Kumarajiva arrived in Ch'ang-an after being forced to remain in Ku-tsang for sixteen years. Knowing he had only a few years left in which to perform the task he had set for himself of translating Buddhist scriptures and texts into Chinese, he focussed most of his attention on that aim. Despite his interest in every aspect of Buddhist life and thought, he concentrated on the work he was most uniquely prepared for, leaving other lines of endeavour to those who could pursue them. In this way, he extended one aspect of the work undertaken by Tao-an, who had established a centre for translation in the 'barbarian' capital. Tao-an had also laboured to spread the buddhadharma across China. Many of his disciples continued to do so after his death, and Tao-an was fortunate that his chief disciple, Hui-yuan, was as remarkably qualified to spread the teachings as Kumarajiva was to translate texts. Hui-yuan complemented Kumarajiva, and together they saw that Tao-an's dedication to the full scope of Buddhist tradition bore great fruit.
Hui-yuan was born in 334 C.E. in Yen-man, in northern Shansi province. His ancestors had held high offices in the Chinese state, but a generation of foreign invasions and internecine fighting had reduced Hui-yuan's family to a level of poverty common amongst the once privileged educated class. Since there was little hope of improving the family's condition in Shansi, he readily won family approval to follow an uncle to Hsu-ch'ang and Lo-yang, where he could study the Confucian classics and embark upon the cursus honorum leading to a respectable position in the administrative aristocracy. His brilliance, poise and gracious manner were such that by the time he was an adolescent, he was considered knowledgeable in the Confucian "Six Classics" and an emerging master of the tao chia, the way of Tao, as taught by Lao Tzu and Chuang-Tzu. Despite his intention of becoming a respected Confucian scholar, he found that goal almost too easily attained, and he was drawn ever more deeply into hsuan hsueh, 'the dark learning' archetypally exemplified in the first chapter of the Tao Te Ching. Hui-yuan joined a number of scholars of his day in doubting the efficacy of li chiao – the quintessence of propriety and the key to the Confucian state in the absence of close attention to noumenal reality. He discovered, however, that one implication of the dark learning pointed to withdrawal from the world and its frenetic activity, and he found that appealing.
Although the idea of the life of a retired scholar and contemplative deeply affected Hui-yuan, he found that the seemingly endless warfare between northern and southern Chinese kingdoms and principalities prevented him from returning directly to his home, Instead of unduly risking his life, he made his way northward to the T'ai-hang mountains, a relatively serene refuge for monks and scholars who had fled Lo-yang and Yeh. Accompanied by Hui-ch'ih, his younger brother, he planned to travel along the mountain range to a point near Yen-man and from there take the short route to his homeland. Tao-an had built a monastery on Mount Heng in the T'ai-hang range, and Hui-yuan followed the route to it, for it offered a haven of safety on a risky journey. Once there, it was natural for him to listen to a discourse of Tao-an, a monk who had adopted a foreign religion and its equally alien practices. The effect on Hui-yuan was stunning and decisive. According to his biographer,
Hui-yuan's interest in the dark learning had prepared him for the teachings of Tao-an. These pointed simultaneously to the highest noumenal realities and to the fundamental importance of meditation as the method par excellence for the alchemy of realization. Hui-yuan, along with his brother, entered the monastic community when he was twenty-one years old, and he remained the faultless disciple and faithful companion of Tao-an for twenty-five years. Though poor, he devoted himself to study day and night, so impressing other disciples that they were moved to look after his basic needs. When T'an-yi provided Hui-yuan with candles for his nightly studies, Tao-an remarked, "You really know a man's worth." Within a year Hui-yuan was allowed to discourse on the scriptures, and Tao-an was once heard to say, "Whether the Path is to be transmitted in the Eastern land – that depends on Hui-yuan."
In 364 Tao-an moved his large body of disciples away from Mount Heng because the wars in the region threatened the safety of the place. When it became clear that a community of several hundred monks could neither settle nor find refuge in the midst of this conflict, Tao-an sent different groups to far-flung areas to spread Buddha's doctrines. He himself eventually settled in Hsiang-yang, a strategic point on the road from Lo-yang to Ch'ang-an. There he built a monastery at the foot of Tortoise Mountain, attracting monks and novices and receiving generous support from patrons. Hui-yuan became the head of the community and undertook religious and diplomatic missions for his teacher. Tao-an's concern for accurate translations of the scriptures was matched by his dedication to establishing a proper and enduring monastic community. The large T'an-ch'i ssu Monastery at Tortoise Mountain afforded him the opportunity to do so, and Hui-yuan was his chief aide in carrying out this aspect of his mission. He oversaw the daily affairs of the monastic community, looked after the monks and refined the rituals which were practised there.
Hui-yuan was constantly at Tao-an's side for sixteen years in Hsiang-yang. During this period Tao-an recited the Fang kuang po-jo ching, a Prajnaparamita scripture, and discoursed on it twice a year. Hui-yuan assimilated every aspect of this intensive study and also pursued a rigorous course in dhyana, meditation. He partook of the famous vow before Maitreya and saw that Tao-an's monastic principles were practised. They agreed that the ko-i method of translation, in which Buddhist conceptions were expressed in Confucian and Taoist terms, was inadequate and undesirable, but Hui-yuan drew upon his deep knowledge of the Taoist texts to illustrate points of doctrine and practice when discoursing to those for whom the Teachings of Buddha were unfamiliar. Once when Hui-yuan was giving a discourse on the Prajnaparamita, a listener challenged his views. After a series of polite but rigorous exchanges failed to produce a philosophical reconciliation, Hui-yuan drew an analogy from the writings of Chuang-Tzu, and his opponent immediately understood and accepted Hui-yuan's view. From that time on, Tao-an allowed Hui-yuan to use the Chinese classics to support Buddhist doctrines. Although ko-i was abandoned, comparative philosophy was accepted as an aid to understanding. Given Tao-an's conviction that Buddhist thought had to be expressed in language strictly suited to the expression of its subtleties, this concession revealed his complete confidence in Hui-yuan's insight and capacity to teach others.
Hui-yuan followed his teacher in fusing the Hinayana emphasis on meditation (dhyana) with the Mahayana emphasis on transcendental wisdom (prajnaparamita). Whilst Tao-an did not distinguish between the two great schools, Hui-yuan did. He taught that the realization of ultimate Reality could not be achieved by intellectual or ethical effort alone, or even by combining them. Rather, its realization was the result of persistent dhyana, which when pursued rigorously gradually transformed the nature of the intellectual quest and gave deeper meaning to the ethical life. For Hui-yuan, Hinayana exemplified the cardinal method for achieving the end expounded in Mahayana scriptures. He followed the great Hinayana master An Shih-kao, who declared, "Dhyana is the rudder of the ship of the Mahayana, the way leading past the barrier to nirvana", just as he later followed the doctrines of the Mahayana teacher Kumarajiva.
When Fu Chien attacked Hsiang-yang in 378, the governor forbade Tao-an to leave the city, in part because he was a 'treasure' and perhaps because he thought the monk's presence would stave off conquest. Tao-an, realizing that Fu Chien would most likely conquer the city and take him to Ch'ang-an, decided to send his mature disciples to safer climes where they could spread the buddhadharma. Tao-an exercised meticulous care in the instructions he gave to each departing disciple, save for saying nothing to Hui-yuan. As others left the community, Hui-yuan presented himself to his teacher and said, "I alone have not received any instructions. I fear that I am not as worthy as the others." Without a moment's pause Tao-an replied, "Is there any need for concern regarding such a one as you?" Shortly before Hsiang-yang fell, Hui-yuan left with his brother and a number of other disciples for the south. Tao-an was called to Ch'ang-an, where he launched his brilliant translation activities and sought to bring Kumarajiva to the capital. Hui-yuan eventually settled on Mount Lu, at first in the Lung-ch'uan ssu Monastery and later in his own retreat. Tao-an and Hui-yuan never saw one another again.
Lu-shan was a mountain of extraordinary beauty and pervasive tranquillity, and was the reputed home of an Indian naga which gave rain when invoked properly. To Hui-yuan's surprise, an old companion and former disciple of Tao-an was abbot of Hsi Lin ssu, the Monastery of the Western Forest, on the northern slope of Mount Lu. Hui-yuan found a suitable home there while he used his excellent powers of persuasion to secure donations from aristocratic patrons to build a neighbouring complex which he named Tung Lin ssu, Monastery of the Eastern Forest. In addition to building cells for monks and a large meeting hall, he erected the Po-jo t'ai, Prajna Pavilion, for meditation and the Fo ying k'u, the Cave of Buddha's Shadow, in imitation of a natural cave in Central Asia where the shadow of Buddha could be seen under certain conditions. He also created a peaceful grove for meditation where mists clung to the tree-tops. "Every spot", one visitor recorded, "seen by the eye or trodden by the foot was full of spiritual purity and majesty of atmosphere." Once Tung [in ssu was constructed, he dwelt there for the remainder of his life. His retirement from the world, which consisted of never passing beyond a line marked by Hu shi, Tiger Brook, did not prevent him from exercising a profound influence on the affairs of his time.
Hardly had the new monastic centre been constructed when news of Tao-an's death and the collapse of Fu Chien's kingdom came to Mount Lu. The chaos which prevailed in the north reinforced Hui-yuan's conviction that the foundation of Buddhist thought and practice is dhyana, meditation. Just as Prajnaparamita studies were essential in his monastery, so dhyana became the chief mode of practice. Hui-yuan combined an uncompromising strictness with a memorable warmth and compassion, so that many monks found in him the exemplar of the spiritual life. His community became the embodied ideal in terms of which Buddhist centres all over China were measured and judged.
When the emperor Hsiao-wu was killed by his mistress in 396, the weak-minded crown prince became Emperor An. Within a year major factions had seized power in various parts of the empire and sought to seize the imperial throne as well. Yin Chung-k'an, who revered Hui-yuan, was immensely powerful but, caught in the midst of the general disaster, was overwhelmed by Huan Hsuan. As Huan Hsuan marched past Mount Lu on his way to attack Yin Chung-k'an, he demanded to see Hui-yuan, but the monk refused to break his rule of not passing beyond Tiger Brook. When Huan Hsuan's advisers suggested that he deal harshly with a monk who dared to disobey his command and who had counselled his enemy, Huan Hsuan chose to visit Hui-yuan on his own ground. Instead of getting to reprimand the monk, Huan Hsuan was told to live in peace and allow his enemies to do the same. Though Huan Hsuan never came to respect the Buddhist tradition, he did honour Hui-yuan by inviting him to become part of his entourage. Hui-yuan replied:
Despite his flat refusal to give his sanction to Huan Hsuan's ambitions, Hui-yuan remained in close contact with the warlord and often intervened in his affairs whenever monks were involved.
Huan Hsuan issued an order in 402 requiring the examination of all monks. Those who did not meet his strict criteria were to be forced back into worldly life. Huan Hsuan insisted that true monks had to be able to expound the scriptures fully and accurately and had either to reside permanently in a proper monastic community which adhered to a recognizable code of conduct, or to live the life of a hermit. Although his edict seemed reasonable, Hui-yuan knew it was a ruse designed to deplete the Sangha, and he successfully argued for its lenient application. In fact, Mount Lu was exempted from examination entirely, and Hui-yuan sought to prevent unfair treatment elsewhere. Huan Hsuan also sought to force monks to make obeisance to kings, noting that Lao Tzu likened rulers to heaven, earth and Tao, the 'three greats'. When others failed to counter this argument successfully, Hui-yuan wrote a lengthy response, agreeing with Huan Hsuan's interpretation of Lao Tzu but distinguishing between lay Buddhists and monks. The former, being in the world, should pay obeisance as their part in sustaining the worldly order. Monks, however, are not of the world and should not be compelled by its rules and ways. This debate – polite, forceful and more than a little ironical – continued until 404, when Huan Hsuan declared himself emperor and exiled An to a residence near Mount Lu. Rather than exact the obeisance he had sought, he suddenly relinquished the claim, praising the sincerity of monks and forbidding any official from demanding the social marks of respect from monks.
Even whilst engaged in a serious public debate which would influence the position of Buddhist monks in China for centuries, Hui-yuan focussed on deeply spiritual matters. In 402 he gathered together one hundred and twenty-three disciples before an image of Amitabha, where they took a vow to be born in the Western Paradise, Amitabha's Pure Land. Legend holds that this group constituted a White Lotus Society, the prototype of all Pure Land schools. Although such a view may not be strictly accurate, Hui-yuan's collective Amitabha vow brought a vital dimension of devotion to the practice of meditation and study of the scriptures. Prajna, dhyana and bhakti formed the core of his community. Just as he was one of the pioneers of all dhyana practices in China, so he was also sometimes called the first patriarch of the Pure Land schools.
Kumarajiva had barely entered Ch'ang-an before Hui-yuan wrote to welcome him and encourage him to continue Tao-an's translation work. When a rumour reached Mount Lu that Kumarajiva contemplated returning to Central Asia, Hui-yuan composed an eloquent appeal that he remain. He also asked Kumarajiva many questions and received detailed answers. He wondered about the nature of the dharmakaya, asking how it could be if all causality had come to an end, and he explored the distinction between the arhat and the bodhisattva. He also sought to reconcile the theory of dharmas, elements of existence, with the doctrine of shunyata, voidness. Despite his great age, he was delighted to learn whatever Kumarajiva had to teach. At the same time, when Buddhabhadra, a Sarvastivadin, found Ch'ang-an inhospitable, Hui-yuan welcomed him warmly at Mount Lu and aided him in spreading the practice of meditation over a wide area south of the Yangtze River.
Withdrawn from the world yet involved in numerous secular affairs, Hui-yuan nonetheless found time to write. Since many people who were versed in Confucian and Taoist thought found the doctrine of karma obscure, he concentrated on explicating it.
For Hui-yuan, the three worlds are involved in ceaseless flux and therefore constitute the arena of evil and suffering. Nirvana, because it does not change, is freedom from both. It can be attained because at its core the soul is unaffected by the conditions in which it becomes involved.
When Hui-yuan died in 416, he was mourned all across China. A brilliant orator, who could use the dark learning of Taoist metaphysics to elucidate Prajnaparamita doctrines, a monastic statesman, who courageously stood up to would-be emperors, and the backbone of the Chinese Sangha, he was the most prominent Buddhist of his day. Combining meditation, study and devotion into a principled way of life, he imparted an impulse which nourished every aspect of Buddhist teaching and practice for over a millennium. Hsieh Ling-yun, a lay devotee, composed an encomium to his teacher, contrasting his illustrious life with the grief caused by his passing. Likening Hui-yuan to the buddhadharma, he wrote: