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Biographies of Chinese Buddhist Nuns from the Fourth to Sixth Centuries
Translated by Kathryn Ann Tsai.
University of Hawaii Press: Honolulu, 1994.
188 pp., $28.00 (cloth).
Lives of the Nuns, a collection of brief stories of notable Chinese Buddhist ordained women, comes from a world long gone and far away: China in the first flowering of Buddhism fifteen hundred years ago. Before the Lives, compiled by a literary monk of that era, we have only one volume on the community of Buddhist women, the Therigatha, which reports on a time almost a thousand years earlier, in India. The Indian women of the Therigatha had mostly lived simple lives before joining the sangha of ordained women. The Chinese women of the Lives, on the other hand, are mostly upper class and well-educated.
Some of these women became effective and influential teachers. We read of nuns having four hundred disciples, one with never fewer than a hundred under her at a time, and others instructing seven hundred on the monastic rule. One is noted as a witty and popular lecturer, while another was so effective a teacher that "students...gathered around her like clouds, causing the Buddhist religion to flourish in the southeast." And another, whose "sense of purpose was as durable as southern gold, and her heart as pristine as northern snow," was repeatedly invited to the imperial palace to lecture on the sutras. Like many of their sangha sisters in this book, these last two headed convents, while another's "power overruled the whole court" in a political intrigue.
Even as nuns, these women, many of whom came from highly placed families—their fathers were military commanders, provincial governors, marquises—still attracted wealthy and influential patrons, enabling them to commission magnificent religious sculptures and jewel-encrusted sutras, as well as to support the sangha and laity and to buy freedom for caged animals.
Virtue and purity are central features of these women's characters, and their single-minded efforts to adhere to the Vinaya [rules for the ordained] are stressed over and over. One is described as so innately pure that in infancy she didn't suckle at her mother's breast after noon, so that she never broke the rule against eating after midday. Their most extreme ascetic practice, not originally Buddhist, was fire sacrifice of their own bodies. Several of them immolated themselves, usually wrapping their bodies in cloths soaked in fragrant oils and offering to the Triple Treasure their virtuous abandonment of the defiled body of birth and death.
There are a few hints of intense woman-to-woman friendships in these pages, and one joint self-immolation by two lifelong friends, after years together in the convent, which one of them headed, and further years together in a pair of grass shelters on a mountain.
Along with their purity, asceticism, and teaching ability, their meditative power is noted repeatedly. Some were renowned contemplatives who attained high states of concentration and entered prolonged trances in which they were as if made of stone. This power was reflected in miracles and unusual signs, like having tigers as companions, dispelling evil omens, and radiating unearthly light.
Amid these tales of miracles and meditation are glimpses of other layers of the story of the sangha, including a remarkably relevant dharma issue, the ordination of women. The sangha of ordained women is extinct throughout most of Asia: in some places it died out, while in others it was never permitted to begin. All efforts to reestablish the women's sangha have been thwarted by a combination of vested interests and the very rules of the Vinaya, so in much of the Buddhist world women are denied the opportunity to live complete religious lives as fully ordained members—including Thailand, Sri Lanka, Burma, and Tibet. The rule that stands between women and ordination in those schools of Buddhism says that women's ordination must be performed by groups of both ordained women and men (where men need only a group of ordained men), and since there are currently no ordained women in those schools, there can be no new ordinations of women.
The Lives offers a truly important piece of buried dharma history: the first full Vinaya ordinations of women in China were performed by ordained men only. Some time later, a group of Sri Lankan nuns arrived in China, and many women received the complete male and female ordination. Book after book cites this later event as the beginning of the women's sangha in China, but this is not so. The Lives makes it very clear that the Indian and Central Asian Vinaya masters teaching in China at that time took into account the difficult circumstances (the lack of already ordained women) and performed and fully validated the ordination of women just by men. So, long ago there was a broad vision of dharma inclusiveness, and the Vinaya that women sought to accept as their way of life was not turned into a barricade to keep them out.
Books like the Lives of the Nuns are crucial to reconstructing the largely buried history of women, but this isn't exclusively a women's book any more than biographies of Shakyamuni Buddha are just for men. I'm grateful to the translator, Kathryn Ann T~ai, for bringing us this account of actual practice, lives, and social climates during the first millenium of Buddhism.
Jisho Cary Warner is a Soto Zen priest living in Minneapolis.