Biographies of Eminent Monks (Gaoseng Zhuan)

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"Biographies of Eminent Monks" is a genre of Chinese Buddhist writing consisting primarily of four biographical collections, all compiled by monks: (1) Biographies of Eminent Monks (Gaoseng zhuan), completed around 530 by Huijiao (497–554); (2) Further Biographies of Eminent Monks (Xu gaoseng zhuan), first draft completed in approximately 650 by Daoxuan (596–667) with later additions in the 660s; (3) Biographies of Eminent Monks [Compiled] during the Song Dynasty (Song gaoseng zhuan), completed in 982 by Zanning (919–1001); and (4) Biographies of Eminent Monks [Compiled] during the Ming Dynasty (Ming gaoseng zhuan), completed in 1617 by Ruxing (d.u.). Although there is some overlap in time between collections, in general each picks up where the last left off. Daoxuan, for example, wrote mostly on monks who lived after Huijiao's collection was completed.

Of the four books, Huijiao's has been the most influential and the most admired for its style. It has been one of the most widely read historical works by any Chinese monk.

Huijiao's Biographies of Eminent Monks established the format for the later versions. He divided the 275 biographies contained in his collection into ten categories: (1) "Translators"; (2) "Exegetes"; (3) "Divine Wonders," devoted to wonder-workers; (4) "Practitioners of Meditation"; (5) "Elucidators of the Regulations," devoted to scholars of the vinaya or monastic rules; (6) "Those who Sacrificed Themselves," for monks who sacrificed their bodies in acts of charity or devotion; (7) "Chanters of Scriptures";(8) "Benefactors," for monks who solicited funds for Buddhist construction and other enterprises; (9) "Hymnodists," devoted to monks skilled in intoning liturgy; and (10) "Proselytizers." At the end of each section, Huijiao appended a treatise in which he discusses the theme of the section. In his treatise on translators, Huijiao gives a brief history of the transmission of Buddhist scriptures and discusses the difficulties of translating Indian texts into Chinese. An introduction to the book lists previous collections of monastic biographies, and explains how Huijiao distinguished his work from them.

Subsequent works followed Huijiao's format with some changes. Most notably, Daoxuan combined the sections for hymnodists and proselytizers, and then added a section for "Protectors of the Dharma," devoted to monks who defended Buddhism from its enemies at court and elsewhere.

The compilers of the collections followed Chinese historiographical custom in the composition of their biographies. In general, they relied on previous sources, directly quoting them without attribution. Major sources included the texts of stele inscriptions, usually composed soon after a monk's death by a local literatus at the request of the monk's followers. The compilers also drew on other literary accounts, including prefaces to works written by the monk in question, and collections of miracle stories; they occasionally based biographies on oral traditions concerning particular monks. In most cases, the original sources for the biographies are lost, but occasionally it is possible to reconstruct the sources for biographies in the later collections. As the title suggests, criterion for inclusion was based on a monk's "eminence," or rank. With a few exceptions, only monks regarded by the compilers as admirable are accorded biographies.

See also:Biography; History


Kieschnick, John. The Eminent Monk: Buddhist Ideals in Medieval Chinese Hagiography. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1997.

Wright, Arthur F. "Biography and Hagiography: Hui-chiao's Lives of Eminent Monks." In Studies in Chinese Buddhism, ed. Robert M. Somers. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990.

John Kieschnick