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Buddhadharma : Fall 2016
26 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly fall 2 0 1 6 GeOffrey ShuGen arnOlD SenSeI is head of the Mountains and river Order and abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery and the Zen Center of new york City. local historical memory as being a woman. He also learned of archaeological discoveries in Kerala that confirm the presence of a well-known woman mas- ter around that time. All of these factors aligned to offer a convincing argument that although within most modern scholarship Prajnatara is assumed to be a man, this important teacher may have actually been a woman. When I first found out about this, I wrote sev- eral Buddhist scholars. One dismissed the matter out of hand, but another said he had heard about this rumor and thought that it was entirely plau- sible. In fact, he allowed that there may be other female masters within the Zen lineage who have been mistakenly assumed to be male. In written Chinese, gender is inferred from context rather than stated explicitly. So in the context of lineage within a male-dominated religious tradition and society, there would be an assumption that a master of this stature was male. Prajnatara’s female form may have been lost over time, buried beneath cultural assumptions. Although historical records don’t contain nearly as much information about female teachers as they do male teachers, we know there have been many realized women masters. There are sutras in which the Buddha states that there is no high or low in the dharma and in which he makes clear not only that the four groups in the sangha—male and female monastic, male and female lay—were all capable of realizing enlightenment but he also recognizes individuals from each of these groups as having achieved enlightenment during his lifetime. Although there are other sutras that seem to refute the capacity of women to realize themselves, some modern scholars believe these sutras were added later by conservative male disciples. Whoever Prajnatara was, whether male or female, certainly as Bodhidharma’s teacher she holds a special place within our lineage. She is said to have been an orphan who lived on the streets and didn’t even know her own name—a very good beginning for a Buddhist master. She made her living by begging, and one day she encountered Punyamitra. It seems she had a karmic connection with Punyamitra going back into past lives; he rec- ognized her as a dharma vessel, and she eventually became his dharma heir. To escape the mayhem of the Hun invasions in northern India, Prajnatara traveled to the southern part of the country. This is where she first encountered Bodhidharma’s father, wvho was a king there, and then later met the son who would become her disciple. Just as her teacher had seen something special in her, she also recog- nized something in Bodhidharma. In this koan, Prajnatara is asked by her teacher, “Do you remember events of the past?” She says, “I remember in a distant eon I was living in the same place as you. You were expounding a great wisdom and I was reciting a most profound scrip- ture. This event is in accord with past cause.” What is the question in this koan; what needs to be resolved? What does “in conformity with past cause” mean? This can be understood from Bud- dhism’s perspective on karma, but the koan is ask- ing for a deeper, more direct understanding. We are each the recipient of innumerable currents of life streaming into and influencing our own life. Zenmountainmonasteryarchives©2012