The History of Chinese Dharma Seekers

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To understand ancient dharma seekers, it is first imperative to understand the concept of dharma. Dharma is, fundamentally, the principles of the universe. It is a concept of great complexity and importance. Dharma refers to what one should do and why one should do it. Dharma means laws, the enjoined patterns of behaviour, but it is more than particular laws for it is what under-lies law and creates law in the universe.

There are both naturalistic and normative aspects to the concept of dharma. The naturalistic meaning is that of necessary attribute such as in the statement, “the dharma of water is to flow”. The normative meaning, which is the one most often used, is of a duty or a path to be followed, and it is said to come from and to rest upon the naturalistic meaning (, p.156).

The role of the individual in the world (his dharma) is an expression of his nature (his dharma). The term, svadharma, contains specifically this duality, usually being translated as the self’s responsibilities (or the duties of the individual) but also meaning the nature of the self which the duties convey. Dharma, as social duties, rest upon and communicate a view of inborn nature or constitution to which one’s role or function relates to.

For this article, I will discuss three Chinese individuals who sought dharma; these being Buddha, Chi-tsang and Srimala. These individuals shaped the way for future dharma seekers.

The most famous of all these dharma seekers is the Buddha. Born in the foothills of the Himalayas, in what is now the province of Terai in Nepal, the Buddha was born as Prince Gautama Siddhartha. His father, Suddhodana, was a noble warrior and the head of the Gautama clan of the Shakya tribe. His mother, Mahayama, was a royal princess. It was prophesised that the boy, whose mother died shortly after his birth, would become either a great king or a Buddha (Enlightened One).

The young prince was brought up in a life of luxury before he ventured out on four excursions that would change his life. On returning to the palace, Siddhartha decided to emulate a monk he had met before and set out on the road of renunciation.

In the Lalitavistarasftra, a famed narrative of the Buddha’s life that dates from perhaps the fourth century CC, states “O, how profound is this Dharma that I have realized, that I have awakened to! It is peaceful, calm, tranquil, and pleasing. It is difficult to realize, difficult t o understand, for it is neither speculative, nor an object of disputational reasoning. Rather, it is sacred; it is what wise and sagacious people should know. To be specific: it is the abandonment of all the aggregates; it is unsensed, unfelt, and the cessation of all sensation. It is ultimate, foundationless, cool.  Devoid of appropriation, it has no representations, nor can it be represented. It is unconditioned and beyond the six objects of the senses. It is without conceptions, non-conceptual, ineffable, soundless, wordless, without expression or demonstration. It is unobstructed and beyond all perceptual objects. It is the termination of all elements through quiescence (samathadharmopaccheda). It is emptiness, without perception. It is the destruction of thirst, and it is free of passion. Cessation, it is nirvana” (Dunne, p.526).

For Chi-tsang (a Chinese Buddhist monk, 549 – 623 CE), the true dharma and its ethic were ultimately two aspects of a single methodology: The true dharma as wisdom was the practice of non-discrimination and non-discrimination was the true dharma (Koseki, p.67). Dharma can be defined as a “store of teaching” and a “path of practice” in order to reach enlightenment.

Chi-Tsang states “If we speak of the Dharma in terms of its principle, then it simply means the “one true dharma.” For example, it is said that “the nature of the true dharma is forever separate….” Again, it is said that “all individuals without obstruction depart samsara by the one path….” (Koseki, p.69).

Queen Srimala was a queen of ancient India and a lay bodhisattva who possesses the “lion’s roar” of great eloquence. How to conceive of the true significance of the Dharma expounded by Srimala is the dominant theme discussed throughout the Sheng-man pao-k’u, known as the ‘Treatise on the Lion’s Roar of Queen Srimala’. Within this text, Srimala vows to “embrace the true dharma” and to comprehend it” (Koseki, p.68). It was translated into Chinese around 436 CE by a Mahayanan monk named Gunabhadra. 

Chi-tsang writes about Srimala “A queen who sought to be the ideal of motherhood in the world and the standard of virtue among the women in the palace. She first leads them in worldly affairs and later guides them in entering the wisdom of the Buddha. Thus, among the five births, she had a superior birth” (Koseki, p.76).It has been suggested by scholars that Chi-tsang saw the queen as a man in a woman’s body (Koseki, p.76).

Srimala’s Dharma was examined from the standpoint of the Sinitic paradigm of “essence and function” with the motif of interdependency. Because of essential identity, the true dharma is a quality possessed by “all the dharmas” (prajia), and because of functional identity, any dharma can serve as the basis for the comprehension of that essential quality despite the fact that the nature of its essence (emptiness)is such that it does not readily lend itself to any ordinary designation (Koseki, p.71).

Dharma is notion that has been sought after for centuries; even today the practice of dharma continues. It is a concept that has influenced, not only the ancient world, but still continues to guide individuals of our contemporary society.


Dunne, John D. (1996) Thoughtless Buddha, Passionate Buddha, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Oxford University Press.

Koseki, Aaron K. (1984) Chi-Tsang’s “Sheng-man pao-k’u:” The True Dharma Doctrine and the Bodhisattva Ideal, Philosophy East and West, University of Hawai’i Press.


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