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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
About the Author: Stephanie Balkwill is an Assistant Professor of Religion and Culture and East Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Winnipeg. Her work focuses on the social, literary, and political lives of Buddhist women who lived in China between the fourth and sixth centuries. She is currently working on a book-length study of the life and times of Northern Wei Empress Dowager Ling (d. 528), a number of smaller projects on the Buddhist idea of female-to-male sex change in Chinese Buddhist texts, and a co-edited volume entitled ‘Buddhism and Statecraft in East Asia’.
Dr. Balkwill completed her Ph.D. in Buddhist Studies and Chinese Religions at McMaster University where she also earned a graduate diploma in Gender Studies and Feminist Research. She has been a fellow at the Center for Chinese Studies at the National Central Library of Taiwan, an advanced researcher in the Department of Philosophy at Peking University, a Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation in Buddhist Studies Doctoral Fellow, and a postdoctoral fellow in the Society of Fellows at the University of Southern California. Her research has also been supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the American Council of Learned Societies and the Chiang-ching Kuo Foundation for International Scholarly exchange.
This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.