Layman Yang’s name was ui, and he was also known Renshan. He was from Shidi in Anhui and lived at the end of the Qing dynasty. Gifted with keen intelligence from birth, he mastered composition at fourteen, but did not wish to attend the national exam. During Hong-Yang Rebellion, he gave up his literary studies and learned the military arts. He trained people in his hometown to safeguard the neighborhood. During an illness, he read the
Shastra on the Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana and had an epiphany. He was inspired to take up the propagation of Buddhism as a personal duty. Later, he came across the
Shurangama Sutra in a bookstore. He became so absorbed in reading it that it was only when the owner urged him to leave that he realized it was evening. He resolved to collect the Buddhist Sutras, which he prized as treasures and had printed in single volumes for distribution. Later he and his fellow cultivators, relatives and friends formed the Society for Inscribing Sutras in Jinling. He neglected to eat and sleep as he devoted himself to proofreading Sutras. He brought back books of the Consciousness-only School, the
Avatamsaka Sutra, and other Sutras from overseas, diligently reviewed them and printed woodcut editions. In the first year of the Xuantong  reign period, he formed a Buddhist Study Society in Nanjing and personally gave lectures. Only three years later, he passed away. He had devoted himself to Buddhism for 45 years, circulating over a million volumes of Sutras and commissioning countless Buddhist images. Free from sectarian views, he had awakened to the essential integrity of nature and attributes and the unobstructed unity of Chan and Pure Land.
Elderly Layman Yang, whose first name was Wenhui, was also known as Renshan. He was a resident of Shidi in Anhui Province, China at the end of the Qing Dynasty. Because of his innate intelligence, he wrote good articles at the age of 14. Due to the impact of the Hong [Xiuquan]- Yang [Xiuqing] Rebellion in society at that time, he gave up his literary studies and learned the military arts. This doesn’t mean that he only became a solider; rather, it included the study of the art of military training, military strategy, and how to attain victory. So he underwent the training for citizens to become soldiers. Why did he have to do this training? It’s because of Hong Xiuquan and Yang Xiuqing. Under the guise of Catholicism, Hong Xiuquan set up a deviant teaching that involved channeling by spirits, or mediums. Actually, it wasn’t Roman Catholicism, Protestant Christianity, Buddhism, or Daoism, but a deviant teaching nicknamed “the long haired ones”, because many people wore long hair and claimed that they were such and such spirits.
These two people rose in revolt in Guangxi, and consequently the region became unsafe. In order to safeguard the place, Yang Wenhui started military training. The political situation was chaotic and heretical ideas were pervasive. He saw that the Hong-Yang Rebellion was actually a revolutionary political party using God’s name and deceiving foolish people, and that it was creating an insurrection. Many of the troops under their command pretended to be Daoists and engaged in all crimes, like killing, setting fires and making trouble. People thus called them “the long haired ones”.
Later, Yang Wenhui became ill. Perhaps because of his good roots, he encountered a copy of the
Shastra on the Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana and realized his life was not very meaningful. Therefore, he studied the Sutras. In a bookstore, he saw the
Shurangama Sutra, which he had an affinity with, and he read the Sutra to the point he lost track of time. How was that? He couldn’t close it or put it down. Having no sense of time, he didn’t realize it was dark until the owner told him: “Hey! We’re closing. Time to go home!”
After acquiring the Shurangama Sutra, he investigated it more deeply. Also, because many Sutras no longer existed in China at that time, he went everywhere to collect and bring them back from other countries. These books included those of the Consciousness-Only School and the
Avatamsaka [Flower Adornment] Sutra. Some of his fellow cultivators, relatives, friends and himself established an organization called the Society for Inscribing Sutras in Jinling. He certified and proofread the Sutras. He would correct the text, catching and adding even tiny amounts of missing words. Therefore the books of the Society for Inscribing Sutras in Jinling went through a thorough process of research. Later, with his fellow practitioners, they formed a Buddhist Study Society and made a great contribution to Buddhism. He was very open-minded, with no prejudice against any party or individual. He didn’t denigrate others to praise himself, nor did he feel he was special in relation to others, nor did he put on a special style.
How was he well-rounded? He realized that “the nature and its attributes” are essential integrated and unobstructed. The nature is not apart from attributes and attributes are not separate from the nature. Nature and attributes are non-dual. Without attachments, he respected the practices of both the Chan and Pure Land. Some Pure Land practitioners say that Chan is incorrect, and some Chan practitioners criticize the Pure Land practice. He was not like this. He was very flexible and at ease, probably due to his open mind and freedom from major attachments.
In the first year of the Xuantong reign period, he established a Buddhist Study Society. After three years, he fell ill from overexhaustion and passed away. He had spent 45 years of effort in Buddhism and the Sutras that he helped to circulate numbered over a million. In our time, this layperson is worthy of everyone’s emulation and respect. Laypeople should learn from the way Yang Renshan circulated the jewel of the Dharma and protected Buddhism.
A verse in praise says:
Manifesting in the form of a layperson
He propagated the orthodox Dharma.
With the teachings bequeathed by the Tathagata,
He devoted his effort to inspire others.
Disseminating the Holy Sutras,
He resolved to spread them to lands like grains of sands.
Inscribing Sutras in Jinling,
He planted lotus flowers everywhere.
Manifesting in the form of a layperson / He propagated the orthodox Dharma. He appeared as a layman to promote the Proper Dharma. With
the teachings bequeathed by the Tathagata, / He devoted his effort to inspire others. He did his best to enlighten others to the teachings left by the Tathagata.
Disseminating the Holy Sutras, / He resolved to spread them to lands like grains of sands. He was determined to see the Sutras spread to countries as numerous as the grains of sand in the Ganges River. Inscribing Sutras in Jinling, / He planted lotus flowers everywhere. He established the Society for Inscribing Sutras in Jinling in order to print the Sutras so that they could be circulated everywhere.
Another verse in praise says:
With great skill-in-means he appeared as an Upasaka.
Casting aside the brush, he joined the army to bring peace to the country.
The Taiping Rebellion destroyed the Dharma and called its nation “the heavenly country.”
To protect the Teaching, the layman traveled the earth.
He exhausted his efforts to propagate the Dharma Jewel.
He surpassed the ancient sages in his compilation of Sutras.
After the Hong-Yang disaster, he continued the orthodox tradition.
The mutual illumination of lamps signifies the transmission through the ages.
With great skill-in-means he appeared as an
Upasaka. This means that he was someone who was already enlightened, or perhaps it means that he didn’t know which Bodhisattva he was. A Bodhisattva who is already enlightened is called one who manifests with great skill-in-means. “Upasaka” is a Sanskrit word, which means a man who draws near to Buddhism or the Triple Jewel.
Casting aside the brush, he joined the army to bring peace to the country. He trained citizens to protect the homeland.
The Taiping Rebellion destroyed the Dharma and called its nation “the heavenly country.” Hong Xiuquan and Yang Xiuqing occupied Nanjing and the name of their nation was Peaceful Heavenly Country (Taiping Tianguo). The first thing they did was destroy Buddhism. Because they destroyed Buddhism, they had no peace and soon were finished.
To protect the Teaching, the layman traveled the earth. He supported Buddhism and gathered Sutras everywhere. He overturned heaven and earth in his quest for Sutras.
He exhausted his efforts to propagate the Dharma Jewel. He exerted himself to the utmost in spreading the Dharma Jewel.
He surpassed the ancient sages in his compilation of Sutras. Probably laypeople in the past did not work so hard for Buddhism. During his entire life, this layperson strove very hard to cause Buddhism to spread and flourish.
After the Hong-Yang disaster, he continued the orthodox tradition. The trouble Hong Xiuquan and Yang Xiuqing caused was like the Cultural Revolution. After that, the layman carried on the Buddha’s proper teaching.
The mutual illumination of lamps signifies the transmission through the ages. This light shines on that light and that light shines on this one. This represents the continual flourishing of the Buddhadharma.