Sun Buer, Taoist Immortal Sister and Poet
I’ve been wanting to add to my historical women mystics series, and since I’m heading out on vacation in a few days (the visiting-family kind, not the lie-on-the-beach kind) now seems like the perfect week to do so. The goal of this series is to highlight both the women and the traditions, because I find them both interesting (and hopefully you do too!) And because all of our self-perceptions are to some extent based on history, I think it’s important to highlight women seekers and teachers, who of course in their own time rarely got much play.
I first learned about Sun Buer when reading Susan Cahill’s excellent Wise Women: Over Two Thousand Years of Spiritual Writing by Women and later Thomas Cleary’s Immortal Sisters: Secret Teachings of Taoist Women. Cleary says that her Taoist Priestess title means ‘Clear and Calm Free Human.’ Who wouldn’t want to be that? I later came across more of her poetry at A Personal Tao, and certain poems really struck me. One of my favorites is Gathering the Mind:
Before our body existed,
One energy was already there.
Like jade, more lustrous as it’s polished,
Like gold, brighter as it’s refined.
Sweep clear the ocean of birth and death,
Stay firm by the door of total mastery.
A particle at the point of open awareness,
The gentle firing is warm.
This poem uses imagery from the Taoist ‘inner alchemy’ tradition, from which the ‘Taoist Immortals’ descend (I’ll get to this more in a bit.) First some biogragraphical info: Sun Buer was a 12th-century Chinese woman, born into wealth and reportedly very beautiful. She married and raised three children, and at some point along the line, her husband began to study with a famous Taoist master. Sun Buer was not all that interested, and by some accounts was quite annoyed and suspicious of her husband’s teacher.
But apparently the master saw something in her, as according to legend, one day he came to visit, and ended up locking himself in her bedroom, much to her chagrin (this part of the story is a little vague, so not quite sure why he was in her bedroom!!) She sent a messenger for her husband, and when he arrived he said it was impossible for the master to have been there, because he had just spent the afternoon with him, himself. Sun Buer was impressed enough with the master’s ability to create an energy ‘double’ (one sign of Taoist occult mastery) that she began to study with him.
According to legend, once Sun Buer committed to her teacher, there was no stopping her. Several stories from her life are particularly illuminating regarding the struggles of women spiritual seekers and of the past. For example, she wanted to go on a pilgrimage to receive teachings from an Immortal that lived several hundred miles away, but many warned her against it because of her beauty, fearing she would become the victim of assault because of it. Her response? To maul her face with hot oil. She did get to the go on the pilgrimage. (This reminded me of a consistent theme in the historical biographies of Tibetan Buddhist woman masters – they are often quite beautiful, which in Tibet is considered by many to be a sign of good karma. But in their biographies this inevitably leads to some great prince wanting to marry them, and their parents consenting against their will, which means that in order to fulfill their desire to pursue enlightenment they either have to run away, defy their parents, or marry and escape later.)
Another interesting legend about Sun Buer is that at 51 she decided to leave her husband and grown children, to continue her own studies, and as a result became one of the few female Taoist ‘Immortals’ – a title representing both spiritual realization and occult mastery. She became a teacher herself with a considerable following, including many women, and founded the Taoist lineage know as the ‘Purity and Tranquility’ tradition.
The ‘inner alchemy’ tradition which she mastered and taught is a strain of Taoism that many of us here in the West are not that familiar with. I think most of us associate Taoism with Lao Tzu’s Tao To Ching, or Way of Life, a classic that some sources say is the most translated book in history (in close competition with the Bible.) It’s so popular because Lao Tzu’s words resonate on so many levels – as philosophy, as social discourse, as occult teachings, and as a spiritual guide.
Within China, Lao Tzu’s teachings, and those of his successors, were interpreted and added to along each of these lines. Within China, some people still practice a form of folk Taoism that scholars consider a religion proper. Within philosophical disciplines, the Tao Te Ching is often set against Confucious’ writings, and together they are said to represent the two primary social views present in Eastern political discourse. And of course Taoism had a major impact on Buddhism when the latter came to China, creating the foundation for Chan, or Zen Buddhism.
But the occult or energy principles of Lao Tzu’s writings also generated a new set of teachings and practices, those often referred to as inner alchemy. These highly technical energy meditations and methods are similar to those found in the kundalini yoga traditions of India, the tantric Buddhist traditions of Tibet, and some Islamic Sufi lineages. The mappings of the human energy body that were generated within these traditions form the basis for traditional Chinese medicine – which includes both acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine. They also became part of the Chinese martial arts traditions, including everything from tai chi and qi gong to kung fu. And masters of these teachings at the highest levels were considered capable of tremendous superhuman feats (think Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), in addition to attaining enlightenment, and were referred to as ‘the Immortals.’
As in the Indian and Tibetan traditions, the most sophisticated of the occult teachings in these Taoist lineages were transmitted in secret, and required years of apprenticeship and initiations. When represented in written form, highly symbolic language was used in order to mask the teachings, and for this reason poetry was a favorite. Many of Sun Buer’s poems utilize symbols representing energy structures or flows that she studed. For example, in the poem above she is likely referring to energy center or chakra work when she refers to ‘polishing’ and ‘refining’, and the colors jade and gold. ‘Stay firm by the doorway’ likely refers to the root chakra, while ‘the point of open awareness’ is likely the third eye or crown. The ‘gentle firing’ is the smooth flow of kundalini that should occur when one is meditating properly on these energy centers.
Hope you enjoyed learning more about Sun Buer. Let me know in the comments if there are any other women mystics you would like to have me write on. And if you’re interested in learning more about chakra meditation yourself, check out these free guided walkthroughs.