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Master Zanning

Born into the Gao family in Deqing County, Zhejiang Province, Master Zanning (919-1001) became a Buddhist monk at Xiangfu Temple in Hangzhou during the reign of Emperor Mingzong of Later Tang Dynasty. During the reign of Emperor Mo of Later Tang (934-937), he went to Mount Tiantai to receive complete precepts and pored over Tripitaka, i.e. Sutras, teachings and sermons of Buddha, Abhidharma, philosophical and psychological discourse and interpretation of Buddhist doctrines, and Vinaya, rules and regulation of monastic life. Later he went to Lingyin Temple to specialize in Nanshan Doctrine. Because he was intelligent, diligent and had read all Confucian and Buddhist classics, Zanning enjoyed increasingly great prestige and his outstanding literary talent was also gradually shown. At that time among Buddhists, those who wrote sharp articles were called Wenhu (literally “Tiger of Literary”); those who were proficient in teachings of Buddhism were regarded as Lunhu (literally “Tiger of Teachings”) and those who wrote many books on doctrines were considered Lvhu (literally “Tiger of Doctrine”). Master Zanning was competent in Nanshan Doctrine, so he was respectfully called Lvhu. Qian Chu, a prince of the kingdom of Wuyue, assigned Zanning officer in charge of Buddhist monks and nuns in the country and bestowed on him “Master Mingyi Zongwen”, i.e. a master who understood well the principles and read all kinds of classics. Emperor Taizong of the Song Dynasty received him in the capital and bestowed on him “Master Tonghui”.

In addition to his major works History of Monks in Song Dynasty, his existing works comprise thirty volumes of Biographies of Eminent Monks in the Song Dynasty, all of which are compiled in Dazheng Buddhist Scriptures. Biographies of Eminent Monks in the Song Dynasty is the third and still one of the only three biographical monographs in the Chinese history of Buddhism after Biographies of Eminent Monks compiled by Huijiao in the Liang Dynasty and Continued Biographies of Eminent Monks compiled by Daoxuan in the Tang Dynasty.

       After Zanning’s five-year hard work and with the help of his disciples, Biographies of Eminent Monks in the Song Dynasty was completed in 988. Rhetoric but not obscure, the book was very accessible and with its large and exact data collection, it enjoyed high credibility. Due to the compilation of this book, not only did Master Zanning become well-known nationwide as well as in the literary world, but he was also spoken highly of by scholar-officials as well as Buddhists. Shortly after that, he was called to the capital again and lived at Tianshou Temple. After his arrival, the imperial court made an exception to appoint him member of Hanlin Academy, an academic and administrative institution founded in the Tang Dynasty to take charge of compilation and revision of national archives. He was also the chief monk in charge of the Central Buddhist Registry and Buddhist monks and nuns in the country.

In the Chinese history of Buddhism, there was no lack of eminent monks who were regarded highly by the imperial court, but it was rare that as a monk, Master Zanning was bestowed membership in the Hanlin Academy and appointed at such an important position to participate in the compilation and revision of historical record. It was enough to show Master Zanning’s fruitful achievements, competence in literariness and profound knowledge. In the preface to Collected Works of Master Tonghui, Wang Yucheng of the Song Dynasty spoke highly of Zanning, “Master Zanning was the only one that was proficient in not only Buddhist and Confucian classics but also poetry and literature.” Ouyang Xiu also once remarked, “Zanning, the chief monk in charge of the Central Buddhist Registry, read and understood thoroughly a large amount of poetry and classics. He was also eloquent. Everyone admired him.”

In 1001, Master Zanning passed away in peace at the age of 83 at Tianshou Temple.

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