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Biography of Tao-hsüan

Name: Tao-hsüan
Bith Date: 596
Death Date: 667
Place of Birth: China
Nationality: Chinese
Gender: Male
Occupations: monk

The Chinese Buddhist monk Tao-hsüan (596-667) was an important Buddhist scholar and the founder of the Disciplinary school, Lü-tsung, of Chinese Buddhism.

Tao-hsüan was born in southeast China 7 years after the unification of China by the Sui dynasty, an event which brought to a close nearly 4 centuries of political division. At least several generations of his ancestors had served as officials in the southern Chinese dynasties; nothing is known about his father. His family must have been well-to-do, because as a boy he received a classical education in the Confucian canon, a privilege of the wealthy and leisured class.

There is evidence that the family's fortunes slumped under the Sui regime (581-617). Perhaps despairing of secular success, Tao-hsüan turned toward Buddhism, which was widespread and well supported in China at that time. When he was 15 he began to study the Buddhist classics under the guidance of a well-known monk in the capital of Ch'ang-an. The next year he formally entered a monastery, and 4 years later he was ordained as a Buddhist monk.

Tao-hsüan studied under a Buddhist master who taught the Vinaya in Four Parts (Ssu-fen-lü), one version of the rules of monastic discipline. He began his writings on Buddhism at this time, compiling material concerning this Buddhist school. In 630 Tao-hsüan entered a temple in the Chung-nan Mountains south of Ch'ang-an. In the following years he began to formulate his own ideas, which showed more independence after his principal teachers died between 635 and 637. Because he established his basic precepts during this period, his school is known as the Southern Mountain Disciplinary school (Nan-shan Lü-hsüeh), named after the location of the monastery where he had lived.

During the following years Tao-hsüan continued his scholarly work, eventually producing a corpus of formidable proportions. One of the best-known of his works is the Continuation of the Lives of Eminent Monks, which was an important source of inspiration for Chinese Buddhists and is a valuable source of information for the modern scholar.

In 645 Tao-hsüan took part in the translation of Buddhist scriptures that the famous pilgrim-traveler Hsüantsang had brought back from India after his lengthy and arduous trip. His collaboration with Hsüan-tsang continued for years, during which time his own reputation soared.

By 658 Tao-hsüan was abbot of a large monastery in Ch'ang-an. As an important cleric in the capital, he was on several occasions involved in disputes concerning the etiquette of Buddhists in the imperial court, an important matter which involved the relationship of the faith to the secular power. Although he was a vigorous and able defender of Buddhism, he preferred religious activity to political, and in 664 he returned to the temple in the Chung-nan Mountains, where years before he had begun his important thinking and writing.

In his old age Tao-hsüan was eager to practice the ideas that he had developed. He was mainly concerned with the actual practice of Buddhism, particularly with matters of monastic discipline. A special building was constructed to house an ordination platform, where his school could practice his formulas for religious discipline and ceremony.

Tao-hsüan was a mystic and visionary. Insisting that his interpretations of doctrine were simply what he had been told by the gods, he dogmatically asserted that their otherworldly provenance freed his views from error. He passed his teachings on to a small group of disciples who carried on after his death in 667.

Further Reading

  • There is nothing available in English on Tao-hsüan's life. For a general interpretation and discussion on Buddhism in China see Arthur F. Wright, Buddhism in Chinese History (1959), and Kenneth K. S. Ch'en, Buddhism in China (1964).

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