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1.6 (Tsai no.6) T'an-pei

The nun T'an-pei (Perfection of the Dharma) (324-396) of Northern Everlasting Peace Convent 1

T'an-pei's secular surname was T'ao, and she was a native of Tan-yang in the city of Chien-k'ang [the capital of the Eastern Chin dynasty located on the south bank of the Yangtze River]. 2 When she was a young child, she already had pure faith and wished to cultivate the true teaching of Buddhism. She was an only child and lived with her widowed mother, whom she served with such filial devotion that her clan commended her behavior. When T'an-pei grew to marriageable age, she would not accede to any betrothal plans, and her mother, unable to go against her daughter's wishes, allowed her to leave worldly life [and become a Buddhist nun]. With great zeal, T'an-pei practiced the monastic rules day and night without remiss.

Emperor Mu (343-345-361) of Chin respectfully received her in audience, and he often praised her, saying, "The more I see her, the more excellent she seems." 3 To Empress Chang—that is, Madame Ho [niece of Ho Ch'ung]—the emperor said, "Among the Buddhist nuns here in the capital there is rarely one who can compare with T'an-pei." 4

In the tenth year of the yung-ho reign period (354) the Empress built a convent for T'an-pei in the Ting-yin Neighborhood, calling it [Northern] Everlasting Peace Convent (which I, Pao-ch'ang, the compiler, note is now known as Empress Ho Convent). 5

Modestly and selflessly T'an-pei guided others and never once gave any evidence of haughtiness. Her fame spread daily, and women from far and near gathered about her as disciples until there was a community of three hundred. T'an-pei was seventy-three years old when she died in the twenty-first year of the t'ai-yüan reign period (396).

Her disciple T'an-lo was well read in the scriptures as well as in the monastic rules, and her skills and talents in these subjects were broad and thorough. By imperial command she filled T'an-pei's position as teaching master of the convent. Furthermore, she had built a four-story pagoda, a lecture hall, and living quarters; also, she had made an image of the Buddha reclining [as he entered final nirvana], and a hall for the images of the seven Buddhas [of the past]. 6


1. Dharma is a Sanskrit word that means law, or pattern, that must be followed. The Way of Buddhism, for example, is called the Buddha's Dharma. The Chinese translated the word by their word fa, but they also often transliterated it as T'an-mo. When the transliterated form was used as part of a name, as in the case of T'an-pei, the second syllable was usually dropped.

2. City of Chien-k'ang, the capital of Eastern Chin; located in present-day Chiangsu Province at Nanjing. See map. This is the first biography of a nun native to the south.

3. Emperor Mu (Chin shu, chap. 8; Wei shu, chap. 96).

4. Niece of Ho Ch'ung (see n. 55 above; biography 5). Empress Chang, consort of Emperor Mu, had no sons (Chin shu,, chap. 32). She died at the age of sixty-six in a.d. 402 or 404, having survived her husband by forty-four years. She was in her early twenties when the emperor died.

5. At this time Emperor Mu was eleven years old.

6. Shākyamuni Buddha, who was born in India in the sixth century b.c., was the most recent in a very long series of Buddhas. Soper, Literary Evidence, p. 13, believes that such halls were intended for the seven Buddhas of the past who are Vipashyin, Shikhin, Vishvabhū, Krakucchanda, Kanakamuni, Kāshyapa, and Shākyamuni. Oda, Bukkyō-daijiten, 739.c-740.a.

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