◎ Magdalena Tam
I was born and grew up in Hong Kong and received a British-style education. When I was in fifth grade, because my father took refuge with Venerable Master To Lun, I came to know Buddhism and later took refuge with the Master as well. When I graduated from high school, I applied to go to Australia to attend college, and my application was approved. My father, however, wished for me to come to America. When I sought the Venerable Master’s advice, he said,
“It’s better if you go to America. It will be very beautiful! [In Chinese,
‘America’ is literally ’beautiful country.’] If you go to Australia, you will regret it! [In Chinese, one of the characters for
‘Australia’ sounds like the word ‘regret.’]” Hence I applied to study in America, and unexpectedly received approval within two months’ time.
My elder sister (Stella Tam) came to the United States to study a few years earlier than I did. She often wrote letters to the Master and mentioned that there were only Taoist temples, no Buddhist temples, in America. And so before I flew to America in January of 1958, the Master instructed me,
“You and your sister should do a good job of bringing the
Buddhadharma to America.”
When I arrived in America, I found a basement on Pacific Street [in San Francisco’s Chinatown] where a Buddhist temple could be set up. After we asked the Venerable Master, we established the Buddhist Lecture Hall in 1958 (the Master had a Buddhist Lecture Hall in Hong Kong). The name we registered under was
“Buddhist Lecture Hall”； both the Chinese and English names were identical with those used in Hong Kong.
Every weekend, there would be various Buddhist events: Sutra lectures, instructional talks, and sessions for reciting the Buddha’s name. In the beginning, I gave most of the lectures on the Sutras. Some professors and overseas Chinese were also invited to give Dharma talks. Most of those who attended these events were immigrants from four counties of Guangdong Province.
We didn’t make a special point of introducing the Venerable Master to the assembly. Yet when these overseas Chinese observed us leading Buddhist ceremonies and heard our explanations of the Buddhadharma, they knew we had had training back in Hong Kong. The older generation of overseas Chinese also knew my father, and they thought that if my father had taken refuge with such a young Dharma Master, that Dharma Master must be quite special. Furthermore, since it was not easy for students, especially girls, to come to America to study in those days, they regarded my sister and me with great respect.
Because my sister and I were attending college, we could only come to the Buddhist Lecture Hall on the weekends, so the key to the Lecture Hall was given to the more devoted laypeople to keep. All the members had to pay a monthly fee to help pay the rent and the gas, electricity, and water bills. However, no one was forced to pay against their will.
More and more laypeople began coming to the Buddhist Lecture Hall. They all knew that my sister and I had taken refuge with the Venerable Master, and some of them also wished to take refuge with the Master. We told the Master, who wrote back telling us on which day and at what time we should hold the refuge ceremony, and what each person’s Dharma name would be. So we held the ceremony for taking refuge here in America, under my direction.
I was familiar with all these Buddhist ceremonies because in Hong Kong, the Master had asked Dharma Master Xulang to teach us to sing the Buddhist praises. The Master said,
“This Dharma Master is a very famous cantor in Manchuria. He is one of the best.” Everyone was welcome to learn to sing the praises, but because I was younger, I learned fast, and so I served as cantor for most of the ceremonies in Hong Kong. When the Master first came to America, I also served as cantor for all the refuge-taking and other Buddhist ceremonies. After the Master had left-home disciples in America, he asked me to teach them how to sing the praises, play the Dharma instruments, perform the ceremonies, and recite Sutras. After that, they were able to lead the ceremonies themselves.
In the beginning of 1960, almost all the disciples who had taken refuge with the Venerable Master had never seen the Master in person (they could only look at the Venerable Master’s image on the altar). They proposed that we request the Master to come to America to propagate the Buddhadharma. After we gained the approval and support of many people, my sister and I initiated the process of applying for the Master to come to America. We also began raising funds. In order to gain approval from the U.S. Immigration Service, we had to prove that we could provide a roundtrip air ticket for the Master (in those days airfare was quite expensive) and all the Master’s living expenses during his stay in America.
Due to the complicated procedures of the immigration service, the Master’s trip to America was delayed. Disciples with insufficient faith began to suspect that we were cheating them and demanded their donations back. When my sister informed me of this, I said,
“If this continues, we will never accomplish our goal.” I went to each of them and explained the situation. In the end we reached an agreement and guaranteed them,
“If the Master cannot come, we will return all the money untouched.” We also had them sign their receipts and write down that the money was to pay for the Venerable Master’s trip to America. Soon afterwards, the Master’s visit to America was approved. However, before coming to America, the Master went to Australia for one year (1961).
Before the Master came to America, we moved twice. The Buddhist Lecture Hall had originally rented a storefront on Pacific Street where the Master could stay. It had been a coffin store before, and no one dared to rent it. Since we were going to use it as a Buddhist temple, we had no qualms about renting it. But when our lease was up, the landlord demanded that we move out. We looked at many places, none of which were suitable. Since the Master was coming to America soon, we decided to move to Clay Street, reclaiming the basement that we had rented out to a tenant (the basement of a house that my father had bought when he was in America), so our fellow cultivators could have a place to meet.
At that time, there was some disharmony in the Lecture Hall. A few of the members wanted to seize power, and one layman even instigated a move to form a Board of Trustees of laypeople to handle the administration of the temple. His plan was to have the Board of Trustees engage Dharma Masters for the Lecture Hall, and for the Dharma Masters to only carry out the scheduled Dharma events and not serve on the Board of Trustees. This inverted plan would place the Sangha Jewel far from the center of control. Consequently, the Buddhist Lecture Hall divided into factions. Those who had only a partial understanding of Buddhism went off to start their own group, while disciples with firm faith patiently bore out the matter and hoped the Venerable Master would soon come to America to direct the temple’s activities.
In March 1962, the Master flew from Hong Kong via Japan, stopped briefly in Honolulu, and landed in San Francisco. When the Master arrived in America, my sister had returned to Hong Kong to visit our family, and the American consulate had refused to issue her a visa to return to the United States. I was also temporarily called away to the East Coast on urgent business, and so I asked Layperson Yu Guoxing to form a group of people to welcome the Master at the airport. In April, the Master began lecturing on the Vajra Prajna Paramita Sutra and held a Chan meditation class to guide young people in meditation.
Because the basement was too damp and unfit for residence, another place was rented nearby for the Master to live in. After the Master arrived in America, his followers increased day by day. With the support of some overseas Chinese, the upper floor of the Kaiping Villagers Association was rented and the Buddhist Lecture Hall moved from the basement to the new location.
Many people came to listen to the Master’s lectures on Sutras at the new temple, including many local overseas Chinese. Many people also took refuge with the Master. In the seventh lunar month, the Master held a Dharma Session Commemorating the Anniversary of Elder Master Hsu Yun’s Completion of Stillness. Many people who had taken refuge with Elder Master Yun came to attend. By that time, there were several Americans who frequently came to draw near the Master.
Later, the Master moved to Sutter Street. The place was bought in 1963 with funds raised by disciples (the Lecture Hall is still there today). Because it was near a black neighborhood, it was cheaper. However, he did not stay there long, because it was not a very safe place, it was not easy to get there, and few people went. Later the Master moved to Waverly Street, to the upper floor of Tianhou Temple in Chinatown.
In 1970, the Master bought an old mattress factory on Fifteenth Street and renovated it. It became Gold Mountain Dhyana Monastery.
◎ Heng Tso
When the Master was living on Sutter Street, he was very selective about whom he let into his rooming house. Word about his accomodations had gotten to the Haight Ashbury district, and sometimes hippies would come to try to rent a room, but the Master would refuse them. (Nick and Susan Mechling told me this many years ago.)
In 1970 the Master bought Gold Mountain Monastery on Fifteenth Street. This three story brick building was probably built in the thirties or forties and had been a mattress factory before. Since repairs had not been made on it for many years, many windows were broken, the roof leaked, and most of the lights didn’t work. Everything was covered with a thick layer of dust. However, the building was quite large when compared to the Buddhist Lecture Hall and provided lots of room for expansion. Because there was barely enough money to make the payments, all the Bhikshus, Bhikshunis, and laypeople worked on turning the place into a proper place for cultivation. Unfortunately, some people’s minds were not very big, and they criticized the Master for getting such a large building. They said that the Buddhist Lecture Hall was already big enough. If this attitude had prevailed, there would be no Sagely City of Ten Thousand Buddhas today.
The next few years was a time of hardship. Money was very tight and the Sangha was growing; so an arrangement was made with a local market to provide all the nonsalable produce to the monastery for $1. Once a day someone would go to the market and pick up one or more boxes of yellowing vegetable leaves, bruised fruit, or other produce in various states of decay and take it back to Gold Mountain Monastery, where the cook would sort through this treasure for all that was edible. The Master says that was when they ate from the garbage.
Gold Mountain Monastery was also called the
“ice box” because there was no heat. This three story building with solid brick walls held the cold very well. Oftentimes the building would be colder inside than it was outside.