Biography of Buddhist Masters: Master Huiyuan (1)

Speaker: Ven. Zhi Tong

Fo Guang Shan Institute of Humanistic Buddhism

I. Introduction

Auspicious greetings to all! Welcome to a new episode of Fo Guang Shan English Dharma Services. I am Zhi Tong. Last week, we heard about Amitabha Buddha from Venerable Miao Hsi. She explains in detail about the Amitabha Sutra, the Western Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss, and how we can cultivate pure land practice. Today, I would like to share the biography of Master Huiyuan. He is considered as the first Buddhist master to popularize Pure Land practice in China, and was posthumously honored as the first patriarch of the Pure Land School. Master Huiyuan was the disciple of Master Dao’an and contemporary of Master Kumarajiva, whom I have both discussed in previous Dharma talks. In this mini series, let us journey on a lotus flower and down Master Huiyuan’s extraordinary life.

II. Part 1: Birth and Renunciation

Master Huiyuan was born in the Jia family around A.D. 334, in Yanmen Commandery (which is present day Shanxi, the north of Mainland China). He came from a noble Confucian family, and was well-educated from a young age. When he was thirteen, his uncle brought him along to the city of Luoyang, where he had the opportunity to meet and learn from renowned scholars and literati. Such an experience enhanced his mind and education, and before long he mastered all the classics, including the philosophy of Zhuangzi, and gained a reputation.

At the age of 21, Huiyuan and his brother, Huichi, both decided to study under an eminent Confucian scholar in Jiangdong, but they were met with challenges in every direction due to internal political unrest and external invasions, halting most transportation means. The brothers were at a loss on what to do. What would become of their future? Is there still a possibility to improve themselves and perhaps secure a means of living for the future? The battles and cries of pain and suffering did not paint a promising tomorrow.

One day, the brothers chanced upon the news that there was a renowned Buddhist monastic by the name of Dao’an who had established a temple and held regular Dharma lectures. The brothers decided to pay Master Dao’an a visit, and traveled eastwards, despite not knowing anything about Buddhism. After their arrival at Master Dao’an’s temple, the brothers were welcomed to attend the Dharma lecture, which was on the Prajnaparamita Sutra. As Huiyuan sat listening, wonder rose within him. Never in his life has he ever heard such ideas! The concepts of form and emptiness were completely foreign to him, yet he understood it. He could perceive that this was a level of wisdom that was not found in his classical studies. Huiyuan thought to himself, “After listening to the teachings of the Buddha, I now know that the thoughts of Confucian and Daoism are but shells and husks!” Almost immediately, Huiyuan and his brother, Huichi, renounced as Buddhist monastics under Master Dao’an.

III. Part 2: Learning under Master Dao’an

Life was extremely difficult. People were struggling with limited food and material supplies caused by the unrest. The monastic community of Master Dao’an fared no better, especially Huiyuan and Huichi, given that they had just become part of the community. They barely even had clothes to help them through winter. Despite this, the brothers made no excuses and continued their studies diligently. This touched their fellow monastic brothers, some even spared them some money to buy candles, so that the brothers could learn at night.

Huiyuan has shown extraordinary intellect and insight since a young age. Combined with his diligent nature, he was able to quickly master the Buddhist teachings which his teacher expounded, and received recognition among his monastic companions. At the young age of twenty-four, just three years after renouncing, Master Dao’an asked Huiyuan to expound the Nirvana Sutra on behalf of him.

Despite Huiyuan’s mastery in the subject matter, the foreign concepts expounded in the sutra confused his audience. Though by this time Buddhism has been slowly spreading in China for about three centuries, the many doctrines of Buddhism were only trickling in to depending on the arrival and translation of new Buddhist texts. Therefore, a lot of Buddhist concepts, such as emptiness and buddha nature, are still very abstract and foreign to most people. Huiyuan found himself questioned by his audience on such doctrines. But no matter how hard he tried to explain these concepts, it did not click with the people.

Huiyuan pondered the new ways he could explain these Buddhist concepts. He drew on his own experience and background—suddenly, it occurred to him that he could use his knowledge of the philosophy of Zhuangzi as a means of explanation. Huiyuan did, and it clicked with his audience.

Master Dao’an was quite impressed with Huiyuan’s creative use of Chinese philosophy to explain Buddhist doctrine. He gave Huiyuan special permission to continue studying secular books as it aided Dharma propagation.

A few years later, when Huiyuan was about twenty-six years old, not only was the country pulled apart by continuous internal and external unrests, a long period of drought brought about locust plagues, causing widespread famine. Pushed to the brink, Master Dao’an had no choice but to take the entire monastic community with him to travel down south in search of a better location to stay. Thus began a period of eight years of wandering from place to place of 500 monastics. 

Though not much was said about this period, one can imagine how difficult it must be. The community had to choose the safest route to go, and avoid cities that were undergoing battle. But what was more difficult was the pain and suffering that the country was going through. Hunger and death was found in every corner, and people lost their possessions, homes, and family members.

Finally, after eight years of moving from one place to another, the community settled southwards in the city of Xiangyang, in the kingdom of Eastern Jin. As most of the battles were happening up north, and the southern part of China was experiencing relative peace. It was here that Master Dao’an and his disciples stayed in Tanxi Temple, and began the work on collecting Buddhist sutras, indexing the texts, and writing commentaries about it.

Furthermore, Master Dao’an began to establish monastic rules and regulations. In the past there had not been such a large-scale gathering of monastics before. As the culture and way of living in China was different from that of India, Master Dao’an knew that rules should be established to ensure that Buddhist monastics can come together and become a more cohesive, structured, and harmonious community. Such a community would be a great force in propagating the Dharma and ensure the continuity of Buddhism in China.

IV. Part 3: Departing to Mount Lu

Huiyuan stayed in Xiangyang with Master Dao’an for 15 years. He stayed by his teacher’s side throughout all these endeavors. From a bright young man, Huiyuan learned and matured into a wise monastic in the prime of his life. However, the reality of life is that everything changes. Or, in Buddhist terms, everything is impermanent. The 15-year of relative peace was broken when the community received news that the king Fu Jian of Former Qin intended to battle southwards with the intention of capturing the city of Xiangyang. To be more specific, King Fu Jian wished to have Master Dao’an in his royal court. Despite the turmoil that surrounded the country, Master Dao’an’s reputation had spread far and wide. His wisdom and insight would be invaluable for kings and warlords that sought to amass power. But King Fu Jian was not only looking to conquer, as a devout Buddhist, he sincerely wished to have a great Buddhist master such as Dao’an as a spiritual guidance.

The army general in charge of Xiangyang placed Master Dao’an under arrest. The general knew that if there was a chance that the city could hold, it depended on Master Dao’an. Master Dao’an knew he could not leave. Hence, he approached his disciples in small groups, and ordered them to flee Xiangyang.

Huiyuan was ignorant about this. He only saw that Master Dao’an called upon other monastics and gave them instructions, and the monastics in turn would pack and leave. Day by day, his teacher did not call upon him. Huiyuan began to feel a little desperate. What was his teacher’s wish for him? What hope or mission does his teacher place in him?

Finally, Huiyuan went to his teacher and knelt before him.

“O teacher, we are facing imminent separation. You have given words to your other disciples, but have yet to call upon me. Please tell me master, what words of wisdom, what wishes do you have for me?”

Master Dao’an smiled and said simply, “I have no worries for you.”

Huiyuan bowed in gratitude. He fully understood his teacher’s intention. Though no one was willing to part with Master Dao’an, they knew that it was more important for them to survive and continue to teach and spread Buddhism.

Huiyuan and his brother, Huichi, along with the other monastics, bade farewell to Master Dao’an with a full heart. They knew that this would be the last time that they would see their master again.

Huiyuan, Huichi, and a few other monastics traveled further south, where the reaches of battles were yet to be felt. Huiyuan wished to find a suitable place to settle for Buddhist endeavors and apart from political turmoils.

Their travel eventually brought them to the foot of Mount Lu. The area was fertile, the mountains provided seclusion as well as nourishments, the weather was comfortable year-round. It was the perfect place to settle down.

As Huiyuan climbed into the mountain, he searched for a suitable spot to construct a temple. Water was essential, not just for construction, but also for all the monastics that will be living in this place. He took his staff and proclaimed, 

“If this is the place where I should build my temple, when I strike the ground, water will come flowing.”

He raised his staff and brought it to the ground, immediately, spring water came rushing forward, an auspicious sign that Mount Lu was the place for Huiyuan.

Soon afterwards, with the help from many people, the famous Donglin Temple was constructed, and you can still visit it today on top of Mount Lu, in Jiangxi Province. From then on, Huiyuan made a solemn vow.

“I vow to never step foot beyond Mount Lu.”

V. Conclusion

How does Master Huiyuan propagate the Dharma without leaving Mount Lu? Who would come and visit him? What other contributions did Huiyuan made towards Buddhism? What are his connections with the Pure Land School? Find out more on next week’s Dharma talk!

Thank you for listening! May you find joy and inspiration in the Dharma. Omitofo.