Chenjin (700-772): A Musician and Buddhist Monk in Tang China

If one asks an ordinary Chinese person these days which dynasty in Chinese history was the one he/she thought was the most impressive, the answer would be either the Han Dynasty or the Tang Dynasty. For the former one, the name of the dynasty became the eternal name of the largest ethnic group; while for the latter one, the name of the dynasty became the representation of Chinese people on the world stage, since Chinatowns all over the world are called Tang-people-streets (Tangrenjie).[1] Chinese culture and tradition was well-strengthened and developed during its long history of over 2000 years, and especially these two dynasties. Furthermore, it was also because of the silk road from the Han Dynasty, and the openness of the Tang Dynasty that China had the chance to connect itself with the world and spread out its culture and religion to the outside world. This biography is about a Buddhist monk and Qin player named Lin Chen (Monastic name: Chenjin) during the Tang Dynasty who contributed both to the inheritance of traditional culture and to the propagation of it.

Lin Chen was born in year 700 in an impoverished family living at the foot of Mount Emei in today’s Sichuan Province. He was the only child of the household, and also the only son. After his birth, the choice to keep him or not became a dilemma for the poor couple who could not even feed themselves. In old China, everyone wanted a son. It was regarded as the one of the important displays of filial piety, which means the continuity of the family line, and at the same time an insurance of the life when one gets old, he/she will at least have someone to take care of them. So, the couple kept their son for a year until they realized that it was impossible for the family to survive if they were going to raise their son. As a result, on the day of Lin Chen’s 2nd birthday, his father took him up the mountain, left him at the gate of Qingyin Temple while he was still taking an afternoon nap and left, never coming back again. Qingyin Temple was the largest Buddhist temple in that area. In China, there are two major religions: Buddhism and Daoism. Although Daoism is believed to be the oldest Chinese-origin religion, Buddhism, a foreign religion founded in India, won more Chinese followers than did Daoism in China by the year 600 A.D.[2] The Abbot Nengyi of the temple was a very kind monk who always tried his best to help people. It was one of his disciples named Chen’er who found Lin Chen outside the temple and brought him in. The kindheartedly Abbot Nengyi decided to temporarily keep Lin Chen in the temple and see if his parents would come back to take him back home some time. Nobody in the temple knew Lin Chen’s name, so Abbot Nengyi gave him a name, following his disciples’ generation, called “Chenjin”.

Chenjin lived in the Qingyin Temple for several years, but no one came for him. He was not a formal disciple of Abbot Nengyi at that time. However, living with all the other young monks exposed Buddhism to him in everyday life, and Chenjin was already able to remember and recite some Buddhism Classic excerpts at the age of five. One day in year 705, a local scholar came to the temple to see Abbot Nengyi. It was an unusual year, Emperor Wu was deposed in a palace coup, and the Tang dynasty was restored.[3] The scholar was named Wang Qu and was once a supporter of Emperor Wu. After Emperor Zhongzong came back to power, frightened by the chaos in the court and loss of support from the Emperor, Wang Qu finally resigned from the court and returned to his hometown Emei to try to find some peace. It was the first day he came to Qingyin Temple. To achieve the mental peace, he chose to turn to Buddhism. There in the Qingyin Temple, he met Chenjin.

Wang Qu was an excellent Qin player. Qin is a plucked seven-string Chinese traditional musical instrument with over 300 years of history. Traditionally, it has been favored by scholars and literati as an instrument of great subtlety and refinement, as highlighted by the quote “a gentleman does not part with his qin or se without good reason,” as well as being associated with the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius.[4] Tang was an open dynasty, which led to the prosperity of instruments from North China and Central Asia. However, there were still many traditional literati and scholars just like Wang Qu who still preferred Qin. And it was by chance when Wang Qu played Qin in Qingyin Temple that quickly caught Chenjin’s attention; Chenjin started his learning of Guqin. He liked it so much that his reaction impressed Wang Qu. From that day on, Wang Qu became Chenjin’s teacher of Qin, as well as a teacher who could tell him lots of things about the world. Through Wang Qu, Chenjin started to know about their Capital Chang’an. Wang Qu described Chang’an as a large city with the outer walls stretching 9.5 kilometers along the east-west axis and 8.4 kilometers along the north-south axis.[5] Their emperor and the imperial family lived in the palace in the north of the city, and the south part was divided into two markets.[6] There are also many Buddhist temples in Chang’an, having monks offer services including free dispensaries, pawnshops, hostels, and public baths to the city’s inhabitants.[7] Wang Qu lived under the Mount Emei and came to Qingyin Temple once a week. He then became one of the most important people for Chenjin in his early life in Qingyin Temple. A teacher for both Qin and knowledge.

Chenjin formally became Abbot Nengyi’s disciple and a monk at the age of seven. His life was not much different from before, except he finally got the chance to start his study of Buddhism with his friends formally. Time went by fast and soon Chenjin was 15 years old. He was very smart and learned things fast. By the age of 15, he was already able to remember all the Buddhism classics they had in the temple and was excellent at playing Qin. Abbot Nengyi then decided to let him leave Mount Emei, and go out to discover the outside world. He told Chenjin that he could go to the Prajna Temple in Mount Heng, where Nanyue Huairang-the foremost student of Dajian Huineng, the sixth patriarch of Chan Buddhism- lived and taught.

It took Chenjin three months to finally arrive at Prajna Temple, but becoming a formal monk of the Prajna Temple did not take him too much time. Master Huairang just moved to the Prajna Temple in Mount Heng in year 713 after his master Dajian Huineng died. In order to spread Huineng’s idea of “sudden enlightenment”, Huairang widely accept disciples after he arrived at Prajna Temple.[8] This gave Chenjin a good chance to learn from one of the greatest Chan masters at that time. Chan Buddhism is the most distinctively Chinese form of Buddhism.[9] The word chan is derived from the Sanskrit dhyana, meaning meditation. Generally speaking, in Chan the goal of meditation and of all other forms of Buddhist teaching and practice is Enlightenment, in which the individual becomes fully conscious of the Buddha Mind of compassion and undivided wisdom that has always been present in the individual’s own mind but has been obscured by the illusions and clingings of ordinary life.[10] Moreover, the only reliable guide for Chan Buddhism is believed to be an already enlightened human mind. In Prajna Temple, it was Master Huairang’s mind. It was during the time in Prajna Temple and through Master Huairang did Chenjin learned the core of the Southern School idea that sudden enlightenment was possible and that it did not depend on the adoption of any particular posture or discipline of mediation.[11] It is also during his time in Prajna Temple that Chenjin heard the story of Huineng taught Shenhui, the 7th Patriarch, about seeing and non-seeing. The idea that “one must awaken with one’s own mind and see for oneself, and one must practice with Truth”[12] later contributed to Chenjin’s practice of applying Chan Buddhism to his Qin playing. Chenjin lived and studied in the Prajna Temple until Master Huairang died in year 744. Then he chose to go back to Mount Emei and continue his practice of Chan Buddhism at Qingyin Temple.

The Golden Age of China-Tang’s cultural openness and political strength attracted so many foreigners into the country. Among all the foreigners that had ever came to Tang China, the Japanese Missions might have been the group of people who received the deepest influence and took the most back to their own country. Japan started sending missions to China since year 607 and this tradition lasted for more than 200 years. The communication between Japan and China by these missions brought Japan not only a Nara city which was exactly the same structure as the capital of Tang, but also many cultural properties like Zen Buddhism, traditional instrument, tea ceremony, etc. During such a wide range of communication, Chenjin also encountered a Japanese student from the missions in year 748.

The Japanese student was named Takahashi no Masaharu. Masaharu first came to China in the year 733 with the envoy Tajihi no Hironari and Nakatomi no Nashiro.[13] He lived in the foreign quarters of Chang’an after he arrived to the center of China. There he learned several years of Chinese language and became as fluent as the native Chinese people. After a few years, he started traveling around the country and continued his learning through communication with different kinds of Chinese people. So in 748, he visited Qingyin Temple in Mount Emei, and there he met Chenjin. Masaharu was a lover of Chinese traditional music and also a believer of Chan Buddhism, which led him to be a good friend of Chenjin who at that time was already able to combine his practice of Chan Buddhism and play of Qin. They had a delightful talk about their common interest and then Masaharu decided to stay at the Qingyin temple. As a result, Chenjin became Masaharu’s teacher of Chan Buddhism and Qin. Masaharu was very curious about how Chenjin practice Chan and Qin at the same time, so he asked. Chenjin said: “In order to achieve sudden enlightenment, we must focus on our own mind and see for ourselves. To me, it is the same for the practice of Qin. The music is a reflection of our mind, only start with a clean mind, the fingers would be clean, and through that, the music played by those fingers could be clean. In other words, it is my own way of practicing Chan.”

The five years that Chenjin and Masaharu spent together in Qingyin Temple was really important to Masaharu. In year 753, Masaharu felt that it is time for him to go back to go back to Japan and use the knowledge he learned in China to help his own country. He boarded the ship of Fujiwara no Kiyokawa that was going back to Japan in 753. Chenjin never forgot what Masaharu told him before he left, during their last lunch, that he was going to tell the Japanese about Chan and Qin, about all the things he learned in China and especially from Chenjin. Chenjin never heard from Masaharu again after his leaving, but these memories lasted and became one of his most precious in his lifetime.

Chenjin died in the year 772 at Qingyin Temple in Mount Emei. He was neither a master of Chan Buddhism as great as the Sixth Patriarch Huineng nor a master of Qin as famous as Boya. However, history is the combination of the stories of millions of billions of ordinary people, even more ordinary than Chenjin. Chenjin devoted his whole life to Chan and Qin, there are still lots of stories of him not mentioned in the main part of the biography: his daily life included basic lectures towards peasants and helped people with their questions in order to spread the Chan Buddhism he learnt from Master Huairang; he met Tang’s greatest poet Li Bai in the year 748 at Mount Emei occasionally and had a lightsome conversation about Qin; he also had several interactions with the great Qin player Cao Rou and contributed to the birth of the unique Qin tablature, that is being used all the way until nowadays, in his later years. The thousands of years of continuity and development of culture and tradition could never be achieved only through the efforts of one or two strong regimes; full credit to the vast spread of China’s influence also could not simply be given to several great emperors. After all, it was because there were so many people like Chenjin that China could achieve what it had achieved all the way until now.


[1] Hansen, V. (2015). The open empire: A history of China to 1800. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. Page 173

[2] Hansen, 141

[3] Hansen, 184

[4] Guqin. (n.d.). Retrieved October 04, 2016, from

[5] Hansen, 184

[6] Hansen, 186

[7] Hansen, 187

[8] 南岳怀让(Nanyuehuairang). (n.d.). Retrieved October 04, 2016, from

[9] Wills, J. E. (2012). Mountain of fame: Portraits in Chinese history. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Page 117

[10] Wills, 117

[11] Wills, 122-123

[12] Wills, 125

[13] Japanese missions to Tang China. (n.d.). Retrieved October 04, 2016, from

GE GE is a senior at the University of Rochester double majoring in History and Japanese Language and Culture. Ge loves traveling and is always interested in living in different countries to experience different culture. Instead of continuing study in America after graduation, She will be moving to UK for further exploration of the world.