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Chi Tsang
By Lin Sen-shou
Paintings by Mi Xiong, Kuan Hung Buddhist Arts Center
Early one morning, young Chi Tsang (吉藏), born in 549, and his father, An Min, were kneeling in front of a statue of the Buddha, reading a sutra. Despite their names, the father and son did not look Chinese at all, for in actuality they were descendants of Parthians from modern Afghanistan. They were in China because their forefathers had fled from civil war and assassination attempts by rivals in their homeland. In time, they settled down in China and lived there for centuries.

An Min had been following Buddhism for some time. Because the Buddhist doctrines fascinated him, he even began to consider becoming a monk. His wish was also apparent to his son, who noticed that while reading sutras his father's face would grow noticeably more gentle and soft. One day, Chi Tsang blurted out, "Dad, I want to join you and leave home to become a monk!"

His father was surprised. He wondered if his son had noticed his attitude towards Buddhism. Becoming monks, An Min thought, might not be such a bad idea, especially since there were just the two of them left in the family. Free of other familial obligations, they would offend no one in their choice to become monks. Furthermore, he noticed that the young boy showed a remarkable talent: he had memorized every Buddhist sutra he had ever read. An Min thought this could have meant that the boy had a special connection with Buddhism, which was even more reason to consider the idea further. "Maybe he is the reincarnation of a venerable monk," he surmised.

Sometime in 553, An Min took Chi Tsang to visit a famous monk named Paramartha (真諦, see the Spring 2004 issue of the Tzu Chi Quarterly). When Paramartha met them, he immediately noticed how clever Chi Tsang looked. He bent down and asked the boy if he had read any Buddhist sutras. Chi Tsang immediately started listing off the titles of all the Buddhist sutras he had read and reciting some passages from these sutras. Paramartha was stunned by how much the child could remember. An Min saw the look on Paramartha's face, and he said to the venerable monk, "Master Paramartha, with your permission, I would like my son to become one of your disciples."

Paramartha was silent for a moment, because on the one hand, the young boy seemed to have a legitimate talent and therefore could some day become a great monk. Yet on the other hand, Paramartha was very busy with his own affairs, as he was in charge of translation work with other monks. If he took on the child, both of them might suffer for the decision.

Paramartha made up his mind and told An Min, "I'm sorry that I have to disappoint you. For the time being, I am very busy translating Buddhist sutras into Chinese, and I have no time to take on any disciples." Noticing An Min's disappointment, Paramartha continued, saying, "However, I can introduce you to a good friend of mine, Master Fa Lang (法朗). I am willing to write a letter of recommendation for your son."

After meeting with Paramartha, An Min was even more determined to become a monk, so some time later he joined a small temple. He also took Chi Tsang to the temple with him. An Min went out to beg for food every day. When he returned to the temple, he would wash his feet and hands before entering the main hall to present food before the Buddha's statue. Then, he shared the food with the other monks and ate only what was left over. He had many chores to do, including cleaning the yards, floors, windows, doors, and countless other duties. After he finished doing the temple chores, he would read Buddhist sutras and commentaries together with his son, so that Chi Tsang could learn more Buddhist doctrine.

Young Chi Tsang was adorable with his naive way of talking and behaving. The monks in the temple all doted on him. They would give him candy and their best food and clothes. The monks would also teach him how to read Buddhist sutras properly, and in time Chi Tsang memorized all the sutras in the temple. He never made any noise in the temple, and he could recite by heart everything he learned. One day, Chi Tsang told his father, "Dad, I want to become a monk like you!"

An Min caressed his son's head and said with a smile, "Oh really? Someday we'll go visit Master Fa Lang and see if he's willing to accept you."


New life

An Min's wish finally came true. When Chi Tsang was seven years old, Fa Lang came to give sermons at Hsing Huang Temple (興皇寺) in Nanjing, the capital, and many people went to listen. An Min took his son along with him every day to listen to the famous monk's sermons. At first Chi Tsang didn't understand a thing Fa Lang said, but he still sat patiently through the day's lectures. He attended every day, and he gradually seemed to grasp their meaning. He even began raising his little hand to ask questions. In time, Fa Lang became quite interested in this little boy with the perfect attendance and curious temperament.

On the seventh day, when the whole series of sermons was finished, Fa Lang asked An Min and Chi Tsang to come to the podium for a chat. Chi Tsang immediately grasped that opportunity to prostrate himself before Fa Lang and ask, "Master Fa Lang, may I be your disciple?"

This unexpected request caught Fa Lang by surprise, but he quickly smiled at the young boy and asked, "Oh, so you want to be a monk, too?" An Min replied, "Master, we came to you not just for your lectures, but because I also want to help my son become your disciple." An Min politely handed over the letter Paramartha had written. Fa Lang quickly read over the letter. When he finished it, he said to Chi Tsang with a smile, "Chi Tsang, if you want to become a monk, you must first answer three questions, okay?"

The boy nodded his little head with a serious look, and Fa Lang asked him, "Who is the wisest person on earth?"

Chi Tsang immediately answered without thinking, "It's the Buddha, because you said that the Buddha could know everything in the universe."

Then Fa Lang asked, "What kind of event will all people encounter in their life?"

Chi Tsang replied, "Death, we all will die someday."

The old monk then asked his final question, "What is bigger than a mountain yet smaller than a speck of dust?"

"It's one's ego," Chi Tsang answered clearly. "When the ego is bigger than a mountain, one is arrogant; when the ego is smaller than a speck of dust, one is humble. We all have to be humble."

Fa Lang smiled and said to An Min, "He's extraordinary indeed. I agree to take him on as a disciple."


The Sanlun sect

Fa Lang was a follower of the Sanlun sect of Buddhism (三論宗), based on three famous commentaries translated by Kumarajiva (see the Fall 1999 issue of the Quarterly). They are called the Madhyamaka-sastra (中論), Dvada-sanikaya-sastra (二門論) and Sata-sastra (百論) respectively. The first two were written by Nagarjuna (龍樹) and the last one by his disciple, Aryadeva (提婆). Historians delineate the Sanlun doctrines into two periods, "old" and "new." The former period refers to the time from Nagarjuna to Fa Lang, and the later period started with Chi Tsang.

Before the new doctrine was created, no one seemed able to adequately explain the important Buddhist concepts of the Middle Way, the Mundane Essence, and the True Essence. In short, the Middle Way suggests that we should be unattached to the Mundane Essence and the True Essence. The Mundane Essence refers to everything that people normally see. We tend to see things as fixed, although in fact everything changes from moment to moment. We thus make the error of calling impermanence "real." This is called "mundane" through the eyes of a sage, as it is a diminished version of what is truly real. The other extreme is True Essence, which means that there is no such thing as "fixed nature" in the universe--everything comes and goes according to the convergence and divergence of conditions. Therefore, the Middle Way, as the name suggests, refers to a point between these two extremes. In our behavior and perceptions, we should follow this middle path and not act according to either extreme. For example, we can appreciate the beauty and fragrance of a rose (the Mundane Essence), but will not weep when it withers within a few days (the True Essence).

After becoming Fa Lang's disciple, Chi Tsang's devotion to studying the old Sanlun doctrine eventually allowed him to bring new light on the above matters. Thus he has been given credit for transforming the old doctrine into the new doctrine.

Chi Tsang was fortunate to be born in a time when there was much new Buddhist activity. Many new sects were thriving, so he had opportunities to study them and was able to comment on the developments as they happened. He would go on to produce close to 50 books in his life. These books detail the structure of these Buddhist sects and their doctrines. Therefore, should one want to study the Buddhism of the period, Chi Tsang's work is essential reading.

Chi Tsang's theory on the Sanlun sect had two major shifts. When he learned from his mentor Fa Lang, he focused on the three commentaries he was taught.

However, when he took in certain doctrines on the Lotus Sutra from the Tientai sect, his focus shifted. This is considered the first phase. The second phase occurred when he devoted himself to promoting the three commentaries and wrote a book called Sanlun Hsuanyi (三論玄義) which focuses on the foundation of the Sanlun school and the three commentaries. This helped establish a new Sanlun doctrine that was different from that of the old sect.

Stated briefly, the Sanlun doctrine has two major sections of note: (1) the destruction of evil or wrong concepts and promotion of right concepts, (2) The Middle Way. When Chi Tsang was writing the Sanlun Hsuanyi, he started by pointing out that the goal of his writing was to articulate these sections more succinctly.

The terms "right" and "evil" here are perhaps misleading. The idea of evil refers to "obtaining something," while "right" refers to "obtaining nothing." Thus, "to destroy evil or wrong concepts" is to remove any incorrect concept, including the idea that the pious should be rewarded for their faith, a motivation inherent in other religions and in other Buddhist sects. The idea of "obtaining nothing," by distinction, promotes the meaning of Emptiness inherent in the Sanlun doctrine. This will be elaborated more clearly in a moment.

To Chi Tsang, these two ideas are actually synonymous, and should not be thought of as polarities. To determine this, he started with a psychological observation: once a "right" concept is set up, the mind sets up a "wrong" concept by default. If the "rightness" of the "right" concept is for some reason called into question, the validity of the "wrong" concept must also be put in doubt, and so on. This dualistic thinking needlessly creates attachments that are discouraged in Sanlun thinking. To put it simply, it might be said that only when one is free from all attachments may one also be free from all wrong.

The second major concept attempts to articulate the Middle Way. Chi Tsang felt that the Middle Way was the real foundation of Buddhism, and all sutras were but different attempts to articulate that. The Eight Negations--neither birth nor death, neither permanence nor end, neither identity nor difference, and neither coming nor going--were invented by Nagarjuna to eradicate people's attachment to "fixed nature." Nothing in the universe has its own fixed nature--that is, nothing is self-created, independent, or capable of existing permanently. Since nothing has a fixed nature in its own right, everything arising from conditions is created and terminated according to previous causes or chance meetings of certain circumstances.



Fa Lang gave many talks on the three commentaries. However, the responses were not very enthusiastic because the concepts were too abstruse for normal people to comprehend. However, Fa Lang still charged forward because he felt that he had the responsibility to make people understand these concepts better. Once known, his theories could be spread far and wide.

Chi Tsang went to the library every day to study the books there. He also went around asking people questions that were not answered in his readings. In the beginning, all the monks praised him for being so diligent and intelligent, but as time went by, many monks in the temple were reluctant to converse with him, or even make eye contact with him. They knew his questions were hard to answer and could expose gaps in their own knowledge about Sanlun. They thus perceived him as being somewhat of a threat.

One time when Chi Tsang was walking down the hallway, he noticed a group of senior monks talking to each other, and so he approached to greet them. However, when they saw him approach, they thought Chi Tsang was coming to ask them difficult questions yet again, and they dispersed like a flock of frightened birds. Chi Tsang hadn't even said a simple hello to them. The experience left him disoriented. When Fa Lang heard about this incident, he laughed out loud and said, "He's really something!"

When Chi Tsang was 21 years old, he was officially consecrated as a monk under Fa Lang's tutelage. No longer a novice, his wisdom and eloquence started to attract laypeople who came to Hsing Huang Temple searching for enlightenment.One day, just as any other, the temple was crowded with people praying and asking monks for answers to their problems. When Chi Tsang came out to the reception area, many people gathered around him and asked for a lecture.

One woman stepped forward and asked, "Master, can you tell us how to free ourselves from daily suffering?"

When the others heard this, they stopped talking and extended their ears. Chi Tsang cleared his throat and said, "Before I give you an answer, can anyone tell me how we get our suffering in the first place?"

A cacophony of different voices began, saying things like, "I believe it's because we think too much." "We're greedy." "Is it because we..." Many different answers came forward as people searched hard for replies.

Chi Tsang smiled and said, "You're all correct! Why suffering exists in the first place is a result of excessive thought and greed. That being said, we might think that if we don't think too much or aren't greedy, we won't suffer, right? But in either case, it is this idea of an 'I' that is causing the trouble! I want this or that, I want to have more money, I hate this or that... All such matters occur because an 'I' is behind them. If we can overcome this 'I,' we'll be able to free ourselves from all suffering."

Chi Tsang continued: "One of the best ways to overcome this sense of 'I' is through the giving of oneself to other people unselfishly. When we give something to help other people, we gain joy and happiness in return. This helps us transfer our attention from our suffering to the joy we receive instead. Additionally, it helps us have a different perspective of other people's lives, and therefore our own. As a result, then, this 'I' will gradually disappear and our suffering will fade away as well."

The people standing around Chi Tsang nodded their heads in understanding. A monk nearby was smiling especially wide. He was delighted that he was right in accepting this young boy to be his disciple. Chi Tsang would, to be sure, become a very influential monk in the future. This admirer was of course none other than Fa Lang.

When Chi Tsang was 33 years old, Fa Lang passed away, leaving his position to the younger monk. The year was 581. While in Nanjing, Chi Tsang had started accepting disciples. One such disciple was Chih Kai (智凱). Chih Kai first heard one of the master's lectures one day when he was just six years old, and he asked him to take him on as a disciple that very day. Chi Tsang accepted, and the boy proved himself worthy. By the time Chih Kai was just 13 years old, he could already recite all the commentaries. Chi Tsang had high hopes for the young boy indeed.

When the army of the Sui Dynasty conquered Nanjing in 589, the city was in chaos; people fled their homes with as much as they could possibly carry or cart away. During this time, Chi Tsang called Chih Kai saying he needed him to help gather all the "treasure" in the city. Chih Kai was very confused. Since when did his mentor start to show interest in treasure? Weren't monks supposed to treat it as if it were dirt? Chi Tsang noticed this confusion and said to him with a smile, "Silly! I was referring to Buddhist sutras. What did you think I meant?" Chih Kai hid his face in embarrassment. Soon enough, both of them were running from temple to temple, trying to collect as many Buddhist sutras as they could. In the end, they saved three roomfuls of sutras and commentaries, and valuable ones at that. This is why Chi Tsang had access to many sutras and commentaries that others did not.

When Chi Tsang was 42 years old, he began traveling around China to give lectures focusing on Sanlun philosophy. He then settled down in what is known today as Shauxing (紹興) in Zhejiang Province (浙江省), and was given the position of abbot at Chia Hsiang Temple (嘉祥寺). While there, his eloquence and quick wit attracted thousands of listeners. He wrote so many books on Sanlun philosophy at the temple that he was later referred to as "Master Chia Hsiang."

Once, Chi Tsang asked Chih Kai to go to Mount Tientai in order to invite the famous Master Chih Yi (智顗, see the Spring 2001 issue of the Quarterly) to Chia Hsiang Temple. Chih Yi was a leading authority on the Lotus Sutra, and Chi Tsang thought perhaps he could give a series of lectures. Unfortunately though, Chih Yi was starting to grow weak with age and couldn't take the journey. However, Kuan Ting (灌頂), one of Chih Yi's top disciples who was later known as Master Chang An (章安), was already well-versed on the Lotus Sutra. He had recorded most of Chih Yi's talks on the sutra and showed that he understood the sophistication of his master's analysis well. Chih Yi thus immediately considered him for a stand-in.

Kuan Ting brought an analysis of the sutra, delivered a report on his master's condition, and gave lectures to Chih Kai. Chih Kai then reported the whole matter back to Chi Tsang. Chi Tsang felt that Chih Yi's analysis was very profound, and he felt inspired to go visit the master.

In 597, Yang Kuang (楊廣), second son of Emperor Weng of the Sui Dynasty, ordered four major temples to be built in what was then the capital, Changan (長安). He invited venerable monks like Chi Tsang and Chih Yi to be in charge of two of them and reserved the other two for Taoists. As soon as Chi Tsang received the invitation, he agreed to take the job. However, his disciple, Chih Kai, was not so positive. He said in a worried tone, "Master, Yang Kuang is notorious for the oppressiveness of his regime. If you accept the invitation, it will tarnish your name."

Chi Tsang said smilingly, "Chih Kai, I understand your concern, but haven't you forgotten that one of our duties is to spread the Buddha's teachings? When we go to Changan, we will be able to spread our thoughts to everyone there. Even though Yang Kuang is infamous, we still must do it, because it might also be an opportunity to change him. Now that would be blessing to all of us. I feel that since he has ordered the construction of Buddhist temples, it means that he still has some goodness left in him." Chi Tsang paused to take a sip of tea and continued, "Besides, Master Kumarajiva translated our three commentaries in Changan, and some of his disciples are still there. Perhaps we can go there and do research with them."

Soon thereafter, Chi Tsang heard that Chih Yi had accepted his invitation to be in charge of one of the four temples, and he decided to visit the great master at once. First, he rushed to Mount Tientai, but there he learned that the venerable monk had gone to Hsinchang (新昌) en route to Changan, so he immediately headed in that direction. Sadly though, Chih Yi passed away before Chi Tsang could arrive, leaving him understandably distraught.


Life in Changan

When Chi Tsang arrived at Hui Jih Temple (彗日寺) in Changan, he became somewhat of a local celebrity. People flocked to the temple every day asking for advice on their problems, and Chi Tsang was more than happy to oblige.

Then an additional temple was completed. It was called Jih Yen Temple (日嚴寺), and Chi Tsang was ordered to take charge of it. The day before his departure, he ordered Chih Kai to the main hall. Chih Kai arrived there and was surprised to see that all the candles had been lit. Chi Tsang, formally dressed, raised an oil lamp to his eyebrows and bowed to the Buddha's statue. Then he told Chih Kai to take the lamp from him and kneel down. Chi Tsang spoke to Chih Kai: "You have been following me for many long years, and I feel that you are indeed capable of taking on the position of patriarch. It is time for you to be independent, pass on the Buddha's teachings to all people, take on disciples, and propagate our doctrine. I'm going on my own to Jih Yen Temple tomorrow, so I would like you to go to Ching Lin Temple (靜林寺) and continue teaching our Sanlun doctrines."

Chih Kai was totally unprepared for this. He had known he would probably become the next patriarch of the Sanlun sect, but departing from his beloved mentor? This was very hard to do. Holding back tears, he replied, "Yes, Master, I'll follow your orders for the rest of my life. I truly hope you will take care of yourself, and I wish you all the best."

When Chi Tsang was 57 years old, he took on the painstaking work of copying the Lotus Sutra so that more people could read it. It was difficult, but he did it with concentration and passion. He did this work until he was 68 years old. In eleven years, he produced 2,000 copies of the sutra.

Feeling qualified to share his knowledge about the sutra and wanting the public to be able to decipher it as well, Chi Tsang also copied out his own commentaries, which focused especially on the meaning of altruism. He thought that if people could understand what it means to be altruistic, they could put theory into practice and walk on the Path of the Bodhisattvas by helping the needy.

Another point he stressed was the need to prostrate oneself in repentance every morning. He felt that everyone should carry out the ritual constantly to cleanse away the bad karma that one accumulated through bad deeds committed in this and past lives. He personally led his disciples in prostrating themselves 108 times every day.

His voice might have been weathered and his posture slouched, but both were still quite strong. Nevertheless, it was very painful for his legs and hands, especially given the number of repetitions. But Chi Tsang persevered through it in the hope that this would awaken people's hearts and inspire them to join in.

Gradually, more and more people came to the temple and joined in the ritual. To accommodate them, Chi Tsang ordered 25 statues of the Buddha to be sculptured and placed in various parts of the temple, so that people could also carry out the ritual simultaneously elsewhere on temple grounds. Many laypeople would weep once they had reached the depth of their hearts and repented of the possible wrongdoing they had done.


New Era

In 617, the Tang Dynasty succeeded the Sui as the new rulers of China. The founding Emperor Kao Tzu (唐高祖) ordered many senior monks from all across the country to the palace. Many of them were afraid that if they didn't respond promptly to the emperor's request, Buddhism might be banned. Considering Chi Tsang's wisdom, the Changan monks asked him to be their representative from the capital.

Soon, the palace was filled with venerable monks from around the country.

When the emperor saw Chi Tsang, he immediately stood up to greet him: "I have united all of China. What does ideal governance mean to you?"

Chi Tsang then told him a story. An emperor had led his army to war with the neighboring countries and had conquered them all, so naturally his empire became bigger. But one day he reached the seashore, and there he realized the vanity of his efforts: the sea could not be taken. Emperor Kao Tzu heard this, nodded his head and said, "It's not easy to conquer the world."

Chi Tsang said to him, "Yes, it's not easy. Even after Your Majesty conquers the world, what's next? Can Your Majesty also conquer the sun and the sky?" The emperor's mouth was wide open. Chi Tsang continued, adding, "It is no doubt hard to conquer the whole world, and it is harder still to conquer one's ambition. Your Majesty, your war with the Sui Dynasty has just ended and people finally have a chance to rest. I beg you, Your Majesty, to have mercy on your subjects and govern the country with compassion. That will encourage people to do their jobs better and in turn will make this new country a better place to live." Chi Tsang's love and wisdom were very influential, and his words shed light on the emperor's own thoughts and feelings. The new emperor thus wanted to continue his conversations with him. Shortly after they first met, Chi Tsang found himself in charge of two temples.

Even though the new dynasty had begun, parts of society were still chaotic. Many people pretended to be monks and abused the public's trust by doing unspeakable things. To keep things from getting worse, the emperor ordered his ministers to elect ten venerable monks who would set up a national code of conduct for their activities. Not surprisingly, Chi Tsang was one of them.

Eventually, Chi Tsang was abbot of four temples in the capital. His aging feet moved slower and slower as he moved from one temple to the next, but this did not hinder him completely. He still gave talks to anyone who came to him, and he still tried to keep up with his responsibilities.

In 623, realizing that his time had come, Chi Tsang wrote an essay entitled, "Fear Not Death." The essay isn't complete as we know it, but it basically states this: "Death comes from birth, but why don't we fear that? If we are not born, how is it that we may die? When we see someone being born, we must also see the inevitability of their death. Therefore, it is birth we should fear. Fear not death, but birth."

It seems perhaps that only those who are truly enlightened can recognize this. Chi Tsang surely did, for when he could write no more, he smiled at his disciples and passed away fearlessly at the age of 75 in the year 623.