Abstract: Life and Mission of Elder Gongga (1903-1997): Bridging Dharma Traditions and beyond Gender Discrimination

by Stefania Travagnin

PhD student
School of Oriental and African Studies, Dept. Study of Religions, Taipeh

Elder Gongga (1903-1997) is a remarkable Chinese Buddhist woman who engaged in spreading Tibetan Buddhism in the Chinese region, bridged Dharma traditions and deleted gender discrimination.

Native of Beiping, Shen Shuwen’s (Elder Gongga’s secular name) first encounter with Buddhism is dated 1922. Later on, she had the opportunity to meet, and therefore be influenced by, eminent Chinese monks such as the reformer Taixu太虛 and the Chan master Xuyun 虛雲, and at the end espoused the Esoteric doctrine of Tibetan Buddhism.

Elder Gongga played a very important role in the Sangha, by being an active preacher in Mainland China and then in Taiwan. She undertook the mission to transmit and spread the teachings of Kargyu school into Taiwan: the Gongga Vihāra 貢噶精舍, that she established in the early sixties at Zhonghe 中和 (Taipei county), was the first Kargyu Dharma center founded in Taiwan, as well as one of the very first Tibetan Dharma centers established on the island.

In these terms, the analysis of Elder Gongga’s life and works provide us with data on the state of Buddhism in China (and Taiwan) during the 20th century. Furthermore, Elder Gongga’s story is especially the story of a Chinese Buddhist woman practicing and preaching Tibetan Buddhism in China first and Taiwan then, and therefore a valid portray of the condition of women following Tibetan Buddhism in the Chinese region during the last century. Finally, but not less important, the preservation of her body, performed according to the Tibetan tradition, was read by her followers as evidence of her attainment of Enlightenment, despite all the gender-related obstacles and doctrinal controversies.

My paper is divided into two part. The first section concerns life and practice of Elder Gongga, and the state of her legacy in the present-day Taiwan. The second segment aims to question and assess the historical and gender-related significance of her mission.