National Master Wu Da, whose Dharma name was Zhixuan, had the surname of Chen. He was from Hong Ya County in the Meizhou Area of Sichuan. Sichuan was home to many renowned high Sanghans throughout history, such as Mazhu Daoyi, Guifeng Zhongmi, and Deshan Xuanjian, etc. Master Da’s grandfather used to be the county magistrate of Shehong County of Zhizhou. He took one thing really to heart: for two generations the Chen family had not been able to do well in the civil examinations, so no one was appointed to be a government official. He sincerely prayed that the Chen family could produce one child who would be a great government official. One day, Master Da’s mother had a dream that a full moon descended into her heart. At that time she conceived. Before long, she realized the dream was true, and Master Da was born. The Chen family was elated at the news. During the first year of his life, Master Da didn’t talk. However he would smile upon seeing the images of the Buddhas, the Bodhisattvas, or the Sangha.
Because his grandfather had such high expectation for this boy, he started his education at a very young age. And it was strict and rigorous training. At age five, he was ordered to compose a poem on the topic of flowers. The child finished his assignment in the time it took to walk a few steps. This poem was later recorded in the Anthology of Tang Poetry (Roll 823, #7).
The entire tree turns crimson in full blossom,
Yet stands completely bare when flowers fall
Maybe one flower remains there,
But tomorrow will be gone with the wind, too.
Upon hearing such a poem, his grandfather sighed, “This boy will let us down. It is hardly likely that he will help our clan erase the disgrace of failing at the civil examinations, because seeing the way he is, I am afraid that he will wish to leave the home-life to become a monk.”
The grandfather’s perception and prediction were quite accurate. At the age of seven, Master Da happened to listen to a lecture on the
Nirvana Sutra by Dharma Master Fatai in Ningyi Monastery, which is quite close to Chen residence. He went there everyday. In the course of the lecture series, he seemed to have sensed his own conditions from past lives. One night he had a dream: in Ningyi Monastery the Buddha came to rub the crown of his head. After he woke up, he went to ask his grandfather for permission to leave the home-life. He was turned down. The next time he tried again but was again turned down. Yet he persisted over and over again. Seeing such sincerity in him, the Chen family was moved. They realized that it was impossible to dissuade this boy. Hence they decided to grant his wish. Thus he left the home-life to become a monk at the age of 11.
He entered the Way during the innocence of childhood. With his keenly intelligent mind, plus his solid childhood education and training, he penetrated deeply into the Tripitaka (the Buddhist Canon) and was able to explain the Sutras for other people. At the age of thirteen he already looked like an adult when he was lecturing the Sutras. When he was fourteen, a great Tang poet Li Shang-yin composed a poem to praise him.
At fourteen, the Shramanera (novice monk) speaks the Sutras.
At this age it is fitting that he be an attendant.
When the Shramanera lectures, the Shramanas (ordained monks) listen.
This shows us that what counts is wisdom, not seniority.
Once the prime minister Du Yuanying came to Sichuan (Xishu) and heard about this young Shramanera, and invited him to ascend the Dharma seat to lecture on a Sutra in the Universal Worthy Hall at Great Compassion Monastery. The lecture hall was packed with more than 10,000 people who admired his virtue and came to listen to his lectures. Since then his reputation spread afar. The people of Sichuan no longer called him Dharma Master or Shramanera, but called him Bodhisattva Chen. Several years later, he received full ordination from Vinaya Master Zhenbian at Jingzhong Monastery.
Dharma Master Zhixuan later came out of Sichuan and traveled down the Yangzi River, passing Jingzhou and entering Chang’an. He stayed at Zhishen Monastery for a while and also gave Dharma talks and lectured on the Sutras there. Emperor Wenzong of Tang heard about his reputation, and hence invited him to come to the palace to speak Dharma. The emperor was very pleased with the talks he had with Dharma Master Zhixuan. Thereafter Dharma Master Zhixuan also studied some Consciousness-Only Shastras and also some non-Buddhist classics under Dharma Master Anguoxin. He often lamented that his Sichuan accent was too strong so that it became an obstacle when he lectured on the Sutras. Therefore, he went up to the Xiang’er Mountain and recited the Great Compassion Mantra. One night, he dreamt that a “spiritual monk” came to him and severed his tongue and replaced it with another one. When he woke up the next day, he was surprised to see that he could speak with a standard Beijing accent.
The Buddhadharma has its ups and downs. Some emperors had faith in the Dharma and protected it while other emperors did not believe in it and tried to destroy it. In the time of Emperor Wu of Tang, a disaster befell Buddhism. It was the Disaster for the Dharma at Hui Chang during the reign of the last Wu of the Three Wu’s and One Zong. [There were three emperors named “Wu” and one named “Zong” who tried to destroy Buddhism.] The more difficult the situation is, the more we can see a Shramana’s true character. Since Emperor Wu liked Taoism, he set up a debate forum at the Delin Palace. On one side were Buddhist monks and the other were the Taoists. As the debate went on and the Taoists gradually lost ground, Emperor Wu tried to help them from the side. He quoted some passages from the
Daodejing (The Classisc of Virtue) to question Dharma Master Zhixuan. With his unobstructed eloquence, Dharma Master Zhixuan responded to the emperor. His words flowed out like a rushing river. Some of the words were not very pleasant for the emperor to hear. The officials of the court trembled when they heard these words. They thought this time the monk was in big trouble. Two of them really cherished his talent and eloquence. They suddenly had an idea of how to get him out of this situation. They proposed, “Today we have this auspicious and rare occasion of religious debate, and all the four seas are enjoying the peace. His Majesty brought this about effortlessly. He governs this great country as if frying a small fish in a pan. This is no doubt that this is like the Emperor Yao’s Age of Peace and Prosperity. Dharma Master, you have such talent. Why don’t you compose a poem for this occasion?”
Dharma Master Zhixuan wrote down five poems within a very short period of time, taking Emepror Wu by surprise. The last of these five was recorded in the
Anthology of Tang Poetry. It was entitled “Pray for A Ruler Like Yao” and it goes like this:
To be reborn in the heavens, one must have the karma of gods.
One might not become an immortal even if he wishes to be one.
A crane’s back is dangerous and a dragon’s back is slippery.
May His Majesty live for a 1,000 years!
This poem sounded like a praise to the emperor, but actually it was a subtle admonition. All the officials broke out in a cold sweat. Although the Emperor was uncomfortable and unhappy of this poem, he still put up with it and did not lose his temper because he admired this Dharma Master’s talent. The Emperor did not give any more trouble to Dharma Master Zhixuan and allowed him to return to his native Sichuan.
When Emperor Xuanzong of Tang ascended the throne, he revived the Buddhadharma and sent envoys to search for Dharma Master Zhixuan. Dharma Master Zhixuan then submitted a proposal to the Emperor that since most of the monasteries had been ruined or abandoned by Emperor Wu, it was now time to rebuild those monasteries. Emperor Xuanzong agreed and decreed that such reconstruction begin right away. This took place in the third year of the Dazhong Reign. Emperor Xuanzong also had Dharma Master Zhixuan’s portrait drawn and hung up in the court. During this period, Dharma Master Zhixuan had close contact with Prime Minister Peixiu. The two of them often discussed how to revive the Buddhadharma.
After Yizong ascended the throne, he continued the tradition of Emperor Xuanzong and continued to support the Buddhadharma. He himself was also very sincere and would offer a meal to the monastic community at the imperial court during the ten vegetarian days of the month. Those monks who came to partake of the offering of food often numbered over ten thousand. Sometimes the emperor himself would chant when they conducted ceremonies. Dharma Master Zhixuan received special treatment in the court. One time, after he finished a lecture, the emperor bestowed a gift upon him. It was a chair made of special sandalwood. As Dharma Master Zhixuan received the seat, he gave rise to pride and arrogance. That really caused him much trouble. A sore with a human face grew on his leg. It caused excruciating pain and kept oozing pus. In despair, Dharma Master Zhixuan went to seek help from the Venerable Kanaka and was cured by him. That is how the Water Repentance of Compassion and Samadhi came about. Because Venerable Master Hua gave a detailed account in his lecture of
Reflections in the Water-Mirror: Turning the Tide of Destiny, we won’t go into detail here.
In the first year of Zhonghe, there was a peasant rebellion led by Huang Chao. The rebel army advanced towards the capital of Chang’an. When they took over the city, they set up a dynasty called “Daqi (great order)”. In the second year of Spring of the Guangming Reign, Emperor Xizong fled to Chengdu in Sichuan to save his life. He also invited Dharma Master Zhixuan to go with him. On the way to Sichuan, various government officials came to seek the Dharma Master’s advice. In order to honor his help, Emperor ordered that a Dharma title befitting Dharma Master Zhixuan be sought. All the imperial scholars busied themselves in search of a good title. They submitted their suggestions and the emperor read them one by one, but none were to his satisfaction. Finally he said, “OK, I will do it myself. Don’t bother with it now.” He took up a pen, and pondered over it. After a while, he said, “To open up, instruct, awaken to, and enter into the Buddha’s knowledge and views is the major theme of the
Lotus Sutra. Awakening means enlightenment and also brightness. When one awakens, one can step onto the great Way. To awaken means to have the Buddhas’ knowledge and vision. Further, although awakening happens in a second, one may stay unawakened for eons as numerous as the sands of the Ganges River. Those who awaken have attained the true Buddha Vehicle. Alright, then, let’s call him National Master Wuda (‘Awaken and Penetrate’).” Master Zhixuan tried to decline the emperor’s good intentions, but no matter how he tried, the emperor insisted. The Master had no choice but to accept it, but then he quickly sought to leave, for he could not endure being in such a high position. He submitted his resignation, saying that he wished to return home in his old age.
From these commentaries, we can see that Dharma Master Zhixuan created much merit in restoring and reviving the Buddhadharma. Also, few emperors were as knowedgeable as Emperor Xizong about the
Lotus Sutra; in this respect, he was quite admirable.
Dharma Master Zhixuan passed away at the age of 73, having been ordained for 54 years. Before his passing, he told his disciples that after he was gone, his remains should be left in an open field for animals and birds to eat. He also said that he had made an appointment with Amitabha Buddha long ago, and now it was time to go there. After saying these words, he lay down facing the west and passed away. Dharma Master Zhixuan held the precepts strictly and was always content. He did not eat after noontime and always wore simple clothes and slept on a straw mat. He practiced the Way day and night continuously sleeping only about two hours everyday; the rest of the time he sat in meditation. He could truly be called a great model for humans and gods alike.