Ch'an Dao Links:
Indian Sangha Possessions as Recorded by the Chinese Monk Yi Jing (義淨)
Translator’s Note: I have accessed a primary Chinese language text (and one or two secondary texts) that record the historicity of Ch’an Master Yi Jing. This is the standard Chinese encyclopaedia page simply entitled ‘義淨’. This has been carried-out to add ‘fresh’ and reliable new information into the English-language knowledge-base that already exists through generally very old translations. I have done this to accompany a somewhat ‘odd’ depiction (in English translation) of life in the Indian Sangha during the time of Yi Jing’s visit in the 7th century CE, and the apparent ‘materialism’ that appears to be present. I can only assume, after reading the Chinese language biography of Master Yi Jing (who was a very well-trained and highly disciplined Chinese Ch’an monk), that there might be some type of misunderstanding in translation from Yi Jing’s original Chinese text describing his visit to India, and the translators who first attempted to render that text into English (possibly as far-back as the 19th century CE). Master Yi Jing does not seem to be the kind of person who would accept what might be construed as ‘ill-discipline’ in the Indian Sangha, without critical comment, and yet he makes none. He only has the highest respect for Indian Buddhism throughout his treatise. This is a conundrum that requires further research. The Chinese texts I have accessed have been broadly ‘autobiographical’ in nature, which in the Chinese Buddhist tradition, comprise of a list of dates with short extracts of ascribed happenings. I have not, as yet, had time to access Yi Jing’s text dealing specifically with his visit to India (to check if the old English translations are correct in nuance).
Tripitaka Dharma Master Yi Jing (三藏法師義淨 – San Zang Fa Shi Yi Jing) lived between 635-713 CE, and was a Tang Dynasty contemporary of the Sixth Patriarch of Ch’an – Hui Neng (638-713 CE). In the old systems of Romanising Chinese characters into (phonetic transliterated) English, his name is often written using the anachronistic ‘I-tsing’, rather than the modern pinyin of ‘Yijing’. He journeyed outside of China (according to the English translations) for 25 years (670-695 CE), travelling across Asia to India where he stayed at the famous Nalanda Buddhist University in Bihar for 10 years. On his journeys he studied Sanskrit and collected numerous Buddhist sutras (which he then translated into the Chinese language). A good over-view of Chinese Buddhist monks visiting India is Kanai Lal Hazra’s ‘Buddhism in India as Described by the Chinese Pilgrims – AD 399-689’. In it is mentioned that Nalanda University emphasised Tantric Buddhism, rather than a strict Hinayana or Mahayana path (although both were studied), and that this type of Buddhism developed through the influence of Brahmanic Tantra. Perhaps as many as 10,000 people studied there at its peak – including Buddhist monks, nuns and lay-people, who studied all forms of Buddhism. The university had a developed curriculum of gaining all-round knowledge, including both Buddhist and non-Buddhist (i.e. ‘Brahmanic’) texts. The monk Yi Jing states that the Vinaya Discipline was deeply studied and strictly followed, augmented by the study of all the Buddhist sutras and associated commentaries (from every tradition). Yi Jing states that order in the university was always retained, and the discipline was strict without being draconian. On average, Yi Jing recalls, perhaps there were continuously 3000 students studying within the walled university. The root of this discipline was Vinaya-based, and evolved around a strict ‘teacher-student’ relationship premised upon good-will and respect. The ordination of a Bhikshus or Bhikshunis was well regulated and strictly followed the Vinaya Discipline and the Buddha’s teaching, but in the case of the ‘possessions’ of a deceased Buddhist monastic in India, Yi Jing has this to say:
‘I-tsing gives a detailed account of the arrangement of affairs of a deceased monk. He describes that it was the duty of other monks to see whether the deceased had any debts or whether he had any will or anybody nursed him during his illness. When they found anything like this, they, according to the law, distributed the deceased’s property. The Chinese traveller refers to a list of things which are distributable and which are not distributable. He says, “Landa, houses, shops, bed-gear, woollen-seats, and iron or copper implements are not distributable; earthen utensils i.e., bowls, smaller bowls, kundikas (pitchers) for drinking and for cleansing water, oil-pots and water-basins are distributable, the rest are not. Wooden and bamboo implements, leather bedding, shaving things, male and female servants, food, corn, lands and houses are all to be made the property of the priests assembling from every quarter. Among these, things which are movable are to be kept in storehouses and to be used by the assembly. If there remain clothes or anything wearable, whether cloaks, bathing-shirts, dyed or undyed, or waterproofs, pots, slippers, or shoes, they are to be distributed on the spot to the priests then assembled… Quadrupeds, elephants, horses, mules, asses for riding are to be offered to the Royal Household. Bulls and sheep should not be distributed, but belong to the whole assembly. Such goods as helmets, coats of arms, etc., are also to be sent to the Royal Household… Paints of good quality such as yellow, vermilion, azure, blue, green are sent to the temple to be used for colouring images and the ornaments around… medical substances are to be kept in a constructed (lit. pure) store, to be supplied to the sick person when needed. Precious stones, gems and the like are divided into two portions, one being devoted to pious objects (Dhammika), the other to the priests’ own use (Sangika).’ The former portion is spent in copying the scriptures and in building or decorating the “Lion Seat”. The other portion is distributed to the priests who are present… The scriptures and…their commentaries should not be parted with, but be kept in a library to be read by the members of the order. Non-Buddhist books are to be sold and (the money acquired) should be distributed among the priests then resident… Gold, silver, wrought or unwrought goods, shells, and coins are divided into three portions, for the Buddha, for Religion (Dharma) and for the priesthood (Sangha). The portion for the Buddha is spent in repairing the temple, stupas that contain holy hair or nails, and other ruins. The portion belonging to the Religion is used for copying the scriptures and building or decorating “Lion Seat”. Another portion belonging to the Assembly is distributed to the resident priests.’
(Buddhism in India as Described by the Chinese Pilgrims – AD 399-689: By Kanai Lal Hazra, Munshiram Manoharlal, (2011), Pages 34-35)
Kanai Lal Hazra, is of course, quoting from very old English translations from the original Chinese texts, many dating from the 19th century. What is interesting in the above extract is the sheer weight of possessions that Buddhist monks (oddly translated into English as ‘priests’) potentially have the right to own. This list seems strange, particularly as Yi Jing points-out that at Nalanda University (and elsewhere in India), the ordained Sangha strictly followed the Vinaya Discipline, which severely limits the amount and extent of objects an ordained Buddhist monk or nun can possess. Generally speaking, an ordained Buddhist is allowed very few possessions, limited to three robes, a begging bowl, a sleeping mat, razor, a small bag, and one or two functional items including rudimentary medicine, etc. The point of Buddhist monasticism is the ‘breaking’ of materially-based attachments to the world of senses, or, in other words, the breaking of attachment to physical objects. It would certainly not be considered ‘normal’ within a Vinaya-based Buddhism for monastics to own male and female servants (slaves?), as this is a violation of the proscription against haphazard (and ill-disciplined) association between ordained monks and nuns and with the laity. It is also exploitative toward the laity, who should only serve the Sangha in a purely voluntary manner. It is certainly not allowed for monks or nuns to possess gold, silver or any type of money, and certainly not precious jewels or any form of material ‘wealth’. This extends to animals or ‘livestock’, as Buddhist monastics are not allowed to kill or cause to kill. This proscription also extends to animals intended to be used for transport, such as elephants and asses, etc. Sangha-members generally do not ‘own’ the Buddhist texts they study (by the time of Yi Jing visiting North India in the 7th century CE, it appears that many of the Buddhist texts had been committed to writing, although some lineages still practised the word of mouth transmission – some 700 years after their first being written-down in Ceylon). Non-Buddhist books are to be sold and the money distributed between the resident monks(?). One third of the accrued wealth is used to repair stupas, temples and other holy structures, (a practice in later China, generally funded by voluntary subscription by the laity – as Buddhist monastics possessed no wealth). One third is used to copy the Buddhist texts (again, an act of great karmic significance in China, voluntarily funded by the laity), and the final third apparently given to the Buddhist monastics to be used as ‘personal wealth’. On the face of it, this is a very strange representation of Buddhist Indian practice as perceived to exist in the 7th century CE, by the Chinese Buddhist monk Yi Jing. Was he right or wrong to describe the Indian practises in this way? Certainly strict traditional masters such as Xu Yun (1840-1959), would never have accepted these practises as suitable for fully ordained Buddhist monastics. He routinely described certain monastics as ‘corrupt’ for diverting even from the most basic Vinaya proscriptions. In the history of Chinese Buddhism, Indian Buddhist monks visiting China are generally treated with great respect and known to have been very strict disciplinarians. It is this sense of Indian purity that Xu Yun (Hong Yi, and many other Chinese monastics), used to inspire the practice of their disciples and students. This would suggest that either Yi Jing was mistaken in some of his observations, (perhaps confusing lay and monastic Buddhist conventions in India), or at what many would refer to as a ‘peak’ of Buddhist development in India, odd and unusual practises had crept into the monastic Buddhist communities, so that they became indistinguishable from the lay community. This mystery is deepened by the fact that Yi Jing states, with respect, that the Indian monastic community had a firm Vinaya Discipline foundation. Another alternative is that the type of ‘pure’ Buddhism that was transported to China, was not necessarily representative of a more ‘relaxed’ attitude in India itself. Of course, as these English translations of Yi Jing’s travels are now very old, it could be that they have not been translated properly, but it is my understanding that Yi Jing’s testament in the original Chinese language more or less agrees with the English translations, although there is always room for improvement. Below is a cross-reference of brief (background) biographical information about Master Yi Jing, (which can be read in conjunction with the already existing English translations of his journeys and experiences in India) drawn from Chinese language source materials, which I have rendered into English.
Accessing Master Yi Jing’s Chinese language biography, the following facts become apparent about this great Chinese Buddhist monk. He did not spend all of his expedition in India, but in fact visited other Buddhist countries. He left Tang Dynasty China in 671 CE and finally returned to China in 695 CE – and spent 24 years abroad. He travelled three-times to Southeast Asia (referred to as ‘Nanyang’ [南洋]) to spread the Buddha-Dharma, and translated thousands of Buddhist sutras from Sanskrit into the Chinese language (the Chinese texts suggests ‘500,000’ [五十万 – Wu Shi Wan], but this might refer simply to a ‘large number’, and should not be taken literally). His work had a great impact upon future generations. He stands shoulder to shoulder with two other great Chinese Buddhist explorers who visited India (and which inspired him to follow in their footsteps), namely the Eastern Jin Dynasty explorer – Master Fa Xian (法显) – and Master Xuan Zang (玄奘) of the early Tang Dynasty. Master Yi Jing’s work added greatly to the achievements of these (and other Chinese) travellers to India. Master Yi Jing was an important part of the gathering and transmission of the Tripitaka from India to China.
Master Yi Jing’s Biography (English Translation):
Master Yi Jing’s surname was Zhang (张) and his first-names were ‘Wen Ming’ (文明), and he was originally from the Qizhou area, known today as Jinan City, situated in Shandong province. At the age of 7 (641 CE), he became a novice Buddhist monk at the ‘Earth Cave Temple’ (土窟寺 – Tu Ku Si), situated west of Qizhou city, where he studied under the guidance of Dharma Master Shan Yu (善遇). Dharma Master Shan Yu was a disciple of Ch’an Master Hui Xi (慧習). In 645 CE, the famous Buddhist Master Xuan Zang (玄奘) returned to China from India, causing something of a sensation within the Chinese Buddhist community. Yi Ming was aware of Master Fa Xian (法顯), an early Chinese traveller to India, as well as Xuan Zang, and at the age of 15, decided that he wanted to go to India and follow in the footsteps of those who had travelled westward in earlier times. In 646 CE, Dharma Master Shan Yu passed away. When Yi Jing was 21, (in 655 CE), Ch’an Master Hui Xi granted the full ‘Higher’ Buddhist Ordination, after which, Yi Jing dedicated the next five years to the study of the Vinaya Discipline. In 659 CE, Ch’an Master Hui Xi encouraged Yi Jing to leave the temple and travel throughout China in search of further Buddhist instruction. In 664 CE, Xuan Zang passed away in Chang’an. In 671 CE, he returned to Qizhou and said goodbye to Ch’an Master Hui Xi, before departing from Guangzhou for India (天竺 – Tian Zhu) to study the Dharma. In this regard, he intended to continue the work of Master Xuan Zang, as Master Yi Jing believed that there were still many as of yet undiscovered Buddhist treasures to be found in India (and be brought back to China). Although contacts with the West were not always open during Xuan Zang’s lifetime, China traded extensively with Rome either through Iran (i.e. ‘West Asia’), or via Persian shipping, by the time of Master Yi Jing’s journeys. These trade routes effectively linked Tang Dynasty China to Southern Europe. In the ‘New Tang Manual’ (新唐书 – Xin Tang Shu), in the chapter entitled ‘Geography’, it is recorded that China had extensive maritime trade links (out of the port of Guangzhou) with such places as Cambodia, Myanmar, Bali, Malaya, Sumatra, Ceylon and India. This is why Master Yi Jing chose to follow the sea-route to India.
It was during the 2nd year of the imperial era ‘Xian Heng’ (咸亨), during the reign of the Tang Dynasty Emperor ‘Gao Zong’ (高宗) – which correlates to the Western year 671 CE – that Master Yi Jing was finally granted permission to leave China, which he did by setting sail on a Persian ship for Palembang (Southern Sumatra) (a journey of around 20 days) – a politically powerful country in the region (that was predominantly Theravada) and ruled by a king of Chinese descent. This was already a centre of Buddhist learning, and whilst waiting financial support and sponsorship for his ongoing journey to India, Master Yi Jing studied Pali and Sanskrit for six months. During his sea voyages, particularly around Eastern and Southern India, the seas would become dangerous with massive and destructive waves (that often destroyed settlements on the Indian coast). When this happened, Master Yi Jing would sit-cross legged on the boat and meditate on the Buddha until the danger passed. In 673 CE, Yi Jing visited Ceylon and South India. In 674 CE – he finally arrived in Eastern India and began visiting the famous holy places (such as ‘Vulture Peak’), as well as translating works by Nagarjuna. The following year (in 675 CE) he visited the famous Nalanda University, and it wasn’t until 685 CE that he completed his extensive research into the Buddhist scriptures held there (completing a decade of study). After leaving Nalanda University, Master Yi Jing left India and revisited Sumatra to study and translate the Buddhist texts. However, possibly due to political instability, Yi Jing returned to Guangzhou in 686 CE, not returning to Sumatra until 689 CE. In 691 CE, Yi Jing despatched a Chinese monk with a letter explaining his travels, together with a sample of his work in the form of a translated Buddhist text. This was a matter of protocol seeking the Emperor’s permission to permanently return to China - which he eventually did - landing in Guangzhou in 693 CE. He reached the imperial capital at Louyang in the summer of 695 CE.
©opyright: Adrian Chan-Wyles (ShiDaDao) 2016.