“Prajnatara: Mother of Zen?” ~ A Line of Dharma Women


Images of Prajnaparamita from Garden of 1000 Buddhas

In the last post I mentioned the effort to restore the names of women to Zen history and lineage. But in the case of one ancestor it may have been just the gender that was lost, not the name.

The lineage of all Zen teachers lists the name Prajnatara as the teacher of Bodhidharma. Bodhidharma was the First Patriarch of Zen, the Indian sage who came from the West in the early 6th century to establish Zen at the Shaolin monastery in China.

In Chinese and Japanese Zen history, Prajnatara is a man. But there is a strong evidence that Prajnatara actually was a woman, a great Mahayana yogini of southern India.

The story of Prajnatara as a woman comes from an article published in the newsletter of Sakyadhita, the international association of Buddhist women, by the Rev. Master Koten Benson of the Lions Gate Buddhist Priory in British Columbia. According to the Rev. Master Koten, Prajnatara is remembered as a woman in the oral traditions of the people of Kerala, in southwest India, and there is archeological evidence supporting those traditions. And the Zen histories transmitted to Korea in the 7th century portray Prajnatara as a woman.

Further, in written classical Chinese, gender is inferred from context and is not stated explicitly. The fact of Prajnatara’s gender could well have been forgotten after a few generations. By the time Zen reached Japan in the late 11th century, Prajnatara had long been assumed to be a man.

According to the story of Prajnatara from Kerala, originally she was a homeless waif who wandered western India and called herself Keyura, which means “necklace” or “bracelet.” One day she met Master Punyamitra, and they felt a great dharma connection between them from past lives.

She became Punyamitra’s student and was re-named Prajnatara. She is remembered as an accomplished yogini and also as a powerful Siddhi who could see into the past, present and future.

When Huns swept through northern India in the 5th century, Prajnatara went further south to escape the chaos. The Pallava king of south India, Simhavarman, invited her to teach in his capital, Kanchipuram. King Simhavarman’s youngest son, Bodhitara, became her student and was ordained a monk with the name Bodhidharma.

Prajnatara, seeing that the dharma would leave India, advised Bodhidharma to go to China after she died. And so, some time after his teacher’s death at the age of 67, Bodhidharma traveled to China and eventually to Shaolin.

It is recorded that one of Bodhidharma’s four dharma heirs was a nun, Zongchi, who may have been the daughter of a Liang Dynasty emperor. We know very little about Zongchi and how it was that a woman was studying with Bodhidharma at Shaolin. The reconstituted story of Prajnatara at least tells us why Bodhidharma didn’t have issues about teaching women!


I love this story. The presence of gender equality (at least a perceived equality) is what attracts many to the path of Zen. For me, at least it was less of what attracted me to the practice and more a part of what repelled me from my Christian upbringing (Catholic and Orthodox Christianity are not known for their acceptance of women). While I admit that many Christian sects are more progressive on the issue of gender equality…just so you don’t call me anti-christian but they also tend to be evangelical…

Anywho…I attached a line of Dharma Ancestors chant from Great Vow Zen Center.  I liked the image of Prajnaparamita being called the Mother of all Buddha because she gave birth to the wisdom that leads to realization. 

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