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The Convent: Religious Life

In the middle of the fifth century, a matter of great concern to the nuns themselves was the proper transmission of the monastic rules. Several of the biographies (nos. 14, 27, and 34) deal with the question of whether the Chinese nuns were truly nuns, whether the proper ritual had been carried out in the proper way. This question was important because the lineage—that is, the transmission of the teaching from master to disciple—defined where one belonged and whether one belonged. An authentic lineage established legitimacy. The problem of the transmission of the monastic precepts was solved to everyone's satisfaction, but it must be pointed out that it was the foreign monks and nuns who pressed for resolution on behalf of the Chinese nuns. Chinese monks are conspicuously absent.

The monastic precepts were designed to serve as a guide for living the Buddhist life of self-discipline and nonharm as well as to keep harmony and order within the religious community. The biographer's frequent emphasis on a woman's strict observance of the monastic precepts suggests, however, not only that the woman was fulfilling her monastic duties to perfection but also that she perhaps stood in contrast to other nuns who did not live up to the monastic code. Furthermore, the strict observance of the precepts, as described in the biographies, looks very much as though it had become a religious ritual in and of itself rather than merely the means to self-discipline and harmony.

The women engaged in many cult practices, among which were devotion to Kuan-yin in particular, a bodhisattva (Buddha to be); to Amita Buddha who presides over the Western Paradise; to Maitreya who is the next Buddha and presides over the Tushita Heaven; and to Pindola, an arhat (enlightened one), who showed off his magic powers and was required by the Buddha to remain in the world to serve as a field of merit until the last person attains enlightenment. Worshipping, making vows, or sincere requests to these four divine figures brought responses that pointed out the holiness or sincerity of the petitioner. In the Kuan-yin Scripture boons such as safety from brigands are promised to one who chants the scripture with all her heart and mind. Hui-chan (no. 7) is an excellent example. Faith brings response and provides the proof of the truth of the Buddhist claims.

Amita Buddha, also called Amitāyus (infinite life) or Amitābha (infinite light), honors the believer with supernal signs, indicating that the woman will be reborn in the Western Paradise. Maitreya, the next Buddha, presiding over the Tushita Heaven, welcomes to his heaven those who hope to be reborn on earth when he himself is born there as the Buddha. Ching-hsiu (no. 52) was a devotee of Maitreya.

Connected at times with the Maitreya cult is the cult of Pindola. The nun prays and petitions for the presence of Pindola. If she is sufficiently worthy, he will let his presence be known. Because Pindola is never seen, one must listen carefully to hear him should he accept the invitaton and come to bathe. Or if a fresh flower is placed under the mat where Pindola is invited to sit, the flower will not be faded or crushed. The nun Ching-hsiu (no. 52) was also a devotee of Pindola.

Another very important Chinese Buddhist practice was vegetarianism. In the earliest days of Buddhism in India, monks and nuns ate whatever was put into their begging bowls—be it vegetable or meat, fresh or spoiled. They were to eat all with equanimity, so long as they had no reason to suspect that an animal had been harmed or killed specifically for their use. Yet, in China, vegetarianism, although it derives logically from the first Buddhist precept of nonharm to living creatures, received other influences, too. Beyond merely strict vegetarianism, when we read of women giving up all cereals (nos. 25, 28, and 34) or eating any part of the pine tree (no. 25), we have crossed over the line into Taoist practices designed to lead to immortality. 30 This is yet more evidence found in the early Chinese Buddhist biographies, whether of monks or of nuns, that indicates the lack of clear separation between the practices of the two religions in the first years of Buddhism in China.

A third type of dietary regimen is the eating of fragrant oil or incense (no. 36), a practice connected with preparations for self-immolation by fire. Finally, some women forgot about food altogether (no. 47).

Another very important monastic activity was the reading, studying, and chanting of the Buddhist scriptures and the texts of monastic rules. Traditional Chinese reverence for the written word worked favorably for Buddhism, which is not a laconic religion, and this attitude focused not only on the meaning of the contents but also on the actual materials, the written characters, and even the physical volume embodying those contents. 31 Preservation and transmission of the texts was very important. Monastics strove to memorize vast amounts of scripture, their success measuring, to a certain degree, their sanctity. Another mark of sanctity was the ability to chant these texts very rapidly. The chanting itself may also be seen as a kind of incantation or magic spell.

Meditation was the heart of Buddhist monastic life. The biographer lauds many women for their ability to enter the meditative state, but, in those biographies where a physical description of the meditating woman is given, we find that the woman has entered a trance state of which other Buddhists of the time disapproved. 32 The body of the woman in a trance was like wood or stone, rigid and inflexible, and her companions easily mistook her trance for death (no. 29). This kind of trance points away from Buddhism and toward the Taoist belief in a seeming death as a doorway to immortality. 33 Once again Buddhism and Taoism are intermingled.

A nun's manner of death is as important as her way of life because an auspicious death identifies holiness. Omens such as fragrance or lights may appear (no. 25) The Buddha himself may come to receive the dying woman (no. 15). The biographer in his preface singles out for special mention those women who commit suicide by fire as having "achieved the epitome of the ascetic life" (nos. 26 and 47). This practice, always carried out at night so that the nun, in effect, made of herself a lamp, finds authority in the Buddhist scripture, The Flower of the Wonderful Law.34 This scripture specifically and graphically describes the practice of burning a finger, an arm, or the whole body as an offering in honor of the Buddha, an exhortation to fervor and zeal that was not necessarily meant to be observed literally. In China, nevertheless, not a few monks and nuns chose to offer themselves by fire to the Buddha.

Under the right circumstances Chinese tradition accepted suicide as the proper thing to do. Taoists generally cherished life, seeking elixirs of immortality, but a certain Taoist precedent could have contributed to the state of mind that found burning oneself up for the sake of the Buddha an acceptable practice. According to traditional accounts, some Taoist practitioners, after years of carrying out particular rituals and eating special diets, used fire to transform themselves into immortals, their souls rising up to heaven on the smoke. 35

Ambivalence about the practice of burning one's body in honor of the Buddha is illustrated in the biography of Hui-yao (no. 36). She sought and received permission from the governor of the province to carry out self-immolation, but he later withdrew his approval.

The nuns carried out their suicides by fire on the nights of the changing phases of the moon, either the half-moon on the eighth day of the lunar month or the full moon on the fifteenth day.

Women who rise bodily up to heaven (no. 1), or who simply disappear (no. 10), are dying in a Taoist rather than a Buddhist manner, such deaths signifying that the person has become an immortal. 36 The body of the nun Shih Hui-ch'iung (no. 20) remained incorrupt—a proof, for Taoists, of immortality. 37 Buddhists in China accepted the phenomenon of the incorrupt body as a mark of holiness, and throughout the centuries many incorrupt bodies of holy monastics have edified the faithful.

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IATHPublished by The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, © Copyright 2003 by Anne Kinney and the University of Virginia