Chinese Buddhist Thought (Lecture-4)

Eminent Chinese translator Huiyuan states on the indestructibility of the Soul [page-12/Lecture-4] and also mentions that the soul is imperishable [page -12], which indicates Huiyuan’s believes on the eternal existence of Soul. In contrast, from the doctrinal point of view, Buddhism explicitly states on ‘non-soul (no-self)’ and also reveals its strong standpoint to believe on 'non-soul' with regards to early Buddhist Canonical text ‘Dhammapada’ [verse no. 279/ ‘Sabbe saṅkhāra anattā’(all phenomena are without soul or self )]. Could anyone explain to me what does Huiyuan mean to expressing indestructibility or imperishable of the Soul?


My interpretation is the following;

1. The fundamental tenant of atman is not breach depending on the interpretation.
2. 神 in this context could be interpreted as the "spirit" rather than "soul". The "spirit" is not an entity, but rather the concept (as used in the term "team spirit", "spirit of cooperation").

It probably can be interpreted that the worldly material can be destructed, but the concept is imperishable. It leaves on. And if we accept the concept as the paticassamuppada, then the link can be established.

Hui Yuan


I would like to point out that Hui Yuan's mention of the concept of 神 (pinyin: shen) or 'soul' has to be fully understood within the context of his time and specifically, the manner and circumstances in which this concept was employed in his writings. More importantly, it has to be understood in the precise meaning Hui Yuan intended.

Buddhism was still at an early stage of its sinicisation process, and the 'Ge Yi' method of translating and explaining the scriptures from India and the Western Region through the heavy reliance on Daoist and Confucian terms (which was the only way through which Buddhism could start to gain a foothold on Chinese soil), would have undoubtedly made it difficult for many to fully grasp the full intent of those scriptures.

We can be very certain that Hui Yuan was the last to lose sight of this because after all, he was highly skilful and the leading Chinese buddhist thinker of his time after the passing of Dao An. He could not have misinterpreted the Buddha and introduced the concept of an 'indestructible soul' while knowing fully well that 'anatman' was the fundamental tenet of Buddhism. Nor could he have lacked the understanding for he was very familiar with the Indian Abhidharma in which 'anatman' together with the other 'laksanas' form the core of the teachings being expounded.

On further analysis, we find that the concept of 神 was employed in his <<形尽神不灭>> (or 'The Soul Does Not Die Upon the Destruction of the Body'), which formed the last part of his <<沙门不敬王者论>> (or 'Treatise on Not Bowing Before the King'). We have to bear in mind that this was a response to Huan Xuan's questions on a monk's position among society within the context of prevailing Daoist and Confucian values. His main concern was to let Huan Xuan, who did not hide his Daoist leanings in his questions to Hui Yuan, understand the merits of Buddhist ethics, the core component of which was the concept of 'karma'. And he knew that his intended Daoist audience could only understand the workings of 'karma' through the introduction of a medium of rebirth or 神, which was not an altogether unfamiliar term to them. Hui Yuan deemed their general understanding of Buddhist ethics more important than their truly appreciating in-depth the finer points of the Buddha's doctrine as he did.

However, it does not mean that Hui Yuan's idea of 神 is to be construed in the same vein as the average Daoist's. For he separates the spirit into two: 神 which is formless, nameless and ever-changing on the one hand, and 情 (piyin: qing, or 'feelings'/passions') which is the agent through which 神 interacts with and responds to the phenomenal world. We easily detect in Hui Yuan's idea of the 'soul' concepts similar to those of 'buddha-nature' and 'dharmata' which were to develop and become the mainstream of Chinese Buddhist thinking later.

With this understanding, we can only stand in awe of his ingenuity, his clever employment of expedient means, his foresight and the fullness of his appreciation of the Buddha's word at a time during which the development of Chinese Buddhism was at its infancy and the translation of the major texts of Chinese buddhism had still yet to be undertaken or was ongoing.

The indestructibility of the Soul

Here i think, we should understand the term soul, which used by the Huiyuan (334-426 AD), as the indestructibility, because during huiyuan's time the influence of Taoism and Confucianism was so strong even in the Buddhist translations influenced by them. Those terms was slowly vanished after the Kumarajiva's translations only.Even Huiyuan was contemporary to kumarajiva, i think even that time Kumarajiva's translation was not so popular among the Chinese society. As we all know there was some kinds of believes in China (Confucianism and Taoism) like, eternal life, which was the supreme goal.(The belief in an imperishable soul is based on traditional Chinese teachings).
In that place he mentioned about the meditation by which one can go to Sukhavati heaven and it does perished from there as long as one achieves Buddhahood. I think that is the reason why he used the term the indestructibility of the Soul.

when you compare and contrast with early Buddhism and Chinese Buddhism you will find a lot of dissimilarities among them. As we know Tiantai, Pure land and Chan Buddhism are the products of Chinese understanding of the Buddhism, which is most strongly effected with the Chinese i think Early Chinese Buddhism was mostly influenced by the cultures and existed religions as well, that is why it was mixed up by the translator.