Was Bodhidharma's Teacher a Woman?

The Story of Prajnatara

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O'Brien, Barbara. "Was Bodhidharma's Teacher a Woman?" ThoughtCo, Sep. 9, 2015, thoughtco.com/was-bodhidharmas-teacher-a-woman-449948. O'Brien, Barbara. (2015, September 9). Was Bodhidharma's Teacher a Woman? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/was-bodhidharmas-teacher-a-woman-449948 O'Brien, Barbara. "Was Bodhidharma's Teacher a Woman?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/was-bodhidharmas-teacher-a-woman-449948 (accessed September 22, 2017).
Chinese Guanyin
Guanyin of the Southern Sea, Liao (907-1125) or Jin Dynasty (1115-1234), Chinese. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City. whereisciao, Flickr.com, Creative Commons license

The transmission lineage of teachers is an essential part of the Zen Buddhist tradition. Zen is sometimes called "the face-to-face transmission of the dharma outside the sutras." This means that throughout the history of Zen, teachers have transmitted their realization of dharma to students by working with them face-to-face. You can't get it from books. A Zen teacher can trace his or her lineage of teachers back to the historical Buddha, and to those Buddhas before the historical Buddha.

Although we know there have been women Zen masters since there has been Zen, the names on the lineage charts are overwhelmingly male names. One of the guys on every Zen teacher's lineage chart is Bodhidharma. Bodhidharma was an Indian sage who is credited with founding Zen in China in the early 6th century. He is the First Patriarch of Zen.

Bodhidharma's teacher, from whom he received dharma transmission, was named Prajnatara. In Chinese and Japanese Zen history, Prajnatara is a man. But there is a strong evidence that Prajnatara actually was a woman, a great Mahayana yogini of southern India.

The story of Prajnatara as a woman comes from an article published in the newsletter of Sakyadhita, the international association of Buddhist women, by the Rev. Master Koten Benson of the Lions Gate Buddhist Priory in British Columbia. According to the Rev. Master Koten, Prajnatara is remembered as a woman in the oral traditions of the people of Kerala, in southwest India, and there is archeological evidence supporting those traditions.

And the Zen histories transmitted to Korea in the 7th century portray Prajnatara as a woman.

If that's so, how did she become a he in the Chinese records? In written classical Chinese, gender is inferred from context and is not stated explicitly. The fact of Prajnatara's gender could well have been forgotten after a few generations.

By the time Zen reached Japan in the late 11th century, Prajnatara had long been assumed to be a man.

According to the story of Prajnatara from Kerala, originally she was a homeless waif who wandered western India and called herself Keyura, which means "necklace" or "bracelet." One day she met Master Punyamitra, and they felt a great dharma connection between them from past lives.

The waif became Punyamitra's student and was re-named Prajnatara. She is remembered as an accomplished yogini and also as a powerful Siddhi who could see into the past, present and future.

When Huns swept through northern India in the 5th century, Prajnatara went further south to escape the chaos. The Pallava king of south India, Simhavarman, invited her to teach in his capital, Kanchipuram. King Simhavarman's youngest son, Bodhitara, became her student and was ordained a monk with the name Bodhidharma.

Prajnatara, seeing that the dharma would leave India, advised Bodhidharma to go to China after she died. And so, some time after his teacher's death at the age of 67, Bodhidharma traveled to China and eventually to the Shaolin monastery, considered the birthplace of Zen.

It is recorded that one of Bodhidharma's four dharma heirs was a nun, Zongchi, who may have been the daughter of a Liang Dynasty emperor.

However, we know very little about Zongchi and how it was that a woman was studying with Bodhidharma at Shaolin. The reconstituted story of Prajnatara may tell us why Bodhidharma didn't have issues about teaching women!