Kuiji: Extraordinary Being and Father of the Chinese Mind Only School

Kuiji: Extraordinary Being and Father of the Chinese Mind Only School

Kagyu Gunchoe Winter Teachings 2023 • Day 4

21 January 2023

The Karmapa began the session by questioning whether the account of Kuiji becoming a monk in Lives of the Eminent Monks was an accurate record.  It describes how Kuiji had been reluctant to become a monk but capitulated following Xuanzang’s dogged insistence.  Even then, Kuiji made three conditions which contradicted the life of a monk—access to women, meat and food after midday.  And when he set off to the monastery, he brought with him three loaded wagons of the things he needed and hence was nicknamed the “Three-Wagon Monk”.

The Tang dynasty monk Sēng Xiáng, a contemporary of Kuiji, mentions him in the History of the White Lotus Sutra but says nothing about the “Three-Wagon Monk” story.  Neither do the authoritative Tang dynasty sources speak of it.  In fact, the story only appeared more than 200 years later in manuscripts from the Sung dynasty onwards.  Although many Buddhist manuscripts were destroyed during the Huìchāng persecution of Buddhism, it is doubtful whether a reliable source for the story exists.  Putting it into context, in the latter part of his life, Kuiji taught the White Lotus Sutra, but his views conflicted with those of the Tiantai school, who considered the White Lotus Sutra to be paramount.  This sutra contains an analogy about the Sravakas, the Pratyekabuddhas, and the Bodhisattvas, in which they are compared to three wagons.  The Sravakas are compared to a wagon pulled by a goat, the Pratyekabuddhas to a wagon pulled by a deer, and the Bodhisattva path to a wagon pulled by a bull.  Some contemporary scholars posit that the story of the Three-Wagon Monk was a deliberate misunderstanding of these analogies used by antagonists to discredit Kuiji.  The Karmapa suggested that sources from the Tang dynasty and, in particular Kuiji’s own writings should be considered the most reliable.

Indeed, the History of the White Lotus Sutra by Sēng Xiáng paints a very different picture of Kuiji.  It says that – known as Mahayana-ji–he was the crown jewel of all of Xuanzang’s 3000 students.  It tells how there were many auspicious signs before his birth and his mother had a prophetic dream.  He went forth when he was nine.  According to the Karmapa, this means he began to feel revulsion towards samsara at that point.  He entered a monastery when he was 17.  Later, while he was teaching the White Lotus Sutra, he would write the commentary the night before teaching it the next day, and during this time there were many miraculous signs.

Kuiji’s own account in Explanation of the Treatise Proving Mind Only says that he suffered much unhappiness and many woes in his life.  When he was nine, his mother died, and from that time on, he lived in forests and mountains, with the wish to go forth.  From a very young age, he grew further and further away from the busy world.  Then at 17, he finally shaved his head and became a monk.  Later at the emperor’s command, he was given the rank of menshi, which seems to have been some sort of servant to the sangha.  At first, he was just one of Xuanzang’s 1000 students.  Later he became one of the 70 excellent students.  He prayed to be able to uphold Xuanzang’s lineage and to teach the dharma.  He then began to work in Xuanzang’s translation school as a scribe.

Because he came from a powerful military family, he was well-educated, the Karmapa explained, and good at composition.  He became especially skilled in writing, so he could have chosen to become a minister in the service of the emperor, in which case he would have achieved wealth and fame.  Instead, he chose to become a monk.  There were primarily three reasons for him to do this.

The first reason may have been seeing what happened to his elder uncle, the general Yu Chigong (or Yu Chijing).  Yu Chigong was regarded highly by the Tang emperor Taizong, but he was very direct and quick to anger, wild, rough, boastful and arrogant.  Once, when the emperor had arranged a feast for his ministers, Yu Chigong protested vehemently because he had been seated lower than others.  He thrust out his arm hitting one of the high officials, almost poking out his eye.  This angered Emperor Taizong, who made a barbed reference to the first Han emperor, Gaozu Liu Bang, who had murdered a very capable high official, Hanxin, and many others, making clear that it was their fault that they were killed, not the Emperor’s.  In other words, Taizong gave Yu Chigong a severe warning: if you mess around again, you will be responsible for all the consequences.  Later Yu Chigong had a falling out with the Gung minister.  Consequently, he was expelled from the capital and given responsibilities in the outer regions.  He was demoted and the emperor’s view of him diminished.  Towards the end of his life, Yu Chigong felt disgust at having been a government official, and developed great faith in Taoism.  He put much effort into practising it, and for 26 years declined to meet anyone from outside.  This experience may have influenced Kuiji.

The second influence, the Karmapa surmised, may have been the consequences from his mother’s death when he was only nine.  From that time on, he would have felt very much alone, and people would have looked down on him, so he saw through fame and secular achievements, and wished to become a monk.

In addition, during the Tang period, Buddhism spread rapidly.  Especially after Xuanzang returned from India to Chang’an, Buddhism flourished widely.  There was a lot of interest in translating Buddhist scriptures.  In particular, the emperors Taizong and Gaozong and the empress Wu  Zetian and others supported the teachings.  The empress Wu Zetian’s son Li Xian even asked Xuanzang for refuge and became a monk.  These are also important positive factors in Kuiji going forth.

The story of the Commentary on the Ascension of Maitreya

Kuiji wrote commentaries on many texts, and for this reason, he was known as the “Master of a Hundred Works”.  He particularly wrote commentaries on the Mind Only school sutras and treatises.  Not only was he a great scholar and a great master, but he also clearly showed in many different ways how he was not an ordinary person.  Stories related to this are found in the Lives of the Eminent Monks, and the Karmapa recounted two of them.

The first one concerned the circumstances leading Kuiji to write a commentary on the Sutra of Maitreya’s Ascension to Tushita.  In 674, Kuiji went to the Five Peaked Mountain (Wutai Shan).  More than five hundred lay and monastic students became his students there, and he also founded a monastery, building many statues.  In particular he erected a statue of Maitreya, and took the bodhisattva vow and made daily prayers before it.  In any case, he became one of the well-known masters at Wutai Shan, and spread the Mind Only philosophy there. 

According to a Sung dynasty biography of him, once when Kuiji was on his way to Wutai Shan, as he was crossing the Taihang mountains, he spent the night in an old monastery.  While he was there,  he dreamt that he was in the middle of the mountain and heard the sound of innumerable beings wailing and crying below.  In the pitch dark, he felt a terrible sadness greater than any other.  The sound was so unbearable that he went to the top of the mountain to see who was crying.  He looked in all directions but could see no one.  Everything appeared in the colour of blue beryl (vaidurya).  Then, when he looked upward, he saw a city, and heard a voice say, “Master, wait a moment.  What is it?  Why have you come here today?” A few moments later, two young gods emerged from the city and said, “Did you see the sentient beings, the suffering sentient beings, at the foot of the mountain?” Kuiji replied, “I heard their sound but could not actually see them.”

Then, the two young gods gave Kuiji a sword or knife and said, “Slice your stomach open, look, and you will see.” Kuiji cut his stomach open and immediately two beams of light shone from it, illuminating the foot of the mountain.  There he saw innumerable sentient beings tormented by great suffering.

The two young gods returned to the city in the sky and reappeared with two scrolls of paper and a brush which they threw down to him.  Kuiji took them and immediately woke up with a start.  It was the middle of the night, but Kuiji could see a light shining from somewhere in the monastery.  He got up and went to see where the light was coming from and discovered that it came from some paper scrolls that were glowing in the dark.  He opened the scrolls and found that they contained the Sutra of Maitreya Ascending to Tushita Heaven, and immediately he recalled his dream.

He interpreted this as a sign that Maitreya was instructing him to write a commentary on the sutra.  Without pausing, he took a brush and began to write the commentary.  Once more, miracles accompanied this activity.  Relics the colour and size of cherries fell from the tip of the brush, 27 relics in all.  There were also innumerable yellow relics like kernels of the crop that grows without tilling.  This is how Kuiji wrote the commentary on the Sutra of Maitreya’s Ascension to Tushita.

The Karmapa commented that Wutai Shan was a sacred site dedicated to Manjushri.  It seems that it was Kuiji who built the first Maitreya statue there, because, as a follower of the Mind Only school, he considered Maitreya to be very important.

The story of the Vinaya Master Dao Xuan and the Divine Messengers

This second story is also from Lives of Eminent Monks.  It tells how Kuiji met with the Vinaya master Dao Xuan.  He was the founder of the Chinese Vinaya school, also known as the lineage of the Southern Mountain School, one of the eight great lineages of Chinese Buddhism.  Dao Xuan was meticulous and highly disciplined, so each day the kings of the gods (perhaps the Four Great Kings) would send messengers to Dao Xuan to ask about various things.  One day, when Kuiji went to meet Dao Xuan, it was at precisely the time when the messengers of the gods usually came to see Dao Xuan.  That day the messengers did not come until after Kuiji had left.

Master Dao Xuan reprimanded the messengers, “You’re late today.  Why?” The messengers replied, “A great Mahayana bodhisattva was here, and there were so many gods and their retinues we could not enter.  We do not have the miraculous powers to do so, so we were late.”

What we can learn from these two stories is that Master Kuiji was not an ordinary person.  His activity and influence also clearly show that he was not ordinary.  It is said that the Maitreya statue that he erected at Wutai Shan began to radiate light.  Later Kuiji made a jade statue of Manjushri at Wutai Shan, and an image of Prajnaparamita painted in gold.  When they were finished, they also shone with amazing rays of light. 

Kuiji’s death and legacy

Kuiji was only 51 when he passed away in 682 CE.  He died at the translation school at Ci’en Temple and his remains were buried in front of a statue of Xuanzang. While he was alive, his disciples regarded him as indivisible from Xuanzang and took him as an example, someone to look up to.  The Lives of Eminent Monks records that Tang Xuanzang spent over a decade teaching and translating the dharma and gathered innumerable students.  Among them were many excellent disciples, but the one who remained at Ci’en Temple, writing many commentaries and propagating the Yocacara Mind Only philosophy widely was Kuiji.  In one way, Xuanzang was the founder of the Chinese Yogacara Mind Only tradition, but it seems there was no autonomous Chinese Mind Only school during his lifetime.  It was Kuiji who wrote the commentaries and established it firmly.  The Karmapa described it as Kuiji was like the father and Xuanzang like the grandfather.  He went from being a general’s son in the line of the Guogong family to being a “general” who guarded the teachings.  It is rare for even one person like him to appear in a millennium, the Karmapa observed.

At the end of the Ming dynasty there were four great masters, Liánchí Zhūhóng (1535–1615 CE), Zibai Zhenke (1543–1603 CE), Hanshan Deqing (1546–1623 CE), and Ǒu yì zhì xù (1599–1655 CE).  Hanshan Deqing was a master of the Chan or Zen school and the most well-known.  He wrote a praise of Kuiji in his autobiography Tales of Old Hanshan Sleepwalking Through the World.  It reads thus:

The school of the Mind Only,
So deep and marvellous,
Only you could spread
Like sunlight in the sky.

You must certainly have received this
From Maitreya in Tushita.
Otherwise, how could you realise
All of its difficult points?

It speaks of the profundity of the Mind Only school and praises Kuiji, the only one capable of propagating it, like sunlight spreading across the sky.

Kuiji’s introduction to his Explanation of the Treatise Proving Mind Only

Kuiji lived 1340 years ago.  Xuanzang chose him to be his assistant in translating texts, his scribe, and editor.  It’s evident from this, that the level of his writing style, grammar, and composition was one in a million.  Thus, when we hear the words of his introduction, they are authoritative.  He wrote in Classical Chinese, which is hard to understand; his use of terms, syntax, grammar, and so forth are not easily accessible or translatable these days.  In order to comprehend Kuiji’s introduction to his Explanation of the Treatise Proving Mind Only it is necessary to rely on other commentaries, of which there are primarily three:

  • Notes on Proving Mind Only by Kuiji’s disciple Língtài.
  • An Explanation of the Introduction to the Explanation of the Treatise Proving Mind Only by Zenshu (Ch: Shànzhū), an eighth-century Japanese monk from the School of Phenomenal Appearances.
  • The Revised Commentary on the Explanation of the Treatise Proving Mind Only by Luō Shíxiàn, a contemporary Chinese scholar from the 1990s. As this is written in modern Chinese, it is easier to read and understand.

The first, Língtài, was a monk from the Tang dynasty and may have been Kuiji’s student.  However, the Karmapa explained, finding a clear account of his life had not been possible.

The second author, Zenshu, was an eighth-century Japanese monk; once more, there is no detailed account of his life.  It is said that his teacher was Master Genbo [Chin. Xuán Fǎng] and that he studied Mind Only and epistemology with him.  Genbo was a Japanese monk and a student of Zhizhou [a disciple of Kuiji’s foremost disciple Huizhao].  Thus he was in the fifth generation of masters in the lineage of Tang Xuanzang: the lineage goes from Xuanzang to Kuiji to Huizhao to Zhizhou to Genbo (Japanese), and finally to Zenshu (Japanese).  Genbo had been living in the Tang capital of Chang’an and returned to Japan in the sixth year of Tiānpíng’s reign (734 CE), bringing over five thousand volumes of sutras and treatises.  He donated these to the monastery of Kōfukuji, which had the greatest library and the best facilities for study at that time in Japan.  It’s not clear how Zenshu received teachings from Genbo but it’s probable that they were contemporaries at Kōfukuji.  The commentaries Zhenshu wrote, particularly his commentary on the Explanation

to the treatise Proving Mind Only, cite quotations from many different eighth-century Chinese texts.  Among them are more than a few manuscripts that are no longer extant.  They are all excellent sources beneficial for research into ancient Chinese manuscripts.  Although Zenshu never went to study in China, he was in the best environment for studying Buddhist philosophy in Japan at that time.

The third author, Luō Shíxiàn, was born in 1914 and graduated from Zhongshan University.  He first studied with Master Baojing [Bǎo jìng fǎshī].  He later took refuge with the great Master Tàixū and studied the philosophy of the Tiantai Mountain school, Mind Only, and Middle Way.  In 1965 he went to Hong Kong and founded the Dharmalakshana Buddhist Institute, which still exists.  Later, he went to North America and spread the Mind Only and the school of Phenomenal Appearances there.  In 1993 he returned to Hong Kong and passed away there.

The Karmapa concluded the session by wishing everyone a Happy New Year in the Chinese tradition.  He mentioned that in some regions of Tibet, Tibetans also celebrate this day as the new year.  It is said that a Chinese astrologer brought Chinese astrology to Tibet during the Tibetan imperial period.  It seems that the Tibetan white astrology and so forth of the Kalachakra [derived from the Indian Kalachakra system] was mixed with the Chinese black astrology system.

2023.01.21 Day 4: Kuiji: Extraordinary Being and Father of the Chinese Mind Only School