The Monastic Institution in China
Monasticism as an institution was as foreign to
China as Buddhism itself. The earliest time for which we have a positive record
of a monastery is the late second century.
23 For the convent, it is
reasonable to consider the convent founded by Ching-chien (no. 1) in 317 to be
the first, even though a sixth-century work, the Lo-yang
ch'ieh-lan chi (A record of monasteries and convents in Lo-yang) suggests
that there were some convents in Lo-yang prior to the sacking of the city.
Ching-chien (no. 1) founded her convent in Ch'ang-an one year after the sacking
of that city by the nomads.
The monastery and convent, on the positive side,
provided an alternate family, a significant refuge during social upheaval. The
Kao seng chuan (Lives of eminent monks) records that
many boys entered the Assembly of Monks as orphans or as children of
25 These reasons also
appear in the Lives. Convents provided shelter for women
who had no protection from father, husband, or son. Both the monastery and the
convent served as social institutions of great importance in a time of
On the negative side was the conflict between the
monasteries and the state. Hui-yüan had made it a principle that a monk
does not bow to the emperor, meaning that the monastery was to be free from
26 For the time
being, Hui-yüan's view prevailed.
The convents, quite the contrary, had no
independent status because of their bonds to the Assembly of Monks.
Furthermore, when we compare the two assemblies as pictured in the two major
biographical collections, the Lives and the
Kao seng chuan, we find a major difference: both
assemblies, when in the capital, were not free from the constant interference
of the imperial state and of the nobility and aristocratic families. The
Assembly of Nuns, however, was also subject to the monks. More important, monks
were able to set up monasteries in the wilderness and in the seclusion of the
mountains. Those who did so developed important centers of learning and
monastic discipline. The assemblies of monks and nuns that stayed within the
reach of the meddlesome aristocratic families and nobility often suffered a
surfeit of donations and activities that could have disrupted and corrupted
even the strictest of monasteries or convents. Nevertheless, even in the midst
of social activities and interference, many nuns demonstrated holy lives and