Biography of Buddhist Masters: Master Dao’an (2)

Speaker: Ven. Zhi Tong

Fo Guang Shan Institute of Humanistic Buddhism

I. Introduction

Auspicious greetings! I hope you are all doing well. Welcome back to another episode of English Dharma Services. Today, I will continue with the biography of Master Dao’an. Last week, we talked about the birth and renunciation of Master Dao’an, his study under Master Fotucheng, who was one of the greatest Buddhist masters. We leave Master Dao’an in the thick of war, where he was planning to move south with his 500 disciples to seek a safer place.

II. Part 3: Spreading the Dharma Light

Can a single light illuminate a cavernous abyss? Can a person find order in chaos? 

One can only imagine what it was like for Master Dao’an and his disciples as they traveled through the war-torn land. Perhaps they saw empty houses, burning fields, and dying people. Perhaps they had nothing to eat or drink. Perhaps some of them got sick on the road and never recovered. But despite the grave and hopeless situation, Master Dao’an never gave up. Even in his travels, he engaged in Buddhist discussions with his acquaintances and students, he thought about how to propagate Buddhism and prevent the light of Dharma from extinguishing. Perhaps it was precisely this great adversity that Master Dao’an understood that the Buddha-Dharma is more important than ever. The Dharma is the light that will bring hope to a demoralized society.

Master Dao’an looked at his disciples. Many of them were highly accomplished in their Buddhist studies and cultivation. For example, Huiyuan, a diligent and wise disciple qualified to lecture on the Dharma before he was 30. There were many more, all of them courageous, all of them diligent  and compassionate. Master Dao’an knew the time was ready. He gathered his disciples around him, 

“My Dharma companions, this is the time when the people need the Dharma more than ever. Society is broken, and people are living in fear. We must comfort them with the compassionate teaching of the Buddha, and we must bring stability and harmony back to society. So, it is my wish that you will spread the light of the Dharma in this land, and alleviate the suffering of those who cross your path.”

His disciples cannot believe their ears. Did it mean that they had to  leave their master and go on their ways?

“But master, we are not ready!”

“Master, we need your guidance and wisdom,” the disciples exclaimed.

“Master, it is safer if we travel with you.”

Master Dao’an looked at the disciples. “To live or to die is not a great matter. The Dharma is the great matter. How can we bear to see the light of the Dharma extinguished? How can we bear to see people suffering around us? We may not be able to change the situation, but we adapt to it the best that we can. Think of the Triple Gem, and not of ourselves. Think of Buddhism.”

The disciples lowered their heads. They understood their master’s mission. They knew how important it was to keep the light of the Dharma burning. If they were to refuse, then they would be ashamed of themselves as Dao’an’s disciples. One after another, the disciples vowed,

“Yes, master. We will shoulder this responsibility and continue to propagate the Dharma.”

Master Dao’an smiled as tears formed in his eyes. “I have great hopes for you,” he said to them. He directed one group of disciples to travel southwest to Sichuan and another to travel southeast to Yangzhou. The chosen disciples wasted no time preparing for their journey. Before they departed, they knelt and prostrated to their master.

“Oh master, we will follow your advice and propagate the Dharma. We might not meet again after our parting today, please stay safe, and may good affinities reunite us one day!”

III. Part 4: Fifteen Years in Xiangyang

It was in the city of Xiangyang that Master Dao’an and his disciples finally found a place to settle down after eight unstable years. The southern kingdom of Jin, also known as the Eastern Jin dynasty, was enjoying a relatively stable time compared to the north, where the five non-Han-Chinese tribes were fighting to claim sovereignty. It was here in Xiangyang that Master Dao’an truly began his greatest contributions that shaped Chinese Buddhism.

Though Master Dao’an previously spent time in the north, he was already well-known in the south. Not only did Buddhists travel to meet and learn from him, but ministers and literati also visited him to engage in Buddhist and philosophical discussions. Buddhism at this time was a faith of the learned.

However, the most important issue right now was to settle the disciples by building a monastic community. After years of moving from one place to another, establishing an order in the monastic disciples can follow will aid them in their cultivation and studies. But Master Dao’an was met with quite a serious issue. Texts on Buddhist rules and regulations, also known as the Vinaya, were insufficient. There was not much textual material that Master Dao’an and his disciples could abide by. How could he guide his disciples in cultivating with discipline? 

Buddhist cultivation centers on the Threefold Training, which are morality, meditative concentration, and wisdom. The first, the training in moral discipline, restrains unwholesome bodily and verbal activity and thus prevents defilements from reaching the stage of transgression. Without proper training in moral discipline, one cannot advance to the next steps of Buddhist practice. Hence, it was vital for Master Dao’an to set a code of conduct for his disciples so that they could rely on it for their Buddhist practice.

With what material he could amass, Master Dao’an began to establish a set of monastic codes of conduct himself so that order could be brought to every aspect of monastic life. The code of conduct became a model for other Buddhist communities in the future.

When life gained stability, Master Dao’an turned his focus toward Buddhist literature. Since the Han dynasty 300 years ago, many Buddhist sutras have been brought from India into China, where they were translated into Chinese by foreign monks working with Daoist and Confucian scholars; neither fully understood the others’ language, and Buddhist concepts were inevitably transcribed into the scholars’ own, familiar Chinese (Daoist) religious framework. The scriptures chosen for translation were on dhyana (meditation) and the prajnaparamita (Perfection of Wisdom), since these seemed closest to Daoist practice, while those on the Vinaya were less popular. Further, there was a mixture of texts from both the southern Indian tradition (Sarvastivadin) and the northern one (Mahayana). The distinction between them and their different approaches to the Dharma was not realized by the Chinese, and at times, their content seemed contradictory.

Furthermore, 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 Sanskrit contained a high number of errors. This situation led Master Dao’an to embark on a project of compiling notes about the sutras in China and examining the teachings contained therein so that errors could be eradicated and consistency of Buddhist philosophy established through the development of correct interpretation. His patient research resulted in the first Chinese Buddhism catalog, titled Zongli Zhongjing Mulu, or the All-inclusive Catalog of Sutras, which recorded for posterity, all the extant sutras in China during the lifetime of Master Dao’an. Though the original catalog is now lost, the majority of the content can be found in another Buddhist text. This has proven to be a very important historical document for those studying the history of Buddhism in China. 

Master Dao’an’s mastery of Buddhist texts allowed him to have a profound understanding of the Dharma. He would hold Dharma lectures regularly, especially sutras related to prajnaparamita, or the Perfection of wisdom. Scholars and literati would also visit him to discuss the doctrine of emptiness as explained in the prajnaparamita sutras. For Master Dao’an, all arising phenomena are ‘empty’ of any essential substantiality, and enlightenment is achieved by a mind that has realized this fundamental state of ‘non-being’.

Another important contribution of Master Dao’an was standardizing the surname of all Buddhist monastics. Buddhist monastics kept the naming tradition of Chinese culture of having the first character as the surname and the following characters are given names. Hence, many non-Chinese monastics were known by their Chinese names instead of their Indian names. The disciples of these non-Chinese monastics took their master’s surname upon renunciation, and this resulted in the ordained monastics having different surnames. For example, if a master is from India, his Chinese surname is Zhu, as India was known as Tianzhu in China. If the master is from the Kushan Empire, his surname was Zhi. If from Sogdiana, then Kang. 

Master Dao’an felt that the greatest of all Buddhist masters is the founder himself, Sakyamuni Buddha, and all Buddhist monastics are the Buddha’s disciples. Furthermore, the difference in the Buddhist surnames caused rife in the Buddhist community. Instead, all Buddhists should come together as one, and there should be no difference between one Buddhist monastic from another. Hence, Master Dao’an proposed that all Buddhist monastics should use the surname “Shi,” which is the first character of “Sakyamuni Buddha.” His decision was unanimously adopted by the Buddhist community and continued until this day, where all Chinese Buddhist monastics carry this surname, but Vietnamese monastics as well. This tradition can also be found in Korean and Japanese Buddhism.

IV. Conclusion

Master Dao’an established order in Buddhist monastic communities and united them with the standardization of monastic surnames. He has also collected Buddhist texts and after making careful annotations, cataloged them for posterity. Additionally, his teaching of the Dharma to both monastic and lay Buddhists ensured the continuity of Buddhism in China. Without Master Dao’an, it is difficult to say what Chinese Buddhism would be like today. Master Dao’an’s vision, combined with his compassionate vow, his fearless courage, and his high standard for discipline and morality encouraged Buddhism to take deeper roots in  Chinese culture and philosophy and prepared Buddhism for a glorious future.

Just when everything was progressing prosperously, news came and broke the peace.

“An army of 10,000 is coming to Xiangyang! They are coming for you, Master Dao’an!”

Thank you for tuning in to this episode of English Dharma services! Tune in next week to hear more about the moving story of Master Dao’an. May you find inspiration and joy in the Dharma. Omitofo!