Becoming a Buddha: Lessons from Little Girls

Buddhist scholar Stephanie Balkwill examines the historical arguments around the question: “Can women attain buddhahood in a female form?”

By Stephanie Balkwill

In one well-known episode in the Lotus Sutra, we meet an unlikely candidate for buddhahood: the eight-year-old daughter of the dragon king. Our introduction to her comes through gossip. Discussing—behind her back—the girl’s rumored readiness for buddhahood, the bodhisattvas Manjushri and Wisdom Accumulated mull over whether or not she could possibly be as advanced as they have heard. Wisdom Accumulated argues that, since it took the Buddha a very long time to become the Buddha, he “cannot believe that this girl in the space of an instant could actually achieve correct enlightenment” (Burton Watson, The Lotus Sutra). Young, female, non-human—the daughter of the dragon king, in Wisdom Accumulated’s view, cannot attain the accomplishments of a buddha, accomplishments he himself has not yet achieved.

But the daughter of the dragon king is not one to be gossiped about. Arriving on the scene, she confronts the two bodhisattvas, only to be summarily dismissed by Shariputra, a disbelieving, but earnest, disciple of the Buddha. Informing her of the limits of her own female body, Shariputra tells her of the famous “five obstructions” experienced by women:

First, she cannot become a Brahma heavenly king. Second, she cannot become the king Shakra. Third, she cannot become a devil king. Fourth, she cannot become a wheel-turning sage king. Fifth, she cannot become a Buddha. (Watson)

The daughter of the dragon king, undaunted, attempts to win Shariputra over with her skilled argumentation. Failing that, she resorts to a less subtle persuasion technique: magic. Using her supernatural powers, she takes on a male body, completes all the practices of the bodhisattva, and then takes her seat on a jeweled lotus in the “Spotless World of the South.” By first becoming a man, and then a buddha, the daughter of the dragon king leaves us forever perplexed as to whether or not a woman—or, in this case, a young dragoness—is able to become a buddha in her own body. Does she take on a male body because she must, or does she do so to show that, unlike Shariputra, she is not attached to physical forms and is, therefore, a more credible candidate for buddhahood than he?

The influence of the Lotus Sutra on the practice of Mahayana Buddhism in East Asia cannot be overstated, and, in many times and places across East Asia, the story of the daughter of the dragon king has been read as a proof text that the female body is an impediment to buddhahood. Such teachings are connected to widespread notions about the impurity of—and feelings of disgust toward—the female form, which can be seen in many Buddhist texts, as detailed by Liz Wilson in Charming Cadavers: Horrific Figurations of the Feminine in Indian Buddhist Hagiographic Literature, as well as to the attendant valorization of the male form in those same texts, which is insightfully explored in A Bull of a Man: Images of Masculinity, Sex, and the Body in Indian Buddhism by John Powers. Even in contemporary Buddhist practice, such chauvinism against the female body remains common, so much so that Karma Lekshe Tsomo—a professor of Buddhism at the University of San Diego, a Buddhist nun, and an activist for women within the tradition—laments that women are systematically maligned within the tradition and, as a result, “The desire to be reborn a man is pervasive among women” (Buddhist Women Across Cultures).

And yet, despite a history of interpretation that reads the story of the daughter of the dragon king as an abjuration of the female body, in the most influential of all commentaries to the Lotus Sutra, Zhiyi (538–597), the sixth-century Chinese monk and founding patriarch of the Tiantai tradition of East Asian Mahayana Buddhism, says without hesitation that “Mara, Brahma, Indra, and women, all of them do not have to cast off their bodies and receive bodies. Each of them can attain buddhahood in their manifest bodies.” And of the sexual transformation of the daughter of the dragon king he says:

When her karmic ties to this world were weakening, only then did the dragon girl teach and convert [beings] with this power of mighty expediency: she achieved one body, all bodies, and the universal samadhi of the physical body [of the Buddha].

So, Zhiyi is clear: the act of sexual transformation is not a requisite, but instead a skillful means of converting beings—beings who, like Shariputra, remain unenlightened as to the fundamental emptiness of physical forms and who, as a result, cling to gendered notions of buddhahood. Zhiyi’s clear interpretation of the Lotus Sutra is surprising given that not only is the story itself ambiguous but also that the tradition had long read it as a rejection of the female form, a pronouncement of its unsuitability for the highest of religious attainments.

And yet, if we look to other sutra material that was circulating in Zhiyi’s time, there is ample support for his thesis that a woman can become a buddha in her very body, as well as ample support for his corollary that the act of sexual transformation in Mahayana texts is a method of teaching the Buddha’s law and not a condition of buddhahood. There exists a significant corpus of early medieval sutras preserved in Chinese that put forth this view. One of the most illuminating is The Sutra of the Girl Marvelous Wisdom.

Marvelous Wisdom is the eight-year-old daughter of an elder from Rajagrha, a city famous for housing one of the earliest Indian Buddhist monasteries. Marvelous Wisdom is a pleasure to behold; with beauty and comportment, she is unlike other eight-year-old children when she comes to pay her respects to the Buddha and ask him about how to practice the path of the bodhisattva and gain unsurpassed, correct enlightenment. The Buddha responds to her request by enumerating the four actions of the attainments of the bodhisattva by which they “receive a true body.” The true body of the Buddha, here, can be assumed to be the body endowed with the thirty-two major and eighty minor marks of the great man—a body that is not only male but also superhuman, majestic, and enjoys strong associations with royalty.

Upon hearing this, Marvelous Wisdom champions herself by insisting that she has indeed done all of these things and that in her future life she will become a buddha like Shakyamuni. Because of her female body, she is not believed by those in the assembly. In defense of her attainments, she makes two impassioned pronouncements: first, if she has completed all of these practices then the earth shall shake, and it will rain flowers (which it does); and second, her readiness for buddhahood is due to the fact that, in the world she comes from, there are no evil destinies and nothing called “woman.” If this is true, she says, then all in the assembly shall turn gold, and she will change her sex. (They all then turn gold, and she changes her sex.) As a result, the Buddha, very pleased, confirms her prophecy of buddhahood, saying that “this young girl gave rise to the heart of bodhi some thirty kalpas ago” and that she would soon give rise to unsurpassed, correct enlightenment and become a buddha in her own right, “The Tathagata Treasurehouse of Extraordinary Merit.”

The question remains: if you are a highly attained being from another buddha-land, why choose to stop by Shakyamuni’s land in the guise of a little girl?

The story of Marvelous Wisdom brings us into contact with spectacular miracles undertaken by a bewildering little girl, and in so doing functions to turn the reader into Shariputra—amazed, doubting, waiting for what might happen next. We are suspended between realities, never sure what to make of things and newly suspicious of our own understanding of the Buddha’s teachings. The story of Marvelous Wisdom—as well as the many others in this genre from sixth-century China—plays on the question of reality. In such texts, reality oscillates between the buddha-land inhabited by Shakyamuni and his assembly, where the text is being preached, and the buddha-lands of other buddhas imaged through the existences, backstories, and future predictions of the young and infant girls who appear in Shakyamuni’s assembly, argue about sex and gender, and then shed their female forms. This interplay of realities is an important aspect of these texts, for it positions Shakyamuni’s assembly as a gate to the unknown, where space and time are relative, where miracles can occur in any given instant, and where dharmas—in the sense of both law and phenomena—work differently. Similarly, the interchanging space/time realities that pivot around Shakyamuni’s assembly serve to educate us on the possibilities of Buddhist practice in this universe and to, thereby, narratively justify the existence of the young and baby girls in the texts who are ready for buddhahood despite being unlikely candidates for such an attainment. But the question remains: if you are a highly attained being from another buddha-land, why choose to stop by Shakyamuni’s land in the guise of a little girl?

In the story of Marvelous Wisdom and the others like it, the young female protagonists claim they have stopped by Shakyamuni’s world to learn the practices of the bodhisattva, practices that will help them to convert and save beings. And yet, Shakyamuni’s own enumeration of these practices is decidedly unhelpful. Platitudinal and vague, Shakyamuni’s teachings pale in comparison to the teachings on bodies, bodhi, and buddhahood that the little girls eventually deliver once questioned by some unwitting disciple, or even high-level bodhisattva, about the female body in which they currently appear. Despite being infants and children, the female protagonists in these texts speak with the rhetorical skill of buddhas, and they use this skill to debate the Buddha’s foremost disciples on the empty nature of all reality, including, but not limited to, physical sex. In such conversations, their own small bodies bear the incredible burden of locating the profound lesson that they all want to teach: physical sex, like all dharmas, is absolutely void of inherent, permanent, nonchanging existence. The raison d’être shared by all of these texts is the discussion of the very existence of the body of the protagonist itself; advanced, supernatural, young, and female, the much-discussed body and the long bodhi tenure it manifests is the teaching mechanism of choice for the protagonist, arming her with a physical manifestation of her argument that all forms are empty, and, as such, equal and nondifferentiated. To be sure, though the protagonists in texts like The Sutra of the Girl Marvelous Wisdom appear in female forms, what they teach to the assembly is that their form is truly formless, and only the limited understanding of the Buddha’s disciples prevents them from understanding this abstruse truth. More than questioning Shakyamuni about the path of the bodhisattva, teaching this lesson to his most advanced disciples seems to be why they appear among his assembly.

Let’s return to the story of Marvelous Wisdom to see how she uses her small body as a mechanism for teaching. In the story, Manjushri, “prince of the dharma,” asks Marvelous Wisdom about her vow to save all beings, a line of questioning that ultimately, but rather obliquely, arrives at a question about her own religious attainment. He asks, “In what dharma did you reside when giving rise to this sincere vow?” Marvelous Wisdom rebuts with, “Manjushri! Your question is false! Why? Because in the dharma realm there is no place to reside.” In response, Manjushri refines his question: “What is it that is called ‘bodhi’?” Marvelous Wisdom responds that, “Nondifferentiation of dharmas is called ‘bodhi.’” Manjushri again sets himself up for defeat, continuing with, “What is it that is called ‘bodhisattva?’” And, again, Marvelous Wisdom replies, “All dharmas are completely void and empty of marks, this is called ‘bodhisattva.’” The conversation continues at length in a similar back and forth, eventually arriving at what was likely Manjushri’s original purpose: the question of the female body. Building on Marvelous Wisdom’s own argument that there is no form and no receiving of form because all dharmas are empty and, similarly, physical forms are illusory, Manjushri presses on: “Marvelous Wisdom! Why have you not yet transformed your female form?” At this juncture, Marvelous Wisdom provides a direct answer:

I have not obtained the marks of the female body and so, now, what could be transformed? Manjushri! I will bring an end to your doubt. Because of the suchness of my true speech, in the future when I shall attain complete and perfect awakening, all of the bhiksus in my teaching that have heard my commands will be delighted to leave home and enter the Way. In my world, all beings will be born with golden bodies and, for their dress, will take the objects of the sixth heaven. They will eat and drink the fertile [land] as they follow along with it. There will be neither the workings of Mara nor the evil destinies, and furthermore, there will be nothing called “woman.” There will be forests of the seven treasures which, at their tops, gather together in precious nets, and the lotus flowers of the seven treasures will be overlaid with jeweled banners—just like in the complete pure realm of Manjushri, the adornments and decorations will be no different.

Evidently, then, from her speech, we see that Marvelous Wisdom does not believe her female body is a problem because her buddha-land will be one in which there is nothing called “woman.” It is not, then, that her buddha-land does not have women; rather, her buddha-land does not have gender. And, as she makes clear, her own genderless buddha-land will be as splendidly equipped as that of her examiner, Manjushri.

And yet, despite making such an impassioned declaration regarding the genderlessness of her own forthcoming buddha-land, Marvelous Wisdom does indeed transform her female form and take on a male body. Why does she do it? The answer to this problem lies not in her body, but in her audience. In the buddha-land of Shakyamuni, her female body is a problem. Shakyamuni’s buddha-land—the land in which we all live and practice—is a defiled land, a land full of defects. Such defects affect an individual’s ability to practice the Buddha’s teaching. In this particular case, such defects work to uphold traditional notions of gender and sexualized bodies that prevent the advanced male disciples in Shakyamuni’s assembly from recognizing that the young girl, Marvelous Wisdom, is a highly advanced being on the path to buddhahood. She changes her sex, then, not as a condition of her impending buddhahood but as a means of teaching those in the assembly about the ultimately empty nature of physical forms. She changes her sex because, as a highly attained being, she can, but also because the act stands as a proof of the veracity of her claim to buddhahood to an assembly that cannot escape their own limited perception, which sees a female body as lesser than a male one.

The Sutra of the Girl Marvelous Wisdom thus provides context for how we should read the much more famous story of the daughter of the dragon king from the Lotus Sutra. Importantly, the context it provides is in complete agreement with the famous patriarch Zhiyi’s commentary: that all beings can become buddhas—no matter what sort of body they are currently manifesting—and that the act of sexual transformation in Buddhist texts is a pedagogical tool, an expedient and skillful means. Read as such, what these textual voices from sixth-century China are arguing is quite progressive: the female body is not a problem; only the limited perspective of the audience causes it to be one. Some 1,500 years later, this remains an insightful analysis of how sexed bodies exist in patriarchal social and religious contexts.

So, what does the story of the daughter of the dragon king really mean? That depends on whether you are Shariputra or Marvelous Wisdom.

Stephanie Balkwill

Stephanie Balkwill

Stephanie Balkwill did her post doctoral work on female-to-male sex change in Buddhist texts; her more recent work has focused on the political, social, and literary lives of Buddhist women in China two thousand years ago. She is an assistant professor of religion and culture and East Asian languages and cultures at the University of Winnipeg, where she teaches such courses as “Buddhism, Sex, and the Body.”