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Short Biography of Ch’an Master Yongjia Xuanjue [永嘉玄觉] (664-713)
Translators Note: This is an English language translation of the original Chinese language text entitled ‘农历十月十七 六祖嫡传永嘉玄觉大师圆寂纪念日’ or ‘Lunar Calendar, 17th Day of the Tenth Lunar Month, 6th Patriarch Descendant, Great Master Yongjia Xuanjue, Passed Away Memorial Day’. This is not a ‘full’ biography of Master Yongjia – as that already exists in the English language – but it is an interesting supplement containing authentic and verified historical data preserved in the Chinese language archive. By providing as much good quality information as possible, we are keeping alive the memory of Master Xu Yun (1840-1959) and his instruction to Charles Luk to make available as much genuine Dharma-Words as possible in the West. Over the years, as the Dharma-Inheritor of Richard Hunn, I am grateful for my work attracting the attention (and support) of the Government of Mainland China, and various (important) authorities within the Chinese academic community. I am also very grateful to the modern Daoist master – Zhao Ming Wang (of Beijing) - and the eminent Ch’an Buddhist monk Shi Chang Jin (of Taiwan) - both of whom have supported my efforts for years, even when support was thin on the ground. Then, there are my Western students who never seek recognition (in accordance with my instruction), and many others who have shown tremendous kindness, determination and steadfastness in the face of klesa! As Master Yongjia confirms, we must all cultivate the ‘Dao’ and realise its empty essence.
According to the Lunar Calendar of China, the 17th day of the tenth lunar month is considered the date that Ch’an ancestor - Master Yongjia Xuanjue - passed away sat upright in the cross-legged meditation position (in 713 CE). This is the Memorial Day for Master Yongjia Xuanjue, who was a Dharma-Descendant of the 6th Patriarch of Ch’an - Hui Neng (惠能). Master Yongjia was an eminent monk who lived during the Tang Dynasty.
Master Yongjia entered the monkhood when still a youth, but he eventually became a very well respected Ch’an Master in his own right. He was proficient in the study, understanding and application of the wisdom contained in the ‘Classics’, the ‘Commentaries’, and the ‘Treatises’ associated with the development of ancient Chinese civilisation. He was particularly renowned for his understanding and practice of the ‘Tiantai’ (天台) Dharma-Door method of Buddhist meditation.
He settled at the ‘Longxing’ (Dragon Prosper) Temple (龙兴寺 - Long Xing Si), situated in the Wenzhou area of what is now Zhejiang province. Here, he sat within a small rock indentation, and practiced intense (and solitary) Ch’an meditation, deeply studying the ‘Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra’ (维摩诘经 - Wei Mo Ji Jing), until he penetrated and realised the bright and empty ‘mind ground’ (心地 - Xin Di). After many years of practice and teaching, Yongjia was respected as an enlightened Ch’an master. One day, a student of the 6th Patriarch Hui Neng – the disciple known as Xuan Ce (玄策) - visited Yongjia and discovered that his understanding and application of enlightenment accorded with that of Hui Neng, and did not vary whatsoever.
Disciple Xuan Ce arranged for Master Yongjia to travel to personally meet Hui Neng at his temple in the Caoxi (曹溪) area of northern Guangdong province. Hui Neng asked many questions, and Yongjia answered them all to the satisfaction of Hui Neng (who confirmed Yongjia’s enlightenment and understanding). As Yongjia would only stay one night with Hui Neng, he received the name ‘One Stay Sleep’ (一宿觉 - Yi Su Jue), or ‘One Night’s Stay’ in English transliteration. After this incident, Yongjia was widely known as ‘Zhen Jue Da Shi’ (真觉大师), or the ‘Great Master True Enlightenment’. Amongst his many highly respected disciples in the world were ‘Hui Cao’ (惠操), ‘Hui Te’ (惠特), ‘Deng Ci’ (等慈) and ‘Xuan Ji’ (玄寂), etc.
It is recorded that Yongjia passed away on the 17th day of the tenth lunar month, in the year 713 CE. This date is traditionally recorded as the 1st or 2nd year of the reign of the Tang Dynasty Emperor ‘Xuan Zong’ (玄宗), during the Dynastic Era of ‘Xian Tian’ (先天) - which equates to the years 712 CE and 713 CE. However, there is a complication within Chinese language written records, as Yongjia’s death is further recorded as happening during the 2nd year of the following Dynastic Era known as ‘Kai Yuan’ (开元) - that is 714 CE. Master Yongjia therefore, passed on the 17th day of the tenth lunar month in one of the following years - either 712, 713 or 714 CE. Master Yongjia adjusted his robe and sat upright in the cross-legged position, before peacefully passing away. His breathing slowly reduced and then stopped, with Master Yongjia’s body remaining sat upright with no support. He passed away in his 49th year of life (interestingly written as ‘40’ plus ‘9’ [四十有九 - Shi Shi You Jiu] years within the original Chinese language text). Through an edict, Master Yongjia was granted the posthumous Imperial Title of ‘Wu Xiang’ (无相), or ‘Non-Thought’ (such as the condition of a ‘stilled’ and ‘expanded’ mind).
Master Yongjia is renowned for his famous work entitled ‘Realisation of the Way (Dao) Song’ (证道歌 - Zheng Dao Ge) - known as ‘Song of Enlightenment’ in the West (see: Charles Luk). The work of Master Yongjia is recorded in the Ch’an literature and well known in China. The ‘Realisation of the Way (Dao) Song’ is comprised of 247 sentences, and written using 1814 characters (although there is a version containing 267 sentences, and 1817 characters). Abiding by the rules of ancient poetical construct, the ‘Realisation of the Way (Dao) Song’ is comprised of 4 or 6-character sentences arranged in 51 paragraphs. This text flows well and presents the Ch’an teaching in a lucid and fluid style, very similar to the ‘Confidence Mind Inscription’ (信心铭 - Xin Xin Ming), the ‘Gathering Together Contract’ (参同契 - Can Tong Qi) and the ‘Precious Mirror Samadhi’ (宝镜三昧 - Bao Jing San Mei) - all of which are held in high regard by the ‘Ch’an Forest’ (禅林 - Chan Lin) tradition, that is the Vinaya Practicing ‘Ordained’ Ch’an Buddhist monastic community.
©opyright: Adrian Chan-Wyles (ShiDaDao) 2019.