Much of Chinese Buddhist history developed within a patriarchal social framework, in which women were constrained in their practice, research, and propagation of Buddhism, and were therefore less likely to become Dharma heirs. Thus, there are fewer records of women than men in Buddhist literature. During the Song Dynasty, however, Buddhism was very popular and women increasingly participated in religious activities. This is reflected in historical records of the period, which include more frequent mention of women studying and practicing Chan than in earlier Buddhist literature. Miriam Levering’s research about women teaching Chan during the Song, her observations about Linji Chan and gender, Tahui’s teachings for women, and so on, and Ding-hwa E. Hsieh’s studies about images of women in Song Chan are all valuable contributions. As of yet, however, there have been few studies that specifically discuss the practice of Chan master Yuanwu Keqin (1063-1135) and his teachings for nuns and laywomen. This paper analyzes literary sources is an attempt to understand Yuanwu’s three methods of instructing female disciples, the unique characteristics of his teachings for women, and the Chan practice methods of his female disciples during the Song.
Yuanwu used three distinct teaching approaches when instructing disciples in their practice and study of Chan, depending on the character and potential of the student. The first approach was straightforward: to mediate on crucial kong-an (koan) phrases, such as “sucking up the water of the western river in a breath”. This method of instruction, which transcends reason and language, focusing directly on the mind, was for the sharpest students. The second approach involved questioning students and exposing their ignorance through a process of questioning, then pointing out the students’ weak points. The third approach involved providing beginners with commentaries and notes to explain the kong-an or Dharma teaching in detail.
Yuanwu’s 14 female disciples are mentioned in the Yuanwu Fokuo Chanshi Yulu, Wudeng Huiyuan, and Fokuo Keqin Chan Shi Xin Yao. Most of these women were from families of high social status, for example, Senior Imperial Consort Jiāo, Senior Imperial Consort Wang, Princess Ta-chang, Madam Yi-gou, Madam Qing-gou, Madam Zhang Guo-tai, Madam Fang, Jue An Dao Ren Zu Shi, Ling Ren Ben Ming, and so on. The last three became Yuanwu’s Dharma heirs, and the senior imperial consort Jiāo became the Dharma heir of Ta-hui. These female lay disciples supported Dharma gatherings, offered patronage to the sangha, and propagated the Dharma at the palace. They overcame the gender constraints of patriarchal history and society to practice and study Chan Buddhism. Yuanwu instructed these women in their investigation of kong-an by means of a three-fold method that depended solely on their talent, without gender discrimination. As a result, some of them achieved realization and became Dharma heirs. This paper will examine the methods of instruction that enabled these remarkable women to write an important page in the history of Song Dynasty Chan.
Yuanwu Keqin, Buddhist women, Song Chan, Kong-an Chan, Hau-t’ou Chan