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Reviewed by:
  • Eminent Nuns: Women Chan Masters of Seventeenth-Century China
  • Rita M. Gross
Eminent Nuns: Women Chan Masters of Seventeenth-Century China. By Beata Grant. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2009. 241 pp.

This painstakingly researched study presents the lives and writings of Buddhist women acknowledged by their spiritual teachers and peers to be accomplished Chan masters and genuine lineage holders. As such, it adds to a growing body of literature that is gradually giving us more accurate and complete knowledge about Buddhist women throughout the centuries and in the various forms of Buddhism. Because a lack of women teachers has always been, in my opinion, Buddhism's greatest downfall, a full account of seven women who were recognized as lineage holders and successfully ran convents is very good news indeed. Even better, these women left significant literary works, which means that we can read their own reflections and impressions of the world in which they lived, rather than only what men chose to record about them, as is so often the only material available to those who do scholarship about women and religion. [End Page 154]

In a brief preface, the author details her main task. She wants to "present, rather than to re-present or re-create" these women (p. ix), to get as close as possible to the women themselves rather than to create a well-meaning fiction about them. Therefore, she translates extensively from their own writings. These writings themselves reveal the high regard in which these women Chan masters were held. At the time and place in which these women lived, only the most acknowledged Buddhist masters were considered qualified to leave a literary legacy for future generations. Granted, the vast majority of such Buddhist masters were men, but these women did leave behind their own writings, which is rare for the religious literature of almost every time and place. As is often the case with women who write in a highly patriarchal context, these women had internalized the language and norms of male-dominated Chinese Chan Buddhist culture, were considered to be honorary men, and even considered themselves to be honorary men, "or to use the Chinese term, da zhangfu (great gentlemen)" (p. viii). Nevertheless, there is a significant difference, which the book's author points out. In their own narratives, these women are the central characters, rather than in the background or at the margins of narrative, as they would have been in the much more usual accounts written by and about men.

In her first chapter, the author sets out the context in which these seven acclaimed women Chan masters lived and wrote. First, the author is careful to point out the difference between the nuns about whom she will write and nuns as portrayed in popular fiction of the day. The nun of fiction was young, beautiful, and in the convent against her will. Grant also is careful to point out that there was also a courtesan culture in seventeenth-century China. In that culture, beautiful, educated, and talented "nuns" did entertain men who visited their "convents." Other factors were also important in allowing the flourishing of the women Chan masters about whom she will write. Times were turbulent, with dynastic changes causing confusion and difficulty. In such times, many were attracted to Buddhism and there was a significant revival of Chan Buddhism. There were many elite, well-educated women who began to participate in the literary culture and spiritual revivals of the times. Some of these women became nuns, entering convents by choice, not by compulsion, though some entered only after losing their husbands. Some of those women then became lineage holders— Chan masters in their own right. These women took their role very seriously and enacted it much as men did. They traveled widely, visiting male teachers and being visited by them. They engaged in fund-raising and ran convents. They named Dharma heirs of their own. And they wrote the same kind of literature that male Chan masters were expected to write. They recorded not only Dharma discourses but life narratives and poetry.

In her second introductory chapter, the author discusses how women and nuns were...


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