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The Social Life of Buddhist Monks and Nuns in Dunhuang during the Late Tang, Five Dynasties, and Early Song

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by Hao Chunwen

This article examines selected aspects of the social life of Buddhist monks and nuns in northwest China during the late-Tang, Five Dynasties, and early-Song dynasties, a stretch of time brought into particularly clear focus owing to the nature of the documents preserved among the finds at

Dunhuang. I begin with a circular distributed to the monks belonging to a major monastery in the late-ninth or tenth century asking all monks to bring tools to the temple to repair damage sustained in a recent flood. In my interpretation, the document complicates our understanding of medieval monastic life, and I devote the rest of this short essay to answering the question of why monks who would normally be expected to reside in a

monastery had to be drafted by means of a written memo into repairing it. The answer, in brief, is that in fact many monks and nuns did not reside in monasteries and nunneries. Instead, as further documents show, they lived at home with their children, uncles, nieces, nephews, and servants; they engaged in farming and other non-religious commercial activities; and even when they lived in temples they often prepared their food and lived as

individuals. As is well known, Buddhism exerted a strong influence on medieval Chinese culture, and much important scholarship in the twentieth century has examined the relationship between Buddhism and the secular government, the translation of texts from Indic languages into Chinese, the flowering of Chinese Buddhist philosophy, and the development of Chinese Buddhist institutions. Closer to the subject of this article, historians

such as Chikusa Masaaki 竺沙雅章, Jacques Gernet, Fujieda Akira 藤枝晃, Jiang Boqin 姜伯勤, Naba Toshisada 那波利 貞, Niida Noboru 仁井田陞, Tsukamoto Zenryˆ 塚本善隆, and Denis C. Twitchett have used manuscripts from Dunhuang to study the economy of late medieval Chinese Buddhist temples.1 1 Kenneth K. S. Ch’en, Buddhism in China: A Historical Survey (Princeton: Princeton U.P., hao chunwen

While building on this considerable body of research, this article focuses on other questions, such as the relationship between Buddhist institutions and non-governmental organizations, the attitude of the lower classes toward Buddhist thought and practice, the daily life of the Buddhist clergy, and the disposition of property owned by Buddhist monasteries. A more thorough and systematic study of these areas, when placed alongside previous

studies of elite Buddhist practice and the history of Buddhist institutions, will help us achieve a fuller picture of the place of Buddhism in medieval Chinese society. The analysis presented here builds on my recent research. Since 1985 I have focused on the relationship between Buddhism and secular society in the third through tenth centuries. Two of my books, in particular, provide more thorough documentation and analysis of the issues involved. The first, The Social Life of Monks and Nuns at Dunhuang during the Late Tang, Five Dynasties, and Early Song (1998), is closest to

the subject of this article.2 It examines the number of monks at Dunhuang, their living arrangements and religious activities, sources and amounts of monastery income, mortuary practices, and the disposition of religious professionals in law and administration at Dunhuang. The second book, Studies of Lay Societies during the Medieval Period (2006), considers the social functions of Buddhist clubs or lay societies (sheyi 社邑), their relationship to earlier community organizations, their position within Chinese Buddhism, the funerals and other rituals orga

1964), pp. 213–96; Chikusa Masaaki, “Tonk± no s±kan seid±” 敦煌の僧官制度, THGH (Kyoto) 31 (1961), pp. 117–98; Fujieda Akira, “Tonk± no s±ni seki” 敦煌の僧尼籍, THGH (Kyoto) 29 (1959), pp. 285–338; Jacques Gernet, Buddhism in Chinese Society: An Economic History from the Fifth to the Tenth Centuries, trans. Franciscus Verellen (New York: Columbia U.P., 1995); Jiang Boqin, Tang Wudai Dunhuang sihu zhidu 唐五代敦煌寺戶制度 (Beijing:

Zhonghua shuju, 1987); Naba Toshisada, “Ry±ko k±” 梁戶考, Shina Bukky± shigaku 支那佛教史學 2.1 (1938), pp. 1–40; 2.2 (1938), pp. 27–68; 2.4 (1938), pp. 30–80; idem, “Tonk± hakken bunsho ni okeru chˆban T± jidai no Bukky± ji-in no kinkoku fuhakurui koshifu mitsururi jigy± un’ei no jikky±” 敦煌発見文書における中晚唐時代の佛教寺院の金穀布帛類貸附盈利事業運営の実 況, in Shinagaku 支那學 10.13 (1941), pp. 103–80; idem, “Chˆban T± jidai ni okeru Tonk±

chih± Bukky± ji’in no tengai keiei ni tsukite” 中晚唐時代に于ける敦煌地方佛教寺院の碾磑経 営に就きて, T±a keizai ronshˆ 東亜経済論集 1.3 (1941–1942), pp. 23–51; 1.4 (1941–1942), pp. 87–114; 2.2 (1941–1942), pp. 165–86; Niida Noboru, “T±matsu Godai no Tonk± ji’in tenko kankei bunsho: jinkakuteki fujiyˆ kitei ni tsuite” 唐末五代の敦煌寺院佃戶関係文書人格的不 自由規定にっいて, in Seiiki bunka kenkyˆ 西域文化研究 (Kyoto: H±z±kan, 1959), pp. 69–90; Tsukamoto

Zenryˆ, “Tonk± Bukky± gaisetsu” 敦煌佛教概説, in Seiiki bunka kenkyˆ 西域文化 研究 (Kyoto: H±z±kan, 1958), vol. 1, pp. 37–76; Denis C. Twitchett, “The Monasteries and China’s Economy in Medieval Times,” BSOAS 19.3 (1957), pp. 526–49; idem, “Monastic Estates in T’ang China,” AM ns 5.2 (1956), pp. 123–46. 2 Hao Chunwen, Tang houqi Wudai Songchu Dunhuang sengni de shehui shenghuo 唐後期 五代宋初敦煌僧尼的社會生活 (Beijing: Zhongguo shehui kexueyuan chubanshe, 1998). Reviews include John Kieschnick, JAOS 120.3 (2000), pp. 477–78; Roderick Whitfield, Circle of Inner Asian Art 10 (Nov. 1999), pp. 56–59; Rong Xinjiang 榮新江, Zhongguoshi yanjiu 中國 史研究 2000.1 (2000), pp. 167–69.

nized by them, their status as educational institutions, and the nature of women’s lay societies.3 My interpretations here are based on the relatively unrestricted access to Dunhuang manuscripts I have been granted over the past twenty years, including batches of several thousand items

that have been made publicly available only recently or that still remain difficult to study. The publisher of the invaluable photographic reproductions of the St. Petersburg collection of Dunhuang manuscripts, Shanghai guji chubanshe, enlisted my help with editorial matters prior to the publication, between 1992 and 2001, of seventeen volumes.4 The National Library of China holds — beyond the 8,679 manuscripts known from the 1930s —

more than 6,000 manuscripts published only recently, and I was lucky to be permitted to read them over a period of six months.5 I was also fortunate to be involved in the editing and cataloging of the several thousand manuscripts in the Stein Collection held in the British Library that were not included in the Giles catalog (published in 1957); some were published in photographic facsimile during 1990– 1995, and digital versions of the

entire collection are gradually being made available for free on the website of the International Dunhuang Project (IDP).6 As a result of these opportunities, I have been able to cast a net wider than that of most previous scholarship.7

3 Hao Chunwen, Zhonggu shiqi sheyi yanjiu 中古時期社邑研究 (Taipei: Xinwenfeng, 2006). Reviews include Yang Xiuqing 楊秀清, Dunhuang yanjiu 敦煌研究 2008.1 (2008), pp. 110–14; Rong Xinjiang 榮新江, Dunhuangxue jikan 敦煌學輯刊 2008.1 (2008), pp. 163–66. 4 Eluosi kexueyuan dongfang yanjiusuo

Shengbidebao fensuo 俄羅斯科學院東方研究所聖 彼得堡分所, Eluosi kexue chubanshe dongfang wenxuebu 俄羅斯科學出版社東方文學部, and Shanghai guji chubanshe上海古籍出版社, eds., Eluosi kexueyuan dongfang yanjiusuo Shengbidebao fensuo cang Dunhuang wenxian 俄羅斯科學院東方研究所聖彼得堡分所藏敦煌文獻, 17 vols., Dunhuang wenxian jicheng 敦煌文獻集成 (Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe; Moscow: Eluosi kexue chubanshe dongfang wenxuebu, 1992–2001). 5 Most

but not all of the Beijing manuscripts have now been published: Zhongguo guojia tushuguan 中國國家圖書館, ed., Zhongguo guojia tushuguan cang Dunhuang yishu 中國國家圖 書館藏敦煌遺書 (vols. 1–7: Nanjing: Jiangsu guji chubanshe, 1999–2001; vols. 8–75: Beijing: Beijing tushuguan chubanshe, 2005–2006). However, until a complete catalog is published, the precise contents of the collection will remain unclear. For an authoritative breakdown of the

collection, see Rong Xinjiang 榮新江, Dunhuangxue shiba jiang 敦煌學十八講 (Beijing: Beijing daxue chubanshe, 2001), pp. 117–21. 6 Lionel Giles, Descriptive Catalogue of the Chinese Manuscripts from Tunhuang in the British Museum (London: The British Museum, 1957), lists manuscripts and early printed books up to S. 6980; neither a complete catalog nor complete photographic edition of the entire Stein Collection (numbered up to S. 13677)

has been published yet. The noncanonical materials have been reproduced in Zhongguo shehui kexueyuan lishi yanjiusuo 中國社會科學院歷 史硏究所, ed., Yingcang Dunhuang wenxian, Hanwen Fojing yiwai bufen 英藏敦煌文獻: 漢文 佛經以外部分, 14 vols. (Chengdu: Sichuan renmin chubanshe, 1990–1995). As of January 2, 2009, 9,316 Chinese manuscripts and books from Dunhuang in the Stein Collection had been made available on the IDP website ( 7 Much of my current work is devoted to producing annotated, critical editions of Dun

Most of the primary sources for the study of Buddhist economy are fragmentary and difficult to read. This is especially true of the kind of documents studied here, which were written on behalf of individuals or lay organizations. They generally present more paleographical challenges than do

canonical Buddhist texts, which were often produced in scriptoria by scribes and lay students, and the accounts compiled by monastic officers and local officials. Some of the writings studied here are written on the verso sides of previously used texts, and many lack a beginning or ending part. Many of them have yet to be properly identified. Until recently, the study of monastic life was based on the analysis of canonical materials,

especially the vinaya codes. As is well known, although Chinese monks began translating rules for ordination by the early fourth century, the major explosion of interest in monastic regulations occurred between 404 and 426, when four complete vinaya canons were translated into Chinese: those of the Dharmagupta (Fazang bu 藏部), the Sarvƒstivƒda (Shuoyiqieyou bu 說一切有部), Mahƒsƒ¿ghika (Dazhong bu 大眾部), and Mah…ªasika (Mishasai bu 彌沙

塞部). The fifth complete vinaya canon, belonging to the Mˆlasarvƒstivƒda (Genben shuoyiqieyou bu 根本說一切有部), was translated between 700 and 712.8 As important (and still understudied) as these canonical materials are, they provide little help in understanding how different vinaya canons were selected and their various rules were understood — much less in determining the social life of monks and nuns during the medieval period. Recent

studies have begun to explore how the various Indian vinaya canons were adapted to the Chinese scene and how new regulations and practices were developed over the centuries in Chinese monasteries. The various “pure rules” (qinggui 清規) that governed religious practice in some monasteries have been studied, although the precise details of practice and the text of the rules themselves remain unclear prior to the first surviving text of

the genre, Rules of Purity for the Chan Monastery (Chanyuan qinggui 禪苑清規), attributed to (Changlu) Zongze huang manuscripts in the Stein collection; see Hao Chunwen 郝春文, ed., Yingcang Dunhuang shehui lishi wenxian shilu 英藏敦煌社會歷史文獻釋錄, Dunhuang

shehui lishi wenxian shilu, diyi bian 敦煌社會歷史文獻釋錄, 第一編 (Beijing: Kexue chubanshe, Shehui kexue wenxian chubanshe, 2001–), 6 vols. to date. 8 See Hirakawa Akira 平川彰, Ritsuz± no kenkyˆ 律蔵の硏究 (Tokyo: Sankib± busshorin, 1960); Tsuchihashi Shˆk± 土橋秀高, Kairitsu no kenkyˆ 戒律の研究, 2 vols. (Kyoto: Nagata bunsh±d±, 1980–1982); and idem, “Tonk± no ritsuz± 敦煌の律藏,” in Tonk± to Chˆgoku Bukky± 敦煌と中國仏教, K±za Tonk± 講座敦煌, vol. 7, edited by Makita Tairy± 牧田諦亮 and Fukui Fumimasa 福井文雅 (Tokyo: Dait± shuppansha, 1984), pp. 241–77.

長盧宗賾 (Northern Song), dating from the eleventh or early-twelfth century.9 Important work is also beginning to emerge on the interpretation of the vinaya canons by Chinese monastic authorities, but the normative nature of these sources allows few conclusions about actual practice.10 The

consumption of alcoholic beverages, for instance, is consistently prohibited to monks in the various vinayas, and yet evidence from noncanonical sources (including Dunhuang manuscripts, pilgrimage records, biographies, poetry, and miracle tales) demonstrates that the rule was often flaunted.11 In short, the Dunhuang corpus provides the best hope of supplementing the canonical and normative sources to help us gain fuller access to the social

life of monks and nuns during China’s medieval period. One of the most basic ways to understand the social life of monks and nuns is to ask where they were housed, what and how they ate and where they consumed their meals, and what constituted their daily schedule. According to the vinaya regulations, the monastery should be the basic unit of residence for monks and nuns: all religieux were supposed to reside in the monastery and be

provided with daily meals (prior to the noon hour) by the monastery. The earliest Buddhist Sa¿ghas in India begged for food, sometimes staying beneath trees at night. Thus, the earliest vinayas would not have had rules concerning collective living or communal eating in monasteries. Monastic regulations surviving from a later period regularly mention living quarters for monks and explain the etiquette monks are supposed to observe when

eating together.12 After Buddhism entered China, monastic institutions were established in accord with Chinese customs. The pure rules for monastic living clearly stipulate that monastics are supposed to live together in monasteries and that they should take their meals collectively. The Rules of Purity of Baizhang Revised under Imperial Order (Chixiu Baizhang qinggui 敕修百丈清規), for instance, refers to the practice of calling monks from

9 See, for instance, Yifa, The Origins of Monastic Codes in China: An Annotated Translation and Study of the “Chanyuan Qinggui,” Kuroda Institute, Classics in East Asian Buddhism (Honolulu: U. Hawaii P., 2002). 10 See, for example, Huaiyu Chen, The Revival of Buddhist Monasticism in Medieval China (New York: Peter Lang, 2007); and Zhanru 湛如, Dunhuang Fojiao lüyi zhidu yanjiu 敦煌佛 敎律儀制度硏究 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2003). 11 See

John Kieschnick, The Eminent Monk: Buddhist Ideals in Medieval Chinese Hagiography, Kuroda Institute, Studies in East Asian Buddhism 10 (Honolulu: U. Hawaii P., 1997), pp. 51–66; and Liu Shufen 劉淑芬, Zhonggu de Fojiao yu shehui 中古的佛教與社會, Shehui jingji guannian shi congshu 社會經濟觀念史叢書 (Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 2008), pp. 417–33. 12 Dabiqiu sanqian weiyi 大比丘三千威儀, An Shigao 安世高 (ca. 148–170), T no. 1470, 24, p. 921b.

their chambers to the main hall. It states: “At night when the board is sounded three times in front of the assembly’s quarters, the assembly should exit their quarters and return to the hall.”13 The ringing of the board three times to notify all monks to assemble is premised on all the monks

residing together on the monastery grounds. The Rules of Purity for the Chan Monastery refers in more detail to the ceremonial rules to be observed when entering the dining hall. It notes: The seating for meals should be arranged according to seniority in ordination. . . . As for the method of entering the hall, those who enter from the front should use the south side entrance. . . . If a monk is bothered by drafts, he should ask the rector

for permission to eat outside the hall. ... His comportment in leaving the hall should be the same as the method for entering the hall.14 The codes thus define proper behavior when entering and leaving the hall at mealtime as well as what to do under special circumstances — such as when a monk is bothered by drafts, he needs to be given permission from the rector in order to eat outside the hall. These examples demonstrate that unless there

are unusual circumstances, monks were supposed to take their meals together in the hall and were supposed to be provided with food collectively in the monastery. Despite these clear statements in normative canonical sources, the Dunhuang materials provide intriguing evidence that many — perhaps most — monks and nuns in northwest China resided with their families at home.


Some of the most informative materials for the study of monastic life consist of circulars or notices sent from one monastic to another to announce important events in the life of the monastery. Typically entitled “Monastic Circular” (dangsi zhuantie 當寺轉帖), at least eleven such documents survive among the Dunhuang corpus.15 Perhaps re

13 Chixiu Baizhang qinggui 敕修百丈清規, (Dongyang) Dehui 東陽德輝 (Yuan), T no. 2025, 48, p. 1143b. 14 (Chongtiao buzhu) Chanyuan qinggui (重雕補注) 禪苑清規, attributed to (Changlu) Zongze 長盧宗賾 (Northern Song), Z no. 1245, 63, p. 525c; translation largely following Yifa, Origins of Monastic Codes in China, pp. 123–28. 15 Other monastic circulars include S. 5406, S. 6307, P. 2680r, P. 2769, P. 3779r, P. 3391r, P. 3555b (1), P. 4019r, P. 4958 (3), P. 4981, and Дx 1378.

lated to written notifications used by the government, these memoranda were a common medium for circulating information during the Tang dynasty.16 At Dunhuang they were used by organizations whose members did not live together. Groups could use the circulars to invite their members to attend a

gathering or take part in a group activity. The documents contained information about the place, date, and time of the event, plus a list of all of the members who were to receive the notice. When a member of the organization received the circular, he would write the wordacknowledged” (zhi 知) or make a mark to the right of his name to indicate that he had received notice of the activity. Then he would send the circular on the next member

of the group. After the memo had been circulated to all members, it would be returned to the originator of the document. Although this use of the circular seems commonsensical, it is difficult to understand why a traditional Buddhist monastery would need to use circulars. If monks lived together under the same temple roof of the monastery (and nuns in the same nunnery), there would seem to be no use for this method of communication.

If monks (or nuns) lived together in the temple, they could easily obtain information about meetings, activities, or other matters without resorting to a written circular. However, there are many types of circulars preserved amongst Dunhuang documents: some direct monks to cooperate in rebuilding dams and flood control; some publicize lists of goods borrowed by monasteries; others list topics of upcoming discussion. Perhaps the most surprising

example is P. 4981, a circular informing the clergy that their monastery had been damaged in a flood and asking them to bring tools to rebuild the monastery. Based on paper quality, layout, and terms employed, the manuscript can be dated to the late ninth or tenth century. It is entitled “A Circular from the Monastery” (Dangsi zhuantie) and opens with a list of fifty-odd names, beginning with the highest monastic officers: Reverend

monastic secretary 都僧錄和尚, monk administrator Suo 索僧正, monk administrator Jie 解僧正, monk administrator Fan 氾僧正, Dharma Vinaya [[[Master]]] Elder Liu 大劉法律 [[[師]]], Dharma Vinaya [[[Master]]] Elder Luo 大羅法律[[[師]]], Dharma Vinaya [[[Master]]] Hong 弘法律 [[[師]]], Dharma Vinaya [[[Master]]] Liu 劉法律 [[[師]]], Dharma Vinaya [[[Master]]] Ma 馬法律 [[[師]]], Dharma Vinaya [[[Master]]] Ping 平 16 See Sima Guang 司馬光 (1019–1086), Zizhi tongjian 資治通鑑 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1956) 14, p. 6495.

法律 [[[師]]], Dharma Vinaya [[[Master]]] Suo 索法律 [[[師]]], Dharma Vinaya [[[Master]]] Elder Wu 大吳法律 [[[師]]], Dharma Vinaya [[[Master]]] Younger Wu 小吳法律 [[[師]]], Dharma Master Wu 武法師, Dharma Master Hong 弘法師, Dharma Master Wu 吳法師, senior monk Facan 比丘法璨, senior monk Daokong 比丘道空, senior monk Dingxue 比丘定學, senior monk Cizhi 比丘慈志, senior monk Zhili 比丘智力, senior monk Dali 比丘大力, senior monk Fasheng 比丘法勝, senior monk Fuhui 比丘

福會, senior monk Yuan’an 比丘願安, senior monk Fulin 比丘福林, senior monk Hongzhi 比丘弘志, senior monk Hongding 比丘弘定, senior monk Huiji 比丘會集, novice monk [ªrƒmanera] Baorong 沙彌保榮, novice monk Yuanbao 沙彌願保, novice monk Lishi 沙彌理釋, novice monk Liyi 沙彌理怡, novice monk Jiaoxing 沙彌教興, novice monk Baoding 沙彌保定, novice monk Ziwu 沙彌 子午, Dingxing 定興, Zai’er 再兒, Heizi 黑子, Chou’er 醜兒, Lirong 理茸, Zaifu 再富, Zaiwu 再勿, Antong 安通, Shou’er 瘦兒, Yuansui 願遂, Yuanqing 願清, Baoxing 保興, Chouhu 醜胡, Gounu 苟奴, Fuying 富盈 . . . [four undecipherable names follow].

We can note already that the circular is addressed not only to monastic administrators, senior monks, and novices, but that it also includes people called by their secular names or nicknames (for example, Chou’er, “Ugly,” and Gounu, “Dog Servant”) and lay Dharma names (for example, Yuanqing, literally “Purity of Vows”), who were most likely lay people connected to the temple. The body of P. 4981 reads: To the aforementioned members of the assembly 眾徒: Because our [[[word]] missing] temple was recently damaged by flood, the effort of the assembly is

urgently needed to renovate it. Monastic officers 僧官 should bring an axe and basin; the dispersed assembly 散眾 should bring a shovel or pick; and it falls to the other two people to bring a dustpan. This circular is valid until the fourth watch [between 5:00 and 7:00 am] on the fourteenth day

of this month and takes effect throughout the whole temple. The allotted punishment for the last two to arrive will be seven hits of the stick, and those who do not attend at all will be fined one jar of wine. No leniency will be shown to latecomers and nonparticipants. This [circular] should be passed on quickly. Once this circular has been passed around

and returned to the originating superintendent, the punishments will take effect. The thirteenth day of the intercalary third month. Circular of the Monk Administrator of the Ara¡ya 藍空[[[若]]]僧正.17

The very existence of these documents is at first puzzling: why would it be necessary to circulate a written call for collective action if all the monks lived and ate together? Why is the language of the circular so precise and legalistic, specifying a certain time period for circulation and announcing that punishments will be administered after a specific point in time, after transmission of the circular? Considering this as well as

other monastery circulars, it seems that some monks and nuns lacked up-to-date knowledge of even the most important events inside their monasteries and were forced to rely upon the circulation of written memoranda for their information. The most logical explanation for this and similar circulars is that in fact many monks at Dunhuang did not live together in temples. Instead, it would seem that the majority lived at home with their families,

only visiting their monasteries on special occasions. The main use of the circulars was to inform those clergy who lived outside the monasteries of recent news and to summon them to attend important events. Hence, the addressees of the memo include both monastics and lay people. The punishments for latecomers and nonparticipants — a minor slap or a more costly fine of a jar of wine — are congruent with the punishments levied against malfeasant members of Buddhist lay societies at Dunhuang.


Some materials preserved in the Dunhuang corpus speak of considerable numbers of monks and nuns living with their secular families, outside of the monastery. One particularly well documented example is the monk named Zhang Yueguang 張月光, whose status in the first half of the ninth century is particularly well documented. The first surviving portion of P. 3744 is entitled “Document of Household Di 17 Translation of P. 4981; reproduced in Shanghai guji chubanshe 上海古籍出版社, Faguo guojia tushuguan 法國國家圖書館, eds., Faguo guojia tushuguan cang Dunhuang xiyu wenxian 法國國家圖書館藏敦煌西域文獻, 34 vols., Dunhuang Tulufan wenxian jicheng 敦煌吐魯番文 獻集成 (Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1994–2004), vol. 33, p. 330 (hereafter cited as Faguo Dunhuang); partially edited in Hao, Tang houqi Wudai Songchu, p. 75.

vision of Monk Zhang Yueguang of Shazhou” 沙洲僧張月光分書.18 It lists the assets of Zhang and his two brothers, Rixing 日興 and Hezi , prior to and after the division of family property. Before division, Zhang lived together with his two brothers. Their common holdings consisted of houses both inside and outside the town of Dunhuang, as well as orchards and close to 100 mu 亩 of farmland outside the town. After the distribution of

property, within Dunhuang the monk Yueguang held onto one of the houses and some assets; outside of town, he “obtained by distribution one of the residences,” together with 48 mu of farmland, one orchard, and one piece of barren land. The rest of the property is given over to the second eldest brother, Rixing. There are small round seals after the names of the brothers, and the names of seven witnesses are listed at the end of the document. Clearly, then, even after the division of property among brothers, the monk Zhang retained ownership of significant resources and continued to live

at home with his family. A later document dated 852 (Dazhong 6) provides a glimpse of Zhang Yueguang’s commercial and residential situation nearly thirty years later. It is P. 3394, entitled “Contract for the Exchange of Land with Father and Sons, the Monk Zhang Yueguang of Shazhou in the Sixth Year of Dazhong” 大中六年沙洲僧張月光父子回博土地契.19 The parties involved are specified clearly and witnesses are invoked: the exchange is supposed to take place between Zhang and his three sons on the one hand and another monk named Lü Zhitong 呂智通. The document specifies the location and

dimensions of land involved in the swap. What is noteworthy for our purposes is that Zhang’s family is — in terms of residence, ownership, organization, and economicsessentially the same as other families: it owns houses, fields, and orchards; it undergoes the division of property between adult brothers; it includes sons living together with their father, who happens to be a monk; and monastics are referred to by their secular

surnames. Other documents from the ninth and tenth centuries demonstrate that the monk Zhang Yueguang’s living situation was not unique. A portion of P. 3730, which describes a nun named Haijue 海覺, notes

18 The relevant portion of P. 3744 is edited in Hao, Tang houqi Wudai Songchu, pp. 76–78. For a reproduction, see Faguo Dunhuang, vol. 27, pp. 223–24. For other editions, see Yamamoto Tatsur± 山本達郎 and Ikeda On 池田温, Tun-huang and Turfan Documents concerning Social and Economic History, vol. 3: Contracts (Tokyo: 1986–1987), part A, no. 434, pp. 137–38; and Ikeda On, Chˆgoku kodai sekich± no kenkyˆ 中国古代籍帳の研究 (Tokyo: 1979), pp. 555–

that a nun named Wubianhua 無邊花 also lived mainly with her secular family.20 Another portion of the same document concerns the monk Chongsheng of Bao’en Monastery 報恩寺僧崇聖.21 It makes clear that Chongsheng resided with his family, that they were very well off, and that at least one of his

sons lived together with him. An account of vegetable oil production, P. 3578, records that Dharma Vinaya [[[Master]]] Zhang 张法律 [[[師]]] lived together with his daughter. And S. 1475, a contract recording the borrowing of wheat by the monk Yiying 義英, states that Yiying lived together with his elderly father, Tian Guangde 田廣德.22 Some monks and nuns lived with their sons and daughters outside the monasteries. P. 3410 contains “A Will

concerning the Distribution of the Property of Monk Chong’en” 僧崇恩析產遺囑.23 Chong’en, whose secular surname was Suo 索, came from a wealthy family and served as a highly placed monk in the monastic administration roughly between 825 and 875. Despite his rank in the Sa¿gha and the fact that he lived in monasteries for part of his life, his last testament shows clearly that he lived outside the monastery for quite some time together with his

adopted daughter, a maid he had purchased, and perhaps a fellow monk named Wenxin 文信. The document reads: Over many years monk Wenxin has known Chong’en’s family affairs inside and out; his suffering and hard work have been extreme. I leave to him one head of cattle and three shuo 碩 of winter provisions of wheat. Young daughter Wachai 娲柴 came from infancy as my adopted daughter; she has never gone against my wishes, nor have her

feelings been distant. Now she is married and serves another man, already for several years. This old monk [that is: I, Chong’en] bought a young girl as my maidservant to wait on the old master [that is: me] until the end of his life. Based on this, I leave her to Wachai for employment. She should no longer be a low person. [Signed,] Chong

20 The relevant portion of P. 3730 is edited and reproduced in Ikeda, Chˆgoku kodai sekich± no kenkyˆ, p. 550. 21 The relevant portion of P. 3730 is edited and reproduced in ibid., p. 551; and edited in Jiang, Tang Wudai Dunhuang sihu zhidu, pp. 69–70. 22 The relevant portion of S. 1475 is edited

in Hao, Tang houqi Wudai Songchu, pp. 80–81; for a reproduction see Yingcang Dunhuang, vol. 3, p. 7. 23 The relevant portion of P. 3410 is edited in Hao, Tang houqi Wudai Songchu, p. 85; for a reproduction see Facang Dunhuang, vol. 24, p. 130. See also Ji Xianlin 季羨林, ed., Dunhuangxue dacidian 敦煌學大辭典 (Shanghai: Shanghai cishu chubanshe, 1998), “Chong’en,” s.v., p. 351a.

This document makes clear that the monk Chong’en lived for many years at home with a daughter he adopted from infancy. The monk still felt the bond of kinship strongly in his old age, since he takes pains to leave to his adopted daughter a maidservant he had bought in his older years, after his

adopted daughter had already left home to marry. As is well known, medieval Chinese Buddhist monasteries practiced a summer meditation retreat for monks. Beginning on the fifteenth day of the fourth month and lasting until the fifteenth day of the seventh month, the period was supposed to be occupied with more intensive meditation and ascetic practice by monks within the monastery, and there was supposed to be little or no contact with

lay society until after the conclusion, typically marked by celebration of the ghost festival (yulanpen hui 盂蘭盆會). One important document from the ninth century, P. 6005v, is a notice addressed to the administrators of the Buddhist temples in Dunhuang.24 It concerns the allocation of monastery and nunnery rooms for the residence of monks and nuns during the summer retreat. It is signed by four Sa¿gha officials. What is most interesting for

our purposes is that the notice discusses the problem of finding space in the temple during the summer retreat for monks and nuns who normally live at home. According to this document, they should be assigned temporary living quarters, when available, by the monastery. Other Dunhuang materials

provide ample evidence that monks’ and nuns’ residing with their brothers, uncles, nephews, and nieces was not an unusual phenomenon. P. 2222b, “A Draft Account of Monk Zhang Zhideng” 僧張智燈狀稿, dated to approximately 865, records that the monk Zhideng, whose secular surname was Zhang, lived together with his nephew and that they made their living as farmers.25 P. 2717P2 is entitled “A Contract between Li Gounu and the New Monk Wang Fuying” 李苟奴與新僧王富盈契.26 It states clearly that the monk Wang Fuying lived outside his monastery with his brothers, uncles and nephews. These

different kinds of documents, ranging from wills and contracts to notices sent by Sa¿gha administrators to the temples of Dun 24 P. 2005v is edited in Hao, Tang houqi Wudai Songchu, pp. 201–3; for another edition and a reproduction, see Tang Geng’ou 唐耕耦, Lu Hongji 陸宏基, eds., Dunhuang shehui jingji wenxian zhenji shilu 敦煌社會經濟文獻真迹釋錄, 5 vols., Dunhuang Tulufan wenxian yanjiu congshu 敦煌吐魯番文獻研究叢書, no.

1 (vol. 1, Beijing: Shumu wenxian chubanshe, 1986; vol. 2–5, Beijing: Quanguo tushuguan wenxian suowei fuzhi zhongxin, 1990), vol. 4, pp. 120–22. 25 P. 2222b is reproduced in Facang Dunhuang, vol. 9, p. 229. 26 P. 2717P2 is edited in Hao, Tang houqi Wudai Songchu, pp. 83–84; for a reproduction,

huang, make clear that no small number of religious professionals lived not in the monastery or nunnery but rather at home with their relatives. The documents usually refer to this group of people as the “dispersed assembly” (sanzhong). They typically use the verbs gonghuo 共活 or tonghuo 同活, “living together,” to describe the act of residing with one’s secular family.


Both vinaya regulations and earlier monastic practice in Chinese Buddhism would lead us to expect that the preparation of food and the provision of articles for daily use would be a communal matter. According to vinaya regulations, monks and nuns are supposed to renounce all possessions except

for the “six objects” (liuwu 六物), the clothing and instruments of simple daily life traditionally required of all monastics. Based on early Indian ideals of the eremitic life, the daily necessities were traditionally defined as the three kinds of monastic garments plus the begging bowl, a stool on which to rest, and a strainer for removing small bugs and other living beings from the water consumed by monks and nuns.27 In theory, then, any of

the utensils, cooking pots, food provisions, and other kitchen utensils necessary for preparing the meals consumed in the monastery would have to be collective property. Here again, however, a careful reading of the Dunhuang documents reveals otherwise. Accounts and documents of daily administration from the monasteries of Dunhuang refer to the fact that many monks and nuns lived in their own rooms within the monastery, had their

own private kitchens, and prepared their food as private individuals. P. 3730 includes an “Account of the Nun Haijue” 尼海覺牒, which shows that even the monks and nuns living within the monasteries were not provided with daily food by the institution.28 Instead, they had to put together their own kitchens and prepare their own meals. The account is a request from Haijue to the highest monastic officers. In it she explains that she and her

secular sister had entered the Buddhist order as nuns and had tried to live at home outside the nunnery, farming the land, but met with hard times. So, she says, they are entering the nunnery and are asking permission to establish their own kitchen there in order to eat. 27 See Shisong lü 十誦律 (Sarvƒstivƒda vinaya), Furuoduoluo 弗若多羅 (Pu¡yatara [ca. 399– 415]) et al., T no. 1435, 23, p. 463a–b. 28 The relevant

section of P. 3730 is edited in Hao, Tang houqi Wudai Songchu, pp. 88–89; see also the edition and reproduction in Ikeda, Chˆgoku kodai sekich± no kenkyˆ, p. 550.

S. 4707 records that Dharma Vinaya Master Ma 馬 had his own living quarters and kitchen; the kitchen measured 1 zhang 丈, 1 chi 尺, and 1 cun 寸 by 1 zhang, 5 chi, and 8 cun.29 Another fascinating document, contained on S. 542v, asks Sa¿gha authorities to resolve a dispute that arose between a

newly ordained nun and her sister nuns at Puguang Nunnery.30 The newly arrived nun, named Guangxian 光顯, had built her own kitchen after entering the nunnery. She was not cooperative in the sharing of water, however, and after diverting the flow of water to her own kitchen, she refused to share it with other nuns. The document does not explain how the dispute was resolved, but it does make clear that at some monastic institutions,

the building and provisioning of kitchens was an individual matter. Further evidence concerning meals at Dunhuang monastic institutions is provided in lists of the possessions owned by monasteries and in accounts of temple income and expenditure. As is well known, Buddhist vinaya codes divided

property among the three jewels: Buddha property consisted of Buddha statues, and their clothing, halls, incense, flowers, and banners; Dharma property consisted of sˆtras and other texts, paper, writing brushes, boxes, containers, and wrappers for texts; and Sa¿gha property consisted of monastic residences, clothing and bowls, food, flowers and fruit, groves of trees, fields and gardens, servants attached to the monastery grounds,

and livestock. This overarching tripartite division, however, provided few clues about how to administer daily life in a monastic setting. Much scholarship in Buddhist studies over the past few generations has been concerned with the details of monastic economy.31 In the case of Dunhuang, many of the documents used in temple administration make a general distinction between “permanent objects” (or “inalienable possessions,” changzhu

shiwu 常住什物) and “permanent provisions” (or “inalienable rations,” changzhu hudou 常住斛斗). In general, inalienable possessions 29 For a reproduction of S. 4707, see Yingcang Dunhuang, vol. 4, p. 247. 30 The relevant portion of S. 542v is edited in Hao, Tang houqi Wudai Songchu, pp. 93–94; for a reproduction, see Yingcang Dunhuang, vol. 2, p. 23. 31 For general work on Buddhist monastic economy in India and China,

see Chikusa Masaaki 竺沙雅章, Chˆgoku Bukky± shakaishi kenkyˆ 中國佛教社會史研究, T±y±shi kenkyˆ s±kan 東洋 史研究叢刊 34 (Kyoto: D±h±sha shuppan,1982); Gernet, Buddhism in Chinese Society; Huang Minzhi 黃敏枝, Tangdai siyuan jingji de yanjiu 唐代寺院經濟的研究, Guoli Taiwan daxue wenshi congkan 國立台灣大學文史叢刊 33 (Taibei: Guoli Taiwan daxue wenxueyuan, 1971); Jiang, Tang Wudai Dunhuang sihu zhidu; John Kieschnick, The Impact of Buddhism on

Chinese Material Culture (Princeton: Princeton U.P., 2003); and Gregory Schopen, Bones, Stones, and Buddhist Monks: Collected Papers on the Archaeology, Epigraphy, and Texts of Monastic Buddhism in India (Honolulu: U. Hawaii P., 1997).

were heavier, non-consumable objects central to the collective practice of Buddhism. They included banners, paintings, statues, sˆtra desks, sˆtra wrappers, bronze jars, flat pans, plates, bowls, dishes, urns, vats, beds, cabinets, vehicles, and golden and silver containers. The latter category,

permanent provisions, referred to items that were consumed regularly in eating or clothing, such as wheat, millet, oil, butter, rice, flour, yellow hemp, bran, chaff, beans, and cloth. One might expect that, as collective institutions, the monasteries and nunneries of medieval Dunhuang would provide monks and nuns with their rations — objects classified as permanent provisions. Among the yearly account books for income and expenditure of

Dunhuang temples, much detail is devoted to permanent objects and some of the permanent provisions for temple inhabitants. There is no mention, however of daily foodstuffs for monks and nuns.32 The evidence suggests, then, that food was provided by individual monks and nuns rather than supplied out of communal temple provisions. A similar situation obtained for the larger furnishings and utensils needed for food preparation. Such

objects were classified as permanent objects (changzhu shiwu), and relatively complete inventories for five monasteries at Dunhuang (Jingtu Monastery 淨土寺, Dasheng Nunnery 大乘寺, Bao’en Monastery 報恩寺, Yong’an Monastery 永安寺, and Longxing Monastery 龍興寺), based on the analysis of some 29 documents dispersed in 36 different manuscripts, can be reconstructed.33 Common sense would dictate that if monasteries indeed functioned as

collective units, then the more members in a monastery, the more utensils it would have. But analysis of these records and their statistics reveals that the number of articles for daily use in the larger monasteries was not necessarily higher — and indeed was sometimes smaller — than in the smaller monasteries. For instance, Dasheng Nunnery lists 173 nuns and Jingtu Monastery had 22 monks. Yet there were smaller numbers of my types of

daily utensils at Dashing Nunnery: Jingtu Monastery had two cauldrons, while Dasheng Nunnery had just one; Jingtu Monastery had three stoves, while Dasheng Nunnery just had two. This evidence concerning the logistics of meal preparation is another indication that

32 P. 2049v contains two complete yearly lists of income and expenditure from Jingtu Monastery from 925 and 931, but neither account refers to daily food for monks and nuns; the documents are edited and reproduced in Ikeda, Chˆgoku kodai sekich± no kenkyˆ, pp. 617–44; and reproduced in Facang Dunhuang, vol. 3, pp. 234–54. 33 See Hao, Tang houqi Wudai Songchu, pp. 123–65, for analysis of the documents and a master catalogue of their monasteries and nunneries did not function fully as collective units of social life for the monks and nuns registered in them.


The study of the income of Buddhist monasteries and Buddhist monks is a complex topic, and there is no need to repeat studies published elsewhere.34 My discussion here is limited to those aspects of monastic income that are relevant to the question of monks’ and nunssocial life. Between the

years 800 and 1000, including the second half of the period of Tibetan rule over Dunhuang and the first 150 years of rule by military governors, the total population of Dunhuang ranged between 20,000 and 25,000, with an average of 22,500. The number of Buddhist monasteries and nunneries ranged between 13 and 17. The number of registered monks and nuns ranged between 406 and slightly over 1,500, averaging about 1,000. Thus, official monks and nuns averaged almost five percent of the population during this period. How did monks and nuns support themselves? It appears that the government did not generally provide food rations for the monasteries and nunneries at Dunhuang. Furthermore, as the analysis below will demonstrate, at any one time, only one-fifth of the monastic population made a living from performing religious services. It also needs to be remembered that, contrary to

the situation that obtained, at times, in other parts of China, monks at Dunhuang normally paid taxes and took part in corvée labor — and some even performed military service.35 To the extent that they paid taxes and fulfilled other obligations to the government, then, monks and nuns at Dunhuang did not constitute a drain on government resources. How much did monks and nuns receive from Sa¿gha coffers for performing religious services? One of

the main conclusions I have reached is that one’s income and support as a monk or nun depended largely on what rank or category one occupied in the monastic hierarchy. Five classes were distinguished in Dunhuang monastic administration: the first was senior monk (biqiu 比丘), the second senior nun (biqiuni 比丘尼), the third probationary nun (shichani 式叉尼, ªik™amƒ¡ƒ),

34 The most important recent studies on monastic income in Chinese Buddhism are: Chikusa, Chˆgoku Bukky± shakaishi kenkyˆ; He Ziquan 何茲全, Wushinianlai Han-Tang Fojiao siyuan jingji yanjiu 五十年來漢唐佛教寺院經濟研究 (Beijing: Beijing shifan daxue chubanshe,1986); Huang, Tangdai siyuan jingji de yanjiu; and Jiang, Tang Wudai Dunhuang sihu zhidu. 35 See Hao, Tang houqi Wudai Songchu, pp. 101–12.

the fourth novice monk (shami 沙彌, ªrƒmanera), and the fifth novice nun (shamini 沙彌尼, ªrƒma¡er…). Setting aside nonreligious income from farming, private ownership of land and servants, and loans, monks and nuns in medieval Dunhuang earned their living as monastics from three primary sources. The first was funds, usually called chenli 儭利, distributed from the Sa¿gha administration to monastics. The term is a combination of an abbreviated

homophone (chen 儭) for the middle syllable of Sanskrit dak™i¡ƒ (“gift” to a religious professional), rendered in Chinese as dachenna 達嚫拏, and the Chinese li , “benefit” or “wage.” Such “dak™i¡ƒ wages” or monastic annuities for monastics were typically paid once every three years. Many monks and nuns, when they were able, resorted to other sources of income. A second source of religious income was participation in religious services sponsored by the great temples. Here too, one’s seniority was a key determinant of how much one earned, since senior monks and nuns were called to

participate in temple-sponsored events much more frequently. The top fifth of the monastic population, according to one document, would have participated in more than five events, and up to nineteen, per year. By contrast, the majority of monks and nuns would only have attended such events once, twice, or three times per year.36 Income from participating in such services was distributed equally among all those who attended, but as noted above, the average monk or nun had relatively few opportunities to attend. A third source of religious income consisted of religious services

sponsored by lay families. Invitations to such services appear to have been limited almost exclusively to the most senior and highest-ranking members among the clergy. They were the ones most frequently invited to officiate at services sponsored by laity, especially the chanting of sˆtras that was part of funerals, memorial services, and most other Buddhist rituals.37 Exactly how much did these three sources of income provide for a monk or nun

in eighth-tenth century Dunhuang? My conclusions are based on two rather different documents, dating from different periods, and rather than averaging their totals I present two sets of figures.38 The highest rank of monks and nuns at Dunhuang, roughly one-fifth of the total monastic population, received an annual income from re

36 See the analysis of P. tibétain 1261 in Hao, Tang houqi Wudai Songchu, pp. 333–62. 37 See Hao, Tang houqi Wudai Songchu, pp. 356–62. 38 See the analysis of P. 2638 and Beijing 02496 in Hao, Tang houqi Wudai Songchu, pp. 284–98 and 310–19, respectively; and the summary in ibid, pp. 363–66.

ligious activities of the three classes described above amounting to: 1) 30 feet (chi 尺) of cloth plus 6.4 bushels (shi 石) and 6.4 pecks (sheng 升) of wheat, or 2) 30 feet of cloth plus another 945 feet of cloth. The first set of figures provides enough income for the necessities of life to be satisfied. The second set of figures could assure a family entrance into the rank of rich households. If we add the income monks and nuns of the

highest rank earned from managing secular economic activities, then these people were in fact quite wealthy, and it is no wonder that the Dunhuang documents provide such abundant evidence of monks and nuns making loans of grain and cloth. The income for middle-rank monks and nuns was: 1) 30 feet

of cloth plus 4 to 5 bushels of wheat, or 2) 30 feet of cloth plus between 360 and 810 feet of cloth. Under the first set of figures, one could keep oneself warm and fed for six months of the year; according to the second set of figures, one would belong to a well-off family. The annual income for average monks and nuns was: 1) 30 feet of cloth plus between 1 and 4 bushels of wheat, or 2) 30 feet of cloth plus between 90 and 270 feet of cloth. Normally, average monks and nuns could not depend on their religious incomes to support themselves fully and needed to engage in other economic

production. The worst-off were the novice monks and nuns of the lowest level. They were only called to participate once or twice per year in their home temple’s services, and they had no opportunity to take part in the rituals of other temples. Only if they had a special connection through their families or close friends would they be asked (and paid) to attend services for laypeople outside the temple. Thus, the lowest level of monks and nuns only received 15 feet of cloth per year in dak™i¡ƒ wages (or 30 feet if they had received the full precepts). They were still responsible for much of the physical labor in the monasteries and for waiting on the senior monks. It is hardly any wonder that one monk explains that his reason for applying for full ordination is because he had no solid experience in making merit for others. He writes, “I have only recently left my family and

utterly lack holy accomplishments [daoye 道業,‘deeds in the Way’].”39 These facts illustrate the travails of lower-class monks and help us understand their desire to accumulate what we might call religious capital (“holy accomplishments”) after being fully ordained and becoming a senior member of the clergy. They also help explain

39 “Draft Account of a Monk of Fengtang Monastery in Accord with His Vow [Requesting Full Ordination] Submitted to the Director Alang” 奉唐寺僧依願上令公阿郎狀稿, S. 5953, reproduced in Yingcang Dunhuang, vol. 9, p. 29. why so many monastics were involved in money-making activities not tied to their status as religious professionals.


This essay has intentionally chosen a narrow focus on the social life of monks and nuns in order to shine new light on the broader question of the relation between Buddhist monastic structures and lay society during the medieval period. It has attempted to show the usefulness of the Dunhuang

documents for examining such questions as where monks and nuns lived, what their relations were with their families, how they prepared food and where they took their meals, and what the sources of their income were. There are many subjects that I have not touched on, however, equally deserving of

study: the oversight of individual monks and monasteries by local Sa¿gha officials, rituals of ordination, the liturgical calendar of Buddhist temples, monastic funerals and the disposition of the property of monks and nuns, the participation of monks and nuns in religious services that took place outside of the monastery in the homes of laypeople, and so forth. Studying the Dunhuang corpus closely enables us to paint a picture rather

different from the one presented in the standard sources for Buddhist monastic institutions, which consist of vinaya accounts, Chinese Buddhist histories written by the monastic elite and transmitted in the Buddhist canon, and the standard sources for Chinese history. The northwestern slice

of the Chinese empire cannot, of course, be studied in isolation, so the conclusions drawn from Dunhuang and Turfan documents need to be weighed against evidence from other sources.40 It is hoped that continuing study, placing the rich picture of social life derived from Dunhuang documents alongside other types of evidence, will result in a clearer understanding of the relationship between the secular and the religious, the development of Chinese Buddhism, and the changing nature of medieval Chinese society.

40 The specificity of the Dunhuang corpus and the need to compare the local history of northwest China with social conditions elsewhere are continuing concerns of the field of Dunhuang studies. As Denis C. Twitchett asked more than fifty years ago, “How far can the Tunhuang documents, our

only primary manuscript source, be used to generalize about China as a whole during the medieval period?” (Twitchett, “Monasteries and China’s Economy in Medieval Times,” p. 527). For similar discussions, see Ning Ke 寧可, “Dunhuang wenxian yu Zhongguo lishi yanjiu” 敦煌文獻與中國歷史研究, in idem, Ning Ke shixue lunji xubian 寧可史學論集續編 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2008), pp. 222–28; Rong, Dunhuangxue shiba jiang, pp. 1–8.