Reading Mahāyāna Scriptures Conference, Sept 25-26, 2021
Dr. Stephanie Balkwill
Assistant Professor of Buddhist Studies, Department of Asian Languages and Cultures, UCLA
‘Reading the Sūtra of the Unsullied Worthy Girl’
The Sūtra of the Unsullied Worthy Girl (T 562: Wugou xiannü jing 無垢賢女經) is a short Mahāyāna treatise that tells the fascinating story of a newborn female child who chooses not to transform her body into a male body along her path to Buddhahood. Hailing from a different Buddha land than ours, she is born like a Buddha in our land with the world quaking and shaking. Her miraculous birth inspires the births of countless other beings who then witness to her discussion of the female form from the perspective of the Mahāyāna. When she is asked why such a highly-advanced being as herself has retained a female form, she argues: “In the Law of the Great Vehicle there is neither male nor female!” Her story therefore finds both resonance and contrast with other stories of young, female protagonists in Mahāyāna literature, most famously the Daughter of the Dragon King from the Lotus Sūtra, who does change her body into a male one. Her story is also told in subsequent other Chinese translations; however, in these other texts she also changes her form just like the Daughter of the Dragon King. In reading the Sūtra of the Unsullied Worthy Girl, this paper will attempt to reconstruct an early medieval context for the text that suggests both popular interest in the female body in early medieval China and also reveals the instability of the problem of the female form over time.