Ch'an Dao Links:
Hui Yuan and the Transformation of Buddhism in China
(This article has been published in two parts in Qi The Journal of Traditional Eastern Health & Fitness - Part I Autumn 2014 Vol. 24, No. 3 - page 46 - 52 - and Part II Winter 2014-2015 Vol. 24, No. 4 - page 46 - 52)
Translator’s Note: This English translation is rendered from the original Chinese text entitled ‘慧远与佛教中国化’. Master Hui Yuan (316-416) was a very important figure in the early development of Buddhism in China. Although records show that by the 1st century CE, Buddhism was known in the court of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220), the exact date that Buddhism arrived in China is still a matter of dispute. Hui Yuan mentions that Buddhism was known in the time of the Qin Dynasty (221 – 206 BCE), and it is certainly true that Chinese scholars talk of a date well before the Eastern Han. By the 4th and 5th centuries CE, (and the lifetime of Hui Yuan), it is clear that knowledge of the fundamentals of Buddhist thought was still in the process of being imported into China from India. Master Dao An (312-385), for example, (the teacher of Hui Yuan), specialised in the study of the Prajnaparamita Sutra, and is the first Chinese master to directly associate ‘prajna’ (enlightened wisdom) with ‘dhyana’ (meditation), as an accompaniment to his faith-based practice of worshipping Maitreya Buddha. These facts are significant, as his disciple- Hui Yuan – continued this combined emphasis of faith and developmental action in his teaching, but diverted away from worshipping Maitreya Buddha, and instead promulgated the worship of Amitabha Buddha. As a consequence of this shift, Hui Yuan is often portrayed as the founder of the Pure Land School, which is also known as the ‘White Lotus Society’. However, the Pure Land School, at least in traditional Chinese Buddhist thought, is recorded as being founded by Samantabhadra Bodhisattva, (and further elucidated through Asvaghosa’s treatise entitled the ‘Awakening of Faith’). Therefore Samantabhadra is considered the 1st Patriarch of the Pure Land School, with Hui Yuan strictly speaking, considered the 2nd Patriarch – with both Patriarchs following in the footsteps of Amitabha Buddha – the original initiator of the Pure Landteaching. In this version of history, Hui Yuan becomes a ‘populariser’ of Samantabhadra’s method, and is responsible for making the Pure Land teaching very popular throughout China. During his lifetime, Hui Yuan witnessed Amitabha three times – the last and final time just prior to his death, when Amitabha Buddha appeared before him accompanied by his assistants Avalokitesvara and Mahasthamaprata Bodhisattvas.
The emphasis upon seated meditation practice appears to have begun in China through the work of masters Dao An and Hui Yuan, as both advocated extended periods of disciplined sitting, with Hui Yuan in particular, designing his temple on Mount Lu to accommodate the Dharma method of meditation. This is believed to be the first time that a Buddhist temple had been built solely to facilitate this practice, and Hui Yuan’s innovations concerning design and practice, have served as ideal models to emulate down through the generations. It is interesting to note that given that the date of Bodhidharma’s arrival in China (from India) is traditionally believed to be around 520 CE, (that is 104 years after the death of Hui Yuan), it is clear that the practice of ‘meditation’, or ‘Ch’an’ was already established in China before the official founding of the Ch’an School. This may explain the close historical association between the Ch’an School and Pure Land School, as the 12th Patriarch of the Ch’an lineage – Asvaghosa – advised his students to strive for rebirth in the Pure Land, apparently echoing Hui Yuan’s emphasis upon extended hours of seated meditation, coupled with the faith-based practice of chanting the Buddha’s name. This association continued with Nagarjuna (the 14th Patriarch of Ch’an), and Vasubandhu (the 21st Patriarch of Ch’an), as well as modern Master Xu Yun (1840-1959), all of whom advocated the integration of Ch’an with Pure Land practice.
As an expert in both Confucian and Daoist philosophy, Hui Yuan was able to integrate the thinking of all three schools into his interpretation of Mahayana Buddhism. This background allowed Hui Yuan to associate the Daoist concept of ‘shen’ (神), (as an empty spiritual substrata of the physical world), with that of the Buddhist notion of the ‘Dharmakaya’. He preferred this Daoist interpretation to the early Buddhist concept of ‘anatta’, or ‘no-soul’, which has led many to assume that Hui Yuan advocated a ‘permanent-soul’ theory. The issue is more complex than it seems, and is not a matter of ‘either/or’. It is known that Hui Yuan exchanged a number of letters with the great translator Kumarajiva, discussing in detail exactly what the ‘Dharmakaya’ is, and its implications for Buddhist thought. Although ‘shen’ can be taken to mean ‘gods, and ‘spirits’, it is also true that as a distinct concept, it can also be used to refer to ‘mind’, ‘consciousness’, and even to the notion of ‘ruling’ or ‘governing’, depending upon context. It seems that Hui Yuan was correctly avoiding the trap of nihilism that can sometimes be incorrectly applied to ‘anatta’. As the Buddha rejected ‘nihilism’, the true teaching of ‘anatta’ can not be associated with it. If the Daoist concept of ‘shen’ is associated with the Buddhist concept of ‘consciousness’, then there is a perfect integration of the two ideals, whereby the trap of the permanent existence of an ‘ego-self’ is avoided and transcended. Base egoism, of course, is considered a training hindrance in both the Daoist and Buddhist schools of thought.
Hui Yuan, although keeping out of direct involvement with politics, nevertheless, attracted the attention of various warlords, officials, and kings. He is famous for handling the occasional political crisis he faced with an expert confidence and wise application of the ‘middle way’. He did not give into the attempted bullying associated with officialdom, but neither did he appear to openly resist it in a manner that would cause open conflict, and yet he single-handedly managed to persuade the king that Buddhist monks should dress in unfamiliar (i.e. ‘foreign’) robes, and be exempt from the need to bow toward the king as a sign of respect. In a society that advocated a social (and cultural) order premised upon a strict hierarchy of respect toward one’s superiors, this was a remarkable achievement. In times of warfare and social upheaval, including changes of government, etc, Hui Yuan and his temple community on Mount Lu, managed to stay impartial and avoid the problems associated with taking sides. No doubt this behaviour was inspired in part, by Hui Yuan’s understanding and practical application of the Buddha’s teaching associated with the cause and effect of karma, a teaching that Hui Yuan greatly popularised and spread during his lifetime. ACW 15.7.14
Hui Yuan [慧远] - (334-416 CE) lived during the mid to latter part of the Eastern Jin Dynasty, and carefully cultivated the Dao (道) or correct spiritual path of Buddhism and this quality explains why it was that he eventually became an important and influential leader within Chinese Buddhism. History has a tendency to test and challenge people, and bring out their creative brilliance – this was the case with Hui Yuan. At that time, as a Buddhist leader, Hui Yuan faced many important and severe challenges. The first issue of difficulty evolved around the internal political conflicts that erupted within the Eastern Jin Dynasty, where various cliques of the ruling elite fought (and killed) one another for influence and power. The political situation was both precarious and dangerous, and Hui Yuan found himself trapped between these cliques who tried to influence him into supporting one side over the other, through the use of a combination of flattery and threats. This climate of danger and political upheaval allowed Hui Yuan to perfect the application of Buddhist principles in the difficult situations that arose throughout his everyday life. Hui Yuan had to learn to adapt his Buddhist practice during times of acute political upheaval. The second issue involved the development of Buddhism and its different doctrine compared to the teachings of Daoism and Confucianism. The contradictions between the different systems with regard to lifestyle and ritual became ever more apparent, and this triggered an intense interest from officials and scholars who urgently sought answers from the Buddhist community, to questions they had regarding Buddhist theory and practice. The third issue concerned the substantial growth of the ordained Sangha and the inevitable development of good and bad monks, with the latter becoming snobbish and seeking a life of luxury instead of humility. It became a matter of urgency to define the discipline the monastics should live under, so that the Sangha could be correctly developed and Buddhism strengthened as a result. In the past Buddhism had travelled to China from Indiaand had to be integrated with the national conditions of China, and made relevant to the ‘true character’ (根性 – Gen Xing) of the Chinese people. Obviously such a process is ongoing and takes time to achieve. It requires continuous effort through the dissemination of true knowledge, and the exploration of different issues to ever greater degrees of understanding so that improvement is made. All these difficult issues were placed in front of Hui Yuan who strove diligently to solve each problem appropriately – this was a difficult and arduous task.
"The Dao (i.e. Way of Buddhism) flows (from India) to the eastern country (China) and has far to travel!"
In this way, the Dao of Buddhism was transmitted from India to China little by little, and a body of correct wisdom and knowledge was eventually established. Hui Yuan and his disciples assumed the great responsibility of ensuring that Buddhism was preserved, understood, and correctly practiced. Hui Yuan approached this task with a sense of confidence and anticipation. Through his efforts the Buddha-Dharma was established in China and people developed confidence in its teachings. This is why the life story of Hui Yuan is remembered with great respect. History records Hui Yuan in the following manner:
‘Since entering the Dao of Buddhism, strict self-discipline came naturally to him, and he avoided crowds. He constantly upheld the strictest of discipline, and saw the preservation and cultivation of the Great Dharma as his personal duty.’
He always considered his situation carefully, and acted as local conditions permitted. In all places he cared about the cultivation of the Buddhist teachings amongst the native people of China, and always made those teachings relevant to their needs. His ideas were both daring and innovative, as he found ways to integrate Buddhism into Chinese culture. By correctly responding to the times, he greatly strengthened and advanced the traditions of Chinese Buddhism.
Broadly speaking, Hui Yuan’s work regarding the spread and preservation of Chinese Buddhism can be summarised in the presentation of 6 points.
1) The Ordination of Buddhist Monks and National Politics
Hui Yuan lived on MountLu (庐山 – Lu Shan), and did not partake in any vulgar activity, although he did retain communication with various political figures, mostly those occupying the highest positions within the government. Hui Yuan’s interaction with government officials falls into three categories of definition:
a) Emperors and kings such as Jin An Di (晋安帝) [382- 419], the crowned monarch of the Northern Yao Qin (姚秦) area.
b) Dynastic ministers (close to the emperor), such as those holding the ranks of ‘Assists the Country General’ (辅国将军 – Fu Guo Jiang Jun), ‘Grand Military Officer’ (太尉 – Tai Wei), ‘Provincial Governor’ (刺史 – Ci Shi), and ‘Minister of Culture’ (司徒 – Si Tu), etc.
c) Leaders of the rebellion such as Lu Xun (卢循) and so on. These people sponsored the building and ongoing maintenance of a temple for Hui Yuan – a gift that Hui Yuan accepted. Although negotiations were often difficult, Hui Yuan always remained courteous and polite.
With regards to dealing with politicians, Hui Yuan was highly skilled in (Daoist arts of) flexibility, compromise, and reconciliation. To achieve this, Hui Yuan employed four methods:
i) He did not come down the mountain to meet people. Jin An Di denounced the Grand Military Officials (太尉 – Tai Wei) named Huan Xuan (桓玄), and travelled back to the national capital from Jiang Ling (江陵), passing through Jiu Jiang (九江) on the way. The Assists the Country General (辅国将军 – Fu Guo Jiang Jun) tried to persuade Hui Yuan to come down from the mountain and greet Jin An Di in an elaborate fashion, but Hui Yuan declined on the grounds of ill health. Upon hearing about the illness of Hui Yuan, Jin An Di sent an imperial emissary to offer his greetings from afar.
ii) He did not discuss political problems. When Huan Xuan (桓玄) led a punitive military expedition against the provincial governor of Jing Zhou (荆州) named Yin Zhong Kan (殷仲堪), the army passed through the Mount Lu area. Huan Xuan requested that Hui Yuan come down the mountain, but Hui Yuan declined on the grounds of poor health. Hearing this, Huan Xuan travelled up the mountain to ask Hui Yuan what he thought of the military action – Hui Yuan remained silent.
iii) He did not judge people according to their political status. After Lu Xun (卢循) occupied Jui Jiang (九江), he climbed Mount Lu to meet with Hui Yuan. As it transpired that Hui Yuan’s father and Lu Xun’s father had once been students together, Hui Yuan warmly greeted him, despite the fact that it was common knowledge that Lu Xun was considered a‘National Bandit’ (国寇 – Guo Kou), and that his presence upon the mountain might cause suspicion amongst the dynastic authorities. Hui Yuan said:
"I have no choice as the Dharma teaches loving kindness should be shown to all. Even if this interaction is known, I have no fear of the authorities."
Later, Hui Yuan supported a military expedition against Lu Xun and the overthrow of the Jin Dynasty (晋王朝 – Jin Wang Chao) by the Liu Song Dynasty (劉宋朝 – Liu Song Chao) which was founded by the Song Military Emperor Liu Yu (宋武帝刘裕 – Song Wu Di Liu Yu). This demonstrates the force of Hui Yuan’s excellent political judgement.
iv) He would not accept an official post as a means to justify his actions.
'A true master possesses a profound depth of character and meets all unexpected situations with a dignified response. If the unexpected is met with confusion, then the performance of the correct action is delayed. It has been transmitted in the old books of wisdom that haste should be made to develop this important attribute amongst those who hold official posts, as holding such posts does not automatically guarantee the possession of this ability. This is a profound and strong statement that emphasises true fortitude. It is recorded that those who possess this ability endure like stone and can not be easily overcome.'
This is why Hui Yuan resolutely refused to travel down the mountain to meet Huan Xuan. On the one hand, Hui Yuan acknowledged the reasonable habits of ordinary people, whilst on the other he taught that Buddhist developmental philosophy and discipline (i.e. Dharma) was superior and an advanced mode of behaviour in the world. With regards to politics, Hui Yuan remained indifferent. This was because many politicians possessed a selfish character that did not inspire respect and which lacked humility and was not interested in the Dharma. This is why Hui Yuan did not get directly involved in politics, and did not view the political authorities as superior to the practice of the Dharma. Through maintaining this independent attitude, Hui Yuan was able to integrate the practice of Buddhism into the complex fabric of Chinese social and political activity, without causing conflict. Through Hui Yuan’s ability to adapt and integrate, Buddhism continued to independently grow and develop in China free of direct interference from outside forces and influences.
2) Buddha-Dharma, Customs and Secular Ritual
In accordance with the system of established Buddhist teachings; fully ordained monks did not venerate or worship the emperor, their parents, or any members of their family. With regards to clothing, the fully ordained monk had to wear the correct type of robe, which allowed the right-shoulder to be exposed. However, some scholar-officials working for the government of the Eastern Jin Dynasty expressed a strong dislike of the rules associated with the Buddhist tradition. The high ranking dynastic official called Geng Bing (庚冰), together with Huan Xuan (桓玄), He Wu Ji (何无忌), and others, composed a document pointing out the difference between the attire and attitude of the Buddhist monks and that which they considered correct, particularly with regard to the serious matter of respecting the royal personage of the king himself. As a consequence, they proposed that the matter of Buddhist ritual, etiquette, clothing, manner of making a living, the Buddhist relationship with the ruler of the State, the use of the Buddha image, (and various other issues of concerns), be thoroughly examined through an official investigation. In response to these criticisms (of Buddhism in China), Hui Yuan wrote two special explanatory texts which were entitled the ‘Treatise on Buddhist Monks Not Revering the King’ (沙门不敬王者论 – Sha Men Bu Jing Wang Zhe Lun), [which contained five chapters], and the ‘Treatise on Why Buddhist Monks Leave the Right Shoulder Bare When Wearing Robes’ (沙门袒服论 – Sha Men Fan Fu Lun), as a means to present the correct Buddhist view on these matters. Hui Yuan defined two categories of Buddhist behaviour:
a) Dharma Instruction for Householders (在家奉法 – Zai Jia Feng Fa), which was designed to guide the laity. This text interpreted the great teaching of the Buddha so that lay-people could effectively follow the Dharma at home. Lay Buddhists must comply with the social ethics of the society within which they live, pay respect to the king, and wear the same clothing as everyone else.
b) Living Outside the World (方外之宾 – Feng Wai Zhi Bin), which was designed to instruct fully ordain monastics. These ordained followers of the Buddha seek liberation through non-attachment to the world of the senses. They are not interested in secular life, and do not participate within it. This is because the secular law (associated with the Confucian tradition of ritual and rites) is somewhat different to Buddhist practice. Hui Yuan explained that monks do not live in, or participate within secular society, and have nothing to do with politics, and therefore are disconnected from the world. This being the case, to worship and respect a ruling monarch would indicate an attachment to the world, and would constitute a violation of the Buddhist monastic code (Vinaya). Hui Yuan, therefore, explain that Buddhist monastics do not worship or show respect to the king so as to remain detached from the world. This attitude and behaviour was designed to safeguard the independence of the spiritual life, and ensure the impartial status of Buddhist monastics (who did not get involved in secular politics). However, Hui Yuan further explained that Buddhist monastics certainly did not disrespect the king, but as they followed very strict rules, (often stricter than secular law), they assisted the king to keep law and order in society by setting a good example for others through their disciplined behaviour. Furthermore, as the Buddhist monastics strove for enlightenment of themselves and others, through the good and virtuous rule of the king, both Buddhist morality and secular morality could work together toward the common goal of social and spiritual liberation. Indeed, Hui Yuan stated that as far as Buddhism was concerned, it was understood that the Buddhist Sangha had a covenant which stated that it; ‘Agreed with, and Acknowledged the Fact that the Emperor Supports the People, and that the People Exist Through the Person and Authority of the Emperor’ (协契皇极,在宥生民 – Xie Qi Huang Ji, Zai You Sheng Min). This meant that in reality the Buddhist Sangha supported the king’s co-ordinating role within society, and fully acknowledged and recognised his secular power.
3) The Rectification of the Monks and Social Co-ordination
Hui Yuan was not in favour of the monks revering the king, but agreed with Huan Xuan’s (桓玄) order that corrupt monks should be eliminated from the ordained Sangha.
Huan Xuan, whilst discussing the issue of the relationship between the ordained Sangha and the king, raised the issue of eradicating all bad elements from the Sangha, and setting it into good order. He said:
“Presently there is an issue with Buddhist monks and their behaviour. Officials state that monks should participate in the secular ritual of ancestor worship - official Chang (畅) states that this constitutes good and moral behaviour within society. It is also believed that Buddhist monks should dress like everyone else, and not wear robes with their right-shoulder showing. I will rectify these great misunderstandings amongst the officials, but to do this, I need to regulate the Sangha by removing all those who do not follow the Buddhist rules properly. It is my view that the Buddhist community of Mount Lu (庐山 – Lu Shan) follows the correct Way of Moral Virtue (道德 – Dao De), and that there is no observable corruption amongst its Buddhist population."
Huan Xuan approached the issue of regulating the Sangha using socio-political and socio-developmental arguments to justify the elimination of corrupt monks.
“The border areas of the country are not yet strong, and it is susceptible to military attack. Hundreds have deliberately avoided military service and have taken refuge in Buddhist temples. In the provinces thousands are missing and the villages have depleted populations. Many gather in unruly groups around the towns searching for food, or take refuge in the borderlands. This situation harms the government and prevents effective rule. Buddhism is under suspicion for harbouring criminals and sustaining this bad situation in the country. These rumours are carried everywhere and sully the good name of Buddhism.”
It was clear from this analysis that Buddhism had become associated with the chaos of the time, and was perceived as being out of control. This situation harmed both society and the government. The image of Buddhism risked being permanently tarnished, particularly as many superstitious practices had infiltrated the pure practice from secular society. This is why Buddhism needed to be reformed, and the corrupt elements eradicated.
Indeed, at this time, Hui Yuan was of the opinion that the rules of Buddhism were not always followed correctly, and that Buddhist practice had degenerated and was often not always complete. He said:
“In the ‘Integrated Great Grand Quietening Treatise for the Concise Management of Buddhist Monks Book’ (与桓太尉论料简沙门书 – Yu Huan Tai Wei Lun Liao Jian Sha Men Shu), it states:
‘Buddhism has been in a state of slow and gradual decay, and has become corrupted by many outside influences and unsuitable practices. Everyone who witnesses degenerate Buddhism responds with indignation. These errors are often perpetuated everywhere through the habit associated with fear and ignorance. This mixture of superstition and wrong ideas creates a false Dharma that crushes the true spirit of authentic Buddhist teaching. Everyone everywhere sighs with fear, and can not sleep at night, or eat during the day; such is their mental distress caused by this corrupt Buddhism. Those who donate to the temples (檀越 – Tan Yue), and who support the monastics in their lifestyle, have a moral right to be clearly taught the correct path of spiritual development (道人教 – Dao Ren Jiao), which reveals the true mind. Mastery should spread like the flow of water from one river to another, over-coming all obstacles in its path. The correct Buddhist teaching clears all human ignorance, and constitutes a special transmission. It is regrettable when the teaching is corrupt and lacks integrity, as it leads humanity far from the correct path. This situation is important and must be discussed. As this issue is a matter of divine (imperial) command (符命 – Fu Ming), it must be thoroughly examined through the use of logic and reason.’”
Hui Yuan accepted Huan Xuan’s suggestion that corrupt monks should be expelled from the Sangha, but added that Huan Xuan must learn to distinguish correctly between those who follow the monastic rules properly, and those who do not. Hui Yuan said:
“It is important to understand from the beginning, that within the Buddhist teachings there are three sections of practice:
1) An indepth study of meditation (禅思入微 – Ch’an Si Ru Wei).
2) The recitation of the Buddhist canon (that is pleasant to the ear), which has been
handed down from the past (讽味遗典 – Feng Wei Yi Dian).
3) Practices that generate blessings and good fortune (兴建福业 – Xing Jian Fu Ye). A good Buddhist monastic will develop and follow these three sections of proper discipline, and will not deviate from their teachings.”
Buddhists believe that that these three sections that constitute correct Buddhist practice, derive from the Buddha’s enlightened mind, and guarantee enlightenment to anyone who puts them sincerely into practice. Enlightenment is achieved by strictly following the precepts (that is following the rules of discipline). This is why Hui Yuan proposed a set of standards that individuals had to meet if they wanted to ordain as a Buddhist monastic. This standard was not only aimed at preventing corrupt monks from joining the Sangha, but was also used as a reminder for already existing monks of the high standards expected of their behaviour, and the direction in which their practice should progress. Hui Yuan carefully assessed the rank and file of the Buddhist monastics, and carried-out the campaign to purify the ranks of the Sangha. This was not only good for Buddhism, but good for Chinese society, as Buddhism became viewed as a compatible philosophy and acceptable mode of existence. This climate of acceptance allowed Buddhism to grow and develop naturally in China.
4) Buddhist Theory and the Chinese Way of Life
Hui Yuan was concerned throughout his life with the task of developing correct understanding with regard to Buddhist theory. Hui Yuan taught that the basic principles of Buddhism should be known and understood with confidence – particularly with regard to the his concept of the ‘Immortal Spiritual Essence Theory’ (神不灭论 – Shen Bu Mie Lun) [which he equated with the Buddha-nature, or Dharmakaya], and his use of the ‘Karma Theory of Cause and Effect’ (因果报应论 – Yin Guo Bao Ying Lun). Hui Yuan, through correct study, sought to integrate the theories of Indian Buddhism with the traditional (Daoist and Confucian) concepts of Chinese culture. This process of careful assimilation allowed the concepts of Indian Buddhist philosophy to develop within Chinese culture, in a manner that was relevant and suitable to Chinese thinking.
Hui Yuan’s many contributions toward the understanding of Buddhist theory in Chinaincluded his creative explanation (and integration) of the commonly held belief in the ‘Existence of a Spiritual Essence Theory’ into Buddhist thought. Hui Yuan studied with Dao An (道安) for many years and excelled in ‘Prajna Studies’ (般若学 – Bo Re Xue), and then became proficient in the ‘Pi Tan’ (毗昙) teaching - an Abbidhamma text that brought all the essential teachings of Buddhism together – and which Hui Yuan held in great esteem. The Prajna Studies taught that the true nature of existence is ‘empty’, empty of self, and empty of any permanent substance. This is in complete agreement with the Pi Tan teaching – as each of these two Buddhist texts supports one another in content.
Hui Yuan had a sharp mind, and always considered problems from two distinct possibilities. This is how he approached the subject of the development of Buddhist studies. If there was a problem to be solved, he would gather information from different sources and seek out a consistent thread of knowledge. By developing a body of correct Buddhist thought, Hui Yuan used the theory of the existence of gods and spirits (as found within Confucianism and Daoism), as a means to explain and convey the intrinsic foundation of Buddhist theory in relation to the existence of gods and spirits. Hui Yuan quotes from his text entitled the ‘Complete Description of the Immortal Spiritual Essence Theory’ (形尽神不灭论 – Xing Jin Shen Bu Mie Lun), the following:
‘The classic book entitled the Zhuangzi (庄子), in the section entitled ‘Great Ancestors’ (大宗 – Da Zong), there is a discussion on the ‘Profound Mystery’ (玄- Xuan) which states: “My body is supported by it; whilst my life is spent in cultivation of it.” If in life there is no proper practice of restraint, then this is a rebellion against truth. This is known to be a great evil, and damaging to that which lives. In the classic book entitled Wenzi (文子), the Yellow Emperor said: “The ever changing appearance of outer physical form is unlimited, and is an infinite manifestation of the underlying (or ‘inner’) spiritual essence.” The Zhuangzi also says: “The special quality about existence is that the essence of humanity is entrapped within physical form, and is expressed through a multitudinous (万 – Wan) variation on the material plane.” This awareness of the unfolding of endless physical existence manifests simultaneously with that of underlying, original nature (反真– Fan Zhen). This is a unified theory with two distinct aspects. This must be studied diligently and fully comprehended.’
It also says in the Zhuangzi: “Those human beings who practice restraint whilst alive, will surely merge with the original nature (反真 – Fan Zhen) upon death”, and the Wenzi says: “The myriad forms are expressions of the underlying spiritual essence.” It is through these Daoist principles that Hui Yuan presented Buddhist philosophy to the people of China. The Daoist ‘immortal’, or ‘underlying’ original nature was equated with the Buddhist notions of ‘emptiness’ (sunyata), and ‘no-soul’ (anatman), etc. In reality, the ‘original nature’ of Daoism was re-interpreted as the ‘Buddha-nature’, or even the ‘Dharmakaya’; both synonyms for the realisation of ‘emptiness’ through meditation. The Daoist teachings provided an important source for the transmission of Indian Buddhism into China during the Wei-Jin Period. A basic principle of Indian Buddhism is that of ‘no permanent self’ (人无我 – Ren Wu Wo), which is also referred to as ‘emptiness of self’ (人空 – Ren Kong), however, Hui Yuan preferred to emphasis the concept of a ‘permanent self’ (人我 – Ren Wo), or in other words, he taught that a ‘spiritual essence’ (神 – Shen) existed. This represents a subtle shift in emphasis away from what Hui Yuan considered to be the ‘negative’emphasis, found within the early Indian Buddhist teaching upon the doctrine of ‘no self’, toward the positive notion of the ‘existence’ of a spiritual essence. This single adaptation facilitated the entry of Indian Buddhism into mainstream Chinese cultural thought and belief systems, as all indigenous spiritual traditions within China assume the existence of a permanent spiritual essence. For Hui Yuan’s interpretation of Buddhism, the human ‘self’ was ‘real’ and not empty. This change in emphasis had important theoretical and practical ramifications for the ongoing process of the development of Buddhism in China.
On the basis of the existence of a permanent spiritual essence, Hui Yuan developed a distinctly Chinese interpretation of the ‘Nirvana Theory’ (涅槃论 – Nie Pan Lun), which he called the ‘Ideal Realm Theory’ (理想境界论 – Li Xiang Jing Jie Lun). Hui Yuan believed that human beings possessed a permanent spiritual essence, and that this essence survived the transition between physical death and the creation of a new life during the continuous and ongoing rebirth process. Due to emotion turmoil experienced in the mind, the individual undergoes the continuous process of rebirth which involves much suffering. When agitation and anger are permanently removed from the mind, the state of nirvana is finally achieved. Based upon this understanding, Hui Yuan said:
“When returning to the original essence, a practitioner must seek the correct ancestral path. A life lived with no awareness of the spiritual essence, accumulates obscuring layers of ignorance that prevent spiritual unity from occurring. If these obscurations are eradicated by the practitioner, then nirvana can be achieved through a deep cognisance of the spiritual essence, so that the practitioner and the spiritual essence become as ‘one’. This unity is the state of nirvana.”
Actively seeking the spiritual essence with a sense of profound and deep respect, results in the achievement of non-attachment, in the beyond-knowing state. If obscurations caused by agitation exist in the mind, then there is an ‘impasse’ that constitutes a barrier to development. However, by focusing upon, and uniting with the spiritual essence, a state of nirvana is achieved that transcends all inner and outer difficulties. The equating of the Indian Buddhist notion of nirvana with the Chinese (Daoist) concept of a spiritual essence, (神 – Shen), is clearly an innovative development formulated by Hui Yuan.
Hui Yuan understood that it was the duty of ordained Buddhist monks to train their minds and refine their bodily habits, and that the general task of Buddhism was to assist deluded beings to realise enlightenment through discipline and self-cultivation. To this end, Hui Yuan emphasised the doctrine of karma when teaching the secular world how to develop from the deluded position of continuously producing bad thoughts and actions, into producing good thoughts and actions that assist the realisation of full enlightenment. To assist in this task, Hui Yuan authored the texts known as the ‘Three Retribution Theory’ (三报论 – Three Retribution Theory), and the ‘Bright Judgement Theory’ (明报应论 – Ming Bao Ying Lun), which are premised upon the idea of the existence of a spiritual essence. These texts elaborate comprehensive and systematic explanation of the theory of karma. Hui Yuan emphasised past, present, and future lifetime periods (三世 - San Shi) and that the karma judgement theory of Buddhism should always be applied to each existence. This modified the traditional belief in China of living only a single lifetime (一世 – Yi Shi), but on the other hand, Hui Yuan retained the traditional Chinese belief in the existence of a spiritual essence – which runs counter to the teachings found within early Indian Buddhism. This synthesis of Indian and Chinese philosophical concepts created a new interpretation of the theory of karma which was accepted within China, and which has served as a guiding light ever since the time of Hui Yuan.
5) Internal-External – Delusion Verses Ultimate Realm
During the development and promotion of Buddhist theory in China, (that is whilst Buddhism was being promulgated in the external world), Hui Yuan concentrated upon the development and explanation of the inner teachings of Buddhism. During Hui Yuan’s lifetime, the understanding of Buddhism greatly improved. This was required on the one hand, because different factions within Buddhism often disagreed with one another about what constituted a correct interpretation of Dharma, and on the other, there still existed profound differences between the thinking of Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism that had to be acknowledged and reconciled.
As Hui Yuan had been a Confucian scholar, who was also well versed in the Daoist teachings, prior to becoming a Buddhist monk. This educational background ensured that he developed the interpretation of Indian Buddhist philosophy in China through concepts familiar to both Daoist and Confucian practice. Since his childhood, Hui Yuan had studied the classic books of ancient China. He was particularly proficient in the study of the ‘Changes of Zhou’ (周易 – Zhou Yi), the ‘Record of Rites’ (礼记 – Li Ji), the ‘Laozi’ (老子), and the ‘Zhuangzi’ (庄子), as well as many other Daoist and Confucian texts which he had a profound knowledge of. He once explained the ‘Mourning Clothes Classic’ (丧服经 – Sang Fu Jing) to the eminent scholars such as Lei Ci Zong (雷次宗), and Zong Bing (宗炳), etc, stating clearly the purpose and intent behind the text, and how its content should be applied in practice. Hui Yuan took the Daoist philosophical text of Zhuangzi for his guiding light, and interpreted everything through the concepts contained therein. Hui Yuan was of the opinion that Zhuangzi had realised enlightenment and that his words continuously expressed the state of ‘prajna’ (般若 – Bo Re), or advanced wisdom. In this respect, Hui Yuan never waivered in his practice of continuously integrating traditional Chinese thought with that of Indian Buddhist philosophy. The high government official in charge of ritual and culture (司徒 – Si Tu) - named Wang Mi (王谧) – wrote to Hui Yuan and said:
'When the age of 40 years old is reached, the senses begin to decline.'
Wang Mi was very concerned and distressed about the possibility of premature aging, and the physical and psychological decline this process might entail. Hui Yuan answered:
“The ancients had no affection for high walls, but always valued and appreciated the present moment.”
Hui Yuan used this literary reference as a means to encourage Wang Mi, and explained that whilst alive, life should be lived to its highest cultural degree, and the present moment fully cherished and comprehended. Hui Yuan added:
“The wisdom of the Buddha is the product of the highest mind, and should be absorbed into the royal heart.”
When living in the present moment is fully understood and mastered, then there is no great need to actively seek out, and overly pursue health and longevity.
Hui Yuan made extensive use of Confucian and Daoist teachings, when formulating a method for explaining the Dharma to the people of China. Hui Yuan viewed this developmental process as being the ongoing improvement of Indian Buddhist philosophy through its contact with traditional Chinese thought. The entry of Buddhism into Chinawas greatly assisted through the integration of the clear and bright philosophy of Confucianism and Daoism (儒道合明– Ru Dao He Ming), and the concept of the ‘Intention to Seek Sagehood’ (求圣人之意 – Qiu Sheng Ren Zhi Yi). Therefore the combined training of ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ cultivation of the Way (道– Dao) can be successfully pursued and achieved. The ‘Law of the Way’, (道法 – Dao Fa), and the ‘Moral Code’ (名教 – Ming Jiao) of Confucianism can be compared with one another, just as the Tathagata (如来– Ru Lai) can be favourably compared with the legendary sage king Yao (尧), and the great sage Confucius (孔 – Kong). Although these paths can be interpreted as different and distinct from one another, it is also true in the final analysis, that they arrive at exactly the same place. Hui Yuan emphasised Shakya (释迦 – Shi Jia) and the sage Yao in his teaching, whilst recognising, and fully understanding, the doctrinal differences between the Daoist and Confucian systems. However, despite these differences, Hui Yuan viewed these three paths as reconciling into a consistent realisation of reality. Hui Yuan’s efforts in this task revealed the compatibility between Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism, and demonstrated that with the appropriate will-power and determination, a unifying paradigm could be discovered and developed. The integration of these three paths – two Chinese and one Indian – greatly advanced the cause of Buddhism in China.
6) The Sangha Ardently Practices in the Forests and Hills
Hui Yuan always attached a great importance to the correct and disciplined practice of the Buddhist monks, which he saw as very important for the strengthening of the Dharma, and the foundation for building a strong Sangha. He became a monk after much disciplined cultivation which involved the ‘intense (and essential) practice of meditation and chanting throughout the day and night’ (精思讽持，以夜续昼– Jing Si Feng Chi, Yi Ye Xu Zhou). After his arrival on Mount Lu (庐山 – Lu Shan), he ‘mobilised the people to practice in this Way – from dusk until dawn – without a break’ (率众行道，昏晓不绝 - Lu Zhong Xing Dao, Hun Xiao Bu Jue). Hui Yuan’s essential practice of the Way (道 – Dao) can be defined as including the following three aspects:
a) Keeping the Precepts (持戒– Chi Jie).
Hui Yuan had made a deep and extensive study of the Confucian ritual system (儒家礼制 – Ru Jia Li Zhi), and it was because of the weight of the influence of traditional Confucian ethics and morality, that he ascribed such importance to the correct study and practice of the Buddhist precepts.
b) Recording of History (史载– Shi Zai).
When the Indian Buddhist monk– known as ‘Fu Ruo Duo Luo’ (弗若多罗)– visited Chang An (长安), he taught the ‘Ten Recitations of the Vinaya Discipline’ (十诵律 – Shi Song Lu) of the Sarvastivada School. Another foreign monk – named ‘Kumarajiva’ (鸠摩罗什 – Jiu Mo Luo Shen) – rendered this teaching into Chinese characters, but Fu Ruo Duo Luo died before this task could be fully completed. This meant that only two-thirds of this teaching was translated into the Chinese language. Hui Yuan would often lament that it had not been completed. He said:
“The foreign monk ‘Dharmaruci’ (昙摩流支– Tan Mo Liu Zhi), entered Qin (秦) and initially transmitted this reciting method. He then sent his disciple ‘Tan Pa’ (昙琶) to the Guanzhong (关中) area, (situated in the lower valley of the WeiRiver), with instructions to convey this Dharma-practice. This is how the method of the ‘Ten Recitations’ (十诵 – Shi Song) is believed to have been originally transmitted to the Jin (晋).”
Hui Yuan mobilised the people to rigorously practice Buddhism whilst strictly following the precepts, (or rules of discipline), after making his home at the ‘East Forest Temple’ (东林寺 – Dong Lin Si), which was situated on Mount Lu. Mount Lu was Hui Yuan’s ‘Way of Virtue Dwelling’ (道德所居– Dao De Suo Ju) in the world.
c) Cultivating Meditation (修禅 – Xiu Ch’an).
Hui Yuan acquired from Kapisa (罽宾– Ji Bin) – in the vicinity of modern day ‘Kashmir’ (克什米尔 – Ke Shen Mi Er) – the work of the Ch’an master named ‘Buddhabhadra’ (佛陀跋陀罗 - Fo Tou Ba Tuo Luo), [also known by his Chinese name of ‘Enlightened Virtue’ (觉贤)]. The text entitled the ‘Direct and Correct Method for Practicing Meditation Sutra’ (修行方便禅经 – Xiu Xing Fang Bian Ch’an Jing) was translated by Hui Yuan on Mount Lu, and through the Foreword, Hui Yuan emphasised the ‘Generating 3 Types of Karma and the Correct Development of Meditative Wisdom Sutra’ (三业之兴, 以禅智为宗 – San Ye Zhi Xing, Yi Ch’an Zhi Wei Zong). After this, Hui Yuan always emphasised the importance of the disciplined practice of extended periods of seated meditation. Hui Yuan transformed the interior of his temple to accommodate regular meditation practice. This is how Hui Yuan created a ‘Ch’an monastery’ (禅林 – Ch’an Lin) – or a ‘Sacred-space for Cultivating the Way’ (Dao Chang) – which specialised in the development of the mind through meditative practice. Later, the developed Ch’an School of China took Hui Yuan’s innovations as the ideal models for the practice of meditation and the design (and regulation) of a Ch’an temple.
d) Reciting the Buddha’s Name (念佛 – Nian Fo).
Hui Yuan advocated the practice of chanting the Buddha’s name as a legitimate Dharma-door, which developed the power of concentration in the mind. This practice requires the intense focusing of the mind, the developed process of which dispels delusions from the mind. By contemplating the Buddha’s name as an object, the mind becomes clear and good karma is generated as a result. Hui Yuan’s teacher – Master Dao An (师道安 – Shi Dao An – held a firm belief in Maitreya Buddha (弥勒佛– Me Li Fo), but Hui Yuan changed this practice, and instead emphasised a firm belief in Amitabha Buddha (阿弥陀佛 – E Mi Tuo Fo). This was the spiritual path Hui Yuan preferred:
“In front of the image of the Buddha of the Abode of Infinite Light (无量寿 – Wu Liang Shou), also known as Amitayus Buddha, the pure vows (to travel to the West) are taken.”
It is said that those who practiced this method began to refer to it by the name of the ‘White Lotus Society’ (白莲社 – Bai Lian She). Hui Yuan had a strong belief in Amitabha Buddha, and developed the method of practice that became known as the Pure Land (净土 – Jing Tu) teaching. Indeed, Hui Yuan is considered the founder (and ancestor) of the Pure Land School of China.
Hui Yuan emphasised a unified practice (of chanting and meditation), and ensured that his monks received the advanced level of education available. In this way he fearlessly developed the standards of the ordained Sangha to a very high degree. He also took the initiative to invite the Indian monks ‘Sanghadeva’ (僧伽提婆 – Seng Jia Ti Po), and Buddhabhadra to his temple on Mount Lu, where he translated sutras and spread Buddhism widely. Mount Lu was not only occupied by eminent monks, but also by famous scholars and other important members of the laity who submitted to the training. From the Pengcheng (彭城)area, there was Liu Yi Min (刘遗民),Yu Zhang (豫章), and Lei Ci Rong (雷次宗). From Yanmen (雁门) there was Zhou Xu Zhi (周续之); from Xincai (新蔡)there was Bi Ying Zhi (毕颖之), and from Nanyang (南阳) there was Zong Bin (宗炳), Zhang Lai Min (张莱民), and Zhang Ji Shou (张季硕), amongst many others. All eventually renounced the world under Hui Yuan’s guidance and stopped their pointless wonderings through life. This was because Hui Yuan ascribed a great importance to guiding his disciples personally along the path. Amongst Hui Yuan’s students was included Hui Yao (慧要), Dao Wen (道温), Dao Zu (道祖),Tan Yong (昙邕), Tan Shun (昙顺), Tan Shen (昙诜), Seng Ji (僧济), and Seng Che (僧彻), all of whom were proficient in the practice of the Dharma, along side many others. All of Hui Yuan’s disciples had their own particular expertise and strengths.
Due to the outbreak of war, Hui Yuan was force to leave his teacher – Dao An. From Xiangyang (襄阳), he travelled south into the Daoist stronghold situated on the Mount Luofu (罗浮山 – Luo Fu Shan) area of Guangdong province, and then into the ‘Nine River’ (九江– Jiu Jiang) area of Jiangxi province. Here, Hui Yuan saw that:
“The peak of Mount Lu (庐峰– Lu Feng), was perfectly pure, and was a suitable place to ‘still’ the mind.”
After this observation, Hui Yuan decided that Mount Lu would be the place where he would permanently live. Since that time, Hui Yuan said:
“I lived off the land, cultivating crops… For more than thirty years, my shadow never left the hillside, and no worldly people crossed my path.”
After Hui Yuan had spent much time planning, directing, and constructing the Dong Lin Temple, it became the Southern Chinese Buddhist centre for the cultivation of the mind, as well as a place for Buddhist innovation. It also became a centre that attracted different ethnic groups to the study of Buddhism, and served as an important cultural link between North and South China. The Dong Lin Temple also established and maintained cultural links with Indian Buddhism, as well as serving as a retreat centre for the laity, scholars, and officials, etc. At Dong Lin, Buddhists, Daoists, and Confucians were all equally welcome, and there was a great exchange between the practitioners of these systems. Dong Lin was a great cultural centre for South China. Although China was experiencing great social upheaval and suffering due to the various wars that were erupting, Dong Lin remained a relatively peaceful area of South China. The design and location of the Dong Lin Temple, as envisioned by Hui Yuan, became the standard model for future generations. From that time onwards, Buddhist temples would be built in the mountains.
Hui Yuan developed the method of integrating and balancing what he described as the:
“Internal (内– Nei) as philosophy derived from Buddhist teaching, with the external (外– Wai) as philosophy derived from Confucian and Daoist thinking.”
Hui Yuan achieved this finely balanced synthesis because he had a profound understanding and respect for the teachings of Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism. He could correctly compare and contrast the three teachings, and expertly ‘draw-out’ the teachings that over-lapped with one another, as well as reconcile areas of thought that appeared to be contradictory. Hui Yuan’s ability in this regard was the product of advanced spiritual ability manifest in the world. It was directly due to Hui Yuan’s influence that Buddhism became popular and experienced a rapid expansion across China. Hui Yuan developed Buddhist theory and practice, coupled with an emphasis upon heritage and innovation. Hui Yuan single-handedly wrote a new chapter in the history of Chinese Buddhism, a chapter littered with impressive scenery that served as the back-drop for the drama of the age within which he lived. He clarified the relationship between Buddhism and the monarchy, defining what was correct, and what was not correct. He defined how Buddhism should relate to secular law, and the rituals associated with Confucianism (and Daoism). He devised strategies that harmonised the differences between Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism. He used the Daoist teachings of Zhuangzi to advocate an underlying spiritual essence for the physical universe. He developed and explained the theory of karma in relation to Buddhist practice, and established the first Buddhist temple designed to cater for the teaching and practice of meditation. He also gathered together fellow practitioners who believed in the Pure Land teachings of Amitabha Buddha. All these achievements greatly promoted the presence (and practice) of Buddhism in China, and serve as a monument to Hui Yuan’s genius on the path of the historical development of Chinese Buddhism.
©opyright: Adrian Chan-Wyles (ShiDaDao) 2014.