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"Mama" Moshan, Zen Master


Quanyin, Chinese goddess of compassion and mercy

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Woman of Ch'an's Golden Age:

Moshan Liaoran (ca. 800 CE) was a Ch'an (Zen) master and teacher and the abbess of a monastery in China during Ch'an's golden age. Her skills as a teacher were so formidable that her fame spread throughout China. Both men and women flocked to her for teaching.

Moshan, whose name means "Summit Mountain," was the only woman given a record in the Ching-te ch'uan-teng lu, a compilation of stories about Chinese Ch'an masters written in 1004 A.D. She was also remembered by the Japanese Soto Zen master Eihei Dogen (1200-1253) in the “Raihai Tokuzui” fascicle of Shobogenzo, written in December 1240.

Her Place in the Lineage:

Moshan was the student of Dayu, a hermit teacher remembered also for his association with Linchi I-hsuan (d. 867). Linchi was the founder of the Linchi school of Ch'an, also called the Rinzai school of Japanese Zen. Although Linchi officially received transmission from Huang-po Hsi-yun (d. 850), he realized enlightenment while being grilled by Dayu.

Mama Moshan:

Linchi's dharma heir Guanzhi Zhixian (d. 895) also studied for a time under Moshan. Dogen wrote in the "Raihai Tokuzui" that when Zhixian became a teacher, he told his assembly, “I got half a ladle at Papa Linchi’s place, and I got half a ladle at Mama Moshan’s place, which together made a full ladle. Since that time, after having fully digested this, I’ve been satisfied to the full.”

"Its Peak Cannot Be Seen":

From the Ching-te ch'uan-teng lu:

Moshan asked Zhixian, “Where did you just come from?” Zhixian replied, “From the entrance to the road.”

Moshan said, “Why didn’t you come here after blocking it?” Zhixian bowed.

Zhixian asked Moshan, “What is Moshan?”

Moshan responded, “Its peak cannot be seen.”

Zhixian said, “What sort of person dwells in the mountain?”

Moshan said, “Not with forms such as a man or a woman.”

Zhixian said, “Then why don’t you change yourself?”

Moshan replied, “I’m not a fox spirit; why would I want to change?”

Zhixian did obeisance.

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