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