Early Classical Formation
Tsung-mi’s early life is unique because it did not fit the mold of the typical Ch’an monk. Usually contact within the Buddhist monastic-community happened at an early age, between childhood and the early teen years. Tsung-mi came from an elite family and he began his early non-monastic education as a young child well-into his late teens fervently studying the Chinese Classics; this was a pivotal development because his early formation was firmly rooted in a “Classical vein” which helped to form his stature as a man of the fine-arts, a distinction that empowered his most erudite mode of expression. This was reinforced in his late teens and early twenties by fine-tuning this classical-exposure with a healthy dose of some Buddhist texts.
At the age of 24 his life abruptly took an auspicious turn when he encountered a Ch’an Master named Daoyuan, whom he trained under for around three years and culminated in his receiving the “Mind Seal” from Daoyuan. The most auspicious moment, though, during this time period was his exposure to a copy of the apocryphal Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment. This Sutra’s whole structure is based on a Ch’an model of Sudden Awakening followed by Gradual Practice. Peter N. Gregory further expounds on this significance:
Indeed, there is much in the Scripture of Perfect Enlightenment that relates to the theory and practice of Ch’an. Tsung-mi interpreted the main body of the text, what he referred to as the true teaching (cheng-tsung), as exemplifying the theory of sudden enlightenment followed by gradual cultivation (tun-wu chien-hsiu), which he advocated as the essence of Ho-tse Shen-hui’s teaching. ( See Blog, Sudden Anointment). Whereas the first chapter set forth “sudden faith and understanding” (tun hsin chieh), the next ten chapters dealt with “gradual cultivation and realization” (chien hsiu cheng). Tsung-mi claimed that the practice must be founded on faith in and understanding of the perfectly enlightened mind with which all beings are endowed—hence sudden enlightenment must precede gradual cultivation. The mind of perfect enlightenment is, of course, what in more technical terms is referred to as the tathāgatagarbha, the Indian Buddhist doctrine that was central to the sinified-forms of Buddhism that assumed their mature form in the Sui and T’ang dynasties. This doctrine is at the very core of Tsung-mi’s understanding of Buddhism…(emphasis mine). (Gregory, Tsung-mi and the Sinification of Buddhism, p.58)
The Influence of Hua-yen
Tsung-mi had been enamored with Ch’en-kuan and his commentaries on the Hua-yen (Avatamasaka) Sutra for some time before becoming his fervent apprentice. Besides his own in-depth appreciation for the Hua-yen Sutra other adepts became equally enamored with Tsung-mi’s own lectures on the Sutra. Tsung-mi must not only have been an exceptional scholar but an exceptional public-speaker as well, because on one occasion while lecturing, one of the younger adepts became so excitedly-enthralled with what he heard that he “cut-off his arm to express his good fortune ‘at the inconceivable marvelous dharma he had just encountered.’” (Gregory, p.60) Now, this was no metaphorical occurrence but a real-life episode in which this young novice monk named T’ai-kung did, in fact, do this act of self-immolation:
Tsung-mi went on to comment that the earnestness of the monk’s resolve reflected the power of Ch’eng-kuans’s teaching. He added that there was none who did not marvel at T’ai-kung’s composure and absence of anxiety in carrying-out his extraordinary deed of self-amputation. An official investigation into the affair awarded T’ai-kung an imperial citation of merit. Since his wound did not heal, however, Tsung-mi was charged with responsibility for overseeing his return to health…[later though] Ch’eng-kuan asked Tsung-mi to admonish T’ai-kung so that others would not be led to follow his example. He pointed out that the meaning of canonical passages extolling various types of bodily sacrifice is metaphorical: one should [rather] cut off one’s deluded thoughts, not one’s limbs. (Gregory, p.60-61)
Ch’eng-kuan did have a great deal of respect for Tsung-mi. “P’ei Hsiu records that he is supposed to have said: ‘Aside from you who is able to wander with me in the lotus womb [world] of Vairocana?*’” (Gregory, p.61) In fact it was understood that Tsung-mi alone could fathom the deepest teachings of Ch’eng-kuan.
*Vairocana is the Cosmic Buddha who preached the “eternal” version of the Hua-yen Sutra in the ocean of the lotus womb while in the samādhi of oceanic-reflection. (Gregory’s footnote, p. 61)
Reading about this case, fresh off the heels of our most recent blog that discussed self-immolation in the Lotus Sutra, leaves one to speculate that perhaps Huike’s own self-amputation was not just some metaphorical device, but was a factual occurrence—indeed, spurred-on by his own profound encounters with Bodhidharma. If for Tsung-mi, then perhaps even more for Bodhidharma, would have that kind of effect on others.
Tsung-mi’s prolific-production of Technical Buddhist Exegesis
Tsung-mi next took-up residence on Mt. Zhongnan and eventually settled-in to a Monastery named Caotang which was located right at one of the peaks of the Mountain, known as Guifeng; hence his famous title, Guifeng Zongmi. It was during this phase of his life that he produced numerous exegetical works, Broughton lists them as follows:
1.Commentary on the Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana
2.Commentary on the Thunderbolt-Cutter Perfection of Wisdom Sutra
3.Abridged commentary to the Perfect Awakening Sutra
4.Subcommentary to the above abridged commentary
5.Procedural manual on conditions for praxis, methods of worship, and cross-legged dhyana sitting according to the Perfect Awakening Sutra
6.Commentary on the Perfect Awakening Sutra
7.Subcommentary to the above commentary
8.Essay on the Huayan Sutra
9.Commentary on the Dharmagupta-vinaya
10.Compilation of passages from commentaries to the Perfect Awakening Sutra
11.Commentary and subcommentary on Vasubandhu’s Thirty Verses on Consciousness Only
I could add to this list a commentary on the Nirvana Sutra that may be datable to this phase. Amazingly, this list is just a portion of Zongmi’s total oeuvre.
Broughton, Jeffrey Lyle (2012-08-14). Zongmi on Chan (Translations from the Asian Classics) (Kindle Locations 377-378). Columbia University Press. Kindle Edition.