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A Virtuoso Nun in the North: Situating the Earliest-Known Dated Biography of a Buddhist Nun in East Asia
University of Winnipeg
Abstract: This paper introduces and critically discusses the earliest dated biography of an East Asian Buddhist nun that is known to us, and also provides a complete annotated translation of said biography. The text in question is the entombed biography and eulogy (muzhiming 墓誌銘) of a Buddhist nun whose name was Shi Sengzhi 釋僧芝 (d. 516 CE). Sengzhi held high positions at the court of the Northern Wei 北魏 (386–534 CE) and on her death was given an imperial burial that included the commissioning of an entombed biography. That biography is the only source that attests to Sengzhi’s life and it tells the rare story of how Sengzhi modelled a new form womanhood on the rise in her time: An elite Buddhist womanhood which was renunciatory but not eremitic. By analyzing Sengzhi’s life and works, the paper argues that the study of entombed biography sufficiently challenges prior understandings of Buddhist renunciation for women by locating and historically contextualizing the precise moment of the earliest attestation of Buddhist nuns in China.
Keywords: Northern Wei, entombed biography, renunciation, Medieval China
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