The Power of Recitation

Yun-hua Jan

McMaster University
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

The third distinction of recitation during the period as was recorded in the biographies, is the preference of recitation over the academic study of religion. Although there is only one incident, the account is dramatic. The hero of the incident is named Hui-kung, who had a close friend and classmate called Hui-Yuan. When Buddhism was persecuted by Emperor Wu of the Northern Chou dynasty in 574A.D., Hui-kung escaped and traveled to Yang-tse valley; while his friend studied at Chang-an (the capital city), where he was well-versed in a number of philosophical texts, including Abhidharmasastra, Vibhasa and Mahayanasangraha. When Hui-kung came back from his travels, his friend had already been well established in their native place and was highly respected by the public with enormous donations. The two old friends stayed together for a few days and nights and enjoyed the reunion heartily. While his friend reported his achievements continuously, Hui-kung had nothing to say. "After a long period of separation now we are together again. Why are you silent on this happy occasion?" The friend asked. "I hope that the silence is not an indication that you have achieved nothing!" Hui-kung acknowledged that his nature was dull and inferior, therefore, he had had no achievement in study. "Although you might be unable to understand the great problem you should at least read a scripture." Hui-kung replied: "I have only read the Kuan Shih Yin Ching!" The friend said sternly: "The scripture is read by small boys, why should you trouble yourself for it? You, sir, renounced the household at the same time as I, and together we vowed to realize the fruit of Tao. How can you explain that you have devoted all these thirty years only to reading a finger length scripture? It is not because of your dullness, but because of your laziness I want to break our friendship. Get out of this temple quickly. I wish no more impurity to be added on to me!"

After hearing these angry words, Hui-kung said: "The scroll of scripture may be short, yet it came from the mouth of the Buddha. Those who respect and obey it will enjoy unlimited fortunes; and those who have arrogantly looked down upon it will be guilty of unlimited offenses. I hope you will arrest the anger in your mind for a moment, so that I can recite the text for you. Once that is done, I will say good­bye forever." His friend laughed: "Scriptures of Bodhisattva Kuan Shih Yin such as the chapter of 'Universal Door' (p'u-men-p'in) and the like have been discoursed by me over a hundred times. Why do you wish to bombard my ears with it once more?" Hui-kung replied, "A non-Buddhist text states that it is man who spreads Tao, and not the Tao who spreads man. You should listen to the Buddha's words wholeheartedly, and should not discard the Law because of me!"

      When the conversation was over, Hui-kung built a platform in the yard of the temple with a chair placed on the center of the platform. He circumambulated the platform three times, bowed and then ascended to the chair. His friend, forced by circumstance and unwillingly, sat in the yard in a disrespectful manner. Once Hui-kung began to sing the title of the scripture, fragrant air filled the buildings of the temple. When he recited the text, heavenly music was heard and four kinds of flowers rained down. The sound of music was clear and loud over the sky, and fresh flowers accumulated on the ground. When he completed the recitation, the music and flowers stopped accordingly. His friend, now deeply moved as well as convinced by these extraordinary phenomena, bowed at the foot of Hui-kung with tears in his eyes, and apologized repeatedly: "I have smelled dirt and corpses (as a ghost).

How dare I walk under the sunlight? Please stay here for a short while, so that I may have a chance to learn from you." replied; "It is not my ability, but the powers of the Buddhas." He left the temple immediately.18

The controversy over the preference of philosophy or practice in religious quest is a well known problem in many traditions. This dramatic confrontation is the most full and illustrative account of such a problem.  Here the preference of recitation over philosophical understanding is explicitly demonstrated. Tao Hsuan, the historian who wrote the biography on this matter, was a serious scholar himself. He seemed quite disturbed by this anti-intellectual account. In order to balance this, he wrote a pointed comment at the end of the chapter. He pointed out that, "the hindrance of Tao arises from the function of the mind. Tao is free from obstruction yet obstruction is able to hinder understandings of Tao. How can one view much learning as the hindrance of Tao?"19 The historian considered that various means of Buddhism are aimed to cure corresponding spiritual diseases if one's mind is not enlightened by philosophical studies, it is equally possible that recitation may not work as well. Although the present author does not wish to enter into the dispute between philosophers and religious historians at this point, it is interesting to note that this dramatic confrontation has already taken place in medieval China.


The biography of the eminent monks collected during the Sung period contained the largest number of reciters. The scriptures, which produced the power through recitation, had been increased by a few with The Lotus Sutra, The Diamond Sutra and the Pure Land scriptures as the major texts. The supernatural effects of recitation also seemed to increase during the period.

The most dramatic assertion of super natural powers of recitation are the escape from death, and the exception of punishment after death. The most effective scripture in this regard is the Diamond Sutra. The biography of Hung Cheng is one of the best examples of this effect: Since his recovery from a chronic illness, this monk vowed to recite The Diamond Sutra twenty times daily. Once when he was reciting the text in the night, there was another monk who meditated in the next room. The monk saw that there were two ghost messengers who came to the room with some documents in their hands. The ghost messengers talked between themselves saying that they were ordered to take monk Hung Cheng’s life. The other messenger said, "He is reciting The Diamond Sutra of Perfections of Wisdom in his heart and there is a great and extraordinary spirit which stays beside and protects him. It is impossible for us to approach the monk." Being afraid because of their inability to accomplish their duty within the given time the two messengers went away and captured "the spirit of another monk who happened to be called by the same name. The next morning, the monk who witnessed the strange, incident inquired into the matter and found indeed that there was another monk by the same name who had passed away the previous night. Because of this, the witness himself changed from the Pure Land Text to The Diamond Sutra for recitation.20

A more dramatic story of this power is found in the life of the monk San-tao. Before his renunciation of the household life, he had secretly memorized The Diamond Sutra. He had hidden the scripture in a bamboo tube and carried it in his cloth. Once he was forced to serve as a junior officer of the army. He disliked this job and escaped. After a short while he was captured and sentenced to death as a punishment for his desertion. At the time of execution, the executioner thrice attempted to chop off his head, but the knife broke in each attempt. When questioned about this he said that the power must have come from the scripture. In order to ascertain the matter, the field was searched, and the bamboo tube, which contained the scripture was found. There were three knife chop marks on the tube. The commander was surprised by the event, so he released him and allowed the man to become a monk.21

In one case, the scripture is claimed to possess an effect on the rebirth of birds. It is said that a certain monk named Ming-tu was well versed in the three deeds, scriptural, meditative and disciplinary cultivations, and has recited The Diamond Sutra of the Perfection of Wisdom. Toward the end of the Chen Kuan era (627-649), he lived in a monastery and fed two young pigeons, which had a nest in the building. The young pigeons died from their first flight and were buried by the monk. About ten days or so later, two babies came and told him in a dream: "We were two small things born from eggs. We are very grateful and happy to report that we will be reborn as human beings because of the power of your recitation and blessings. Our new family, is about 10 Li east of here." The monk remembered these words. Ten months later, he visited the family and found that twins were born in that house. Hence the monk named the babies "Pigeon boys".22


      The stories mentioned above clearly established the fact that recitation is one of the most powerful means in Chinese Buddhism more pronounced as time passed on. The evolution of scriptures recited is more significant, as it can be regarded as a barommeter of Chinese Buddhism. It indicates the ups and downs of doctrines and religious practices during this period. In the early period, scriptures related to the life of Buddha were high on the list of recitation. The Lotus Sutra became prominent during the middle of the period and had a lasting effect. The Flower Garland Sutra had a similar position. The emergence of The Diamond Sutra was very dramatic during the later part of the period as were also the scriptures of the Pure Land movement. It is of great interest to not that The Diamond Sutra seemed more popular among Buddhist monks, not merely as doctrinal, but more so in practice. Some extraordinary claims have been made on the power that this text had in rescuing one from death.

      The claim of supernatural power of
recitation may be disputable among scholars as well as sectarians, yet one point has clearly emerged from this paper, and it was a very popular phenomenon in Chinese Buddhism. It began long before the nien-fo movement of Pure Land which is well-known for its chanting of Buddha's name. From an insider's viewpoint, the power of recitation is extremely great, and in certain cases, it is claimed to be even more powerful and preferable than either a philosophical understanding or the excellence in moral disciplines.
18 Ibidem, 686c-687a.

19 Translated from HKSC, ibidem, 690c, lines 21-23.

20 See instance discussed below.

21 SKSC, T. vol. 50, 865c-866a.

22 Ibidem, 867a.