One evening in C.E. 67 the emperor Ming of the Han dynasty drifted into a deep slumber and dreamt of an enormous golden deity flying through the air in front of his palace at Lo-yang. When he awoke, he summoned his ministers and asked them what the meaning of this extraordinary dream might be. Fu Yi told the emperor that the deity was an Indian Sage known as Buddha, whose wisdom had given his body a radiant golden hue. The emperor sent envoys to Scythia (India) to learn of this Sage, and they returned several years later with the Sutra in Forty- Two Sections and two monks. They were housed in a government building which became the White Horse Temple, named after the white horse which had carried the sacred text to Lo-yang. Thus, according to legend, buddhavachana, the word of Buddha, came to China.
Fu Yi's recognition of the golden deity in the emperor's dream suggests that the Buddhist tradition had already entered China. The emperor's younger half – brother regularly made offerings to fou-t'u (Buddha), and Prince Ying of P'eng-ch'eng used the proceeds of thirty bolts of silk for a feast honouring upasakas and shramanas – lay devotees and monks. Although the teachings of Buddha may have entered southern China by sea, passing around Indo-China and through the islands of Southeast Asia, it is more likely that Buddhist monks first followed the timeless silk route from Kashmir, where King Kanishka once held a Buddhist council, across the Pamirs to Kashgar. From there they would have skirted the Takla Makan Desert in a northerly or southerly direction, travelling through Kucha, Karashahr and Turfan, or through Khotan. However they travelled, they would meet at Tun-huang, whose exquisitely painted caves and grottoes became an international centre for Buddhist meditation and discussion. From there, monks could accompany traders into the northwestern frontier and on to the great northern cities of China.
In about 148 An Shih-kao, a Parthian prince who had renounced his father's throne to become a Buddhist monk, came to Lo-yang. Gathering a number of foreign monks together, he formed a centre for the translation of sutras and texts into Chinese. Since the linguistic idiom and structure as well as the traditional modes of Chinese classical thought were utterly different from Sanskrit and Prakritic derivatives and Indian philosophical dialectic, the problem of translation presented enormous hurdles for the missionaries. An Shih-kao focussed entirely on texts which elucidated dhyana, the path of concentration and meditation. Eventually, he was joined by Chih-ch'an, a Scythian who had a deep knowledge of the prajna paramita texts. Although the fundamental ideas of karma and reincarnation were readily grasped by people who understood Taoist philosophy, they found it difficult to put them together with the Buddhist teaching of non-self. Eventually, a resolution to the difficulty was achieved through the development of the concept of shen-ling. Shen-ling was seen as an abiding centre of life and intelligence which could not be characterized by any qualities belonging to the realm of phenomenal existence but which passed from incarnation to incarnation. Buddhists in China freely adapted Taoist concepts as vehicles for expressing Buddhist teachings, and the relation between the two traditions remained amicable for centuries. At one time the Taoists claimed that when Lao Tzu left China for the western passes, he went to India as Buddha and taught there. Later, some Taoists believed that Lao Tzu had been reborn as Buddha, and Buddhists were not concerned to dispute these views.
In 311 the Hsiung-nu (Huns) captured Lo-yang, and northern China submitted to foreign rule. Until this time the Chinese had been permitted by the emperor to study Buddhist texts, but they were enjoined not to become monks. When the emperor Shih Hu was reminded of this practice and encouraged to forbid Chinese from joining the religion of a barbarian deity, he replied that he himself had been a barbarian until he entered China, and therefore saw no reason to ban the barbarian religion. For the first time, he authorized anyone who so wished to become a Buddhist. From then on, Chinese monks helped with the translation and dissemination of Buddhist teachings. Buddhist-Taoist dialogue was animated, and each side revered the doctrines of the other. Their fraternal association centred on the concept of pen-t ~ the essence of all that exists. Pen is the foundation of things and t'i their outward manifestations, and both Buddhists and Taoists held that pen is the reality, whilst t'i is relative truth. Just as Buddhists espoused nirvana, emancipation from the bonds of conditioned existence, so Taoists upheld the ideal of fan-pen, reversion to the original nature of things.
Fo-t'u-teng, a monk of Central Asian origin, had come to Lo-yang a year before its fall to the Hsiung-nu. Seeing that the city would be destroyed and that the political order was about to change, he allied himself with Shih Lo, who eventually became emperor. His mantic, medicinal and magical arts impressed the emperor and he was made court chaplain, a post he retained during Shih Hu's reign. Although he was honoured for his uncanny ability to predict the outcome of battles and was remembered for his magical feats, he was a zealous missionary who gathered a number of exceptional students about himself, including Tao-an. Upon the death of Shih Hu, Fo-t'u-teng foresaw bloody internecine war, and he began making arrangements for his disciples to leave the doomed capital of the dynasty. When Fo-t'u-teng died shortly thereafter, Tao-an began a wandering life at the age of twenty-seven which lasted sixteen years. During this period he drew together a number of his former co-disciples and a large band of converts. Renouncing concern with magic, he began to lay the foundations of a permanent Buddhist presence in China.
While Tao-an journeyed from city to city, often just ahead of one or another military skirmish, he pursued his interest in Buddhist sacred texts, especially those provided by An Shih-kao. He studied scriptures dealing with dhyana and applied a numerical analysis to meditative states and techniques which was reminiscent of Pythagorean arithmetic and biblical gematria. At the same time, he was interested in bibliographical studies. He collected manuscripts and attempted to determine the history of their transmission. He wanted texts which were authentic and accurate, and he developed broad principles of critical analysis to assess them. Tao-an also wrote extensive commentaries on the sutras he collected. Ignoring the method of general introductions preferred by his predecessors, he provided sentence-by-sentence discussions of scripture. All of these have been lost save one, which testifies to his conscientious and orderly exposition. Concerned to attain accuracy in understanding and explaining a treatise, Tao-an sought the earliest manuscripts he could find. He rejected the ko-i method of translation, in which a Sanskrit term was matched to its closest Taoist equivalent (bodhi = tao, for instance, and nirvana = wu wei), in favour of more precise, if difficult, translations.
In 365 a Yen invasionary force conquered the territory familiar to Tao-an and he moved south to Hsiang-yang with at least four hundred disciples. On the way, he dispatched his best disciples to different regions of China, where many of them did much to spread and secure Buddha's doctrines. One disciple established a link with the Buddhist schools in southern China and even became the leader of the movement there. As soon as he settled in Hsiang-yang, Tao-an established the T'an-ch'i ssu Monastery on a wealthy estate that was donated to him for the purpose. Beginning with remarkably generous donations from individuals, he constructed a pagoda and a bronze Buddha sixteen feet high known for its magical capacity to move and levitate. He received an image of the reclining Buddha, popular in Southeast Asia, and a magnificent image of Maitreya inlaid with pearls. Before long the emperor Hsiao-wu furnished him with an emolument "equivalent to that of kings and dukes" and thereby assured the survival of the monastic community. Tao-an skilfully won the friendship and patronage of the wealthy classes in and around Hsiang-yang while keeping the monastery and its monks out of all political intrigue.
Within the monastic community, Tao-an governed strictly and fairly. He did not possess the complete vinaya, or rules for monks, and though he sought to procure an authentic text from India, he formulated rules of his own consonant with Buddhist teaching and practice. In addition to prescribing suitable ceremonies and devotional rituals, he required fasting and purification fortnightly. He also established the custom of giving each monk the surname Shih to replace names that indicated ethnic and national origins. Though his monastic rules were later replaced by vinaya rules, probably in Tao-an's lifetime, the practice of taking the religious surname Shih has remained to the present day.
During the development of the T'an-ch'i ssu Monastery, Tao-an gradually shifted the focus of his attention from dhyana to prajna paramita, transcendental wisdom. Having provided an institutional basis for continuity of meditative practice, he sought to elucidate the fundamental doctrines which would support it. Although he had rejected the ko-i method of translation, he found it helpful to explain texts in familiar Taoist terms and metaphors. He expounded the entire Fang-kuang ching – the Prajnaparamita Sutra in twenty-five thousand verses – twice every year for fifteen years. He also wrote commentaries on different versions of the sutra. When later Chinese thinkers distinguished different schools of exegesis, Tao-an was identified as the founder of the pen-wu or Fundamental Non-Being school. He reconciled the Taoist idea of non-being as the origin of things with the Buddhist conception of shunyata, the Void which underlies all manifestation. "Non-being is prior to the first evolution, and shunyata is the beginning of multitudinous shapes." The difference between them is the limit of time. Before any manifestation there is fundamental non-being, though as the origin and ultimate nature of all phenomena, it is indeed shunyata. One can realize shunyata by meditating on fundamental non-being.
For Tao-an, prajnaparamita, the perfection of wisdom and the root of reality, consists of three intimately related conceptions: tathata, dharmakaya and bhutakoti.
As these abstruse concepts suggest, there is a significant difference between relative and absolute truth. In the sacred texts, this is the ever-present distinction between words and their arcane meaning, between the profusion of doctrines and their hidden unity. In the Bodhisattva, it is the compelling contrast between mere knowledge of the nature and causation of the world and transcendental wisdom.
The ease with which Tao-an could invoke passages from the Tao Te Ching to explicate the Prajnaparamita Sutra was matched by his thorough understanding of the Taoist classic. In speaking of the Bodhisattva, he offered an original application of the famous first chapter.
Tao-an was deeply devoted to Maitreya and sought his guidance in dreams to ensure the fidelity of his explanation of Buddha's Teachings. Once he gathered seven select disciples together and took a vow before the image of Maitreya to be reborn in the tushita heaven, where he could sit at the feet of the Buddha to come. His devotion impelled monastic discipline, study of the sacred texts and vows to Maitreya, but it also made him undertake the composition of a catalogue of every Buddhist manuscript he had ever seen. In it he listed and depicted the texts, compared differing versions and annotated translations, thus laying the foundations of the Chinese canon.
In 378 Fu Chien, ruler of the Tibeto-Mongolian state which had given some unity to northern China, made a bid to extend his political power and marched on Hsiang-yang. When Tao-an discovered that the governor would not allow him to leave the city, he once again dispersed his disciples in different directions and gave each one a specific task in furthering the spread of buddhadharma. Fu Chien laid siege to the city, but it did not fall until betrayed from within. Fu Chien honoured Tao-an and insisted that he come to Ch'angan, his capital. Since the monk was familiar with court life, he readily agreed, even though he knew that his former freedom as a Teacher would be traded for veneration as a 'jewel of the State'.
Tao-an had the rare ability to make and retain good friends in high places. He rode into Ch'angan in Fu Chien's chariot and was made one of his trusted advisors, despite the fact that he opposed his ruler's plans to invade the south. In addition to spiritual and political counsel, he was given an important role in secular affairs. Fu Chien's kingdom was organized on Confucian lines, and philosophical debates concerning problems in the Confucian classics influenced matters of state. Tao-an had been born into an aristocratic Confucian family, and soon his erudition in the classics commanded attention. Although he was a Buddhist, Fu Chien ordered that all problems arising out of Confucian debates be submitted to Tao-an for arbitration. Young poets who were initiating a Confucian renaissance in literature consulted him and took his advice to fortify their reputations. On several occasions, his knowledge of epigraphy and antiquities stunned the court.
Tao-an used his enormous influence to persuade Fu Chien to establish and support an institution for securing and translating Buddhist scriptures. Rather than translate new texts himself, he formed a translation team of Chinese and foreign scholars and supervised their work. During the next five years, this group produced a stupendous amount of material and became the model for future activities of this kind. Monks were attracted from as far away as Kashmir, and they brought new texts with them. Tao-an saw that each translation was composed by a group which consisted of at least one monk who knew the original language of the text, one who knew literary Chinese very well and one who was bilingual. No longer satisfied with the transmission of broad ideas, Tao-an sought to capture spiritual nuances and philosophical subtleties, and his work won the deep admiration of subsequent generations of monk-translators.
During the final years of his life, Tao-an was amply rewarded for his enduring commitment. He secured a more complete version of the vinaya than he had previously seen, and he employed it to establish the monastic life of over a thousand monks at Ch'angan. He encountered for the first time the abhidharma literature of the Sarvastivada school and came to know of the profound ethical system of the Lesser Vehicle. He was overwhelmed by its vast range of ideas, systematically arranged with a numerological coherence that reminded him of his earliest enthusiasms. Too old to absorb all that flooded in upon him, he nonetheless compared versions of new texts and wrote prefaces to new translations which freely bubbled with joy. For him, the labours of a lifetime had burst into blossoms more beautiful than he dared to imagine, promising rich fruits that he could only barely conceive and would not live to see.
Near the end of his life, Tao-an heard of Kumarajiva, a monk of exceptional intellectual powers, faith and knowledge of language. He urged Fu Chien to send for him. Unfortunately, even though Kumarajiva was willing to join in the work at Ch'angan, the uncertainties of war prevented him from going there. Against Tao-an's advice, Fu Chien launched a major invasion of the south with disastrous consequences. He was badly defeated, and in 385 enemy troops were poised to attack Ch'angan itself. Despite the violence and confusion of war, Tao-an and his translation bureau went about their work without interruption. Tao-an died in that year at the age of seventy-three, six months before Fu Chien's death. He never met Kumarajiva, who eventually came to Ch'angan, but he had established an institution which was prepared to serve well its new Master. Kumarajiva freely acknowledged that his own inestimable successes were built upon the work of his worthy predecessor. When Tao-an had begun, Buddhist monks were retained merely to perform ritual magic. By the time he finished, he had given China the full range of Buddha's word and had done more to spread the Teaching of Buddha in China than anyone before him.