A distant observer can discern the movement of a luminous spiritual impulsion through history. Like a blazing meteor arcing across the indigo sky, it passes from one towering figure to another, lighting up succeeding generations of devotees. Movements, however, spread far beyond those spiritual giants who provide the centre and fulcrum of the impulse, and those involved in religious practices display the same diversity of human possibility found everywhere at all times. Buddhavachana, the word of Buddha, entered and spread through China because of a few noble individuals who gave every drop of their wisdom and energy to its fulfilment. Those who came under their influence made what use they could of the Teaching, and the forms, customs and institutions they gradually evolved seeped into the social and political fabric of Chinese civilization. When China endured paroxysms of social and political change, these followers influenced and were affected by them. The persecutions Buddhists suffered resulted in the emergence of new institutions and in new kinds of wisdom to deal with them. T'an-yao represented the capacity to respond to radical change and to make it serve buddhavachana
The incessant northern incursions and internecine struggles of the south were halted in the first half of the fifth century with the era called Nan-Pei-Ch'ao, the Northern and Southern Dynasties. In 420 a succession of southern dynasties integrated the territory of the Yangtze valley and regions to the south into a single empire, and by 440 the northern lands were ruled by the Northern Wei dynasty. Despite this division of China, the two regions experienced a greater degree of political consolidation than had been the case for a long while. The south came to see itself as China proper, for its rulers were Chinese. The north was ruled by the T'o-pa people, invading foreigners of mysterious origins, who might have been Turkic. In many ways, the interests and concerns of the two regions diverged: the south wanted to retain its Chinese heritage and remain 'pure', whilst the north sought to 'Sinocize' its barbarian élite. Such divergences of concern tended to diminish contact between Buddhist monks and lay people of the two areas, giving both groups different goals and priorities. The establishment of large states which encouraged nationalistic sentiment also provoked negative responses to Buddhist traditions, non-Chinese in origin, but these reactions took quite separate courses in the north and south.
In the south, Buddhist monks did not have to be as peripatetic as their northern brothers, since struggles for power were amongst Chinese families who generally left the Sangha alone. Erudite Chinese monks participated in the literary life of the south and often found allies and sympathetic laymen in the aristocracy. When Ho Shang-chih died in 460, for example, he was prominent in both imperial and Buddhist circles. The ruling dynasty had divided the branches of learning into four – Confucian tradition, history, literature and the 'dark learning'. Ho was placed in charge of hsuan hsueh, the 'dark learning', which combined Buddhist and Taoist thought, and he encouraged both traditions to develop and flourish. Prince Ching-ling assembled monks knowledgeable in the Sarvastivadin vinaya, or rules of discipline, to hear them lecture, for he believed that these practices were similar to Confucian ideals and that both sought to rectify human consciousness and to make it pure. Although Prince Ching-ling died in 495 at the age of thirty-four, the spirit of his thought was taken up by his great successor.
Emperor Wu ascended the throne, established a new dynasty in 502 and ruled for almost half a century. Though his family was traditionally Taoist, Emperor Wu was profoundly affected by the monks who had been associated with Prince Ching-ling, and within two years of receiving the imperial crown he became a Buddhist. A few years later he banished wine and meat from the imperial table and forbade animal sacrifices. Although his rejection of Taoist practices impelled some Taoist priests to move north, he attempted to model his rule on that of the Indian Emperor Ashoka. He built numerous magnificent temples and convened dharma assemblies in which buddhavachana was explained. On occasion the emperor himself discoursed on the Teaching, and during such gatherings there was no distinction between monk and lay person, prince and ordinary citizen. Sometimes he would use these meetings to announce a general amnesty for criminals, and several times he surrendered himself to a temple, so that the aristocracy had to 'ransom' him by paying huge amounts of gold and valuables to the Sangha.
Emperor Wu wrote commentaries on the Maha Parinirvana Sutra, several Prajnaparamita sutras and the Vimalakirti Nirdesha Sutra, and personally explained their meaning to envoys from Persia, Khotan and Korea, He established thirteen Inexhaustible Treasuries throughout his realm, each of which received donations from the Crown, the aristocracy and lay devotees to create a capital base which supported religious activities and provided loans to those needing funds. A few monks were suspicious of his ultimate intentions, since his devotion and generosity made him enormously influential in the affairs of the Order, and sought to test him. They had open access to the imperial palace, and when one monk sat in the chair usually reserved for the emperor, he gave no sign of annoyance. On another occasion, all but one of the monks rose as a sign of respect when the emperor had concluded a discourse. When the lone monk was called to account, he explained that since he was an embodiment of dharma, if he moved, dharma would move and there would be no peace. Rather than being irritated at having a point turned against him, the emperor endorsed the reply. Even though Emperor Wu knew that his generosity and tolerance invited abuses, he preferred the laxity permitted by such a policy to the harsh measures required to prevent it. When he died in 549 he was widely called the Imperial Bodhisattva.
Even though several Chinese sovereigns more or less consciously modelled themselves upon the Ashokan ideal of Buddhist governance, none were able wholly to transcend tendencies towards favouritism and the wish to make the favoured religious tradition subserve imperial interests. Perhaps Emperor Wu came closest to the ideal, even though his lengthy reign was marred by two dubious policies. In his enthusiasm for Buddhist institutions he neglected Taoist sensibilities and even tried to close Taoist temples and return their priests to lay status. As he grew older he entrusted many administrative affairs to Buddhist subordinates, some of whom enriched themselves and engaged in corruption to the point of widespread public scandal. When his Buddhist inclination to tolerance and forgiveness was mixed with unchecked corruption amongst inferiors, Confucian historians rendered a simple, if not entirely fair, judgement: Emperor Wu was "immersed in the Buddhist religion and was therefore lax in observing the criminal statutes". Whilst Hsun Chi wrote a treatise arguing that monks were guilty of sedition, immorality, economic liability and hypocrisy, Kuo Tsu-shen protested that irreligion and the flaunting of wealth stained the Sangha. Those who attacked Buddhists on metaphysical and doctrinal grounds were easily refuted. Nonetheless, there was enough truth in charges of laxity and hypocrisy to give some substance to claims of corruption in the Order. In general, however, Buddhists in the south lived in peace, and the monks met their difficulties in the Sangha by placing increased reliance on practices and methods which emphasized ch'an or meditation.
Their northern counterparts found that circumstances impelled them along other lines, resulting in the consolidation of the Sangha as a state institution. Towards the end of the fourth century the T'o-pa people invaded northern China. Their first ruler, T'ai-tsu, was familiar with Buddhist practices and forbade the pillaging of Buddhist temples and monastic communities. In 398 he issued a decree:
At the same time, T'ai-tsu appointed the monk Fa-kuo as head of the monastic establishment and as imperial adviser. In one stroke T'ai-tsu demonstrated his generous support of Buddhist monasticism and made its head a part of the imperial bureaucracy, guaranteeing thereby that the Sangha would be largely autonomous but could not remain an organization independent of the emperor.
Fa-kuo faced a troubling dilemma. Northern China, long torn apart by relatively weak and contentious dynasties, now suffered unification at the hands of a foreign – and in Chinese eyes, utterly barbaric – people. Alliance with the new dynasty promised prolonged stability for the Order and a grand opportunity to spread the Teachings of Buddha. But the scriptures clearly prohibited monks from bowing before parents or rulers and T'ai-tsu's maneuver seemed to demand that the Order observe rituals of respect and courtesy in the imperial court. Even though Chinese Buddhist monks were part of a conquered people and therefore were not free to follow the dictates of their religion heedlessly, Fa-kuo rejected the excuse of expediency. Rather, he enunciated a bold new idea, borrowed in part from the Confucian ideal of the emperor as the representative of heaven on earth. Emperor T'ai-tsu, Fa-kuo declared, was the personification of the Tathagata on earth, and in reverencing the emperor a monk was not bowing to a human being but to the Tathagata. Surprising as this doctrine might seem on its face, many monks immediately perceived its brilliant cunning. Just as the emperor had supported the Sangha by making it a branch of the imperial government at the cost of its independence, so Fa-kuo legitimized the entire imperial hierarchy by depicting it as a visible presentment of the invisible spiritual hierarchy of beneficent beings, thereby turning one-sided dependence into mutual interdependence. If the Sangha was expected to support the imperial throne, the imperial court was expected to meet certain standards of behaviour.
The emperor's successor, T'ai-tsung, followed the policies of his predecessor, and by the time he died in 424 a large portion of the T'o-pa and indigenous Chinese population had become Buddhist. The third ruler, Emperor Shih-tsu, whose common appellation was, ironically, Emperor Wu, was of a different frame of mind. An extremely ambitious man, he launched his rule by subjecting dissident factions in his empire and by expanding its frontiers. He had no time to study Buddhist scriptures or attend to affairs of the Sangha, and soon two strange figures saw a chance to alter the course of events. One was Ts'ui Hao, a politically astute Confucian who sought to make the T'o-pa empire thoroughly Chinese. His close associate was K'ou Ch'ien-chih, a Taoist who dreamed of turning the empire into a holy Taoist state under his priestly leadership. Though their aims differed, they worked together. Ts'ui secured an official appointment for K'ou, and K'ou helped raise Ts'ui to the chancellorship. As military adviser, Ts'ui could take credit for several successful campaigns, and in time he became the most powerful figure serving Emperor Shih-tsu. He set about appointing Confucian literati to every vacant post. Meanwhile, K'ou was so successful in spreading Taoist ideas through the government that the emperor was converted in 440. Though both K'ou and Ts'ui were opposed to the Buddhist religion, Ts'ui was exceptionally antipathetic because of its rejection of class and race distinctions. He persuaded the emperor to forbid anyone under fifty from becoming a monk or giving private donations to the Order. In 444 several monks were executed.
In 445 a revolt occurred in Ch'ang-an, and while it was being quashed, armaments were discovered in one of its monasteries. When the emperor concluded that the monks in Ch'ang-an had sided with the revolutionaries, he decided to execute all of them. Ts'ui persuaded him that no Buddhist could be trusted and that every monk in the empire should be killed. The emperor issued a decree to that effect in 446 and even K'ou was horrified by its indiscriminate scope. He protested and managed to gain a little time before the decree was promulgated, thereby allowing many monks to go into hiding. K'ou died in 448, failing to realize his dream of a Taoist state. Ts'ui commissioned a history of the dynasty inscribed on stone, but when the emperor saw how racially antagonistic it was to the T'o-pa people, he seized Ts'ui and executed him, along with one hundred and twenty-seven members of his clan. The deaths of K'ou and Ts'ui ended efforts to establish a strictly Taoist or Confucian empire in the north, and the emperor began to relax the enforcement of some of his edicts against Buddhists, though the Order remained largely in hiding until his death in 454. The first intense persecution of the Sangha showed the monks that they needed to protect themselves, and their response was galvanized by T'an-yao.
When Emperor Wen-ch'eng-ti ascended the throne in 454, he immediately revoked the decree of his predecessor and issued a new proclamation which encouraged Buddhists to resume their activities. Even though the emperor was generous, there was no doubt in anyone's mind that the Sangha had come firmly under state control. Shih-hsien, a monk who had survived the persecution by posing as a medical doctor, became the chief of monks. Finding that the Order was now strictly governed by a hierarchy of state offices, he used this structure to put the influence of the state behind every effort to expand Buddhist activities. When he died around 460, he bequeathed to his successor a coherent and effective institution. The emperor appointed T'an-yao to replace him, in part because he had refused to go into hiding or even to give up his monk's clothing during the persecution. His intelligence and steady courage saw him through those perilous times, even though he was personally known to Emperor Shih-tsu and made no effort to hide himself or his beliefs.
Little of a personal nature is known of T'an-yao, not even the years of his birth and death. He was appointed as chief of monks between 460 and 464 and remained in that capacity for two or three decades, surviving the emperor, his powerful dowager empress who ruled after him, and her successor. These meagre facts suggest that he combined self-effacement with flexibility, and his successful administration testifies to his intelligence and diplomacy. In 467 the empire conquered several Chinese cities in Shantung, and the citizens were dispossessed and forcibly resettled near the T'o-pa capital of Ta-t'ung. Though cultured and highly literate, these settlers were reduced to virtual starvation. T'an-yao's heart went out to these unfortunates, and he saw a way of simultaneously alleviating their condition, assuaging the emperor's anxiety regarding them and strengthening the economic foundations of the Sangha. He secured the emperor's approval to place the Chinese settlers under his control and organize them into Buddha Households and Sangha Households.
A Sangha Household was a unit consisting of a number of families who undertook agricultural pursuits and who promised to pay a fixed amount in grain to the Sangha for the use of its agricultural land. The Sangha stored the grain to give to needy families during times of famine (there were serious famines in 466 – 470, 473 and 474). When the stored grain exceeded the amount required to see the population through a famine year, it was sold and the proceeds went to the work of the Order. This plan was successful in promoting agriculture, which had been considerably diminished by war and social upheaval, and significantly reduced the impact of famine in the empire. The emperor saw the value of the Sangha Households to the state, and T'an-yao created an income for the Order which was not directly controlled by the imperial court.
A Buddha Household consisted of a group of criminals and slaves who cultivated land directly connected with a monastery and who undertook to perform the necessary manual labour to maintain monastic grounds and buildings. When the emperor declared a general amnesty in 476, criminals were freed on the condition that they join Buddha Households. From the standpoint of the state, this institution relieved the government of a costly burden. For the Sangha, it provided a useful and generally grateful work force. Both kinds of households tended to stabilize volatile populations, and both furnished great economic assistance to the Order. Because the households offered genuine human dignity, protection and even a degree of prosperity to their members, the Sangha won the devotion and loyalty of many Chinese. As T'an-yao had foreseen, the households – especially the Buddha Households – became sources of many conversions to buddhavachana.
Although T'an-yao was dedicated to the restoration and expansion of the Order, he was not merely an administrator seeking to carry out his duties. He was thoroughly versed in the scriptures and a devoted adherent to the vinaya. He knew that monks were forbidden to till land, but he also knew that others could do so for the monks, if they so chose, and this provided the precedent for the Sangha Households. In order to win voluntary compliance with the requirements of a Sangha Household, T'an-yao persuaded the emperor to exempt its members from taxation once they had given the requisite amount of grain to the Sangha. The emperor saw fallow land become productive, and the members of the Sangha Household trusted the monks to take only their due share, a trust less readily extended to the imperial tax-gatherers. The idea of a Buddha Household was suggested to T'an-yao by a story in the Sarvastivadin vinaya, in which King Bimbisara of Magadha pardoned five hundred bandits in exchange for their labour for the monastic community. As T'an-yao anticipated, pardoned criminals found monks preferable to imperial wardens as overseers.
During the persecution numerous Buddhist temples, along with their wooden and bronze images, had been destroyed. Although T'an-y'ao saw this tragedy as a vivid demonstration that all things are transient, he also recognized that the security and expansion of the Order was furthered by the visible presence of symbols of Buddha's beneficence and compassion. Knowing that wood and bronze were easily destroyed and that gold and precious stones could be stolen, he sought to create a more permanent reminder of Buddha and his Word. T'an-yao found an enormous rock escarpment about thirty li west of Ta-t'ung near the village of Yun Kang. There he initiated the chiselling out of great grottoes and the sculpturing of large Buddha images from the living rock. The emperor supported the project, in part because of the prestige it would bring to the dynasty and in part out of a wish to atone for the persecution initiated by his predecessor. Within a few years, twenty caves were fashioned, some of which contained elaborate depictions of the life of Buddha in stone. Among the larger figures the greatest is a standing Buddha seventy feet high. The remarkable Yun Kang caves remain as a testament to buddhavachana and the vision of T'an-yao to the present day.
When the dynasty moved the imperial seat to Lo-yang, hardly had the imperial residence been built before a new search was launched to find another site for cave sculpture. The Lung Men caves, twenty-five Ii south of Lo-yang, were begun in 495, probably after the death of T'an-yao, and continued until 730. A census of carved figures at Lung Men taken in the early twentieth century identified over one hundred and forty-two thousand Buddha images, not counting other scenes or decorative motifs. T'an-yao succeeded in erecting a memorial to Buddha which would be as permanent as time and inevitable impermanency permitted. The meaning of T'an-yao's labours is suggested by an inscription carved in one of the Yun Kang caves. There, fifty-four people declare their gratitude for receiving the Teachings of Buddha. In sponsoring the carving of several images, they prayed for peace and prosperity in the realm. Secondly, they prayed that their Teachers and ancestors might be born in a Pure Land and, if they were reborn in the world, that they might be raised in their spiritual condition. Finally, they prayed that their village for all time to come might be ever more faithful and sincere in devotion to Buddha, diligent in spreading the Teaching, and dedicated to the Bodhisattva Path for the sake of all sentient beings.