Yongming Yanshou (Zhijue, 904–975) was a major figure in the development of Chinese Buddhism after the Tang dynasty (618–907). Yanshou is particularly esteemed in the Chan school and Pure Land schools, where his memory is frequently invoked as an initiator of the Chan–Pure Land synthesis that dominated Chinese Buddhism after the Song dynasty (960–1279).
Yanshou lived during a period of upheaval between the Tang and Song, when China was divided into a number of de facto independent principalities, or kingdoms. In many respects, Yanshou represents a culmination of the scholastic style of Tang Buddhism. In other respects, Yanshou epitomized the syncretic style of Buddhism that became dominant during the Song. While Yanshou identified himself and was regarded as a Chan master, his scholastic style is more reminiscent of the major Tang Buddhist schools, Huayan and Tiantai. His conception of Chan as the culmination of the Buddhist scriptural tradition, often rendered as "harmony between Chan and Buddhist teaching," stands in contrast to the independent claims of "a special transmission outside the teaching" identified particularly with the Linji lineage of Chan.
Within the Chan school, Yanshou is regarded as the third patriarch of the Fayan lineage. During the tenth century, Fayan monks played major roles at the courts of many southern kingdoms, especially Wuyue, where Tiantai Deshao (891–972) served as national preceptor or spiritual adviser to the Wuyue court. With the support of the Wuyue ruler, Deshao orchestrated the Buddhist revival in the region, most notably on Mount Tiantai, one of China's sacred mountains and Wuyue's spiritual center. Yanshou is regarded as Deshao's successor in the Fayan lineage; following Deshao's example, he served as a major prelate in Wuyue.
Little is known of Yanshou's life. Buddhist biographers suggest that Yanshou was a talented and pious youth who initially entered the civil service as a garrison commander (or an official in charge of military provisions, according to one source) at a sensitive border post in Wuyue. Moved by his Buddhist aspirations, Yanshou renounced his official duties to become a Chan monk. Later sources claim that Yanshou illicitly used government funds to buy captured fish and set them free as an expression of Buddhist altruism. Sentenced to death for his crime, Yanshou was eventually freed by the Wuyue ruler, who judged that Yanshou's motives were sincere when he faced death serenely. Yanshou's altruism became a major feature of his mythological image as a Buddhist savior, one who was able to escape death himself and to free others from the fate of purgatorial suffering. In this capacity, Yanshou became a devotional figure among Chinese Buddhists who enlisted Yanshou's assistance to gain birth in the Pure Land of AmitĀbha Buddha. Yanshou's association with the Pure Land schools is largely the result of this.
After being granted official permission to leave government service and enter the Buddhist clergy, Yanshou studied and practiced for many years on Mount Tiantai. He commenced teaching on Mount Xuedou in 952. In 960 he was invited to serve as abbot of Lingyin Monastery, a major Buddhist institution in the Wuyue capital of Qiantang (present-day Hangzhou). The following year he was invited to assume abbot's duties at the recently constructed Yongming Monastery, also located in the capital and a major symbol of the Buddhist revival in Wuyue. In addition to his Chan scholasticism, Yanshou is particularly noted for his devotion to the Lotus SŪtra (SaddharmapuṆḌarĪka-sŪtra) and his promotion of Buddhist altruism through the performance of good deeds. He passed away on Mount Tiantai in 975 and was granted the posthumous name Zhijue by the Song emperor. Among his numerous works are the massive one-hundred-fascicle Zongjing lu (Records of the Source-Mirror), devoted to his vision of Chan as a pan-sectarian ideology espoused throughout Buddhism and not exclusive to the Chan lineage, and the Wanshan tonggui ji (The Common End of Myriad Good Practices), regarded in the later tradition as a testament to Chan–Pure Land syncretism, but actually espousing a broader syncretism encompassing the aims of the entire Buddhist tradition.
Welter, Albert. "The Contextual Study of Chinese Buddhist Biographies: The Example of Yung-ming Yen-shou (904-975)." In Monks and Magicians: Religious Biographies in Asia, ed. Phyllis Granoff and Koichi Shinohara. Oakville, ON: Mosaic Press, 1988.
Welter, Albert. The Meaning of Myriad Good Deeds: A Study of Yung-ming Yen-shou and the Wan-shan t'ung-kuei chi. New York: Peter Lang, 1993.