Now that we no longer have the physical presence of the Master to lean on, it may become clear what it means to have had such a teacher. Rare as it is to encounter the Dharma in this world, it is rarer still to encounter a great teacher like him.
After I heard the news of his passing, I thought of the gatha spoken by Shakyamuni Buddha:
Those who by my form did see me,
and those who followed me by voice,
Wrong the efforts they engaged in,
me those people will not see.
By the Dharma should one see
Although the Master advised his disciples on their problems and intervened in their disagreements, this was mere expediency. His great sacrifices were made in order to awaken beings to their danger in the Saha world, just as did the kind father in the Lotus Sutra who used playthings to tempt his children to leave the burning house.
His immense labor throughout his life on behalf of the Dharma is awesome to contemplate. In fact, if I had to describe the Master in one word,
“awesome” would be that word. Meeting him seems the only important event in my life.
At fourteen or so I bought a copy of The Teachings of the Compassionate Buddha. After reading these excerpts from the Sutras, I decided I would go to Asia someday and devote my life to the study of these teachings, which were the first explanations of existence that made sense to me. Later I met a student of Chinese literature, the future Guo Jan, who was studying Buddhism at the University of Washington with Edward Conze, the distinguished Prajnaparamita scholar. When I went there, I attended his lectures and began to acquire an intellectual grasp of Buddhist doctrine, but was unable even to stop eating meat, still less consider giving up other bad habits.
In the summer of l969, I heard about the Shurangama Sutra session. A friend got a postcard which described the Master playfully chasing the tiny daughter of a student around the temple. In the fall I went to see for myself, far from sure I was ready to face the heavy regime of sitting meditation, recitation, and lectures.
The Master was not remotely like anyone I had encountered previously. He seemed less like a human being than a thunderstorm, a mountain, or an ocean, but an ocean which talked to you as a kindly uncle might talk to a small child.
Before lecture each evening, the Master would write out on newsprint twenty-four characters of the Shurangama Sutra and explain them as a Chinese lesson. Afterwards, some students would copy them with brush and ink. Occasionally the Master would look at our work and mark a few characters which were better than the rest. My copies were very weak, but I was fascinated by the beautiful black strokes on the creamy paper. Probably the Master encouraged my attempts to copy his calligraphy because it helped improve my concentration, which was deplorable.
One day, his writing seemed not especially good and I found my mind wandering as he wrote. Noticing this, I recalled my attention to the paper. It seemed as though the brush began to form characters of exceptional power and grace.
Sometimes greeting me he would teasingly ask, “Ni zai bu zai?” (Are you there or not?), making a pun on my Dharma name, which referred to my absent-mindedness. It was somewhat like the playfulness of a huge tiger, a tiger which has dedicated its teeth and claws to the destruction of ignorance and evil, instead of the devouring of tender prey.
Sometimes the Master made me think of a deep mirror, not like the ordinary kind which only shows the surface of things, but one which reflects inner reality. The presence of the Master was intensely disturbing to my self-esteem. I looked into that reflecting pool and saw pettiness, confusion, and weakness. I saw no purpose, nothing solid, nothing to be proud of. But to sit cross-legged listening to his voice roll out like thunder across the lecture hall was truly blissful.
Like so many of my generation, I have sought freedom above all. Like most, I mistakenly thought freedom meant doing whatever I wanted, and not being ordered around. Yet what enslaves us more than our own desires? No one ignores the commands of birth and death. The suffering in the world is difficult to contemplate, so infinite, so appalling.
The question remains: Who is suffering? Ask yourself,
“Who is not free?”