Three incidents of my years with the Abbot stand out in my mind and have served as a basis for my practice. Because they may be of interest to others, I relate them below. The first was in the fall/winter of 1970–71.
Following the summer session of 1970, there were perhaps as many as fifteen men living and practicing at the Buddhist Lecture Hall on Waverly Place in San Francisco’s Chinatown. A similar number of women lived in a private home not too far away and spent their days at the Buddhist Lecture Hall. At any given moment there could be twenty or more people crowded into that one room. To escape the crowding, several of the men had moved up onto the roof, where we built sleeping boxes out of wooden packing crates and slept sitting up. This was the beginning period of cultivation for all of us, a first attempt, and tensions ordinarily ran high, as we each struggled with our private demons and projected them out on each other. As the cold of winter closed in, the tension became unbearable. We each began to fantasize of a wonderful, quiet, spacious forest monastery, where we could do nothing but cultivate day and night and would be free of the supposed obstacles of the Buddhist Lecture Hall. That fantasy quickly blossomed into an obsession for some of us.
Then, one evening, after the formal sutra lecture, the Abbot announced that he had a special present for us. He laughed in his inimitable way, his eyes twinkled, and we all slavered in anticipation. He told us that we would have to wait, that it would be a Christmas present, but that it would be something beyond price─the best present that we would ever receive.
During this period we had been looking at real estate all over California, and beyond. Some of us clever ones quickly put the disparate facts together and decided that the Abbot was going to give us a wonderful mountain monastery for Christmas. Once we had figured that out, anticipation grew daily. As we looked at various country properties we delighted in the anticipation. Life would be wonderful. We would have the perfect circumstances to cultivate. All the obstacles facing us would disappear with a move to a perfect environment and all would be well.
As Christmas approached the Abbot would remind us of the gift that we could expect and we all became happier and happier, expecting our new toys for Christmas. At last the Abbot announced that, on a certain day, he would give us our present. The night of that lecture the Buddhist Lecture Hall was packed. Everyone was there, each anticipating the inevitable announcement that we were all moving to the country for the perfect contemplative life. The Abbot delivered the evening lecture, as usual. The translators finished translating. The Abbot lectured again and, once again, the translators finished translating. Still no mention of our country monastery. We were all beginning to worry a bit. The Venerable Shih Fu put his hands together to recite the transference of merit─then stopped.
“Oh.” he said. He had forgotten. Today was the day he would give us our present. We all sighed a great sigh of relief. The end to our problems was at hand.
The Venerable Shih Fu then said, “Today I am giving each of you two beautiful, hand-written scrolls. They are a precious gift that you must never put down.” This wasn’t a monastery, but it was a good start. At least something special and valuable. He continued,
“On the first scroll is written “Birth.” On the second scroll is written
“Death.” You are to hang those scrolls, one
behind each eyelid, so that you see them at
every moment. If you are able to see those
scrolls at every moment, you will certainly
attain enlightenment in this very life.”
We were all taken aback. That was all well and good, but was this a joke? Surely there was more. Then Shih Fu laughed, and looked out over the assembly, and then made as if to speak again. Clearly, that was not the main event. The big present was yet to come. He continued,
“But if you are going to meditate night and day you will need a place to do it. You will need a Ch’an Hall.” Ah, we each thought, now comes the real present─what we have all been waiting for all these months─the country awaits.
“To meditate you will need a Ch’an Hall, so I am giving you a Ch’an Hall,” At last, this is it we all thought. He continued,
“For the pillars of your Ch’an Hall, I give you the four directions; for its roof, the sky. For your sitting mat I give you the broad earth.” He beamed at us, as if he had just opened a box of the most luscious chocolates and offered each of us the best one in the box. He then continued.
“You have your topic, you have your place. Now─WORK!!” He then laughed his inimitable laugh, put his palms together, and began to recite the transference of merit. We were all in a state of shock─stunned. Ch’an humor was one thing─but this was serious. The evening’s lecture ended and we were each left with our private thoughts. Some thought the whole event a big Ch’an joke─designed to shake us out of attachments. Others were simply disappointed. Each one of us dealt with our disappointment, our shock, in a different way, and the event passed into the past. A few months later we purchased the property at 1731 Fifteenth Street and began to build a new place for cultivation in earnest. Gold Mountain Monastery came into being.
I have thought over that story many, many times, and slowly understood the precious gift that Shih Fu offered each of us that day. It has taken me more than twenty years to begin to make use of that gift, but it still is as fresh as one of those imagined chocolates when the box was first opened. Every moment, every place, every event, is nothing but opportunity to cultivate, if we have the heart and resolve to experience life that way. Entrance into the Dharma-realm is available at every moment; we need simply to recognize our constant opportunities. I have related this story because a gift takes its real meaning when it is passed on to another. For those who were absent that day, I pass on Shih Fu’s gift, and hope that you will make better use of it than I have.
The second incident that I constantly recall was a trip that Heng Ch’ien, Heng Shou, and I took to look at property in Northern California, Oregon, and Idaho. We were traveling in a Volkswagen bus, sleeping in the bus or camping, looking at various possible sites for a country monastery. Finally, after we had located a few sites that Shih Fu, with whom Heng Ch’ien had communicated by telephone, thought sounded promising, he came up to meet us and spent a couple of days with us driving around. One morning we had stopped by a beautiful stream in northern Idaho to make our one meal of the day. Shih Fu, as was his practice when traveling, ate virtually nothing─a banana and perhaps another piece of fruit. I was, at the time, practicing eating at a single sitting, and made sure that I ate enough to last the better part of the kalpa before I had to get up or the clock hit noon. Heng Ch’ien and Heng Shou, neither of whom had any great interest in food, wandered away from where we had stopped and set up our meal, over to the side of the stream, and were idly skipping rocks over the surface of the water, taking a well deserved rest from hours of driving. Shih Fu and I sat together on a log, he eating his banana and I eating everything that I could get my hands on. Shih Fu was watching Heng Ch’ien and Heng Shou skip rocks, and asked me what it was that they were doing. I explained how and why one went about skipping rocks on water. He asked if they were any good at it and I gave my evaluation. He then said to me,
“Why don’t you go play with your friends?” sounding like a solicitous parent, concerned that I had been left out. I replied that, when it was time to eat, I ate; that
“I knew what was important.” He turned his head to me with a delighted twinkle in his eye,
“Oh, you know what is important. Kuo Hu knows what is important. Kuo Hu knows what is important.” He repeated this phrase over and over again, chuckling. He then finished his banana and went over to Heng Ch’ien and Heng Shou, announcing to them as he came,
“I have something important to tell you. This is very important. Kuo Hu knows what is important. Kuo Hu knows what is important.” I sat and ate, very pleased with myself for knowing what was important, eating when it was time to eat rather than wasting my time at play. While I ate Shih Fu stood to one side of Heng Ch’ien and Heng Shou, watching them continue to skip rocks. After watching a few throws Shih Fu stepped a couple of feet away, examined the ground carefully, and picked up a large, irregularly shaped stone weighing at least several pounds. He then walked up to the stream’s edge and heaved the stone in. It sank without a trace. He then looked directly at Heng Ch’ien and Heng Shou, who were watching the ripples spread. Heng Ch’ien and Heng Shou then looked up from the stream to Shih Fu. The three of them stood there for a moment, looking at each other, then all laughed at the same time. The three of them then ambled back to where I was still eating, Shih Fu telling them both very earnestly how I knew what was important. Heng Ch’ien and Heng Shou then had their lunch as well. I finished eating, then went over to the stream’s edge and skipped several stones with great skill, demonstrating, once I had finished the important matter, my prowess with secondary matters as well.
From then on, at each property we examined, Shih
Fu would very seriously turn to me and ask my
opinion of the property, announcing, “Kuo Hu knows what is important.”
When we all eventually returned to Gold Mountain
Shih Fu announced on several occasions when we
were discussing some problem, that everyone
should ask me, since “Kuo Hu knows what is important.” Eventually that particular teaching died down and life went on.
But I have considered that incident many, many times. Shih Fu’s real teaching there was a demonstration of sympathy with living beings. He recognized what was important to each of us, whether it was self-importance and eating, or relaxing from hard work by skipping rocks across a stream, and responded to each with as much teaching as was possible. What was really important was not, as I felt at the time, my self-discipline, but rather to recognize that Shih Fu taught each of us individually, and that what was most important was to recognize what teaching was for me and what was for someone else--to not confuse the two, to not expect someone else to live up to what he had taught me to strive for, and to not seek to strive for someone else’s goals. That teaching was a deep and vivid expression of compassion and bodhicitta (Bodhi mind), and one that, as I have slowly come to understand, that I seek to emulate in every moment.
The third incident that has stuck with me all these years occurred while we were building Gold Mountain, at Fifteenth Street. The building was an old mattress factory, full of years of dirt and dust. We were able to clean it up to a great extent, but a problem that seemed insurmountable was that of the brick walls themselves. The building had been cheaply built, and the bricks were a bit crumbly. Much worse, the mortar was crumbling. The building wasn’t about to fall down, but every brush against the walls brought bits of mortar and sand. There was no way to keep the interior clean if we could not solve this problem. Heng Ch’ien brought the problem to Shih Fu’s attention, and he instantly had a solution. He ordered a bucket brought, some pure cement, water, and an old broom. He had us mix a very thin solution of cement in water. He then took the broom, dipped it into the bucket, and then slammed the soaked broom agianst the brick wall. A few experiments with more or less cement, different stroke techniques, and a couple of old brooms, and he pronounced the process a success. He carefully instructed us to mix the cement with the water in precisely the proportions he had established, use an old broom as he had selected, and to hit the mixture-soaked broom against the walls as he had demonstrated. We then split up into several work groups and proceeded with the task. However, it quickly became apparent that the solution was so thin that most of it dripped down and off the walls. It looked as if it would take forever to cover all the walls. So one of us got the bright idea to thicken the mixture a bit so that it would hold better. Sure enough, the thickened mixture went on much more easily and covered much more quickly. The process would not take nearly as long as we had feared. We also discovered that a new broom, which would hold a greater load of mixture, sped up the process even more. Once again, modern American ingenuity and know-how would save the day.
Some time later Shih Fu came by to see how we were doing. One look and he exploded,
“Stupid, really stupid,” he exclaimed. “That’s not how to do it.” We objected, explaining all the advantages of our improvements. He just repeated,
“Stupid, really stupid.” Sure enough, as the mixture dried on the walls, where we had used the thin mixture and the old broom the pure cement dried into a hard, very thin coating that subsequently lasted for years. Where we had used the thicker mixture and the new broom the coating dried as thick flakes that could be easily picked or peeled off. Eventually we had to remove all of those sections and do them over. Our attempt at efficiency caused nothing but more work and a waste of resources.
What was so important about that teaching was not Shih Fu’s knowledge of wall coating techniques─I am not sure whether he had ever used that technique before or not. What was important was the clarity─the concentration and insight─that he applied to the task. He perceived directly what the problem was, exactly how much was enough to solve that problem, and applied just the right amount to solve it. He pointed out to us exactly how to apply the techniques of cultivation. It is that ability to perceive a situation as it truly is, not otherwise, that directs one’s cultivation to be most effective. Recognizing precisely what needs to be done, the appropriate tools for the task, and the proper application lies at the heart of what Shih Fu taught. Again, it has taken me most of my life simply to recognize this lesson and to begin to apply it in my own work.
I have sought to cultivate according to those simple lessons that Shih Fu taught. To understand that there is only one issue─that of birth and death─and that every moment of every day in every place is the right time and the right place to resolve that issue; that doing one’s own work, and not someone else’s, is the job at hand, and one cannot understand the mind or actions of a sage with respect to others if one does not even understand them with respect to oneself, and finally, that the tools of cultivation are useful only when one understands the problem to be solved, selects the appropriate tools, and applies them properly, and that concentration and insight are the means to that realization.
With these words I am simply passing along three of my experiences with Shih Fu, hoping that the record of those experiences will benefit others, as they have been of such benefit to me. If there were others present at those occurrences who remember them differently, I can only apologize for my partial perception and experience and trust that they will correct my report. I have repeated those experiences as faithfully as I remember them.