Biography of Buddhist Masters: Master Huiyuan (2)

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, I gave an introduction on Master Huiyuan, the first patriarch of the Pure Land School. Let us continue with his story.

Last week, we followed Master Huiyuan from his childhood to renunciation, and to the twenty-year period which he learned and practiced from his teacher, Master Dao’an. It was a very complicated and disastrous time, as many people tried to stake a claim over the land by waging wars against one another. Master Huiyuan had to flee from one kingdom to the next with his teacher and fellow monastic brothers, trying to find a safe place to settle down. Though they spent a relatively peaceful 15-year in the city of Xiangyang, they had no choice but to flee again when King Fu Jian of Former Qin decided to capture the city. Master Huiyuan bade his teacher farewell, and made his way down south, where he finally settled in Mount Lu. Here we shall begin the second part of our story.

II. Part 4: A Sangha in the South

When Master Huiyuan first scaled Mount Lu, he was not without any help, for one of his Dharma brothers had already established a temple, but the temple was too small and soon enough, the community that was gathered there quickly outgrew the capacity of the temple, and Master Huiyuan began to build a second and larger temple, called Donglin Temple, which you could still visit today.

Now, instead of being the student, Master Huiyan had become the teacher. He had to guide the increasing number of monastics that were gathered there, some were his Dharma brothers that had come with him from Xiangyang, some heard of his name and reputation and decided to take refuge under him. The new temple was quickly built and equipped with all the necessities suitable for a monastic community, which include a main shrine with a grand statue of the Amitabha Buddha, halls for lectures and learning, accommodations and kitchens.

Master Huiyuan set an example by leading the community to morning and evening chantings, studying the sutras, and writing commentaries on Buddhist texts that he came across. He followed the guide of his teacher, Master Dao’an, closely. Though Master Dao’an himself was not a translator, he was a great supporter of Buddhist text translations. He was always eager to meet any foreign monastics, provided for their necessities, entreated them to share the sutras that they had brought over, engaged in doctrinal discussions, and supported their translation projects. Master Dao’an hoped nothing more than to propagate Buddhism and ensure a hopeful future for all Buddhists.

Master Huiyuan followed after his teacher. Just as Master Dao’an, Master Huiyuan was not a translator. But he understood the importance of searching for more Buddhist texts and translating them in Chinese. To obtain Buddhist texts, Huiyuan sent his best disciples to India. Their travel took fourteen years, and they brought back two hundred scrolls of Sanskrit Buddhist texts to be translated. Such a journey had been undertaken by many Buddhist disciples, and most famously Master Xuanzang, who would follow after their footsteps two hundred years later.

Master Huiyuan was also concerned about any foregin Buddhist monastics who had traveled to China. Though he did not personally meet each of them, he bade his disciples to meet them, and maintained a steady correspondence with these foreign masters.

The most famous of these correspondence was between Master Huiyuan and Master Kumarajiva. After many years of waiting, Master Kumarajiva finally arrived to China. Master Huiyuan knew of Master Kumarajiva for a long time, for it was his teacher Master Dao’an who first wished to invite Master Kumarajiva to China. But alas, political changes prevented the two masters from ever meeting, for when Kumarajiva finally arrived in China, Master Dao’an had passed away for 16 years. But Master Huiyuan remembered his teacher’s wish. He sent his disciple to pay respect to Master Kumarajiva on behalf of him, and maintained steady correspondence with Master Kumarajiva until the latter’s death.

Master Kumarajiva began his distinguished translation court up north, as well as leading a monastic community, which mirrored what Master Huiyuan was doing in the south. Though the two masters were in different kingdoms, their shared concern for Buddhism united them. Master Huiyuan would write to ask questions about Buddhist doctrine to Master Kumarajiva, to which he would reply in kind. Their correspondence was recorded and available even today, in the book titled Essay on the System of Mahāyāna ( 大乘大義章 ). Furthermore, whenever Master Kumarajiva finished the translation of a Buddhist text, it would be sent to Master Huiyuan, who might write an introductory preface or a guide of the text.

Though the two masters never met in person, their legacy in shaping the future of Chinese Buddhism were equally significant.

Another great foreign monastic which Master Huiyuan respected was Master Buddhabhadra. Master Buddhabhadra came from India, and was actually a descendent of the Sakya family. He first spent some time in the north, where Master Kumarajiva was, but found himself unsuited to the place. When Master Huiyuan knew of this matter, he immediately dispatched his disciples to invite Master Buddhabhadra to Mount Lu, where Master Buddhabhadra spent several years translating texts on Chan meditation.

Master Huiyuan did not only focus on his own monastic community in Mount Lu. He shared equal care and concern for all affairs that were happening in the Buddhist world. Though he never broke his promise by stepping out of Mount Lu, he sent his disciples to meet and pay respect to these great foreign Buddhist masters, and provided help whenever it was needed. More especially, Master Huiyuan encouraged and entreated them to share their wisdom and knowledge on Buddhism, no matter if it was in the form of reciting the text they memorized, doing text translation, or teaching about the Dharma. Master Huiyuan was eager to learn from all these Buddhist masters, and he himself was also honored with the title, “Dharma Protector Bodhisattva of the East” by Master Kumarajiva.

III. Part 5: Standing Up for Buddhism

As Master Huiyuan’s fame and reputation grew, it reached even to the ears of the government and ruling powers. Some of them paid him a visit, but to show his neutrality, Master Huiyuan would report that he had taken ill and was unable to travel down the mountain to meet them. Should the government ministers travel up the mountain to pay him a visit, Master Huiyuan would greet them cordially, and answer their inquiries with Dharma. Sometimes, he even had to meet with ministers from opposing kingdoms. The external political situation was not something that Master Huiyuan wished to influence, or could influence. He only thought of the people who had suffered for years and years, people who feared for their lives every day, people who had lost everything to the wars. He only hoped he could provide a little Dharma wisdom to these ministers for the betterment of the people, regardless of where they came from.

Another important incident that happened was the discussion if monastics should uphold the Confucian practice of paying respect to the king. 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.  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. They criticized this serious matter of respecting the royal personage to the king himself.  Consequently, they proposed that matters concerning Buddhist ritual, etiquette, clothing, manner of making a living, the Buddhist relationship with the ruler of the State, the use of the Buddha image, should be thoroughly examined through an official investigation.

In response to these criticisms, Master Huiyuan wrote two special explanatory texts which were entitled the Treatise on Buddhist Monks In Not Revering the King (沙门不敬王者论), as a means to present the correct Buddhist view on these matters.  Hui Yuan defined two categories of Buddhist behavior. First, lay devotees. Though lay devotees follow the Dharma at home, they must still comply with the social ethics which they are part of, and pay respect to the king, and wear the same clothing as everyone else.

Secondly, monastics. Monastics are not interested, and therefore not engaged with secular life. As monastics seek liberation through non-attachment, worshiping and respecting a ruling monarch will indicate an attachment to the world, which goes against the Buddhist monastic code of conduct. Master Huiyuan further explained that this does not mean monastics have no respect for the monarchy, in fact, through strict personal discipline, monastics assist the king in keeping law and order in society by setting a good example. 

Master Huiyuan’s wholehearted response earned respect from both the king and his ministers. Though the government did conduct a thorough examination of Buddhist temples to ensure that the monastics were living according to Buddhist code of conduct, Mount Lu was not on their list as they were convinced by Master Huiyuan’s disciplined life and his strict leadership of Donglin Temple.

IV. Part 6: Establishing the Lotus Society

Master Huiyuan’s wisdom and compassion was not only honored by the Buddhist community and the government, it was also heard of and felt by scholars and literati. Learned men would travel up to Mount Lu and engage in scholarly, philosophical, and religious discourses with Master Huiyuan, and found that the master’s Dharma words had eased them of their worries in which constant wars had brought on. Some of the scholars even became Buddhists and took refuge under the guidance of Master Huiyuan.

Master Huiyuan’s concern for Buddhist affairs enabled him to have access to many Buddhist texts, even newly translated texts by contemporary Buddhist translators. His mastery of Buddhist doctrine was not only limited to the sutras, but also to the vinaya, which are the precepts which the Buddha had established, and the commentaries as well.

Master Huiyuan was particularly taken by the teachings about the Pure Land. The ideas of rebirth and three time periods are fundamental teachings of Buddhism. The Buddha taught that causes and effects stretch across the span of past, present, and future. What one did in the past will affect the present. Similarly, what one does in the present will affect one’s future. In this unending cycle of samsara, all beings are stuck in the continuous suffering of birth and death. How can we be liberated from this cycle?

In the Amitabha Sutra, the Buddha taught that if one single-mindedly contemplates on and chants the name of Buddha, then one could be reborn in the Western Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss. The Western Pure Land is devoid of any suffering. The environment is beautiful and clean, and the people, mindful of the Triple Gem, diligently cultivate good karma. 

If we think about the time of Master Huiyuan, it was indeed full of suffering and pain. It was understandable how many people discover support and hope in the pure land practice. 

One of the most important contributions of Master Huiyuan to Chinese Buddhism was establishing the Lotus Society. He gathered a company of 123 people, monastic and laity alike, stood before the image of Amitabha Buddha, and vowed to be reborn in the Western Pure Land. This was the first time in the history of Chinese Buddhism that a group of Buddhists devoted themselves to Pure Land practices, and it paved the way for the establishment of the Pure Land School and popularized Pure Land ideas and cultivation for the future. Even today, the pure land practice of reciting Amitabha Buddha’s name is considered the most popular Buddhist cultivation, besides Chan meditation.

Towards the end of his life, Master Huiyuan remained faithful to the Buddhist precepts and diligently focused on Amitabha Buddha. It was recorded that his disciples urged him to take some honey to replenish his sick body, but Master Huiyuan refused unless they could find evidence in the vinaya that honey is permissible by the Buddha. He passed away before they could find evidence.

V. Conclusion

Master Huiyuan was an extraordinary Buddhist master. Born in a time of adversary, he found his purpose in being a Buddhist monastic. Through diligent and consistent effort, Master Huiyuan rose from a student to a teacher, and ultimately as leader. He was extremely concerned with all Buddhist affairs, and supported all Buddhist endeavors, especially translations, so that people could have access to more Buddhist material. Furthermore, his contributions to Pure Land philosophy and practice influenced the course of Chinese Buddhism, and was posthumously honored as the first patriarch of Pure Land School.

That’s all I have to share about Master Huiyuan. I hope you find Master Huiyuan’s life as inspiring and motivating as I have. Learning and reading about the life of eminent Buddhist monks show us what we can do as Buddhists, and to remember that it was because of these masters that the wonderful teachings of the Buddha are still accessible to us.

Happy holidays! May the Buddha shine light upon you and your loved ones in this holiday season, and may you be safe and well. Omitofo.