We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

Absolute Delusion, Perfect Buddhahood

The Rise and Fall of a Chinese Heresy

Jamie Hubbard

Publication Year: 2001

In spite of the common view of Buddhism as nondogmatic and tolerant, the historical record preserves many examples of Buddhist thinkers and movements that were banned as heretical or subversive. The San-chieh (Three Levels) was a popular and influential Chinese Buddhist movement during the Sui and T’ang periods, counting powerful statesmen, imperial princes, and even an empress, Empress Wu, among its patrons. In spite, or perhaps precisely because, of its proximity to power, the San-chieh movement ran afoul of the authorities and its teachings and texts were officially proscribed numerous times over a several-hundred-year history. Because of these suppressions San-chieh texts were lost and little information about its teachings or history is available. The present work, the first English study of the San-chieh movement, uses manuscripts discovered at Tun-huang to examine the doctrine and institutional practices of this movement in the larger context of Mahayana doctrine and practice. By viewing San-chieh in the context of Mahayana Buddhism, Hubbard reveals it to be far from heretical and thereby raises important questions about orthodoxy and canon in Buddhism. He shows that many of the hallmark ideas and practices of Chinese Buddhism find an early and unique expression in the San-chieh texts.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (269.9 KB)
pp. vii-xvii

The symbiotic relationships between charismatic religious individuals, the communities and institutions that grow around them, the society in which they live, and the state that seeks to control them have always been among the more revealing in Chinese history. Buddhism, with an arguably transcendent doctrine of individual perfection (the awakening of the individual in Buddhahood) as well as an emphasis on altruistic practice within the world (the practice of the bodhisattva) presents a particularly rich field for the investigation of these relationships...

Part One. The Origins of a Buddhist Heresy

read more

1. Hsin-hsing — A Buddhist Heretic?

pdf iconDownload PDF (404.7 KB)
pp. 1-30

There is no question that the official hostility towards Hsinhsing’s teachings and institutions is the most conspicuous aspect of their history. Although Hsin-hsing advocated no revolution, led no peasant mobs in uprising, and left behind no track record of immoral behavior by his community, within six years of his death in 594 the propagation of his texts was prohibited, and over the next 125 years four more edicts were issued banning various aspects of his followers’ practice and organization. Part and parcel of the same program, his writings...

read more

Part Two. The Rhetoric of Decline

pdf iconDownload PDF (103.3 KB)
pp. 31-35

There is little question but that the Buddhist tradition of its own decline was at the core of Hsin-hsing’s teaching. He argued that all living beings faced a very practical crisis in such a situation, each and every one beset by attachments to false or perverted views and incapable of accurately distinguishing true from false. Yet his teachings also embraced the nonduality of the Hua-yen, the Ekay„na, and tathagatagarbha traditions that proclaimed the Buddhahood of those same living beings. Based on these two seemingly contradictory ideas, Hsin-hsing taught the “universal...

read more

2. The Beginning: Decline as Polemic

pdf iconDownload PDF (334.7 KB)
pp. 36-54

The buddhist tradition of its own decline is a vision of a world in which chaos and strife would reign where the Buddha-dharma had once flourished. This vision is well represented in the Nikaya,

read more

3. The Chinese Systematization: Decline as Doctrine

pdf iconDownload PDF (351.2 KB)
pp. 55-75

How did the argument for orthodoxy described in chapter 2 play in China, where neither the process nor the specifics of the Indian doctrinal and institutional developments were well understood? Among the striking features of the Chinese evolution of the Buddhist tradition of decline are, on the one hand, the development of the a historical cosmological and Buddhological traditions into the messianic and apocalyptic Maitreya-based movements so often accused of fomenting revolt and, on the other hand, the development of the rhetoric...

read more

4. Hsin-hsing: Decline as Human Nature

pdf iconDownload PDF (328.2 KB)
pp. 76-94

Without question the corrupted capacity of sentient beings for religious practice and realization is the single most important theme in Hsin-hsing’s doctrine and practice. Hsin-hsing was born in 540 and began his spiritual quest at a young age, about the same time as Emperor Wu began his wholesale persecution of Buddhism and Hui-ssu composed the Nan yüeh ssu ta ch’an shih li shih yüan wen stating his strong belief that the age of decline had arrived. No doubt the same conditions that motivated Hui-ssu, in combination with scriptural predictions and warnings...

read more

Part Three. Absolute Delusion, Perfect Buddhahood

pdf iconDownload PDF (53.2 KB)
pp. 95-98

Ihave argued that viewing the decline tradition as a rhetoric of orthodoxy opens up hitherto unexplored aspects of the San-chieh teachings. That is, I believe that we should understand this tradition not in terms of its putative claims about history or morality but rather as an argument about the need to adhere to an orthodoxy or perhaps even an argument for the validity of such a notion in the face of an equally persuasive argument for a complete deconstruction of all doctrinal authorities in favor of individual experience. This is nowhere more obvious...

read more

5. The Refuge of the Universal Buddha

pdf iconDownload PDF (347.5 KB)
pp. 99-122

Hsin-hsing’s teaching of the essential equality of all things is based on the universal non-duality of the buddha-dh„tu (realm of the Buddhas) and the sattva-dh„tu (realm of sentient beings) found in such texts as the Hua-yen Sutra and the promise of universal realization of the Lotus Sutra; it is presented as the refuge of the Universal Buddha, dharma, and sangha, which is to say the triple refuge uniquely appropriate for the third level. Among these three, the refuge...

read more

6. The Refuge of the Universal Dharma and Universal Sangha

pdf iconDownload PDF (319.3 KB)
pp. 123-148

Just as the refuge of the Universal Buddha emphasizes the need to look to the essential truth that suffuses all phenomena, the Sanchieh doctrine of the refuge of the teachings and community appropriate for sentient beings of the third level emphasizes the universality of the essential truth underlying or permeating all specific instances of the teachings or individual members of the community. Why? Because the blinders of our prejudices render a narrow, specific view or practice a...

read more

Part Four. The Economy of Salvation

pdf iconDownload PDF (52.3 KB)
pp. 149-152

Parts one, two, and three of this study have considered Hsinhsing’s teachings in terms of the eschatological mood so dominant in Northern Chinese Buddhism and the universalism that became a prominent feature of Sui-T’ang Buddhism. Although both of these aspects firmly root his teachings in the concerns of the times, nothing more clearly indicates how representative they are than the doctrinal and institutional history of the Inexhaustible Storehouse and the chronicle of its home, the Hua-tu Temple in the capital city of Ch’ang-an. The Inexhaustible Storehouse, founded during the short-lived Sui...

read more

7. Practice for the Degenerate: The Inexhaustible Storehouse

pdf iconDownload PDF (350.3 KB)
pp. 153-188

As with the apocalyptic strain already described, the pious gift that supports religious institutions and guarantees their expansion has been a feature of virtually all societies throughout history. Indian religions in general and Buddhism in particular have been no exception to this rule. The Buddhist scriptures abound with stories of such charity and the rewards it brought, and history has left us ample evidence of the munificence with which the Buddhist faithful supported the sangha. The well-known grove of Jetavana, the magnificent temple-...

read more

8. The Suppressions of the Three Levels Movement

pdf iconDownload PDF (394.8 KB)
pp. 189-222

The bulk of this work has been concerned with describing Sanchieh doctrines and attempting to place them within the broader context of Indian and Chinese Buddhist thought and practice. From this it should be clear that, whatever else may be said about their religious ethos, their doctrine and its institutionalization was far from unusual and can be described as well within the norms of Chinese and even Indian Buddhist doctrine. Given that new religious movements typically expend a great deal of energy explaining their relationship to the norm, this is not surprising. Nonetheless, the San-chieh drew imperial ire and sanctions no less...

read more

9. Time, Transcendence, and Heresy

pdf iconDownload PDF (209.8 KB)
pp. 223-244

What, then, do we make of Hsin-hsing’s teachings, his community, and the institution of the Inexhaustible Storehouse? Are they heretical? Are they as unique and different as usually thought? The first thing that occurs to me is precisely how well they fit the general tenor of the times: the belief in the lowered capacity of sentient beings, the need for new doctrines and practices appropriate to those sentient beings, the doctrine of universal Buddha-nature, and the holistic...

Part Five. Texts

read more

A. P’u fa ssu fo: The Refuge of the Four Buddhas of the Universal Dharma

pdf iconDownload PDF (250.6 KB)
pp. 247-256

As noted in the Introduction, the study of the texts of the San-chieh movement form one of the most exciting yet exacerbating tasks that any researcher faces. Exciting, because the story of their disappearance over one millennium ago and their rediscovery in the early twentieth century presents opportunities for the sorts of textual detective work that traditionally has been at the heart of the discipline of Buddhist studies; exacerbating, though, for the sheer scope of the opportunities so provided. The goodly number of extant manuscripts combined with...

read more

B. Wu chin tsang fa l

pdf iconDownload PDF (179.6 KB)
pp. 257-263

As it is partially contained on the same scroll as the Hsin-hsing i wen and both texts contain the same list of “sixteen eternal, joyous, self, and pure practices of the Inexhaustible Storehouse,” we can assume that it belongs to the early strata of San-chieh literature, if Hsin-hsing did not himself actually compose this text. Although originally comprised of eleven sections, because the first part of the text is damaged only six of eleven sections are preserved (sections six through eleven). The first five sections are preserved, however, in a commentary...

read more

C. Ta sheng fa chieh wu chin tsang fa shih: Commentary on the Dharma of the Inexhaustible Storehouse of the Mahayana Universe

pdf iconDownload PDF (320.9 KB)
pp. 264-288

Families and relatives live off each other in pursuit of money and wealth. Others use their power and authority as officials in judgement of things in order to bend the law and take wealth. Some prosper in the marketplace and are contemptuous of small aspirations. They engage in an excess of lies and cheat and extort profits from others. Still others, farmers, burn the mountains and marshes, flood the fields, plough and mill, destroying nests; they let their cows and donkeys wander everywhere...

D. Reproduction of the Tun-huang Texts

pdf iconDownload PDF (2.3 MB)
pp. 289-312

Selected Bibliography

pdf iconDownload PDF (347.6 KB)
pp. 313-324


pdf iconDownload PDF (1.1 MB)
pp. 325-333

E-ISBN-13: 9780824861346
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824823412

Publication Year: 2001