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Barbara O'Brien

Prajnatara: Mother of Zen?

By October 28, 2010

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In the last post I mentioned the effort to restore the names of women to Zen history and lineage. But in the case of one ancestor it may have been just the gender that was lost, not the name.

The lineage of all Zen teachers lists the name Prajnatara as the teacher of Bodhidharma. Bodhidharma was the First Patriarch of Zen, the Indian sage who came from the West in the early 6th century to establish Zen at the Shaolin monastery in China.

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.

Further, 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.

She 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 Shaolin.

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

October 28, 2010 at 9:21 pm
(1) Mila says:

fascinating :)

October 29, 2010 at 5:27 am
(2) anonymous says:

It is my understanding that the original Sangha that the Buddha formed had women. It is only twisted teachers and prejudiced fakirs that put women down, and elevate the male fantasy. When women take back our religious and political lives we will have made great progress.
Keep pounding that hammer of yours. :)

October 29, 2010 at 10:16 am
(3) Pete says:

Great to hear about Prajnatara in the early history of Chan. Authentic Yoginis are the best!

December 12, 2010 at 10:38 am
(4) Laura says:

I recently read an article about Rohatsu where it was mentioned that the Buddha encouraged practitioners to use local customs and be part of existing communities, not trying to stand out. Suddenly I see how we can understand that it of not that we are better or know more, previous societies simply did not in general have open involvement of women and so it also did not occur in Buddhism, which takes the flavor of each society it enters .

I feel better knowing That the time had come and I can be part of it, than assaulting past men with base attitudes when most likely this was an area where the whole society was asleep.

American Zen should seize the day… and those of us fortunate for living in these times should reflect on whether twe are using such conversations to grind an axe of man hating and being a victim…

December 12, 2010 at 7:20 pm
(5) Barbara O'Brien says:

Laura — I would say American Zen “seized the day” awhile back already. Today, roughly half of American Zen teachers are women. Nor do I see anyone grinding axes about man hating a being a victim.

October 31, 2011 at 8:58 am
(6) osho says:

Bodhidharma went to china to teach mediation with the blessing of his teacher Prajnatara. People from western countries couldn’t believe that she was lady because most of masters in zen tradition are males, but in India there exist both female and male masters in spiritualism with same high spiritual levels.

November 12, 2011 at 3:50 am
(7) parini says:

Thanks for the information that King Simhavarman of Pallava dynasty was the father of Bodhidharma. Kanchivaram and surrounding areas still echo the cultural heritages of Pallava dynasty. I am wrong that I thought they were good at sculptures alone. But they were good in martial arts like kalari as well.

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