The First Chinese Bhikkhunis 3

“Lives of the Bhikkhunis” by Bao Chang, Liang Dynasty: A biography of Pu-Xian Temple Bhikkhuni Bao-Xianiv 1

Bhante Sujāto

Bhante Sujāto

Bao-Xian; Lay family name Chen; Chen city citizen.

At age sixteen her mother passed away. In memory of her, Bao-Xian did not eat rice for 3 years, surviving on beans and taro. She did not wear silk fabrics or cotton; neither did she use a bed and woven mat.

Aged nineteen she renounced and resided at Jian-An Temple. Her conduct in devel­oping her practice was very refined; she had a broad under­standing of medit­ation and Vinaya. Emperor Wen of the Song dynasty paid respects to Bao-Xian by making offerings of clothing and food requisites. Subsequently, emperor Xiao-Wu honored her with an allowance of ten thousand chen monthly. When emperor Ming ascended the throne, he received her with great respect and offerings. By the first year of emperor Tai-Shi she was made abbess of Pu-Xian Temple by imperial decree. In the second year of Tai-Shi’s reign she was again honored by imperial decree being made a Sangha judge in the capital city of the province.

She was a greatly impressive, determined character, with brilliant judgement, as if she had psychic powers. Skilled in the logic of debate, she was certainly capable of releasing any person who was wrongly accused. Her temperament was upright and forth­right, she would never compromise on what she knew was right.

In the early peaceful period of the Jin dynasty [335 – 342 C.E.], the nun Jing-Jian was the first Chinese Bhikkhuni. Initially, they received the ordin­ation from the monks only. The nuns Hui-Guo and Jing-Yin from Ying-Fu temple once questioned Ven. Gunav­arman regarding this, Ven. Gunav­arman said: ‘In this country, in this territory there is no two-fold assembly. However, receiving the ordin­ation from the monks only is adequate.’

Later, nuns Hui-Guo and others encountered foreign Bhikkhunis when they arrived [in China], Ayyā Sārā and others. In the eleventh year of the reign of emperor Yuan-Jia [434 C.E.] they re-received full ordin­ation at Nan-Lin Temple from Ven. Sanghav­arman. This does not mean that the former one-fold assembly ordin­ation was not allowable. It is said that re-ordination was for the sake of improving their Vinaya. Later, many of those who were inter­ested re-ordained.

However, problems arose when they ordained without invest­ig­ating. In the time of emperor Yong-Hui, in the second year of his reign [650 C.E.], Vinaya master Ven. Fa-Ying at Jin-Xing Temple started to explain the Sarvāstivāda Vinaya. That day there were more than 10 nuns wishing to receive ordin­ation again. Bhikkhuni Bao-Xian dispatched the head of the Sangha Bureau with an order to assemble the nuns in the Dharma hall. They made an announcement with the wooden knocker and commanded that all nuns not be allowed to receive a second ordin­ation without official approval. [The problem arose because] some of those who were ordained, when invest­igated, were not old enough to be ordained. Their upajjhāyinīs were told to assemble in advance and confess in front of the Sangha. In future those seeking reordin­ation were made to report to the Sangha Bureau to check that they were qualified. Ven. Bao-Xian also requested a person to supervise and examine the candidates to ascertain whether they are able to re-ordain. If they disobeyed or resisted, it was commanded to dismiss them and not [allow] them to remain in the community. After this, the wave of re-ordination was controlled.

In her duties as a Sangha Judge she was incor­ruptible and discerning. She gave comfort to the multitude and bestowed kindness on disciples. She was sober, with few desires, and was highly respected in the world. In the first year of the reign of emperor Sheng-Ming, aged 77, she passed away.

End Notes

1 CBETA, T50, no. 2063, p. 941, a8-b2.

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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