Shandao | Biography


2 Rivers and a White Path

Shandao | Biography

Shandao (613–681) was an eminent Buddhist scholar and major figure in the Chinese Pure Land (Jingtu) movement. His writings had a strong influence on later Pure Land masters including Hōnen and Shinran in Japan.

Shandao (Shan-tao, 613-681) was born at Suzhou in the present Anhui Province (according to another tradition, Zhucheng in the Shandong Province) and was ordained while still a youth.

Eventually, his study of Buddhist scripture led him to the Amitāyurdhyāna Sūtra (Meditation on the Buddha of Immeasurable Life Sūtra), a text that teaches devotion to the Buddha Amitābha as a means of Universal Salvation.

Profoundly impressed by the message of this text, Shandao retired to Mount Zhongnan to pursue his religious career.

Later, he became a disciple of the Pure Land scholar Daochuo (562–645) at the latter's monastic home at the Xuanzhong Si:

Through him, Shandao became convinced that the deliverance of ordinary sentient beings was possible through the power of the Buddha Amitābha, and thus he gave himself up to the practice and propagation of Pure Land Buddhism.

His lifelong practice of recitative Nianfo (the recitation of the name of the Buddha Amitābha) began when he was in his 30-s.

In addition to being a learned scholar, Shandao was known as a charismatic preacher:

After his conversion to Pure Land belief he devoted his life to propagating Nianfo practice among clergy and laity alike.

Owing to his ardent belief in Amitābha's saving grace and his strict adherence to the Buddhist precepts, Shandao came to be popularly regarded as an incarnation of the Buddha.

According to legend, whenever Shandao recited the name of Amitābha a beam of light issued from his mouth.

Tradition has it that he copied the Smaller Sukhāvatī-vyūha Sūtra over 10 000 times and painted some 300 scenes of Amitābha's Pure Land.

Between the years 672-675 he supervised, at the insistence of the Empress Wu, the construction of a great image of Mahāvairocana Buddha in the caves at the Longmen escarpment, presiding over the inaugural service upon its completion.

Like many of his Buddhist contemporaries, Shandao believed that the Era of Mofa (Jp., Mappō : the "latter days of the law" or "Era of the decadent Dharma"),

a Degenerate Age foretold in scripture in which few devotees would be able to observe Buddhist principles faithfully and attain salvation through their own efforts, was at hand.

Shandao's writings are infused with the deep conviction that he was a common mortal, thoroughly immersed in ignorance and delusion and possessing only a minimal capacity to attain Enlightenment.

Shandao argued that it was precisely for these reasons that one must place faith in Amitābha Buddha, who, in a series of Vows made at the beginning of his religious career, had promised to create a Pure Land in which beings might win salvation.

One of these Vows, Nr. 18 in the most common Chinese translation of the Larger Sukhāvatī-vyūha Sūtra, promises birth in the Pure Land for all those who, with undistracted mind, direct their thoughts to Amitābha up to 10 successive times.

This practice (represented by the Chinese term Nianfo) was variously interpreted by Buddhist exegetes, but by Shandao's time was held to include the verbal recitation of Amitābha's name.

Shandao's originality lay in his claim that the recitation of the name of Amitābha was the single direct cause of the attainment of supreme Enlightenment.

Prior to Shandao, the tradition of Nianfo devotion had encompassed a range of practices—meditation on the Buddha's body, circumambulation of his image, and recitation of his name.

In most Buddhist sects Nianfo was done in conjunction with other practices, including the chanting of sūtras, observation of Vinaya precepts, repentance of sins, and praise of the adornments of the Pure Land.

But in most cases, the recitation of Amitābha's name was considered an inferior, expedient, or merely provisional method for achieving rebirth in the Pure Land.

It was Shandao who first elucidated the notion of recitative Nianfo as an independent and soteriologic decisive action that would assure birth in the Pure Land in its own right.

Shandao attributed the efficacy of recitative Nianfo to the inconceivable power of Amitābha's Vows.

For Shandao, the most important element in Nianfo devotion, and thus the sole requisite for rebirth in the Pure Land, was a profound faith in Amitābha's saving grace.

Acknowledging the frailty of human nature, Shandao taught that the devotee should first become fully convinced he or she has been, from time immemorial, possessed of sinful passions and subject to the cycle of birth and death.

He must then believe, with the deepest sincerity, that Amitābha's 48 Vows embrace him and all other sentient beings, and that such belief assures him of birth in the Pure Land as a Bodhisattva.

Shandao's reputation spread with the fame of his religious parable known as the "Two Rivers and a White Path:"

This parable relates the story of a lone traveller who suffers the attacks of bandits and wild animals, successfully crosses a narrow path between the River of Raging Waters (symbolizing greed) and the River of Blazing Flames (symbolizing anger), and finally reaches the safety of the opposite bank (the Pure Land).

The traveller finds the White Path by following the instructions of his 2 teachers, Śākyamuni Buddha and Amitābha Buddha.

According to Shandao, the bandits and wild animals represent the human hindrances to Enlightenment (e.g., the 6 sense organs and 6 corresponding kinds of defilements), while the White Path signifies Amitābha's salvific power as expressed in his Vows.

The parable, with its ultimate resolution of these obstructions, acts as a guide to Buddhists who desire to faithfully follow Amitābha's teachings.

In general, Shandao's many disciples advocated the practice of recitative Nianfo as the principal cause of rebirth in the Pure Land.

They did, however, endorse a variety of adjunct disciplines, including meditation:

Therefore, from the middle of the Tang dynasty (618–907), Pure Land devotion gradually synthesized and unified the 3 practices of meditation, monastic discipline, and invocation.

Shandao's notions of recitative Nianfo and faith, however, continued to be recognized in later Pure Land Buddhism as the purest and the most essential means to winning rebirth in the Pure Land.

After its introduction to Japan, Shandao's teachings enjoyed wide acceptance:

There, the notion of recitative Nianfo (Jpn., Nembutsu) underwent further development and refinement,

culminating in doctrines expounded by Hōnen (1133–1212) and Shinran (1173–1263), the founders of the Jōdo Shū (Pure Land sect) and Jōdo Shinshū (True Pure Land sect), respectively.

Shandao's emphasis on recitation and absolute faith became the hallmarks of Japanese Pure Land devotion.