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