Daughters of Emptiness - Selections

Poems of Chinese Buddhist Nuns

Six Dynasties (220–581)

Huixu (431–99), whose family name was Zhou, was born in Jiangsu Province in southeastern China. She was drawn to Buddhist practice from an early age: we are told that she began to adhere to a vegetarian diet at the age of seven and took the tonsure at the age of eighteen. She soon gained a reputation for her firm adherence to the monastic rules and for her straightforward and direct manner. During the first part of her religious career, she spent some time with an eminent contemplative from northwestern China. “Disregarding the age difference between them [they] followed the Buddhadharma,” and engaged in at least one intensive three-month summer retreat together.

These were turbulent times, and Huixu was often forced to leave one place for another. In time, however, Huixu attracted the attention of a member of the royal family, the prince of Yuzhang, who happened to be stationed in the area. Appreciating her religious attainments, he invited her to live in his home, where his wife and the other royal family members sought instruction from her and became her devoted followers. During this time Huixu met a meditation master by the name of Xuanchang who taught her advanced meditation methods, in which she became extremely proficient. When the prince and his family returned to the Qi capital of Jiankang in the southeast, Huixu went with them and took up residence in the convent the prince had built for her on one of the royal estates located in the suburbs of the capital.

In time, the emperor himself had a convent built for her and her community of nuns. After this, despite repeated invitations, she did not visit the royal residences for many years. Finally, she agreed to attend a special religious feast held in her honor, at which time she wrote the poem translated below. Upon her departure, she told her devotees that she would never again leave her convent. About a month later, she fell ill and passed away.

Worldly people who do not understand me
Call me by my worldly name of Old Zhou.
You invite me to a seven-day religious feast,
But the feast of meditation knows no end.

Sui and Tang Dynasties (581–907)

Fayuan (601–63) was a sixth-generation descendent of Emperor Wudi of Liang (502–50), a ruler famous for his patronage of Buddhism: legend has it that he was the emperor visited by Bodhidharma, the first Patriarch of Chan Buddhism in China. Fayuan was also the third daughter of a member of the Tang dynasty royal family, and as such was raised in an atmosphere of privilege and luxury. We are told that she was an exceptionally intelligent and loving child who showed a real talent for study as well as painting and calligraphy. From an early age she was drawn to Buddhism as well, and as she grew into a young woman, she apparently refused to wear fancy brocades, jewelry, or cosmetics. Even as a child, she refused to eat meat. When it came time for her to be married, she went to her parents and pleaded with them to allow her to enter the religious life. They did not put up any resistance, and Fayuan entered the Jidu Convent in the Tang capital of Chang’an. Fayuan appears to have led a secluded life devoted to meditation and the study of Buddhist texts, rarely returning to the court circles in which she had been raised. Eventually, she attracted many disciples and began to acquire a reputation for her skillful teaching and exemplary discipline. In the autumn of 663, Fayuan fell seriously ill. Knowing that her death was imminent, she instructed her disciple to dispose of her body in the wilds to serve as food for hungry birds and not to encase it in precious metals or rare woods. Her family overruled her last request, however, and had her buried in the imperial tombs.

This body without a self
Can be compared to floating duckweed.
This body with its troubles

Is exactly like a leaf in the wind.
This cycle of life and death
Is just like that of night and day.

Haiyin. We know very little about Haiyin, apart from the fact that she appears to have lived during the last part of the Tang dynasty and was associated with the Ciguang Convent in what is today Sichuan Province. Hers is the only poem attributed to a Buddhist nun (there are quite a few by Buddhist monks) among the over fifty thousand poems written by some two thousand poets included in the voluminous compendium of Tang poetry, The Complete Poetry of the Tang Dynasty.

The color of the water merges with that of the sky,
The sound of the wind adds to that of the waves.
The traveler’s thoughts of home are painful,
The old fisherman’s dream-self is startled.
Lifting his oars, the clouds get there before him,
When his boat moves, the moon follows along.
Although I’ve done reciting the lines of my poem,
I can still see the hills extending in both directions.

Plum Blossom Nun. Nothing is known about this nun: she may well be a fabrication. However, the poem she is said to have written is very famous and often included in anthologies.

The entire day I searched for spring but spring I could not find,
In my straw sandals I tramped among the mountain peak clouds.
Home again, smiling, I finger a sprig of fragrant plum blossom;
Spring was right here on these branches in all of its glory!

Song Dynasty (960–1279)

 

Miaozong (1095–1170) was the granddaughter of a prime minister, Su Song (1020–46), and the widow of a high-ranking scholar-official. Coming as she did from an upper-class literati family, Miaozong was highly educated and appears to have had an impressive command not only of Buddhist literature, but also of Confucian and Daoist texts. Her interest in Buddhism showed itself early: at fifteen she is said to have suddenly said, “Where did this body come from in this life? And after one passes away, where will it go?” She became the disciple, and subsequently a Dharma heir, of the great Linji Chan master Dahui Zonggao. Miaozong was also quite well known for her poetry and other writings. Many of her poems were in the form of responses to traditional Chan stories or koans, a literary tradition made famous by the Chan master Xuedou Chongxian (998–1052), who compiled a hundred koans to which he appended a commentary (designed to further challenge rather than elucidate) in verse. Later the students of another Chan monk, Yuanwu Keqin (1063–1135)— Dahui Zonggao’s Dharma master—took Xuedou Chongxian’s koans and verses, added their own teacher’s commentaries, and thus produced the famous book known today as the Blue Cliff Record. Forty-three of the poetic commentaries by Miaozong remain extant today.

A leaf of a boat drifts across the endless expanse of water,
Lifting and dancing the oars to a different melody now.
Clouds on the mountain, moon over the sea: all tossed away;
This done, Zhuang Zhou’s butterfly dream will last forever.

***

Suddenly I have made contact with the tip of the nose,
And my cleverness melts like ice and shatters like tiles.
What need for Bodhidharma to have come from the West?
What a waste for the Second Patriarch to have paid his respects!
To ask any further about what is this and what is that Would signal defeat by a regiment of straw bandits!

Zhengjue (twelfth century) came from an elite scholarly family from Haiyan (in present-day Zhejiang Province). She married a young scholar by the name of Ye, but when she was left a widow shortly afterward, she chose the life of a Buddhist nun rather than remarry. She spent the rest of her life in the Fayun Convent. She was quite well known for her poetry, although unfortunately very little of it survives. The following are two of her quatrains.

Spring morning on the lake: the wind merges with the rain,
Worldly matters are like flowers that fall only to bloom again.
I retire to contemplate behind closed doors, a place of true joy,
While the floating clouds come and go the whole day long.

***
 

The hidden birds on the treetops sing without pause,
The sky clears, the rain stops, the window brightens.
From the West came the wondrous meaning 
without words,
It may be gold dust, but don’t let it get in your eyes!

Benming. We know very little about the nun Benming, also known as Mingshi, apart from the fact that she was a Dharma heir of Chan master Yuanwu Keqin (1063–1135). In 1141, shortly before her death on a visit to her family, she wrote a series of verses, which she dedicated to Chan master Caotang Shanqing (1057–1142). He was so impressed with them that, after she died, he published them together with a laudatory colophon of his own. The great Song-dynasty Chan master Dahui Zonggao also found her poetry exemplary and quoted her verses in sermons to his own disciples.

Don’t you know that afflictions are nothing more than wisdom,
But to cling to your afflictions is nothing more than foolishness?
As they rise and then melt away again, you must remember this:
The sparrow hawk flies through Silla without anyone noticing!

Don’t you know that afflictions are nothing more than wisdom
And that the purest of blossoms emerges from the mire?
If someone were to come and ask me what I do:
After eating my gruel and rice, I wash my bowl.
Don’t worry about a thing!
Don’t worry about a thing!
You may play all day like a silly child in the sand by the sea,
But you must always realize the truth of your original face!
When you suffer the blows delivered by the patriarchs’ staff,
If you can’t say anything, you will perish by the staff,
If you can say something, you will perish by the staff.
In the end, what will you do
If you are forbidden to travel by night but must arrive by dawn?

Zhenru was the daughter of a Wang family from northwest China (Shenxi and Gansu area). As a young girl she was inducted into the inner palace because of her considerable talents and abilities, and there she became an attendant to an imperial concubine by the name of Qiao. Concubine Qiao was herself a Buddhist devotee, and so did not put up any resistance when Zhenru expressed a desire to leave the palace and enter the religious life. Zhenru subsequently traveled as far as Fujian Province in the south, where Chan master Dahui Zonggao was then living in exile. Dahui thought very highly of her and cited her poetry in his writings.

I suddenly find myself upside-down on level ground;
When I pick myself up, I find there’s nothing to say!
If someone should ask me what this is all about,
Smiling, I’d point to the pure breeze and bright moon.

Today she is Buddhist Nun Ru,
Yesterday she was Teacher Wang.
Although born to wear silken gauze,
She now wears only the roughest hemp.
Mouths that open and spew out lofty talk
Have no interest at all in becoming buddhas.
Leap out of the cauldron of right and wrong,
Cut off completely the road of life and death,
Then enter tiger’s lair and demon’s palace
With a heart that feels not the slightest fear.
The made-up nonsense of the Eight Yang Sutra
Easily adds up to three thousand chapters!
I am fond of chanting poems that have no rhymes,
And I can’t be bothered with counting syllables!
This wandering nun had traveled the world,
Investigated Chan, but was not yet enlightened.
Until recently I found my way to Cloud Gate,
Where I immediately encountered total defeat.
I’d mistaken the shape of a mortar pestle,
Thinking it was a winter melon gourd!
Having gone through all this just to be a nun,
I urge you not to feel jealous of me!
Is there anything else that I’ve got wrong?
If so, then do tell me what it may be!
When the elephant of Jiazhou eats steaming bran,
The iron ox of Shanfu suffers a distended belly:
This is easy to see!

Zuqin was a disciple of Chan master Huo’an Shiti (1108–79). Apparently, her intelligence, perspicacity, and literary talent were such that local male literati-officials sought her company, no doubt interested more in intellectual diversion than in spiritual illumination. She was unwilling to fraternize with them and clearly did not think much of their worldly occupations. The following poem uses the analogy of the official life to refer to that of the deluded and unenlightened mind.

All day long you play the official oblivious of what it means,
All year long you are duped and deceived by your petty clerks.
If you chased away your clerks with a shout, the official would appear,
But instead you tip over the northern dipper and face toward the south!

Deying came from a well-known elite family: she was a descendent of the eminent scholar Yang I (974–1020) who, among other things, was known for re-editing one of the first Chan genealogical histories (the Jingde chuandeng lu). Deying very early on gained a reputation for her precocious intelligence. She studied under a number of eminent Chan masters and eventually was named a Dharma heir of the Yunmen master Fazhen Shouyi (dates unknown). She subsequently preached at a number of different convents in the Jiangnan area, including the Zhuming Convent in Suzhou and the Jinghui Convent in Changzhou. After her death, her writings and sermons were compiled into a collection of discourse records, which is no longer extant.

A Self-Description

I try to characterize myself, but can’t seem to do it;
I try to sketch a self-portrait, but with no success!
There is such a thing as the original oorm,
But how can it be made to look like a person! Alive and lively,
It was never born.
As always the nostrils hang over the upper lip.

Zhitong (d. 1124) came from a famous scholar-official family and even as a young girl gained a reputation for her intelligence and love of study. When she reached marriageable age, she was engaged to the son of another eminent gentry family but, unhappy with the realities of married life, she returned to her parents’ home and requested permission to become a nun. When her father refused to give her his permission, she retreated to her room in order to practice visualization and meditation. After her parents died, she accompanied her elder brother when he went to take up various official posts around the country. She lived for a time in Jinling (what is today Nanjing), where she sponsored the building of a bathhouse at the Baoning Monastery and wrote the text to be inscribed over its entrance.

During this time, she also had interviews with a number of eminent Chan Buddhist masters in the Jiangnan area, including Master Sixin (1044–1115), who was a Dharma heir of Master Huanglong (1002–69). She eventually realized her aspiration to take the tonsure and become a nun. She took up residence at the Xizhu Convent in Suzhou (in Jiangsu Province), where she attracted a devoted following of both laypersons and nuns. She is known to have composed a work, no longer extant, entitled Record of Mind Illumination (Mingxin lu), which was published along with a preface and several verses penned by eminent male Chan Buddhist masters of the time.

Since there is nothing that exists, what are you bathing?
If there is even a speck of dust, from where does it arise?
If you produce a single profound phrase,
Then everyone can come in and bathe.
The most the ancient holy ones can do is scrub your back;
When has a bodhisattva ever illuminated anyone’s mind?
If you want to realize the stage beyond impurity,
You should sweat from every last pore of your body.
It is said that water is able to wash away impurities,
But how do you know that the water is also not dirty?
Even if you erase the distinction between water and dirt,
When you come in here, you must still be sure to bathe!

***
 

Within the vast expanse of dust essentially a single suchness,
Whether vertical or horizontal, everything bears the seal of Vairochana.

Although the entire wave is made of water, the wave is not the water;
Although all of the water may turn into waves, the water is still itself.

***
 

Subject and object from the start are no different,
The myriad things nothing but images in the mirror.
Bright and refulgent, transcending both guest and host,
Complete and realized, all is permeated by the absolute.
A single form encompasses the multitude of dharmas,
All of which are interconnected within the net of Indra.
Layer after layer there is no point at which it all ends,
Whether in motion or still, all is fully interpenetrating.

 

Fahai was from a high-ranking elite family from Hunan Province: she was the aunt of a high-ranking scholar-official named Lu Jia, who was a member of the Institute of Academicians who served in the palace Hall for Treasuring Culture. Even as a young girl she was known for her intelligence, and from an early age took a special interest in the practice of Chan meditation. She became a nun and spent many years traveling from one place to another studying with various teachers, and in the end received Dharma transmission from an eminent Chan master. She then retired to a life of quiet contemplation. She attracted the attention of many eminent Confucian scholars of the day (many of whom no doubt knew of her through her nephew) who repeatedly tried to get her to leave her mountain retreat and give Chan teachings to the public. However, Fahai refused to abandon her life of quiet contemplation and remained in seclusion until her death.

On this frosty day, clouds and mist congeal,
On the mountain moon, the icy chill glows.
At night I receive a letter from my home,
At dawn I leave without anyone knowing.

 

How to cite this document:
© Beata Grant, Daughters of Emptiness (Wisdom Publications, 2003)

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