Longnü is a character that makes three notable appearances in Buddhism; the first is in a defining Buddhist text, the Lotus Sutra, while the other two come from Chinese folklore, as told in the Complete Tale of Avalokiteśvara and the Southern Seas, and the Precious Scroll of Sudhana and Longnü. Before we start, here are a few pointers:
Avalokteshvara is the Bodhisattva of Compassion. In Buddhism, a Bodhisattva is an enlightened being who has taken an oath to help all other sentient beings reach freedom from suffering, which is the fundamental point of Buddhism in general.
Avalokateshvara’s name means (He) Who Looks Down (Sanskrit); the implication being that Avalokateshvara looks down compassionately on all suffering beings.
When Buddhism moved to China, and eventually the rest of East Asia, Avalokateshvara underwent a gender swap; in China she is known as Guanyin; her name has been transposed into a multitude of Asian languages; here’s a partial list:
- In Vietnam, she is called Quan Am.
- In Tibet, he/she is Chenrézik.
- In Japan, she is Kannon.
The list goes on. The point is, in all cases, he/she looks down compassionately on the cries of the world.
The Lotus Sutra:
For over fourteen hundred years, the Lotus Sutra has impacted Asian art, folklore and poetry.
How much influence? Here’s an example: in the Kanwa taisho myoho renge-kyo, a collection of poetry from the Heian period (794-1185, Japan) there are roughly 1360 poems with references to the Lotus Sutra just in their titles.
Yes, it was popular.
Sexism in Buddhism:
To modern readers, the first story, the one contained in the Lotus Sutra, will appear sexist.
To be fair, it took Buddhism a while to grow out of its chauvinistic roots.
However, let’s not forget that Avalokateshvara did become a woman over the course of his/her sojourns.
Likewise, by the time Buddhism had migrated to Tibet, it had shed many of its andro-centric tendencies, though if the Dalai Lama does decide to reincarnate, I hope he comes back as a woman*.
*[off topic, but given China’s continued destruction of all things Tibetan, and given their abduction and replacement of the Panchen Lama (who is supposed to identify the next incarnation of the Dalai Lama), His Holiness has stated his intent to not reincarnate. This is part of a practice known as Chod, which incidentally, was pioneered by a woman, Machig Labdrön].
Longnü’s 1st Appearance: The Lotus Sutra, Chapter 12
Her tale starts with the Bodhisattva Manjusri praising the 8-year-old daughter of the Dragon King (Naga-raja, Sanskrit) to the Buddha:
There is the daughter of the nāga king Sāgara who is only eight years old. She is wise; her faculties are sharp; and she also well knows all the faculties and deeds of sentient beings. She has attained the power of recollection. She preserves all the profound secret treasures of the Buddhas, enters deep in meditation, and is well capable of discerning all dharmas. She instantly produced the thought of enlightenment and has attained the stage of nonretrogression. She has unhindered eloquence and thinks of sentient beings with as much compassion as if they were her own children. Her virtues are perfect. Her thoughts and explanations are subtle and extensive, merciful, and compassionate. She has a harmonious mind and has attained enlightenment.
Now, what follows represents a very old schism at the very heart of Buddhism: those who practiced the path of the Arahant, and those who sought to achieve the state of a Bodhisattva. The later group called themselves Mahayanists, which means the greater vehicle, and denigrated the former (and historically older) group as Hinayana, meaning the lesser vehicle.
In this context, Manjusri represents a Bodhisattva, while Sariputra, a disciple of the Buddha, represents the older, more orthodox, Hinayana tradition (technically, Sravaka).
Sariputra essentially discounts Majnusri’s praise of Longnü, essentially stating that…
Well, stating that no woman could possibly become enlightened.
Now, if I’d written the punchline to this awful joke, it would have ended in a punch.
But, instead, Longnü offers the Buddha a pearl.
A pearl of great wisdom.
And before I proceed, please realize the time and place this was written.
For the Cha’an Buddhists, who would form the basis for Zen Buddhism, the point of this story wasn’t the inherent sexism; it was about the ability to receive spontaneous enlightenment.
Unfortunately, that point may have been lost on Saviputra.
So, what happened when the Buddha gratefully received Longnü’s precious pearl?
Well, he transformed her…
After receiving the pearl, the Buddha changed Longnü.
From a woman,
Into a perfect, male, Bodhisattva…
We have two more tales to go through involving Longnü, and luckily, while transformation does occur, it isn’t sexist.
One involves a carp, the other involves a snake.
So, check in next time, when we continue our journey with Longnü, and see how she and the Bodhisattva of infinite compassion, Avalokateshvara came into direct contact…