My first experience with the Master was when I came to Sutter Street to rent a room. I had heard there was a Buddhist monk there who kept everything peaceful and quiet, and although I wasn’t a Buddhist, that was just the sort of environment I wanted for my work─drawing and painting. After meeting him, I told him I wanted to rent a room and he showed me a very dilapidated room on the third floor that was too big, too dark, and kind of moldy. Because it was too high in price, being $20 over my limit, I reluctantly said I couldn’t rent it. Then we went down to the second floor where he showed me a smaller room that had perfect natural lighting, was freshly painted, had an easel in the corner and newly varnished floors. I was immediately set on it and asked the price, which was $5 over my limit. Even so, I said,
“I’ll take it.” Then he asked me, “Are you a student?” I said,
“No.” He said, “You are a student. I like students,” and then quoted me a price $5 lower.
Later, after becoming his disciple or
“student,” I found out that “the Abbot,” as we knew him, had planned to rent out rooms on that floor to
“students of Buddhism.” Another thing I found out much later (after marrying my husband, Nick, who was my next-door-neighbor on the floor) was that Nick had painted the room and cleaned it when he rented that room and the one next door, then had closed it off and given it back to the Abbot to rent out to a potential
“student.” Nick had also added the easel.
Before marrying Nick, one day as I was working concentratedly on a drawing of a very fancy doorknob in my room with the door open, all of a sudden I noticed that the Abbot was there watching me draw. A few seconds later, he said,
“What are you doing?” I said, “I’m drawing this doorknob,” and added,
“It’s not easy for me to do this.” He then said, with emphasis,
“Work hard!” and left the room abruptly. I’ve never forgotten that moment and try to keep it in mind. He wanted me to remember how I was concentrating and try to work hard.
Another time, I was putting something in the trash in the kitchen, and the Abbot came up, took a half-gallon milk carton out of the trash, stepped on it with his foot until it was flat, and then replaced it in the trash, indicating that’s what should be done. Usually, he didn’t interfere in anyone’s business, but might walk through at any time of the day, catching one in a moment of living.
Nick and I were married by the Abbot at the Buddhist Lecture Hall on Sutter Street. Nick decided that he wanted the Abbot to marry us because he had known him for about two years and respected him more than anyone else he knew. I was not sure what it would be like so we decided only to invite those who lived in the building. After asking the Abbot when the ceremony would be, we notified all our friends in the building of the appointed time (2 p.m. on September 15, 1966). We were told to be ready earlier, as the Abbot wanted to talk with us around noon. I was wearing a white dress and had a bouquet of flowers, but since it was just for an informal few minutes, I left my heels upstairs (since one never wore shoes in the Lecture Hall).
We were asked to bow, and I placed my bouquet in a vase on the altar as an offering. Next, the assembly, in Chinese black and brown robes, started reciting in Chinese and bowing. We bowed with them and then knelt. This kneeling continued for about half an hour, but it seemed longer, since I didn’t understnd the words and wasn’t used to kneeling. The sound of the knocker and bells and chanting was very compelling, though, and I maintained an erect posture until the end of the ceremony (which I later found out was the Eighty-Eight Buddha’s Repentance Ceremony)
The Abbot then asked us to come up before the assembly, facing them on either side of him. He began to ask us some questions. He asked me,
“Susan, do you love Nick?” I needed to really consider becuse somehow a shallow answer wouldn’t do. It had to be the
“whole truth” as in court. After a moment of consideration, I said,
“Yes.” Next, he asked me, “Will you love him tomorrow the same as you do today?” I answered
“Yes” again after another moment of thought. He asked Nick the same two questions which he also answered affirmatively. Then we were married. The Abbot then gave us a few words of positive predictions for the future, and then some of the Chinese laypeople offered speeches of congratulations in Chinese, which were then translated into English.
I was glad that the wedding had already taken place because in the quiet of the temple with only the anonymous laypeople and the Abbot, I had been able to really concentrate well on answering the Abbot’s two questions. The ceremony and our own words made a very strong impression on me and I never forgot them. They have influenced the entire course of my marriage to Nick (now at the 28-year point).
After continuing to live in the building for about a year, we moved around the time the Abbot sold it. After the Abbot moved away, it seemed as though his protection was no longer over the building, and it was no longer peaceful or wholesome. Later we went to listen to lectures at the building where the Abbot had moved to on Waverly Street.
In 1967, Ron Epstein, who had left for Taiwan for a year to study Chinese around the time we married and who later earned a Master’s degree at the University of Washington, returned to San Francisco with some friends from U.W. to introduce them to the Abbot. Mostly American students of Chinese, many of them had taken courses in Buddhist philosophy as well, so this was their chance to meet a real Buddhist monk who, moreover, lectured on the Buddhist sutras. They all came to the temple and visited for a week or two, during which time, we had ceremonies, meditation and lectures.
In the summer of 1968, at the request of Ron and his friends, the Abbot began a lecture series on the
Shurangama Sutra. The hours were from six in the morning to nine in the evening each day, and Nick and I attended as well. At that point, Nick was working full time for Western Electric and could only attend after work from five to nine o’clock. I was taking notes so I could explain to him what happened the rest of the time.
The Abbot helps people very effectively but with a minimum of moralizing. As an example, here’s how he helped me stop smoking. I had smoked for about six years, and almost from the time I started, I tried to stop, but without success. Once, soon after moving to his building on Sutter Street, I had a lit cigarette in my hand when the Abbot passed through our hall. I quickly hid it behind my back like a guilty kid. Afterward, I wondered why I reacted so reflexively. He did have a strong presence, but at that time I didn’t know his views on smoking.
“Why was I so ashamed?” I thought.
Later, on one occcasion, the Abbot asked me with a strange tone to his voice,
“You like smo─king?” I said, “No, not really.” I wondered afterward─why was I doing something I didn’t like? Finally, after marrying Nick, I was making serious efforts to stop smoking. Once, a few hours after I had smoked my first cigarette in three weeks, I was at the temple on Waverly Place, standing at the front end of a long side hallway. The Abbot was at the back end, about twenty feet away. He said with that same sly tone,
“You been smo─king?” Of course, I said, “Yes,” with a certain degree of consternation.
We were attending lectures regularly. One day during a lecture the Abbot began an uncharacteristic discussion of the practice of smoking, stating that when so many people in the world were going hungry, spending so much on packs of cigarettes which one simply smoked for the sensation of it, was a real shame. He actually seemed to be aiming his comments at someone else, but the argument really hit my conscience, and I decided to stop smoking. (I still have a mental image of him saying that.) I had made the resolve, but I felt it would help if I told the Abbot. I told him I had decided I could quit until I was thirty (I was twenty-four, so that meant six years). His eyebrows went up and there was palpable pause. Then he said,
“Why not for your whole life?” He had timed his question perfectly. I said,
“You’re right! All right, I’ll stop for my whole life.” Before that when I saw or smelled cigarettes, I wanted to smoke. I would even have dreams about finding and smoking cigarettes. But from then on, even when I saw or smelled them I had no interest and I had no further tempting dreams.
We became Buddhists after about two years of attending lectures, meditation and ceremonies. We both had questions we needed to resolve and neither of us was inclined to be
“easy to convert.” What convinced us to follow the Abbot’s teaching and, through him, the Buddha’s teaching, was the example he had given us before our very eyes. Living in the same building for one and three years respectively, attending his lectures three or so times per week, and meditating in his hall, as well as spending all day every day for two months in his presence was enough to convince us that he was who he said he was.
Most of the time, he didn’t define himself, but we noticed that there were all the things he did not do─he didn’t smoke, he didn’t drink, he ate only vegetarian food. He was not greedy, he was not out for personal gain. He did not seem to be attracted to others of the opposite or the same sex. He tried to help those in need, but he recognized those who were not doing the right thing and was able to say thing that (usually) reached their consciousnesses. Sometimes people would get really scared of him for no apparent reason. These were usually people who were not doing the right things, or at least in their own minds were not doing the right things. Later, upon taking the precepts from him, we learned that indeed, following the precepts can help a great deal in one’s cultivation─without them, it can be like taking one step forward and then three steps back.
In the two years before the Shurangama Sutra Session, I attended lectures but I did not take notes, thinking that I wanted to listen and absorb the material, and taking notes would interfere with that. Once I noticed a visitor diligently taking notes, and I asked the reason after the lecture. He answered that although some of the material in the lecture was beyond his level of understanding at the moment, that in the future when he knew more it might be clearer. By that time, however, he would have forgotten this lecture. Therefore he wanted to take notes now so that in the future he might understand better. That seemed like a good idea, so I began trying to take notes.
Eventually during the spring before the Sutra session, I began taking notes more, but still it was a conflict for me. Nick suggested I ask the Abbot if it was a good idea to take notes. He said,
“Yes, and also you should write as small as possible.” Then I began taking notes in earnest as did Nick. Soon I discovered another benefit of notetaking. Listening to Chinese was difficult for me since I didn’t understand the language. When I was only listening to Chinese, sometimes I got sleepy. It helped to try to write down words and phrases of Chinese as I heard them. During the translation into English, I began to write very small and then I leave spaces where I couldn’t keep up. That enabled me to go back and try to fill in during the Chinese. In short, because of what the Abbot told me, I found myself not only awake most of the time, but also the owner of some readable and fairly complete notes since I had so much time to polish them.
That spring Nick suggested asking the Abbot to teach me Chinese. The Abbot asked me which kind I wanted to learn, regular spoken or written as in the Buddhist texts. I said,
“Written as in Buddhist texts” because spoken could be taught by anyone, but who would be better qualified than a Buddhist monk to teach from the Buddhist texts? He held lessons outside the temple on the landing where he had a blackboard. He wrote the characters on the blackboard, and we copied them. I remember Jan Vickers, Lonnie Bauer, Steve Mechling, and Gary Linebarger came as well as Nancy Lovett.
He wrote the characters before we came and only emerged to explain them after we had finished copying them. First he would say the sound of each character as he pointed to it. Once I asked how to spell the sound of a character. He said to spell it any way we wanted, just so we could read how to say it. In a way, the Abbot’s limited language was a help because the few words he did say really stuck. Also he had to use expression and motions to help him explain, and these were very impressive to the consciousness.
Once he told me that many people didn’t know how to cook properly and that rather than throw a bunch of chopped-up vegetables into a wok seething with oil, the correct way to cook them was in a pan with very little oil on relatively high heat for just a few minutes stirring constantly with a wooden spoon or chopsticks and adding some salt. Then to add a small amount of water, cover and turn the flame low until done. That is the way I cook to this day. He told me not to use a metal spoon in a metal pan or aluminum cooking pots as either one could lead to cancer. He said once that all food should be cooked, and I asked,
“Even fruit?” He said, “Yes.” I can also remember when he told me not to throw away celery leaves, that they were good for soup.
Once as I was serving some food during the session, I was feeling angry. As I set some food down near him, he noticed my anger and asked,
“You angry?” I said, “Not really, just mad at
myself.” He said, “In Buddhism you are not even
supposed to be angry at yourself.”
Then, after finishing the pronunciation of the passage, he would go back through and explain the meaning. I had decided to use brush and ink, as did some others. After seeing the initial attempts at brush-painting the characters he said,
“You should use a pencil until you really know the characters.” Eventually the Abbot gave calligraphy lessons. He would take a large piece of newsprint folded in many squares, and standing at the foot of the lecture tables, facing the altar area, he would write characters on it from the Sutras with a brush and ink. One time, he wrote the whole quotation backward and did it perfectly so that it looked as it would normally.
While living at the house, I decided to do some clean-up work in the garden, and began sweeping up leaves, raking, and so on. One of the disciples, a young woman with very strong feelings, got upset at my doing this, and said I was injuring all the small insects and ants. She felt I should stop immediatedly and not engage in such things. I felt torn between my desire for order and cleanliness and her accusations. I asked the Abbot about this dilemma. He said,
“I like a nice garden. It’s okay to sweep and rake,
just go slowly.”
The admonition to “go slowly” is one I have heard from him many times, and it is a good one. It can be applied to many things. As I’d be coming up the four flights of stairs to the temple (on Waverly) there was a small caged in area at the top of the stairs. Quite often he’d be there sitting. And as I reached the top of the stairs, he’d say,
“Slowly, slowly.” I always wondered why he said it twice like that─only later did I discover that in Chinese,
“Slow down” is man-man, the character for slow repeated.
Occasionally, he would ask someone (any of us at various times),
“What are you doing?” This would almost invariably come at a time when we were a bit off in some way. I also noticed that he would very pointedly and slowly ask children,
“What─are─you─do...ing?” but not in a very serious or mean way. It was a real conciousness-raiser.
Once when a large and important ceremony was to take place, there were many sitting clothes to make out of red, yellow and black material. I spent a lot of time including the last night before the ceremony making sitting cloths─copying one made from blue, red and black. On my sample, I noted that the black strip on one side was a bit wider than on the other side, so I decided that whoever had made it just hadn’t done a good job. I made sure that all of my sitting cloths had equally wide stripes of black on either side. I was quite proud of the result.
The next day, before the ceremony, while the large room was crowded with people, literally standing-room-only, the Abbot asked loudly,
“Who made all these sitting clothes?” Bursting with pride but not wishing to be boastful, I hesitated, then came closer and said I had made them. He then said,
“These are all wrong! The black strip should be wider on this side--look, you can’t fold them up properly!” This was very embarrassing and led me to always feel a bit uneasy about anything I do. It seems as if the minute one becomes too self-congratulatory, that’s the time to watch out. Also it made me aware of the value of double-checking rather than assuming someone else made a mistake.
After being married for more than ten years and having no children, I became discouraged. Then I thought maybe it was just as well not to have any. I decided to go and tell the Abbot about my realization. He assured me that it was a good idea to have children─and
at least two of them. He told me that if I wanted to
have children, I should recite “Namo Guanshiyin Pusa.” I did this, and before long was pregnant with our first son, Nicholas. The pregnancy went well, but we had not yet told the Abbot we were having a baby. Nevertheless, one night around the fifth month Nick woke me up at around 4 a.m. and recounted a dream in which he saw the Abbot dressed in his red and gold sash standing bathed in golden light while behind him there was a golden background which radiated different colors of golden light. He told Nick that we would have a healthy, intelligent baby boy.
Nick didn’t tell me until some time after Nicholas was born, but there was another part of the dream; that Nick should watch out for us since there would be some difficulty with the birth. Apparently one part of the baby’s body would be unusually large─so much so that some people might feel there was an abnormality─but not to worry because it was just a sign of greater intelligence. Nick was afraid this part would frighten me, so he kept it to himself. Because of difficulties in labor, Nicholas was born by caesarian section at Merrit Hospital in Oakland. The doctors were amazed at his very large head. He weighed nine pounds and four ounces, but was long and slim. Because of hospital regulations involved with his birth, we were unable to hold and comfort him for many hours, although he remained alert.
I was glad we had been reassured in the dream about Nicholas, because although his head remained very large for his size, it was never a worry for us. At six weeks he saw the Master at Gold Mountain Monastery for the first time, and was calm and alert enough for him to hold him. He named him Guo Ma (Fruit of Carnelian) at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas at two months of age because he was born in the year of the Horse (Ma).
About four years later, I became pregnant again with our second son, Christopher. Near the time of his birth, my doctor was concerned about the size of the baby. He warned me that there was the possibility of another caesarian section. Nick suggested asking the Abbot what to do to ensure a healthy and trouble-free birth. Master Hua
told us to recite “Namo Guanshiyin Pusa.” I asked, “When should we recite, before or during the birth?” He said,
“Before and during─as much as possible.”
We followed his advice. During labor, I could not recite well, so it helped me that Nick recited continuously. At a difficult time in my labor, I was reminded to recite, and I did. As I turned on my side, Christopher was suddenly being born without a problem. We bathed Christopher and were able to hold him and be with him from the start. He weighed ten pounds and was also a long slim baby with a large head. We were very happy that he didn’t have to go through the trauma of a difficult birth as had Nicholas, and he was a peaceful baby with very high coloring. We brought him to visit the Abbot at two weeks of age, who named him Guo Dan (Cinnabar) because of his red coloring.
Those are some of my experiences with the Venerable Master.