Monastic Dharma Name: Shi Hui Yuan (Great Master)
Status: First Patriarch Of The Pure Land Tradition (School)
Family name: Jia Hui Yuan
Place of birth: Present day Shanxi, China
Year of birth: 334
Year of rebirth: 416
Great Master Huiyuan was born during the Eastern Jin Dynasty, in a family with many generations of scholars. He was very intelligent and diligent in learning since young. At the age of 13, he went on a study tour with his uncle, through which he mastered Confucian teachings. At the age of 21, he went with his mother and younger brother Huichi to Mount Taihang to listen to Great Master Dao’an’s teaching on the Prajna Paramita Sutra. After listening, Great Master Huiyuan was able to completely understand the absolute truth, and exclaimed that ‘the nine streams of teachings, of Confucianism, Taoism [and others], are all like chaff.’ He thus gave rose to the aspiration to renounce the household life, to follow Great Master Dao’an for spiritual cultivation. At the age of 24, he began to speak on the sutras to preach the Dharma. Great Master Dao’an often exclaimed that, ‘The cause of spreading the Dharma to the East relies on Huiyuan!’
In the year 379, Great Master Huiyuan led dozens of disciples to go to Guangdong Province’s Mount Luofu. On the way, passing Xunyang (now Jiangxi Jiujiang), he saw how serene Mount Lu was, and thought it would be restful and secluded enough for spiritual cultivation, thus, staying there at Longquan (Dragon Spring) Monastery, while aspiring to build Donglin (Eastern Forest) Monastery.
Thereafter, the Great Master set Donglin Monastery to be his Bodhimanda, to practise and propagate the Dharma, and to write books to establish teachings. With the Great Master’s virtuous reputation, Donglin Monastery became the Buddhist centre of Southern China. Local and foreign monastics and laypeople from far and near all looked upon and respected the Great Master very much.
Even though the Buddhist teachings were continually entering China, they were still not complete. This was why monks who knew Sanskrit kept coming to China to propagate the Dharma. Still, the Great Master felt that the teachings were in lack, and once sent his disciples Fajing, Faling and others to India to retrieve more sutras. Thus attaining many Sanskrit sutras, he set up the Prajna Peak for translating sutras at Mount Lu, becoming the first person in China’s history to privately establish a translation centre (without political assistance). Mount Lu’s Donglin Monastery and Chang’an’s ‘Park Of Freedom From Fetters’, which was Great Master Kumarajiva’s translation centre, became the two greatest Buddhist centres of Southern and Northern China, which corresponded with each other from afar. Great Master Kumarajiva even addressed Great Master Huiyuan as the ‘Eastern Dharma Protector Bodhisattva.’
The Great Master led 123 people in the monastery before the image of Amitabha Buddha, to take the Eight Precepts, and vowed together to be born in the Western Pure Land, thus forming the White Lotus Society, also asking Liu Yiming (who was one of the 123 members) to write the ‘Verses For Giving Rise To Aspiration For Birth In The Western Pure Land’ (which became the manifesto of the White Lotus Society). The Lotus Society cultivated the Samadhi From Mindfulness Of Buddha as its focus, as mainly based upon the Immeasurable Life Sutra’s teaching to ‘give rise to Bodhicitta, and to wholeheartedly focus on mindfulness of Amitabha Buddha (Amituofo).’
Everyone diligently practised during circumambulating, prostrating and being seated, to cultivate Samadhi From Mindfulness Of Buddha, with all experiencing sight of Amitabha Buddha when in concentration. Not only was it one person’s verification, but it was with the verification of the entire Lotus Society, that the 123 were able to, in concentration, dreams, or when approaching the end of life, see Amitabha Buddha and the supreme environment of Pure Land, which were without differences from that recorded in the sutras.
According to historical records, the Great Master saw Amitabha Buddha thrice when he was in samadhi. Due to Liu Yiming’s deep roots of wisdom and good cultivation of practice, following the Great Master’s practice of mindfulness of Buddha for only six months, he was able to see Amitabha Buddha within concentration, with the Buddha’s golden light illuminating the ground. With the Great Master’s unique thinking and practice (of setting up a society) for mindfulness of Buddha then in the Buddhist community, this gave rose to great responses, and for the propagation of the Pure Land Tradition, made a very important contribution (in establishing faith in the masses). Mount Lu’s Donglin Monastery also became established as the first patriarchal monastery of the Pure Land Tradition in the Buddhist community. The founder of the monastery, the Great Master Huiyuan, was posthumously conferred the title of the Pure Land Tradition’s First Patriarch.
大师净土思想的产生，亦与当时社会苦难现实的催化有关。从汉末到晋末，政治失轨，从王族贵绅到庶民百姓，无一不处境极危 。加上天灾饥疫，苦难的境遇激发着人们的出离心，这种社会心态恰与净宗求生净土的出世理念耦合，由是，古印度的净土教便在当时的社会文化土壤中找到了生长点。大师融汇老庄与佛教思想， 念佛求生西方净土，一呼百应， 揭开弘传净宗的序幕。
The birth of the Great Master’s thought on Pure Land Buddhism was also catalysed by society’s suffering. From the end of the Han Dynasty to the end of the Jin Dynasty, with political upheaval, royals, nobles and commoners all had to face extreme danger. In addition was natural disasters and famine. Such suffering and difficulties stimulated people to have the thought of renunciation (from suffering). This kind of social attitude appropriately coincided with the Pure Land Tradition’s philosophy of transcending the world. Therefore, ancient India’s Pure Land teachings were able to find an entry point for growth. The Great Master was also able to integrate (the already present) philosophy of Laozi and Zhuangzi with the Buddhist thought of practising mindfulness of Buddha to seek birth in the Western Pure Land. With his call, hundreds responded, thus beginning the prelude of the Pure Land Tradition’s propagation.
In ‘Record Of Pure Land Saints And Sages’, the chapter on Great Master Huiyuan says, ‘In the year 416, on a seventh month’s evening, at the Prajna Peak’s eastern shrine, after arising from concentration then, the Great Master saw Amitabha Buddha, whose body filled space, and within his aura of light, there were many manifested Buddhas, with Guanyin Bodhisattva and Dashizhi Bodhisattva standing on his left and right. He also saw water with bright light, that divided into fourteen parts, that flowed up and down, with sounds that expounded on suffering, emptiness, impermanence and non-self (as described in the Immeasurable Life Sutra). Amitabha Buddha from afar told the Great Master, “I with my great vows’ power thus, have came to comfort you, and you seven days after, will be born in my land.”‘
After that, the Great Master told two of his assisting disciples by his sides, Fajing and Huibao, “Since I began residing here, within 11 years, I have thrice seen Amitabha Buddha’s pure form. Now again seeing him, I shall be born in his Pure Land!” As expected, the Great Master, when approaching the end of life, foretold in advance the time of his departure, on the sixth day of the eighth month, while seated upright, he reached Pure Land, attaining the highest birth of the highest grade. He was then 83 years old.
The Great Master used his personal experience to prove and verify that mindfulness of Buddha can without doubt lead to birth in Pure Land, which inspired later generations to follow the Pure Land teachings. Countless monastics and laypeople, with faith and aspiration practised mindfulness of Buddha to seek birth in Pure Land. The practice to be born in Amitabha Buddha’s Pure Land thereafter was able to be widely popular, to be increasingly popular. This truly came from the Great Master’s tremendous efforts. With his lifelong sincerity to propagate Buddhism, his virtues touched the court and the commonalty. The Jin Emperor An in the Yixi years (between 405 – 419) sent out an imperial decree to confer the honorific titles of ‘Noble One Of Mount Lu’, ‘Great Master Of Great Display (Honglu)’ and ‘Master Of The White Lotus Society’ to him. Due to the Great Master’s great contributions to Buddhism, and their impact upon later generations, to attain many dynasties’ emperors’ conferment of posthumous titles, thus can also be said to be both logical and reasonable.
Is Great Master Shandao The Only Pure Land Patriarch?
30 Misconceptions Of So-Called ‘Pristine’ Pure Land Buddhism