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Sun Buer, Taoist Immortal Sister and Poet

August 14, 2009

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.

21 Comments leave one →
  1. August 14, 2009 4:35 am

    Thank you Lisa. What always grabs me when reading these stories is that the mystics take their teachings very seriously and they take their time. It always amazes me that we Westerns underestimate what it takes to find and go on our inner path. We do not only like fast food, we like fast education as well. I know for myself how long it has taken me to even begin to understand what steering away from my mind meant. I don’t mind taking this time, it is important and there is not that much else that I want to give my attention too. I do not know much about mystics, so I have none on my wish list. I do enjoy your posts immensly though.

  2. August 14, 2009 9:25 am

    Fascinating! Never heard of her. Actually, despite my path being harmonious with Taoism, I know virtually nothing of famous Taoists. Amazed to know there were influential women.

  3. August 14, 2009 5:37 pm

    How interesting! She was unbelievably determined and rooted. Thanks for sharing the story of this fascinating woman!

  4. August 16, 2009 11:47 pm

    This is awesome! I really enjoyed this; I love hearing personal stories of masters, and you’ve managed to tell a great tale and be very informative at the same time…not an easy feat! I really enjoyed this, Lisa. Thank you for once again increasing my knowledge and awareness…and for doing it in such an enjoyable way!

  5. mommymystic permalink*
    August 17, 2009 2:00 pm

    Hi all, glad you liked this profile. Her poetry is really interesting. There are a few other historic woman Taoist teachers too, maybe I will write on them in the future.

  6. August 18, 2009 8:55 pm

    I, too, really enjoyed this Lisa. You know me, always loving to read about wise women. I had the Cahill book long ago and lost track of it in a move I think. So at your “urging” here, I ordered it again. I know I will love revisiting it at this point in my spiritual journey. Any other wise women or mystics you want to enlighten us on is fine by me! Thanks and blessings!

  7. August 19, 2009 5:00 pm

    I love the themes you touch on here — women mystics, mystical poetry, inner alchemy. It’s hard to understand how Western culture got so far away from these incredibly interesting topics. Like you said, who wouldn’t want to be a “clear and calm free human”? You are a great teacher, Lisa. Thank you for sharing your knowledge of this very illuminating subject. It’s telling, isn’t it, when a Taoist Immortal’s poetry survives for a thousand years.

  8. mommymystic permalink*
    August 19, 2009 9:40 pm

    Jan – I’m glad this spurred you to get the Cahill book again, I am trying to learn more about many of the women I first read about there, it is a great compilation.

    Brenda – glad this resonated, yes it is particularly amazing this poetry survived because so much of China’s spirituial heritage was lost in the last fifty years, with the government officially against all such material and their traditions. I hope to learn more in the coming months…

  9. August 22, 2009 11:07 am

    Hi there Lisa – I enjoyed reading this – as she is a 12th century immortal, I wonder if she is still alive? It’s interesting that spiritual realization + occult mastery = immortal, in their tradition. Cheers – Robin

  10. August 23, 2009 5:44 pm

    “Before our body existed,
    One energy was already there.”

    For me these lines raise the matter of interpretation of experience vs. experience itself. The words seem to imply belief in some sort of personal immortality – a conviction that not everyone who has this kind of experience shares.

  11. mommymystic permalink*
    August 24, 2009 1:44 am

    Robin – I thought you would be interested in this, and I have heard that there are some very interesting Taoist alchemy texts on physical immortality, although I have not read them. Of course some interpret them metaphorically, and others literally, so who knows? But it is a fascinating tradition.

    Paul – That is an interesting point. I am not sure exactly how to interpret ‘immortality’ in this case though – when I read most Taoist texts it doesn’t seem to imply a personal immortality, more of a ‘we are a wave in the immortal ocean’ kind, and I think this quote could be interpreted either way, i.e. that the deepest part of ourselves is part of the immortal, universal source, or that there is actually some individual, personal level of ourselves that eternal.

  12. August 25, 2009 4:54 am

    Seems to me that either way goes beyond anything that science can tell us about how energy/matter function and would therefore qualify as a religious belief. Also, wish I could recall the name of the book, but it presented accounts of mystical experiences by members of different faith traditions and no faith tradition, i.e., people who saw themselves as atheists or secular.

    It sounded very much like they applied different labels to the same recognizable type of experience…

  13. mommymystic permalink*
    August 25, 2009 10:26 pm

    Paul – I will email you separately, but would love to find that book. I have read things like that piecemeal but never found one book that compiled a diverse cross-section like that.

  14. Akasha C. Kinlock permalink
    December 29, 2011 2:59 pm

    I know this may be an old article, however, I would like to extend some facts to support your commentary on Sun Buer (11119-1182).There are scholarly interpretations on Buer’s poetry in the report “Kundao: A lived Body in Female Daoism.” I am a grad student taking courses in Human Services Management, but have the resources to investigate Metaphysics and Philosophies concerning being–so I happened upon this 17 page doc by Robin R. Wang (2009) that reveals a little background on her family life and much more on teachings that require cultivation of “qui.”

    I am far from being a scholar in Buddhism or Taoism but can ascertain that her teachings focus on breathing to cultivate and produce “primordial spirit” within the mind, body & spirit of women as part of practicing Dao. I found the report on EBSCOHOST, because as I mentioned being in college right now, but perhaps you can find this doc (its a reader doc) and share it with your group of readers–you will probably get more out of it because I am assuming you have been practicing a long time and have been able to put more into the study of Buddhism, Daoism/Taoism.

    If there is a way for me to forward a hardcopy, you are welcomed to ask for it. I can just pull
    it up and send it as an attachment if you want.

    Akasha Kinlock:

    Have a buddhaful day!

  15. December 29, 2011 4:23 pm

    Hi Akasha, thanks so much for adding some of your knowledge re: Sun Buer, I have mostly read her poetry but would love to learn about her teachings as well. I will email you soon for more info, Namaste- Lisa

  16. Donna Frey permalink
    November 1, 2012 11:35 am

    Thank you for info and this shows the hidden potential of all human beings regardless of their backgrounds.

  17. Anonymous permalink
    September 2, 2014 3:38 am

    I just found this website yesterday ! Wish I could have been in touch earlier. But we know that there is a right time for everything and one has to be ready. So, here I am !

    Its amazing to know that so many contemporary WOMEN mystics are working towards the betterment of WOMEN. Even I look forward to my contribution, specially for women. I believe that if women are empowered, that would benefit their counterparts. MEN, too.

    I would like you to to add another great Christian woman mystic story in your list, her name being St. Alphonsa from Kerala, India. Her story is very moving and unconventional ,as she was physically ill with asthma, eczema and even memory loss for a period of time. She was criticized throughout her lifetime, yet she calmly accepted suffering as her Lord Jesus had done. After her death diseased and handicapped people got miraculously healed after praying to her at her shrine. Later she was canonized by the Pope and declared as a Saint.

  18. lotus permalink
    September 2, 2014 3:41 am

    The last post had been sent without writing the name of the commentator. It is sent by Lotus.

  19. September 2, 2014 7:39 pm

    Thanks Lotus for telling me about St. Alphonsa, I had not heard about her before.

  20. Hirsh permalink
    December 13, 2015 3:41 am

    How about Wei Hua Cun?

  21. December 13, 2015 6:53 pm

    I will research for a future post perhaps…

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