Who Was Prajnatara?

Geoffrey Shugen Arnold tells the story of Prajnatara, the 27th “patriarch” of Indian Buddhism — who is believed to have been a woman.

Geoffrey Shugen Arnold
11 October 2018
Silk painting of the bodhisattva Mahasthamaprapta
Painting of the Bodhisattva Mahasthamaprapta, of whom Prajnatara is said to have been an incarnation. China, c. 17th-18th centuries. Courtesy of The Met.

Prajnatara was the teacher of Bodhidharma, the founder of the Zen school. In addition to the notable role of being Bodhidharma’s teacher, Prajnatara is also an interesting figure because there is some evidence that she was a woman. This possibility first came to my attention a number of years ago through a brief article by a successor of Jiyu Kennett Roshi, the founding abbess of Shasta Abbey. When Jiyu Kennett Roshi was training in Japan, her teacher, Koho Zenji, told her that there were female masters in their direct ancestral line. Years later, Jiyu Kennett asked one of her students to try to find them. His research led him to records within the Korean Zen lineage in which Prajnatara is remembered as being a woman, as well as to historical and oral traditions from Kerala in southern India, where Prajnatara lived and is remembered within local historical memory as being a woman. He also learned of archaeological discoveries in Kerala that confirm the presence of a well-known woman master 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 several Buddhist scholars. One dismissed the matter out of hand, but another said he had heard about this rumor and thought that it was entirely plausible. 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 recognized 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, who 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 recognized something in Bodhidharma.

This article is an excerpt from a longer feature, “In Accord with All Time.”

Geoffrey Shugen Arnold

Geoffrey Shugen Arnold

Geoffrey Shugen Arnold is the abbot and resident teacher of Zen Mountain Monastery and abbot of the Zen Center of New York City. He received dharma transmission from John Daido Loori Roshi in 1997.