Daughters of Emptiness
Poems of Chinese Buddhist Nuns
Wisdom Publications 2003
Beata Grant's translations of the poems of Chinese Buddhist nuns, Daughters of Emptiness, was a revelation and joy to me - a nun from a Roman Catholic background, with little knowledge of Buddhism. Not only does it present the reader with an extraordinary collection of poems written by Buddhist nuns across 16 centuries, but it offers the privilege of meeting the 48 new poets. Beata Grant's Introduction gives a well-researched account of the history of Chinese Buddhism and the place of poet nuns within that history. It makes fascinating reading and helped me to understand and appreciate the poems and their writers.
The book, divided into seven sections, each dedicated to one dynasty of Chinese history, is beautifully presented. Each poet is given her own distinctive place: after her name, written in both Chinese script and English, there is a brief account of her life. This is followed by a poem, presented in the original side-by-side with the translation. The calm beauty of the presentation mirrors the spirit of the poems. The number of poems from each dynasty inevitably varies - two sections have only one poet and one poem. Beata Grant makes the reasons for this clear in her preface, but her willingness to devote a section to a single nun and a single poem also reveals the integrity with which she has approached the work. For her, each writer and each poem has an importance of their own.
What of the poems themselves? Unlike anthologies of English poetry, this is not a book one can dip into, without having first become familiar with the lives of the poets. Taken alone, the general impression could be that these women led lives of uninterrupted tranquillity: 'the feast of meditation knows no end' writes Huixu in the very first poem; 'I take delight in this solitary life in which worldly concerns are few,' writes Jizhu in the 18th century. There is a peaceful beauty about all the poems, yet this is set in context by the Introduction, which shows how these women often had to struggle against opposition, even violence and persecution, in their determination to follow their vocation. When one has grasped that, this feast of poems appears in a rather different light.
As a nun who has lived and practised within the Christian tradition, I nevertheless feel at home with these women, admiring their courage and appreciating their literary and spiritual gifts. The Rule of Life that I follow urges me to 'seek stillness and listen' and here I find women from a different cultural and religious tradition, from a different historical background, who have lived this search for stillness and this listening. I am happy to know them and to learn from them.
Pauline Mahony has been a sister of La Retraite for many years. She has lived and worked in the UK and in France and is now semi-retired and living in Birmingham, UK.