Ou-i Chih-Hsu

by J.C. Cleary

We owe the commentary translated below to a man who lived in the first half of the seventeenth century in China. Like all eminent Buddhist monks in China, he was known under many names. For the sake of simplicity, I will refer to him by just one of these names: Ou-I (pronounced "owe" "ee").

Master Ou-i was born into a society in the throes of social and political crisis, at a time of deep ideological divisions and self-doubt among the intelligentsia. He grew to maturity during the decay and downfall of the Ming dynasty, and lived to witness a prolonged civil war and finally the conquest of China by foreign "barbarians," the Manchus from across the northeast frontier.

By Ou-i's time, China had gone through several generations of unsettling but invigorating economic change: more trade, more mobility, more areas of life swept up into the cash economy.  The entrenched imperial regime was increasingly out of touch with the needs of the society, and even with the ambitions and self-interests of the upper classes. Bitter factional struggles divided the elite political class, and the legitimacy of the whole system was called into question. New ideas, new forms of art and literature, new forms of social criticism and satire, bubbled to the surface in the turmoil.

In religion, it was an age where the five centuries old trend of "The Three Teachings Merging into One" was gathering momentum. More and more Chinese felt that the ideas and practices of Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism should be combined and used to supplement and complete each other.  Popular religious leaders preached new syncretic forms of religion, and worked to bring the gist of the Buddhist, Confucian, and Taoist classics to a broader audience.

The most influential school of Confucian thought at the time was permeated by Zen Buddhist ideas. There was a new emphasis on the virtues of the common man and woman and their potential to equal the sages. A considerable fraction of Confucian gentlemen knew the language of Zen, mingled with Buddhist colleagues, and cultivated quiet-meditation and wisdom-in-action practices akin to Buddhism.

Many Buddhists turned to Taoist energy practices in an attempt to further their own religious quests. Buddhists went into elaborate internal visualizations, and exercises for opening energy channels. Tantric and Taoist influences blended into the mainstream of scriptural Buddhism and Zen to bring forth the style of Chinese Buddhism still with us today.

The vernacular literature of the time shows a strong current of skepticism towards all forms of religion, and a pervasive mistrust of authority figures of all kinds. Buddhist and Taoist monks and nuns are often portrayed as buffoons and hustlers, more interested in securing patronage and worldly favors than in anything spiritual. Confucian scholars are shown as a motley crew of conniving careerists, ruthless cynics, bankrupt idealists, and feckless dreamers. Men in power are pictured as venal, vindictive tyrants, unrestrained by any sense of justice or civic duty. People are shown going through the motions of Buddhist and Taoist practices in a half-hearted, mechanical way, not quite convinced that they will do any good, but with nowhere else to turn for relief.

For several decades before Master Ou-i came on the scene, a revival of sorts had been going on within Chinese Buddhism.  There was a concerted attempt among Buddhist leaders to retrieve and reassemble the total heritage of Chinese Buddhism, the whole spectrum of formulations and teaching vehicles that had developed over the centuries. The Buddhist canon was published in handier, more affordable editions, and many collections of Zen koans were reprinted and put into circulation. There was no lack of rich and powerful patrons, and many Buddhist temples that had been ruined amidst the warfare that gave birth to the Ming dynasty in the 14th century were rebuilt in the 16th century.

For the last time in Chinese history, leading Buddhist monks from educated backgrounds were formidable figures in the intellectual life of the country, injecting Buddhist perspectives into the elite discourse of the time. But such involvement was perilous. Tzu-po Chen-k'o, the most famous Zen master in the generation before Master Ou-i, laid down his life protesting tyrannical government policies.  Han-shan Te-ch'ing, another Buddhist leader, was defrocked and sent into exile when the patrons of his book printing and temple restoration projects were put on the defensive in court political intrigue.

Master Ou-i's life mirrors the unease of his time. It was a lifetime of intense spiritual struggle, marked by many personal crises and searching reevaluations of his practice.  Over the course of his life, Ou-i tirelessly investigated one stream after another of Buddhist methodology and theory, searching for the key to attainment in a time and place when genuine teachers and sincere companions in the path were hard to find.

As a teenager, like other boys from well-off families, Ou-i was immersed in Confucian studies, in preparation for passing the exams that opened the way to enter the imperial bureaucracy, the most prestigious of all careers in the society.  He even wrote anti-Buddhist essays, in the fashion of the school of Confucianism orthodox in government eyes -- essays that he later burned.

At twenty he felt a breakthrough as he was studying the Analects of Confucius: he felt that he had understood the mind of Confucius. The same year Ou-i's father died.

Ou-i now moved beyond the static normative philosophy of the orthodox Confucianism of Chu Hsi [d. 1200], which openly condemned Buddhism as amoral and immoral. He delved into the more dynamic streams of Confucianism inspired by Wang Yang-ming [d. 1528], which had incorporated many perspectives from Zen Buddhism.

In his early twenties Ou-i began to practice Zen. He left home and became a monk at the age of twenty-four, guiding his meditation with the Surangama Sutra. He got dramatic results and felt that the meanings of the sutras and of the Zen sayings had all become obvious. But he told no one about this, since he did not think he had attained the ultimate level. Ou-i admits that at this time in his life, like many intellectuals before and since, he felt that Pure Land methods were beneath him, and fit only for the common people.

Ou-i became gravely ill when he was twenty-eight, after his mother had died a lingering death. He found to his dismay that his previous realization did him no good when faced with a life-and-death crisis. From this point on, Ou-i combined Buddha-name recitation with his Zen practice. Such combined practice was a long-established trend in Chinese Buddhism.  The premise was that reciting the Buddha-name was the functional equivalent of Zen meditation, providing an easier, and thus for most people more effective way to samadhi. After his mother passed away, Ou-i spent two years in seclusion pursuing the combined practice of Zen and Pure Land.

At thirty-one, Ou-i encountered a famous Zen teacher who showed him how degenerate Zen practice had become in their time. After this Ou-i turned away from Zen forms altogether:   though he always acknowledged the genuine realization of the Zen masters, he had decided that Zen methods were too difficult for most people to follow, and that Zen in his time was mostly an intellectual plaything.

Ou-i now devoted his energy more and more to Pure Land practice. At the same time, he did research on the vinaya (the monastic codes of discipline), and read widely in the Buddhist scriptures and philosophical treatises. He made a deep study of T'ien-t'ai philosophy, a systematic synthesis of Mahayana Buddhism developed in sixth century China.  Ou-i clearly felt no sense of incongruity between Pure Land Buddhism and the Buddhism of the sutras and shastras. His commentary on the Amitabha Sutra often uses T'ien-t'ai categories, and is firmly based on the ontology of Yogacara philosophy.

In his thirties, Ou-i became fascinated with the practice of chanting mantras, special sequences of sounds to connect the practitioner to higher realities.  He devoted himself to the mantra of Ti-tsang, the Bodhisattva particularly associated with bringing salvation to beings in hell.  During the period when the Mongols ruled China and patronized Tibetan Buddhism, the Tantric Buddhist practice of chanting mantras had been absorbed into popular Chinese Buddhism, where mantras were regarded as magical spells that could protect their users or even bring them supernatural powers.

But as Ou-i pursued his studies, he learned that Tantric Buddhism discourages the random use of mantras as potentially dangerous, and in fact demands extremely rigorous discipline as a prerequisite for the use of mantras, to safeguard against mantra-practice amplifying faults and distorting perceptions. Ou-i stopped teaching mantras to others, and restricted his own recitation practice to the Buddha-name, the one universally safe invocation.

In his late thirties, Master Ou-i became more and more a public teacher. He lectured and wrote extensively, explaining the sutras and shastras. This was the period when the Ming dynasty entered its death spiral, as peasant rebels routed the imperial forces throughout North China, and the Manchu armies stood poised to invade from the Northeast.  Master Ou-i himself was in the Yangtse River delta region, which for the time being was still safe from these political upheavals.

Despite his own preference for Pure Land methods, Master Ou-i had a completely non-sectarian view of the different forms of Buddhism: "The potentials and circumstances of sentient beings all differ, and so all different forms of the Buddhist Teaching have been devised, some open, some closed, using all sorts of terminology. The Teaching is expressed effectively to all sentient beings according to what they are ready to hear." At the age of thirty-nine he had a great revelation and saw that the differences between Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism only existed because all three teachings were just expedient means, adapted to different needs.

Another serious illness that struck when he was forty-six prompted Master Ou-i to reconsider his own Buddhist practice, and devote himself completely to Pure Land practice.  In his final fifteen years of his life he produced a remarkable volume of scholarship, authoring some seventy-five works in which he explicated not only the major Buddhist sutras and shastras, but also various Confucian classics, and even theBook of Change.  His commentary on the Amitabha Sutra was written when he was forty-nine, in the space of nine days.

Master Ou-i died in 1656, at the age of fifty-seven. The story goes that in his last testament he had instructed his disciples to collect his bones after the cremation, grind them up, mix them with flour, and bake them into cakes to be scattered around the mountain for the birds and beasts to eat, so they could form a karmic link with the Buddhist Teachings. The disciples did not have the heart to follow their master's wishes, and instead enshrined his bones beside the great hall at Lingfeng Temple.