Hui-yüan (334-416) was the most famous monk of the early period of Chinese Buddhism, combining in his person and in his thought profound understanding of Chinese culture and philosophy with real faith in Buddhist doctrine and religion.
In the 4th century China was torn in two by continual warfare. The North was occupied by barbarian dynasties who were generally very fond of Buddhism and who had close ties with Buddhists of central Asia. The South remained Chinese, and the Buddhism practiced there was really an amalgam of native, Taoist philosophy and Indian Buddhism. Hui-yüan was at once the most perfect practician of southern "gentry" Buddhism and the adumbration of what Chinese Buddhism was to become when it was completely assimilated and digested.
Throughout his life Hui-yüan, whose family name was Chia, gives witness of having been a man of great refinement and culture. His family came from northern Shansi, and he went with his maternal uncle to Loyang and Hsüch'ang to study the Confucian and Taoist classics, showing that the family were literati. Hui-yüan and his younger brother joined the Buddhist monk Tao-an in 355 and became Buddhist monks. Tao-an's lectures on the Prajnaparamita showed Hui-yüan that Buddhism was indeed the true religion, and in 375 Hui-yüan began to preach, using analogies from the Chuang-tzu and other secular literature to help explain points difficult for his Chinese audience to grasp. He followed Tao-an to Hsiang-yang and remained with him there until 378, when the community was disbanded. Hui-yüan left with some disciples and about 380 set up his own monastery on one of the most beautiful mountains in China, Lushan (Mt. Lu, near Chiu-chiang in northern Kiangsi).
Mt. Lu Monastery
Until the end of his life, Hui-yüan did not leave Mt. Lu and, although he never seems to have had many more than 100 disciples at a time, his reputation spread throughout North and South China. This reputation seems to have been based on the profound seriousness, sincerity, and intelligence with which he invested his monastery.
Hui-yüan was able to converse elegantly with his famous and often powerful lay visitors, indulging in the fashionable "pure conversations" (ch'ing-t'an) with the correct number of bons mots, but that only made his Buddhist faith all the more impressive. He developed a new style of preaching, adding a sermon to the formal ritual of early religious meetings, and he earnestly sought new texts and new translations of Buddhist works, asking the Sarvastivadin monk Sanghadeva to help translate two philosophical texts in 391 and sending disciples to the West in search of new materials in 393.
Worship of Amitabha
On Sept. 11, 402, Hui-yüan, with 123 of his disciples, took a vow before an image of the Buddha Amitabha that they all would earnestly strive for rebirth in the Western Paradise and help one another to reach it. The fact that both laymen and monks took part in this ceremony, that they made their vow in front of an image, and that Hui-yüan and his disciples practiced "invoking" the name of the Buddha makes this ceremony seem like the beginning of Pure Land Buddhism, one of the most popular Buddhist sects in China.
Much later sources say Hui-yüan's group was called the White Lotus Society and that it was indeed the direct ancestor of the sect, but there is actually no real assurance that there is any direct filiation between Hui-yüan's group and later Pure Land Buddhists. What is more important is to see that this ceremony shows that Hui-yüan was "popularizing" Buddhism, taking it out of the realm of pure philosophical speculation and making it a true, personal religion.
This religious fervor that is characteristic of Hui-yüan's community probably helped him defend Buddhist autonomy against secular authority. His theoretical arguments are given in one of his most famous works, "That a Monk Should Not Pay Homage to the King," a letter written in 404 to Huan Hsüan, who had just usurped the imperial throne and who had been in correspondence with Hui-yüan for many years on this topic. His eloquent and firm arguments in this series of essays helped keep the Buddhist communities independent of imperial control—no mean achievement in a country in which the state was, theoretically at least, omnipotent.
These essays, and his correspondence with Kumarajiva, begun in 405 or 406, are Hui-yüan's lengthiest works. In them he develops his theories on the "immortality of the soul" and on the dharmakāya, the "body of Buddha." These essays are not easy to understand and are highly technical, but they do show that Hui-yüan had an extremely good grasp of Buddhist doctrine. They also show that he had not completely understood the Madhyamika philosophy that Kumarajiva expounded and that he was still, in part at least, a Chinese thinker, inclined to seek a concrete, down-to-earth explanation for what were in fact highly abstract Indian speculations.
This tendency of mind is also apparent in what seems to be the last event in Hui-yüan's life that can be dated: the painting he had made of the "shadow of the Buddha" and that he had placed in a chapel on May 27, 412. He had probably heard about this image from a Sarvastivadin Kashmirian monk named Buddhabhadra, who came to Mt. Lu in 410 or 411. This painting, like the image of Amitabha before which he and his disciples took their vow, shows that Hui-yüan was seeking some more concrete form of worship than the prevalent metaphysical schools could furnish. He died on Sept. 13, 416 (some sources give 417), on Mt. Lu, where he is still buried.
Further Reading on Hui-yüan
In English, the most complete studies of Hui-yüan are in Erik Zürcher, The Buddhist Conquest of China (1959), and, for the philosophy, in Richard H. Robinson, Early Madhyamika in India and China (1967). There is also a short résumé in Kenneth K. S. Ch'ên, Buddhism in China: A Historical Survey (1964).