Huiyuan (334 C.E. - 416 C.E., also spelled Hui-Yuan or Hui-Yüan, Chinese 慧遠) was a prominent early Chinese Buddhist monk who played an important role in adapting Buddhism to Chinese culture. Huiyuan, who had been trained in Taoism and Confucianism before his conversion to Buddhism by the monk Dao An, carried on a correspondence with Kumārajīva, an Indian Buddhist monk who translated a large number of Buddhist Sanskrit texts into Chinese. He attempted to use Taoist thought to explain some of the more esoteric concepts of Buddhism.
His White Lotus sect, which taught that uttering the name of the transcendent Buddha Amitabha in loving adoration securing a heavenly abode in the Western Paradise for one’s spirit after death, was the origin of the Pure Land school which is now the most popular form of Buddhism in East Asia. Huiyuan spent the last thirty years of his life in seclusion at the Tonglin Temple which he founded on Mount Lushan in Jiangxi. His correspondence with Kumārajīva became a famous book, Dialogue in the Tachengtaichang. Huiyuan also wrote the text A Monk Does Not Bow Down Before A King in 404 C.E.. At Huiyuan’s insistence, the ruler of the Eastern Chin dynasty (317–419) exempted Buddhist monks from having to bow before the emperor, on the grounds that they were far removed from ordinary mortals.
Huiyuan was born in Shansi, China in 334 C.E. and died in Hupeh in 416 C.E.. He lived during the Eastern Jin Dynasty. As a child, Huiyuan began studying Zhuangzi and Laozi, and is said to have been a Taoist and a Confucian, converting to Buddhism only after meeting the famous Buddhist monk, Dao An, at the age of 21 in Hebei Province. Huiyuan renounced the world and began a life of wandering with his master Dao An. They were active in Xiangyang until Emperor Xiaowu (r. 372-396 C.E.) took the city in 380 C.E. and asked Dao An to live in Changan. Dao An spent the last years of life translating and interpreting scripture, as well as compiling a catalog of scriptures. He advocated monks and nuns taking “Shi” as a surname, from the Chinese for Sakyamuni (釋迦牟尼佛).
Huiyuan left Dao An and went to southern China, finally settling at the temple in Hubei (湖北) province. Later, he lived at East Forest Temple (東林寺) on Mount Lushan, and for more than 30 years he never descended from the mountain.
Huiyuan’s teachings were various, including the vinaya (戒律), meditation (禪法), abhidharma and Prajna, or wisdom. He was posthumously named First Patriarch of the Pure Land school. His disciples included Huiguan (慧觀), Sengji (僧濟), and Faan (法安).
Huiyuan and his master Dao An were the most prominent early Buddhist priests in China. Neither of them was satisfied with logical Buddhist teachings; together they laid the foundations for the establishment of Pure Land (Ch'ing-t'u) Buddhism, which is now the most popular form of Buddhism in East Asia.
Huiyuan attempted to use native Chinese philosophy, particularly Taoist thought, to explain some of the more esoteric Buddhist concepts. The result was a philosophy that emphasized salvation through faith; uttering the name of the transcendent Buddha Amitabha in loving adoration secured a heavenly abode in the Western Paradise after death. Many lay people, who could not understand logical intellectual teachings, were very attracted to Huiyuan’s teachings about Amitabha. These ideas spread throughout China in the century following Huiyuan's death and challenged Taoism as the major religious inspiration of the Chinese peasantry.
Huiyuan formed a devotional society of monks, the White Lotus sect, which is regarded as the origin of the Pure Land School of Buddhism.
A famous story is told about Huiyuan at the Tonglin Temple: Huiyuan lived in seclusion for thirty years in the Tonglin (East Forest Temple, 東林寺) on Mount Lushan, and never descended from the mountain. In front of the Tonglin Temple was the Huxi Bridge. When his guests were leaving, Huiyuan never accompanied them further than the bridge; if he did, the divine tiger protecting the mount would roar out a warning. Once the poet Tao Yuanming and the Taoist priest Lu Xiujing visited Huiyuan. The three of them got into a heated discussion about Confucianism and Taoism. Huiyuan was still talking as they were leaving. Unthinkingly, he crossed the bridge, and the tiger roared. The three people stopped and laughed.
Tao Yuanming, Lu Xiujing, and Huiyuan lived in different dynasties, but each of them had a connection to Mount Lushan. Tao Yuanming had also lived in seclusion on Mount Lushang and had written a famous poem about it; he represented Confucianism. Lu Xuijing was a famous Taoist priest from the Song dynasty. Huiyuan was the first famous Buddhist monk to originate from the eastern regions of China, and could be said to be the first to adapt Buddhism to Chinese culture. The combination of these three figures represented the conflicts and the synthesis of Confucianism, Pure Land Buddhism, and Taoism.
The story of the Huxi Bridge has been the subject of numerous paintings and poems.
Kumārajīva (鳩摩羅什; b. 344 C.E. – d. 413 C.E.) was a Kuchean Buddhist monk, scholar, and translator, whose father was from an Indian noble family, and whose mother, a Kuchean princess, significantly influenced his early studies. He first studied teachings of the Sarvastivada schools, then studied under Buddhasvāmin at Kashgar, China, and finally, converted by a Mahayanist named Suryasama, became a Mahayāna adherent, studying the Madhyamika doctrine of Nagarjuna. He was captured by Chinese raiders and taken to China, arriving in Chang’an in 401 C.E.. There he won the approval of the imperial family and established a famous school of translators. He is mostly remembered for his prolific translation of Buddhist Sanskrit texts into Chinese during his later life.
Huiyuan wrote several letters to Kumarajiva asking questions about new sutras. The letters he received in reply were collected in Dialogue in the Tachengtaichang. Huiyuan, who had studied Laozi, Zhuangzi, and the I Ching (Book of Changes), could not understand the meaning of Śūnyatā, शून्यता (Sanskrit), generally translated into English as "Emptiness" or "Voidness," a concept of central importance in the teaching of the Buddha. He wrote letters to Kumārajīva asking his questions from a Chinese perspective, and Kumārajīva responded from an Indian point of view. At first the questions and replies seemed to have no relation to each other, but the two persevered in their correspondence, Huiyuan asking questions with utmost sincerity from a religious point of view, and Kumārajīva sincerely responding as a scholar, giving his answers through sutras. In his meditations, Huiyuan could see the figure of Buddha, but he had no confidence, even as founder of the White Lotus sect, that he was seeing the real Buddha. Huiyuan’s greatest concern was whether the new sect was acceptable from Buddha’s point of view, and this is what he wanted to learn from Kumārajīva. The resulting book, Dialogue in the Tachengtaichang, became very famous.
Huan Xuan, a high-ranking official in the Eastern Jin Dynasty, attempted to suppress the spread of Buddhism. Many temples were razed, and large numbers of monks returned to secular life. Huan Xuan respected Huiyuan, however, and carried on a discourse with him through correspondence. He asked many questions, including inquiries about the ethical theories of Buddhists living among the population in the town. When he asked what the attitude of Buddhist monks was towards the lay people, Huiyuan responded that the Buddhist monks wanted to save the lay people. He also asserted that Buddhists were equal to leaders, and could not be dominated, because Buddha, Confucius, and the kings were all talking about the same things. He explained that Buddha, or God, is eternal. Huiyuan sent many letters to Huan Xuan, until he realized that he could not subjugate Huiyuan and finally surrendered. The resulting correspondence became the text, A Monk Does Not Bow Down Before A King (沙門不敬王者論) in 404 C.E..
At Huiyuan’s insistence, the ruler of the Eastern Chin dynasty (317–419) exempted Buddhist monks from having to bow before the emperor, on the grounds that they were far removed from ordinary mortals.
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