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Creating a Virtual Lineage, and the Life of Quan Am Thi Kinh

February 10, 2012

In Tibetan Buddhism, each lineage represents all the teachers within it as a 'refuge' tree, as any initiate may 'take refuge' - receive support and transmission from - any teacher in the lineage. This is the Nyingma school tree, clickthrough for others.

I haven’t added any posts to the Women Mystics section of this site in awhile, so I thought I would do so this week.  For those of you that don’t know, I try to periodically feature historical women seekers from diverse traditions, to serve as inspiration and to contribute to a growing virtual spiritual ‘lineage’ to draw upon. Although I’ve mentioned this idea of a personal virtual lineage before, I wanted to explain this a little better, as I think it’s something more and more of us who are spiritual but not attracted to organized religion can draw upon. Plus, in the comments I would love to hear whether you have a virtual lineage, and if so, who you include within it.

The purpose of lineage in all the world’s traditions is twofold in my view: First, the ancestral life stories – the stories of the teachers and saints within a tradition – serve as ‘teaching stories’. Second, lineage is meant to connect us directly to the energetic or spiritual transmission of these beings. Of course until recently, women lineage holders have been few and far between, which can limit our sense of connection, and ability to model ourselves after them. And at this point, I – like many people – don’t associate myself with one religion, so I have created a virtual lineage for myself – one composed of teachers and mystics that I personally have studied and felt drawn too. Not all are women, but many are. Some are contemporary, many are historical.

This month I was introduced to Quan Am Thi Kinh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monastic woman whose life story mostly comes down to us through legend, although historians do believe that she actually existed. Apparently in Vietnam, her story is widely known, and there are several famous operatic and dramatic versions of it. My own telling mostly relies on Thich Nhat Hanh’s version, as he tells it in his new novella The Novice, which I reviewed at BellaOnline this week, although I researched other versions of her story too.

Thi Kinh is a very different choice for me, as most of the prior women mystics I have featured here have been considered troublemakers or rebels in their time – thorns in the side of the religious establishment they functioned within, and only later revered. By contrast, Thi Kinh strove to uphold what was expected of her with no complaint, bearing incredible suffering quietly, including being falsely accused and brutally punished for something she did not do. However, she did it disguised as a man, specifically as a male monk, so that she could study the dharma (the Buddhist word for spiritual truth and teachings) at the highest level possible.

Thi Kinh’s story does share a couple of similarities with other women mystics I have featured however – as a young child in a small village, she was brilliant, devout, and wanted nothing more than to  dedicate her life to the dharma, but was instead expected to marry a man of her parent’s choice. She agreed, and entered into a unhappy (at best) marriage. She tried her best to be a ‘good girl’ but was miserable. Her husband was shallow and childish, and her mother-in-law jealous. Finally, things came to a head when her mother-in-law walked in on her trimming her husband’s beard while he was asleep. Her MIL accused her of attempting to murder him, and all hell broke loose.

Her parents intervened and got her in-laws to agree to keep Thi Kinh in the family if she would admit what she had done and take her punishment. Here, Thi Kinh showed some backbone. She would not lie. She refused to confess to something she had not done, and was sent back to her village with her parents. This brought tremendous shame upon her family, which devastated her. She decided to run away, disguise herself as a young man, and try to be accepted in a monastery as a novice.

She was allowed into the monastery and threw herself into the daily routine and spiritual practice. She had never been happier. She became known for her wisdom, equanimity, humility and radiance in all that she did – whether it was washing dishes, hauling water, ringing the temple bells, or sitting in meditation. Everyone wanted to be near her, and experience the calming, loving grace of her presence – the other monks in the monastery, and the townspeople who came to visit and receive instruction.

Unfortunately, this ended up causing problems for her. One young woman from a prestigious family in the town fell in love with her, thinking she was a young male monk. This young woman was used to getting her way, made many attempts to finagle some alone time with Thi Kinh, and became infuriated when she was rebuffed. After one such thwarted attempt, she was so angry she went home and slept with a servant boy. She became pregnant, and panicked. She decided to tell her parents Thi Kinh was the father, hoping they would force him to marry her.

The townspeople descended on the monastery in a swarm, demanding Thi Kinh confess, disrobe, and marry the young woman. Of course Thi Kinh would not do so. Although confessing her gender would clear her, she did not want to give up her chance to study the dharma in the monastery. Instead, she bore the whipping of the town mayor stoically, almost to the point of death. The Abbot agreed to let her live in a little hut outside the monastery grounds, as the town would not allow the monastery to keep her as a novice, or complete her initiation.

When the baby was born, the young woman left him outside the hut, and Thi Kinh decided to raise him as her own. He became a beloved young member of the monastery. Thi Kinh never wavered in her meditation or commitment to the dharma, and in fact devoted herself to understanding and sending compassion and loving-kindness to those who had wronged her – her husband, her in-laws, and the young woman from town. As time passed, she became a quiet, powerful, light-filled presence at the monastery, and people began to forget about the scandal, drawn to sitting in meditation with her, and feeling her grace.

She died of illness fairly young, and there were all sorts of rainbows and traditional signs (at least traditional in Buddhist lineages!) that a great bodhisattva had passed. Of course, the secret of her gender was revealed, shocking everyone. Her former husband and the young woman from town were so moved by the truth that they decided to devote their own lives to the dharma. And in a letter at her death, Thi Kinh requested a women’s monastery be set up nearby, which the Abbott agreed to. (And don’t let this summary keep you from reading The Novice if you are interested – the story is entwined with some beautiful teachings and sutras, and in the epilogue Thich Nhat Hanh and a Vietnamese nun recount some of the slander and violence they themselves withstood when attempting to help villages during the Vietnam war.)

What I felt transmitted in the stories I read of her were a deep acceptance, patience, and peace – NOT a martyrdom, or sacrificing of herself. Eventually, all was made right – women were allowed to take monastic vows in her area, those who had wronged her were transformed by her own example and compassion, the young boy was raised with love and respect – but not all of it happened right away, or even during her lifetime. She focused on her own heart, her own practice, and on living compassion herself, and that example had an impact. In our culture, we don’t really value these traits, or taking the long view, and I think this is why I felt drawn to her story at this time.

So that is the story of Quan Am Thi Kinh, and the latest addition to my virtual spiritual lineage or refuge tree – and by the way, making a visual refuge tree like the Tibetan one shown above can be very powerful, like a spiritual support vision board for yourself. I’d love to hear who you would put in your lineage/tree in the comments.

Namaste-

15 Comments leave one →
  1. Jamie permalink
    February 10, 2012 7:59 pm

    What a great idea, Lisa. I’m with you, I usually like the rebel types (I wonder why?) But this is a powerful story. There is a time and place for acceptance and patience, that’s for sure.

    On my meditation table I have pictures of a lot of deities, I guess that is really my lineage, because that’s what I consider my spiritual support system to be. Some of my favorites are Tara, Isis, Mary, Kali, and more. I also have spirit guides I would include. I like this idea of them being my ‘refuge tree’. Take care- Jamie

  2. Serafina permalink
    February 10, 2012 8:08 pm

    I enjoyed this post immensely, love the story!

    I like the idea of a virtual lineage; I’ve never thought of it that way before. There are many men in my personal lineage, though in recent years it has been opening to women. The main woman in my lineage would be Quan Yin. Lakshmi has recently come to play too.

    And now I go to investigate the Women’s Mystic part of your site! :)

  3. February 10, 2012 8:38 pm

    Jamie – some of my favorites too. I definitely include many beings that are considered ‘deities’ in my lineage also. I feel like many are symbols of actual guiding spirits. Others are may be symbolic of a certain kind of energy, but as symbols have become powerful over time, with a transmission of their own. So I don’t really draw a distinction between them – all that matter is how they shift my own attention when I connect.

  4. February 10, 2012 8:41 pm

    Hi Serafina, thanks for your comment. Quan Yin and Lakshmi are both amazing beings too. I had not connected much with Lakshmi until recently – a friend has been doing a Lakshmi sadhana, and then I went to a yoga workshop on the lotus position, and learned that that asana is associated with Lakshmi, so the teacher talked about her mythology, and it was very powerful.

    On another note, don’t you have a blog? I had visited a blog by a Serafina several times, and now can’t find it! If it’s you, link up your blog to your comments in the future if you can – Open ID should do it automatically, but hasn’t been working properly lately (and I’m working on a new site so haven’t bothered to diagnose it) so you have to type in the URL. That way I can return the visit:-) – Lisa

  5. February 11, 2012 2:10 pm

    Lisa, thank you for this post! My mother and I were recently talking about how women worship differently than men, and what that means for organized religion. What a beautiful, healing and powerful vision in the Lineage Tree! I know that mine would include Pele (the Hawaiian volcano goddess–we share a birthday,) Kali and Jesus…..But I have also been drawn to Kinh and just never taken the time to find out why. Even went so far as to try to find a garden statue of her.

  6. February 11, 2012 4:28 pm

    Hi Cate, that’s cool about Pele, I don’t know much about her. It’s interesting you had heard of Kinh – I had not until I read The Novice. I had heard of Quan Yin, who you find across all the Asian cultures, but not Kinh. Re: organized religions, I do think of them as lineages – Jesus for example would be the ‘root’ teacher in Christianity, and then other ‘teachers’ would depend on what form of Christianity it is, for example, all the official Saints in Catholicism. So I do think this idea of modeling and transmission exists pretty much across the board, in both organized religions and other spiritual traditions. But in this day and age, so many of us do not orient our spiritual journeys that way – I think self-described ‘spiritual but not religious’ was the fastest growing group in the last Pew Research on Religion survey? So this is another way of drawing upon the power of having a lineage, which I do believe in.

  7. February 12, 2012 6:19 am

    As always Quan Am Thi Kinh’s story moved me to gentle tears; and inspires me to give more focus on my own heart, my own practice, and on living compassion myself.
    Thank you for your blog.

  8. February 12, 2012 9:18 am

    great story.
    curious as to why you don’t see her journey as martyrdom, it sounds classic martyr stuff. ?

    i have this idea that lineage is passed in women in a Feminine way. that is, not in any formal, classic, obvious, Masculine way. it’s passed down in non-high-esoteric ways, in practical ways, in the every-day, through nature, through work, through nurturing…

    that is partly why it’s dismissed, ignored, forgotten. i think that women pass ‘little’ wisdoms that are really big wisdoms (we know all wisdom stems from very basic ‘truths’).

    i once sat during a ‘wisdom passing’ to a young girl. the elder was doing so through the medium/analogy of knitting. the young girl was distracted by ‘modern concerns’.

    perhaps this isn’t the lineage you’re talking about here? but for me personally it’s how much was passed on, even unintentionally in many incidences! until i was ready for the depth stuff.

  9. Rosie permalink
    February 12, 2012 9:10 pm

    Wow, Lisa, what an empowering story. “What the outstanding p[erson does, others will try to do…” Krishna from Gita. I love how she inspired not only thoe around her in the monastery but her husband and the young woman, too. Thanks for sharing. I’ll definitely find the book. And I love the idea of a lineage tree! Beautiful!

  10. February 12, 2012 11:50 pm

    Thank you Corestarme:-)

  11. February 12, 2012 11:57 pm

    Hi Mon, you know it’s interesting on the martyr thing, someone else asked me that too, and it made me realize I have come to see martyrdom as more a negative thing than many people do…that it is a complete sacrificing of happiness in the name of a cause, and although I can respect that, I think in some religious traditions it has exulted suffering – as if happiness and truth are incompatible. But of course there have been many happy martyrs too, including Kinh Tam, at least the way I read her story. She suffered a lot, in terms of the beatings and scandals, but chose to do so in order to maintain something dear to her – her own ability to study the dharma, which ultimately brought her tremendous happiness and peace…so she didn’t sacrifice herself in that sense…

    Re: women’s ‘everyday’ lineage, yes I absolutely think this is true, and you put it beautifully! The small every day things. And men do that too I think, but of course historically what women pass on has not been as valued…I do think this is another kind of lineage…I had been thinking more in terms of explicit spiritual lineages, where the transmission is Source itself (or supposed to be – lineages can get quite messed up at times, as we see in some religions)…but in many feminine spiritual traditions these two kinds of lineages are perhaps mixed together, which is quite lovely…

    Came back to add – was just reading about Karate Kid and the whole ‘wax on, wax off’ scenes – how’s hes made to clean the windows a certain way for weeks on end, as his apprenticship before he is allowed to learn the ‘real’ martial arts – but of course all along he’s been learning it, he just didn’t know it…this reminded me of your knitting example…although a male example, I think it’s very similar, no?

  12. February 12, 2012 11:57 pm

    Thank you Rosie, so happy to see you here:-)

  13. February 24, 2012 5:06 am

    Great story! It is always a helpful reminder to send love and compassion to all…even when you feel wronged.

  14. Johe Morris permalink
    July 9, 2012 9:14 pm

    Thanks for sharing this story. I heard of Quan AM Thi Kinh from a Vietnamese woman who wears an icon of her as a necklace. She tried to tell me the story in broken English and will be delighted that I have gotten a more thorough telling. It really is a wonderful tale and your interpretation of this saints focus of living as a truly compassionate being seems an excellent summary. By the way, my Vietnamese friend was raised in a monastery by female Vietnamese monks.

  15. Lotus permalink
    September 6, 2014 3:22 pm

    Hi Lisa, It is a touching and inspiring story! I had not heard or read about many of the Buddhist women mystic stories which you have covered on this site. Good job!
    As for the lineage—“Krishna ” is my favorite deity because of his versatility. Among mystics and gurus, I am touched by yogi gurus who have actually inspired me in my sadhana….Adi Shankaracharya, Sivananda Swami , Satyananda Swami (bihar school of yoga ), Mahavatar Babaji, P. Yogananda., Jesus, Osho, Bodhidharma, Sufi saints, many more…………as for the female lineage—-Kali, Saraswati, Durga……. among mystics—-Anandamayi maa, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Alphonsa, Rabiya, Mirabai and all the rebel mystics existed in history who I am not even heard of !! … I love rebel mystics! I had collected about 40 to 50 saints, mystics and guru’s inspiring quotes with pictures, a few years back. It is still incomplete as the list is endless.

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