views updated


HUIYUAN (334416), more fully Shi Huiyuan or Lüshan Huiyuan, Chinese Buddhist monk. Born to a literati family named Jia in Yanmen (Shanxi province), Huiyuan went to Henan at the age of thirteen to study both the Confucian classics and the Laozi and Zhuangzi. When he was twenty he met the eminent Buddhist monk Dao'an (312385), whose personality and explanation of the philosophy of the "perfection of wisdom" (Skt., prajñāpāramitā ) impressed him so much that he embraced Buddhism and became his disciple. He remained with Dao'an for twenty-four years, residing mostly at Xiangyang. In 378 the invading Qin army forced master and disciple to separate. Huiyuan went south and eventually settled on Mount Lü in Jiangxi, where one of his colleagues from his days in Xiangyang, Huiyong, interceded on his behalf to have the Donglin Monastery built for him around 384. He remained there until his death thirty years later.

The Donglin Monastery soon became the most famous center of Buddhism in southern China and continued to be so for several centuries after Huiyuan's death. Much of this prestige derived from the high esteem in which Huiyuan was held by the courts of the Eastern Jin dynasty in the South and the Yao Qin dynasty in the North, and by local rulers, who regarded him as the bulwark and paragon of Buddhist virtue. Huiyuan was active as a scholar and proponent of Buddhism, improving its status in China by increasing the number of texts available in translation and by defending the religion against its opponents. He sent certain of his disciples west to gather scriptures, of which over two hundred were eventually translated. He was also involved in the activities of many translators, three of whom represented three important tendencies in Buddhism: Saghadeva (Abhidharma texts), Buddhabhadra (dhyāna texts), and Kumārajīva (Mādhyamika texts). In 404, in response to the anti-Buddhist policies of Huan Xuan, the usurper of the Eastern Jin, Huiyuan elaborated his position on church-state relations in his influential The Śraana Does Not Pay Homage to the Ruler. Here he argued that of the two groups in Buddhism, the laity and the clergy, the former is subject to temporal authority but not the latter, since its members had abandoned society for nonworldly ends.

Huiyuan also enjoyed enormous popularity among the gentry of South China, for it was to this group that he primarily directed his literary efforts. Some thirty of his works, in the form of letters, essays, prefaces, eulogies, or inscriptions, are extant. Unlike Dao'an, who primarily wrote commentaries for the Buddhist clergy, Huiyuan addressed issues that most concerned the gentry: rebirth, the immortality of the soul, the doctrine of karman, and the nature of the dharmakāya. His previous classical training made him successful in explaining these concepts in terms of the philosophical outlook of the Chinese elite, which at the time was dominated by xuanxue ("dark learning") speculations into the underlying source (ben ) of phenomena. That he never once quoted a Buddhist sūtra by name but made numerous allusions to the Confucian classics attests to his fervent desire to bring Buddhism into the mainstream of Chinese spiritual and intellectual life. Modern scholars have identified certain areas in which Huiyuan's understanding of important Buddhist concepts deviates from that of the Indian texts. They have attributed this both to his concern to present Buddhist notions in a form comprehensible to the Chinese, as in his postulation of a cosmic soul (shen ) as a means of explaining the process of rebirth, or to his frank inability in some instances to master the subtleties of Buddhist doctrine. This is particularly evident in his treatment of the Mādhyamika concepts introduced into China by Kumārajīva. Huiyuan's correspondence with this, perhaps the greatest of all Buddhist translators, is one of our richest sources of information on the development of Buddhist thought in fifth-century China.

Among Huiyuan's many accomplishments, his devotional group probably had the most enduring influence on Chinese Buddhism. In 402 Huiyuan and 123 lay and clerical disciples gathered before an image of the Buddha Amitābha and made a collective vow to be reborn together in his Pure Land. Huiyuan's devotional group served as a model for the lay-based Buddhist societies of the mid-Tang and Song periods, the most well known of which is the White Lotus Society of the early twelfth century. This group claimed to take its name from that of Huiyuan's confraternity; modern scholarship, however, has shown the name to be of later origin. The deliberate evocation of Huiyuan's legacy some eight hundred years after his death, however, attests vividly to his enduring prestige in the Chinese Buddhist community. His influence continues to be acknowledged by the Pure Land traditions of both China and Japan, which have traditionally regarded Huiyuan as their founder and first patriarch.

See Also

Dao'an; Jingtu; Kumārajīva; Millenarianism, article on Chinese Millenarian Movements.


The best historical treatment of Huiyuan, including translation of his biography, can be found in Erik Zürcher's The Buddhist Conquest of China (Leiden, 1959), pp. 204253. For an overview of Huiyuan's thought, with emphasis on his deviation from the original Indian position, there is Walter Liebenthal's "Shih Hui-yüan's Buddhism as Set Forth in His Writings," Journal of the American Oriental Society 70 (1950): 243259. Huiyuan's major essay, The Śraana Does Not Pay Homage to the Ruler (Shamen bu jing wangzhe lun ), is fully translated by Leon Hurvitz in "'Render unto Caesar' in Early Chinese Buddhism," in Liebenthal Festschrift, "Sino-Indian Studies," vol. 5, pts. 34, edited by Roy Kshitis (Santiniketan, 1957), pp. 80114. An assessment of Huiyuan's understanding of Mādhyamika philosophy, plus translation of his correspondence with Kumārajīva and a list of all of his extant writings with textual references, can be found in Richard Robinson's Early Mādhyamika in India and China (Madison, Wis., 1967), pp. 96114, 181205. Eon Kenkyū, 2 vols., edited by Kimura Eiichi (Kyoto, 19601962), is the most thorough work on this figure; it includes studies on Huiyuan, his texts and translations.

New Sources

Tanaka, Kenneth K. The Dawn of Chinese Pure Land Buddhist Doctrine: Ching-ying Hui-yuan's Commentary on the Visualization Sutra. Albany, N.Y., 1990.

Tsukamoto, Zenryū. A History of Early Chinese Buddhism: From Its Introduction to the Death of Huiyuan. Translated from the Japanese by Leon Hurvitz. Tokyo, 1985.

Wagner, Rudolf G. "The Original Structure of the Correspondence between Shih Hiu-yuan and Kumarajiva." Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 31 (1971): 2848.

Kenneth Tanaka (1987)

Revised Bibliography