More gender

To continue the entry of January 20th on gender, it seems necessary to explain the (Hybrid) Sanskrit and Pali word bhiksunī, resp. bhikkhunī.
On page 128 Beata Grant (“Eminent Nuns; Women Chan Masters of Seventeenth-Century China”) laments the fact that Linji Master Jizong Xingche in several 19th-century publications is not recognizable as “the nun Jizong Xingche” but is rather referred to either as Jizong or as Xingchue, without “absolutely no indication of her gender … without the usual character ni [nun] that is usually appended to the names of female monastics.”

The character -ni stands for the last syllable of the Sanskrit/Pali name “bhiksunī/bhikkhunī“. It translates as “fully ordained female monk”, more precisely “female alms gatherer”. The male version = bhikshu, resp. bhikkhu.

Where at all -ni is added to the name of a Chinese female monk it is the last syllable of this “bhiksunī/bhikkhunī“, an appellation that in Chinese is approximately pronounced as “bishunii“. Therefore, if at all ni is added to the name of a chinese female monk such as Jizong Xingche one would expect something like Jizong Xingche Ni.
However, especially the Linji Chan tradition would consider it highly improper to designate a realized Master as a female being – or a male being for that matter. Therefore none of the Linji Masters in Beata Grant’s book will ever have been described as Master xx-xx-ni. This would be unthinkable if not an insult.


In her “Eminent Nuns; Women Chan Masters of Seventeenth-Century China” (2009, Hawai’i Univ. Press), a book that seems to have been put online, entirely or partially, the author Beata Grant addresses the issue – if it is an issue – of female monks of East-Asia.

She writes with the western concept of women’s emancipation in mind, and hence seems to stress the thought that women need to be elevated to the status of men while at the same time at least not downplaying the physical and mental differences between the two sexes.

The East-Asian Buddhist approach of monks and nuns – the Chinese and Korean – is a different one: as the object of one’s endeavours, enlightenment, is genderless, so is the monks Sangha, the men and the women, at least as far as the cultivation goes and the presentation to the world.
Beata’s “defeminization of Buddhist nuns” (p.94) therefore appears correct to the eyes of the western feminist, but it is a non-issue in the eyes of the said Chinese en Korean Sangha-members. (Sangha in the narrow sense of the community of monks and nuns.)

The gender-equality of the Dharma, hence the gender-equality of the East-Asian monks and nuns is demonstrated in the “families” that structurize themselves around a preceptor. Monks and nuns ordained at the same time under a particular preceptor are “brothers”; the “elder generation” of monks and nuns ordained under such a preceptor are “uncles”, and a “younger generation” of ordainees, ordained under this preceptor, are “cousins”. Certainly, this chosen form has gender: as there does not exist a gender-neutral way to convey genderlessness they show the male form.

Therefore Beata’s translation of “Dharma aunt” (p.95) is incorrect. In the absence of the original manuscript we may even surmise that the original Chinese text does not have the word “aunt” (ayi / āyí ) at all.

As an illustration we may give Beata’s feminist rendering of the Linji-monk Yikui Chaochen’s last poem, followed by a gender-neutral rendering:

All her life, this “fellow” has been tough as nails;
Once she dug her heels in, she could not be moved.
At twenty-four, she first found out about this matter;
Ten years she bitterly struggled, for forty forgot herself.
The nine bonds of this suffering world were untied
When she saw how to cut through its ways like water.
She’s long wanted to leave, and now her karma agrees;
Seven springs in a single day, iron nails turned to dust.
The four great elements dispersed by wind and fire.
Leaves fall, it is clearly autumn: time to return to the root.
Ha, ha, ha!
Footloose and fancy-free – that’s me!

A life long this “fellow” has been tough as nails;
Once having firmly footed, there was no way of moving.
At twenty-four the first discovery of this matter;
Ten years of bitter struggle, for forty forgotten the self.
The nine bonds of this suffering world were untied
Once seen how to cut through its ways like water.
Then this longing to leave, and now karma agrees;
Seven springs in a single day, iron nails turned to dust.
The four great elements dispersed by wind and fire.
Leaves fall, it is clearly autumn: time to return to the root.
Ha, ha, ha!
Footloose and fancy-free – (that’s me)!

(Does “that’s me” really occurs in the poem?)

Pity and martyrdom


Even Sir Monier-Williams (1819 – 1899) whose Sanskrit-English Dictionary saw the light in the last year of his life could in his translatory activities not avoid employing the religio-philosophical terminology that is so important in that culture of which he was a child. When describing the mental attitude of compassion, as it was expressed in the Hindu canon, he automatically translated “day” with “hav(ing) pity”, and “dayā“, resp. “dayākara” with (sympathy, compassion, and) “pity”, resp. “store of pity”.

The same is true for the earlier translators of the Buddhist Sanscritic and Pali canon. Here terms such as “anuganhāti”, “anuddaya”, “anukámpaka/anukámpika”, and even “karunā” are rendered with “merciful” and/or “full of pity” (and “compassion”).
These translators made no distinction between compassion and pity. It seems that the early Buddhist scriptures did. That is to say, when in the Birth Story (Jātaka) the bodhisattva senses the hunger and pain of the trapped tigress who is about to eat her cubs, he offers his own body. Was this a sign of pity?  Was this martyrdom? Could we replace compassion (anuganhāti, anuddaya, anukámpaka/anukámpika, karunā) with pity?

All Buddhist teachers reject the use of the word pity since pity easily entails an attitude of looking down on the person who is “to be pitied” by the person who is so much better off and has a so much better understanding and attitude towards the situation. The pitying person speaks from his very own top of the mountain about the to be pitied masses down below.
Compassion (karunā), in the Buddhist sense of the word, starts off as an universal attitude to be cultivated as an abstractum, not (yet) necessarily directed or applied towards some individual sufferer somewhere. In cases of urgency this universal attitude of karunā is made manifest in a more specific line of action towards the individual: beings in situations like this suffer, or could be better off, hence let me lend a helping hand because in my heart of hearts I know what it feels like; in the distant past I may have been there, and perhaps one day I will be there again.


Neither the classical Sanskrit, nor the Hybrid-Sanskrit, Pali, Buddhist Chinese etc. have a word that could be translated with “martyr”, or “martyrdom”. Buddhism has no martyrs; sometimes it has co-sufferers.

Confucianism and martyrdom

When scholars such as Walter H. Slote and ‎George A. De Vos in a publication of 1998 speak of Confucianism and mention that “filiality requires” “self-sacrifice”, they too apply the philosophical terminology of the West on concepts of the East. The same goes for another writer who in a publication of 2002 speaks in terms of “the [Chinese Confucian] martyr’s dedication to advancing society through selfless commitment to justice in public administration, ….”
Even Dorothy Ko, ‎JaHyun Kim Haboush, and ‎Joan Piggott (2003) cannot help but to refer to “the category ‘martyr'” when speaking of the Korean “widows [of the past] who commit suicide as a demonstration of loyalty to a deceased husband, or to avoid ‘humiliation’ …”.

It might be that Confucianists reading theses such as these would raise the same objections as Buddhists do when Western translators jollify the Buddhist canon with such highly sensitive words such as pity and martyrdom.