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The Maverick Monk

The Venerable Daoji, a hedonistic monk who lived in Hangzhou

12·07·2016

The Maverick Monk

The Venerable Daoji, a hedonistic monk who lived in Hangzhou

12·07·2016

“I only wish that West Lake was filled with wine. Then I would lie by its side with my gown loose, taking a swig whenever a wave swept upon me.” While most ancient Chinese poets were indeed known for their excessive drinking, this poem stands out because it was written by a Buddhist monk called the Venerable Daoji (道济法师) who, it goes without saying, was supposed to be a teetotaler. Besides the bottle, Daoji also enjoyed various sundry pleasures like meat and the company of women—as much as his wallet would allow. He despised his contemporaries for their hard-working, austere practices, claiming the gate of a monastery was like a gate to hell—believing that monks were as blind in the mind as donkeys and that contemplation and sutra reading only serve to make one lifeless.

Daoji lived his wildest days in Hangzhou; he died and was buried in the city, a home that indulged his hedonism. While most of his fellow monks wanted him defrocked, the abbots of two major Hangzhou monasteries, Lingyin Temple and Jingci Temple, saw the wisdom behind his insanity and patronized him for much of his life. Daoji’s fame was, one might say, a mixed bag. Apart from his sinful deeds, Daoji was known among those who knew him as a generous friend, a benevolent character, and a philosopher who lived his faith, as well as a refined poet and calligrapher. Before his death, he wrote his last poem: “The 60 years of my life are a mess, and I’ve been banging on walls. Now I’ve packed up and come home and see only the azure sky connecting to the ocean, the way it was when I left.”

For his love of life, he accumulated fame and veneration, later known as a monk of unsurpassable wisdom and a heart of true Buddha-hood beneath his drunken exterior. In Ming and Qing novels, he was even depicted as possessing supernatural powers, the savior of the unfortunate, and a punisher of evil. Remembered by the nickname “Jigong” (济公, the Monk Ji), he remains a favorite monk in the minds of the Chinese people, and his lore is still passed on in novels and TV shows today. In many Chinese monasteries, Daoji is enshrined as a deity, a skinny monk in a tall, pointed hat and shabby robes, standing (with difficulty) while holding a cracked fan and, of course, a pot of wine, receiving worship and prayer with a permanent satirical smile.

To some extent, Daoji (in the historical rather than fictional sense) was living the spiritual tradition of Chan that was hundreds of years old by his time. By the late Tang around the ninth century, the Chan sect was a new, vigorous, and rebellious trend in Buddhism. It was unrecognized by the royal court, and Chan monks sustained themselves by building humble residences in mountains, toiling in fields for their own food in collectives and following their own unique Buddhist practices. Mostly, they didn’t worship any deities and generally held the belief that Buddha-hood was within everyone. Independent of both society and government, they broke rules and norms, despised highly-disciplined practices, and considered any form of language useless and misleading. In such a context, many of the early Chan masters are known for being unconventional, but Daoji is remembered as a pop culture icon.

Although the Chan sect went through some transformations afterward—losing some of its anarchical, anti-establishment spirit—they fundamentally changed Chinese Buddhism, as well as China’s mountains. Chan monasteries not only made the green mountains of Hangzhou habitable, the monks also took great pains to beautify the landscape by planting trees and bamboo with a Zen aesthetic. Throughout the history of Hangzhou’s mountain monasteries, much has been destroyed, but what remains today is a rich legacy of ancient forests and a spirit of reflection.

You can pay homage to Daoji in Lingyin Temple, where there is Jigong Hall (济公殿) with frescos telling his tales. The fresco, although painted in 2011, was done in an elegant Southern Song Dynasty style by artist Lin Haizhong, and it’s worth the time it takes to go and see it.

You can see more of Daoji in Hupao Park, where he was buried and enshrined. Although, the best way to salute the Chan master is perhaps wandering in Hangzhou’s lush green mountains and pondering the meaninglessness of life with wine in hand.

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Hupao Park 虎跑公园

Although now known as “Hupao Park”, for over a thousand years the area was a Chan monastery. Dating back to the end of Tang Dynasty in the beginning of the ninth century, the monastery began as a mere hut built by a monk called Chan Master Huanzhong (寰中禅师), destroyed and rebuilt many times over the past millennium. On entering Hupao Park, it’s easy to see why Chan monks found it so appealing; it is built along a mountain slope, well-shaded by tall, arched trees with the famous Hupao Spring (虎跑泉) running through. The spring spreads out broadly at the foot of the mountain, submerging the whole wood in ankle-deep water and giving the wood a wetland look. Moss creeps over the rocks and tree trunks, and random leaves fall on water mottled by shadows and reflections. With the nourishment of spring, the vegetation here is particularly lush. Although today the former monastery has been turned into several exhibition halls, a walk through the park is itself a Zen-like experience. Trekking up you will find Jigong Hall and Jigong Stupa (济公塔院), the great man’s tomb.

The neighboring Jigong Hall is the Exhibition Hall for Li Shutong (李叔同纪念馆) and his stupa. Li Shutong, also known as the Venerable Master Hongyi (弘一大师), was an artist and Buddhist scholar in whom Hangzhou takes particular pride. He was also an accomplished musician, poet, calligrapher, seal engraver, and painter—as well as one of the earliest pioneers of modern Chinese theater. In 1918, Li officially converted to monkhood in Hupao Temple and got the name Hongyi at the age of 39. In his later years, he became an established scholar in the Vinaya School and brought about the sect’s last revival in China.


Excerpt taken from Hangzhou At A Glance by TWOC. You can pick up a digital copy on our China Dispatch app. Go get your copy now.