In the early spring of 1974 I was living in Hong Kong at the Buddhist Lecture Hall when the Master returned after many years in America.
Shortly after the Master returned to Hong Kong, his disciples requested that he perform a Liberating Life Ceremony at Western Bliss Gardens, one of the temples he had founded years ago. Along with two other monks, I assisted with the chanting and playing of the Dharma instruments as the Master led the ceremony in the midst of a large crowd of lay disciples. The beings released that day were a kind of small bird whose flesh was used in Chinese cooking. A little way into the ceremony, on turning my head to pick up any ceremonial cues, I observed the Master standing next to the cages of birds. To my great surprise I noticed that he was weeping. There was no apparent expression of anguish. In fact his countenance was almost placidly and blissfully neutral. But still, there was no mistake about the fact that he really was weeping. Naturally, I was somewhat bewildered.
Since I had met the Master in the early summer of 1968, I had witnessed him displaying nearly every emotion in the course of his work as a Bodhisattva and spiritual instructor. I had seen him speaking very softly and gently to very timid disciples, at which times his voice would sound as comforting as the quiet purr of a kitten. I had seen him speak very harshly and powerfully to very arrogant disciples. At those times his voice could sound as terrifying as the roar of a lion. Sometimes he would tell jokes to lighten a disciple’s overlly leaden mood. Sometimes he would be very stern in discouraging frivolousness where there was inattention to important details. Sometimes his presence was so beatific that everyone in his presence enjoyed a state of nearly intoxicating blissfulness even without him speaking a word. Sometimes his demeanor was so grave that anyone present spontaneously experienced a sort of glacial solemnity.
So, anyway, I had seen all of these “emotions” in the Master and in many different permutations. But I had never seen the Master weeping. I felt rather disturbed by what I had seen, but of course forged on with the rest of the ceremony, chanting and beating the wooden fish. When the ceremony came to an end, I turned and looked again at the Master who was now smiling radiantly through the traces of his recent tears. I had not been the only one who had noticed the Master weeping. In fact, I think nearly everyone was a bit confused. Then the Master offered a brief explanation (which I paraphrase here), saying,
“Some of you probably noticed that I was crying
as we were performing the Liberating Life
Ceremony and you may have wondered why. Well,
I’ll tell you. The reason I wept was that I
realized that one of these birds had been a
monastic disciple of mine in a previous life.
But this monastic strayed from the path, and
eventually strayed so far that now he has taken
rebirth as a bird. It was because of this that I
couldn’t help but weep out pity.”
That ceremony at Western Bliss Gardens was an unforgettable experience for me. That he would be brought to tears over the karmic fate of one of his disciples shows the depth and genuineness of his concern for them. That he was weeping for a little bird shows me that the Master’s compassion is so far-reaching that it really does extend to all living beings.