Monastic Dharma Name: Shi Tanluan (Great Master)
Status: Great monastic master
Family Name: Unclear
Place Of Birth: Present day Shanxi, China
Year Of Birth: 476
Year Of Rebirth: 542
Best Known Work: Commentary On The Rebirth Treatise
From Northern Wei, Master Tanluan was a Great Master who propagated the Pure Land Tradition during the Northern-Southern Dynasty. Born in Benyanmen (now Shanxi), as his family lived near Wutaishan (Five-Terraces Mountain), he heard of many inspiring cases of responses by Manjusri Bodhisattva since young. At the age of fourteen, he went on a pilgrimage to Wutaishan, and at Foguang Monastery, witnessed Manjusri Bodhisattva’s manifestation of auspicious signs, which inspired him to renounce the household life.
After becoming a monk, he studied widely on both worldly and Buddhist teachings. He particularly specialised in study of the ‘Treatise On The Great Perfection Of Wisdom’, ‘Treatise On The Middle Path’, ‘Treatise On One Hundred Verses’ and ‘Treatise On The Twelve Gates’, thus also later recognised as a Patriarch of the Four-Treatises’ Tradition.
When the Master read the ‘Sutra Of The Great Assembly’, as he felt that its words are profound, he began to write a commentary on it. In the midst of writing, due to overwork, he developed a lung illness. To cure himself, he went around seeking good physicians. When he travelled to the border of Fen Province (now Shanxi Wenshui), his illness began to subside. However, he strongly felt that life was precariously fragile and impermanent. He then sought skills for cultivating longevity, so as to fulfil his wish to continuously study and practise the Buddha’s teachings.
Thus, he travelled to Liang Dynasty’s Jiangnan, to look for Tao Hongjing (who was a Taoist who practised for longevity). When he reached Jiankang (now Nanjing), being from the Northern Dynasty, he was suspected to be a spy and summoned to the palace for investigation. However, there, without knowing Emperor Liang’s identity at Chongyun Court, he discussed Buddhism with him, and attained his great praise. After getting ten scrolls on longevity from Tao Hongjing, while returning to the North, he met the Indian Tripitaka Dharma Master Bodhiruci.
According to records in the ‘Extended Great Masters’ Biographies’, Great Master Tanluan then asked Great Master Bodhiruci if there were any Buddhist teachings superior to the longevity teachings in China? To which Great Master Bodhiruci replied, ‘Where are there teachings on longevity without death here? As even if attaining long life, to not die when young, there is eventually still death and return to the cycle of rebirth, of what sufficient value are such teachings? If you wish to truly attain longevity without death, it is through our Buddhist path!’
Great Master Bodhiruci fulfilled the Great Master Tanluan’s wish by presenting him the ‘Sutra On Contemplation Of Immeasurable Life’, also telling him that if relying on it for learning and practice, he will not again be reborn in the three spheres, to not again remain in the six realms, to forever attain immeasurable life! Great Master then burned the scrolls on longevity, and wholeheartedly devoted his efforts on study, practice and propagation of the Pure Land sutras.
The Great Master also wrote a commentary on Vasubandhu Bodhisattva’s ‘Immeasurable Life Sutra’s Upadesa (Instructional) Verses For Aspiration Of Birth’ (i.e. ‘Rebirth Treatise’). In the first scroll of his ‘Commentary On The Rebirth Treatise’, as according to Nagarjuna Bodhisattva’s ‘Treatise On The Great Perfection Of Wisdom’ and ‘Treatise On Ten Abodes’ Vibhasa (Explanation)’, he put forward the teaching of ‘Two Paths And Two Powers’.
Thus differentiated were the Buddha’s teachings, into those relying on Self-power as the Difficult Path, and those also relying on Other-power as the Easy Path. The Great Master taught that in eras with no Buddha, if wishing to follow the Difficult Path with only reliance on Self-power and without Other-power’s blessings, it will be very difficult to succeed. It is only with reliance on the power of Amitabha Buddha (Amituofo) for cultivating practice (of wholehearted mindfulness of his name), that is the most secure, reliable and easiest Dharma door.
However, the Great Master thought that the sixteen contemplations (to be visualised) in the ‘Sutra On Contemplation Of Immeasurable Life’ are too complicated, and suggested upholding mindfulness of the name of Amituofo as the main practice method. Even those who had done evil, as long as able to uphold Amituofo’s name wholeheartedly with faith and aspiration, can be reborn in his Pure Land.
The Great Master summed up that Amituofo’s name completely upholds (i.e. completely retains) all of the Buddha’s teachings, and is equal to Prajna Paramita (Perfection Of Wisdom), equal to dharanis’ sentences and phrases, and equal to mantras. The name’s meritorious power, together with the supreme magnificence of the Land Of Ultimate Bliss, are one and not two, as ‘the name is the Dharma’. It is precisely because these four characters of ‘Amituofo’ cover and contain the immeasurably profound and broad meanings of the Dharma, that he taught the name to be complete with functions of a mantra. Furthermore, he encouraged everyone to always recite the name, to be mindful of Amituofo, so as to correspond with the Buddha’s teachings, to truly practise them.
The Great Master’s many explanations on the fundamental concepts of the Pure Land tradition were of great significance to future generations’ subsequent propagation and promotion of the Pure Land teachings. They also had tremendous influence later, upon Great Master Daozhuo, and especially Great Master Shandao, as epitomised in his thought on Pure Land practice.
In his later years, the Great Master moved to Fen Province’s Northern Mountain’s Shibi Monastery (now Shanxi City’s Xuanzhong Monastery), to diligently practise and propagate the Pure Land teachings. The Great Master received great respect from royalty, monastics and commoners of the Northern-Southern Dynasty. The Eastern Wei’s Emperor Xiaojing addressed him as the ‘Divine Luan’ (a marvellous phoenix-like bird), and the Southern Dynasty’s Emperor Liang addressed him as a ‘Living Bodhisattva’. The Great Master spent his entire life propagating the Pure Land teachings, thereby establishing a solid foundation for the Pure Land tradition.
When approaching the end of life, the Great Master dreamt of Nagarjuna Bodhisattva, who told him of the day and time of his birth in Pure Land. On the day of rebirth, he asked his disciples to recite the Buddha’s name loudly, as he faced West and departed. All in the monastery’s great assembly saw flowers, parasols, pennants and banners arrive from the West, as heavenly music filled the sky for a long time before dispersing. The Great Master’s age then was sixty-seven.