(Editor’s note: This article is excerpted from the thesis, titled “Discussion of Venerable Master Hsuan Hua’s Contributions to Buddhism,” written by Upasaka Youbing Chen of the Huafan Institute of Literary Skills, Department of Eastern Thought, Buddhist Studies Division.)
From l989 when I took refuge with the Venerable Master Hsuan Hua and all through these six subsequent years, it never in the least occurred to me that the Master would leave the Saha so soon. It would be hard to call it anything other than the scanty blessings of living beings.
The Master traveled thousands of miles to bring the Buddhadharma to America, with the hope of establishing rules governing the Sangha that were “in accord with Dharma.” For that reason sometimes the Master’s instructions seemed ruthless. Sometimes they were even impossible for people to accept, for they thought the Elder Master was only capable of criticizing others. Why did they never stop to realize how hard the Master was working to try to teach and transform obstinate living beings with inferior faculties? Or how behind his stern words and tough talk was hidden so much “blood and tears.” The Master said:
I’ve come here prepared to teach and transform Americans. My teaching is aimed at Americans, not the Chinese people. The Chinese are incidentally gathered in.
Were you to ask me to go up to the heavens,
that wouldn’t be hard, but teaching Americans is hard.
Were you to ask me to bore into the earth,
that wouldn’t be hard, but teaching Americans is hard.
Were you to ask a rooster to lay an egg,
that wouldn’t be hard, but teaching Americans is hard.
From that we can realize the Master’s determination to teach and transform Americans, even though it was going to be an extremely difficult task. However, the Master did it. He has a record of creating an American Sangha and of establishing Way-places that accord with Dharma and rules for governing the Sangha.
Those who knew the Venerable Master are aware that throughout his whole life he strictly upheld “taking only one meal at noon and not lying down at night,” and that he put into practice the Six Guiding Principles. Especially in the turmoil of the Dharma-ending Age, the Venerable Master was even more a sure sign of the Proper Dharma and a light for living beings. The Master did not fear the slander of demons; everywhere he went he advocated the Shurangama Sutra, proclaiming the Proper Dharma to destroy the deviant and manifest the proper. Although during the Dharma Ending Age there are a lot of cases of “mistaking fish eyes for pearls” even within Buddhism, still, the Master’s vow-power was decisive:
I am definitely going to revive the Proper Dharma. I will only allow Buddhism to have Proper Dharma and will not let there be any demise of the Dharma. Wherever I go, that place will have blessings and wisdom and there will be a diminishing of disasters. That is my vow. Because of that, ignoring the limits of my capabilities, I go everywhere speaking the Proper Dharma and practicing the Proper Dharma.
The Master painfully remarked:
When the Dharma becomes extinct, it is the Sangha itself
that becomes extinct.
Virtue in the Way should be cultivated, but people won’t cultivate it.
Those who are honest and sincere are ridiculed.
Those who are false and cunning receive praise and precedence.
The whole world is full of five turbidities; it’s rare to find any purity
Beings are made drunk by the three poisons and one knows not
when they’ll wake up
Earnestly remind the young Sanghans that the flourishing of
Buddhism depends on the Bhikshus.
In Buddhism there can’t be just 99 percent. If even one part of Buddhism is false, then it is no longer “Proper Dharma.” And so we must distinguish clearly, because in temples there are both “deviant dharmas and externalists”－and that’s no exaggeration. (The Shurangama Sutra said so long ago.) There are even the ones who “call themselves teachers and make themselves patriarchs,” whose transmissions are “tainted Buddhism,” secretly advertising their own private brand of “talismans and incantations, secret dharmas, and mudras.” The Master gave instruction about this early on:
You should recognize this Way-place－you should not fail to believe in it. Where there are Buddhas, there are also demons. That demon has come to make trouble in the Way-place. He’s come deliberately to create chaos.
There’s a saying in Buddhism: “I would rather not get rebirth for a thousand years than to enter the paths of demons for a single day.” This is especially applicable to Taiwan where religion is “flourishing extraordinarily”－you can find religious professionals who are “Great Masters, Superior Masters, Unsurpassed Masters, Contemporary Buddhas, Living Buddhas, and Honored Masters” everywhere you go. Those Masters who transmit their teachings put out “Thus Come One Buddha” advertisements and sell off the Thus Come One’s “family estate.” As to the likes of them, if we lack the wise vision found in the “Four Clear Instructions on Purity,” it’s to be feared we will never be able to get out of the clutches of those “Superior Masters,” but will become part of their retinue until finally we end up: Then both the disciples and the teacher get in trouble with the law and fall into the unintermittent hells. Once a disciple made this inquiry, “The Master often says: Truly recognize your own faults. Don’t discuss the faults of others. Others’ faults are just my own. To be one with everyone is called Great Compassion. And so why is the Master always openly criticizing others in the Buddhist journal, Vajra Bodhi Sea? Isn’t that a case of saying one thing and doing another?” The Master answered:
The one who will fall into the hells is me, not you. If what I say is true, then it’s not gossip; if it’s not true, then I will definitely fall into the hells. If someone says great cultivators are not subject to cause and effect, then the retribution for that is 500 lives as a fox. If I deny cause and effect－calling black white and white black, calling right wrong and wrong right－saying things that are not so, then I will go into the Hell of Pulling Tongues. If I haven’t spoken incorrectly, then I have no offense. Mencius said: “I don’t like to debate, but I have no choice...if the teachings of the Yang School and the Mo School aren’t put to rest, then the teachings of Confucius cannot prevail.” Why do I like to talk about what’s right and what’s wrong? It’s because in Buddhism there are entirely too many rights and wrongs! There’s the black teaching, the white teaching, the yellow teaching, the red teaching－they’ve become all kinds of different colors that confuse the eye. It’s gotten to the point that the blacks don’t know they are black and the whites don’t know they are white. And so I like to say things that others don’t dare to say. If any of you are offended, it doesn’t matter－I’m not concerned. I specialize in breaking through people’s deviant knowledge and deviant views.
From the above passage we can recognize the depth of the Master’s compassionate mind, which couldn’t bear to see living beings suffer. The so-called great kindness and compassion that borders on being harsh is actually an expedient used to teach and transform living beings. The Master once wrote a verse that clarifies his determination:
I am going to speak the truth
And I’m not afraid of being beaten or scolded.
Kill me, I have no fear.
What inhibitions are there in liberation?
The Master repeated his instructions about protecting and supporting the Proper Dharma many times:
In Buddhism all the sutras are very important, but the Shurangama Sutra is even more important. Wherever the Shurangama Sutra is, the Proper Dharma abides in the world. When the Shurangama Sutra is gone, that is a sign of the Dharma Ending Age. In the Extinction of the Dharma Sutra it says that in the Dharma Ending Age, the Shurangama Sutra will become extinct first. Then gradually the other sutras will also become extinct. The Shurangama Sutra is the true body of the Buddha; the sharira of the Buddha; the stupa of the Buddha. If the Shurangama Sutra is false, then I am willing to fall into the unintermittent hell, stay there forever, and never again come back to the world to see all of you.
Whoever can memorize the Shurangama Sutra, whoever can memorize the Shurangama Mantra, is a true disciple of the Buddha.
There’s no such thing as Proper, Image, or Ending Dharma ages; it’s the minds of beings that have the concept of Proper, Image, and Ending. The Master considers that any time people work hard at cultivation is a time when the Proper Dharma abides. If no one cultivates, if no one reads, recites, and memorizes the Shurangama Sutra, then that’s the Dharma Ending Age. That’s because the Shurangama Sutra’s “Four Clear Instructions on Purity” that discuss killing, stealing, lust, and lying and its “Fifty Skandha Demon-States” that expose the very bones of all the heavenly demons and externalists, both say flat out that when people don’t hold the precepts, then that’s the Dharma Ending Age; whenever there are precepts, there is Buddhadharma.
In l990, in a serious talk given at the Labor Hall in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, the Master said that the Dharma Ending Age results from the laity singling out individual left-home people to protect and support. What did he mean? The Master said:
Left-home people go off to live alone in their own temples and act like kings, like dictators, like emperors. The laity lack the “Dharma-selecting eye” and go about protecting here and protecting there until they protect people right into the hells. In the Proper Dharma Age, everyone lives together in large monastic complexes and cultivates together. In the Dharma Ending Age no one wants to live in large monastic complexes. It’s one person per temple. You have your way of doing things and I have mine. And this throws the laity into a real quandary. They see that a certain monk is good-looking and decide to support his Dharma, so they set him up with his own temple. Then they notice another monk who’s not bad and build a temple for him. Supporting this way and supporting that way, they cause the left-home people to get greedy for benefits to the point that they return to lay life.
I hope Buddhism will take these words to heart and not continue to “plug up its ears while stealing a bell”－cheating all of humankind. At present the signs of turmoil in Buddhism in Taiwan are alarmingly serious. But no one dares to stand up and shout. Everyone just stands by and watches while Buddhist followers race toward their demise. Three steps and a hermitage; five steps and a big temple－they run around having Dharma Assemblies, crossing over souls, anointing crowns, transmitting dharmas, and setting up temples. They never stop to realize that they should be propagating the teachings and explaining their meanings－instructing and guiding living beings in how to end birth and death. The fundamental intent of the Buddha’s teaching is education－to cause everyone to develop wisdom and the Dharma-selecting eye, so that they recognize cause and effect, cut off evil, and do good. The intent is not to focus on building monasteries and setting up temples. One wonders how much blood, sweat, and tears are hidden behind this stern instruction by the Master. As it’s said, such a one “only wants the light of the torch he’s holding to shine as far as possible; he’s never concerned about getting burned.” “Despite the odds, I will stick to my intentions.” This is the best description of the Master.
In the past, Buddhism in China always gave people the mistaken impression that it was a religion that specialized in crossing over dead souls and so the intelligentsia looked down on and tried to get rid of Buddhism. Two years prior to the Master’s Nirvana, he cried out in dispair:
Chinese Buddhism’s Water Lands, Flaming Mouths, and other ceremonies and their saving of souls have become the “status quo” in Chinese Buddhism. They never stop to think that if they keep it up, they are going to be doing nothing but handing out free meals to unemployed vagrants under the guise of Buddhism. What a terrible shame! All they know how to do is make money saving souls! Actually, in order to save souls, you must have a foundation in virtuous conduct. Then, not to speak of reciting mantras or reciting sutras, the single sentence “you can go to rebirth” is sufficient for a soul to be able to gain rebirth in the Land of Ultimate Bliss. For those of you who lack any virtue in the Way, who don’t have any cultivation, I ask you, what’s your basis for being able to save souls? What you are actually doing is running up a debt with the donor. Besides that, you are destroying the basic system of Buddhism.
Right! It’s a real shame that they don’t open up the Tripitaka [Buddhist Canon] with its Twelve Divisions－a precious treasury of infinite wisdom－and learn to teach from it instead of applying all their effort to superfluous things.
Among Asian Buddhists who have taken refuge there is a popular misconception. Everyone thinks that the more teachers you take refuge with, the better. This is a sign of the Dharma Ending Age. By taking refuge with this one and then taking refuge with that one, they cause contention among the Dharma Masters, who quarrel with each other over who has the Dharma affinities and who gets the disciples. But the Master always asked those who had already taken refuge not to sign up to take refuge again－that they could just follow along and rejoice from the sidelines. The Master said:
Some people say, “The Youth Good Wealth visited fifty-three teachers; why can’t I bow to a few more teachers?” But you need to realize that the Youth Good Wealth was always sent on by his previous teacher to the next teacher. It wasn’t that he greedily longed for another Dharma Master endowed with virtuous conduct and so turned his back on his current teacher and stole away to take refuge with another. A lot of older Chinese Buddhist disciples have taken refuge tens or hundreds of times. But when you ask them what “taking refuge” means, they don’t know. Isn’t that pathetic? They say that all left-home people are their teachers. But I say they don’t have any teacher at all because their minds lack faith, so how can they be saved?
Actually when it comes to the question of red envelopes, all along the Master was very opposed to the custom. That’s because there’s an element of cheating in it. No one knows how much money is in those red envelopes. For Buddhist disciples in Asia, taking refuge and red envelopes amount to the same thing. That being the case, people who can’t come up with red envelopes and those of externalist ways don’t dare believe in the Buddha and take refuge. The Master said:
In the Avatamsaka Sutra, the Youth Good Wealth holds a very important position and yet he has had a very complicated influence on Chinese Buddhism. Most Dharma Masters know very well that for one person to take refuge with lots of different teachers is incorrect. It is not in accord with the Buddhadharma. But if they don’t let it happen, their “tokens” (the red envelopes) will diminish significantly. And so to this day no one openly opposes this custom. Knowing full well it is wrong, they still do it. Complicated, huh? Why? First, it’s for the sake of the “youths” (the laity that get pulled in) and second it’s for the sake of “Good Wealth” (one’s share of red envelopes). This is the worst habit going in Buddhism.
The Master’s true knowledge and brilliant views are decisively different from those of the multitudes. How much compassion there is behind the Master’s lion’s roar that he emits because he “cannot bear to watch the sagely teachings decline”! A lot of “star teachers” in Taiwan, being put on pedestals by their disciples, forget all about their responsibility to “carry on the Thus Come One’s work of saving living beings.” Every day they wallow in their intoxication with fame and profit and neglect the great matter of birth and death. Actually when disciples of the Triple Jewel encounter left-home teachers, they should inquire about the Buddhadharma, not just be intent upon giving them red envelopes. That’s why the Master encouraged his disciples to hold the precept against possessing money as much as possible; to avoid “tying up conditions” with money as much as possible. The Master said:
That’s because left-home people can cultivate if they don’t have money. As soon as they have money, then they certainly won’t be able to cultivate. I can guarantee it. Look into it! Investigate it. Taoists are referred to as “poor Taoists.” Sanghans are referred to as “poor Sanghans.” Nobody talks about “rich Sanghas” or “rich Taoists.” And so when you use your money to make offerings to “rich Sanghas” and “rich Taoists,” it’s the same as if you were committing offenses. I’m going to offend a lot of people by saying this. But although I am offending you, I still have to tell the truth.
Everyone knows that “wearing the precept sash and eating one meal a day” are the tradition of the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. The Master specifically announced that anyone who left home with him had to honor the Buddha’s regulations of eating one meal a day at noon and always wearing the precept sash. And so no matter how must the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas came under criticism by those outside－even when people slandered the City as doing new and strange things to show off, the Master would never, ever change his policy because of that. Regarding the barrage of slander, the Master merely said: “This is not some rule I made up. This is the Buddha’s reguation. We want to honor the Buddha’s regulations.” But the Master was expedient with the older left-home people and allowed them to take three meals a day. This rule remained right up to the final instructions given by the Master just before his Nirvana－it never changed. The Master himself said:
If people who want to leave home with me can eat one meal a day, then I will accept them. If they cannot eat one meal a day, I will not accept them. This is a fixed requirement for anyone who leaves home with me. In spite of any pressures whatsoever regarding the times and circumstances, this cannot be changed.
I’m prepared to die, if you want, but I refuse not to wear my precept sash. I’m prepared to die, if you want, but I refuse not to eat only once a day at noon. Those who have that kind of strong samadhi-power－that kind of faith－rightfully belong at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas.
Some people look at it this way: “This is not the time of the Buddha and we are not in India now; what is more Chinese people are not Indians, and so, since the precepts were created for the times, the locations and the people, then they are precepts only applicable to the people of India and are not appropriate for the people of China.” Actually that is incorrect because the precepts are one of the three non-outflow studies of precepts, samadhi, and wisdom in Buddhism, all of which were explained by Shakyamuni Buddha himself. If “precepts” are not appropriate to the people of China, then does that mean that “samadhi and wisdom” are also not appropriate to the people of China? Ridiculous!
The Master sternly insisted that those who left-home under him absolutely must wear the sash at all times－the precept sash must never leave their bodies. The Master said,
For left-home people not to wear their precept sashes is the same as going back to lay-life. You are no different from ordinary people. It’s not that wearing the long robe that fastens on the side proves that you are a left-home person. Not to speak of just wearing the long robe－even when you wear your precept sash－all you do every day is violate the precepts and be dishonest, how much the more so when you don’t wear your sash!
Chinese left-home people of today, even the left-home people of other countries as well－the majority of Great Vehicle Buddhists`do not wear their precept sashes. They think that’s the status quo－the way things are supposed to be. What they don’t realize is that as soon as they don’t wear their precept sashes, they lose the appearance of Bhikshus.
The Master decisively thinks that left-home people absolutely must wear their precept sashes, otherwise they don’t have the semblance of being Bhikshus. Besides, wearing the sash is the trademark of Buddhist disciples. The Buddha himself had three robes (sashes) , a bowl, and a sitting cloth, and his robe (sash) never left his body. This was mentioned in the Compilation of Dharanis Sutra where it says: “The Buddha’s body was the color of true gold and he was wearing a saffron kashaya.” Also the Essentials Regarding Recitation Sutra says: “The Buddha’s body, like azure, is endowed with thirty-two hallmarks and eighty subtle characteristics. He is wearing a saffron kashaya and is seated in full lotus posture.” We can see that the Master is not unreasonable in advocating wearing the precept sash.
The Sutras which the Master lectured during his life are generally listed here: Avatamsaka Sutra, Dharma Flower Sutra, Shurangama Sutra－more than thirty different ones. Also among the Chinese classics he lectured: The Four Books, the Book of Changes, and the Nature of Chinese Medicine. Among all these are three that are quite unusual－very few people have ever explained them. They are: Verses and Commentary on the Shurangama Mantra, Reflections in Water and Mirrors Turning Back the Tide of Destiny, and modern-language explanations of the Biographies of the Buddhist Patriarchs.
The Master’ lecture series on Verses and Commentary on the Shurangama Mantra lasted for eight years, from l979 to l987. Throughout all of Buddhist history this mantra has rarely been explained. Only Great Master Xu Fa of the Qing dynasty and Dharma Master Bo Ting of Compassionate Cloud Monastery in Wulin ever explained it. When the Master came in possession of a copy of the Commentary on the Shurangama Mantra in l949, he records:
I obtained what I’d never had before. I got a glimpse of the state of the esoteric, carrying it always with me and never being apart from it.
He also said
For the Proper Dharma to remain long in the world, and to stop the deviant discourses once and for all, everyone should carry a copy, and we should enter the ultimately firm great samadhi together.
Later, after the Master came to America, he himself explained the Shurangama Mantra, writing verses of seven-character lines to explain each of the 554 lines and further giving a modern-language commentary. Truly this masterpiece is unprecedented. It is exceptionally valuable. The Master said:
The four-line verses used to explain every line of the mantra don’t by any means exhaust the meaning, because the wonderful meanings in the mantra are infinite and endless. These four-line verses are a mere mention of the broad idea－just tendering a bit of brick, hoping someone will come up with jade. These four-line verse appear to be very simple, but they flow out from my heart. You could say they are my blood and sweat. They certainly aren’t plagiarized－copied from someone else’s work!.....
I’m explaining the Shurangama Mantra for you now, and thoroughout hundreds of thousands of eons, no one even explains it once. Also, it’s not easy to explain in its entirety. When I’m explaining it, I know that none of you really understand what I’m saying. Even if there are those who think they do, they don’t really. But perhaps ten years from now, or a hundred, or a thousand years from now, someone will read this simple explanation and gain a profound understanding of the mantra.
Reflections in Water and Mirrors Turning Back the Tide of Destiny is a series of essays composed and explained by the Master during the four-year period from 1985 to 1989. It includes praises and objective critiques of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Arhats, lofty Sanghans of great virtue, Buddhist lay persons, men and women of great virtue throughout history both in and outside of China, remarkable individuals, national leaders, literati, and so on. Just as Confucius compiled the Spring and Autumn Annals, the Master wrote Water and Mirrors out of his patriotic loyalty and his wish to save the world from impending chaos and turmoil. We could alter Confucius’ quote to fit the Master: “If people understand me, it is because of Water and Mirrors; if people blame me, it is also because of Water and Mirrors.” Water and Mirrors carries on the spirit and intent of Spring and Autumn Annals, and is a living record of causes and effects as they occur in the world today. After giving a brief biographical sketch of each person, the Master praises or critiques him or her with a four-line verse of eight characters per line, and then gives another verse of seven-character lines in conclusion. This book is worth repeated reading and reflection, for it teaches us about cause and effect. Studying the past, we can know the future and be warned to stop evil and cultivate goodness.
The Master gave modern-language explanations of the Biographies of the Buddhist Patriarchs from 1972 to 1985. During those thirteen years, the Master delivered a total of 346 lectures on the topic. The book begins with Shakyamuni Buddha holding up a flower and smiling, transmitting the Dharma to the Venerable Kashyapa. The Dharma was then transmitted to the Second Patriarch Venerable Ananda, the Third Patriarch Venerable Upali, and so on, all the way to Great Master Bodhidharma, the Twenty-eight Patriarch, who brought the Dharma of Chan to China and become the First Patriarch in China. After the time of the Thirty-third Patriarch (the Sixth Chinese Patriarch) Great Master Huineng, Buddhism divided into five sects, which later became seven sects: Fayan, Caodong, Yunmen, Weiyang, Linji, Huanglong, and Yangqi. With the addition of the Niutou branch; the Indian and Chinese Sanghans who certified to sagehood; the patriarchs of the Tiantai, Huayan, Cien, Yogacharya, Vinaya, and Lotus Society Sects; and ten contemporary eminent Sanghans [Dharma Masters Hsu Yun, Ci Zhou, Hong Yi, Tai Xu, Di Xian, Yuan Ying, Ci Hang, Tan Xu, Chang Ren, and Guang Qin], the book covers 338 people in all. The Master wrote an eight line verse (seven characters per line) in praise of each one. And for all the individuals from Great Master Yongmingshou, the Sixth Patriarch of the Lotus Sect, to the last one, Venerable Master Guang Qin, the Master wrote an additional eight line verse (four characters per line) of praise for each. With his lectures and verses, the Master provided a detailed explanation of each patriarch. The original text, in classical Chinese, devoid of punctuation, and couched in the abstruse jargon of the Chan School which is used to describe states of awakening, was extremely difficult to understand. Unable to fathom the profound states of the great cultivators of the past, one could only say they were “ineffable” or make the comment that “Only the person who drinks the water will know how hot or cold it is.”
Actually there was a compelling reason for the Venerable Master to lecture on the Biographies of the Buddhist Patriarchs. The book was mailed to the Master in 1958 by the Venerable Elder Master Hsu Yun, who wrote in a letter,
I am sending a copy of the recently published book of prints of the Buddhist Patriarchs for you to read and keep as a remembrance. I hope that you will benefit yourself and benefit others in your work for Buddhism and that you will take care.
On the ninth of the fourth month, 1956, the Venerable Yun sent a letter to the Master making him the ninth patriarch of the Weiyang Sect. Part of the letter states:
...You, Venerable One, have concern for the preservation of the Dharma and for the continuation of the wisdom life of the Buddhas and Patriarchs. I am sending you the Source, the inheritance of the Patriarchs’ pulse. It is my sincere hope that, entrusted to you, the Patriarchs’ Way will prosper. This letter has been brief because there is no way to express all there is to say.
And so the Master followed the Elder Master’s instructions, giving modern-language explanations of the Biographies of the Buddhist Patriarchs and benefiting living beings with this Dharma. This was an unprecedented contribution. Thus, I have considered these three works to be the Master’s “three treasures.” Only those with blessings have the opportunity to read such precious Dharma treasures.
Surveying the prolific verses that the Master wrote in his life, I estimate that there must be at least two thousand, each and every one of them matched and rhymed. How can we not admire the Master’s profound Prajna wisdom? To explain the Shurangama Mantra in verses is an unprecedented achievement. How could he have done this if he had not entered the esoteric realm of the Great Shurangama Samadhi? Moreover, the Master’s explanations of the Biographies of the Buddhist Patriarchs sometimes went beyond the documented historical records, making us suspect that he really did have the power of knowing past lives.
The Master vowed,
As long as I have a breath left, I will expound the Sutras and speak the Dharma.
That is why he composed so prolifically. His vow to translate the Buddhist canon into the languages of the world will generate infinite and boundless merit and virtue. The Dharma Realm Buddhist Association has already published over a hundred volumes of translations of Sutras and Dharma talks. After the Master’s passing, the work of canonical translation will continue without interruption, eternally leading living beings from darkness into the light, from this shore of suffering to the other shore of ultimate Nirvana.
If we survey the Master’s teachings and conduct, we find that they carry the flavor of Lao Zi’s philosophy. In his verse on Venerable Maha¬kashyapa in Water and Mirrors, the Master says,
Transforming himself, he appeared as Lao Zi and wandered
Guiding those with affinities to ascend to the other shore.
Clearly the Master considered Lao Zi a transformation body of Venerable Mahakashyapa. Lao Zi’s one and only 5000-word composition became widely popular among the people and cultivators of China. Many of the Master’s words and deeds bear a striking resemblance to those of Lao Zi. For example, Lao Zi said:
Straightforward words seem paradoxical.
Truthful words are not beautiful; beautiful words are not true.
Turning back is how the Way moves;
Yielding is the means the Way employs.
The Master often used contrary teachings to stimulate people. For example, when someone asked whether it would be permissible to kill small insects in the household, the Master replied,
If you want to kill little insects, you must kill me first!
How compassionate the Master was! The Master always taught living beings the Six Guiding Principles (equivalent to the five precepts): no fighting, no greed, no seeking, no selfishness, no pursuit of personal benefit, and no lying. Many people were unconvinced, wondering why the Master bothered to lecture on principles that any three-year-old could understand. Yet the Master said over and over,
Everything I have accomplished in this life came from practicing the Six Guiding Principles. If any of you want to cultivate the path to Buddhahood, you also must practice the Six Guiding Principles.
Lao Zi himself also said:
My words are very easy to understand and very easy to put into practice, yet no one in the world can understand them or put them into practice.
The great Way is easy, yet people prefer by-paths.
Cultivation is basically a very simple affair. “The Way is near; don’t seek it afar.” Yet people like to take shortcuts, to visit various teachers in search of “secret dharmas” to cultivate. “Indeed, it is long since the people were perplexed.” Little do they know that the secret is within them: if they can stop pursuing material pleasures, let go of discriminations and attachments, and refrain from anger and lying, then that’s the “secret dharma” and the Way right there! Having awakened to the Six Guiding Principles after a lifetime of bitter cultivation, the Master fervently wished to offer them to the world for the benefit of living beings. Yet people paid no attention to them, and even snorted and laughed at them. It is exactly as Lao Zi said:
When the best student hears about the Way,
He practises it assiduously;
When the average student hears about the Way,
It seems to him one moment there and gone the next;
When the worst student hears about the Way
He laughs out loud.
If he did not laugh,
It would be unworthy of being the Way.
The Master’s lifelong philosophy of noncontention is the same as Lao Zi’s. People who truly do not contend have no anger. They forgive people whenever it is possible to forgive them. The Master wrote these verses:
Fighting involves the thought of winning and losing
And so it goes against the Way.
Giving rise to the mind of the four marks,
How can you obtain samadhi?
All things easily come and go,
But a bad temper’s truly hard to change.
If you can really never get angry,
Then you’ve found a precious jewel.
When you stop putting the blame on others,
Then everything goes your way.
If you never let your mind get afflicted,
Then the karma born of hatred won’t return to trouble you.
But whoever dwells on others’ faults
Simply proves that his own suffering hasn’t reached an end.
Aside from the Six Guiding Principles, the Master gave us two other verses that are worth remembering and practicing for the rest of our lives:
Truly recognize your own faults,
Don’t discuss the faults of others.
Others’ faults are just my own.
Being one with everyone is great compassion.
Everything’s a test
To see what you will do.
If you don’t recognize what’s before you,
You’ll have to start anew.
In the Analects and the Mencius, we can read the teachings of sages: “If you fail in your endeavor, look for the reason in yourself.” The Master also taught people to seek within themselves, and his teachings sometimes caught them off guard. For example, on February 10, 1993, the Master appeared wearing a veil over his face at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas because his disciples had broken the rules of eating only one meal a day and always wearing the sash. He said,
Even before I went to Taiwan, I knew that all the principles I had laid down since the founding of the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas were completely gone, no longer being followed. That’s why I am terribly disappointed and feel I have no face with which to see you...I have to wear a veil so that I will not see you with my naked face.
That was the first time in Buddhist history that a teacher had veiled his face before his disciples in order to hide his shame. Actually, we who broke the precepts are the ones who should have veiled our faces, not the Master. In the spring of 1992, the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas held an unprecedented Unrestrained Repentance Assembly (for details see issues 261-265 of Vajra Bodhi Sea), during which the Master said:
I gave myself several painful beatings until I nearly fainted, because due to my lack of virtue, the disciples I taught turned out to be like this.
If your repentance is sincere, then no matter what mistakes you have made, I can be responsible for them. But if you refuse to tell the truth and you want to fall to the hells faster, then I have no way to save you.
I know of no other teacher who beats himself when his disciples are disobedient. It really shakes me up and makes me feel bad. The Master’s actual practice of the philosophy that “Others’ faults are just my own; / To be one with everyone is great compassion” is very obvious. It is just as Chapter Twenty-five of the Flower Adornment Sutra says:
I should undergo every suffering for the sake of all living beings, enabling them to escape the great pit of limitless births and deaths. I should, for the sake of all living beings in all of the evil destinies in all worlds, undergo all sufferings to the end of time... I wish to undergo the sufferings of such living beings myself so that they do not have to fall into the hells. When they are in the hells, the animal realm, King Yama’s court, or other dangerous places, I shall give up my own body to ransom them and enable them to gain liberation from the evil paths.
Confucius said in the Analects: “He who makes liberal demands upon himself and small demands on others, will keep resentment far from himself.” (Chapter Fifteen “Weilinggong”) King Tang of the Shang dynasty made a sacrifice and appealed to heaven, saying, “If I have offenses, the people are not to blame. If the people have offenses, the blame rests with me.” The words, deeds, and teachings of the sages are all the same. The only way to influence others is to set an example for them and subdue oneself. The Master once wrote a verse:
With vast, proper energy suffusing the universe,
Achieve greatness and transform it, learning from the sages.
When you fail, look within yourself.
Turn the light around and illumine within; don’t exploit situations.
Act like an old fool; don’t be too clever.
Diligently sweep the dust from the mind, get rid of selfish treachery.
If you can constantly urge yourself on in this way,
The Buddhadharma will soon fill the trichiliocosm.
Finally, let’s discuss the Master’s philosophy of kowtowing. The Master once remarked that the secret of his lifelong cultivation consisted of kowtowing to others and taking losses. The Master often exhorted new disciples who had just taken refuge with him:
If someone scolds me, you should bow to him. No matter who slanders me, never speak in my defense.
In America the Master often bowed to his disciples. Whenever he bowed to disobedient disciples, they became obedient. In the early days in America, one evening when the Master was lecturing on a Sutra at Wonderful Words Hall in the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, none of his left-home disciples would go up on stage and speak. After the lecture, when everyone was leaving Wonderful Words Hall to return to the Buddha hall, the Master knelt by the door and watched as the entire assembly walked out. His stern self-castigation was a wordless teaching to all. It was truly an example of Space Age cultivation. The fact that he could kowtow to his disciples proves that he had realized the state of egolessness. When the Master invited other Dharma Masters to lecture at the City, he personally led the assembly in kneeling to listen to the lecture. He certainly was not arrogant as some people have described him.
Many contemporary Buddhist scholars only know to bow to the Buddha outside; they do not know to bow to the Buddha in their own mind. Nor do they know to admit their mistakes before their parents and all living beings. Thus their practice is not complete. We should learn to bow and repent daily before our parents and all living beings. We should constantly seek within ourselves, reflect upon ourselves, and listen to our own nature. Seeing worthy ones, we should strive to emulate them. Seeing unworthy ones, we should examine our own faults.
The ultimate goal of studying Buddhism is to put an end to birth and death. There is an ancient saying:
If love is not cut off, one cannot be born in the Land of Ultimate Bliss.
If one’s offenses weren’t grave, one would not have been born
in the Saha world.
If we do not eliminate emotional desires, there is no way we can end birth and death. The Shurangama Sutra says: “If you don’t renounce your lustful thoughts, you will not be able to get out of the dust.” “If living beings in the six paths of any mundane world had no thoughts of lust, they would not have to follow a continual succession of births and deaths.” Lustful desire is the fundamental root of birth and death. That’s why the Master always spoke out against sexual misconduct and lustful desire. Even up to the year before he entered the stillness, he continued to repeat:
People are born because of lust and die because of lust. That’s all
there is to it.
The Master said the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas is very old-fashioned in that boys and girls study in separate schools. The purpose of this is to encourage everyone to follow the rules and not engage in sexual misconduct, not have abortions, and not take birth control pills; lust is the primary reason the world has gone bad. The Master said:
Boys should wait until after they are twenty-five to look for a girlfriend; girls should wait until after they are twenty to look for a boyfriend.
If you cannot cut off love and desire, then even if you are a monk or nun for eighty thousand great eons, you are merely wasting your time in Buddhism and creating karma with every meal you take.
Today’s newspapers are filled with reports of murder, robbery, lust, and fraud, with the incidences of murder and lust being especially high. The Master said:
In terms of cause and effect, sexual misconduct is the gravest offense, and those who engage in it are punished very severely. According to the law of cause and effect, however many times a person commits adultery, after death he or she will be sawed from head to foot that many times by a huge saw. If they were married a hundred times in life, they will be divided into a hundred parts after death.
Great Master Yinguang spoke very sternly with regard to sexual misconduct:
Those who engage in sexual misconduct have no shame or modesty and are filthy and evil to the extreme. Although they have human bodies, they conduct themselves like animals and become animals in this very life. In their next life they will be reborn as animals... Those who engage in sexual misconduct will have children who do not preserve chastity... Those who engage in masturbation, even if they engage in no other form of sexual misconduct, will fall into the great hells. After leaving the hells, they will be reborn as female pigs or female dogs. If they are born among humans, they will be prostitutes...
Some people may wonder if the patriarchs’ instructions are blowing things out of proportion or going to far to the other extreme in trying to correct the trend. Actually, living beings in the Dharma-ending Age have committed so much evil that if they didn’t “go too far,” they wouldn’t be able to correct the trend. The patriarchs have their reasons for giving such instructions, and we need not entertain doubts or speculations. As Lao Zi said, “Straightforward words seem paradoxical.”
In the numerous question-answer exchanges between the Master and those in the audience, the Master’s unexpected answers often caught people off guard and filled them with the joy of Dharma, evoking cheers and rounds of applause. His humorous answers, fraught with hidden Chan meanings, always hit right on the mark and pointed straight at the mind. Let us quote a passage from Chapter Eight “Sudden and Gradual” of the Sixth Patriarch Sutra to shed light on the Master’s Prajna humor:
Those who see their own nature can establish dharmas in their minds or not establish them as they choose. They come and go freely, without impediments or obstacles. They function correctly and speak appropriately, seeing all transformation bodies as integral with the self-nature. That is precisely the way they obtain independence, spiritual powers, and the samadhi of playfulness. This is what is called seeing the nature.
The meaning of this passage is that people of genuine enlightenment who have understood the mind and seen the nature can establish methods or not establish them. They come and go without obstruction. They have freedom over life and death. If someone asks them a question, they can answer without thinking, but their answers have principle. They don’t speak recklessly. They see transformation bodies everywhere, but these transformation bodies are within the self-nature. At all times they contemplate with independence and have the five eyes and six spiritual powers. People who have seen their nature can answer spontaneously without fear of answering wrong and misleading others. Below are some of the Master’s answers to questions asked by the audience:
If no one has blessed (“opened the light on”) a Buddha image, can we bow to it?
Answer: If your mind is free of attachments, the Buddha image is always blessed. If your mind is attached, then even if it is blessed, it just the same as if it hadn’t been blessed.
How can we avoid an earthquake?
Answer: If no one gets angry, there won’t be any earthquakes.
How can I end birth and death?
Answer: Eat, dress, and sleep.
What Sutra or mantra should we recite that will make it easiest to become a Buddha?
Answer: Recite the Sutra of not getting angry, the Sutra of not scolding others, and the Sutra of not losing your temper. With these three Sutras, you’ll become a Buddha real soon!
How can we cut off lust?
Answer: Don’t think about it, and you will have cut it off! If you keep thinking about it, how can you cut it off? Be aware of each thought as soon as it arises; once you are aware of it, it goes away.
Dharma Master, where will you go after you enter perfect stillness?
Answer: Nowhere at all!
How can we break through attachments and random thoughts?
Answer: Who gave you attachments? Who gave you random thoughts?
How can we “produce the thought which is nowhere supported”?
Answer: Where is your mind? First tell me that.
Ultimately, is it people who fear ghosts or ghosts who fear people?
Answer: If you have ghosts in your mind, then people fear ghosts. If there are no ghosts in your mind, then ghosts fear people.
How can we secure rebirth?
Answer: Why do you want to be reborn? How can you make it when you’re dragging so much junk around?
Someone once said to the Master, “It makes me feel so bad to see the Master using a walking cane and taking on so much karma for living beings. I hope the Master will be compassionate and live a long time.” The Venerable Master immediately flung his cane aside, evoking a round of applause, and asked, “Do you feel better now?” This was the Master’s wonderful Prajna of being able to “leave all appearances while in the midst of appearances.” Don’t you find this thought-provoking? Throughout his entire life, the Master emphasized “not getting angry” and “being patient with insult,” because “The Buddhadharma is here in the world; / Enlightenment is not apart from the world. / To search for Bodhi apart from the world / Is like looking for a hare with horns.” The Master said: “If a person can refrain from losing his temper, all his karmic obstacles will be cancelled at once.” It is interesting to note two famous mantras that the Master composed:
Patience, patience, gotta have patience.
Don’t get angry, suo po he!
Purge the fire in your liver,
And you’ll be free from all illness.
What a shame this wonderful elixir
Gets stored away and forgotten altogether!
Suo po he.
If we read the Master’s talks and answers to questions with careful attention, they will easily activate the wisdom inherent in our natures. As it is said, “General summaries and detailed explanations all express truth in the primary sense.” As the Master often said,
You don’t have to believe in me or believe in the Buddha. Believe in your own inherent wisdom. Discover the Prajna in your own nature. Then you’ll attain Dharma-selecting Vision. You’ll know to advance upon the Way and to retreat from what is not the Way. Don’t wear your hat like a shoe.
The five eyes and six spiritual powers discussed in Buddhism are merely manifestations of Prajna that occur as we cultivate towards the goal of attaining freedom from outflows and becoming enlightened. They are not to be regarded as extraordinary. In order to avoid falling into deviant paths, we should uphold the precepts purely and keep our minds free from greed and defilement. Actually, spiritual powers are merely powers inherent in our own natures. Everyone is endowed with the Buddha nature, and so everyone possesses the five eyes and six spiritual powers. It is just that they have been covered by our ignorance and afflictions. The Buddha warned people not to casually reveal their spiritual powers, but he didn’t absolutely forbid it. If a Bodhisattva has spiritual powers but does not use them expediently to teach living beings, then what’s the use of having them? The chapter “The Merit and Virtue of Bringing forth the Mind” in the Flower Adornment Sutra says, “Dwelling in the ultimate path of the One Vehicle, deeply entering the wondrous and supreme Dharma, knowing well when living beings are ready and when they are not, he manifests spiritual powers in order to benefit them.”
Many people mistakenly view the Master as someone who showed off his spiritual powers. Yet, going through the Master’s instructional talks and taped lectures, I have yet to find an instance in which the Master acknowledged that he had spiritual powers. The Master said:
I’m telling you the truth: I don’t have spiritual powers; I don’t even have ghostly powers. I hope people will not exaggerate the facts and stretch the truth.
If you knew the Master only as someone who had spiritual powers, it’s a great pity, for you were not truly his disciple. I knew the Master not as someone who possessed the five eyes and six spiritual powers, but as an elder who was truly compassionate and selfless. I knew him as a teacher who painfully hit himself with his own cane, who begged for and confiscated people’s bad tempers, who fasted for world peace, who traveled everywhere speaking Dharma even when confined to a wheelchair, and who prostrated himself to living beings every day. He was someone who spared no blood or sweat and never paused to rest as he practiced the Bodhisattva Way.
If a Buddhist knows only whether his teacher has special powers but does not understand his teacher’s attitude and compassion in teaching beings, he has confounded what is important with what is trivial; he is not a true Buddhist disciple.
The Master spoke of how he came alone from Asia to America, a land where Buddhism was virtually unknown, with the sole purpose of bringing the Orthodox Dharma to the West. The City of Ten Thousand Buddhas has now become the most important Buddhist monastic complex in the West, and there are various branch monasteries as well. Leading his disciples at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas and other places, the Master tread the long, hard road with steady and determined footsteps, working to propagate the Proper Dharma and to unite all religions. The Master vowed that all living beings had to become Buddhas before he would do so; he wanted to help all living beings to escape suffering and attain bliss, and to discover true wisdom, comfort, and liberation. The Master said:
I am a little ant that wishes to walk beneath the feet of all Buddhists; I am a road that all living beings can traverse from the state of ordinary people to Buddhahood.
If any disciple of mine falls into the hells, I am willing to stand in for them. May anyone who sees me, hears my voice, or even hears my name quickly attain Buddhahood. I’m willing to wait in the Saha world until all of you have attained Buddhahood.
The Master’s lifelong contributions to Buddhism are as vast as space itself. How could this article completely describe them? He left us countless treasures of Dharma. From today onwards, in order to repay the Master’s efforts, we should increase our vigor and follow the six guiding principles in our practice. We hope the Master will soon return, based upon his vows, to cross over living beings.