An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Shensengzhuan 神僧傳

Oct 5, 2012 © Ulrich Theobald

Shensengzhuan 神僧傳 "Story of the divine monk" is a semi-historiographical biography of the Buddhist monk Fotu Cheng 佛圖澄 attributed to the Eastern Jin period 東晉 (317-420) monk Faxian 法顯. The book is also called Fotu Cheng 佛圖澄 because he is the main protagonist in the story. Fotu Cheng came from a town in the Western Territories 西域 and had the original family name Bo 帛. He became a novice in early years and learned to chant the sutras. In 310 he came to the capital Luoyang 洛陽 (modern Luoyang, Henan), where he preached the law of the Buddha and became very popular as an excorcist. Fotu Cheng became a retainer of the Xiongnu 匈奴 warlord Shi Le 石勒 (r. 319-333), ruler of the Later Zhao empire 後趙 (319-351), and supported him in his war against the other tribesleaders that dominated northern China during the fourth century. With the religious and tactical advice of Fotu Cheng Shi Le was able to defeat his opponents Duan Mobo 段末波, leader of the Xianbei 鮮卑, and Liu Yao 劉曜 (r. 318-329), ruler of the Former Zhao empire 前趙 (304-329). Fotu Cheng was able to prognosticate the death of Shi Le and the downfall of his successor Shi Hu 石虎. In the story Shensengzhuan Buddhism is mainly seen as a religion of power against demons and real enemies. Yet Fotu Cheng also appears as a religious man who admonished his worldly masters to pardon defeated enemies and to be benevolent towards the people.
The Shensengzhuan is included in the encyclopedia Taiping guangji 太平廣記 from the Song period 宋 (960-1279). It seems to have survived complete. The language oft he text is simple, yet fluent and vivid.

There is another book of the same title, namely a collection of biographies of monks compiled by Zhu Di 朱棣 (1360-1424), Emperor Chengzu 明成祖 (r. 1402-1424) of the Ming dynasty 明 (1368-1644) and known with his reign motto as the Yongle Emperor 永樂 (see Shensengzhuan 神僧傳).

Li Shuihai 李水海 (ed. 1994). Zhongguo xiaoshuo da cidian 中國小說大辭典, Xian-Qin zhi Nanbeichao 先秦至南北朝, p. 501. Xi'an: Shaanxi renmin chubanshe.
Li Xueqin 李學勤, Lü Wenyu 呂文鬰 (1996). Siku da cidian 四庫大辭典, Changchun: Jilin daxue chubanshe, vol. 2, p. 2263.