The Chinese Buddhist monk/scholar Ling-bian’s (477-522) Annotation to the Hua-yan Sutra is the earliest extant Chinese commentary on the sutra. Though it was an important Buddhist text, it had circulated only among the grassroots believers in the next 160 years since its completion( 520). In Tang Dynasty, however, by virtue of Hua-yan master Fa-zang’s (643-712) The Story of Hu-yan Sutra (particularly the chapter/ book “Biography of Ling-bian” in it), the text began to capture the attention of a wider circle of Buddhist scholars and practitioners.
Perhaps due to Fa-zang’s influential position in Hua-yan Buddhism, his account of the biography of Ling-bian had been taken as accurate by most scholars later in the history who wrote on Ling-bian.
I argue in this paper that much of Fa-zang’s account of the biography of Ling-bian is not historically true, but rather Fa-zang’s hermeneutic reconstruction. My conclusion can be warranted through a careful examination of the accounts of Ling-bian’s life given in Huan-yan master Cheng-guan’s(738-839) yan-yi-chao and in Huan-yan master Hui-xiang’s Ancient Qing-liang Chronicle. In comparing Cheng-guan’s and Hui-xiang’s accounts with Fa-zang’s reconstruction, it becomes clear that Fa-zang’s reconstruction not only changed Ling-bian’s area of activity but also his social status. However, Fa-zang’s reconstruction is not accidental: 1) The fact that Fa-zang’s account transfers Lingbian’s activity area from Xuan Weng Shan (悬瓮山) to Qing Liang Shan/Wu Tai Shan (清凉山/五台山) resonates nicely with the spirit of the “Wu Tai Shan Sanctification Movement”; 2) The fact that Fa-zang’s account transforms Ling-bian into a royal monk seems to suggest that Fa-zang was trying to absorb and transform what Koujima Daisan(小岛岱山)’s called Wu Tai Shan sect (which stresses the actual practice and the grassroots nature of Buddhist faith) from the perspective of what he called Zhong Nan Shan sect (which stresses doctrinal studies and royal connections).