The First Chinese Bhikkhunis 1

“Eminent Monks of the Liang Dynasty” by Hui Jao: The Life of Sanghav­arman 1

Bhante Sujāto

Bhante Sujāto

Sanghav­arman (in Chinese named Zhang-Kai) was an Indian by birth. As a young man he renounced society and was well-known and respected for his morality (Vinaya) and virtue. He was partic­u­larly knowledgeable in the Tripitaka and specialised in the Saṁyuktābhidharmahṛdayaśāstra (雜阿毗 曇心論).

During the tenth year of the reign of emperor Yuan-Jia, Sanghav­arman travelled across quicksand to the capital city. He showed a solemn and refined person­ality. Both Taoist hermits and ordinary people regarded him with unusual honour, which led them to follow his teachings. He was known as a Tripitaka master. During the early period of the emperor Jing-Ping, a government official named Xu-Sang donated his house to build a temple. It was named Ping-Liu Temple after him.

Later, Ven. Hui-Guan regarded Sanghav­arman as pure and perfect in his conduct according to the discipline of a monastic. He requested him to dwell at this temple in honor of his virtue and character. Ven. Sanghav­arman with Ven. Hui-Guan built another three layers of the stupa, and this is how the structure is today. Ven. Sanghav­arman was sincere in his practice and recited sutras day and night with great diligence. Monastics gathered around him for his teachings and to practice the path he taught. During this time Buddhism flour­ished among the people in China.

The Tripitaka master Sanghav­arman, having great wisdom in regards to the Vinaya, intended to arrange the full Bhikkhuni ordin­ation for nuns [with the two assem­blies]. The nuns seeking reordin­ation included Ven. Hui-Guo from the Ying-Fu Temple. At that time the two-fold assembly was not yet completed, but the study of the Tripitaka was familiar among the monastic community.

Not long after the Sri Lankan Bhikkhuni Ayyā Sārā 2 arrived at Nanking. Ven. Sanghav­arman was requested as the teacher (ācariya) by the Sangha to continue teaching the Tripitaka. He indicated the continuity of the lineage and demon­strated an impressive knowledge of the Tripitaka.

At that time a monk called Hui-Yi from Qi-Huan Temple (Nibbana Temple) went to the capital city Nanking and accused Ven. Sanghav­arman of promoting distorted teachings with the wrong meaning. They debated face to face many times. Ven. Sanghav­arman brought forth evidence for his inter­pret­a­tions that Ven. Yi could not refute. Ven. Yi acknow­ledged this evidence, after which changed and softened his attitude towards Ven. Sanghav­arman. He praised Sanghavarman’s views and followed his teachings willingly. Moreover, he summoned his disciples including Ven. Hui-Ji to assist in the full Bhikkhuni ordin­ation in which several hundred nuns received the two-fold assembly ordination.

At the time of the Song dynasty the mayor of the city Peng named Yi-Kang honoured Ven. Sanghav­arman as a saint for setting a good example in Vinaya. Yi-Kang arranged a big offering. At that time the four fold assembly of the Sangha was flour­ishing at the capital city Nanking.

Ven. Hui-Guan believed that Ven. Sanghav­arman had surpassing under­standing, compre­hension, and memory of the Saṁyuktābhidharmahṛdayaśāstra. Although at this time the Tripitaka had been trans­lated, it had not yet been formally written down. Promptly, that same year in September, scholars were convoked to Chang-Gan Temple to translate the text. Ven. Hui-Guan requested Ven. Sanghav­arman to lead the group of trans­lators. Sanghav­arman examined the research thoroughly with great dedic­ation and wrote down the trans­lation himself. Later on, he continually edited the trans­lation of the 分別業報略 (Karmaphalanirdesa-sūtra), the 勸發諸王要偈, and the 請聖僧浴文.

As his determ­in­ation to spread the Dhamma was strong, Ven. Sanghav­arman had the desire to travel and teach without being tied down to one place. After he had trans­mitted the sutras, he took leave and returned to his native country, India. The people together begged him to stay but their efforts were in vain as none of them could convince him to remain. At year 19, during the time of emperor Yuan-Jia, Ven. Sanghav­arman accom­panied a merchant ship abroad. There is no record about how his life ended.

End Notes

1 CBETA, T50, no. 2059, p. 342, b11-c7. The Liang Biographies (‘Lives of the Buddhist Monks’) was completed by Huijiao (497~554) in the Liang dynasty.

2 鐵薩羅, tie-sa-luo. It is not sure how this name should be recon­structed. Sa-luo probably is a phonetic repres­ent­ation of sārā, or perhaps sarā, although it should be noted that the character 薩 at that time was probably pronounced sat. The first element is usually inter­preted as a phonetic character and the whole rendered (implausibly) as devasārā or (more plausibly) tessarā (this name does not seem to be attested in Pali, but is appar­ently known in Sinhalese with the meaning ‘swan’). However, the character 鐵 does not seem to be used anywhere else phonet­ically, but rather in its meaning of ‘iron’. The Pali for iron is ayas, which would give us ayassārā. This is an implausible name, but the usual term of address for Bhikkhunis is ayyā. I suggest that the Chinese trans­lator mistook the honorific (which, if these were the first Sinhalese bhikkhunis, he would have been unfamiliar with), and when the nun was referred to as ‘Ayyā Sārā’ (Venerable Sārā) he thought they were saying the nearly identical-sounding ayassārā.


Editor’s note: This text has been translated from the Chinese by Bhikkhunī Samacittā, and edited by Bhikkhu Sujāto, who gave permission for the serialisation here.

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