ŚUBHᾹKARASṂHA (637–735), Indian monk and missionary, was the founder of the Zhenyan school in China. Śubhākarasṃha (Chin., Shanwuwei) arrived in the Chinese capital, Chang'an, in 716. A missionary of Vājrayana Buddhism, he was followed in 720 by Vajrabodhi and his disciple Amoghavajra. The three ācārya s ("teachers") established Zhenyan as the dominant form of Buddhism at the court.
Śubhākarasṃha was born a prince in a small royal family near Magadha in North India, supposedly a descendant of Śākyamuni's uncle, Amṛtodana. The family migrated to Orissa, where Śubhākarasṃha's succession to the throne at age thirteen plunged him into a struggle with his brothers. Although victorious, Śubhākarasṃha's piety led him to renounce the throne in favor of his elder brother, and he became a monk. He led a life of wandering, seeking out teachers in the "south seas," and he learned the craft of making stupas and other castings. Making his way to the monastic university of Nālandā, Śubhākarasṃha became a disciple of Dharmagupta and was initiated into the Vajrayāna teachings of the dhāraṇī s, yoga, and the Three Mysteries. He debated with heretics and finally was sent by Dharmagupta as a missionary to China.
After his arrival in Chang'an, the emperor Xuanzong (r. 713–756) lodged Śubhākarasṃha in the Ximing Temple. There, Śubhākarasṃha translated a text aimed at the procurement of wealth, which apparently led to the emperor's order impounding the monk's Sanskrit manuscripts. Sometime later the texts were returned and the monk Yi Xing was ordered to assist in Śubhākarasṃha's translation work. The emperor was especially interested in texts dealing with magical and astronomical lore. In 724 Śubhākarasṃha accompanied the emperor to the eastern capital, Loyang, and was commissioned to translate the Mahāvairocana Sūtra (T.D. no. 848), which, along with the Sarvatathāgatatattva-saṃgraha (T.D. no. 866), translated by Vajrabodhi, forms the basis of East Asian Vajrayāna. Yixing composed the first six of seven volumes of the Commentary (T.D. no. 1796) on the Mahāvairocana Sūtra before he died. The final volume (T.D. no. 1797) was completed by the Korean monk known in Chinese as Bukesiyi. The massive Commentary contains Śubhākarasṃha's oral explanations of passages in the Mahāvairocana Sūtra and represents a creative interpretation of the Vajrayana for a Chinese milieu. Śubhākarasṃha also translated the Susiddhikāra Sūtra (T.D. no. 893), a compendium of rituals. In 732 Śubhākarasṃha petitioned the emperor, requesting that he be allowed to return to India, but his request was denied and he died in 735. Śubhākarasṃha's body was embalmed and a stupa erected in his honor near the Longmen caves.
Śubhākarasṃha's importance lay in his translation into Chinese of key texts of the Vajrayana tradition, including the Mahāvairocana Sūtra and the Susiddhikāra Sūtra, and in his establishment of the Zhenyan school in the Chinese court. Through his oral teachings contained in the Commentary, Śubhākarasṃha initiated a tradition of careful adaptation of Indian Vajrayana ideas and practices for the East Asian milieu. In its original, and in its revised edition of Wengu and Zhiyan, the Commentary was a source of creative interpretation for both Zhiyan and, later, Japanese Shingon and the Esoteric branches of Tendai. Finally, Śubhākarasṃha applied his supernormal "powers" (siddhi) as a means of building political support for Zhenyan. He was a siddha, or "wonder-worker," as well as a translator, and his exploits caught the imagination of both courtiers and masses. Years after his death, emperors and officials visited his tomb to pray for rain.
The biographies of Śubhākarasṃha, Vajrabodhi, and Amoghavajra have been translated and carefully annotated by Zhou Yi Liang in his "Tantrism in China," Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 8 (March 1945): 241–332.
Chen, Jinhua. "The Construction of Early Tendai Esoteric Buddhism: The Japanese Provenance of Saicho's Transmission Documents and Three Esoteric Buddhist Apocrypha Attributed to Subhakarasimha." Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 21, no. 1 (1998): 21–76.
Orzech, Charles D. "Seeing Chen-yen Buddhism: Traditional Scholarship and the Vajrayana in China." History of Religions 29 (1989): 87–114.
Yamamoto, C., and International Academy of Indian Culture. Mahavairocana-Sutra: Translated into English from Ta-p'i lu che na ch'eng-fo shen-pien chia-ch'ih ching, the Chinese Version of Subhakarasimha and I-hsing, A.D. 725. New Delhi, 1990.
Charles D. Orzech (1987)