He was born under the name ''Kui Sheng'', and also as ''Zhang Guang Bi''. ''Zhang Tian Ran'' was his official religious name. He was also known as ''Kung Chang'' . Zhang was born on the 19th day of the 7th Lunar month in 1889, in Jining prefecture, northern province Shandong. In 1908, Zhang married with a woman named Zhu, but Zhu died a year later. Two years later Zhang married again to a woman of the surname Liu.
He left home and traveled to Nanjing and Shanghai. At age 24, Zhang joined the army as a low ranking military officer. Zhang was then initiated in I-Kuan Tao in 1914. The 17th patriarch Lu Zhongyi heard the conduct of Zhang and told Zhang to join in Jining. Lu died in 1925, and was succeeded by his sister, Lu Zhongjie who temporarily looked after I Kuan Tao for 6 years. In 1930, Venerable Zhang and Sun Su Zhen became the 18th patriarch.
Leadership in I-Kuan Tao
There are various versions concerning the transfer of the 18th patriarch and the meeting of Zhang Tianran with Sun Suzhen. The most simple version states that the Venerable Mother transferred the 18th patriarchs to both Zhang and Sun. The most widely accepted version in Western literature states that Zhang took Sun Suzhen as his second wife in 1930. She was already a member of I-Kuan Tao and it was believed that Zhang married her after a "divine message". Zhang was considered as the incarnation of Ji Gong, a Buddhist monk who was revered as an incarnation of an Arhat by Buddhists and also Taoists. Sun was then considered as the reincarnation of Yue Hui . Yet, it is noted that Zhang and Sun were husband and wife in name without intimate relationship. Sun was only responsible for leading and propagating Tao.
Zhang moved out of Jining, and in 1931 traveled to Jinan the capital of Shandong, to spread the teachings. He founded the Hall of Lofty Splendor and attracted many followers. These first followers later become Zhang's apostles. From Jinan I-Kuan Tao spread quickly throughout North China. Within a year, four more temples were established. In 1934, Zhang went to Tianjin established another temple and became the base of the propagation. In 1937, Tianjin had more than 100 temples. From Tianjin, Zhang's disciples propagated the teaching to various parts of China.
Under the Japanese occupation, I-Kuan Tao survived and spread rapidly, centered in Central China. The cult with apocalyptic belief and strong mystic element attracted many peasants.
The political chaotic, fear and panic situation in this period helped I-Kuan Tao grow more rapidly. The apocalyptic teaching promised that by following I-Kuan Tao, one will be spared and salvaged from calamity. By 1940, I-Kuan Tao reached the southern province of Jiangxi. I-Kuan Tao also attracted a number of officials of the Japanese puppet government of Wang Jingwei. During 1950, it was estimated in Beijing there were about 178,000 followers, and in Tianjin, 140,000.
After the war ended, Zhang was sick and under accusation of conspiracy with occupying Japanese army. Zhang died on the 15th day of the 8th Lunar Month, the Mid Autumn Festival, in 1947 in the city of Cheng Du in Sichuan province. He was buried in Hangzhou.