An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Gaosengzhuan 高僧傳

Mar 17, 2012 © Ulrich Theobald

Gaosengzhuan 高僧傳 "Biographies of eminent monks" is a collection of biographies of Buddhist monks written by the Liang period 梁 (502-557) monk Huijiao 慧皎 (497-554). Huijiao, whose lay name is not known, came from Shangyu 上虞 (modern Shangyu, Zhejiang) and lived in Jiaxiang Monastery 嘉祥寺 near modern Shaoxing 紹興, Zhejiang. He used to contemplate during the winter months and preached during the summer. He once travelled to Hongpu Monastery 宏普寺 where he could find a large library on Buddhist texts. Because he was known for his interest in texts, many collectors visited him and offered him to copy their books. One of these books was Baochang's 寳唱 biographic collection Mingsengzhuan 名僧傳 "Famous monks". Huijiao was not very content with the collection and the designation. "Famous", in his eyes", did not necessarily mean "great". He therefore compiled a better collection, the 14 juan "scrolls" long Gaosengzhuan. The Gaosengzhuan includes the biographies of 257 monks from the Later Han 後漢 (25-220 CE) to the Liang periods, with an appendix of further 274 (17?) biographies. In order to discern it from later collections of monks' biographies it is sometimes also called Liang gaosengzhuan 梁高僧傳. The book is divided into ten chapters (ke 科). Each of these chapters (except the last two) are finished by a discussion (lun 論) and an appraisal (zan 贊). In the discussion, important persons are shortly characterised, and the author's own opinion is brought forward. For his book, Huijiao made use of hundreds of different sources. The position of the Gaosengzhuan among Chinese Buddist literature is very important, and it is a very valuable contribution to the history of the development of early Buddhism in China and for the relations between India and the various Chinese states of the Southern and Northern Dynasties period 南北朝 (300~600) . His categories (ke 科) of monks provided a systematic used by all later Buddhist biographers. The Gaozhengzhuan is written in a very elegant language and so also to be rated as a literary work. Yet there are also a few shortcomings of the Gaosengzhuan, as the negligence of place names, or concrete details on the teachings of Buddhist masters.
There are in total four books written during four different dynastic period that are called the "Biographies of eminent monks of four ages" (Sichao gaosengzhuan 四朝高僧傳), namely the (Liang) Gaosengzhuan, Tang gaosengzhuan 唐高僧傳 (i.e. Xu gaosengzhuan 續高僧傳), Song gaosengzhuan 宋高僧傳 and (Da-)Ming gaosengzhuan (大)明高僧傳.
The Gaosengzhuan is a very important source for the spread of Buddhism in China and the translation of Buddhist writings into Chinese. It mentions the early work of the Central Asian monk Kumarajiva 鳩摩羅什 and his relations to other Buddhist communities in China and in Central Asia. The biographies also describe the relation of monks like Zhidun 支遁 to lay persons interested in Buddhism, like Sun Chuo 孫綽, Xu Xun 許詢 or the famous calligrapher Wang Xizhi 王羲之, or that of Monk Huiyuan 慧遠 with the writer Xie Lingyun 謝靈運. These descriptions reveal a lot about cultural life under the Southern Dynasties 南朝 (420~589). The biography of Zhu Daoyi 竺道壹, for instance, describes how he was presented a wonderful poem by Bo Daoyou 帛道猷. The latter, by the way, did not live under the Southern Qi dynasty 南齊 (479-502), as the poetry critique Shipin 詩品 alleges, but much earlier. In the part about monks chanting the sutras it can be learnt about the problem of the four tone pitches (sisheng 四聲) in early mediaeval Chinese. The chapter Changdao 唱導 "Preachers to the masses by chanted guidance" gives insight into the early development of a whole literary genre, the so-called "transformation texts" (bianwen 變文) with the help of which monks tried to explain the meanings of Buddhism to a broader audience.
The Gaosengzhuan is included in the reprint series Haishanxianguan congshu 海山仙館叢書 and in theBuddhist Canon Taishō Tripitaka 大正新脩大藏經 (T 2059). The most important modern edition has been published in 1991 by the Shanghai guji press 上海古籍出版社 as part of the the Gaosengzhuan heji 高僧傳合集 that also includes the Xu gaosengzhuan, Song gaosengzhuan and the Biqiuni zhuan 比丘尼傳.

1.-3. 譯經 Yijing Translators
4.-8. 義解 Yijie Commentators
9.-10. 神異 Shenyi Monks of miraculous spirits
11.a 習禪 Xichan Professionals in meditation (from the Chan/Zen School 禪宗, the Tiantai School 天台宗, and the Three Stages School 三階教)
11.b 明律 Minglü Experts in the vinaya
12.a 亡身 Wangshen Monks able give up their physical body
12.b 誦經 Songjing Specialists chanting the sutras
13.a 興福 Xingfu Monks arousing happiness and fortune
13.b 經師 Jingshi Masters of the sutras
13.c 唱導 Changdao Preachers to the masses by chanted guidance
14. 序錄 Xulu Postface
Berkowitz, Alan J. (2015). "Gaoseng zhuan", in Cynthia L. Chennault, et al., eds. Early Medieval Chinese Texts: A Bibliographical Guide (Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley), 81-87.
Cao Daoheng 曹道衡 (1986). "Gaosengzhuan 高僧傳", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, part Zhongguo wenxue 中國文學 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 2, 172.
Li Xueqin 李學勤, Lü Wenyu 呂文鬰, eds. (1996). Siku da cidian 四庫大辭典 (Changchun: Jilin daxue chubanshe), Vol. 2, 2225.