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1.3 (Tsai no.3) Chih-hsien
The nun Chih-hsien (Wise Virtue) (ca. 300-ca. 370+) of West Convent of Ssu Province in north China
Chih-hsien's secular surname was Chao. Her family was originally from Ch'ang-shan Commandery [in north China, north of the Yellow River]. 1 Her father Chao Chen was the magistrate of Fu-liu County in the same territory. 2
While still a child, Chih-hsien was both principled and virtuous, and, after she grew up and put on the dark robe [of a Buddhist nun], her observance of the monastic rules was perfect. Her spirit was concentrated and far-reaching, encompassing all things without being confused by any particular matter.
The administrator of the commandery, Tu Pa, staunchly believed in the Taoist system known as the Way of the Yellow Emperor and Lao-tzu. 3 He detested the Buddhist monks and nuns. Because of his hatred, he issued an order that the assemblies of both monks and nuns were to be investigated [with regard to the quality of their practice, and those found unworthy] were to be sifted out. 4 The standards used in the investigation were very severe and could scarcely be met by ordinary persons. The younger [monks and nuns] quaked in fear; anticipating the administrator's hostility, they fled. Chih-hsien alone was unafraid and remained at ease. Only the elderly nuns dared to gather outside the city walls at the archers' practice hall where the investigation was to be held. On the day of the examination, of the able-bodied nuns, only Chih-hsien remained.
The administrator first examined Chih-hsien with regard to the monastic regulations and found that her practice was more than adequate. Because of her refined beauty and eloquent speech the administrator harbored depraved intentions, and he forced her to remain alone [with him]. Chih-hsien, recognizing his intentions, vowed not to break any of the monastic rules concerning relations between the sexes. Disregarding her own safety, she protested and resisted strongly. Angered by her rejection of his advances, the administrator stabbed her over twenty times with his dagger. She fell unconscious to the ground, not reviving until after the administrator had left.
This event behind her, Chih-hsien redoubled her zeal in the practice of vegetarian fasts and austerities. She and her disciples, who numbered more than a hundred, always dwelt in accord.
When Fu Chien (339-357-385) took the throne of the non-Chinese dynasty of the Former Ch'in (351-394), he heard of her reputation and showed her great respect. 5 He had made for her finely embroidered outer robes, whose preparation required three years and whose value was one million in cash.
Later she lived in West Convent of Ssu Province [in north China], where she propagated the true teaching and spread the belief and practice of Buddhism. 6 During the t'ai-ho reign period (366-371) of the [southern, Chinese] dynasty of Chin she was seventy-some years old.
Chih-hsien had made a specialty of chanting the Flower of the True Law Scripture.7 Even in her advanced age, she could still chant it in its entirety in only one day and one night. 8 [Another sign of her spiritual accomplishments was that] the many birds that roosted in the area where she lived would follow her, 9 chirping and twittering, whenever she engaged in the [ritualized] walking exercise [between periods of meditation.] 10
1. Ch'ang-shan, in present-day Hopei Province, Cheng-ting County. See map.
2. Fu-liu County, in present-day Hopei Province, Chi County.
3. It should be noticed that in the biographies Confucianism as such is never the subject of polemics. Huang-Lao Taoism evolved during the Han dynasty and concerned obtaining long life and immortality. It is possible that the administrator of the commandery was a consciously practicing Huang-Lao devotee, but he was more likely to be a Confucian.
4. See Zürcher, Buddhist Conquest 2:414 n. 27, where he lists five instances of the investigation of the assemblies of the monks and nuns, one of which is mentioned here.
5. In 357. His uncle Fu Chien (different character) (r. 351-355) declared himself emperor in 351, founding the Former Ch'in dynasty, one of the Sixteen Kingdoms of non-Chinese rulership in north China, 304-463. Former Ch'in (351-394) united north China during Fu Chien's reign (357-385). He was strangled to death in 385. The seat of the Former Ch'in government was at Ch'ang-an within the province of Ssu-li, and this is probably the Sus Province given as the location of Chih-hsien's convent home. She presumably moved from her hometown in Hopei to the capital, or the biography is giving her ancestral home, a common practice in Chinese Buddhist biographical writing. She is thus located in Ch'ang-an during approximately the same time as Ching-chien (biography 1). On Fu Chien, see Rogers, Chronicle of Fu Chien; Chin shu, chap. 113-114; Wei shu, chap. 95.
6. Ssu-li Province. See n. 38 above.
7. The Chinese title indicates that Chih-hsien used the translation by Dharmaraksha (Chu Fa-hu), done in the year a.d. 286 in Ch'ang-an in northwest China. T. 9, no. 263. See Répertoire, p. 36.
8. This is a tour de force in terms of the length of the text. It would require chanting about fifty words per minute nonstop for a twenty-four-hour period. If she took any rest, she would have to have chanted much faster.
9. Concourse with animals is frequently the indication of a holy person of whatever tradition. See Eliade, Shamanism, p. 99, passim. One is reminded of St. Francis of Assisi, who preached to the animals, and St. Seraphim of Sarov, who associated with the bear and other animals.
10. Ritualized walking, ching hsing, a Buddhist term referring to a ritualized walking exercise often used as a break to punctuate the hours of sitting in meditation. See Oda, Bukkyō-daijiten, p. 249.c.
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