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Biography of Great Pure Land Master Yin Guang (1861-1940)
Translator’s Note: This is a composite English translation of two Chinese language texts concerning the biography of Master Yin Guang – the first is entitled ‘一代高僧：印光大师’ or ‘An Outstanding Monk of his Generation – Dharma Master Yin Guang’ – and the second ‘释印光’, or ‘Venerable Yin Guang’. Within Charles Luk’s English translation of Master Xu Yun’s biography Empty Cloud, the story is related of how Master Xu Yun (1840-1959) gave a Dharma Discourse on the 12th anniversary of the passing of Master Yin Guang in 1952. This commemorative event took place in Shanghai on December the 21st (although the text below gives Yin Guang’s death as occurring on December 2nd), with Master Xu Yun giving instruction to a group of Yin Guang’s former disciples. Master Xu Yun held Master Yin Guang in high regard – so much so that he equated the Pure Land method of chanting the Buddha’s name, with the gong-an and hua tou methods of Ch’an Buddhism. Indeed, Master Xu Yun saw no difference between these two distinct methods. Despite his preferred method of chanting the Buddha’s name, Master Yin Guang was fully aware of the Vinaya Discipline (which he kept impeccably for the 59 years of his life as a monk), and not only practiced meditation regularly, but also spent much time studying the Buddhist sutras and commentaries. Like Xu Yun, Yin Guang was a major contributor to the preservation and revival of the practice of Buddhism in China as its people lived through the cultural and social upheavals associated with the over-throw of the ancient imperial regime, and the sudden instigation of a modern Republican Movement in 1912. Master Yin Guang kept from the limelight, but the effects of his good Dharma work can still be felt today.
Since the beginning of the Republican Era of China’s history (c. 1912), it can be truthfully stated that all who comprise the two classes of Buddhist congregation (i.e. the laity and the ordained) have known the name of Dharma Master Yin Guang (印光法师 – Yin Guang Fa Shi), whilst holding him in the highest regard. He has spread enlightenment throughout the world through the text recording his Dharma-Words entitled ‘Dharma Master Yin Guang’s Refined Instruction’ (印光法师文钞 – Yin Guang Fa Shi Wen Chao). His Dharma-Words were not printed until 50 years after his death, but the ‘Refined Instruction’ is one of the most popular Buddhist books in Taiwan. This is because of the depth and honesty of Master Yin Guang’s character and his virtuous practice of repeating the Buddha’s Name, as well as the compassion and understanding contained within his words. Master Yin Guang’s lay surname was ‘Zhao’ (赵), and his first names were ‘Shao Yi’ (绍伊). After being ordained as a Buddhist monk, he was given the Dharma-names ‘Sheng Liang’ or ‘Sagely Capacity’ (圣量) and ‘Yin Guang’ or ‘Seal of Brightness’ (印光). Due to the quality of his Dharma-names, he often felt ashamed as a monk, because he thought he could not live-up to their noble aspirations.
He was from Yang County (阳县 – Yang Xian) situated in Shanxi (陕西) province, and was born on the 12th day of the 12th lunar month, during the 11th year (1861) of the reign of the Qing Emperor known as ‘Xianfeng’ (咸丰). His father’s first names were ‘Bing Gang’ (秉纲) and he had three sons – the eldest was named ‘Cong Long’ (从龙), the middle son was named ‘Pan Long’ (攀龙), whilst Dharma Master Yin Guang was the youngest son. When young he was given a Confucian book to study by his elder brother Cong Long, but he saw problems with these teachings (and instead secretly preferred the teachings of the Buddha). Later he developed a problem with his eyesight and nearly went blind. Eventually he realised that his poor health problems stemmed from his inability to transcend his own character-faults (in his mind) – he then started to study the Buddha’s teachings with diligence and realised a profound understanding. Through this inherent transformation, he decided to ordain as a Buddhist monk. Whilst fully embracing the Buddha-Dharma all his poor health issues disappeared. In the 7th year (1881) of the reign of the Emperor Guangxu [光绪] (when Master Yin Guang was 21 years old), he travelled to Xian area of Zhongnan Mountain, where he ordained as a Buddhist monk as the ‘Lotus Flower Cave Temple’ (莲花洞寺 – Lian Hua Dong Si). His head was shaved by the Buddhist monk named ‘Dao Chun’ (Dao Chun He Shang - 道纯和尚).
According to a letter Dharma Master Yin Guang wrote to the layman named ‘Shao Hui Yuan’ (邵慧圆), stating that during the 3rd month of his life as a monk, his eldest brother visited the temple and informed Yin Guang that their mother was ill, and that he should return home to see her. When he got home, and despite already being an ordained Buddhist monk, he was not allowed to leave the house. This is why he eventually made his escape and returned to Lotus Flower Cave Temple. When he arrived back, he said to his master: ‘The disciples in this temple have a serious attitude toward practice.’ After this, his master granted him permission to leave the temple and call on enlightened teachers. This meant that Dharma Master Yin Guang had now entered the status of an ‘itinerant’ or ‘wandering’ monk (行脚 – Xing Jiao), and his first visit was to the Lotus Flower Temple (莲花寺 – Lian Hua Si), situated in Zhuxi County, Hubei province. Here, he worked at fetching coal that was used to boil the communal water. During the 4th lunar month of the 8th year of the rule of the Qing Emperor Guangxu (1882), he travelled to the ‘Double Stream Temple’ (双溪寺 – Shuang Xi Si), situated in the Ankang County area of Shanxi province. At this temple he received the higher Buddhist ordination (具足戒 – Ju Zu Jie) under Vinaya Master Yin Hai Dian (印海定律师 – Yin Hai Dian Lu Shi). After this, Dharma Master Yin Guang travelled to Tai Yi Peak (太乙峰 – Tai Yi Feng) on Zhongnan Mountain where he secluded himself for intense self-cultivation practice for around 5 years. Then during the 10th lunar month of the 12th year of the reign of the Qing Emperor Guangxu (1886), Dharma Master Yin Guang travelled to the ‘Source of Blessings Temple’ (资福寺 – Zi Fu Si) situated on Mount Hong Luo, in the Huairou District of northern Beijing, because he had heard that this was where he could study the Pure Land (净土 – Jing Tu) teachings. This is where he dedicated himself to chanting the Buddha’s Name (念佛 – Nian Fo). When he was not busy with vocational work, Dharma Master Yin Guang studied the Mahayana Sutras. During the 16th year of the reign of the Qing Emperor Guangxu (1890), he travelled firstly to the ‘Dragon Spring Temple’ (龙泉寺 – Long Quan Si) and then on to the ‘Vast Temple’ (Guang Si - 广寺) – both of which are situated in Beijing.
During 1893, Dharma Master Yin Guang travelled to the ‘Dharma Rain Temple’ (法雨寺 – Fu Yu Si) situated on Pu Tuo Mountain (普陀山 – Pu Tuo Shan) in Zhejiang province. Here, he spent his time in the Tripitaka Tower (藏經樓 – Cang Jing Lou) studying the Buddhist sutras.
In 1918, the Great Master Yin Guang was concerned that the Buddha-Dharma was in decline and sort to revive it through the use of the Pure Land method. As part of this policy, he encouraged the reprinting of thousands of Buddhist books (and those from other philosophical schools) that advocated a broad, and yet precise training method that was effective for achieving inner transformation. One such book was the ‘Grand Antiquity Inner Response Book’ (太上感應篇 – Tai Shang Gan Ying Pian), and another was the ‘All Embracing Four Methods of Training’ (了凡四訓 – Le Fan Si Xun). The former text explained Buddhism from a Confucian viewpoint, whilst the latter explained Buddhism from a Daoist perspective, and because of this multidimensional approach, the over-all effect was the strengthening of the Buddha-Dharma and rescuing it from a state of decline. This approach proved to be very popular and successful for explaining the versatility and applicability of the Pure Land method, and hundreds of thousands of copies were printed. This effort led to the establishment of a developmental common ground between Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism.
During the fifteenth year of the Republic (1926), the monk Zhen Da (Zhen Da He Shang) of the ‘Spirit Rock Mountain Temple’ (靈巖山寺 – Ling Yan Shan Si) of Suzhou (in Jiangsu province) respectfully requested that Dharma Master Yin Guang assist in the revival of the Pure Land practice at the temple, by writing a set of guiding principles. This Yin Guang did by composing the ‘Five Laws of Guidance’ (五條規約 – Wu Tiao Gui Yue), which became the foundation of the Pure Land practice at the Ling Yun Shan Temple. After this, the Great Master Yin Guang travelled to the ‘Dharma Cloud Temple’ (法雲寺 – Fa Yun Temple) in Nanjing where whilst reciting the Buddha’s Name – he released a captured animal – and assisted in founding a Buddhist Institute for the Welfare of Children. He also campaigned for prison reform, disaster relief, and many other charitable good causes.
During the nineteenth year of the Republic (1930), when Dharma Master Yin Guang was in his 70th year of age, he travelled to the ‘Benefit the Nation Temple’ (報國寺 – Bao Gou Si), where he participated in a personal closed-door retreat. Whilst living in isolation, he entrusted Dharma Master Ming Dao (明道法師 – Ming Dao Fa Shi) with the task of establishing the ‘Great Transformation Society’ (弘化社 – Hong Hua She) in Shanghai. This was achieved with the assistance of Wang Yi Ting (王一亭), Guan Jiong Zhi (關絅之), Huang Han Zhi (黃涵之), and many other dedicated lay-Buddhist practitioners. The Great Transformation Society enabled the printing and dissemination of Buddhist (and other related) books in a much more efficient manner throughout China, so that all beings could be reborn in the Western Paradise.
In 1937 (the 26th year of the Republic), the anti-Japanese War broke out. Whilst the Dharma Master Yin Guang was the ‘Supervisor of the Temple’ (監院 – Jian Yuan) of the ‘Spirit Rock Mountain Temple’ (靈巖山寺 – Ling Yan Shan Si) in Suzhou, the Buddhist monk named ‘Wonderful Truth’ (妙真和尚 – Miao Zhen He Shang) requested permission (which was granted) for him to relocate to the Ling Yun Shan Temple to continue his practice of the Pure Land Dharma.
During the 29th year of the Republic (1940), at the end of the tenth lunar month, Dharma Master Yin Guang felt unwell and appointed the monk Miao Zhen to the post of ‘Upholder of Life’ (住持 – Zhu Chi) [which is often translated as ‘abbot’] serving the Ling Yun Shan Temple. During the early morning of the fourth day of the eleventh lunar month (which was December 2nd, 1940 in the Western calendar), the monk Miao Zhen and other disciples were concerned and gathered around Dharma Master Yin Guang, who gave them the following cautionary advice to Miao Zhen: ‘Maintain the temple (i.e. the ‘sacred space for practicing the Dao’ or ‘Dao Chang - 道場’), carry forward the Pure Land teaching, do this in a humble manner and never be extravagant.’ To the gathered disciples who were very earnest in their Buddhist practice, he said: ‘If you all recite the Buddha’s name without end and keep your vows, you will be reborn in the Western Paradise!’ The Great Master Yin Guang then sat in the full lotus position facing West – and quietly waited for Amitabha Buddha to come and escort him to the Pure Land of Western Paradise. As the monks chanted – the Great Master Yin Guang peacefully left his body (which remained sitting-up). The Great Master Yin Guang was in his 80th year of life.
©opyright: Adrian Chan-Wyles (ShiDaDao) 2016.