Master Nenghai

Master Nenghai

Master Nenghai

Nenghai (1886-1967) was born in Mianzhu district, Sichuan province. An orphan, he was raised by his elder sister and worked as an apprentice in a workshop in Chengdu until he entered the army in 1905. About ten years later, he began to study Buddhism with Zhang Kecheng, professor Buddhist literature and philosophy at Beijing University. He wanted to enter the Buddhist Sangha, but his sister persuaded him to wait until he had fathered a male child.

In 1924, at the age of 39, Nenghai received the novice vows under the guidance of Foyuan, his master and a teacher of the Linji school of Chan Buddhism. At Yonghegong (a monastery of the Gelugpa tradition located in Beijing), he became interested in Tibetan Buddhism and decided to travel to Tibet. In 1926, he went to Kangding (located in the Tibetan area of Khams), where he studied Tibetan language and began reading Tibetan Buddhist scriptures, particularly Tsongkhapa’s Lamrim chenmo. He believed that the Buddhist tantras contained the very essence of the Buddhadharma. To deepen his understanding of tantra, he twice visited Lhasa, where he became the disciple of Kangsa Rinpoche, a lama of Drepung Monastery. He remained in Lhasa studying for five years.

Nenghai founded seven monasteries in China. Tiexiangsi is the only nunnery among what he called these “tantric vajra monasteries “. Except for during the rains retreat, he rarely stayed in the same monastery for long, always travelling from place to place, preaching the Dharma, lecturing on the scriptures, and giving instructions on Gelugpa doctrines.

The principal tantric transmission he received from his lama is known as “the tradition of the Yamantaka – Vajrabhairava Anuttarayoga Tantra.’’ The tantras he then transmitted to his disciples were mainly those of two yidams (meditation deities): Yellow Manjusri, which is a lower tantric practice, and Yamantaka, which is anuttarayoga tantra. Yamantaka- Vajrabhairava is a wrathful manifestation of Manjusri.

Master Nenghai giving teachings in Wu Tai Shan

Master Nenghai giving teachings in Wu Tai Shan

While Nenghai asserted that the tantras and Tsongkhapa’s Lamrim are superior to all other Buddhist doctrines, he still included the Chinese and Theravada scriptures in his teachings. He explained these scriptures as an example of the exoteric teachings that form the basis for the practice of the tantras and without which the tantras could not be understood. Among the exoteric teachings that form the basis for the practice of the tantras and without which the tantras could not be understood. Among the exoteric Buddhist scriptures, he had a preference for the Vinaya and the Prajnaparamita texts.

Nenghai is responsible for more than 90 books and articles. Some are translations of Tibetan texts, some are commentaries. Some were written by Nenghai himself, while others were authored by his disciples in accordance with this teachings. Of these, 54 are related to tantra.

Master Nenghai translating

Master Nenghai translating

Tiexiangsi Nunnery

Nenghai founded the first and only Gelugpa nunnery in China called Tiexiangsi. The ordination procedures of Tiexiangsi follow the Chinese tradition. Tiexiangsi Nunnery has evolved in relation to government policy shifts towards religion in China. During the first 15 years of the PRC, about 30 nuns lived in Tiexiangsi. They had to work in the fields to sustain themselves, and they devoted the rest of their time to religious practice as they had been taught by Nenghai. Since they followed the Tibetan tradition, some began to study Tibetan language. Others (particularly Longlian, already fluent in Tibetan) began translating Tibetan Buddhist works commissioned by Nenghai.

Master Nenghai

Master Nenghai

During the Cultural Revolution, Tiexiangsi was occupied by eight farming families and an elementary school. In 1979, the government began to relax its policy toward religion. Monks and nuns were gradually allowed to return to religious life, and Longlian and her community regained most of the properties associated with Tiexiangsi. The returning nuns, assisted by government funds, began restoring the damaged buildings and Buddha images. In 1983, the Sichuan Buddhist Higher Institute for Bhiksunis was established at Tiexiangsi. It is the first and only institution of higher learning for bhiksunis in China.

Tiexiangsi is a “closed” nunnery, like many other monasteries in China. This means it is for the nuns only and is not open to laypeople for devotions. The nuns’ daily practice can be performed only by initated disciples. In addition, the chanting and other activities are not understandable to Chinese Buddhists who do not have any knowledge of Tibetan Buddhist.

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