Monastic Life – Chapter 31: Lives of Eminent Monks and Nuns

Stories of renowned monks and nuns are told throughout the Buddhist world, but it was in East Asia (beginning in China) that compilations of the lives of eminent monks and nuns developed into a significant literary genre. There is little evidence of such works in India, suggesting that these Chinese works developed from indigenous traditions of biography and historiography. Although there are references to previous works, the earliest such collection to survive was compiled by the learned monk Huijiao (497-554). He set out to record the lives of eminent monks (those who concealed their great achievement) rather than the lives of famous monks (those of little virtue who happened to gain notoriety). His Lives records accounts of257 men from 67-519 ce, with appended accounts of259 others, spanning the period from the first decades of Buddhism in China to that of his own contemporaries. The biographies follow a standard formula, beginning with an account of the circumstances of ancestry, birth and ordination and ending with an account of the monk’s death, generally noting the piety of the monk and any supernatural occurrences that may have attended his passing. The middle portion recounts various events in the monk’s life, some of which we would regard as miraculous, yet presented in the same sober tone. The biographies provide a great deal of valuable historical detail, while at the same time identifying what constituted eminence, that is, the monastic ideal in China. Huijiao’s accounts are categorized under ten major headings: translators (yijing); exegetes (yijie); theurgists (shenyi); meditators (xichan); disciplinarians (minglu); self- immolators (yishen); cantors (songjing); promoters of works of merit (xingfu); hymnodists (jingshi); and sermonists (changdao). The genre was not restricted to monks; Biographies of Nuns (Biqiuni zhuan) was compiled by the monk Baochang around 516.

The genre continued in subsequent centuries. In 982, the distinguished scholar Zanning (919-1001) was instructed by the emperor himself to compile a new edition, resulting in the famous Song Biographies of Eminent Monks (Song gaoseng zhuan). The various Lives were widely read: copies were kept in monastic libraries and also often owned by individual monks. New editions preserved the stories from the old, while adding biographies of monks from a period or a region that a previous compiler had neglected.

The motivations for compiling these biographies included not only those of traditional Chinese historiography, but more distinctly Buddhist concerns as well. As Buddhist monks, the authors clearly wished to demonstrate the virtue of Buddhist monks and nuns, both to propagate the dharma and to provide exemplars for ordinary monks and nuns to venerate and emulate. At the same time, it is clear that these works were also intended for the court. The fortunes of Buddhism in China depended to a large extent on the support and patronage of the emperor, and royal attitudes towards the Buddhist sangha fluctuated widely over the course of Chinese history. The biographies thus seek to demonstrate the great learning, virtue, piety and miraculous powers of eminent monks and nuns.

Four biographies are included here, beginning with a monk who died around 396 ce and ending with a nun who died in 1922.

Biography of the Jin Monk Bo Sengguang of Hermit Peak in Shan

The background of Bo Sengguang, whom some called Tanguang, is not known. After practising meditation as a youth, at the beginning of the Yonghe era [c. 345] of the Jin, he travelled to Jiangdong, taking up residence at Mount Shicheng in Shan. The people of the mountain said that the area had been devastated by wild animals, brought on by a violent mountain spirit, and that no one had lived there for years. Showing not the least sign of fear, Sengguang hired a man to cut a path for him and, shouldering his staff, proceeded up the mountain. After he had gone several li [a measure of distance, approximately a third of a mile], a great storm suddenly burst forth and packs of tigers began to howl. On the southern side of the mountain Sengguang spotted a cave. There he sat in meditation with his palms pressed together, determined to settle in this cave.

By dawn the next day the rain had stopped. Sengguang entered the village to beg for food and the following night returned to the cave. After three days had passed, the spirit of the mountain appeared to him in a dream. At times the spirit assumed the shape of a tiger and at times the shape of a snake, each coming to haunt Sengguang, but he was not frightened in the least. After three more days he dreamed again of the mountain spirit, who explained that it had moved there from Mount Hanshi in Zhang’an District. The spirit then offered Sengguang the cave.

After this, gifts of firewood came pouring in from the faithful, and monks and lay alike paid reverence to Sengguang. Students of meditation erected thatched huts beside the cave, so that it eventually developed into a monastery. From this time the mountain was called ‘Hermit’s Peak’.

Whenever Sengguang entered into meditation, he would not arise for seven days. He lived on the mountain for fifty-three years and lived to the age of one hundred and ten. At the end of the Taiyuan era [c. 396] of the Jin he covered his head with a cloak and died while sitting peacefully. The monks of the assembly assumed that he had entered meditation as usual, but after seven days they thought it strange that he had not yet arisen. When they went to look at him they discovered that while his countenance was normal, his nostrils emitted no breath.

Even long after he had died, his remains did not deteriorate. In the second year of the Xiaojian era [455] of the Song, when Guo Hong assumed a post in Shan, he entered the mountain to pay his respects. When he tried to poke at the chest of the corpse with a ruyi sceptre, a wind whipped up, blowing the cloak away and leaving behind nothing but the monk’s white bones. Terrified, Guo tidied up the cave, sealed the entrance with bricks and mortar, and painted an image of the monk which exists to this day.

Biography of the Tang Monk Daojian of the Lingyan Monastery in


Shi Daojian, originally surnamed Feng, was from Wu Commandery. The details of his early history are unknown. He eventually settled at Lingyanshan Monastery in Lixia. Leaving traces divine and wondrous, he was an unfathomable monk.

During the Yuanhe era [806-820] there was a certain student Feng who was also from Wu Commandery. Having received the degree in classics, Feng had not yet been assigned a post, and was staying temporarily in Chang’an. One day, Feng saw an old monk who came to his home and said, ‘You share my surname.’ The two then became friends and stayed together. After a little more than a year, Feng was given the post of commandant for Eastern Yue. When Feng had just finished packing his things, Daojian came to him with his staff on his shoulder to say farewell. Feng asked, ‘Where are you going, Master?’

‘My room,’ replied Daojian, ‘is behind the western lodge at Lingyan in Qizhou. Today it is exactly ten years since I left there to travel to the capital. I have been fortunate enough to have spent time with you, but now I must return to my former home, and so I have come to bid you farewell. As you have been appointed commandant of the Yue region, your road will pass by the Lingyan Monastery. You must come to visit.’

Feng agreed, saying, ‘It would be an honour.’ After several days, Feng departed through the eastern pass on the way to his new post. When he arrived at the gates of the Lingyan Monastery, he rested his horse, looked up and said, ‘This must be the monastery in which Master Daojian lives’, and then went in to see him. Encountering a monk in the courtyard, Feng asked, ‘Where is the room of the Reverend Daojian?’

‘There is no Daojian in this monastery,’ replied the monk. Feng was puzzled, thinking to himself, ‘Daojian is an honest man. How could he lie to me?’ And so he wandered through the monastery alone, walking to the place below the western lodge. Suddenly he came upon a wall painting of a monk that looked just like Master Daojian. Feng sighed in amazement, saying, ‘Master Daojian was truly an extraordinary man. He descended from among the divine to befriend me.’ After some time, he noticed a cartouche beside the portrait that said:

Son of the Feng family of Wu Commandery. At the age of ten he studied the Buddha’s dharma. Famous for his practice of the way, he died at the age of seventy-eight.

Only on reading the cartouche did Feng realize that the statement ‘You share my surname’ was in fact true.

One source says that near Suzhou, some twenty li from the city, was one Lingyanshan Monastery. Below the lodge in the northeastern quarter of the monastery was a painting of a sramana [a Buddhist ascetic]. It was said that in the fifteenth year of the Tianjian era of the Liang [516], a traveller dressed as a layman passed through the mountain monastery. While spending the night there, he borrowed a brush and inkwell from the monastery cook. None of the monks took any notice of him. The following day, the monks searched everywhere for him, but he was nowhere to be found. In the corner of one of the halls they discovered a painting of an Indian monk. His features were prominent and distinctive, and the colour of his skin chaffed black. His eyebrows were long and drooping, while his pupils darted like lightning, with black and white clearly distinguished. His nose turned upward above a square mouth, and his teeth were exposed between his lips. His great clenched fists rested on his right shoulder. One zhang, five cun tall, he wore a coarse, patched kasaya [robe] and was barefoot, with a great bracelet around his arm.

When the assembly saw the painting, they were startled and frightened. No one knew where it had come from. People came from near and far, some of them to burn incense and pay homage, others to ask for good fortune and protection against calamity. Once, on a clear night, the crunch of footsteps was heard in the hall. From that time on, birds did not dare sully the space between the rafters and beams. Henceforth, some of the villagers called him ‘Reverend Lingyan’, while others called him the ‘Holy Monk of Lingyan’. Once he appeared to an old woman, saying, ‘I am fond of wild-rice cakes.’ Convinced that he was a holy man, the woman wrapped some rice cakes in a mat and brought them into the hall the next day as an offering to the portrait. To this day, on the third day of the third month of every year, the people compete to make offerings of rice cakes. They wrap sticky wild-rice in leaves and cook them. The people of Wu call them ‘wild-rice cakes’.

During the Tang, in the second year of the Xiantian era [713], the son of Lu Lugong took ill. The doctors’ treatments were ineffective, and Lu grew increasingly anxious. When a monk appeared at the gate asking for alms, Lu invited him in. The monk took up a water vessel, filled his mouth with water and spat on the sick boy, who was promptly cured of his illness. The delighted Lu offered extravagant gifts to the monk, but he would not so much as look at them. Lu then asked, ‘At what monastery do you live, Reverend?’

‘I live in Lingyan Monastery,’ the monk replied, ‘west of Wu District in Suzhou. You will be appointed to an office in the Jiangbiao region. I hope that you may come to the monastery to look for me.’ So saying, the monk departed.

Before long, Lu was promoted to minister of the Bureau of Sacrifices. He was then transferred to Guizhou to act as an investigation commissioner. He often thought of the year the monk saved his son. While taking a detour through Suzhou, he went to the Lingyan Monastery to look for the old monk. When he described the monk’s appearance, the monks in the monastery

said, ‘There is no one like that here’, but Lu wandered about the monastery, reluctant to leave. Suddenly, inside a hall, he saw the image of a holy man and exclaimed, ‘This is the monk who cured my son!’ The monks in the monastery narrated the history of the monk in the painting, saying he had had magical powers and was difficult to fathom. Lu donated tens of thousands in cash to the monastery to pay for incense and lamps. Only after staying for ten days and making offerings did he leave.

Whenever the acolytes placed candles and lamps before the image, they would add some oil to help the candles burn. Once, one of them pilfered the oil to rub on his hair. After only a short while, his hair dried, curled up and fell out. Those close to him advised him to pay homage to the image and confess. When he did this – also buying hemp oil for the candles – his hair returned to normal.

Another incident occurred when Emperor Wuzong was about to launch an attack on Buddhism. Once, a certain Lu Xuan, living near the monastery, dreamed of a holy man who said to him, ‘I have received offerings from you for many years. Now I must depart and return to India.’ Lu immediately ordered a craftsman to paint the holy man’s likeness. Only in the fifth year of the Huichang era [845] when the monastery grounds were destroyed did he understand the meaning of the monk’s departure.

In the seventh year of the Xiantong era [866], there was an invasion of locusts. They covered the skies stretching from field to

field, eating the sprouts in the fields and creeping into people’s homes to eat goods made of silk. The commoners were at a loss, and none knew what to do. At that time, one of the people, Wu Yanrang, led thousands of the elderly to the image, where they burnt incense and wept. On that very day, the vermin flew away from the region.

In the fifth year of the Qianfu era [878], the monastic assembly decided to send someone to the palace to request a bell for the monastery. And so they dispatched a monk on a selected day to set off for the palace. But the holy man had first entered the Bureau for the Army of Inspired Strategy of the Right and made the request. When the monk who came to request the bell was granted an audience, the official thought it strange, saying ‘A monk came several days earlier, saying that he belonged to the Lingyanshan Monastery in Suzhou.’

‘But I have no travelling companion,’ the monk replied.

Later, when the assistant to the Armies of the Right travelled to Wu on official business, he saw the wall painting and said, ‘This is the monk that came to my office in the seventh month to discuss plans for the bell.’ After this, the reputation of the numinous wonder of the image grew in the Wu region, though no one could trace its origins. Once an Indian monk who came to the monastery paid homage to the painting and said, ‘How is it that the bodhisattva Zhiji [Sanskrit: Pratibhanakuta] is here?’ Then he gave a long sigh. From this time on, the image was called the ‘response body’ [Sanskrit: nirmanakaya] of Zhiji.


Historical sources often supply us with varying accounts. If we look closely at the accounts given here, both describe monasteries named Lingyan, and both describe paintings of monks. But in one, the prefecture is given as Lixia, while in the other it is Suzhou. In one case the one who encountered the holy man is called Lu, and in the other, Feng. This probably stems from irregularities in what people saw or heard, resulting in different recorded accounts.

The ‘response body’ of a holy man may appear in the south or in the north; he may be Chinese, or foreign; he may take the shape of an ordinary person, or of a strange being. Thus the accounts inevitably vary, and as the story spreads the accounts naturally increase. It is like different people looking at the sun or moon from different positions a thousand li apart: the sun and moon are the same, but the differences in the clouds and surroundings make them appear different. An unfathomable manifestation, Daojian appeared according to the conditions of the moment, so that it is unlikely that accounts of him would be the same. We can characterize the case with the phrase: ‘Different words used to relate a single tale.’

Biography of the Nun Zhisheng of the Fujian Monastery

The family of Zhisheng, whose original surname was Xu, was from Chang’an, but had lived in Kuaiji for three generations. At the age of six, she accompanied her grandmother on a trip to the Waguan Monastery outside the capital. On seeing the ordered, stately monastery with its decorations and ornaments, she wept profusely and pleaded to be allowed to take the tonsure. When her grandmother asked her what this was all about, she explained her intention. But her grandmother did not allow it, saying that she was too young.

The Song was a period of great difficulties in which many lost their livelihoods. As events came one after the other, the years wore on. Hence, only when Zhisheng reached the age of twenty was she finally able to become a nun and take up residence at the Fujian Monastery. Incomparable in her practice, she was removed from the world of dust and difficult to emulate. After hearing the Great Nirvana Scripture once through, she memorized it completely. Later, as she researched the writings of the monastic regulations, she had no need to be taught anything twice. Her reputation for memory was an astonishment to all. She herself composed a commentary in several tens of fascicles. Her writing is concise yet of great profundity; her interpretations subtle and her reasoning exquisite.

The blackest dye could not stain her; the hardest pestle could not grind her down. During the Darning era [457–464] a man
propositioned her with devious intent. He transgressed the rules of propriety and would not yield. Yet the depths of Zhisheng’s resolve were deep and her integrity held firm. With grave countenance, she reported everything to the assembly, who drew up a document and submitted it to the authorities. She maintained the purity of the precepts like one protecting a precious pearl.

At that time because the monks Sengzong and Xuanqu, disciples of the dharma-master Tanbin of the Zhuangyan Monastery, were lax in their duties as custodians of the Buddha Hall, a theft occurred, and a bodhisattva’s necklace was lost along with a seven- jewelled bathing bowl. Tanbin’s room, with the exception of his robe and alms bowl, looked as if it had been cleaned out entirely. With no means to replace these things, Tanbin became despondent and suspended his lectures, closing himself in his room for three days. Zhisheng announced this to monks and nuns, laymen and laywomen, and within ten days the necessary funds were collected. Such was the way in which she moved others with her virtue and inspired others to action.

Hearing of her fine reputation, Emperor Wenhui of the Qiinvited Zhisheng for an audience. Every time she entered the palace Zhisheng spoke on the scriptures. The minister of education and prince of Jingling, Wenxuan, admired and respected her all the more. Zhisheng’s resolve was as pure as southern gold, her heart as pristine as northern snow. Her administration of the assembly of nuns earned the esteem of all. She was appointed abbess of the convent on imperial order, and all of the assembly respected her as if she were one of their elders.

Zhisheng received the bodhisattva precepts from the dharma- master Sengyuan of the Dinglin Monastery. Sengyuan always kept an incense censer beside his seat. When Zhisheng dropped incense into the censer, Sengyuan stopped her, saying, ‘The fire has been out for two days.’ But at that moment, the incense she had dropped in began to smoke and fume. All marvelled at this miraculous response to her solemn piety.

During the Yongming era [483-493] Zhisheng prepared a vegetarian feast in honour of the holy monk [Pindola]. While in the midst of prayer, she heard the sound of fingers snapping in admiration in the air, whereupon she pressed her palms together and bowed her head to listen.

Zhisheng lived in this convent for thirty years, never once going to a religious feast or visiting either commoner or noble. Whenever she had a moment of leisure, she would sit in a tranquil place and collect her thoughts. It is for this reason that her reputation did not spread further than it did.

Emperor Wenhui made special efforts to support her, his gifts arriving regularly. Buildings were thereupon constructed, and the convent decorated. Zhisheng donated her own robe and bowl, selling them so that stone Buddhist statues could be constructed at the Sheshan Monastery in honour of the seven emperors of the Song and Qi dynasties.

In the tenth year of the Yongming era [492], Zhisheng took ill and was confined to bed. She suddenly saw the golden chariots and jade palaces of the pure land coming to welcome her. On the fifth day of the fourth month of that year, she bid farewell to her disciples, saying, ‘Today I will depart.’ As her disciples wept, she pulled aside her robe, exposing her chest on which could be seen the character fo [buddha] written in grass script. The character was bright white, clear and shiny. At noon on the eighth day Zhisheng died. She was sixty-six years old. Her remains were buried on Zhong Mountain. Emperor Wen provided ointments, and all of the other expenses for the funeral were also supplied by the state.

Biography of the Republican-period Nun Lianzhen of a Convent in Taizhou

Lianzhen was a daughter of the Dantu Zhao family. As a child she studied together with a cousin. The two fell in love and secretly vowed to marry. The cousin had lost his parents at an early age and the family was poor. It was for this reason that he was raised by the Zhaos. Lianzhen’s parents had always been preoccupied with material concerns and, because the boy was poor, they never considered him a suitable match. When they learned that their daughter had promised herself to him, they became furious and drove the boy from the house. Saddened and angered, he went to a barber and had his queue cut off. Wrapping it in paper, he gave it to a servant girl along with a letter to take to Lianzhen, and then set out for the Jinshan Monastery where he took the tonsure and became a monk.

When Lianzhen received the letter and hair, she sighed and said, ‘He has not betrayed me. How can I betray him? I originally planned to thank him by taking my life. Now that he has become a monk, I know where I must go.’ That night she ran away, finding her way to a convent in Taizhou. Going before the seat of the nun Yuanxin, Lianzhen insisted that she administer the tonsure. The master took pity on the girl and granted her request. Then, on the twentieth day of the eighth month of the twenty-fifth day of the Guangxu era [1899], the master gave Lianzhen the tonsure and ordained her as a nun. At that time she was seventeen years old.

Lianzhen demonstrated an aptitude for the vocation of the nun. She cultivated herself with great diligence, chanting the Amitabha Scripture forty times every day without fail, and reciting the name of the buddha tens of thousands of times as well. Even when ill she did not neglect this practice. After receiving the precepts, she returned home to see her parents. Her parents were delighted, but tried to force her to grow back her hair and give up her life as a nun. Lianzhen vowed to die before she would do so. After staying at home for a month, she returned to the convent, and from this time on practised with even greater vigour.

On the night of the twenty-ninth of the seventh month of the eleventh year of the Republican period [1922], after burning incense to the bodhisattva Dizang, she suddenly felt a headache and went directly to bed. The next day when she arose, her disciple Yuechan brought her some porridge, but Lianzhen said ‘That won’t be necessary. Prepare a bath for me. When I have bathed, shave my head. Then bring me clean garments and a kasaya. This would be appropriate.’

When the nuns in the assembly heard the news, they all came. Lianzhen pressed her palms together and bowed three times to her master Yuanxin, saying, ‘Master, I am departing.’ Then she bowed to the other nuns in the assembly and said farewell. When she had finished speaking she closed her eyes and passed away. This was in the third hour of the afternoon on the first day of the eighth month of the renxu year. She was forty years old and had passed twenty- four years as a nun.

Translated by John Kieschnick. The biography of Bo Sengguang is from the ‘Practitioners of Meditation’ (xichan) section of the Biographies of Eminent Monks (Gaosend zhuan 11, T 2059, vol. 50, p. 395c), compiled at the beginning of the sixth century by Huijiao (497-554). The biography of Daojian is from the ‘Wonderworkers’ (gantong) chapter of the Song Biographies of Eminent Monks (Song gaoseng zhuan 18, T 2061, vol. 50, pp. 824c-825c), completed in 988 by Zanning (919-1001). The addendum at the end of the biography was probably composed by Zanning himself. The biography of the nun Zhisheng is from the Biographies of Nuns (Biqiuni zhuan 3, T 2063, vol. 50, pp. 942c-943a), compiled c. 516 by Baochang. The biography of Lianzhen is from the Further Biographies of Nuns (Xubiqiuni zhuan 6), completed in 1939 by Zhenhua (1909-1947), Zhenjiang Zhulin si edition, reprinted in Gaosend zhuan he ji (Shanghai: Shanghai Guji Chubanshe, 1991), p. 1011.

Source: Lopez Donald S. (2004), Buddhist Scriptures, Penguin Classics; First Edition.

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