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The Chinese term for “monastery

From Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia
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One fact perhaps indicates a certain connection between the Buddhist clergy at the capital and this institution: the peculiar use of the word si for “Buddhist monastery”. We can only partly agree with Maspero’s theory108 (already in 1921 suggested by ´tani but in the same article abandoned by him in favour of a slightly dierent explanation)109 according to which si (*zi4) is a “phonetic loan” for the almost homophoneous si (*zi1) cult, (place of) worship or sacrice”, which in some early secular texts (but, as far as I am aware, never in Buddhist scriptures) does gure alongside of . Even if would have been the

original Chinese term for a monastery, Maspero’s theory still fails to explain how si with its narrow and clearly dened range of application (in Han texts it almost exclusively means “(government)-oce, bureau”) could ever obtain such a strong Buddhist connotation that it even completely supplanted the “original” term which on account of its ancient cultic signicance would seem to be much better suited to the purpose. In another article Maspero has stated that the earliest

occurence of as “Buddhist monastery” is to be found in the anonymous colophon to the Banzhou sanmei jing (208 AD);110 however, we nd it already used in this way in one of the archaic translations attributed to An Shigao.111 Whatever may have been the older term, in the case of si it seems reasonable to suppose that the meaning “monastery” was derived from the current use of this word as “government oce”, and, more specically, from the name of what to foreigners must have been “the oce” par excellence, the Honglu si 鴻臚寺.

Unfortunately, in Han sources the department in question is not referred to as Honglu si; I have been unable to nd this term, which in later times became the ocial name of the institution, in sources earlier than the sixth century. This does not completely invalidate the explanation mentioned above; the term Honglu si may have been current long before it was adopted as the ocial denomination, and it is dicult to see in what other way the word si would have come to mean “monastery”.


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