TANYAO (mid-fifth century ce), Chinese Buddhist monk and central figure in the revival of Buddhism after its suppression by the Northern Wei dynasty (385–534). Little is known about the early life of Tanyao except that he was eminent monk in the non-Chinese Bei Liang kingdom (397–439, in what is now Gansu province) before it was conquered by another non-Chinese kingdom, the Northern Wei.
As was the case in many of the northern dynasties, Buddhism was popular among the rulers of the Northern Wei. Thus when Tanyao arrived in the Northern Wei capital of Pingzheng (modern Datong), he found allies among the many Buddhists at the imperial court, the most prominent of whom was Crown Prince Huang. But Huang's father, the reigning emperor Taiwudi, came under the influence of an anti-Buddhist clique led by the Daoist adept Kou Qianzhi and the Daoist literatus Cui Hao, both openly hostile toward Buddhism. In 446 the emperor instituted a series of repressive measures against Buddhism, culminating in the issuance of an edict for its wholesale proscription.
The guiding hand behind the edict, which among other things ordered the execution of every monk in the realm, was Cui Hao, who effected it by taking advantage of the emperor's fury upon discovering a cache of weapons in a monastery in the city of Chang'an, a fact that the emperor took to be evidence of Buddhist complicity in a rebellion he had only recently suppressed. Other officials at court, including Kou Qianzhi, presented memorials urging the amelioration of the harshest points of the edict, thus delaying its actual promulgation and allowing monks time to flee or return to lay life, Tanyao resisted giving up the robe until the concerned crown prince convinced him of the prudence of this action, but he nevertheless maintained the sacerdotal paraphernalia in secret.
Kou Qianzhi died in 448, and in 450 Cui Hao was executed along with his entire clan for including unsavory aspects from the lives of the emperor's ancestors in the official history of the dynasty that he had been commissioned to write. With the passing of this duo, anti-Buddhist strictures began to relax. But full restoration occurred only after the assassination, by a eunuch, of Taiwudi in 454 and the accession of his grandson, Wenchengdi.
Buddhism had been subject to state control since the beginning of the dynasty, when Emperor Taizu granted the Chinese monk Faguo the official title of daoren tong (director of monks). In that capacity Faguo set a precedent in Chinese Buddhist history by identifying the emperor with the Tathāgata and requiring monks to bow down to him, an act in clear violation of monastic precedent. The daoren tong, which was abolished with the proscription of Buddhism, was revived with the restoration under a new name—the jianfu cao (office to oversee merits), a name later changed to zhaoxuan si (office to illumine the mysteries)—and presided over by a Kashmiri called Shixian. The new office was the center of a network, more finely woven than ever before, of governmental control over religious affairs.
Tanyao was Shixian's successor and held the post, now called the shamen tong (office of the śramaṇa superintendant), for more than twenty years. It was he who took advantage of the augmented interpenetration of government and religion to expand and glorify the Buddhist church.
One of his first important accomplishments was to persuade the new emperor, who was anxious to reverse the karmic effects of his grandfather's crimes, to undertake the costly project of chiseling into the walls of the Yungang caves (a few miles west of the capital) massive images of Buddhas and bodhisattva s, works still considered some of the greatest achievements of Chinese Buddhist art. The first group of caves (nos. 16–20 on modern charts) contains five Buddhas, one seventy feet tall, representing the first two emperors of the dynasty; the then-reigning emperor Wenchengdi; his father, Crown Prince Huang (who never reigned); and the infamous Taiwudi. The association of the imperial family with Buddhism could not have been represented in more intimate terms.
Another step taken by Tanyao to expand the influence of Buddhism was the establishment of Saṃgha Households (sengji hu ) and Buddha Households (fotu hu ). A Saṃgha Household was a voluntary association of a certain number of families responsible for paying sixty bushels of grain to the local branch of the shamen tong. That office then stored the grain for distribution to the poor in times of famine. Those Saṃgha Households faithfully fulfilling their responsibility were exempted from taxation.
Buddha Households consisted of a group chosen from among criminals or slaves who as bondsmen of the monastery had the responsibility of cultivating its fields and maintaining its buildings and grounds. With numerous monasteries under construction under Tanyao's leadership, amnesty after amnesty was granted to provide them with Buddha Households.
The Saṃgha Households and the Buddha Households were important for other reasons as well. On the one hand, they served the state by opening up new lands for cultivation during the years when war-induced underpopulation left so much land uncultivated that there were frequent famines. They also lightened the government's burden of supporting prisoners. On the other hand, they provided the church with a source of revenue and a pool of potential converts.
In addition to his many administrative accomplishments, Tanyao also translated scripture. His translations of the Saṃyuktaratnapiṭaka Sūtra (Za baocang jing ), completed with the assistance of Indian monks in 462, and the compilation Fu facang yinyuan zhuan, both containing many stories in the Jātaka and Avadāna genres, provided edifying themes for sculptors working in the Yungang caves.
For the traditional account of Tanyao's life, see his biography in Daoxuan's Xu gaoseng zhuan (T.D. 50.427c–428a). Tsukamoto Zenryū's authoritative study of the Northern Wei period, Shina Bukkyōshi kenkyū: Hokugi hen (Tokyo, 1942), includes a wealth of valuable material on Tanyao and his intellectual and political milieu. The chapter on Tanyao has been translated by Galen E. Sargent as "The Śramaṇa Superintendent T'an-yao and His Time," Monumenta Serica 16 (1957): 363–396. See also Leon Hurvitz's Wei Shou on Buddhism and Taoism (Kyoto, 1956), a translation of the Shilao zhi, and Tsukamoto Zenryū's Daisekibutsu (Tokyo, 1953).
Huntington, John C. "The Iconography and Iconology of the 'Tan Yao' Caves at Yungang." In Oriental Art (1986): 142–159.
Tsukamoto Zenryū. A History of Early Chinese Buddhism: From Its Introduction to the Death of Huiyuan. Translated by Leon Hurvitz. Tokyo, 1985.
Miyakawa Hisayuki (1987)