http://www.UrbanDharma.org ...Buddhism for Urban America


The Urban Dharma Newsletter... November 18, 2003


In This Issue: Women & Buddhism

1. 8th Sakyadhita International Conference on Buddhist Women
3. Buddhist Nuns from a Modern Perspective
...by Juo-hsueh Shih
4. The Legend of Miao-shan
5. Temple/Center/Website- of the Week:
6. Book/CD/Movie Review: Women in Buddhism - Question & Answers (795 KB) e-Book


1. 8th Sakyadhita International Conference on Buddhist Women


Seoul, Korea

Conference: June 27 to July 2, 2004 - Temple Tour: July 3 to 5

”Discipline and Practice of Buddhist Women: Present and Past”

Korea, known as the “Land of Morning Calm,” is the venue of the 8th Sakyadhita International Conference on Buddhist Women. Everyone is welcome to attend the conference: lay or ordained, and neither lay nor ordained, of all nationalities and religious backgrounds. In addition to discussions and meditation, they can enjoy the beautiful mountains and forests of Korea.

South Korea is proud of its rich Buddhist cultural history. Seoul, with many temples, monuments, and an ancient Buddhist history of its own, provides a magnificent setting for this gathering of international scholars and practitioners of the world’s Buddhist traditions. According to some scholars the word “Seoul” comes from the word “Sravasti,” the Indian town where the Buddha spent 25 rainy season retreats.


Two thousand years of Buddhist culture has been preserved and is still widely practiced in the Republic of Korea today. An estimated 2000 historic Buddhist temples and monuments are testimony to the living presence of the Buddha’s teachings. Koreans generally follow the Mahayana tradition, making vows to attain enlightenment to liberate all beings from suffering. Lay Buddhists generally marry and have families. They may join any temple they like and may take the five lay precepts as well as the Bodhisattva precepts. Buddhists may also decide to renounce household life and train as a monk or nun. Many lay and ordained Buddhist take bodhisattva precepts, eat vegetarian food, and emphasize the practice of the six perfections generosity, Buddhism was introduced to Korea from China around 372 C.E. Because Buddhism was perceived to be compatible with indigenous shamanistic beliefs, it was quickly adopted. Gradually Buddhism developed to a position of cultural dominance during the Shilla Period (668-935 C.E.). Emphasis during this period was the law of cause and effect, and the interrelatedness of all things.

The Koryo Period (935-1392) is noted for an emphasis on ritual practices. The Korean Tripitaka was carved onto wood blocks, which are preserved to the present day in Haein-sa Temple. The practice of meditation (Chinese: Chan, Japanese: Zen, Korean: Son) and the tradition of textual study gave Buddhism new vitality. During both the Shilla and Koryo Periods, Buddhism enjoyed the patronage of the royal court.

During the Choson Period (1392-1910) was a time of decline for Buddhism. The new rulers favored Neo-Confucianism and adopted it as the state religion. Buddhism was severely restricted and periodically persecuted for five centuries. Temples could only be built in mountain areas and monks were prohibited from entering the capital city.

From 1910-1945, Korea was annexed by Japan. The Japanese colonial administration supported Buddhism, but promoted the Japanese sects with a married priesthood, and monks were encouraged to abandon their vows of celibacy. After the Japanese occupation ended, the indigenous Korean forms of Buddhism and the ideal of celibacy were reestablished.

Currently Buddhism is flourishing in Korea. Many new temples are being constructed and many ancient temples are being restored. Buddhists are actively engaged in society, organizing education programs, meditation classes, social welfare projects, and Buddhist cultural events. In Korea, the numbers of nuns and monks are roughly equal. After five or six years of training as novices, they are eligible to receive full ordination as bhiksunis and bhiksus. Monasteries for nuns and monks are strictly separate and function independently. Buddhist colleges and institutes provide equal education opportunities for both nuns and monks. This year a nun was selected to head the Department of Cultural Affairs of the Chogye order — a historical first.



Since 1987, Sakyadhita: International Association of Buddhist Women has been working to benefit Buddhist women around the world. Established at the conclusion of the 1st Sakyadhita Conference in Bodhgaya, India, in 1987, the organization has 1900 members and friends in 45 countries around the world. Every two years an international conference is held to bring laywomen and nuns from different countries and traditions together to share their experiences on issues of mutual interest and encourage projects to improve conditions for Buddhist women, especially in developing countries.

Working at the grassroots level, Sakyadhita provides a communications network among Buddhist women internationally.

The organization promotes research and publications on Buddhist women’s history and other topics of interest. It supports Buddhist women’s initiatives to create education projects, retreat facilities, training center, women’s shelters, and local conferences and discussion groups. Members strive to create equal opportunities for women in all Buddhist traditions.

The theme of the 8th Sakyadhita Conference is “Discipline and Practice of Buddhist Women: Present and Past.”

Tentative topics for discussion include:


Meditation Practices

• Shamatha and Vipassana in the Buddhist Traditions
• Buddhist Meditation Practices: Asia and the West
• Practices for Developing Loving Kindness and Compassion
• Mindfulness in Daily Living,”Meditation and Work
• Combining Religious Practices, Combining Buddhist Practices
• Practical Meditation Techniques
• Meditation on Emptiness

Everyday Practice

• Ritual Practices
• Devotional Practices
• Practice of the Precepts: Lay and Monastic
• Food of Dharma: Rituals at Meals and in the Kitchen
• Rituals of the Robes
• Dharma in Everyday Life
• Dharma in Relationships

Discipline, Education and Training

• Teaching Dharma to Children
• The Education and Training of Laywomen and Nuns
• Buddhist Women and Discipline: Transitions
• Historical Spread of Buddhism Throughout the World

Engaged Buddhist Practice

• Buddhist Responses to Social and Political Realities
(e.g., Abortion, Death Penalty, Burma, Tibet)

• Buddhist Approaches to Conflict Resolution
• Interfaith Understanding, Inter-Buddhist Understanding
• Trafficking in Women and Children: What Can Buddhists Do?
(e.g., Learning from Korea’s Experience of “Comfort Women”)

• NGOs: Organizing for Social Change
• Buddhist Theories of Interdependence and the Environment

Buddhist Practice and Women’s Issues

• Buddhist Liberation, Women’s Liberation
• Is an Egalitarian Buddhism Possible?
• Buddhism and Women’s Health
• Feminist Interpretations of Buddhist Doctrine
• Can Women Become Enlightened? How Do We Do It?

Buddhism Today

• Multimedia Opportunities
• Buddhist Practice in Uncertain Times (International Security,

Nuclear Danger, Global Economics, etc.)

• Contemporary Buddhist Practices
• Buddhist Practice Today: Tradition and Adaptation

Deadline for registration, with payment, is May 15, 2004.

For conference updates: http://www.sakyadhita.org

Sakyadhita International 47-710-2 Hui Kelu Street Kaneohe, HI 96744 USA




"...Bodhisattvas take on the suffering of all sentient beings, undertaking the journey to liberation not for their own good alone, but to help all others. And eventually, after the attainment of liberation, not dissolving into the Absolute or fleeing from Samsara, but choosing instead to return again and again to devote their wisdom and compassion to the service of the world."


The nature of Bodhi (Enlightenment) is attained in the same manner by men and by women. There are not even slight differences in this connection, neither in the method nor in the quality of attainment. The Buddha discovered that gender is of no importance for the aim of freedom. A female saint (Arahat, i.e., woman or man) or a female being striving after sainthood is in no way subordinate to a male saint or male follower of the Buddha. It is not possible to declare a higher or more important equality of the sexes.

According to the teachings of the Buddha, there exists no practical difference between the sexes. Man and woman are equal in their dependence upon each other and in their clinging which must be overcome (Angutara-Nikaya I,1). Man and woman are equal in the rights and duties of their partnership, as the Buddha described it for lay followers in the famous sermon to Singalako (Digha-nikayaNo.31). Thus stated, for male or female, the Four Bodhisattva Vows, their importance, meaning, and execution, are the SAME in any and all cases.


1. However innumerable sentient beings are, I vow to influence those seekers who have planted the causes and conditions along the path in succeeding to achieve it.

2. However inexhaustible the defilements are, I vow to contribute in extinguishing them.

3. However immeasurable the dharmas are, I vow to master them.

4. However unattainable the Way is, I vow to attain it.

3. Buddhist Nuns from a Modern Perspective ...by Juo-hsueh Shih


In a conference on the Lotus Sutra a woman currently doing research in Japan said to me that she was so surprised to see me there. I asked her why, and her reply was that in Japan there are very few nuns and nuns are always in a subordinate position. Since nuns are few in number and inferior in position, people rarely see a nun appearing at a public occasion. For this reason, my attending a conference where the majority of scholars were male surprised her. Nevertheless, she told me that she met several nuns from Taiwan studying in Japanese universities.

As a nun from Taiwan pursuing advanced studies in the west, I became more awakened to the issue of women's position in society, particular in religion. During my stay in America I have been exposed to the problems which nuns encounter in different Buddhist traditions. Therefore, contrasting nuns of today with those of the past, and comparing nuns of one tradition with those of another really interests me. Moreover, I am interested in looking into the issue of nuns' role in the modern world and the possible contributions they may make to human society.

An article entitled "Sôtô Zen Nuns in Modern Japan: Keeping and Creating Tradition" by Paula K.R. Arai evoked my interest and started me thinking. The Sôtô sect of Zen is the largest and most organized sect of nuns in Japan. According to Arai's research, however, nuns have become fewer in number during this century, and the reason for this is the increased opportunities for women in the secular sphere. What does this statement mean? Does it imply that the more successful women become in the secular world the less possible it is for them to commit themselves to the religious life? If this is true, can we further infer that their decision to become nuns was influenced more by the difficulty in making a life in the society than by a genuine intention to pursue enlightenment or liberation? Can we consequently conclude from this that women become nuns due to their failure in the secular life?

Surprised at this reason for a decrease in the number of Japanese nuns, I cannot help but examining it from different angles. From a realistic angle, indeed, an outsider may see no reason for a woman with a good education, talent, or a successful career to renounce the world. When they can enjoy such colorful lives, why would they enter monasteries and live the dull and poor life of a nun? It is understandable that an outsider see it this way unless we take the religious significance of being a nun into account. After all, being a nun is a decision concerning one's spiritual path rather than a change in occupation.

Contrary to the situation in Japan, there is an increasing number of nuns in Taiwan. It is interesting to find that more and more women with higher education choose to become nuns even though they have or have the prospect of good occupations. In the meantime, it is also noticeable that there are many more nuns than monks in Taiwan. The ratio of nuns to monks is approximately eight to one. One may think that in the modern day there are too many pleasures and enjoyments in life, so it is more difficult for men to live a monastic life. This may be true. The question, however, is that if this is the case for men, why it is not for women? In the past in mainland China, Buddhism was almost entirely a man's world. Nowadays in Taiwan, radical changes have been taking place. Nuns not only greatly outnumber monks, but also prove themselves in leadership capacities as well as in various other roles.

In terms of giving up a more comfortable or successful secular life full of world pleasures, women in Taiwan appear to be much more resolute than men. It takes strong will and great determination to devote oneself to a strictly disciplined monastic life. What explains the difference between these two traditions--the Japanese and Chinese--is a problem which deserves investigation.

Monastic life is more difficult than it was before since it presents such a stark contrast to today's secular life. Moreover, monasteries are by no means harbourages for those who seek easy lives. Therefore, there would be no reason for one to take on the challenges of such a life with much more hardship unless it were for the sake of the religious pursuit. In this light, it is understandable that education for women in Taiwan, by opening their eyes to greater horizons, has in many cases led women to a spiritual awakening. More education may provide them with a deeper understanding of the meaning of existence and with greater insight into the nature of human life. Therefore, it is not surprising that many of them choose a path to spiritual freedom. According to Arai's research, over the past forty years, the average age of nuns entering the order was 16. Most of the girls either were raised in a temple environment or became nuns upon the request of their parents. However, recently there has been a radical change in the age of nuns first entering nunneries. The present average age has risen to 43. Women at this age, whether single or married, have certainly had much more life experience than those in the 1950's.

This change may suggest that women now make a conscious and mature decision to commit their lives to the Dharma. At the same time, it also suggests that nuns now are more competent and have greater ability to fulfill their social responsibilities. From the point of view of temple administration, the increase in age as well as the life experience of the nuns no doubt benefit the functioning of the nunneries. Yet, from an existential angle as well as a Buddhist point of view, this advantage does not necessarily apply to personal practice and smooth interpersonal relationships among the nuns. To be more specific, nuns in the higher age brackets might have exposed themselves to more defilements and accumulated more and deeper habits through their some 40 years' life experience. The fact that it takes a long time and great effort to overcome and eliminate those unwanted habits accounts for some difficulty in religious practice.

Again, the situation in Taiwan is different. There have been a growing number of nuns and a decrease in their age of entering the order in recent decades. Although Buddhism is not a religion only for the elderly, people used to have a misconception that only after they grow old and have already fulfilled all their secular responsibilities can they enter the monasteries, to spend their old age in a quiet and peaceful place, not necessarily for the sake of the religious pursuit. Things have changed, however. In Taiwan many more young women decide to become nuns out of their own free choice as well as a recognition of the value of an earlier beginning on their religious path.

Japanese Buddhist nuns did make history in some matters. For instance, the first ordained Buddhists in Japan were three nuns, the first Japanese to go abroad (to China) to study (Vinaya) were nuns, and also, the first Buddhist temple in Japan was a temple for nuns. However, in spite of their vital contributions, Japanese nuns, just like those in other traditions, have never received the attention and respect they deserve. For most of the history of the Soto Zen tradition, nuns were in a subordinate position, being expected to clean, cook, and sew for the monks. Therefore, they were not allowed to assume positions of power or responsibility.

In Arai's article there are some accounts about the progressive elevation in position of Japanese nuns. Before 1953, the highest rank a nun could attain was lower than the lowest rank for monks. After that, a drastic modification in regulations of all Buddhist sects gave nuns more opportunities. They were allowed to become head priests of the middle rank in temples. In l978, nuns were also allowed to attain the rank which is the last level before Zenji (Zen master). Nowadays, nuns have gained high positions almost equal to monks. While in some special cases this may be true, only a few nuns actually gain higher positions, certainly not all. Generally speaking, the relative inequality in the positions of women and men still exists.

With regard to the position of Buddhist nuns, there exists a unique phenomenon in Taiwan, which is quite noteworthy. In general it would not be wrong to say that discrimination on the basis of gender exists in almost every society. Since sexual discrimination has had a history of thousands of years, no one can expect a speedy change. Taiwan is no exception. It cannot be denied that, generally speaking, many of the laypeople in Taiwan have more respect for monks than nuns. Obviously this is the natural outcome of a patriarchal society. Nevertheless, Taiwan's Buddhist followers also pay respect to nuns as long as nuns prove themselves either in religious practice or in their career as bodhisattvas, helping sentient beings in one way or another. As was mentioned previously, the fact that nuns greatly outnumber monks in Taiwan inevitably results in nuns' taking more responsibilities and having more commitment in various aspects of religious affairs. At the same time, it also creates more chances and freedom for nuns to develop and demonstrate their capabilities.

Being active and playing an important role in the world of Taiwanese Buddhism, nuns are inferior neither in capacity nor in position. More importantly, the majority of Taiwanese men are not as male- chauvinistic as those in other countries. In mainland China nuns are often despised and definitely had an inferior position. I have experienced monks' disparaging attitudes toward nuns in some of the temples I visited in China. I also witnessed unequal treatment toward nuns in a famous temple in Ssu-chuan Province, where the seating order in the worship hall and at meals was arranged with monks and laymen before nuns, which is very peculiar. In Taiwan, however, most monks have more liberal attitudes toward nuns. This is partly because monks in Taiwan are the minority and consequently need nuns' aid in various ways. No one can deny or ignore the nuns' contributions to the community. Therefore, nuns in Taiwan as a whole do not suffer oppression or devaluation. Some outstanding nuns in particular are highly esteemed both by Buddhists and non-Buddhists due to their distinguished religious practice or great contributions in either education, social welfare, or in spreading the teachings of the Buddha. They are recognized and revered, thus becoming leading figures in the Buddhist community.

However, the fact that they gain high positions is not something given by any organization or by monks; instead, they earn their positions through their own efforts and the recognition of their followers, or even non-Buddhists. In spite of this, there is something that should be pointed out to prevent sending a misleading message to the reader concerning the issue of the nuns' position. Position is not the main concern of Chinese nuns, nor do they aim at gaining high status. Instead of arguing for equality of position, the nuns merely demonstrate their qualities in a quiet way. In other words, they allow their actions to argue for them. In Taiwan, the feminist consciousness has not yet been greatly aroused. Nevertheless, Chinese nuns in Taiwan have a certain degree of freedom to carry out their own ideals and their achievements. Consequently they are recognized by Buddhist followers there.

Generally speaking, nuns in almost every traditions were not given opportunities for proper training or education. Although in the early period, Japanese nuns seem to have had the potential to develop themselves in terms of taking ordination, studying abroad, and so on, their position has declined over the years. It is the traditional gender discrimination of society that accounts for this decline. In China during the T'ang Dynasty, too, Chinese nuns once were well-educated and rather active, but later on they became similarly absorbed by the dominant patriarchal tradition, virtually becoming second-class citizens.

Nevertheless, according to Arai's research, in modern times Japanese nuns have been learning to be strong and independent. At the same time, they seem to have become aware of the importance of improving the quality and elevating the status of nuns. Therefore, some Zen nunneries have been established to train nuns exclusively, offering elementary through advanced levels of training.

The educating of nuns includes traditional Zen training such as zazen (sitting meditation), chanting sutras, studying Buddhist texts and Chinese poetry, sewing Buddhist garments, cooking, and cleaning. In addition to all these activities the training includes kado (the art of flower arrangement), shodo (the art of calligraphy), and chado (the art of making tea) as integral elements. These arts are not regarded merely as skills, but as expressions of the philosophy of the unity of the body, mind, and heart.

Apart from the above-mentioned formal education, there are also various monthly temple activities which help train the nuns in basic temple responsibilities, and also serve as opportunities for the nuns to learn how to interact with and help the laity. Periodical sesshins (intensive meditation sessions) serve to deepen the contemplative aspect of the nuns' training.

Japanese nuns in the modern age are considered the living holders of the traditional Zen lifestyle. They generally remain celibate and continue the rhythm of life which they learn during their training in the nunnery. At the same time, they help preserve the traditional arts of Japan.

Compared with the Japanese tradition, Buddhism in Taiwan appears to lack a well-organized administrative or educational system. Generally speaking, each temple or monastery is independent. There is no all-powerful headquarters which controls everything or everyone. On the one hand, there is little or no organizational unity in Chinese Buddhism, which produces an image of scattered sand. On the other hand, however, we can see a kind of "order in chaos" or "unity in separation" in Chinese Buddhism, which is also the unique feature of Chinese culture. What Chinese people emphasize is that, in a harmonious way, members of the same group preserve their special characteristics. Therefore, in Taiwan no central organization for the training of the clergy has ever been established. Each temple or monastery is responsible for the training of its own new members. Because of this independent functioning, we often find differences in various aspects of monastic life, such as the tunes in which the Buddhist hymns are sung, the way the mantras or sutras are chanted, and rituals performed as well as the pattern of daily life, instructions for religious practice, and interpretations of doctrines.

Due to the lack of a central headquarters, the head of each temple can make changes or improvements in certain aspects whenever the need arises. In short, the creative genius of the heads of temples creates variations in the many aspects of religious life, and produces a colorful kaleidoscope of religious practice with diverse presentations of Dharma. It has been mentioned that Chinese nuns in Taiwan have much freedom to express themselves and this is the evidence. They can start their own nunneries or temples, subservient to no one, and decide how they would like to run them.

The thing that most interests me is the different images of Buddhist nuns in Japanese and Chinese traditions. In the Chinese tradition, both monks and nuns are expected to be like "superior men," which is a very masculine term. Superior men are the role models in Chinese culture. Of course, this can be criticized as evidence of gender discrimination. However, from a different angle, it shows that nuns are expected to release themselves from the traditional submissive and feminine image of a woman, and consequently to transcend their subordinate position. In this sense, Chinese nuns have the ambition and make efforts to challenge and break down the traditional expectations for women to seek the favor of men. Just as men do not favor masculine woman, nuns do not accept the traditional image of femininity imposed on women. Chinese nuns are not expected or educated to fit the image society has drawn for women.

From our description of the multi-faceted training designed for Japanese Soto Zen nuns, we learn that the nuns are expected to acquire great and diverse abilities. Through contrasting the nuns now with those in the past, an improvement in quality can be seen. However, the training program seems to emphasize the cultivation of people competent in running temples. The training in flower arrangement and tea ceremony is undertaken due to economic considerations. In other words, the nuns have to make their own living by the techniques they acquired.

What is interesting is that, according to Arai, the ideal for nuns is just what is expected of Japanese lay women generally. There is a positive side to the nuns' fitting the traditional images and expectations of women because, in this way, the Soto Zen nuns make a positive contribution to the preservation of Japanese culture, yet it seems that the nuns' main function is to run the temples. They teach, yet they primarily teach flower arrangement and tea ceremony, and as a means of making a living. Poverty is not the only difficulty in the lives of the nuns, but it is admittedly one factor explaining why life in the nunneries has become more stressful. It is quite understandable that fewer and fewer women would like to devote themselves to the monastic life if they have to make their own living. If this is the case, there will be few differences between the secular and the monastic life in terms of the amount of time available for religious practice.

The question of why there is a decreasing number of nuns and an increase in age in Japan, whereas in Taiwan there is an increase in numbers and a decrease in age is not an easy one to answer. A comprehensive look at the social, economic, psychological, and religious dimensions necessary to understand these opposite developments in Japanese and Chinese Buddhism is beyond the scope of this essay. Nevertheless, I would like to propose an assumption which might be crucial to this issue. Chinese Buddhists generally are quite practice-oriented. This emphasis on religious practice strongly dominates the minds of the Buddhist followers. Therefore, when it is time to make a decision, most of them are able to disregard the possible difficulties in the monastic life and resolutely dedicate themselves to seeking the Dharma. Moreover, Chinese nuns generally are expected to be great practitioners rather than successful temple administrators. They have more alternatives to select from if they are not interested in running a temple. Even the nuns who seclude themselves from society and make no "concrete" contribution to humanity earn respect and support from the Buddhist followers. If they are good practitioners, their contribution is in being living spiritual models of the teachings for other Buddhists to admire and follow.

4. The Legend of Miao-shan 


In China Kuan-yin (Avalokitesvara) came to be most frequently worshipped in female form as the Goddess of Mercy. This transformation from an originally male deity into a female one seems to have occurred sometime during the Northern Sung dynasty (960-1126) and is reflected in Kuan-yin's miracluous appearance in human form in the legend of Miao-shan.

The cult to Miao-shan at Fragrant Mountain Monastery (Hsiang-shan ssu) was first made public in an inscription written by Chiang Chih-ch'i (1031-1104) in 1100. Before then this monastery had been known for its splendid statue of Kuan-yin as the Great Compassionate One (Ta-pei) with a thousand arms and a thousand eyes. The legend recorded by Chiang identifies the Fragrant Mountain Monastery as the location of Kuan-yin's manifestation, where she revealed herself in her Great Compassionate form with a thousand arms and eyes, neatly joining the Miao-shan legend with the image of Kuan-yin enshrined in the monastery. It went on to claim that the relics of Kuan-yin were enshrined in a stupa, thus making Fragrant Mountain Monastery a popular pilgrimage center. An inscription of 1185, commemorating the restoration of the Fragrant Mountain Monastery, noted that since around 1100, "the abbots of this monastery successively built it up on a magnificent scale and with increasing extravagance. Because the bodhisattva's relics were there in the stupa and many miracles were wrought, every spring in the second lunar month people from all parts would come, regardless of distance. The worshippers must have numbered tens of thousands, and they made donations according to their means. The monks of the monastery had no need to go begging to meet their annual budget. They had more than enough to eat."

The oldest extant version of the legend is preserved in a chronicle of Buddhism in China, the Lung-hsing fo-chiao pien-nien t'ung-lun, written in 1164 by Tsu-hsiu. The story, as adapted from the translation by Glen Dudbridge (pp. 25-34), goes as follows:

Tao-hsüan (596-667) once asked a divine spirit about the history of the bodhisattva Kuan-yin. The spirit replied:

In the past there was a king whose name was [Miao]-chuang-yen. His lady was named Pao-ying. She bore three daughters, the eldest Miao-yen, the second Miao-yin, and the youngest Miao-shan.

At the time of Miao-shan's conception the queen dreamed that she swallowed the moon. When the time came for the child to be born, the whole earth quaked, and wonderful fragrance and heavenly flowers were spread near and far. The people of that country were astounded. At birth she was clean and fresh without being washed. Her holy marks were noble and majestic, her body was covered over with many-colored clouds. The people said that these were signs of the incarnation of a holy person. Although the parents thought this extraordinary, their hearts were corrupt, and so they detested her.

As she grew up the bodhisattva became naturally kind and gentle. She dressed plainly and ate only once a day. In the palace she was known as "the maiden with the heart of a Buddha." By her good grace the ladies in waiting were converted; all turned to the good life and renounced their desires. The king took some exception to this and prepared to find her a husband. Miao-shan, with integrity and wisdom, said: "Riches and honor are not there for ever, glory and splendor are like mere bubbles or illusions. Even if you force me to do base menial work, I will never repent [of my resolve to remain chaste]."

When the king and his lady sent for her and tried to coax her, she said: "I will obey your august command if it will prevent three misfortunes."

The king asked: "What do you mean by 'three misfortunes'?"

She said: "The first is this: when the men of this world are young, their face is as fair as the jade-like moon, but when they grow old, their hair turns white and their face is wrinkled; in motion or repose they are in every way worse off than when they were young. The second is this: a man's limbs may be lusty and vigorous, he may step as lithely as if flying through the air, but when suddenly an illness befalls him, he lies in bed without a single pleasure in life. The third is this: a man may have a great assembly of relatives, may be surrounded by his nearest and dearest, but suddenly one day it all comes to an end [with his death]; although father and son are close kin they cannot take one another's place. If it can prevent these three misfortunes, then you will win my consent to a marriage. If not, I prefer to retire to pursue a life of religion. When one gains full understanding of the original mind, all misfortunes of their own accord cease to exist."

The king was angry. He forced her to work at gardening and reduced her food and drink. Even her two sisters went privately to make her change her mind, but Miao-shan held firm and would not turn back. When the queen personally admonished her, Miao-shan said: "In all the emotional entanglements of this world there is no term of spiritual release. If close kin are united,they must inevitably be sundered and scattered. Rest at ease, mother. Luckily you have my two sisters to care for you. Do not be concerned about Miao-shan."

The queen and the two sisters therefore asked the king to release her to follow a religious calling. The king was angry. He called for the nuns [at White Sparrow monastery, Po-ch'üeh ssu] and charged them to treat her so harshly that she would change her mind. The nuns were intimidated and gave her the heaviest tasks to do--fetching wood and water, working with pestle and mortar, and running the kitchen garden. In response to her, the vegetables florished even in winter, and a spring welled up beside the kitchen.

Much time went by, and Miao-shan still held firm to her purpose. When the king heard about the miracles of the vegetables and the spring of water, he was furious. He sent soldiers to bring back her head and to kill the nuns. As they were arriving, mountains of cloud and fog suddenly appeared, totally obscuring everything. When it cleared, Miao-shan was the one person they could not find. She had been borne off by a spirit to a crag in another place, there to live. The spirit then said: "The land here is too barren to sustain existence." He moved her altogether three times before they reached the present Fragrant Mountain (Hsiang-shan). Miao-shan dwelt there, eating from the trees, drinking from the streams.

Time went by, and the king contracted jaundice. His whole body was corrupt and suppurating, and he could no longer sleep or eat. None of the doctors could cure him. He was about to die when a monk appeared, saying he was well able to cure him, but would need the arms and eyes of one free from anger. The king found this proposal extremely difficult to meet. The monk said: "On Fragrant Mountain, in the south-west of your majesty's dominion, there is a bodhisattva engaged in religious practices. If you send a messenger to present your request to her you can count on obtaining the two things."

The king had no choice but to command a palace equerry to go and convey his message. Miao-shan said: "My father showed disrespect to the Three Treasures, he persecuted the suppressed the True Doctrine, he executed innocent nuns. This called for retribution." Then she gladly cut out her eyes and severed her arms. Giving them to the envoy, she added instructions to exhort the king to turn towards the good, no longer to be deluded by false doctrines.

When the two things were submitted to him, the monk made them up into medicine. The king took it and instantly recovered. He generously rewarded the monk-physician. But the monk said: "Why thank me? You should be thanking the one who provided the arms and eyes." Suddenly he was gone. The king was startled by this divine intervention. Ordering a coach, he went with his lady and two daughters to the hills to thank the bodhisattva.

They met, and before words were spoken the queen already recognized her--it was Miao-shan. They found themselves choking with tears. Miao-shan said: "Does my lady remember Miao-shan? Mindful of my father's love, I have repaid him with my arms and eyes." Hearing her words, the king and queen embraced her, bitterly weeping. The queen was about to lick the eyes with her tongue, but before she could do so, auspicious clouds enclosed all around, divine muscians began to play, the earth shook, and flowers rained down. And then the holy manifestation of the Thousand Arms and Thousand Eyes was revealed, hovering majestically in the air. Attendants numbered tens of thousands, voices celebrating [the bodhisattva's] compassion resounded to shake the mountains and valleys. In a moment, the bodhisattva reverted to her former person, then with great solemnity departed. The king, the queen, and the two sisters made a funeral pyre, preserved the holy relics, and on that same mountain built a stupa.

Tao-hsüan again asked: "The bodhisattva can take mortal form in any place and surely ought not to be present solely at Fragrant Mountain." The spirit replied: "Of all sites at present within the bounds of China, Fragrant Mountain is pre-eminent. The mountain lies two hundred leagues to the south of Mount Sung. It is the same as the Fragrant Mountain in present day Ju-chou."



"Many women must have completed their studies and some must have started temples, but we know very little about the history of women in the Dharma because the translators and historians were mostly men." (1)

The first `bhikshuni` mentioned in the Ch'an literature was a disciple of Bodhidharma named Tsung-chih. Very little of her life-story is known (see). The Cheng-te ch'uan-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 Bhikshuni 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'o made a bow to the teacher and stood aside in silence.

Bodhidharma said, "You have attained my marrow."

This is the story of how the Dharma was transmitted to the Second Patriarch Huei-k'o. Bhikshuni 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 `bhikshunis` in the Ch'an tradition.

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?" 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. See as well The Lotus Sutra, in Buddhism considered revolutionary in its approach to the equality of the sexes and equality amongst all people generally.

(Above paragraphs courtesy Heng-ching Shih: Chinese Bhikshunis in the Ch'an Tradition.)


1. Chinese Bhikshunis in the Ch'an Tradition
2. Man and Woman in the Teaching of the Buddha
3. The Sound of One-Hand Shoe Tying
4. METTA ZETTY: A Modern Woman's Awakening-Experience Outside the Doctrine
5. ANN FARADAY: An Account of the Realization of Emptiness
6. SUZANNE SEGAL: A Collision with the Infinite
7. VALERIE VENER: A Near Death Experience Opens the Door to an Awakening Journey
8. MO-SHAN LIAO-JAN - First Woman Dharma Heir In Chinese Zen Buddhism
9. MUGAI NYODAI - Japan's First Female Zen Master
10. ROSLYN MOORE: This Bursting Heart. Satsang leads to Enlightenment
11. HERE LIES THE HEART: A Woman's Meeting With Enlightenment
12. DEATH OF THE EGO: A Buddhist View Man or woman ego? Does it matter in Enlightenment?
13. A DALAI LAMA DISCUSSION: Teachers Who Have Sex With Women Students
14. THERIGATHA: Chapter V, The Files
15. The Old Woman of Taishan - Master Dogen's 300 Koan Shobogenzo, Case 29

Who was the Old Woman of Taishan? Old women appear in various koans, frequently acting as catalysts of awakening for unsuspecting travelers. They are never identified, remaining nameless, yet clearly showing some appreciation of the Dharma. The most famous of them was the Rice Cake Seller who challenged Te Shan in Dharma combat, bringing to life his doubt and facilitating the beginning of a real spiritual search which ended in his Attainment and the burning of all his Zen books and commentaries. The encounter between Te Shan and the old woman in the tea house is told, delightfully and in full, in Wu-men's commentary to Case 28 of the Gateless Barrier.

These old women in Chinese Zen history were often matriarchs whose children had grown up, or whose families had been destroyed in the turbulent times of war and famine. They no longer had any family responsibilities and many entered monasteries. In fact, Iron Grindstone Liu, a successor of Master Guishan and an important teacher, was such a Zen adept. Many other women must have completed their studies and some of them must have started temples, but we know very little about the history of women in the Dharma, mainly because the translators and historians have been men who tended to ignore the accomplishments of women. There are still relatively few women Buddhist scholars, but as more and more appear on the scene, we will find out much more about the history of Zen, Women, and Buddhism.

19. The Enlightened Nun Kisagotami
20. The Enlightened Nun Subha
21. THE CHALLENGE OF EMPTINESS: The Spiritual Transformation of Women
22. A Bibliography in Buddhism for Feminists
23. A BUDDHIST VIEW OF WOMEN: A Comparitive of the Rules for Bhikshunis
24. BUDDHIST WOMEN: An Account of Famous Women in Early Buddhist Texts
25. FROM THE SUTRAS: Life Stories of Historical Bhikshunis - A little long and slightly complicated, but worth reading.
26. Buddhist Women in Burma
27. Buddhist Nuns from a Modern Perspective
28. Women and Buddhism
29. Sujata
30. Tara, Female Buddha
31. Samyutta Nikaya V.2: Sister Soma
32. Women Zen Masters in the Raihai Tokuzui by Zen Master Dogen
33. The Place of Women In Buddhism
34. Discourses of the Ancient Nuns
35. Buddhist Women at the Time of The Buddha
36. Bhikkuni-Samyutta Sutras
37. BIBLIOGRAPHY: Women and the Female in Buddhism
38. Women Active in Buddhism
39. Journal of South Asia Women Studies
40. The Four Bodhisattva Vows - From the Women's Perspective

6. Women in Buddhism - Question & Answers (795 KB) e-Book - Free Download

Women in Buddhism - Question & Answers by * Ven. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh Ph.D.


Ven. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh provides answers to questions often asked about women and the ordination issue and related topics. She responds to such questions as: In the Buddha's time what role did women play in Buddhism? Why cannot women become buddhas? What is the Buddhist attitude towards prostitution? What is an attitude of a Buddhist towards abortion? What is the unique characteristic in American Buddhism which might interest a feminist?

* Samaneri Ven. Dhammananda Samaneri Venerable Dhammananda (Chatsumarn Kabilsingh Ph.D.) is the first female novice to be ordanied in Sri Lanka. She plans to have her high ordination in 2003 as a female monk (Bhikkhuni). Samaneri Ven. Dhammananda, has a MA and Ph.D. in religious studies, and was former Associate Professor at the Thammasat University in Thailand.


The Urban Dharma Newsletter Archives:



The Los Angeles Buddhist-Catholic Dialogue:



To Subscribe or Unsubscribe:



Support UrbanDharma.org: