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DAOSHENG (360?434), also Zhu Daosheng; Chinese Buddhist monk, student of the Nirvāa Sūtra, and early proponent of a doctrine of sudden enlightenment. The precise age at which Daosheng entered the religious life is unknown. Accounts of his early career state only that he studied under Zhu Fatai (a disciple, with Dao'an, of Fotudeng) in Jiankang, the southern capital. In 397 he journeyed to Mount Lu and became the disciple of Dao'an's most famous student, Huiyuan. During his first year on Lushan, Daosheng took advantage of the presence of the Kashmiri monk Saghadeva to study the Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma literature. Around 406 he left Lushan for the northern capital of Chang'an, where he presumably attended Kumārajīva's translation seminars of the Vimalakīrti and Saddharma-puarīka Sūtra s. Later, he wrote commentaries to both of these scriptures.

In 407 Daosheng abruptly left Chang'an and returned to Lushan, bearing with him a copy of Sengzhao's Boruo wu zhi lun (Prajñā is not knowledge). Liu Yimin's correspondence with Sengzhao regarding this text, included in the Zhaolun, resulted from this fortuitous transmission. Shortly after arriving on Mount Lu, Daosheng was off again, this time to Jiankang, where in 418 Faxian translated a recension of the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāa Sūtra. This text, like its Hīnayāna namesake, purported to record the last discourse of the Buddha, a fact that very naturally conferred on it a prestige and authority all its own. Quite unlike the Hīnayāna version, however, the Mahāyāna text preached that nirvāa was "permanent, joyous, personal, and pure" (Chin., chang, le, wo [!], jing ), assertions that are substantially at odds with the normative Mahāyāna teaching that the nature of nirvāa, like that of all dharma s, is itself empty (śūnya ) of all attributes. More curious to Daosheng's ears, however, was the statement in Faxian's translation that the icchantika s (Chin., yichanti, beings who have cut off their roots of virtue and seek only to gratify their desires) could never attain buddhahood. To Daosheng, such a statement vitiated the central claim of Mahāyāna Buddhism to be a vehicle of salvation for all beings. Disdaining to accept the letter of the text, he insisted on the ultimate buddhahood of the icchantika s, and in so doing brought down upon himself the wrath of the monastic community in Jiankang. Daosheng was forced to leave the capital in 428 or 429 when accusations of heresy were formally brought to the attention of the emperor.

Back on Lushan, Daosheng did not have to wait long for vindication. In 430 a new recension of the Mahāparinirvāa Sūtra, translated by Dharmakema in Liangzhou in 421, reached the southern capital. Eight chapters longer than Faxian's recension, this text contained passages in the sections hitherto unavailable to the Chinese that explicitly guaranteed salvation to the icchantika s. When the contents of this text became known in Jiankang, Daosheng was invited to return to the capital. He died on Mount Lu in the year 434.

Daosheng's works, nearly all lost, reflect the broadened textual horizons of the Chinese Buddhist world of the early fifth century. They include essays on the Buddha nature and the dharmakāya (the transcendental, absolute body of the Buddha); a treatise on the two truths, presumably a Mādhyamika-oriented work deriving from the influence of Kumārajīva; and commentaries on several sūtras, including the Vimalakīrti, the Saddharmapuarīka (Lotus), the Nirvāa (the principal scriptural warrant for many of his notions), and the Aasāhasrikā-prajñāpāramiā. But what we know of his thought is based principally on secondary sources, the testimony of Sengzhao, for instance, who liberally cites Daosheng's views in his own commentary on the Vimalakīrti Sūtra. Of Daosheng's scriptural commentaries only that on the Lotus survives.

For Daosheng, the phenomenal world is supported by an absolute, a principle of cosmic and moral order (li ) that is unitary, indivisible, and immanent in all things. This cosmic order is dharma. As the source of things, it is also their ti, or substance, and yet it is ultimately without any qualifying attributes whatsoever: it is kong, empty, wu, without existence, or ziran, self-same, what is naturally so. The personification of this principle is, of course, the Buddha, but as the Buddha is in a sense no more than a reification of the dharma, the body of the dharma (dharmakāya ), buddhas and ordinary beings share a common substance. The Nirvāa Sūtra asserts, in its most well-known passage, that all beings possess this buddha nature (foxing ). If so, argues Daosheng, the religious life does not culminate in the acquisition of some new quality but in an awareness within each of us of an already present enlightenment. Once this awareness dawns, there then arises what the Nirvāa Sūtra refers to as the true self (zhen wo ), an unqualified, blissful, and unchanging consciousness. It was in terms of this True Self that Daosheng understood the Nirvāa Sūtra 's teaching that nirvāa is permanent, joyous, personal, and pure.

Classical Mahāyāna thought conceives of the religious path as commencing with a mind set on enlightenment (bodhicitta ) and progressing through a series of ten bodhisattva stages (bhūmis ) in which deluded thought is suppressed and nondual insight (prajñā ) into reality cultivated. The seventh of these bhūmis is usually considered a decisive point in the spiritual life. From that point on, the practitioner is considered no longer subject to spiritual retrogression; his consciousness is wholly oriented toward enlightenment, even if that path involves, as it must, the decision to delay final nirvāa for the sake of others. But is the experience of enlightenment itself a sudden, radical break in consciousness, or is it of a piece, more rarefied perhaps, with the gradual steps of spiritual progress along the bodhisattva path?

A document contemporary with Daosheng, Xie Lingyun's Bianzong lun (Discussion of essentials; included in the Guang hongming ji, T.D. no. 2103) apprises us that for many Chinese the bodhisattva path was seen as a course of gradual progression and graded stages of enlightenment. Against this view, the Bianzong lun sets forth what it calls the new doctrine of Daosheng. According to this doctrine, as the Absolute is unitary, indivisible, and without any qualifiers whatsoever, so too must the wisdom that comprehends it be a sudden, intuitive insight (dunwu ) into the whole of reality. Such an insight can admit to no gradation. Daosheng likens the process of enlightenment to that of a fruit ripening on a tree. Religious practice may inculcate confidence and faith in the dharma, but at the moment when one reaches enlightenment there is a qualitative leap or disjunction, just as the fruit suddenly falls away from the tree when it reaches maturity.

Daosheng's teaching of sudden enlightenment was not the first such doctrine in China. Previous thinkers such as Zhi Dun and, allegedly, Dao'an, had spoken of the seventh bhūmi as the critical stage at which insight dawns. For them, however, this insight was deepened in later stages. Daosheng rejected this lesser doctrine of sudden enlightenment (xiao dunwu ), as he did the gradualist notions of his former companion in Chang'an, Huiguan (354424), who argued that practitioners of different levels of spiritual maturity perceive the truth in different ways and to differing degrees: the truth may be whole, but some are capable of seeing only a portion of it. This subitist versus gradualist controversy was one of the issues subsumed within the discourse of fifth- and sixth-century debates on the jiaopan, the divisions of scriptures that attempted to account for the diversity, even incongruity, the Chinese found among the teachings of the Indian sūtra literature. These organizing schemes classified texts both genetically, according to the type of teaching embodied therein, and historically, according to the period in the career of the Buddha in which they were said to have been preached.

In one of the most prominent of these early systems, Huiguan proposed that the Buddha preached at least two types of doctrine, dunjiao, or sudden teachings, and jianjiao, gradual teachings (a third type, indeterminate, is often attributed to Huiguan and was widely found in jiaopan contemporary with his). But Huiguan's emphasis here does not bear directly on the nature of the enlightenment experience itself; as the term jiao (teaching) implies, what is at issue is the method employed in various texts to bring beings to enlightenment, suggesting that in their quest for a systematization of the Buddhist scriptures, the scholar-monks of Daosheng's time admitted, in best Mahāyāna fashion, a plurality of religious paths without necessarily denying the suddenness of enlightenment itself.

For his part, Daosheng too proposed a classification of the Buddha's teachings according to the capacities of the audience. In the Miaofa lianhua jing su, his commentary to the Lotus Sūtra, Daosheng acknowledges the need for various devices to provoke faith in dharma and posits a fourfold division of the Buddha's teachings: (1) Good and Pure Wheel of the Law; (2) Expedient Teachings; (3) True Teachings; and (4) Teachings without Residue. Whether these refer, as commonly interpreted, to specific texts or, as also maintained (Ōchō, 1952, pp. 232238), merely to teaching methods, they are indicative of Daosheng's recognition that although the Truth may be indivisible, the means to attract people to it must take heed of their capacity to comprehend what is taught. Clearly, Daosheng never intended to preclude the necessity for religious cultivation by promulgating his doctrine of sudden enlightenment.

Crucial as these issues may have been for the Indian Buddhist tradition, where both subitist and gradualist tendencies are attested, it is important to recognize the extent to which the debate over the topic in China was carried out against a backdrop of indigenous values and perceptions. Despite the provocative fact that Xie Lingyun classed as sudden the doctrines of Confucius, Confucian teachings were perennially associated with a gradual path of moral and intellectual cultivation epitomized in their concept of the ideal person, the junzi. By contrast, the very notions most typically associated with the subitist doctrine, the unity and indivisibility of the Truth and the ineffability and spontaneity of the experience of it, are characteristically Daoist. As Demiéville points out (1973, pp. 256257), Daosheng's most well-known assertionsthat works are in vain, that acts engender no retribution, that karman is a mere nominal designation, and that buddahood is innate in all beingshandsomely recapitulate the notions of sagehood championed in the immediately preceding centuries by the xuanxue thinkers.

In later centuries, subitist and gradualist patterns would manifest themselves again in the controversies of the Southern and Northern Chan teachings (upon which Daosheng's thought has no real bearing whatsoever) and, in another form altogether, in the division of the neo-Confucian teachings into the so-called Cheng-Zhu and Lu-Wang traditions, testifying to the power of these motifs over Chinese intellectual and religious history. It is thus important to see in Daosheng's thought the extent to which Buddhist and indigenous patterns of religious thinking fertilize each other and to recognize in the concerns of the still young Chinese Buddhist church of Daosheng's day the resumption of perennial Chinese themes and conflicts.

See Also

Bodhisattva Path; Guo Xiang; Huiyuan; Kumārajīva; Sengzhao; Wang Bi.


Ch'en, Kenneth. Buddhism in China: A Historical Survey. Princeton, 1964. Daosheng's thought is introduced on pages 112120.

Demiéville, Paul. "Busshō." In Hōbōgirin, edited by Paul Demiéville, fasc. 2, pp. 185187. Tokyo, 1930.

Demiéville, Paul. "La pénétration du bouddhisme dans la tradition philosophique chinoise." In his Choix d'études bouddhiques, pp. 241260. Leiden, 1973. Includes a discussion of subitist versus gradualist tendencies in Chinese Buddhism.

Fung Yu-lan. A History of Chinese Philosophy, vol. 2, The Period of Classical Learning. 2d ed. Translated by Derk Bodde. Princeton, 1953. See pages 270284.

Fuse Kōgaku. Nehanshū no kenkyū. 2 vols. Tokyo, 1942. See especially volume 2 for an extensive treatment of the development of the notions of sudden and gradual enlightenment (pp. 139171) and the thought of Daosheng and Huiguan (pp. 172196).

Hurvitz, Leon N. Chih-i (538597): An Introduction to the Life and Ideas of a Chinese Buddhist Monk. Brussels, 1962. Dao-sheng is discussed on pages 193201.

Itano Chōhachi. "Dōshō no tongosetsu seiritsu no jijō." Tōhō gakuhō 7 (December 1936): 125186.

Itano Chōhachi. "Dōshō no busshōron." Shina bukkyō shigaku 2 (May 1938): 126.

Liebenthal, Walter. "A Biography of Chu Tao-sheng." Monumenta Nipponica 11 (1955): 284316.

Liebenthal, Walter. "The World Conception of Chu Taosheng." Monumenta Nipponica 12 (1956): 65103.

Liebenthal, Walter. "The World Conception of Chu Tao-sheng (Texts)." Monumenta Nipponica 12 (19561957): 241268.

Liebenthal, Walter, ed. and trans. The Book of Chao. Beijing, 1948. Appendix 3 contains a useful discussion of sudden and gradual enlightenment.

Ōchō Enichi. "Jiku Dōshō sen Hokekyōsho no kenkyū." Ōtani daigaku kenkyū nenpō 5 (1952): 169272.

Tang Yongtong. Han Wei liang-Jin Nan-bei chao fojiao shi. 2 vols. Shanghai, 1938. See volume 2, pages 601676, for a full treatment of Daosheng.

New Sources

Kim, Young-ho. Daosheng's Commentary on the Lotus Sūtra Sūtra: A Study and Translation. Albany, 1990.

Lai, Whalen. "Some Notes on Perceptions of Pratitya-Samutpada in China from Kumarajiva to Fa-yao." Journal of Chinese Philosophy 8 (1981): 427435.

Lai, Whalen. "The Mahaparinirvana-Sutra and Its Earliest Interpreters in China: Two Prefaces by Tao-lang and Daosheng." Journal of the American Oriental Society 102, no. 2 (1982): 99105.

Lai, Whalen. "Daosheng's Theory of Sudden Enlightenment Re-Examined." In Sudden and Gradual: Approaches to Enlightenment in Chinese Thought, edited by Peter Gregory, pp. 169200. Honolulu, 1987.

Yu, David C. "Skill-in-Means and the Buddhism of Daosheng: A Study of a Chinese Reaction to Mahāyāana of the Fifth Century." Philosophy East and West 24, no. 4 (1974): 413427.

Mark D. Cummings (1987)

Revised Bibliography