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Shih Pao-ch'ang's Preface to Lives of the Nuns

Is it not fundamental, as regards pure mind, lofty purpose, unusual virtue, and extraordinary integrity, that these qualities do not come simply through natural means but are encouraged by respect for noble character? Therefore, it is said, "The man who emulates a paragon will become a paragon himself," and "The horse who emulates a thoroughbred is a thoroughbred as well." 1 These nuns then, whom I hereby offer as models, are women of excellent reputation, paragons of ardent morals, whose virtues are a stream of fragrance that flows without end.

That is why I take up my ink brush and cleave to my stylus to record the women's biographies to hand on to later chroniclers, that they in turn might use the material I provide to encourage and admonish generations to come. Therefore, although I might wish to teach wordlessly [as the sages do], in this case I cannot refrain from using words. 2

In the past, when the Great Awakened One came to birth in the town of Kapilavastu, the Buddha sun appeared in India. The three realms [of the desire, form, and formless worlds] took refuge [in the spiritual power of the Three Treasures—the Buddha, his teaching, and the monastic assemblies]; and those beings of the four types of birth [—from egg, womb, moisture, and metamorphosis—] offered obeisance [to the Three Treasures].

The first Buddhist nun in the world was Mahāprajāpatī, [the Buddha's own stepmother]. [From the time of Mahāprajāpatī] nuns throughout the succeeding generations have ascended the stages of the Buddhist path and realized the fruits of spiritual practice. These illustrious examples of the religious life are like the sun passing through the sky, shedding light and warmth on all.

Since [the Buddha] lay down between two [shāla] trees in the village of Kushinagara [and there entered final nirvana], the passing years have brought degeneracy and chaos, and men of our times confound faith and falsehood; they confuse what to preserve and what to discard, not knowing where the truth may be. That the Profound Word wastes away is because the wicked confuse it; that the True Religion flourishes again is because the wise support it.

When, during the second age of the Buddhist religion [which began five hundred years after the death of the Buddha], the faith spread east to China, the nun Chu Ching-chien (no. 1) became the first [Chinese Buddhist nun], and for several hundred years nuns of great virtue appeared in China one after another. 3 Of these nuns, Shan-miao (no. 26) and Ching-kuei (no. 47) achieved the epitome of the ascetic life; Fa-pien (no. 31) and Seng-kuo (no. 27) consummately excelled in meditation and contemplation. Individuals such as Seng-tuan (no. 24) and Seng-chi (no. 8), who were steadfast in their resolution to maintain chastity, and Miao-hsiang (no. 4) and Fa-ch'üan (no. 44), who were teachers of great influence, appeared very frequently. Such virtue as theirs is like the deep ocean or the lofty peak—like the harmonious music of bronze and jade bells. Indeed, they are models of virtue in an autumnal age, reliable guides in a decadent time.

Even though as the years go by the pure monastic rules are gradually forsaken, nevertheless the nuns' excellent tradition will be a pattern for a millenium.

I frequently deplored that a record of their achievements had not been made, and therefore, for a long time, I have been examining epitaphs and eulogies and searching in collections of writings. Sometimes I inquired among the well informed; sometimes I interviewed the aged. Putting this material in order from beginning to end I compiled the biographies of the nuns. Starting with the sheng-p'ing reign period (357-361) of the Eastern Chin dynasty and ending with the t'ien-chien reign period (502-519) of the Liang dynasty, there are altogether sixty-five women.

I did not embellish the material; rather, I worked to preserve the essentials, hoping that those who seek freedom from the world of suffering will emulate the nuns' virtue. And yet, because my researches are limited and perhaps incomplete, I ask my discerning readers to advise me of any deficiencies.


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