When Dahui asked him how
it was he understood it, the official replied by restating Shitou’s enigmatic
words, although with the addition of three strings of Sanskrit syllables
transliterated into Chinese, none of which have any clear meaning: “Being
this way won’t do, soro shabaho. Being that way won’t do, xili shabaho.
Being this way won’t do and not being this way both won’t do, soro xili
shabaho.” When Dahui heard this, he refrained from either confirming or
rejecting the official’s insight. Later, however, he asked Miaozong what she
thought of the man’s words. She laughed and, as if to change the subject,
said, “Guo Xiang commented on Zhuangzi 莊子. Those who know say that
it was actually Zhuangzi who commented on Guo Xiang.” Guo Xiang 郭象
(d. 312) was the author of an unfinished commentary to the famous classical
Daoist text known as the Zhuangzi attributed to the fourth-century
BCE philosopher Zhuang Zhou 莊周, who was also known as Zhuangzi
or Master Zhuang. By reversing the roles of author and commentator,
Miaozong may have been suggesting that the official’s “comment” on Shitou’s
original statement was inadequate, to say the least. And, of course, by
so suggesting, she was demonstrating to Dahui that her own insight was
more on target. Although Dahui clearly agreed, instead of saying as much
he too shifted the topic of conversation, this time asking her about a story
involving Chan Master Yantou Quanhuo 嚴頭全奯 (828–87).

This story, another version of which appears later as case 33, tells how
Yantou worked for a while as a ferryman transporting people back and
forth across a lake.14 One day a woman passenger carrying a baby in her
arms turned to Yantou and asked, “Where did this baby that I am holding
in my arms come from?” Yantou replied, in good Chan master fashion, by
smacking her with his oar. Unfazed, the woman said, “I have already given
birth to seven children, six of whom never encountered a true friend. Nor
will it be any different with this one.” And so saying, she threw the child
into the water.

The deeper meaning of this rather horrifying tale most likely hinges
on the word “true friend” (zhiyin 知音), which literally means “someone
who understands the sound.” The expression refers to a famous story of
a man who could always and immediately understand the feeling behind
his friend’s zither-playing—
so much so that when he died, his musician
friend, despairing of ever again being understood in this way, broke the
strings of his instrument and never played again. In Miaozong’s verse, the
true friend refers to someone on the same spiritual wavelength: in other
words, the mind-to-mind connection that Miaozong appears to have
established not only with the ancient Tang master Shitou, but also with
Dahui himself.

Writing a verse to give to the master was a traditional way for a student
to articulate his or her understanding, and Miaozong responded to the
story of Yantou with what would later come to be regarded as one of her
signature verses:

A leaf of a boat drifts across the vast stretch of water;
Lifting and dancing his oars, he sings to a different tune.
Mountain clouds and ocean moon: both are tossed away;
The battle won, Zhuang Zhou’s butterfly dream carries on.

In this verse, Miaozong plays on the images of boat and oar from the
story of Yantou the ferryman, although what is tossed into the waters
is, somewhat more poetically, not a baby but rather the clouds over the
mountain and the moon over the sea. She also indirectly echoes her earlier
comment regarding Guo Xiang and the Zhuangzi by referring to the
famous story about how Zhuang Zhou the philosopher, upon waking
from a dream in which he was a butterfly, wonders if perhaps he is now
a butterfly dreaming he is a human. Miaozong also echoes the sound
metaphor implicit in the term “true friend” with the phrase “he sings a
different tune”—which is often used in Chan to refer to someone who
has come to experience the world with an awakened mind. In this way,
all the elements of the “Dharma battle” between Dahui and Miaozong—
stories, questions, comments, and poem—become an affirmation of her
spiritual insight.

On yet another teaching occasion, Miaozong offered Dahui the following
verse:

In a flash, I have touched the very tip of my nose;
All my clever tricks have melted like ice and shattered like tiles.
What need was there for Bodhidharma to come from the West?
The Second Patriarch bowed to him three times all for nothing!
If you still insist on asking what is this and how it could be:
An entire brigade of straw bandits has suffered a huge defeat!

In the poem he wrote in response to this one, Dahui explicitly acknowledges
Miaozong’s awakening, something he had not done before. Dahui’s
poem reads as follows:

Since you have awakened to the living intention of the patriarchs,
Cut everything in two with a single stroke, and finish off the job.
Facing karmic occasions one by one, trust to your original nature;
Whether in the world or out of it, there is neither excess nor lack.
I compose this verse as a confirmation of your awakening.
The four types of awakened beings and the six unawakened
may worry,

But you needn’t worry—even the blue-eyed
barbarian has yet to get it!

Up until now, we have talked solely about Miaozong’s encounters
with her teacher, Dahui. However, there is a story (and it may indeed be
only a story) of a very different sort of an encounter, found in a preface
to a poem in a 1254 anthology of Chan writings. It tells of an encounter
between Miaozong and Wan’an Daoyan 卍菴道顏 (1094–1164), the head
monk at Mount Jing who would also become one of Dahui’s Dharma
heirs.17 Wan’an is described as disapproving of this woman and of the fact
that his teacher had gone so far as to allow her to stay in the abbot’s quarters.
Aware of his male disciple’s feelings, Dahui insists that Wan’an call
on Miaozong himself. When the monk shows up at her door, Miaozong
asked him whether theirs is to be a worldly meeting or a Dharma meeting.
When Wan’an assures her that it will be the latter, Miaozong tells him to
dismiss his attendants and then goes back into her room. A little later,
she calls for him to enter, and when he does, he finds her lying stretched
out on her bed completely naked. The shocked monk then points at her
exposed private parts and asks, “What kind of place is this?” “The buddhas
of the three worlds, the six patriarchs, and the great monks everywhere all
emerge from here,” answers Miaozong. Wan’an then asks whether or not
he will be allowed to enter, to which Miaozong cuttingly replies, “It allows
horses to cross, but it does not allow asses to do so.” When Wan’an does not
respond, Miaozong declares the interview over and turns over on her side.
The embarrassed monk, not knowing what else to do, quickly leaves the
room. When Wan’an later tells Dahui about this shocking meeting with
Miaozong, Dahui remarks, “It is certainly not the case that that old beast
lacks insight!” And so again we see Miaozong presumably operating on a
level of understanding that far surpassed many of Dahui’s male disciples,
whether monastic or lay.

When Dahui recounts his exchanges with Miaozong during her first
summer retreat with him, he refers to her as Madame Xu, which means
that she was still a laywoman at that time. In fact, it was not until 1163, the
year Dahui died and most likely after her husband had died as well, that
Miaozong was officially ordained as a nun. At this point she was quite
advanced in years and no doubt planned to spend the rest of her life in
seclusion. However, she had already become quite famous and greatly
admired for her spiritual insight and strict discipline. As a result she was
asked to serve as abbess of the Zeshou Nunnery 資壽庵, which was located
on the outskirts of what is today the city of Shanghai.

A number of sermons delivered by Miaozong during her time as abbess have been preserved, as well as a handful of Dharma exchanges with her
students. The first sermon she gave upon ascending to her new position,
a portion of which I have translated below, provides a sense of the religious
authority—the authority of a Chan master—with which she taught:

Once the essential teaching of Chan is conveyed, then that of
the Buddhist Canon is completely finished. Once the command
of the patriarchs is carried out, then the ten directions
are completely cut off. When the two vehicles hear it, they flee
in fear. When the bodhisattvas of the ten stages reach it, they
still doubt. The best of the lot, however, will understand without
being told. Even methods powerful enough to shift the placement
of the stars and constellations, and stratagems that can
appropriate the enemy’s flag and drums—even these are no
more than the show of empty fists. How could they be of any
real significance? When it comes to the path to transcendence,
sages do not transmit anything, and students do nothing but
toil over forms, like monkeys grasping at their own reflections.
What Śākyamuni Buddha transmitted at Vulture Peak came at
an opportune time. He elaborated upon the three vehicles, each
according to the faculties and capacities of his listeners. Beginning
at the Deer Park with his teaching of the four noble truths,
he ferried hundreds of thousands of beings [across the river of
samsara]. Today I, the mountain monastic—together with this
world and all other worlds, with the buddhas and patriarchs,
with the mountains, rivers and great Earth, the grasses and
trees, woods and forests—appear before the four-fold
assembly,
each of us turning the great wheel of Dharma. Everyone’s
radiances blend and crisscross like a jeweled silken net. If there be a single blade of grass, a single tree, that does not turn the wheel of Dharma, then one cannot call my sermon today a true
turning of the great wheel of Dharma. . . .”

Miaozong only resided at the Zeshou Nunnery for a few years before she
retired, and in 1170 she died at the age of 76. Although long lost, there does
appear to have been a collection of her sermons, poems, and other writings
published before her death,19 and it is possible that the verse commentaries
later collected in Puhui’s Yuan dynasty anthology may have been
culled from this earlier collection. Most importantly, Miaozong’s fame as
a realized female Chan master would continue to inspire later generations
of spiritual aspirants—in particular women who might otherwise feel that
the demanding, and in many ways highly masculine, practices of Chan
were beyond their capabilities.
[ABRIDGED 15-24]
This work, as far as I know, is the only such extant collection of female-authored
verse commentaries in Chinese. In fact, it would appear to be
one of the reasons it was first printed at all: as Zhang Dayuan exclaims in
his preface, it is a collection that “elevates womankind and puts to men to
shame.” In other words, while they may not necessarily reflect a uniquely
feminine perspective as such, in composing these verses, Miaozong, Baochi
and Zukui were claiming for themselves the same religious and spiritual
authority as their male counterparts, no more and no less. Moreover,
verse commentaries such as these also served to pay homage to earlier
masters in the tradition, much like the tradition of “matching rhymes”
in the Chinese secular poetic tradition, whereby a poet would compose
a poem using the same rhymes as those of an earlier poet. Thus, the fact
that the two seventeenth-century women Chan masters felt moved to follow
the example of their twelfth-century female spiritual ancestor points
to an awareness and appreciation of a distinctly female lineage within an
overwhelmingly patrilineal, if not entirely patriarchal, tradition. In the
end, however, what is important is not that these verses are composed by
women, but simply that they are worth savoring, whether for their poetic
qualities or their spiritual suggestiveness, or both.