Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Baochang: Sixth-Century Biographer of Buddhist Monks ... and Nuns?

Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Baochang: Sixth-Century Biographer of Buddhist Monks ... and Nuns?

Article excerpt

Not much attention has been given to the Liang dynasty (502-557) monk Baochang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], other than a few stray lines about his authorship of the Mingseng zhuan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Biographies of Famous Monks) (1) and the Biqiuni zhuan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Biographies of Nuns, T.2063). He is credited with being the first to systematically create an organized body of biographies of Buddhist monks, but beyond that, little is said about him. However, a reading of Bao-chang's biography contained in the Xu Gaoseng zhuan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Further Biographies of Eminent Monks) (2) reveals that there is more to Baochang than meets the eye. He appears to have been an important figure in the monastic community of Jiankang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], the capital city of the Liang, and a man very much favored by Emperor Wu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (r. 502-549). He participated in several translation and cataloguing projects under imperial patronage, and for a while he served as abbot of the Xin'an [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] monastery and head of the imperial Buddhist library. Yet, Baochang was plagued by controversy, in life as well as in death. As a member of the clerical elite of the capital, he became the object of verbal attacks by Huijiao [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (497-554), who in the preface to his Gaoseng zhuan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Biographies of Eminent Monks, T.2059) (3) criticized the worldly and sycophantic metropolitan clergy who surrounded the pious emperor Wu in general, and the emphasis Baochang placed on "fame (ming [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII])" over "eminence (gao [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII])" in his selection of biographies in particular. (4) Even among the people in the capital there were rumors that Baochang's true intentions did not lay in the practice of Buddhism, but in the pursuit of worldly goals. (5)

Here we shall first examine Baochang's career, taking as a starting point his biography, contained in the Further Biographies of Eminent Monks. An attempt will be made to reconstruct the chronology of events in Baochang's life, focusing on his relationship with Emperor Wu. In the second part of this article I will address two issues concerning the Mingseng zhuan and Biqiuni zhuan. First, even though important clues about the Mingseng zhuan's date of completion are embedded in the biography, there seems to be no consensus in the existing literature on when this collection of monks' biographies was completed. Many different dates are given, but very rarely is the preference for any date substantiated. Second, authorship of the Biographies of Nuns is traditionally ascribed to Baochang, yet this important collection is not mentioned anywhere in his biography. Even worse: there is no mention of it in the catalogues (Buddhist or non-Buddhist) at all until the early eighth century.

LIFE AND TIMES OF BAOCHANG

According to his biography, Baochang (ca. 466-?) (6) came from a poor family and worked hard in the fields to provide for himself and his parents. Because the plot of land they owned was too small to provide a sufficient living, he looked around for additional jobs. Thus he found work as a copyist and was able to earn extra money. (7) Although this passage identifies Baochang as a peasant, was this really the case? As Zurcher has pointed out, many of those whose biographies are included in the Biographies of Eminent Monks are said to have lived in poor and difficult circumstances before entering the monastic order. Poverty is one of the virtues of the Buddhist monk, and from that perspective, the Buddhist biographical collections show a tendency to standardize the lives of their heroes according to a set of fixed patterns. (8) A clue to Baochang's origins can perhaps be found in the wording of his biographer. Daoxuan writes:

  Looking for something extra, he took up a job as a copyist to obtain a
  little financial help. … 
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