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.
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
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
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
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."
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
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
The old monk then asked his final question, "What
is bigger than a mountain yet smaller than a speck of
"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
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),
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
in Zhejiang Province (浙江省),
and was given the position of abbot at Chia Hsiang Temple
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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