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TANLUAN (traditional dates 476542, but more probably c. 488554) was the author of the first known systematic work to be produced in China on Pure Land (Chin., Jingtu) Buddhism, that branch of the Buddhist tradition that emphasizes faith in the Buddha Amitābha (Buddha of Limitless Light; Chin., Emituofo; Jpn., Amida) and rebirth in Sukhāvatī ("land of bliss"), Amitābha's paradisiacal realm in the western quarter of the universe, as a means of attaining enlightenment. Tanluan's writings were a major textual source for the Japanese monk Shinran (11731262), the founder of the Jōdo Shinshū, which therefore regards Tanluan as one of its major patriarchal figures.

According to his biography in the Xu gaoseng zhuan (Further Biographies of Eminent Monks), Tanluan was born in the north, near Wutai Shan in Shansi Province, and studied Buddhism in his youth. Following a serious illness, however, he took up the pursuit of techniques of immortality recommended in various Daoist texts. His quest eventually led him to a supposed encounter with Tao Hongjing (456536), the eminent Six Dynasties alchemist and master of the Maoshan Daoist tradition, who allegedly transmitted to him ten fascicles of "scriptures of the immortals" (xian cjng ). On his way north again Tanluan stopped in Luoyang, where the Indian monk and translator Bodhiruci is said to have introduced him to the Guan wuliangshou jing (Scripture on the Visualization of the Buddha Amitābha). Bodhiruci remarked to him at the time that Amitābha (known also by his alternate Sanskrit name, Amitāyus, Buddha of Limitless Life) was the "greatest immortal" (da xian ), given his ability to lead beings out of the realm of rebirth altogether. This historically questionable episode is nonetheless suggestive of the close link that must have been popularly perceived between the soteriological goals of Daoism and some of the Buddhist traditions, a link that may have contributed to the rapid growth in popularity of the Amitābha cult in Tanluan's time. In the aftermath of this encounter Tanluan devoted himself to the study of the Pure Land scriptures, eventually gathering around himself a group of devotees to Amitābha.

Many Daoist and Buddhist works are attributed to Tanluan, but only two, both of which are Buddhist, are unquestionably authentic. The first, a systematic treatise, is generally known by the abbreviated title Wangsheng lun zhu (Notes on the Treatise on Birth [in the Pure Land]; T. D. no. 1819). The second, the Zan Emitofoji (Canticles on Amitābha; T. D. no. 1978), is an apparently liturgical work. The Lun zhu is Tanluan's commentary (zhu ) to the so-called Sukhāvatīvyūhopadeśa* (Wuliangshou jing yupotishe yuansheng ji ), a collection of Buddhist-style hymns (Skt., gāthā ), with autocommentary, attributed uncertainly to Vasubandhu. Tanluan's commentary proceeds carefully au pied de la lettre, with only a few insertions external to the format of "Vasubandhu's" text. His general intent is to show how one may achieve liberation by availing oneself of the pure karman of Amitābha, which is freely dispensed to all who seek it in accordance with a series of resolves (pranidhana ) taken by this Buddha while still the bodhisattva Dharmākara.

Drawing on the Larger Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra, the Smaller Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra, and the Guan wuliangshou jing, Tanluan shows how the power of Amitābha is effective for all beings who call upon him in faith, even for laypersons who cannot meditate or for those sunk in immorality. Faith in, and worship of, Amitābha is accomplished through what Tanluan (imparting his own classification to "Vasubandhu's" discussion) termed the "five gates of recollection" (wu nianmen ): bodily worship (i. e., bowing, etc.); vocal praise (especially, but not exclusively the invocation of his name, i. e., nianfo practice); wholehearted resolve to be reborn in the Pure Land; visualization (guan ) of the delights of the Pure Land; and "turning toward" (huixiang ), a purposely ambiguous term that means both turning toward beings while the practitioner is still in samsara, so as to give them the religious merit gained through one's own practice and, having been born in the Pure Land, turning back toward beings by being reborn in samsara in order to liberate others.

Tanluan's demonstration of these simple practices is sophisticated and profound, being based heavily upon the Mahāprajñāpāramitā Śāstra (a commentary on the Perfection of Wisdom Scripture attributed to Nāgārjuna), but it is not necessary to understand the demonstration in order to use the practice. The upāya (skill in means) involved is that of the passionate longing for heavenly delights. The Pure Land is depicted as if it were a heaven of sensual delight (i. e., a devaloka, or realm of a deity), but in fact it is outside of the phenomenal world of sasāra. It is not a phantasm, however: "It exists extra-phenomenally," says Tanluan, and is by its inner nature pure in every respect, even in respect of discursive thought. Thus, when one dies and, through Amitābha's power, is reborn in the Pure Land and sees Amitābha there as its lord, one is actually "not born." One's desires take on the Pure Land's nature of desirelessness as the water of rivers takes on the saltiness of the sea when it runs into it. One's passionate longing for delight is extinguished "like ice mixed with fire: The fire [of the passions] goes out, and the ice [of the Pure Land's delights] disappears." Thus, one has effectively achieved nirvāa and one functions like a bodhisattva of the upper levels (i. e., a bodhisattva who has achieved the state of nonretrogression), ever remaining fixed in the dharmakāya (unmanifest Buddha nature) yet constantly manifesting bodies in all the worlds where Buddhist teachers are needed, "like the sun that remains in the sky yet is reflected in hundreds of rivers and pools."

Tanluan was virtually ignored in China, but his influence in Japan has been considerable since Shinran's time. Shinran used the Lun zhu as the major source of his Kyōgyōshinshō, a collection of proof texts on Pure Land Buddhism, and composed his own San Amidabu-tsuge, which was closely based on Tanluan's Zan Emitofo ji. Shinran built his even simpler practice of gratefully rejoicing in already having been liberated by the power of Amitābha on the intellectual foundation provided by Tanluan.

See Also

Amitābha; Jingtu; Nianfo; Shinran; Tao Hongjing.


For an excellent introduction to Tanluan's thought and its influence on the Pure Land tradition in China, see Mochizuki Shinkō's Chūgoku jōdo kyōrishi (Kyoto, 1964). Fukuhara Ryōgon's Ōjō ronchū no kenkyū (Kyoto, 1978) and Mikogami Eryū's Ōjō ronchū kaisetsu (Kyoto, 1969) contain valuable analyses of the Wangsheng lun zhu, as does my own "Tanluan's Commentary on the Pure Land Discourse: An Annotated Translation and Soteriological Analysis of the Wangshenglun Zhu " (Ph. D diss., University of Wisconsin, 1973). For a discussion of the influence of Tanluan's thought on Japanese Pure Land Buddhism, see Bandō Shōjun's "Shinran's Indebtedness to Tanluan," The Eastern Buddhist n. s. 4 (May 1971): 7287, and, more fully, my "Shinran's Proofs of True Buddhism: Hermeneutics and Doctrinal Development in the Kyōgyōshinshō's use of Tanluan's Lunzhu, " in Buddhist Hermeneutics, edited by Donald S. Lopez, Jr. (Honolulu, forthcoming).

Roger J. Corless (1987)