Master T’an-luan

Thirty-four Hymns based on his Writings


Our teacher, Master T’an-luan,
Through the guidance of Bodhiruci,
Burned his scriptures on immortality, discarding them forever,
And deeply took refuge in the Pure Land.


Putting aside his lectures on the four treatises,
He taught Other Power, the working of the Primal Vow;
Guiding foolish beings bound by their blind passions,
He led them to enter the gate to nirvana.


The lord of the mundane world came to inquire
Why he aspired for the Pure Land:
“All Buddha realms throughout the ten quarters are pure;
Why do you turn to the land in the west?”

Lord: the ruler of the country.


Master T’an-luan answered: “Since my wisdom is shallow
And I have not yet attained the higher stages of bodhisattvahood,
I am incapable, with my powers of mindfulness,
Of thinking equally on all lands.”

Not attained the higher stages: not reached the stage of nonretrogression.
Incapable of thinking equally: his power of thought does not extend to the other pure lands.


Neither monks nor laity
Had any place to turn for refuge;
Master T’an-luan alone resolved
To lead them to aspire for the land of happiness.


At the behest of the Emperor of Wei,
He lived at Ta-yen temple in Ping-chou.
Later, near the end of his life,
He moved to Fen-chou.

Ta-yen [Great Cliff] temple: a temple that T’an-luan had built.
Fen-chou: the name of a country where the nembutsu came to flourish.


The Emperor of Wei venerated him,
Giving him the title, “Holy Luan”;
The place where he lived came to be known
As eminent Luan’s Cliff.

Emperor: the rulers of kingdoms are given the title “emperor” (“son of heaven”).


Exerting all his energy to spread
The act for birth in the Pure Land,
He lived at Hsuan-chung temple,
And in 542, moved to Yao-shan temple.

Hsuan-chung temple: a temple that T’an-luan had constructed. Tao-ch’o was a disciple of T’an-luan [of later times] and succeeded to residence at this temple.
542: the original gives the Chinese dating, “Hsing-ho 4 of the Wei dynasty” [Translator’s note].


On reaching the age of sixty-seven, his time come,
He attained birth in the Pure Land;
There were wondrous, auspicious occurrences,
And monks and laity all venerated and took refuge in him.

Wondrous, auspicious occurrences: such as indicate a Buddha’s appearance.
Took refuge: followed his words, relied on and revered him.


The emperor, wholeheartedly revering him,
Commanded that a tomb be built immediately
At the splendid site of Chin-ling,
In the Fen-chou district of Fen-his province.


Though we had the words of Bodhisattva Vasubandhu,
If Master T’an-luan had not clarified them,
How could we come to know the mind and practice
Of vast, majestic virtues, which are Other Power?


Knowing truly that the Primal Vow –
The perfect One Vehicle that brings about sudden attainment –
Grasps those who commit grave offenses and transgressions,
We are quickly brought to realize that blind passions and enlightenment are not two in substance.

Perfect One Vehicle that brings about sudden attainment: Embracing all the eighty thousand sacred teachings, without lacking any in the slightest, is referred to as “perfect” and as “sudden attainment.”
Blind passions and enlightenment are not two in substance: blind passions and enlightenment become one body and are not two.


Of the five inconceivabilities taught in the sutras,
The inconceivability of the power of the Buddha-dharma is supreme;
The inconceivability of the power of the Buddha-dharma
Refers to Amida’s universal Vow.


Amida has fulfilled the directing of virtue,
Which has two aspects: that for our going forth and that for our return.
Through these aspects of the Buddha’s directing of virtue,
We are brought to realize both mind and practice.

Our going forth and our return: The aspect for our going forth is the directing of virtue that seeks to bring us to birth in the Pure Land. The aspect for our return refers to Amida’s directing of virtue so that after going to the Pure Land we are enabled to perform the activity of Samantabhadra and benefit sentient beings.


The directing of virtue for our going forth is such that
When Amida’s active means toward us reaches fulfillment;
We realize the shinjin and practice of the compassionate Vow;
Then birth-and-death is itself nirvana.


The directing of virtue for our return to this world is such that
We attain the resultant state of benefiting and guiding others;
Immediately reentering the world of beings,
We engage in the compassionate activity that is the virtue of Samantabhadra.

Beings: all the sentient beings throughout the ten quarters.
Samantabhadra: [the bodhisattva manifesting] the Buddha’s compassion in its complete fullness.


Vasubandhu speaks, in his Treatise, of “the mind that is single”;
Master T’an-luan, in his commentary, explains that
This is shinjin – itself Other Power –
That we who are possessed of blind passions attain.


The unhindered light filling the ten quarters
Shines on the beings in the darkness of ignorance
And unfailingly brings to attainment of nirvana
The person who realizes the one thought-moment of joy.


Through the benefit of the unhindered light,
We realize shinjin of vast, majestic virtues,
And the ice of our blind passions necessarily melts,
Immediately becoming water of enlightenment.


Obstructions of karmic evil turn into virtues;
It is like the relation of ice and water:
The more the ice, the more the water;
The more the obstructions, the more the virtues.

Obstructions: karmic evil and blind passions. If the amount of karmic evil is great, the amount of virtue is great.


The ocean of the inconceivable Name does not hold unchanged
The corpses of the five grave offenses and slander of the dharma;
The myriad rivers of evil acts, on entering it,
Become one in taste with the ocean water of virtues.


Rivers of blind passions, on entering the ocean –
The great, compassionate Vow
Of unhindered light filling the ten quarters –
Become one in taste with that sea of wisdom.


Being born in the Buddha-land of happiness
Is the path to ultimate attainment of Buddhahood;
All the Buddhas acclaim the Pure Land,
For birth there is the unsurpassed means.

Path (doro): do means “broad path,” ro means “narrow path.”


T’an-luan teaches that the Buddhas adorn their three modes of action,
So that they are characterized by ultimate nondiscrimination;
This is to heal the bodily, verbal, and mental acts of beings,
Which are false and delusional.

Nondiscrimination: there is no differentiation of anything.
False (literally, “empty”) and delusional: vain and insane; karmic evil and blind passions.
Heal: to help or save. This is a homonym to the word meaning “to do away with.”


T’an-luan teaches that we reach the Buddha-land of happiness
Solely with the Name – the unsurpassed gem –
And true shinjin,
For those born there follow no other way.

Unsurpassed gem: the wish-fulfilling jewel. If this jewel is placed in muddy water, not only will the water become clear, but there will be no discoloration. If crystal is put in muddy water, there will be discoloration. Thus, the myriad practices and good acts are likened to crystal, the Name to the jewel.


Although initially there are nine grades of beings,
Because the birth attained through Amida’s pure Primal Vow
Is birth that is no-birth,
The Pure Land is free of such discrimination.

Birth that is no-birth: birth that is apart from birth in the six courses. Persons of true and real shinjin are not born in the six courses or four forms of birth; hence, “no-birth.”
Nine grades of beings: Although originally there are nine grades of sentient beings, once they have been born in the fulfilled land, not a single one is differentiated.


The Name of the Tathagata of unhindered light
And the light that is the embodiment of wisdom
Dispel the darkness of the long night of ignorance
And fulfill the aspirations of sentient beings.


Master T’an-luan explains
That failing to practice in accord with reality
Means first, that shinjin is not genuine in that person,
For it appears to exist at times, and not to exist at others.

Failing to practice in accord with reality: not in accord with the teaching.
Appears to exist…and not to exist: at times one is convinced that one will attain birth and at other times one feels that one will not.


Second, shinjin is not single,
For it lacks decisiveness;
And third, shinjin is not enduring,
For it is disrupted by other thoughts.

Disrupted by other thoughts: because of the mixture there is no shinjin.


The practicer should remember that these three aspects of [untrue] shinjin
Are established with one leading to another:
Because one’s shinjin is not genuine,
It is not shinjin that is decisive.


Because it is not shinjin that is decisive,
Mindfulness does not endure;
Because mindfulness does not endure,
One does not realize shinjin that is decisive.


Because on does not realize shinjin that is decisive,
It is not genuine; thus T’an-luan teaches.
Whether practice is fully in accord with reality
Is determined solely by shinjin.

Practice in accord with reality: to entrust oneself to Amida in accord with the teaching.


Having turned from the little road
Of a myriad practices and good acts
And entered the great path of the Primal Vow, which is true reality,
We will quickly attain the enlightenment of nirvana.


King Hsiao, the Emperor of Liang,
Always faced in the direction
Of our teacher and paid homage to him,
Calling him Bodhisattva Luan.

Here ends the Hymns on
Master T’an-luan