8. The Impact of the Nirvana Sutra in China

By Richard B. Mather

Richard B. Mather, “The Impact of the Nirvana Sutra in China,” in Literature of Belief: Sacred Scripture and Religious Experience, ed. Neal E. Lambert (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1981), 155–74.

Chapter 8: The Impact of the Nirvana Sutra in China

Richard B. Mather


One could say that Professor Richard Mather’s interest in China began with his birth, since he was one of the few Americans teaching Asian languages and literature to be born there. He was professor of Chinese at the University of Minnesota and chairman of its Department of East Asian Languages when this was published. He was on leave at the University of California, Berkeley, at the time he delivered this lecture. His modest claim to leave everything past the fifth century AD in “more competent hands” is his own understated description of a lifetime of trailblazing work in those frustratingly puzzling centuries when the foundations of Chinese civilization were laid as they would stand during the rise of the West. Author of numerous articles, monographs, and books, he had most recently published his translation of Shih-Shuo Hsin-Yu: A New Account of the Tales of the World, by Liu I-Ching, with the commentary by Liu Chun when this was published, which set a standard of excellence in format and annotation for scholars dealing with the literature of China’s third through sixth centuries.

In his lecture on the Nirvana Sutra, he beguiles the layman into a microcosmic study of one facet of the enormous jewel of Chinese Buddhism: the impact of a single sutra translated twice near the fifth century A.D. He orients the layman using a comparison with the differences of focus and emphasis, now obscured by time, in the Christian canon of the four Gospels, traces the general outlines of Buddhism’s introduction to and impact on the basically Confucian philosophy of China, and chronicles the Nirvana Sutra’s appeals and shocks, the attacks and the counterattacks that the “new scripture” provoked from the intellectual community of monks and laymen in southern China at a time of great political instability. With one dynasty succeeding another with bewildering rapidity and with China itself divided, it would seem a poor time for theological debates. But as Professor Mather’s unsorting of that tangled argument shows us, when would men have a greater hunger to know the processes of salvation than in just such an epoch?


I want to talk about Buddhism. In fact, this is, I guess, the only paper in the symposium directly devoted to Buddhism; however, my subject is not Indian Buddhism, but Chinese Buddhism—Buddhism as it was apprehended by Chinese intellectuals, especially during the period of its incorporation into Chinese culture from the first century A.D. until about the sixth century. That’s where I stop. It gets so complicated after that that I leave it to more competent hands. I will talk about the influence of one particular Buddhist sutra, the Nirvana Sutra, which reached China about the beginning of the fifth century and is one in a series of very important events in the history of Chinese Buddhism.

Every religious tradition goes through significant shifts as it develops within the historical setting. Some are the result of the natural unfolding of ideas latent within the tradition, and some are reactions to external influences. Thus, to take a familiar example, the Gospel narratives of the life of Jesus in the New Testament, though recording essentially the same events, reveal striking differences in emphasis that reflect internal and external shifts of climate between the first and second centuries when they were written.

First of all, Mark, somewhere in the middle of the first century, aiming to preserve an oral tradition which was in danger of being forgotten, gives us a simple chronicle with a minimum of interpretation. A little later, Matthew, in a limited campaign to convert his fellow Jews in Palestine and the Hellenistic world, attempts to connect the life of Jesus with the Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament, hoping to show that he was indeed the long-expected Messiah of the Jewish people. Still later, Luke wrote an account aimed not so much at the Jews but at a wider audience, the whole Mediterranean world, showing that Jesus was not just the promised king of the Jews, but the Savior of the world whom even the gentiles could call on for forgiveness and help in a troubled world. And finally, John, probably in the second century, wrote an account which transcended even the universal appeal of Luke: Jesus was not only the Savior of mankind but the eternal Word, the Son of God himself, the Alpha and Omega of all existence. Now from our vantage point in the twentieth century, we tend to blend all of these shifts, which were certainly very conspicuous in their own time, into an image which gathers all the points of view, in spite of their contradictions, into one synoptic view. This process naturally blurs differences and minimizes change. Another example of a shift in our own religious tradition that we would all recognize as still traumatic occurred in the sixteenth century with the Protestant Reformation.

In the case of Chinese Buddhism, everyone is already aware of the major shift that had already occurred in India, when the first split of the Mahasanghika sector later developed into the Mahayana. This split is still carried on in contemporary Buddhism. The Theravada traditions of Sinhalese and Southeast Asian Buddhism are still representative of the lonely, arduous quest for enlightenment. The Mahayana tradition, the much more universal and accessible quest for personal salvation through bodhisattvas (saviors), is practiced in most of the communities of northeast Asia. And still further shifts in the Mahayana tradition, especially in China during the first five centuries of the Christian era, continued a logical expansion toward a more universal scope, just as the successive Gospel writers in our own tradition did for the early Church.

The first Buddhist missionaries reached China between about A.D. 50 and 200, which we may take as one era, although there were constant changes then, too. The missionaries elicited their most enthusiastic response when they demonstrated superior medical knowledge and techniques of yoga and breath control because of the parallels with practices in the Taoist tradition. It is therefore no accident that among the earliest translated Buddhist sutras was a treatise on breath control, the Anpanshou-i-Ching Sutra, a manual on meditation and the control of the breath which was translated by a Parthian missionary in the middle of the second century.

A little later, in the third century, the climate of philosophical thought in China was itself shifting, away from a preoccupation with the Confucian classics, and especially philological interpretations of them, toward a mystical reassessment of Confucius. No longer was he seen as the world-oriented teacher but as Confucius the Sage who embodied nonbeing (t’i wu), which was the current expression for a mystical union with the ultimate principle of the universe. The Chinese intellectuals thus began showing an interest in translations of the Prajnaparamita Sutras that were trickling in from India. There were several of those, and the Chinese especially liked the Vimalakirti-nerdesa Sutras, which represented a polemical attack on Hinayana or the Theravada type of Buddhism. These sutras attacked the vulgar realism of the Hinayana and proclaimed the view of the Madhyamika school of Mahayana, then dominant in India, that all the dharmas—all phenomena—are empty, that they lack independent existence, but instead contain emptiness or sunyata itself, sometimes translated as relativity. These sutras thus claimed that sunyata is the principle of all existence, and the Chinese found sunyata identical to what Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu meant when they talked about nonbeing. Consequently, there was a great surge of interest, at least among the intellectuals, in the various translations of the Prajna Sutras. And most of the students of these Prajna Sutras were already heavily influenced by this revived interest in the three basic mystical texts, or San Hsuan as they are called in China, namely the Lao Tzu, the Chuang Tzu, and the I Ching (“Book of Changes”). Thus, prajnaparamita Buddhism in China was really a blend of India’s Madhyamika Buddhism with philosophical Taoism.

But after Dharmaraksha had translated the Lotus Sutra (the Saddharmapundarika) in the late third century, and when its retranslation by Kumarajiva appeared later, the new trend intensified in Chinese Buddhism. This sutra had a tremendous effect and is still the basic sutra of many of the Chinese sects. The Lotus Sutra’s contribution—beyond the Prajnaparamita’s polemical attacks—was the idea that it is not enough just to prefer a universal and compassionate soteriology of the bodhisattva to the selfish and isolated enlightenment of a Sravaka or Pratyeka Buddha. Ultimately there is only one vehicle of salvation, the Buddhayana. It is the eternal Buddha who saves everybody. All the other vehicles are merely instances of what is known as soteriological expedience (upaya), deceptive allurements to entice beings to leave the burning house of samsara; once free of it they realize that their liberation has been effected by the power of the Buddha alone. The introduction of the Lotus Sutra was also the beginning of a more devotional kind of religion which reached its highest expression in the Pure Land sect a century or more later.

Now it is at this point, after the introduction of the Lotus Sutra, that I want to step in for a closer look at what was happening early in the fifth century in the Buddhist community in China, especially among the intellectuals and more especially among the literate laymen in the southern capital. (China at that time was divided into two countries; the southern capital was modern Nanking.) If it is the eternal Buddha in his cosmic aspect, the dharmakaya, who becomes the object of worship, and if mystical union with him becomes the goal of one’s own quest for enlightenment, then the way has been prepared for an even more drastic shift since this Buddha is not localized in time or space but is eternal and omnipresent, existing within every being in embryonic form. There is a kind of seminal buddhanature (the buddhagotra) inside of each person which can become the real self.

Now if you know anything about Buddhism you know that Buddhism was opposed to the very idea of a self. But this new sutra, the Nirvana Sutra, talks about the real self (the chen-wo), in every being. The old negative idea of anatman, which applied only to samsara—to this worldly existence—is now replaced by a positive affirmation of personal identity which is indestructible even in Nirvana. Nirvana itself is conceived of as a joyous place, like the paradise of Amitabha in the West. Now this concept of a real self was essentially the message of the Nirvana Sutra, Sanskrit texts of which began to trickle into China at the beginning of the fifth century. The Buddhist pilgrim Fa-hsien left China by the Silk Road across central Asia in the last year of the preceding century, in A.D. 399; and after perilous travel on foot through central Asia and India where he studied and gathered Sanskrit texts, he returned by sea in 413. His ship was driven off course and landed on the coast of North China. Since China was divided, it was extremely difficult to travel between the two, but he gradually worked his way back to the southern capital and between 417 and 418 spent his whole time in collaboration with an Indian missionary named Buddhabhadra translating the first Chinese version of the Nirvana Sutra in six scrolls.

Now this edition contained some teachings about the real self already referred to, the joyousness of Nirvana, and the presence of the Buddha nature in all sentient beings. The sutra implied that this real Buddha nature which every one of us has within us will be revealed when it is liberated from the successive layers of delusion which keep it hidden. If you do not realize that you have the Buddha nature within you, it is not that it is not there; it is just that it is hidden.

There was, however, an exception made for one class of beings, mentioned only in this early version of the Nirvana Sutra. They are the so-called icchantikas, the hopeless unbelievers who are void of the seed of enlightenment and forever beyond the reach of salvation. This last exception was challenged by one Chinese monk by the name of Tao-sheng, who lived between 360 and 434. He intuitively felt that making exceptions of this sort was contrary to the whole spirit of the Nirvana Sutra and said so publicly; but because the sutra had mentioned the icchantika specifically, he was thought to be quite heretical and was driven out of the capital.

Quite a few years later, about 430, another version of the Nirvana Sutra was brought to China and translated in the northwest; that northern version, translated by Dharmakshema, stated clearly that even the icchantikas have the buddhanature. So Tao-sheng was finally vindicated. But between 418 when the first translation was made and 430 when the second one appeared, this controversy raged.

It wasn’t the only issue, though, that got people excited in those times. Implied in the Buddha-nature principle is the corollary that buddhahood is within the reach of everybody. Once the coverings of delusion have been removed, a process which may take many lifetimes, enlightenment would then occur spontaneously, completely, and permanently. Long periods of study, meditation, and good works might prepare for the moment; but in the last analysis, they could not serve as a substitute for it or even provide gradual degrees of entry into it. Since enlightenment, by the definition that was accepted, is to see the truth whole, you cannot achieve it piecemeal. And if you see it whole you do not just gradually work your way into it. It is a transcendent experience. It is beyond ordinary experience. Therefore, it is beyond the realm of study and practice.

You can see why a large number of the monks and even the devout laymen wouldn’t like this idea. All the effort that they had put into pursuing the goal, all the hours of study, all the money which they had contributed to the monastic establishment was being wiped out by this new doctrine. They were not at all enthusiastic about it, and it caused great controversy, especially in the area of Nanking.

You can get a feeling for the exasperation of some of these devout laymen by reading a letter that one of them wrote to Tao-sheng himself. The man’s name is Fan T’ai and his letter, I am sure, represents the views of many people:

The customs of foreign countries differ among themselves. When Sanghadeva first came to Chien-k’ang [that was in the year 398], the monks Hui-i and Taokuan and their followers all flocked to do him honor. But what he taught [it was the Abhidharma of the Sarvastivada school, a Hinayana school] was nothing but Hinayana doctrine. But they insisted it was the ultimate of all truth and that the Mahayana sutras which taught the doctrine of the nonorigination of the dharmas [in other words, the Prajnaparamita Sutras] were the writings of devils. After Sanghadeva’s death, the Abhidharma was no longer in the highest seat. People stopped talking about it. And then later, Fa-hsien [the pilgrim whom I’ve just mentioned] arrived from India with the Nirvana Sutra, and that began to be touted as the last word. And this sutra, in its turn, insists that the doctrine of permanence, the permanence of the self and of Nirvana, was the greatest of all truth. Prajna [that is, transcendental insight, which was the highest goal in the Prajnaparamita Sutras] as the ultimate goal has to take second place. [1]

Then Fan T’ai, a great scientist, concludes, “Making inference from all this, I have to conclude that there are no governing principles among us. We hear some rumor and immediately we rush off to change our habits.”

Into the white heat of this controversy in the southern capital, which took place around 418, came Hsieh Ling-yun. He lived between 385 and 433. Hsieh Ling-yun was an unexpected champion of a new doctrine of sudden enlightenment, (tun-wu) as it was advocated by the monk Tao-sheng. This year 418 was two years before the fall of the eastern Chin dynasty and was, as you can imagine, a rather unstable political period. Hsieh Ling-yun himself was also undergoing a series of personal traumas. On learning that one of his retainers had been carrying on an affair with his favorite concubine, he had murdered the man with his own hands and thrown his body into the Yangtze River. The incident had eventually been reported. Of course, being a member of the aristocracy he could get away with murder, quite literally, but he was dismissed from his post as captain of the guard for the heir of Liu Yu, the future founder of the Sung dynasty, the next dynasty in line.

Later, barely after the new dynasty had become established, Hsieh, who was valiant in its service, was reinstated in his former post. You see, the policy of the founder of the new dynasty was to conquer his enemies by loading them with kindness. In a sense, he was very much afraid of Hsieh Ling-yun, but he forgave him all of his past misdemeanors and put him back in his old post. The heir that he was now guarding, though, was actually the crown prince since the new dynasty had been founded. And the crown prince’s younger brother became Hsieh Ling-yun’s best friend, a fatal friendship since this younger prince plotted in the year 422 to replace his brother as crown prince. This conspiracy of course got Hsieh Ling-yun in trouble; this time they shipped him off to a hardship post on the southeast coast, a town called Yung-chia in what is now Chekiang Province. He remained there between 422 and 423, in what he described as poor health. But it was not too poor to let him spend most of his time climbing mountains, writing poetry, and discussing Buddhist doctrines with the local monks.

The main subjects, as you might guess, were the Nirvana Sutra and sudden enlightenment. Fortunately we have his complete correspondence on this subject with three monks and the layman Wang Hung, the man, ironically enough, who four years earlier had reported his crime of murder. This correspondence, which ultimately involved some monks from the capital and from the area of modern Soochow, was finally edited by Hsieh himself and put into a treatise called, “A Discussion on Discerning the Goal” (Pien-tsung lun); it is preserved in the Buddhist anthology Kuanghung-ming chi, which was compiled in the seventh century. That’s why we have a marvelous set of documents relating to this problem.

My purpose here is not to lay out all the arguments of this discussion; they are very subtle and very hard to read, too, though worth a separate study in themselves. But it is interesting to observe in broad outlines what was troubling the opponents of this new theory of sudden illumination, or sudden enlightenment, and what arguments its defenders used in parrying their objections. But layman Fan T’ai, whose letter we have just read, was mostly upset by the irresponsibility, the whimsicalness of the people in the capital who made it their only business, as Luke once complained about the citizens of Athens, either to hear or report some new thing (see Acts 17:21). Hsieh Ling-yun himself was attempting to reach some kind of compromise between the best of Confucianism and the best of Buddhism. He rejected the Confucian emphasis on the inaccessibility of sagehood. (According to then-current Confucian ideas, one must be born a sage.) He liked the Buddhist teaching that everybody can become enlightened even if it seemingly takes forever. On the other hand, he liked the presumed Confucian mystical embodiment of nonbeing, which would lead to the experience of the one ultimate, i-chi.

Now this is mystical language and I am not sure I understand it, but he seems to be saying that the Confucians believed in a mystical union with the ultimate, an interpretation of Confucius that the Master himself would never have recognized. But it was the one that was current in Hsieh Ling-yun’s time, and he thus gives himself away as a child of his time. However, in the case of Buddhism, what he had rejected was its insistence on gradual enlightenment—what the Chinese call chien-wu—through accumulated study; instead he opted for their emphasis on the universal possibility of reaching enlightenment even though it takes many years and many incarnations.

The arguments of the monks who opposed Hsieh Ling-yun are all recorded in this treatise in dialogue form. The disputants included Fa-hsu, Seng-wei, and two called Hui-lin but written with different characters. Later the discussion expanded to include people from outside their immediate constituency in Yung-chia, people from the capital like Fa-kang, someone from Soochow, and Wang Hung himself. This “round robin” of argumentation shows that all of them lined up to a man against Hsieh Ling-yun’s defense of the ideas of Tao-sheng. Their objections were quite simple. They said that if truth is not reached gradually, then all the sacrifices and efforts made by the monks and the laymen to reach that goal are in vain. To this Hsieh countered, “On the contrary, such efforts are soteriological expedients. Though fragmentary and therefore false, they would ultimately lead to a point where the truth could be suddenly grasped.”

His opponents made other but similar objections. If by study one’s clarity of understanding increases, is not this gradual enlightenment? Hsieh Ling-yun countered that study increases faith (hsin), not clarity of understanding—an interesting point. Faith in turn propels one toward goodness and motivates one to subdue all of the passions, all of which may prepare one to become enlightened. But enlightenment is not part of this process. It is beyond it. Then one of the monks, Seng-wei, asked, “What about temporary flashes of insight? Everybody has temporary moments when they see the truth for just a moment or just a corner of it. Isn’t that a form of enlightenment?” Hsieh answered, “Enlightenment is either once and for all”—i-wu was the term he used—“complete, permanent, or it isn’t the real thing.”

Now there were still other objections brought forth, some of which had ethnic and class overtones. For example, the monks faulted Hsieh for being really pro-Confucian and anti-Buddhist because he claimed that the Chinese are better at perceiving the truth (chien-li) generally, and hence are ready for sudden enlightenment, while the Indians are better at accepting instruction (shou-chiao), and hence are only ready for gradual progress. The monks thus accused him of social elitism because he seemed to imply that gradual and indirect approaches are soteriological expedients employed to accommodate ignorant people while direct appropriation of the truth is suitable only for those who are ready for it, namely the intellectuals like Hsieh Ling-yun. Hsieh insisted he was not trying to make odious comparisons. “There is no superiority or inferiority,” he said, “in the transcendent experience of enlightenment.” (In other words, there are no good and bad sages. Once you’ve made it, it’s all there.) Hsieh was not claiming, you notice, that he had found enlightenment himself, a very interesting point.

Finally Wang Hung, the one layman besides Hsieh involved in this argument, pointed out that Hsieh’s technique of preparing for enlightenment by first subduing the passions was really no different from any other mental technique and thus not really different from that of his opponents. Hsieh had to admit at the very end of his discussion that what is gained by such preparations is a sort of anticipation of final enlightenment. It’s like the yin of a winter day. Winter is the yin season and the yin of a winter day is complete yin. But it is anticipated to a lesser degree in the yin of a summer night, which is also dark and cool.

There is a somewhat tragic epilogue to this debate. Hsieh Ling-yun’s last recorded poem was written in 433 just before he was executed. (He was accused of trying to start a revolution and was executed in the public marketplace in what is now Canton.) He ruefully contrasted his lot with that of the hardy evergreens which survive the cold of winter:

Still green, the Cyprus after frost.
Dew-soaked, the fungus blasted in the wind.
Of happiness, how much is there, after all?
Long life or short is not what troubles me.
I grieve that my gentleman’s resolve
Has not found surcease on the mountaintops.
To yield my heart before enlightenment,
This torment long I have endured.
I only pray that in my next birth
Hate and love be leveled in my heart. [2]

If enlightenment is indeed once for all, complete and permanent, and all approximations and temporary insights are just counterfeit, then never to have found it to the very end of his life could only be one more torment added to a career already tormented by strong loves and hates. We can only hope with Hsieh that in his next rebirth he found what he was so desperately seeking.

Now I want to move to a slightly later period but one in which we are still talking about the impact of this same sutra, the Nirvana Sutra, and show how in advocating the doctrine of ahimsa, the debate shifted from theoretical to more practical affairs. About two generations later, we come upon another Buddhist layman who was also a poet. The controversy precipi tated by the original appearance of the Nirvana Sutra continued well into the Tang period and culminated in the well-known distinction between the southern Ch’an school, known in Japan as Zen Buddhism, founded by Hui Neng in the early eighth century, and the northern school of Shen-hsiu. I do not propose here to follow the subsequent turns of the argument but only to take brief notice of how the Nirvana Sutra itself was viewed two generations later by this second Buddhist poet and outspoken admirer of Hsieh Ling-yun, namely his biographer, Shen Yueh.

Shen Yueh was a historian, and in his history of the Liu- Sung dynasty, one of the most famous sections is the biography of Hsieh Ling-yun. He admired Hsieh Ling-yun very much and felt spiritually akin to him. Interestingly enough, Shen Yueh, while accepting the axiomatic existence of the Buddha nature in every being, did not himself believe in sudden enlightenment. On the contrary, for him the Buddha nature can only be reached by delving through layer after layer of encrusted habits and misconceptions, a long and arduous process of trimming and paring. For the final denouement, Shen was prepared to wait even until a later rebirth.

In his vow of self-dedication, written in 509 near the end of his life, he wrote: “Creeping and crawling, those teeming beings [that includes insects, you know, as well as human beings] all possess the Buddha nature. Yet except by trimming and paring, the road to enlightenment is not followed.” Another document, a sort of announcement of a public Buddhist lecture written twenty-seven years earlier, shows that Shen Yueh was really consistent all his life on this point: “If by a tiny word one might enter the Way [that is, become enlightened], the matter would become difficult by reason of haste. Or if by an enlightenment once for all one might mount up to emptiness, its effectiveness would be blocked because of suddenness. Unless one heaps up the gossamers one by one to reach a fathom’s depth or combines many torches to make a single light, there is no way to ride two chariots abreast through the prajna gate or to cross to the dharma shore on lashed boats.”

In still another document, Shen Yueh elaborates the basic premise of gradualism, which he apparently held himself. “If in this life the merit of molding and smelting gradually accumulates, then the truth which will be recognized in future rebirths will become more and more refined, and that understanding which has become more and more refined in its future responses will eventually reach Buddhahood where it will never be cut off nor ended.” Now that seems to be a pretty clear indication that he embraced the idea of gradual enlightenment and rejected that of sudden enlightenment.

Furthermore, there is a rather humorous little poem that he wrote on this subject, a poem on the eight prohibitions that Buddhist laymen follow.

Gaining the truth
Is not easily hoped for.
Only after losing the way
Does one realize its hazards.
After missing the path
Again and again,
One is suddenly enlightened
To the fact that
Enlightenment is not sudden. [3]

To his dying day, Shen Yueh carried his conviction that full enlightenment still lay ahead of him. On his deathbed in 513 he wrote a last will and testament which ended with these words: “I humbly pray that the sage heart [by which I’m sure he meant the Buddha nature] may be repeatedly advanced and enlarged. Then as your lowly servant faces the road ahead, he will leave behind no regrets. Though his progress be gradual, yet it is well.”

Why did Shen Yueh reject sudden enlightenment? Was it his own troublesome backsliding that convinced him, as Hsieh Ling-yun had also been forced to admit at his own death, that he had not yet found it, and hence he settled for gradually finding it in future rebirths? Or was he merely reflecting the general climate of opinion among lay Buddhists of his generation, who under the sobering influence of the scholastic abidharma of the then dominant school of Buddhism—the Ch’eng-shih school—were returning to the more practical but admittedly less intoxicating view that the dharmas can only be emptied one by one after all?

The answer to both questions is probably yes. Shen was certainly not unaware of the various theories of sudden enlightenment. He may even have cherished the fond hope that he might become suddenly enlightened. But mostly he seems to have been content to record this interpretation as just one of several possibilities.

There is an interesting passage—one that I had trouble with because it seems to contradict what I have just said but which as a matter of honesty I have to record—in a preface to an edition of the Buddhist canon which was being published in Shen Yueh’s time. It was commissioned by one of the imperial princes, since Buddhism at that time was being accepted and even encouraged by the imperial family. Shen had been asked to write the preface since he was famous both as an author and also as a Buddhist layman. In this preface, written between 483 and 494, he explains why certain Buddhist teachings were welcomed in China, especially the idea that the Buddha nature, which is in harmony with the true principle of the universe, can be inwardly realized without study. This was an idea that you could find in the Confucianism of the time. The preface states: “The unique perceptiveness of the spirit nature [that is, the Buddha nature], can be carried within one’s own bosom and the wondrous power of the divine accomplishment [that is, enlightenment] does not depend on study to be realized.” Here’s another passage you won’t understand but I’ll read it anyway. “With solitary goad [or whip] one may be riding alone, not knowing where the limits are when the whole confused welter of bounds and old habits in one stroke becomes enlightened by the truth. [Something’s wrong in the translation, I’m sure.] Hearing a tiny explanation, one may stride directly to the place of enlightenment, and receiving a single word, one may mount up to the other shore. Even before the long night of nescience has ended, the barriers of the mind open by themselves like dawn.” Now this seems to be describing sudden enlightenment, but he was not describing his own experience.

Further, in the same document, he talks about another practice that was becoming popular among Chinese Buddhists—that of sitting before the Buddhist image and concentrating one’s attention on it. This probably is some sort of antecedent to later Tantric practices. “If one avails oneself of this ‘direct mind,’ that is, if through the contemplation of an image one extends his sincerity and proceeds by intuition, then in half a breath one may pursue the truth and in a single moment arrive there. All the ups and downs of the feelings disperse like clouds and mist.” At first, this appears to directly contradict what Hsieh had written in the documents quoted earlier, but I think no one is more aware than Shen Yueh of different shifts and changes in the Buddhist doctrine that had occurred in his own lifetime; I think he’s merely recording these different points of view. He was looking, though, for some point of coherence because like many other Buddhist laymen he was confused by these shifts. And for him, that point of coherence was found in the same sutra, in the Nirvana Sutra. For Hsieh Ling-yun, the unique teaching of the sutra was not the Buddha nature, nor enlightenment, nor the real self, nor the joyousness of Nirvana; instead it was ultimate compassion, what he called chiu-ching tz’u-pei. That means carrying the Buddha self, or ideal of saving living beings, to its ultimate conclusion, applying it even to insects.

We think that the Buddhists have always had this doctrine of ahimsa; they inherited it from a long tradition in India. Interestingly enough, it never caught on very well in China. The doctrine of harmlessness in India was, in a large measure, responsible for the Indian monks begging for their food rather than farming, because tilling the soil would have inevitably harmed the insects and rodents that lived in the ground. But in China, from the beginning the monks grew their own food; and although the Chinese Buddhists recognized ahimsa as a principle—that is, not harming life, not killing—in practice, only a handful of very devout people ever did more than observe certain specified fast days, chai as they’re called, every month.

It seems to have taken the Nirvana Sutra’s translation in the fifth century to make it explicit to the Chinese Buddhists that the command not to kill applied continuously and consistently to all living beings. The culmination of this realization came in the year 517 when the Emperor Liang Wu-ti, a very famous pro-Buddhist emperor, made a national prohibition against the use of animal sacrifices. The Chinese had previously excused themselves on the grounds that the Buddhist sutras list three varieties of meat consumption that were considered pure: if you have not seen the living thing, if you have not heard its cries, and if you do not suspect that it was killed just for you, then you can go ahead and eat it.

There is a passage, however, in the Nirvana Sutra which addresses this problem directly: “At that time the bodhisattva Kasyapa said to the Buddha, ‘World-honored one, meat eaters ought not to donate meat to the Sangha [in other words, to the monks]. Why? Because in my view one who does not eat meat has great merit.’ The Buddha praised Kasyapa’s words and then went on to say, ‘From this day onward I do not permit disciples to eat meat. If they receive faithful donations from alms-givers, they should look on this food as if it were the flesh of their own children. The one who eats meat has cut off the seeds of compassion.’” The three pure varieties of meat consumption which I have just mentioned were only gradually evolved according to particular circumstances, and they were not meant to be permanent. So in Shen Yueh’s essay on ultimate compassion, he said: “The meaning of the Buddhist religion is rooted in compassion. And among the essential ingredients of compassion, the preservation of life is the most important. Because of the difficulty of reforming deeply ingrained habits, the Buddha at first established the three pure varieties of meat eating as an extension of the Way of Expedience. But when it came to his later years and his teaching just before his Nirvana [contained in the Nirvana Sutra, which is when he was supposed to have preached it], he greatly clarified the meaning of compassion, bequeathing it to later generations. Earlier, before the Nirvana Sutra had appeared in China, for a space of ten or more years, [that is, from about 400–415], among the eminent monks on Mount Lu [this includes Hui-yuan and the Lu-shan community], there were already some vegetarians, but they were considered freaks somehow. Was it not a case of intuitively following their hearts’ understanding which was spontaneously in agreement with the truth? But after the Nirvana Sutra came, the three pure varieties of meat consumption came to an end. People now have taken to heart its ultimate teaching and seized upon its models on an ever-increasing scale.”

Now, this is fairly straightforward documentation for the relatively late acceptance of the ultimate implications of compassion in China. Yet Shen Yueh makes clear that this involved not boiling the pupae of silk worms in the cocoon, one necessary step in the process of silk manufacturing, as well as not killing animals, fish, or fowl for sacrifices. Instead he advocates wearing linen and hemp and eating fruits and vegetables. “For the meat eater and the silk wearer share exactly the same karma as the hunter, the fisherman, the butcher, the silk-worm raiser, and the silk thread reeler.” His statement of confession and remorse is a very moving document, full of real sincerity and candor, though it is placed in the midst of a lot of very perfunctory confessions. But he devotes fully one-fourth of the text to expressions of remorse over hunting and fishing exploits, mindless acts of cruelty to defenseless animals, sumptuous banquets on various kinds of meat, and even killing mosquitoes which had disturbed his sleep on a summer night.

At first sight the importance given to this particular aspect of compassion seems disproportionate until we realize that once more a revolutionary idea, which by now seems trite or even trivial, had suddenly gripped the imagination of the literate members of the Chinese Buddhist community.

To summarize what has been said concerning the impact of the Nirvana Sutra in the early fifth century and at the turn of the sixth, I would stress that the earlier excitement centered around theoretical considerations, such as the doctrine of the universal Buddha nature, the identity and permanence of the real self even in Nirvana, whereas the later interest of Shen Yueh was of the far more practical sort involving the consistent practice of vegetarianism. It would be simpleminded to conclude that there was a shift during the fifth century from ideas to action, since there is plenty of evidence that both practical and ideological concerns were felt throughout the whole Six Dynasty period. But it is an interesting example of how perceptions of the same philosophy gradually change, even in the space of two generations.


[1] Hung-ming chi 12 (Taisho 52.224c–228a). Unless otherwise noted, translations are by the author.

[2] Kuang hung-ming chi 18 (Taisho 52.356a).

[3] Ting Fu-pao, Ch’uan Han San-kuo Chin nan-pei-ch’ao shih (Taipei reprint, I-wen, 1962), 1230.