Great Teacher Series @ Theosophy Trust


Have the characters 'birth' and 'death' pasted on your forehead until you come to an understanding of their meaning, for the Lord of Death will surely demand of you a strict account of your life when you have to appear before him. Don't say then, 'I have never been reminded of this'!

Ch'an-kuan t'se-chin CHU-HUNG

By the time the Southern Ch'an school had spread the teachings of Hui-neng across China, the Buddhist tradition had won the irreversible support of the Chinese. Despite persecution in the ninth century, Ch'an Buddhists were generally left alone, in part because they adhered to the Ch'an principle that monks should work for their livelihood, and they often performed tasks shunned by class-conscious society. Whilst the T'ang Dynasty was a kind of golden age for Buddhists, it was also a time when the different schools crystallized and settled into distinct systems of thought and practice. Followers of one school were deeply versed in contrasting standpoints, and though relations between groups and schools were amicable, discourse tended to occur within sectarian parameters. Sometimes doctrinal differences were based on the significance attached to diverse sutras and sometimes on the place given to chanting, meditation and cloistered life.

In addition to the influential Ch'an school, Pure Land schools grew amongst the people. The intense devotional underpinning of the Pure Land school centred on Buddha Amitabha, called in Chinese O-mi-t'o. According to Pure Land teaching, Amitabha enunciated a doctrine and method for that period in time – thought in China to have commenced about 550 C.E. – when buddhadharma, the Teaching of Buddha, would be too lofty and spiritually exact for the less-prepared souls who were incarnating then. If one heard the holy name of Amitabha, seriously dwelt upon him, aroused the thought of Enlightenment and fervently desired to be reborn in his paradise (the western Buddha-land or sukhavati, the 'Happy Locale'), one would indeed find rebirth there. In that joyous region, corresponding to a state of consciousness less oppressed by troubles, temptations and distractions, aspirants would find the rigours of the spiritual path easier to undertake. Fundamental to this standpoint is the belief that Bodhisattvas renounce the merits of their deeds, providing a reservoir of support for those willing to draw upon it. According to Shan-tao, a seventh century advocate of Pure Land views, parinamana, the transfer of beneficence, is made possible when one makes recitation of the name O-mi-t'o the primary act of consciousness, supporting it with meditation and chanting of the sutras.

The Pure Land perspective attracted a number of erudite and thoughtful monks, who saw in it something of the mystery of the occult power of sound and its effect on consciousness. Right recitation could refine consciousness and elevate it to a more efficacious plane of spirituality. At the same time, the practice enjoined could be followed by lay men and lay women more readily than Ch'an precepts, benefitting them despite a tendency to understand Pure Land thought in salvationist terms. Avalokiteshvara became the chief Bodhisattva in the Pure Land pantheon, and his feminine creative power, embodied in Tibet as the White Tara, was recognized in China as Kwan-Yin, the goddess of mercy. She is so powerful and benevolent a force that she represents the spirit and paradigm of the Bodhisattva path, and the highest expression of the Bodhisattva Vow is sometimes called the Kwan-Yin Pledge.

Never will I seek nor receive private, individual salvation; never will I enter into final peace alone; but forever, and everywhere, will I live and strive to liberate every sentient being from the bonds of conditioned existence.

If Ch'an sought to cut through the complex and subtle delusions that fog the mind, the egotistic heresies of separateness which are reflected in the world in every form of dualism, Pure Land aimed to establish in consciousness the divine resonance that is one with the universal vibration of the Bodhisattvas. Although the practices of both schools are distinctive to the extent of intrinsic incompatibility, their aims are complementary and harmonious. It was only a matter of time before some Buddhists would wonder if they should be amalgamated.

Doubtless, the lay population freely engendered its own fusions of the teachings and practices of the different schools. Events would give an impetus to a far more radical reconstitution of Chinese Buddhist life. Once the sangha, the community of monks, was annexed to the imperial government, monks were separated from the lay community in subtle ways. Though monks often enjoyed tremendous popular support, the monastic establishment was state-supported, and even though most emperors refrained from interference in the sangha, it was not perceived as an institution of the people. By the sixteenth century the incipient tendency to carry Buddhist teaching to the people had flowered into a movement. Hui-neng, the sixth patriarch of Ch'an, had given public lectures, and Ch'an monks wandered across the country working for a living. Even so, monks were still the heart of Chinese Buddhist activity, founding schools and communities, teaching and preaching, and even holding high imperial office. In time the initiative passed from the monastery to the lay community, which became the driving force behind Buddhist thought and life, whilst monks became a special class in a larger movement they could influence but not control. Perhaps the best representative of this new kind of Buddhist community was Chu-hung, who carried buddhavachana, the Word of Buddha, to the common people with enthusiasm and who fully amalgamated Ch'an and Pure Land standpoints.

Chu-hung was born in 1535. He embraced the life of the lay man, married and established a household. When his wife died in 1564, he married again, but after his mother died in 1566 he decided to enter the sangha at the age of thirty-two. He studied under various excellent teachers, including representatives of the T'ien-t'ai school founded by Chih-i, the Hua Yen school which followed the Avatansaka Sutra, and the Ch'an school. Like many monks he travelled in China, and on a sojourn to the south he was overwhelmed by the exquisite beauty of the region around Hang-chou. He built the Yun-ch'i Temple there and made it his abode for the remainder of his life. Although he was instrumental in the popularization of Buddhist teaching, he was a monk who revered the sangha and established a community around his temple.

Chu-hung was deeply versed in the vinaya, the code of conduct for monks. He believed that monastic discipline had remained strong in China until the tenth century, when the immense popularity of Ch'an practice, with its radical rejection of traditional modes and rituals, produced laxity and neglect of sangha rules. In an effort to restore strict adherence to the vinaya in his temple, Chu-hung built separate clusters of cells for young enthusiastic monks, for the elderly and sick, and for itinerant monks and priests. He saw his work as an effort to purify the sangha and return it to an earlier eminence.

Jesuit missionaries had established themselves in China and hoped to win over the country to Catholic Christianity. By the time Chu-hung encountered them, they had identified the Buddhist tradition as the recalcitrant antagonist in their efforts. They produced tracts and pamphlets attacking Buddhist doctrine as absurd. When they dismissively argued that the Fan-wang-ching, or the Sutra of Brahma's Net, taught irrational doctrines, Chu-hung rose to the challenge. He studied the arguments against the sutra and wrote a two-part response, criticizing church doctrine and defending the sutra. He found the Christian conception of Deity amusing, at least in the form Jesuit missionaries disseminated the idea in China at the time. For Chu-hung, the Christian conception of heaven was merely a latter-day version of the Buddhist tushita heaven, the realm from which Buddha descended to teach and heal humanity. Not only were the descriptions of the two heavens similar (and doubtless even more similar in the Jesuit versions than in the sacred texts of both traditions), but also the idea that Jesus as the son of God on earth was parallel to Buddha on earth as the descending aspect of the ever-transcendent Bodhisattva. By identifying the Christian heaven with the tushita realm, the Christian God is located higher than Indra, whose heaven is below that of Buddha but far below Brahma, whose loka contains the highest pantheon. Chu-hung saw no point in giving special attention to a relatively minor divinity.

The missionary challenge to Buddhist tradition centred on claims that the sutras upheld absurd and incoherent doctrines. For example, the Sutra of Brahma's Net teaches that different aspects of one's vestures pass into material Nature when one dies. Since the animal kingdom takes on various elements of human vestures, one should neither kill nor consume animals, because one just might cannibalize one's own ancestors. This idea was ridiculous, the missionaries argued, for if it were true, one should neither marry nor employ as a servant any human being, since one might be marrying or employing one's own parents. Chu-hung replied that the sacred text should not be degraded by being taken in a narrow, literalistic sense. Its point was to bring an end to killing animals for food. Relationships of heredity and sanctified convention did not hold across lives – since immortal souls and divine spirits do not marry or sire offspring – even though karmic entanglements bring souls together again and again. Confucius was wise to affirm that people of the same surname should not marry, and people often consulted diviners to determine whether a marriage might be inappropriate. But, Chu-hung averred, the aim of the sutra is not to sort out relationships across lives; it is to eliminate unnecessary killing. Killing animals is the worst crime, and that is why divination is forbidden in respect to it, though it is permitted in the choice of mates.

Although Chu-hung focussed an enormous amount of energy on cleansing the sangha and bringing monks under the vinaya rules, he was equally dedicated to bringing Buddhist teachings to the general population. Public lectures could do some good, he thought, but eloquent metaphysical and even practical discourses were of limited effectiveness. He searched for a way by which the populace could translate the spirit of buddhadharma into consistent and continuous daily action. Eventually he adapted an idea which another monk, Yuan Liao-fan, had borrowed from Taoist philosophy called the schedule of merits. Yuan Liao-fan taught that people should attempt to do worthy deeds, including setting a good example to others, being respectful and loving, sympathetic and helpful, encouraging others in their spiritual striving, saving others in danger, promoting all forms of charity, renouncing wealth for the sake of others, upholding buddhadharma, revering elders, and being compassionate towards all living beings. Chu-hung took this general framework and gave it specific content.

In his treatise Tzu-chih-lu (Record of Self-knowledge), he classified all deeds as meritorious or demeritorious. Whilst some actions might be of only slight significance, Chu-hung held that no act could be morally and karmically neutral if performed by an unenlightened being. Carefully listing meritorious deeds under four categories, he declared that actions which could not be readily fitted into these classes were demeritorious. For Chu-hung, meritorious deeds were loyal and pious, compassionate and altruistic, or beneficial to the Three Jewels – Buddha, dharma and sangha. The fourth category was a miscellany of obviously good deeds which could not be placed in the first three classes. Having classified deeds, Chu-hung then established a schedule of merits in which each deed, ideally performed without mixed motives, was given a weight of merit relative to all other deeds. Similarly, each demeritorious act was weighted. Taken as a whole, he devised a calculus of merit to guide behaviour.

Chu-hung was aware that his schedule of merits could be made mechanical and ritualistic if people were more concerned to tally merit points than to perform meritorious deeds, and popular Taoist beliefs did colour the calculus. For example, if one's merit and demerit points exactly cancelled out, it was believed that one would die. If one died with an uncompensated number of demerits, this burden would affect one's children. Despite the possibility of serious misunderstanding of the aim of the calculus, Chu-hung thought that his schedule of merits provided a framework for individual guidance and restraint as well as for general social benefit. By itself, the schedule could not nurture one's spiritual clarity and insight, but it could help an individual die with a relatively clean record, if not a brilliant one. Given the endemic inhumanity of his day, his schedule proved to have a practical social benefit in many communities. And where the people have more civil lives, Chu-hung thought, individuals were more likely to turn to truly spiritual concerns.

Just as Chu-hung attended to the sangha, to foreign religious doctrines and to the populace as a whole, he was also concerned with the growing rigidity of the different schools. While ideas and practices were being formulated, there was a great deal of exchange of views between Buddhist schools of thought. By Chu-hung's time, success had exacted its price: monks tended to dispute with one another from the standpoints of their particular schools rather than engage in mutually illuminating dialogue. Drawing upon the ideas of earlier thinkers and his own extensive knowledge of Ch'an, Hua Yen and Pure Land traditions, he spearheaded a movement to harmonize the schools. Combining the devotional fire of nien-fo (recitation of the name of Amitabha) with the inward concentration of Ch'an meditation, he taught that recitation is a form of concentration. This meant that while one repeated the sacred name, one should be concentrating on the ultimate Reality behind the name. For Chu-hung, strictly and philosophically, there is no reality outside the profoundest depths of the mind, and this is why Amitabha has to be realized in consciousness through repetition of the name. Ultimate Reality is absolute Mind, free of desire and illusion. Recitation and meditation are two facets of the purification of consciousness so that it can participate fully in its source.

Since Hua Yen teaching held that the world is a phenomenal creation of the mind, Chu-hung's standpoint embraced this school. The T'ien-t'ai tradition also viewed the world as a result of mental processes and placed great stress on chih-kuan, concentration and insight, and so could be brought under the broad umbrella opened by Chu-hung. He did not attempt to claim that the doctrines of the different schools were somehow the same, for they were not, nor did he insist on uniformity of practice. Rather, he taught that even though doctrines and practices differed, the spiritual aim and meta-psychological stance were identical throughout the schools. Even amongst those who were not inclined to such a magnanimous view, Chu-hung's standpoint was unarguable. He did not seek to regiment the schools, but to elicit that natural mutual appreciation which allows each one to learn from the others. He gave his blessing to a renewed freedom of thought and practice whereby a disciple faithful to one tradition could adopt helpful practices from others. Chu-hung was himself an example of what he advocated, practising nien-fo and Ch'an together. Some historians see him as a Pure Land monk who practised Ch'an meditation, but others see him as a Ch'an master who practised nien-fo. He would have enjoyed the irony of his success.

In addition to his labours to reform the sangha, spread the Teaching, serve the lay population and bring harmony amongst the schools, he somehow found time to write Biographies of the Famous Ch'an Masters of Ming, in which he recounted illuminating and illustrative incidents in the lives of exemplary monks. These were written to help aspiring monks and lay individuals to rededicate themselves to the pursuit of the spiritual path. He also used them to explain the practical meaning of arcane Buddhist concepts without fixing them in some specific doctrinal framework, including numerous examples of the use and effect of the koan, the Ch'an puzzle which defies rational analysis or explanation.

Chu-hung marked a fundamental shift in the Chinese Buddhist world. By spreading Buddhist ideas and practices through the lay population, interest in buddhadharma ceased to lie exclusively with monks. Farmers, merchants and government servants who were trained in the Confucian classics and took up nien-fo and certain forms of meditation became interested in propagating buddhavachana, published sutras and essays, and even contributed their own reflections to the vast reservoir of Buddhist thought. Gradually, the establishment of monks, long a protected wing of Chinese government, became less important as the bastion of the Buddhist tradition, and lay people became the centre of teaching and practice. Buddhadharma was doubtless popularized, but it was also freed from administrative confines, inserting itself into every aspect of Chinese life. By the time Chu-hung died in his beloved temple in 1615, he could see the first fruit of the revolution he initiated, a change in thought and practice that opened the Bodhisattva Path to those who wished to take it up at some level, preparing themselves for future lives of vigorous work.