Earlier this year I was contact by Rev. Koten Benson of the Lions Gate Buddhist Priory with information on Prajñatara, the master who trained Bodhidharma.
Rev. Benson had published a fascinating article on Prajñatara in the newsletter of Sakyadhita, the international association of Buddhist women and he wanted to share his research with the readers of this website. He very generously mailed the article, along with related correspondence.
The Korean Zen tradition maintains an ancient tradition that describes Prajñatara as a woman master in eastern India. Originally, she was a homeless person who made her living by begging. One day she encountered Punyamitra, a master from southern India and became his disciple. Punyamitra considered her to be a manifestation of Mahastamaprapta, the Bodhisattva of Great Strength of Compassion.
In time, Prajñatara became a great master in her own right and was considered leader of the Sarvastivadin sect of Buddhism. She employed the Lakavatara Sutra in her teaching.
Later she traveled to southern India and was invited by King Simhavarman to teach. The king's youngest son, Bodhitara, showed special abilities and Prajñatara ordained him and gave him the name, Bodhidharma. After training him in meditation, she advised him to go to China.
Rev. Koten writes:
The knowledge that Bodhidharma had a woman master seems to have been lost in China after a few generations, because in written Chinese, gender is inferred from context rather than stated explicitly. Prajñatara's gender and details about her life have been established from three different sources. First, archeological discoveries have confirmed the existence of this great woman teacher in southern India. Second: the historical and oral traditions of the people of the state of Kerala provide details about the lives of both Prajñatara and Bodhidharma. Third, information transmitted through the Zen lineages of Korea confirm the information.
I'm grateful to Rev. Benson for bringing this information forward and hope to see additional scholarly work on the role played by women in the development of the Zen tradition.