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Master Zhenguan

Master Zhenguan (538-612), who styled himself as Shengda, was an eminent Buddhist monk in the Sui Dynasty. Born into the Fan family in the 3rd year of the reign of Liang Emperor Wu (538 AD) in Qiantang, Zhejiang Province, he was considered the patriarch of Tianzhu Lingshan Temple. His father was then an attendant of the emperor while his mother was kind and virtuous who often went to the temple to pray for a baby by chanting sutras. According to the biography, when Zhenguan was born, his appearance was so distinctive that whoever saw him would wonder at him. He was able to stick to vegetarianism at the age of five. By the age of eight, he had thoroughly understood Shi (Classic of Poetry), Shu (Classic of History), Li (Collection of Rituals) and Yi (Book of Changes, often known as the I-Ching). When he was sixteen, not only was he proficient in Confucian classics and Taoist classics and even their notes, but he also knew a lot about guqin and chess as well as writings of ancient sages. Later some fortune-teller said that Zhenguan would become an eminent Buddhist monk in his boyhood. Shortly after that, his mother dreamt about auspicious signs and as a result he was allowed to become a monk by his mother and then bestowed legacy.

       There is no record about the year when Zhenguan became a Buddhist monk, but it was Master Sheng (possibly Master Shihuixuan of the Sui Dynasty) in Yangxian, Yixing (in what is now Changzhou, Jiangsu Province) who tonsured him. He followed the distinguished Vinaya Master Bianzhen to study the Ten Recitations Vinaya. Shortly thereafter, he learnt the doctrines of Mahayana Buddhism with Master Xinghuang Falang (507-581) of the Sanlun School (Three Treatise School). It was said at that time that Qiantang owned half of the world due to Zhenguan. Contemporaries, such as Zen Master Daren, praised him with regard to his competence in Buddhism: “The principles of Buddhism that Nagarjuna talked about are thriving in the east.” In 579 AD, after Emperor Xuan of the Chen Dynasty was defeated by that of the Northern Zhou, the imperial court discussed whether to have the unregistered monks or nuns return to secular life. Having heard that idea, Master Zhenguan sighed and wrote to the Prime Minister Xuling (507-583), who then reported the letter to the emperor. The emperor was moved by the letter and gave up the idea and he also spoke highly of Master Zhenguan: “Master Zhenguan is not only a master of tremendous promise in Buddhism, but also a sage to our imperial court.”

At that time, Master Zhizhe left Nanjing and became a hermit in Mount Tiantai in Zhejiang province. Master Zhenguan had great admiration for him and later went there to pay homage to him through the introduction letter of Prince Yongyang of the Chen Dynasty. Master Zhizhe considered Zhenguan a Dharma brother because both were of the same age. Since then they strolled on the mountain together discussing teachings and doctrines in the daytime and practiced mediation at night. Both were proficient in the doctrines of Tiantai School of Buddhism.

When Emperor Wen of the Sui Dynasty held office (581-604), he invited Master Zhenguan for three times. When Yang Jun, Prince Xiao of the Qin Dynasty, served as the commandant in Hangzhou, he also invited Master Zhenguan to his mansion twice. However, Master Zhenguan turned them down for the reason of physical ailments but roamed on Lingyin Mountain with Zen Master Daoan. In 595 AD, people suffered severe drought, so the local prefect Liu Jing’an requested Master Zhenguan to recite Dragon King Sutra to pray for rain. Just when Master Zhenguan was reciting the preface of the sutra, rain pelted down. Since then whenever a drought hit the district, the prefect would invite Master Zhenguan to recite sutras and it turned out efficacious every time. People in Wuyue, lands to the south of the lower reaches of Yangtze River, all venerated him. Later a local layman Buddhist Chen Zhongbao built Nantianzhu Temple in Lingyin Mountain and invited Master Zhenguan to live there until his death.

Master Zhenguan often recited Lotus Sutra and expounded it to disciples in Lingying Mountain. In April of 612 AD, Lizi, the marshal of Hangzhou at that time, invited him to recite Nirvana Sutra in Zhongshan Temple. The day when leaving for Zhongshan Temple, Master Zhenguan marked a plot of land in the mountain as the site of his grave. While he was reciting the eleventh volume Illness of Nirvana Sutra in Zhongshan Temple, he, in meditation, saw three people paying homage to him and saying that they have been awaiting him with pleasure. On June 6, Master Zhenguan fell ill. He told people that he was supposed to have died twelve years ago and that he was alive until then was due to recitation of Lotus Sutra. He also gathered people and said, “Those who want to transcend life and death as well as to achieve Buddha Dharma should adhere to the precepts, concentration and wisdom, and also uphold Buddhist teachings rather than idle away.” On July 1, when people heard music in heavenly palace, Master Zhenguan sat cross-legged, solemn and dignified, and was revered by Buddhist monks and layman Buddhists for 26 days before he died at the age of 74.

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