Sanjie Jiao (Three Stages School)

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The Sanjie jiao (Three "Levels" or "Stages") movement begun by the Chinese monk Xinxing (540–594 c.e.) is perhaps best known because its teachings and practices were suppressed as heretical numerous times over the two-hundred-plus years of its history. Banned from the official scriptural canon as apocryphal (weijing), Sanjie writings were lost until discoveries of numerous manuscripts at Dunhuang and elsewhere in the early twentieth century. In spite of opposition, the movement remained popular for several centuries, attracting the aristocracy as well as throngs of commoners.

The movement takes its name from its central teaching, which divides sentient beings into three levels of spiritual capacity: the "wise, the in-between, and the stupid," as the Wei-Shu (eighth century) put it. Xinxing taught that the people of his era were entirely of the third level, blinded by prejudice and hatred and therefore incapable of a correct understanding of the Buddha's teachings. Whereas sentient beings of superior capacity could benefit from the varied teachings of the different schools (biefa), the degenerate beings of the third level needed to rely on the universal teachings (pufa) of ultimate truth that transcend distinctions of truth and falsity, purity and impurity. Xinxing was also influenced by the doctrine of the decline of the dharma, according to which people's capacity for practice decreases as the time from the historical Buddha increases.

Equally important for Xinxing was the doctrine of universal buddha-nature or tathĀgatagarbha. This teaching asserts that all sentient beings are fundamentally of the same nature as the fully awakened buddha and will one day realize that nature. From these doctrines came the Sanjie practice of "recognizing the evil" in oneself while cultivating "universal respect" for the inherent buddhahood of all other sentient beings.

The Sanjie community was headquartered at Huadu and four other monasteries in the capital city of Chang'an, though it had communities throughout China. In their monastic life, members followed a typical regimen that included a wide variety of contemplative practices, penitentiary rituals, veneration of the buddhas, devotional liturgies, chants, the seeking of alms, and the like. Perhaps reflecting their emphasis on recognizing the evil in oneself, Sanjie communities were extremely rigorous in these practices and punished even small infractions. The best-known Sanjie institution was the charitable Inexhaustible Storehouse (Wujinzang), which lent goods free of interest to the poor and needy.

In spite of its popularity, Sanjie was suppressed five times between 600 and 725. It is hard to know the exact reasons behind the suppressions, for there was nothing particularly radical or socially dangerous about Sanjie teachings, practices, or institutions—indeed, they were typical of many other groups of the time. There was also no common theme linking the suppressions: Some edicts banned Sanjie texts from the canon, others aimed at its institutional base at Huadu Monastery, and others attacked unspecified practices. The reign (684–705) of Empress Wu saw both imperial support for the Inexhaustible Storehouse and suppression of Sanjie scriptures, though none of the attacks ever actually eliminated the movement. The treatment Sanjie received does show the political nature of religious institutions and the important yet ephemeral nature of orthodoxy.

See also:Apocrypha; China; Persecutions


Buswell, Robert E., Jr., ed. Chinese Buddhist Apocrypha. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990.

Hubbard, Jamie. Absolute Delusion, Perfect Buddhahood: The Rise and Fall of a Chinese Heresy. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2001.

Jamie Hubbard