When Tao-an gathered disciples around himself and launched his vigorous campaign to spread buddhavachana, the Word of Buddha, across China, he inspired a diverse and dedicated group of seekers, each of whom gave emphasis and focus to one or another of his intense spiritual concerns. Kumarajiva, for example, concentrated on faithfully translating Buddhist texts into Chinese. Hui-yuan withdrew to Lu-shan where he practised and taught meditation. Seng-chao explicated the fundamentals of the dharma in pithy philosophical treatises. Fa Hsien journeyed to India in search of a complete text of the vinaya or rules of discipline for monks. Despite their disparate backgrounds and divergent temperaments, they were exceptionally rounded individuals who sought to assimilate Buddha's message and Tao-an's vision as a whole. Ironically, one of them – Tao-sheng – would provide the catalyst which gave rise to the first wholly original expression of Buddhist thought in China, sparking a philosophical controversy which continues to the present time.
Tao-sheng was born around 360 C.E. at P'eng-ch'eng (now Kiu-chuan) in a family named Wei. Although little is known of his early life, his later biographers agree that he was intellectually curious, graced with a remarkable capacity for understanding, and "divinely intelligent". His voracious appetite for learning was equalled by a discerning open-mindedness which impelled him to seek truth wherever it might be found. While still a youth, he met the monk Chu Fa-t'ai, a devoted disciple of Tao-an, who had been sent to spread buddhavachana far and wide. Tao-sheng, won over by his instruction, became a monk and disciple under him. Showing the same thirst for knowledge as a monk that he had shown as a young scholar, he became a renowned Teacher by the time he was fully ordained.
In about 397 Tao-sheng made his way to Lu-shan, where he met Hui-yuan and settled down to study. Hui-yuan introduced him to Sanghadeva, an Indian monk who had made the arduous overland journey to Ch'ang-an, moved on to Lo-yang and then came to reside in Lu-shan. Taking Sanghadeva as his Teacher, Tao-sheng undertook a rigorous study of the Sarvastivadin version of the philosophical Abhidharma literature, a task which occupied his attention for six or seven years. In about 405 he travelled to Ch'ang-an and was received by Kumarajiva into his inner circle of disciples, where he made substantial contributions to the translation of the Vimalakirti Nirdesha Sutra and the Lotus Sutra. Tao-sheng became a vital link between Kumarajiva and Hui-yuan, and when he returned to Lu-shan in 408, he gave Hui-yuan a copy of Seng-chao's brilliant short treatise, Prajna Has No Knowing.
Soon after he returned to Lu-shan, Hui-yuan encouraged him to travel south to Chien-k'ang, the capital of Emperor Wen. During his stay, the emperor invited him to share the traditional Buddhist midday meal. While Tao-sheng and his fellow monks exchanged polite remarks and discourses on Buddha's teachings with the emperor, the hour grew rather late, and when servants began to set out dishes prepared for the occasion, several monks became uncomfortable with being expected to eat after the proper time for food had passed. Recognizing their discomfort, the emperor casually remarked, "It is just the beginning of midday now." Realizing that the emperor had reached out to the monks in a spirit of respect, and knowing that they would feel awkward if compelled to violate the rules of the Sangha, Tao-sheng invoked the classical Chinese idea that the emperor is the 'Son of Heaven', the representative of heaven on earth. He replied, "The sun is attached to Heaven, and since Heaven says it is noon, it must be so", and lifted his bowl to eat. Throughout his life he was known for fusing uncompromising integrity with astute presence of mind.
While in Chien-k'ang, Tao-sheng discovered Fa Hsien's translation of the Maha Parinirvana Sutra, the last teaching of Buddha on earth. Fa Hsien had brought the book from India in 414 and his translation appeared in 418. Although the text was immediately popular amongst the monks, it was also controversial. For Chinese Buddhists, the conception of nirvana – in which the candle of selfhood, and therefore of suffering, is blown out – was drawn from Prajnaparamita scriptures. There nirvana is linked to shunyata, the Void, and ultimate enlightenment is conceived as a kind of absolute emptiness. Despite the injunction to see "the voidness of the seeming full, the fullness of the seeming void", nirvana was thought of as the extinction of the very sense of self. The Maha Parinirvana Sutra, however, referred to the eternality of the Tathagata's dharmakaya and spoke of the pure joy of nirvana – thereby implying some kind of conscious nirvana. Since the Sutra purported to be Buddha's words it was revered, but the conception of self it implied seemed to verge on heresy.
Tao-sheng had already contemplated nirvana long and deeply, and when he read the Sutra the meaning seemed perfectly clear: nirvana is an utterly transcendental condition beyond any state of conditioned consciousness. The self is not destroyed by being extinguished, but is transcended through a supreme universalization which merges with infinitude. Conditionality is snuffed out so completely that pure consciousness alone remains, abiding in pristine joy beyond being and non-being. Tao-sheng became one of the Sutra ~ chief supporters, seeking to share its message for the rest of his life.
Nonetheless, Fa Hsien's translation presented a disturbing problem. As Tao-sheng studied the Sutra, he found that it treated icchantikas, those who live for the gratification of desires, as a special class of human being, in that they do not have the Buddha- nature. Since it is the germ of bodhichitta which eventually flowers into enlightenment, this assertion, if true, denies icchantikas the possibility of liberation from the bonds of conditioned existence. Tao-sheng entered into a deep meditation upon the spiritual and philosophical principles enunciated in the Sutra and came to the conclusion that Fa Hsien's translation was accurate, but that the copy of the text he had obtained in India was defective. His announcement of this view startled his fellow monks. Pushed to support his stance in the face of a revered text stating a contrary view, he propounded his view that scriptures employed symbols to express ideas. Once the ideas were understood, the symbols could be forgotten. His insistence that all beings have the Buddha-nature was rooted in the ideas of the Maha Parinirvana Sutra as well as other texts, and he felt compelled to reject that portion of the scripture which seemed to violate its own principles.
The boldness of Tao-sheng's viewpoint shocked many of his companions in the Sangha, and a number of monks branded him a heretic, demanding he be expelled from the Order. He faced them squarely in debate and explained his thinking. Then he swore, "If what I say is contrary to the meaning of the Sutra, may this present body of mine be covered with sores, but if it is not contrary to its truth, may I sit in the Teacher's chair when I pass from life." Despite the discomfort this caused, his profound conviction of the possibility of universal enlightenment gave him the strength and courage to endure the storm which raged around him. Once the crisis had been quelled, he left Chien-k'ang for the peaceful solitude of Lu-shan, arriving there around 430.
Tao-sheng had barely managed to settle down on the sacred mountain before a new translation of the Maha Parinirvana Sutra arrived. Dharmakshema and Fa Hsien had found another manuscript of the text and promptly translated it. Tao-sheng avidly read the translation and discovered it taught that Tathagatas are eternal, pure and joyous but do not enter nirvana until all sentient beings achieve enlightenment. Further, he read that all beings, including icchantikas, have the Buddha-nature and are potentially capable of entering nirvana. This vindication was not a personal victory for Tao-sheng but proof of the insight and consistency of the dharma and the penetrating power of meditation. The Buddhist community revered Tao-sheng as a noble example of wisdom and clarity of consciousness and he spent his last years as an honoured Teacher. Sometime in 434 he ascended the Teacher's throne at Lu-shan and delivered a brilliant discourse on the sutras. When he finished, the monk's staff slipped from his hand and, remaining upright, he abandoned his body, fulfilling the oath taken before the monks who once thought him a heretic.
Although he was admired for his bold stand in respect to the idea of the Buddha-nature, he was also widely known as an original thinker who held independent views on a variety of issues. On the basis of the Maha Parinirvana Sutra, Tao-sheng came to believe that the Chinese Buddhist view of the self was simplistic. Prajnaparamita scriptures and Sarvastivadin doctrines emphasized the anatman aspect of Buddha's Teaching, denying any ontological status to the 'I'. By refusing to give a metaphysical gloss to a psychological construction based on phenomenal experience, they established a fulcrum on which right conduct (shila) and insight (prajna) could be balanced. Buddhaghosa had extended this principle to meditation (samadhi), teaching that deep meditation upon the egolessness of things could lead to enlightenment. However, insisting that all possible phenomenal experience is devoid of permanence, and therefore of reality, does not amount to denying the possibility of a transcendental Self. It does reject any claim to ascribe characteristics – necessarily formulated in language and extracted from phenomenal experience – to this Self.
Tao-sheng recognized the fundamental importance of the anatman doctrine to Buddhist metaphysics, but saw that if it were not tied to a subtle conception of ethics which invokes an agent at least in the minimal sense as a focus for karma, the anatman doctrine could mislead people into psychological nihilism. The concept of the Buddha-nature taught in the Maha Parinirvana Sutra provided the complement to the anatman doctrine. Tao-sheng saw in the idea of the universality of the Buddha-nature the affirmation of a metaphysically indescribable self, the germ of which is present in every sentient being. For Tao-sheng, this meant that shen-wo, the true Self, is the Buddha-nature in all beings. To speak of a plurality of true Selves would require a metaphysical standpoint Buddha did not take. To say that the true Self is one presents the same difficulty, for even the mystery of the One and the many cannot encompass that which necessarily abides beyond even the subtlest discursive thought. Thus, Tao-sheng taught, the true Self is nothing other than shunyata, the Void, as elucidated in the Prajnaparamita scriptures.
This rejection of any sense of self derived from phenomenal existence nonetheless retains a self as moral agent. For Tao-sheng, sensory, psychic and intellectual experiences provide no basis for a permanent self. But the possibility of moral action, that is, karma, for beings capable of reflecting on what they do evidences the permanence of the true Self. To deny the Buddha-nature to the icchantikas, as the faulty text which Tao-sheng first read seemed to do, would be to deny the universality of karma. The accurate text, in supporting Tao-sheng's profound philosophical judgement, allowed him to envisage samsara, the ocean of illusive phenomenal existence, as a pilgrimage, the goal of which is union with Buddha – the full realization of the Buddha-nature. Not only is nihilistic psychology thereby avoided, but the Bodhisattva Path emerges as the natural course for any self-conscious being seeking the truth.
Since Tao-sheng was more concerned to learn and understand than to write, the full scope and unity of his thought was obscured, and his contemporaries were content to record memorable and generally aphoristic statements. Perhaps the most puzzling assertion of Tao-sheng is that "a good deed entails no reward". No one seemed to be sure of his meaning, save perhaps Hui-yuan, who wrote a treatise on karma which seemed to embody many of Tao-sheng's thoughts. From that text and the notes of other monks, it appears that he may have sought to accomplish two ends with this pithy claim. The first was psychological and social. Chinese Buddhist monks were accustomed to seeking the benevolent help of a dhanapati or patron who supported them by providing food and land and by building monasteries. In time, these noble acts of generosity, sometimes performed by aristocrats who were not Buddhists, were imitated by the laity, some of whom came to believe that donations to monks and monastic communities would secure them a kind of salvation or a felicitous rebirth. Giving for the sake of future reward represents exactly the kind of selfish motivation which generates endless rebirth in samsara, and Tao-sheng's aphorism warned all who heard it that they were fooling themselves.
Secondly, Tao-sheng's enigmatic saying was extremely suggestive philosophically. Given his view of the Buddha-nature based on the Maha Parinirvana Sutra, the path to enlightenment, ideally expressed in the Bodhisattva Path, is not enlightenment. While one treads the Path, all one's actions for good or ill, whether performed in wisdom or from ignorance, produce consequences. People think some actions hinder one's progress along the Path and others help it, and it is true that every action furthers or retards the pilgrimage through samsara. But the true Self is beyond all differentiated states and conditions and cannot be said to act. For the self still seen as the focus of karma or as moral agent on the Path, acts are better or worse, but for the true Self, realized in its own real nature, there is no action or reaction whatsoever. When one speaks of a good action in contrast to a bad action, 'good' is a relative concept, morally significant and ascriptive within the framework of karma. When one speaks of the action of an enlightened being as 'good', it is an absolute reference involving no relativity or comparative ascription. A being in whom the true Self is realized only appears to act from some focus in samsara while abiding beyond it. His good deeds are purely good precisely because they generate no karma, though benefiting all beings. Cultivation of detachment is the reflection of this state in the disciple's life.
Although his stand regarding the contents of the Maha Parinirvana Sutra caused dramatic debate in his own day, his views on enlightenment were considerably more controversial, initiating centuries of debate. They were summed up in his enigmatic declaration, "Buddhahood is achieved through instantaneous Enlightenment." For Tao-sheng, the traditional Hindu distinction, inherited by the Buddhists, between absolute and relative truth corresponds to the distinction between enlightenment and ignorance. Enlightenment, which is entry into nirvana, cannot be described in psychological or ontological terms, since both pertain to samsara. It is a "state of mirror-like voidness" corresponding to the Confucian ideal of wu, non-being, and the Taoist mystery of the nameless tao. Thus enlightenment can be best characterized as absolute Truth. Although one speaks meaningfully of relative truths, one is simultaneously speaking of relative falsehoods, and so while there can be gradations between relative truths, absolute Truth is not some step beyond the highest relative truth. Borrowing a mathematical analogy, one can enumerate the series of whole numbers to some number n which seems virtually infinite. Nonetheless, infinity is not any n + 1. Infinity is a wholly different order from the number series. Similarly, nirvana is wholly different from samsara.
Even though one can say that dealing with almost inconceivably large numbers provides intimations of infinity, it would be a gross theoretical error to confuse the sense of vastitude with infinity. Similarly, thinking of nirvana in profound spiritual terms and experiencing lofty relative truths through moral conduct in one's life can provide a foretaste of enlightenment. But that hint should never be confused with enlightenment, nor should it be regarded as a kind of partial or semi-enlightenment. Enlightenment is as radical a change in consciousness as is the shift from relative to absolute Truth. It is not the last step in a series or the final transition through a set of phases. It is an instantaneous leap from samsara to nirvana, from ignorance to knowledge, from suffering to freedom. One cannot speak of gradual enlightenment. It is in toto or it is not at all.
The stark simplicity of this viewpoint invited misunderstandings of every kind. Opponents of the view asserted that it denied the very idea of the path to enlightenment; supporters, especially in later centuries, sometimes rationalized that this view showed that one did not have to do anything to become enlightened. For Tao-sheng, the doctrine was critical to a philosophical under standing of Buddha's teaching. If enlightenment is the goal, one has to work towards it, and that work consists of cultivating the paramitas or transcendental virtues on the Path. These dissolve the false sense of 'I' on the one hand and nurture the chief characteristics – prajna and karuna, wisdom and compassion – on the other. The process is gradual, because purification of consciousness, cleansing of conduct and universalization of feeling require enormous effort. Nonetheless, these do not constitute the goal. In the words of Hsieh Ling-yun, a sympathetic contemporary, "What is temporary is false; what is genuine is permanent." The whole of the Path is a preparation for the philosophically inexplicable change which is the instantaneous shift from relative to absolute, from death and rebirth to absolute life. Much of the debate between proponents of gradual and sudden enlightenment failed to disclose the subtlety of Tao-sheng's doctrine. Whilst his doctrine offset mechanistic and ritualistic notions of treading the Path, it also spoke to those who were far advanced on it. Perhaps it bears on the arcane mystery of that exalted stage where the glorified disciple irreversibly chooses between the way of the pratyeka buddha, who enters nirvana by abandoning samsara, and the way of the Bodhisattva, who enters nirvana yet chooses to remain in samsara, having so universalized his sense of self that he is everywhere though being nowhere. He has become Truth itself.
Hsieh Ling-yun may have captured the quintessence of Tao sheng's warning and the promise of his message when he invoked the analogy of travel: