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Master Dao An (312-385) – Buddhist Leader
Translator’s Note: For this English translation of the original Chinese texts concerning Dao An, I have drawn on two biographical articles, with one entitled ‘佛教领袖释道安’ and the other ‘道安法师 (312一说314—385)’. Where facts have been omitted, (or in dispute), I have accessed the Chinese Wiki-page entitled ‘释道安’. The great translator Kumarajiva once described Dao An as a ‘Sage of the East’ (东方圣人 – Dong Fang Sheng Ren). This was because the venerable Dao An fully understood the profound meaning of the Buddha-Dharma, and advocated the practice of ‘moral discipline’ [sila] (戒 – Jie), which allows the mind to become ‘stilled’ through ‘meditation discipline’ [samadhi] (定– ding), which in turn leads to the development of the state of advanced ‘wisdom’ [prajna] (慧 – Hui). This is why Dao An is not only considered an eminent Chinese Buddhist scholar, but is also viewed as being a ‘Perfected Being’ (完人 – Wan Ren). His words and deeds during his lifetime continue to serve as a valuable role model, and he is quite rightly commemorated today as a major driving force behind the development and expansion of Buddhism within China.
In the translated text below, Dao An originally has an unnamed Chinese Buddhist teacher simply referred to as ‘shifu’ (師父), or ‘teacher-father’, who was a harsh disciplinarian. In ancient China, a ‘shifu’ had the authority to administer physical punishment upon a student not only through allotting tasks of difficult physical labour, but also through the use of beating with a stick. Indeed, the character ‘父’ (Fu) literally means a ‘father figure who possesses the authority to administer beatings with a stick’. I have rendered the term ‘shifu’ in the text as ‘master’, as this conveys the context of the situation. However, following this period of hard physical labour, Dao An’s principle teacher was the Indian (i.e.‘Kashmiri’) Buddhist monk known by his Chinese name of ‘Fu Fu Cheng’ (佛图澄), who lived between 232-348. Under Fu Fu Cheng’s personal guidance, Dao An studied the Prajnaparamita literature, and those sutras that dealt directly with meditation (Ch’an) practice. Dao An’s commentaries upon these texts signify the beginning of his teaching career relatively early in his life.
As the Vinaya was incomplete in Chinad uring Dao An’s lifetime, he is renowned for insisting that the monks behave to the highest standards of discipline, as described in the sutras. Where no traditions existed, Dao An created them so that order could be brought to the lives of the Buddhist monastics living in the temple. As well advocating a strict adherence to the practice of discipline, Dao An also had a profound faith in the worship of Maitreya (弥勒 – Mi Le) Buddha, with the ambition of securing rebirth in the ‘Tusita Divine Sky’ (兜率天 – Dou Lu Tian) through the practice of keeping pure conduct whilst alive. He used to gather students around the image of Maitreya Buddha, and chant for a good rebirth in the Pure Land. His eminent student Hui Yuan (336-416) would eventually take this teaching and replace Maitreya with Amitabha Buddha. From a doctrinal perspective, Dao An, after studying the Prajnaparamita Sutras, developed the concept of the ‘Essential Emptiness of Tradition’ (本无宗 – Ben Wu Zong), also explained as the theory of ‘Essential Emptiness of Being’ (本无者 – Bu Wu Zhe). For Dao An, all arising phenomena is ‘empty’ of any essential substantiality, and enlightenment is achieved by a mind that has realised this fundamental state of ‘non-being’. This has led to some scholars asserting that Dao An is the actual founder of the Chinese School of Ch’an Buddhism.
The venerable Dao An (释道安– Shi Dao An) was born in 312 CE on Mount Chang (常山 – Chang Shan), situated in Fuliu County (扶柳县 – Fu Liu Xian). Today, this corresponds to an area 14km northwest of Jizhou City (冀州市– Ji Zhou Shi), Hebei province, with Fuliu Villagebeing situated in the Xiao Zhai Xiang (小寨乡)administrative area. According to records, Dao An’s family surname was pronounced ‘Wei’ (魏) [as in the Wei Dynasty], but originally it may have been written ‘卫’ (Wei) [as in the State of Wei that existed during the earlier Zhou Dynasty]. His ordained Buddhist name was ‘Shi Dao An’ (释道安), or ‘Venerable Path of Peace’. In the year 385 CE, on the 8th day, early within the 2nd lunar month, he left the world. He was buried at the Wu Chong Temple (五重寺 – Wu Chong Si), situated in Xi’an. Dao An is considered an eminent and highly illustrious Buddhist monk of the Eastern Jin (东晋 – Dong Jin) Dynasty which ruled between 317 –420.
Zhao Pu Chu (赵朴初) once said:
“Buddhism in China spread widely and became very popular. Within the Buddhist monk profession of China, Dharma master Dao An (道安法师 – Dao An Fa Shi) is an important and outstanding figure. This is because he played a very great and positive role fulfilling the task of providing effective leadership for the Buddhist community.”
The Painted Follower of the Dao (漆道人 – Qi Dao Ren)
For generations, Shi Dao An’s family counted scholars amongst its members, but early during his childhood, both his parents died, and he was raised by his uncle (on his mother’s side) who was surnamed ‘Kong’ (孔). Dao An started to read at the age of 7 years old, and possessed an exceedingly strong memory. After reading a text twice, he was able to recite it perfectly from memory. His neighbours were astonished and impressed to see his advanced ability. At the age of 15, Dao An had mastered the Five Classics (五经 – Wu Jing) of Confucianism. He then decided to study the Buddha-dharma (佛法 – Fo Fa), and at the age of 18 years old, Dao An ordained as a Buddhist monk.
The text entitled the ‘Collection of Biographies of Eminent Monks’ (名僧传抄 – Ming Seng Chuan Chao) states:
‘Dao An’s body was described as being of a very ugly appearance. As a consequence, he was ignored and his abilities were neither acknowledged nor valued. Instead, he was put to hard manual labour for 3 years by the master (师父 – Shi Fu) who was unimpressed by his presence. During this time he was hard-working, diligent, and uncomplaining. He possessed a sincere nature, and also strove to perfect his character through the maintaining of a strict vegetarian diet. He waited a few years before asking the master if he could learn from the Buddhist sutras. Eventually the master gave Dao An a copy of the Buddhist text entitled ‘Discuss Intention Sutra’ (辩意经 – Bian Yi Jing), which was comprised of around 5000 words. Dao An took the book to the fields, and read it all during his rest periods. On returning to the monastery in the evening, he handed the text back to the master. The master asked:
“Yesterday I gave you this book to read, and yet you return it to me tonight. Surely you could not have read this sutra in such a short time?”
Dao An replied:
“I have read through the entire sutra and can now recite it without difficulty.”
The master was surprised, but did not believe Dao An’s explanation. Instead he gave him another sutra entitled ‘Achieve Complete Bright Light Sutra’ (成具光明经 – Cheng Lu Guang Ming Jing), which was comprised of nearly one million words. Dao An took this sutra into the fields and as before, read it during his rest periods. In the evening, he took the text back, and was able to recite it exactly, word for word in front of the master. The master was greatly surprised and impressed. From that day onwards, he held Dao An in high regard and respected him greatly. At 24 years of age, Dao An went to Ye Dou (邺都) – which is today situated in Lin Zhang County (临漳县 – Lin Zhang County), Hebei province – where he studied Buddhism for just over 20 years. At the age of 45, Dao An was appointed the abbot (主持 – Zu Chi) of the temple at Ye Dou. The Chinese monks at Ye Dou held the eminent Indian Buddhist monk named Fu Fu Cheng (佛图澄), in high regard, and considered him their teacher. This Indian monk was considered a fully enlightened Buddha. When Fu Fu Cheng taught the Dharma, he requested that Dao An assist him as a teacher. The monks saw Dao An’s physical appearance and thought that he was not impressive enough to teach, and so they put obstacles in his way, questioned his every decision, and refused to listen to his instruction. However, Dao An was unperturbed by this behaviour and continued to teach correctly, and answer questions clearly. In this way Dao An demonstrated that an individual should not be judged by their outer appearance. It was like his true worth was covered by a layer of obscuring paint. Dao An won through perseverance and said:
“A painted follower of the Dao surprises all those who surround him.”
This experience builds a good reputation in the world.’
Book of Rank & Status (书等身 – Shu Deng Shen)
In the year 364, Dao An travelled (with a group of people numbering over 400) to Xiangyang (襄阳). He first stayed at Bai Ma Temple (白马寺 - Bai Ma Si), before he eventually founding the Tan Xi Temple (檀溪寺– Tan Xi Si), where he lived for 15 years. He then travelled to Chang’an (长安)where he lived until his death. In his later life he devoted his time to researching and writing about Buddhism.
During the Han (汉),Wei (魏), and into the time of the Eastern Jin (东晋 – Dong Jin), many Buddhist sutras had been brought from India into China. However, no records were kept regarding the names of those bringing the sutras, or of the time of their arrival. Details were not clear and there had been very little research. Furthermore, the translations into the Chinese language (from Pali and Sanskrit) contained a high number of errors. This situation led Dao An to embark upon a project of compiling notes about the sutras in China, and to examine the teachings contained therein, so that errors could be eradicated and a consistency of Buddhist philosophy established through the development of correct interpretation. His categories of annotation included ‘Prajna Dao Competence’ (般若道行 – Bo Re Dao Xing), ‘Underlying Indication’ (密迹 – Mi Ji), and ‘Peaceful Intelligence’ (安般 – An Ban), etc. Dao An’s categories covered 22 volumes of study books. During his old age in Chang’an, Dao An translated 187 sutras, which amounted to over one millions words. These translations were prefaced with Dao An’s copious notes. The historical records state that Dao An’s collected works was comprised of over 60 large volumes, but that around 40 of these volumes have been lost over time, but that around 20 volumes have survived. Fourteen of the volumes are comprised of prefaces giving various and indepth explanations of various aspects of Buddhist doctrine. Today, this vital work of Dao An is preserved in the 55 volumes of the Japanese collection of Buddhist texts known as the ‘Taisho’ (大正 – Da Zheng), or ‘Great Principal’ – a newly revised collection of Tripitaka texts. Dao An’s role of explaining the meaning of the sutras is a very profound and important contribution to the field of Buddhist philosophy.
He is also accredited within China of developing an ‘All-inclusive Catalogue of Sutras’ (众经目录– Zhong Jing Mu Lu) which recorded for posterity, all the extant sutras in China during the lifetime of Dao An. This has proven to be a very important historical document for those studying the history of Buddhism in China.
To Unify the Surname (统姓氏 – Tong Xing Shi)
Initially, all the Buddhist monastics that lived during the Wei-Jin Period followed the tradition of using their master’s family surname as their own. This meant that even ordained monks and nuns had lay-surnames which all differed from one another. Dao An was of the opinion that Buddhist monastics should only venerate Shakyamuni -释迦牟尼(Shi Jia Mou Ni) – and that the only surname they should use is ‘释’ (Shi). Shi (释)is short for ‘Shakyamuni’ and implies that the Buddhist monastic is a follower of the Buddha. Furthermore, as the Buddha becomes a ‘father-figure’ to the monks and nuns, they are in effect his adoptive ‘sons’ and ‘daughters’. Dao An eventually acquired a copy of the ‘Ekottaragama-sutra’ (增一阿含經 – Zeng Yi A Han Jing), which stated:
‘All rivers and streams flow into the great sea, and then the rivers and streams disappear; All individual human beings flow into the Buddha-gate (佛门 – Fo Men), and all are then called ‘释’(Shi). After this, all individual humans disappear into the same Buddha-essence.’
This is why Dao An adopted the prefix of ‘释’ (Shi) as a surname to be used by all ordained monks and nuns. Since his time all Chinese Buddhist monastics have used the surname ‘释’ (Shi) and have never departed from this tradition.
The Eastern Jin Emperor Xiao Wudi (孝武帝), issued an edict which praised the venerable Dao An and granted to him locally the same salary as that received by a high government official. In Shanxi (山西), together with other organisations, Dao An organised the building of a pagoda (寺塔 – Si Ta), or ‘temple tower’,situated on Mount Tai Xing (太行山– Tai Xing Shan). It is also said that Dao An had the Qing Hua Temple (庆华寺 – Qing Hua Si) - located in Lai Shui County(涞水县 – Lai Shui Xian), in Hebei province – greatly expanded. During its peak of popularity, The Qing Hua Temple possessed three courtyards, one on each of its three levels – the upper, middle, and lower – and its grounds covered an area of nearly one thousand Chinese acres (亩 – Mu). This land contained around 10,000 trees. There were over a thousand smaller temples, each with their own rooms, and it housed several hundreds of monastics. The Qing Hua Temple was the first great temple to be built in the vicinity of Beijing.
Dao An’s Correct Death (道安然而逝 – Dao An Ran Er Shi)
Dao An worshipped Maitreya Bodhisattva (弥勒菩萨 – Mi Le Pu Sa), and by keeping the discipline, he strove for rebirth in the Pure Land (净土– Jing Tu) of Maitreya, situated in the ‘Tusita Divine Sky’ (兜率天 – Dou Lu Tian). It is reported that on the day of his passing, Dao An looked up toward the northwest and saw the clouds part in the sky – and there he beheld a vision of Tusita Divine Sky – dozens of other people also reported this spectacle. In the year 385 CE, on the 8th day, early within the 2nd lunar month, Dao An suddenly said to the congregation:
“It is time for me to go, but you should carry on regardless.”
Dao An then fasted for the day and peacefully left the world. Although he was 74 years old, his body was free from disease, and it seems he achieved his wish of entering the Tusita Divine Sky.
©opyright: Adrian Chan-Wyles (ShiDaDao) 2014.