Biography of Buddhist Masters: Master Dao’an (3)

Speaker: Ven. Zhi Tong

Fo Guang Shan Institute of Humanistic Buddhism

I. Introduction

Auspicious greetings! Welcome back to a new episode of English Dharma Services. My name is Zhi Tong, and today I’ll be sharing the final episode on Master Dao’an. For the last two episodes, we learned about Master Dao’an childhood. He was often noted for his dark and unassuming appearance, but once people got to know him, they were astonished by his intellect. Master Dao’an renounced at a young age. Though he began his monastic life with labor work, he very soon received good education from one of the best Buddhist masters. We also learned that Master Dao’an began to have his own monastic community, and how they left the north to avoid the war. Finally, Master Dao’an was able to enjoy 15 years of peace and stability, and this was his most prolific period as he established monastic rules, compiled Buddhist texts, and expounded the Dharma. 

Let us continue with the biography of Master Dao’an.

II. Part 5: Return to the North

When we last saw Master Dao’an, he received news that an army of 100,000 was coming to Xiangyang. Master Dao’an knew the army was coming for him, so did the local ministers. The army was sent by King Fu Jian of the Former Qin dynasty. King Fu Jian was a devout Buddhist. It was interesting to note that a number of the non-Han-Chinese tribes adopted Buddhism as their faith, to the extent that the rulers would make Buddhism the national religion. But it wasn’t just faith in the Buddha that turned the rulers Buddhists. It was also the wisdom and foresight that great Buddhist monastics possessed that made them a valuable asset to the country.  King Fu Jian was such a ruler. Though he was a devout Buddhist, having someone as wise as Master Dao’an would greatly aid him in his political plans. By now, King Fu Jian had the northern territories under his rule. Only the south was left unconquered. If he took over the south, he was very close to being the sole ruler of the land of China. Hence, by sending troops to the southern city of Xiangyang, King Fujian was taking his first steps in conquering the south, as well as obtaining an asset for his court.

Who knew that peace was so short-lived? Fifteen years was but a blink of an eye as Master Dao’an stood on the brink of yet another war. This time, the choice of leaving was not possible. King Fu Jian’s target was him, and if he were to leave, the city of Xiangyang would be filled with blood, and he could not let that happen. The city governors, too, had the same idea. Master Dao’an was now their only hope, so they put him under arrest and forbade him to leave the temple.

If anyone were to emerge from this war alive, it would be Master Dao’an. But the fates of others were not so certain. Once again, Master Dao’an gathered his disciples.

“The time has come for us to part. I must stay here for the people of Xiangyang, and very soon I will be brought to the north. You are not the target of King Fu Jian, and there is yet hope for all of you. I now entrust you the responsibility of passing down the light of the Dharma. May this light never be extinguished.”

The disciples joined their palms and bowed, “We will do as you wish, master.”

To avoid being noticed by the local ministers, Master Dao’an spoke in secret to his disciples, a few at a time, and gave them instruction and advice about the location they should go and the endeavors they should undertake. Slowly, Master Dao’an’s disciples left the city of Xiangyang. Master Huiyuan, too, was one of those disciples that parted with him during this period. As the army of King Fu Jian approached, Master Dao’an’s disciples began their own journeys as Buddhist teachers.

It did not take long for King Fu Jian’s 100,000-strong army to overcome the city of Xiangyang, and within a short period of time, Master Dao’an found himself traveling back to Chang’an, a city he had left twenty years ago. This year, he was 66 years old.

We can only imagine what went through Master Dao’an’s mind when he returned to Chang’an. When he left, the city was ruled by another king. There were battles everywhere, and people were fleeing for their lives. But now, in the span of two decades, the city was lifting itself back to its feet. People were returning to this important city. Life seemed to be slowly returning back to normal. As Master Dao’an headed towards the palace, he was welcomed with the highest respect and honor by King Fu Jian and his court. 

“I sent an army of 100,000 to conquer Xiangyang for one and a half men. You, master, is that one man, and the scholar Xi Zhaochi, is the half. You are the treasure of my court.”

Master Dao’an’s view about the relationship between Buddhism and politics was that without support from the head of state, it would be difficult to propagate the Dharma. King Fu Jian supported many Buddhist endeavors, including a royal translation court. This was the first royal translation court in the history of Chinese Buddhism, and set precedence for future translation courts. The royal patronage greatly boosted the importance of Buddhism in the country. Thousands of learned monastics, both domestic and foreign, were gathered in the capital Chang’an to participate in the translation court. Master Dao’an was always eager to meet and receive any foreign monastics that arrived in the city. He valued their insight on different Buddhist doctrines, and was grateful to receive the Buddhist texts that they had brought with them. In total, Master Dao’an’s translation court produced 14 sutras totalling 183 fascicles. 

Though Master Dao’an was not a translator himself, he observed that there are many challenges in translating Buddhist texts, which were written in Indic languages such as Sanskrit, into Chinese. Not only do both languages belong to completely different language stock, they originate from very different philosophical and cultural backgrounds. Master Dao’an’s theory is known as the “Five Losses and Three Difficulties.”

The Five Losses referred to five points in which the meaning of the original was lost through translation, which are:

  1. The word order of the original Indic language has to be reversed in order to conform with Chinese grammar.
  2. Indians preferred simple, unadorned writing, whereas the CHinese were fond of ornate, polished writing. Thus, to please Chinese readers, translators needed to consider the literary style above all, and hence lost the simplicity of the original.
  3. When writers of Indic languages wished to emphasize a point, they repeated a sentence or sentences several times. As this writing style did not appeal to the Chinese, repetitions were deleted in the Chinese translations.
  4. Indic writing often contained sentences within sentences. For instance, it was not unusual to find a long explanatory passage of over a thousand characters introduced into the middle of a sentence so that the original point was obscured. Such interpolations were generally deleted in Chinese translations, hence the complex meaning of the Indic original was lost.
  5. In Indic writing, even after a point had been fully explained, the explanation were often repeated in a subsequent passage. These repetitions, too, were all deleted in the Chinese translations.

The Three Difficulties referred to things that were not easy to accomplish in translating:

  1. The first difficulty in translating Buddhist text is translators had to translate graceful and highly inflected ancient Sanskrit into plain, comprehensible Chinese
  2. Although Sanskrit sentences expressed very subtle nuances, in keeping with Indian thought of the Buddha’s time, the Chinese translations had to be clear to contemporary readers.
  3. Even though the sutras were compiled by Five Hundred Arhats during the First Buddhist Council, these sutras were later translated quite carelessly. Therefore, a translator must have a profound understanding in order to truly interpret the sutras.

Knowing that these were the challenges that they faced, Mastre Dao’an knew that they needed the expertise from more Buddhist masters. From the foreign monastics who arrived from the Western Regions, he knew that there was a great monastic by the name of Kumarajiva who was currently in Kucha, a country in the Western Regions. Knowing that King Fu Jian was also eager to gather as many great Buddhist monastics in the court, Master Dao’an informed King Fu Jian of the matter.

“Your majesty, there is a great master in Kucha. His name is Kumarajiva. We are in need for his profound understanding of the Dharma.”

King Fu Jian was not only pleased to hear about Master Kumarajiva, he thought that this was also an opportunity to expand his rule over China by extending the borders. Very quickly, he dispatched his trusted general, Lu Guang, and an army of 70,000 men to the Western Regions to bring Kumarajiva to China. Did they succeed in bringing Master Kumarajiva to China? You can learn more about this part of Buddhist history in the video on the Biography of Master Kumarajiva. But for now, I will leave this part of the story as it is.

III. Part 6: A Vow to Tusita Heaven

During this period, a sutra depicting a world that transcends all earthly suffering and a promise of the arrival of a future buddha was translated. It was a sutra about Maitreya Bodhisattva, the next buddha-to-be. Maitreya Bodhisattva is currently residing and teaching in Tusita Heaven, where he will continue to reside until the time is ripe for him to attain buddhahood. Hence, sentient beings can vow to be reborn in Tusita Heaven to learn from Maitreya Bodhisattva. Master Dao’an was the first person to promote Pure Land practice in China, and the Maitreya Pure Land preceded Amitabha Pure Land, which was promoted by Master Dao’an’s disciple, Huiyuan.

As he grew older, Master Dao’an turned his focus to his personal cultivation. One day, a strange foreign monastic came to the temple. When Master Dao’an asked for his reason for coming, the foreign monk answered, “I’m here for you!”

Master Dao’an knew it was his time. “I am afflicted with karmic obstructions. How can I be liberated?”

The monk answered, “You can be liberated in an instant when the time is ripe.”

Master Dao’an asked again, “Where will I go in the future?”

The monk gestured to the heavens. The clouds parted, and the magnificent Tusita Heaven appeared. Not only Master Dao’an saw it, but the monastics around him saw it too.

“I am ready,” said Master Dao’an. He turned to the monastics. “It is time for me to go, but you should carry on regardless.”

Master Dao’an then fasted for the day and peacefully left the world. Although he was 74 years old, his body was free from illness, and it seems he achieved his wish of entering the Tusita Heaven.

IV. Conclusion

In a time when Buddhism was still a new religion, Master Dao’an integrated Indian Buddhism with Chinese culture. His actions of establishing monastic code of conduct, building monastic communities, determining the surname of Buddhist monastics gave structure and system to Chinese Buddhism. Furthermore, the    clarified seemingly contradictory and complex Indian Buddhist doctrines to the Chinese. Additionally, his tireless contribution to propagating the Dharma and his selfless learning support and teaching for all Buddhist monastics ensured the continuity of Buddhism despite all the external challenges and wars that were occurring.

Master Dao’an’s contributions to Buddhism lasted even until this day. Without him, Chinese Buddhism might be very different from what we know. Today, it is very easy for us to access Buddhist texts via printed books and online resources, but sometimes we do not realize the efforts that generations of Buddhist masters have given to pass these texts to posterity. The stories of these great Buddhist masters should not be forgotten, and may we aspire to have their wisdom, compassion, and strength!

Thank you for listening to this episode of English Dharma Service. Omitofo.