Sudden Awakening

Recently unearthed Chinese texts provide new inspiration in the search for enlightenment here and now.

Nina Wise

During an era when laywomen occupied the lowest rung of an entrenched hierarchical spiritual system, the Bao Tang welcomed them into its fold. Within the Lidai fabao ji are the only full-fledged accounts in any of the early Ch’an texts of women as disciples of Ch’an. This and other clues in the literary style have led Wendi to wonder if Wu Zhu’s female disciples may have had a hand in the actual writing of the Lidai fabao ji. Their authorship would be one possible explanation for the text’s anonymous attribution; nearly all other texts of this era were attributed to specific authors.

One of the most remarkable stories in the Lidai fabao ji is that of the daughter of a Grand Councillor who came to Wu Zhu for teachings:

She was quick-witted and clever, extensively learned and knowledgeable, and when asked a question she was never without an answer. She came to pay obeisance to the Venerable [Wu Zhu]. The Venerable saw that she was obdurate and determined on chastity and he preached the Dharma for her.

“This Dharma is not caused and conditioned, is neither false nor not false. . . . The Dharma is beyond eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind. . . . No-thought is precisely no-body, no-thought is precisely no-mind. No-thought is precisely no-preciousness, no-thought is precisely no-worthlessness. No-thought is precisely no-high, no-thought is precisely no-low. At the time of true no-thought, no-thought itself is not.”

Upon hearing Wu Zhu’s teaching, the Grand Councillor’s daughter gains instant awakening, joins her hands together and “weeps grievously, a rain of tears.” Wu Zhu gives her the dharma name Lian Jian Xing (Complete Seeing Nature) and she tonsures herself, dons robes, and goes on to become renowned as “a leader amongst nuns.”

Imagine an eighth-century Chinese woman so empowered by her experience of awakening that she has the confidence to disregard the complex and expensive bureaucratic process of ordination and proclaim herself a nun in flagrant defiance of the prevailing spiritual institutions. Knowing of this woman in the past who broke away from the bureaucratized forms of religion to teach from the authority of her own awakening has had a profound impact on me. If Lian Jian Xing could do this, might I? My female colleagues are becoming more and more adamant about parity in contemporary Western Buddhist institutions as, despite the sincere efforts of some organizations to divest the tradition of historical patriarchal values, we continue to see more men in leadership and teaching roles than women. Until this changes, the primary effect of this nun’s story will be reassurance that true spiritual authority lies within the heart of my own religious experience and not necessarily in the institutions that claim such authority.

During long Vipassana retreats, the thought had often crossed my mind that had women risen to power in historical Buddhist hierarchies, they would have created a different style of practice—something less harsh and more nurturing, something that emphasized both ease of being and relatedness among the practitioners, something more celebratory of embodied life. I imagined instead of not making eye contact, one would exchange glances full of lovingkindness with one’s meditation colleagues. I imagined shoulder rubs, foot massages, refreshing the skin with petal-infused mists, and sharing jugs of freshly made cucumber water. Thinking of Lian Xiang Jian, I surmised that there must have been thousands of courageous and spiritually illuminated women in the past, women we do not hear about who at particular moments in history emerged as leaders and who embraced forms of practice that emphasized peacefulness, relatedness, and ease.

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