The Chinese Buddhist canon of scripture includes a
unique and remarkable text, the Pi-ch'iu-ni chuan, or
Lives of the Nuns (hereafter Lives), a collection of chronologically organized
biographies of sixty-five Chinese Buddhist nuns.
More than a mere collection of biographies,
their dates cover the period of the founding and establishing of the Buddhist
monastic order for women from the early fourth century to the early sixth
century. The Lives allows us to see the development of
monastic life for women in China from its beginnings.
compiled the book in or about a.d. 516, selected his
subjects with careful discrimination and produced a document of interest for
his readership, whom he presumably had hoped to spur on to greater efforts in
the Buddhist life (see Pao-ch'ang's preface).
Fifteen hundred years later the biographies are
of interest to us for very different reasons. We see in hindsight many features
of the early history of Buddhism in China and many reasons why women of that
time might take up the life of a Buddhist nun.