PROPERTY FROM A SWISS COLLECTION
Ming: Fifty Years That Changed China, The British Museum, London, 2014, p. 218, fig. 188.
For the Merit of the Xuande Emperor
In Buddhist belief, the copying and propagation of Buddhist Sutras – like the commissioning of Buddhist images – is considered a meritorious deed, a way for believers to accumulate blessings for their ancestors as well as for themselves and to cultivate virtues. When such deeds are performed by an Emperor, the resulting works are inevitably of the highest standard in terms of the materials used and the artists and craftsmen employed. These two sets of albums from the Prajnaparamita Sutra, the Sutra of Perfection of (Transcendent) Wisdom, executed to imperial order, can be ranked among the finest book projects ever undertaken in China. Their illuminations represent imperial works of art on a par with the best imperial lacquerwares and porcelains of the early Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Commissioned by the Xuande Emperor (r. 1426-1435), apparently in the 5th year of his reign, in 1430, they reflect the breathtaking level of imperially sponsored artefacts in the first decades of the fifteenth century.
Buddhist Sutras are canonical scriptures that render the teachings of the Buddha, which had been taken over from India and translated. Their copying and propagation was considered a meritorious practice. The Xuande Emperor continued many of the pious deeds and sponsorship projects for Tibetan Buddhist orders, which his grandfather, the Yongle Emperor (r. 1403-1424), had energetically engaged in. Imperial workshops produced some of the finest thangkas, gilt-bronze sculptures and porcelains for ritual use in the two periods, to direct imperial order.
According to Bu xu gaoseng zhuan [Supplement to further biographies of eminent monks], compiled in the late Ming dynasty by the Chinese monk Tairu Minghe (1588-1640/41), the eminent monk Huijin (1355-1436), Patriarch of the Huayan School, who had been made Grand National Preceptor by the Xuande Emperor, was invited to the capital to lecture to the public and was entrusted with the task of copying four sets of Buddhist Sutras in golden script: the Ratnakuta (or Maharatnakuta) Sutra, the Parinirvana (or Arya-Mahaparinirvana) Sutra, the Avatamsaka Sutra and the Prajnaparamita Sutra (see the exposé by Liu Guowei below).
Of this original group of four imperially commissioned Buddhist Sutras, two are remaining in the National Palace Museum, Taipei: the Ratnakuta, or Jewel Assembly Sutra, consisting of 120 albums, and the Parinirvana, or Nirvana Sutra, comprising 40 albums plus 2 volumes of appendices; see the exhibition catalogue Yuan cang Zang chuan fojiao wenwu/Om-mani-padme-hum: Tibetan Buddhist Art in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2015, cat. nos III-1 and III-8 (figs 1 and 2). Both these Sutras in Taipei have prefaces dated to the 5th year of Xuande, 1430. In the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) the two Sutras were incorporated into the Kangxi Kangyur, a collection of translations of Buddha’s teachings, assembled in the 8th year of the Kangxi reign, 1669. In 1793, they were included in a court catalogue of the Qianlong Emperor’s goat-brain paper Sutras and bear seals of the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736-1795).
The present albums are identically executed as the albums in the two Sutras preserved in Taipei, written and illustrated in the same style, with the same gold ink on the same paper. These ten albums appear to be the only surviving volumes of the erstwhile 600 albums of the Prajnaparamita Sutra, which the Xuande Emperor had commissioned the monk Huijin to prepare, together with the other three Sutras mentioned above. The Avatamsaka Sutra appears to be lost.
The Kangxi Kangyur contains Kangxi versions of both the Prajnaparamita Sutra (ibid., cat. no. II-2) and the Avatamsaka Sutra (ibid., cat. no. II-4) rather than the Xuande companions of the other two Sutras in Taipei; and the Qianlong inventory of 1793 lists nine goat-brain paper Sutras of various dates in the collection of the Qianlong Emperor, which also do not include Xuande versions of the Prajnaparamita and Avatamsaka Sutras. It is therefore likely that both had already left the palace collection by the early Qing dynasty. Unlike the Taipei Sutras, the present volumes do not bear Qianlong seals.
The fourth Sutra of the original commission, the Avatamsaka Sutra, which appears to be completely lost, may have been given to the Dachongjiaosi in Gansu province, which was built in 1429 under imperial sponsorship by Palden Tashi (dPal ldan bkra shis, 1377 – after 1452), Abbot of the Huayan school and friend of Huijin. Since this Sutra was important for the doctrine of the Huayan school, it may have been donated to the monastery, where the existence of such a Sutra in the Medicine Buddha Hall is recorded. The hall, however, burnt down twice and with it probably the Xuande Avatamsaka Sutra.
Our ten books are produced as leporello albums and are handwritten and illustrated in gold ink on indigo-coloured paper that has been treated on the upper side to obtain a shiny black, lacquer-like surface. This so-called goat-brain paper is a mineral-blue paper coated on one side with a mixture of goat brain and ink to make it smooth and glossy, and thus particularly suitable for inscriptions or decorations in gold. Since it was not only visually striking but also particularly long-lasting, it was the court’s preferred material for the copying of Buddhist scriptures. The text is written in gold ink in impeccable calligraphy, in the style known as ‘eminent court official style’ (taige ti), which is associated with court calligraphers such as Shen Du (1357-1434) and was also practised by the Emperor himself. A Sutra manuscript transcribed by Shen Du in 1428 is illustrated in Yuan cang Zang chuan fojiao wenwu, op.cit., cat. no. IV-9, and an imperial edict written by the Emperor in this calligraphic style, was included in the British Museum’s exhibition Ming: Fifty Years That Changed China, The British Museum, London, 2014, pp. 170-71, fig. 146. The illustrations, however, are delicately engraved into the ‘lacquered’ black surface of the goat-brain paper and the grooves filled in in gold, like in the qiangjin technique used for gilt-etched lacquer.
The overall execution, which is identical to that of the 1430 Sutras in Taipei, follows models from the Yongle period and is closely related, for example, to a gold-script, goat-brain paper Sutra dated in accordance with 1418, also preserved in the National Palace Museum, see Yuan cang Zang chuan fojiao wenwu, op.cit., cat. no. III-7; similar illustrations can also be seen in a woodblock-printed Buddhist text produced for the court in 1417, in the National Palace Museum, ibid., pl. IV-5, or a printed edition of the Flower Garland Sutra of 1419, included in the British Museum’s Ming exhibition, op.cit., p. 217, fig. 187 (fig. 3).
The first album of our set opens with a gilt-etched stele inscribed with a long prayer for the benefit of the nation, headed by the words yu zhi (‘made to imperial order’), and surrounded by six five-clawed imperial dragons amidst flaming pearls and clouds, rising above a steep rock washed round by waves. Very similar gold-engraved (qiangjin) dragons, pearls and clouds can be seen on red lacquer Sutra boxes, which might have held similar Sutras, such as the (slightly smaller) example in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, which is attributed to the Yongle period, illustrated in James C.Y. Watt and Denise Patry Leidy, Defining Yongle. Imperial Art in Early Fifteenth-Century China, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2005, pl. 21 (fig. 4). This stele correlates to those in the Taipei Xuande Sutras of 1430, but differs from those in the Yongle versions mentioned above. Lotus flowers, as here depicted raining from Heaven above the stele, are very similarly seen on a silk-damask temple hanging, also in the Metropolitan Museum, illustrated ibid., pl. 33 and on the cover.
The first album continues with a spectacular gilt-etched illustration of a Buddhist pantheon composed of forty celestial beings, which is impressive in its overall composition, captivating in its fine detail, and exquisite in its elegant, pencilled style of drawing – a dramatic imperial work of art in its own right. The corresponding illustrations of the two companion sutras of 1430 in Taipei are stylistically very close and clearly done in the same imperial workshop, but deviate slightly in the composition of figures and the iconography.
The central figure of Shakyamuni seated on a lotus pedestal on a shaped throne in front of an openwork torana is the very image of the period’s gilt-bronze sculptures: two famous examples of Yongle mark and period have been published, one included in the exhibition Defining Yongle: Imperial Art in Early Fifteenth-Century China, op.cit., catalogue p. 69, pl. 24, and sold in these rooms, 7th October 2006, lot 808 (fig. 5); the other in the British Museum and included, together with the present Sutra, in the Museum’s Ming exhibition, op.cit., p. 227, fig. 195. The latter sculpture and its stylistic details, which closely relate to the present image, are discussed in David Weldon, ‘Yongle Period Metalwork: The British Museum Shakyamuni’ (http://www.asianart.com/articles/yongle/index.html). In order to render the body of the Buddha in our manuscript in gold, the respective area of the image was fully carved out of the paper surface and filled in in gold.
Tibetan Buddhist iconography is most complicated and variable, but for this period we are lucky to have closely related renderings of the Buddhist pantheon in the almost contemporary murals and sculptures of the Fahaisi, the important Buddhist monastery outside Beijing, which was completed between 1439 and 1443. The monastery was founded by the Grand Eunuch Li Tong, who was in charge of the Directorate of Imperial Accouterments (Yuyongjian) and thus oversaw the work of imperial artist and artisans. The Fahaisi project enjoyed the patronage of the Zhengtong Emperor (r. 1436-1449) and of three high-ranking Tibetan Buddhist clerics, two of whom, Shakya Yeshe (Sakya ye-shes, 1354-1435, who had died before the monastery was built) and Palden Tashi had been in close contact with the Xuande Emperor. Li Tong himself had already served at the court of the Yongle and Xuande Emperors, it is therefore not surprising that we should find many correlations in the Tibetan Buddhist iconography of two such near-contemporary, imperially sponsored, meritorious projects. The complex iconography of the Fahaisi has been researched and discussed in detail by Ursula Toyka in a monograph entitled The Splendours of Paradise: Murals and Epigraphic Documents at the Early Ming Buddhist Monastery Fahai Si, 2 vols, Monumenta Serica Monograph Series LXIII, Sankt Augustin, 2014, which provides important clues to the identification of figures depicted in our Sutra.
Shakyamuni Buddha is shown preaching to a celestial host seated on the ground facing him, and is venerated by a pantheon of disciples, deities, demons, guardians and attendants. The Buddha is flanked by his principle disciples, Ananda and Kasyapa, who are standing beside him. The leading female and male figure on either side at the front should represent – in analogy to the Fahaisi murals – Dishi Tian (Indra), Ruler of Heaven, and Fan Tian (Brahma), Ruler of the Earth. Both are accompanied by two female attendants, those of Fan Tian holding a canopy and offering a miniature mountain-shaped rock – those of Dishi Tian presenting a dish with lotus flowers and carrying a fly whisk.
Their retinues consist of twelve celestial beings each, divided into three groups of four: On either side we see four deities depicted as female Bodhisattvas, bejewelled and wearing elegant garments and headdresses, which are not further distinguished and therefore not individually identifiable, although one holds a book balanced on a lotus flower, and one a ruyi sceptre. Further, we see four figures of monks on each side, distinguished by age and including at least one foreigner with beard and earrings, but otherwise also not further distinguished.
The last groups of four, higher up on either side, include some more esoteric figures. On the left another female Bodhisattva is followed by three demon-like figures, one with a bird’s beak and two wearing animal-mask caps with open mouths, which seem to devour their heads, probably representing Yanmoluo Wang, the King of the Fifth Hell accompanied by the demons Oxhead and Horsehead. Those on the right include a male figure in the guise of a ruler, holding a tablet, identified in the Fahaisi as the Dragon King Suojie Longwang, accompanied – like in the monastery – by a yaksa demon, the only figure in the pantheon without a halo; behind him is an old man with a lotus censer, whose counterpart at the Fahaisi is interpreted as the Immortal Posou; and further below, a figure in military garb, probably representing Weituo (Skanda).
Two apsaras are hovering overhead, carrying sacrificial offerings, one holding a tray with a miniature mountain-shaped rock, the other a dish with a lotus flower.
In the lower two corners of the image we see the four Heavenly Kings, clad in elaborate ornamental armour, depicted in the same manner as in the Fahaisi: following Dishi Tian are Duowen Tian, the Heavenly King of the Northern regions, carrying a long staff with an umbrella-like ‘royal emblem’, and a model of a stupa; and Guangmu Tian, King of the West, his right hand grasping a snake, his left holding a pearl. Fan Tian is followed by Chiguo Tian, the Heavenly King of the East, playing a pipa (Chinese lute); and Zengzhang Tian, the King of the South, holding a sword and with one finger testing the blade.
At the end of the last volume of this set, depicted in the same gilt-etched technique, there is a guardian figure in military garb, which can be identified as Weituo. A similarly attired figure was already depicted by Zhu Bao (active c. 1350) in an illumination of a Lotus Sutra in gold on blue paper, dated in accordance with 1342, preserved in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, illustrated in Toyka, op.cit., pl. 188.
These ten albums of the Prajnaparamita Sutra, copied for the merit of the Xuande Emperor, clearly represent the work of the most accomplished calligraphers, painters and engravers working for the court, and are unsurpassed in the quality of the materials employed, the design on which they are based, and the brushwork and artistry with which they were accomplished. It is extremely rare for any early Ming imperial manuscript to be available for sale at auction. One smaller album containing 39 leaves of Buddhist scriptures and illustrations in gold on blue paper, dated to the 12th year of Yongle (1414) was sold in our New York rooms, 19th March 2015, lot 427.
The Imperially-Sponsored Sutras of the Xuande Reign
The Xuande Emperor Zhu Zhanji (1399-1435, sobriquet Changchun Zhenren, temple name Xuanzong) was the eldest grandson of the Yongle Emperor and the fifth emperor of the Ming dynasty (r. 1426-1435). During his decade on the throne, he engaged able and virtuous ministers and maintained the steady growth of his empire initiated by his father, sustaining what is known to history as the “prosperity of Hongxi and Xuande reigns.” The Xuande Emperor was passionate about brush arts and adept at painting, and was exceptional among Chinese rulers for his artistic talent and taste. Influenced in his religious outlook by his grandfather, the Yongle Emperor, he was chiefly, though not exclusively, devoted to Buddhism. Moreover, the Buddhist monks who were closely connected to him had for the most part been summoned to the capital during the Yongle reign. The Xuande Emperor was especially close to Indian and Tibetan Buddhist monks and clearly preferred esoteric Buddhism. The Tibetan lamas Palden Tashi (1377 – after 1452) and Shakya Yeshe (1354-1435), who had been invited to the court during the Yongle reign, enjoyed also the favour of the Xuande Emperor. The Indian Buddhist lineages dominant during the Xuande reign were that of the Indian monk Sahajasri (dates unknown), who had arrived in China during the Hongwu reign (1368-1398), and his Chinese disciple Zhiguang (1348-1435), and that of Sri-Sariputra, the Great Monk of the Diamond Throne (Jingangzuo shangshi), who had arrived in China from India in the 11th year of the Yongle period (1413). The Chinese monk whom the Emperor favoured was Huijin (1355-1436), known as the 21st patriarch of the Huayan School, who had edited Yongle Beizang [Yongle Northern Tripitaka] at Haiyinsi in Beijing on the Yongle Emperor’s order. Zhiguang’s disciple Daoshen also studied Huayan teachings in Beijing under Huijin.
Monks of Tibetan Buddhism
In the first year of the Xuande period (1426), Palden Tashi was promoted from Senglusi zuochanjiao (Left Interpreter of Teachings of the Central Buddhist Registry) to Jingjue ciji Daguoshi (Grand National Preceptor of Pure Consciousness and Benevolent Salvation), and lived at Dalongshansi (now Huguosi, known during the Yuan dynasty as Chongguosi. In the second year of the Xuande reign (1427), it was renovated and renamed Dalongshansi and became Palden Tashi’s base. A wooden portrait statue of him, originally from the monastery, is now in the Buddhist Library of Fayuansi, Beijing, after temporarily having been stored in the Palace Museum, illustrated in Ming: Fifty Years That Changed China, The British Museum, London, 2014, fig. 211). Palden Tashi performed multiple empowerment rites on the Xuande Emperor and was charged by him to translate into Chinese such texts as Commentary of the Hevajra Tantra, Ritual of the Mahacakra-Vajrapani Mandala, and Ritual of the Sarvajna Mandala. In the 13th year of the Yongle period (1415), Palden Tashi founded a monastery in his hometown of Minzhou, and in the 3rd year of the Xuande period (1428) this was expanded into Dachongjiaosi on the Emperor’s order. This is documented in Shen Can’s Stele Inscriptions on the Construction of Dachongjiaosi by the Xuande Emperor. Palden was the most trusted Tibetan monk at the Emperor’s inner court. Aside from the aforementioned title, he was also later bestowed the title of Xitian fozi Daguoshi (Grand National Preceptor of the Buddhists of the West).
Shakya Yeshe was a disciple of Tsongkhapa (1357-1419) and was received by the Yongle Emperor in Nanjing as a representative of his teacher, earning the title of National Preceptor. After returning to Tibet, Yeshe used funds bestowed by the Emperor to found Serasi. In the 4th year of the Xuande period (1429), the Emperor summoned Shakya Yeshe to Beijing and installed him at Daciensi (originally Haiyinsi and renamed in that year). In the 9th year (1434), the Xuande Emperor gave Shakya Yeshe the title Daci fawang (Great Compassion Dharma King) along with a kesi thangka with a portrait of the latter (preserved in the Great Sutra Hall of Serasi) and an official rank.
A disciple of the Indian monk Sahajasri, Zhiguang was well-versed in Sanskrit and Tibetan and went to Tibet several times on official missions. He was responsible for inviting the Fifth Karmapa, then aged twenty, to Nanjing for a meeting with the Yongle Emperor. Zhiguang was responsible for the translation of several Buddhist classics and earned the favour and attention of the three early-Ming emperors for his intellectual cultivation and his diplomatic contributions. The Yongle Emperor bestowed on him the rank of National Preceptor and then elevated him to that of Sengsilu shanshi (World Benefactor of the Central Buddhist Registry). He lived at Chongguosi (which, as mentioned above, would be renamed Dalongshansi). The Hongxi Emperor (r. 1425) gave him the rank of Daguoshi (Grand National Preceptor) and installed him at Danengrensi. The Xuande Emperor further gave him the title of Xitian fozi (Buddhist of the West), the highest title attainable by a Han Chinese Buddhist monk at the time. In the 2nd year of the Xuande period (1427), on the order of his mother, the Empress Dowager Zhang, the Emperor built Dajuesi for Zhiguang as a place of retirement. Zhiguang held multiple Sutra teaching sessions for the Emperor.
After arriving in China and being received by the Yongle Emperor, Sri-Sariputra was ordered first to stay at Haiyinsi. He had brought from India five golden Buddhist icons and a painting of the Mahabodhi stupa of Bodhgaya, and Zhenjuesi was built specifically to house them. In the 15th year of the Yongle period (1417), after visiting Mount Wutai, Sri-Sariputra was given the title Sengsilu chanjiao (Promoter of Teachings of the Central Buddhist Registry) and stationed at Nengrensi by imperial decree. After the Hongxi Emperor ascended the throne, he received the title of Grand National Preceptor. During the early reign of Xuande, he was ordered to host Buddhist ceremonies. Sri-Sariputra entered nirvana in the first year of the Xuande reign (1426), and his sarira are housed at Zhijuesi (now Beijing Stone Carvings Art Museum).
Huijin and the Xuande-Era Buddhist Sutras in Gold Ink
The Bu xu gaoseng zhuan [Supplement to further biographies of eminent monks], edited by the Ming-dynasty monk Minghe, documents the life of Huijin, a renowned monk of the Huayan school during the Yongle and Xuande periods. The substance of this record was drawn from the Qiyanfazhu dashi ta ming [Epitaph on the Stupa of the Great Instructor Mountain-Dwelling Dharma Master] written in the first year of the Tianshun period (1457) by the Minister of Rites Hu Ying (1375-1463). In his early years, Huijin was summoned by the Yongle Emperor to explain the central meaning of the Surangama Sutra. Subsequently the Emperor bestowed on him a prestigious purple robe, appointed him Abbot of Tianjiesi in Nanjing, and then tasked him with editing and compiling Da Ming sanzang fashu [Categories of Buddhist concepts from the canon of the Great Ming dynasty] at Lingusi in Nanjing. Huijin later followed the Yongle Emperor to Beijing and was stationed at Haiyinsi, where he managed the publication of the Yongle Northern Tripitaka. At Huijin’s invitation, the Yongle Emperor “himself wrote thirteen Sutra prefaces and twelve colophons on Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.” Later the Emperor bestowed on Huijin “an Indian-style portrait of Shakyamuni, a kesi panel of Avalokiteshvara, crystal rosary beads, and gathas of the seven Buddhas.” During the Xuande reign, Huijin was “treated as an elder of the nation” and tasked with “copying in gold ink the four Sutras of Avatamsaka, Prajnaparamita, Ratnakuta, and Parinirvana.” According to this record, Huijin was most likely responsible for the 120-case copy of the Ratnakuta Sutra (fig. 1) and the 40-case copy of the Parinirvana Sutra (fig. 2) in gold ink (additionally there are two cases of a copy of the Later Analysis of the Parinirvana Sutra in the same mounting and calligraphic styles), both accompanied with prefaces by his Majesty, dated to the 5th year of the Xuande reign (1430) and now preserved in the National Palace Museum, Taipei.
According to Hu Ying’s epitaph, Huijin was friendly with several prominent monks in Beijing and socialized with them frequently, including Daoyan (1335-1418), who helped Yongle ascend the throne, Zhiguang, Yinfeng, and Palden Tashi. Xitian fozi yuanliu lu [Itineraries of the Buddhist of the West], which includes a biography of Palden Tashi, records that he once invited Huijin to his home monastery of Dalongshansi to lecture on the Surangama Sutra, the Sutra of Complete Enlightenment, and other sacred texts, indicating their close friendship. According to Tibetan-language sources, the Medicine Buddha Hall at Dachongjiaosi, built by Palden Tashi, housed two copies of the Avatamsaka Sutra in gold ink, one in Chinese and the other in Tibetan. The former may have been one of the four Sutra copies that Huijin supervised and may have been gifted to Dachongjiaosi by the Xuande Emperor.
Goat-Brain Paper and Sutras in Gold Ink
In Chinese Buddhism, the practice of copying Sutras in gold began very early. Typically, a text is copied in gold ink on indigo-coloured paper, creating a strong contrast and a solemn mood. Historical records refer to such paper as gan (red-tinted blue) or bi (jade-blue) paper. Fang Yizhi (1611-1671) wrote in the late Ming dynasty in his Wuli xiaozhi [Notes on the principles of things], vol. 8, “In the 5th year of the Xuande reign (1430), suqing (plain fragrant) paper was created, and from it sajin (splashed gold), wusefen (five-coloured powder), and ciqingla (porcelain-blue waxed) paper was printed.” Because of this, many scholars date the creation of indigo-dyed porcelain-blue paper to the Xuande period and suggest that before this point indigo-coloured paper was generically referred to as gan or bi paper. The new name of ‘porcelain-blue’ was perhaps because the colour is similar to Xuande period blue-and-white porcelain.
The National Palace Museum in Taipei houses a number of Ming-dynasty Sutras in gold ink formerly in the Qing court collection. Nine of them are recorded in Midian zhulin xubian [Forest of pearls in the secret palace, second series], a catalogue of the Qianlong Emperor’s religious art, as having been written on goat-brain paper. In his Xiqing biji [Miscellaneous Notes of Xiqing], Shen Chu (1735-1799) of the Qing dynasty writes, “Goat-brain stationery is made from Xuande porcelain-blue paper. Goat brains and dingyan ink are mixed and stored underground for a long time, and then applied to paper, which is then polished with stone. This paper is as dark as ink and as shiny as a mirror. It was first made during the Xuande period of the Ming for writing in gold. It is long-lasting and resistant to insects. Now in the capital only one workshop still continues this tradition, and other craftsmen cannot make it.” This text is the earliest historical record of how goat-brain paper is made. What is the purpose of mixing ink with goat brains? The latter contains a large amount of lecithin, a natural emulsifier that binds oil and water (just as egg white, another natural emulsifier, binds oil and water to create tempera pigments). The mixture of goat brains and ink, containing protein, lecithin, and oils, is easily applied to the paper to create a thick and reflective surface, which prevents gold ink from being readily absorbed into the fibres underneath. The method of creating goat-brain paper is now lost in Chinese culture, but the Tibetans continue to practise it to this day, although they tend to use yak brains instead. Currently, there is no direct evidence for whether this method of paper-making originated in Han or Tibetan areas, but Han paper-making traditions generally did not use animal ingredients. If goat-brain paper was indeed first seen in Han China in the Xuande period as the above document suggests, then it is likely that it first originated in Tibet, but this is a matter for further investigation.
The current ten albums of the Prajnaparamita Sutra are an excerpt from Xuanzang’s 600-fascicle translation. The one-fascicle-per-album format, calligraphic and mounting styles, frontispiece illustration, and especially the use of goat-brain paper are consistent with Huijin’s copies in gold ink of the Ratnakuta Sutra (fig. 1) and the Parinirvana Sutra (fig. 2) in the National Palace Museum collection, and confirm that the ten albums were likewise created by Huijin during the Xuande reign. The 600-fascicle Prajnaparamita Sutra contains five albums per case, while the Ratnakuta Sutra and the Parinirvana Sutra, both much shorter than the present one, contain ten albums per case with slightly different brocade covers.
The Dharma Master whose canonical name was Huijin (‘Wisdom Advanced’) had for his personal name Qiyan, and Zhiweng for his sobriquet. He was a native of Lengquan village, Lingshi county, Shanxi. His secular surname was Song, and his parents enjoyed doing good works. He was born on 20th January 1355 during the Yuan dynasty. While still quite young he could recite sayings of the Buddha from memory. Only at eight years of age, when he lost the support of his parents due to a local military conflict, did he begin to weave chaste-tree twigs together to make baskets and so managed to support his grandparents, who later passed away as well, due to warfare. Resolved to renounce secular life, he took the tonsure and was ordained as a monk by His Eminence Jian at the Dayunsi (Hunyuan county, Shanxi) and took up the scriptures to study. Saved thanks to the imperial grace newly bestowed during the Hongwu period (1368-1398), he went to the Gufeng fashi (‘Ancient Peaks Dharma Master’) in Bianliang (Kaifeng) to study the fundamental teachings of the Avatamsaka Sutra, while secondarily becoming proficient in treatises concerned with the hundred Dharmas of the Yogacara (‘conscious-only’) tradition. In the course of time Huijin advanced to become an authorized lecturer and was so admired and universally trusted that he acquired the reputation of a veritable Dharma Lord.
When the Yongle Emperor (r. 1403-1424) heard of his reputation, he dispatched a eunuch to summon him to the palace in Nanjing post-haste. He questioned him about the main points of the Surangama Sutra, and after Huijin had responded personally in response to the imperial command, he was conferred a purple robe (indicating his elevation as an ‘eminent monk’) and ordered to reside at Tianjiesi (Nanjing), where outstanding monks were selected to study with him. Huijin was also ordered, first, to take charge of eminent monks at the Linggusi (also in Nanjing) who were editing the Sanzang fashu [Categories of Buddhist Concepts in the Tripitaka], and then to accompany the Emperor to Beijing, where he took up residence at the Haiyinsi and was by imperial decree placed in charge of monks and nuns all over the empire.
Outside the Great Ming Gate he held a massive Buddhist service dedicated to releasing all sentient beings from suffering, and over a month gave lectures on the three categories of pure precepts, which effectively addressed issues both recondite and manifest. Massive rice cauldrons glittered and tall pennants fluttered in the wind. For this service, Huijin was conferred a scripture impressed with the imperial seal and a gold-thread kasaya and was promoted to Rectifier of the Left (in the Buddhist Registry) and made Supreme Supervisor of all literary Confucian scholars and eminent monks in the empire.
When he was engaged in collating the Tripitaka at the Sutra Printing Hall of the Haiyinsi, he memorialized the Emperor thus: “Since we are printing these Tripitaka teachings in order to assist moral transformation of the people through governance, it is only right that Your Majesty compose a preface to the work, for the instruction provided in it should spread near and far.” The Emperor agreed and personally composed thirteen introductions to the Sutras in thirteen Colophons to the Eulogies for Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Huijin was then summoned to the Incense Hall, where he was given a seat of his own, a Buddhist image of Shakyamuni, a kesi panel of Avalokiteshvara, crystal rosary beads, and instructions from the Emperor in the form of a gatha (poetic verses) entitled Seven Past Buddhas, one couplet of which reads “Model yourself on them to practice cultivation / For I promote you to Explicator of Teachings of the Left”.
In total, Huijin was active for some seventy years. In the first year of the Hongxi period (1425), when the Emperor purged Buddhist teaching positions, only Huijin was rewarded for excellence. The imperial edict regarding this states “Buddhists teach in order to enable people to be humane and thus guide the ignorant classes toward moral transformation, covertly supplementing the transformative virtue of the Emperor, which effectively brings peace and stability to the multitudes. This general teaching surely depends on getting the right people to do it, for teaching should not be taken lightly. You, Explicator of Teachings of the Left, Huijin have thoroughly investigated all doctrines and with strict purity adhere to moral discipline, which is why I have appointed you to this position. May you cultivate yourself as a Maitreya. I have given you highly valued gifts to encourage you to strive forward with ever more diligence and invigorate the teachings of your sect, which is entirely in accord with Our wishes. Respect this!”
At the beginning of the Xuande period (1426), the Emperor rewarded him by making him an Elder of the State, gave him a Five Buddha pilu crown and a gold-twill ceremonial pilgrimage robe. He also summoned Huijin to the Hanlin Academy where, together with many other officials and a congregation of monks, he copied in gold characters the four great scriptures, the Avatamsaka Sutra, the Prajnaparamita Sutra, the Ratnakuta Sutra and the Parinirvana Sutra, while cooked food and drinks were provided by the imperial kitchen.
Once the task was finished, he was awarded the title National Preceptor guanding jingjue (Consecrated Pure Enlightenment) and composed a memorial to the Emperor requesting that he with his immense goodness lecture on the Surangama Sutra, so that both the Buddhist clerics as well as laymen present could hear how to understand its more than a myriad meanings. The older he became, the loftier his virtue, his ears and eyes were ever pure and bright, his countenance ever praiseworthy for its simplicity and unsophistication, and his personal nature ever straightforward and prudent. His old monastic friends include the Duke of Rongguo Gongjing Yao (Yao Guangxiao, 1335-1418).
Huijin died at the worldly age of 82 and the monastic age of 62, on 2nd August 1436 in the Zhengtong period. After his coffin had been kept in the Abbot’s quarters for three days, as thick clouds hung over the sky, the official announcement of his passing was made, and the Emperor had the Ministry of Rites hold a ceremony for him. On 14th August 1436, his body was cremated in Fucheng (Hengshui, Hebei), and on the day of the Mid-Autumn Festival, 25th September 1436, a stupa for the ashes of his spirit bones was erected west of the Grand Canal. The Emperor bestowed an imperial order that a fountain be installed at the Ten Thousand Buddha Temple in special honour of him (fig. 6).
Xianshou chuandeng lu [Record of transmission of the lamp in the Xianshou Tradition], vol. 1, pp. 314-317.
Xuande (‘Propagating Virtue’)
Complete in the Arts of Both Peace and War
Zhu Zhanji, who ruled China as the Xuande Emperor from 1426 to 1435, came nearest of all Ming (‘brilliant’ or ‘shining’) emperors to the early Ming (1368-1644) imperial idea of a ruler that is summed up in the phrase wen wu shuang quan, ‘complete in the arts of both peace and war’– an ideal not dissimilar to that of the Western Renaissance.1 He was ruler, reformer, warrior, horseman, poet, painter, calligrapher, Buddhist, and father, all at once.
As a ruler, the Xuande Emperor had inherited from his father, the Hongxi Emperor (r. 1425), a grasp of the administrative challenges of the nation. The latter had repeatedly acted as regent and competently governed, while his father, the Yongle Emperor (r. 1403-1424), was on extended tours of the country or on the battlefield. As a reformer, the Xuande Emperor lowered taxes in 1430 on all imperial lands and stemmed the corruption of tax collectors. He opposed the death penalty whenever possible and he ordered re-trials that helped to release thousands of prisoners. Compared with the reigns of the paranoid first Ming ruler, who had conquered the empire, the Hongwu Emperor (r. 1368-1398), and the brilliant usurper of the throne, the Yongle Emperor, both of whom had tens of thousands killed and their extended families exterminated, the court experienced a period of relative ease during the Xuande era.
Zhu Zhanji’s military skills had endeared him to his grandfather, the Yongle Emperor, who had taken him into battle against the Mongol tribes as a fifteen-year old. They spent weeks together on horseback and in tents, where the grandfather would teach his young grandson military strategy and tell him about his conquests. The Xuande Emperor is recorded as being a gifted archer on horseback and to have led many hunting parties with his officers. As a warrior, he led troops numerous times to defend the empire’s northern borders, fighting at the front and personally taking part in battle.
As a respected poet and an innovative painter, the Xuande Emperor was a natural sponsor of the arts. He continued the building of the imperial city, acted as patron of the imperial workshops and commissioned the creation of treasures in all fields of the arts. He encouraged improvements in the manufacturing of ceramics at the imperial kilns in Jingdezhen and re-established court painting along the lines of the famous Song dynasty (960-1279) painting academy.
As a Buddhist, the Xuande Emperor followed in the footsteps of his grandfather, who was a fervent believer and a staunch supporter of Buddhist causes and – like his forebear – supported the building of temples and monasteries, the casting of Buddhist images and the copying of Buddhist scriptures. From 1407 onwards, from the age of eight, he had been instructed by the learned and influential Buddhist monk, Daoyan (Yao Guangxiao, 1335-1418), who had supported the Yongle Emperor’s usurpation of the throne. He called the Tibetan cleric Shakya Yeshe (1354-1435) back to the capital, who after a first visit to the capital in the Yongle period, had returned to Tibet with lavish imperial gifts, bestowed him with important titles. According to the biography of Palden Tashi (1377 – after 1452), another Tibetan cleric who played an important role in the religious life of the capital, the Xuande Emperor received several tantric initiations directly from this cleric and shared many conversations with him about the Buddhist doctrine and faith.
It was in a time of peace, a time that historians call a Golden Age, that the Xuande Emperor entrusted the monk Huijin (1355-1436) with the production of four major Mahayana Sutras in golden script – a project that remained the largest and most important golden script Sutra compilation of the Ming dynasty.
1 Craig Clunas writes in ‘Wen: The Arts of Peace’ that “The ideal of the early Ming emperors lay in the phrase ‘wen wu shuang quan’, ‘complete in the arts of both peace and of war’”, Ming: Fifty Years That Changed China, The British Museum, London, 2014, catalogue p. 158.
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