The First Chinese Bhikkhunis 2

“Lives of the Bhikkhunis” by Bao Chang, Liang Dynasty: A biography of Bhikkhuni Seng-Guo of Kuang-Ling city 1

Bhante Sujāto

Bhante Sujāto

Bhikkhuni Seng-Guo; Original lay family name Zhao, first name Fa-You; born in Ji region, Xiu-Wu city.

From her birth she had a sincere, honest, pure, and simple nature. As a baby girl when her mother breast fed her she would not suckle after midday. Her parents were both surprised and joyful about her excep­tional qualities. When she grew up, even though her mind was devoted to Buddhism, there were many obstructive condi­tions that made it too difficult for her to ordain.

Only at twenty seven did she finally receive permission to renounce and follow her teacher Hui-Cong in Kuang-Ling city. Seng-Guo was firm in her practice of Vinaya, and her medit­ative insight was clear. Often when she entered samadhi she would sit from sunset to dawn, or from dawn to sunset. Her breath was soft like cotton, and she was always abiding in a pure state of mind. Her silhouette was like a dried out tree. Still those with little faith doubted her.

In the sixth year of emperor Yuan-Jia, a foreigner shipowner, called Nandi, brought Bhikkhunis from Sri Lanka. They arrived at Song capital city and the bhikkhunis resided at Jing-Fu temple. Soon after they arrived, they [the Sri Lankan Bhikkhunis] asked Ven. Seng-Guo: ‘Have any foreign nuns arrived here before?’ She answered: ‘Never!’ Again they asked: ‘When the first Bhikkhunis here received ordin­ation, where did you receive the ordin­ation from the two assem­blies?’ She answered: ‘[The precepts] were received from the monks alone.’ The reason they ordained them with only the monks’ assembly was to give women the chance to ordain and inspire them with respect for living within the Vinaya — it was a skilful means. For example, Mahāpra­jāpatī, after accepting the eight garud­hammas, was therefore allowed to ordain. The 500 Sakyan women then followed Mahāpra­jāpatī as upajjhāyinī and ordained. This is the earliest example.

Although Ven. Guo gave such an answer to the Sri Lanka nuns in her own mind she had doubt. Therefore she went and consulted the Tripitaka master, who gave the same opinion. But still she asked: ‘Should I renew the ordin­ation?’ He answered: ‘Virtue, concen­tration, and wisdom are all gradual practices. So to renew the ordin­ation would be better.’ Not until the year 10 (433 C.E.) did the ship owner, Nandi, again convey eleven Bhikkhunis from Sri Lanka, including Bhikkhuni Ayyā Sārā. By that time, the Bhikkhunis who had arrived previ­ously could already speak the Song language [Chinese]. They requested Ven. Sanghav­arman to set up the ordin­ation altar at Nan-Ling temple. In succession, more than 300 Bhikkhunis took re-ordination.

During the eight­eenth year of the reign of emperor Yuan-Jia, at age 34, once she meditated for several days. The Karmadana delib­er­ately touched her and announced that she was dead. He was shocked and informed the temple admin­is­trators. They invest­igated her together. Ven. Guo’s body was cold but her muscles were still firm. However, her breath started to move slightly. As soon as they began to move her body she opened her eyes, smiled and talked as usual. Therefore, the people with little faith were surprised and became devoted to her. There is no record about her later life.

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.

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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