In the spring of 1991, I went to visit my old friend Mrs. Helen Woo, who told me that she had been a Buddhist for more than ten years and that her teacher was the Venerable Master Hua. She asked me if I knew him. I said,
“I’ve long heard of his esteemed name, but I have never met him.” She asked me,
“Would you be interested in teaching at Dharma Realm Buddhist University?” I replied,
“I retired eight years ago, and I don’t want to
She told me, “Dharma Realm Buddhist Association was founded by the Venerable Master Hua,
and the Master has some Western disciples who don’t
know Chinese and want to learn. The Buddhist
University has never managed to find a Chinese
teacher. You are retired, but still very healthy and
full of energy. As a favor for a friend, would you
be willing to volunteer your services at the
University for a few months? They really need a
teacher like you.”
I’ve always been one who cannot refuse any request, especially one from an old friend. I would have felt embarrassed to say
“no.” However, because I was a Christian and had only a very superficial knowledge of Buddhism, I felt rather hesitant.
Helen knew I could not decide, so she made another suggestion:
“How about this? I can take you and your wife to the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas
to have a look, and if possible, meet the Master.
Then you can decide. Okay?”
I consented. Even though I am a Protestant Christian, I’m not one of those narrow-minded, die-hard religious fanatics. I believe that while there is only one truth, there is more than one path leading to that truth. And so I have a tolerant and sympathetic attitude towards other religions. I have many Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, and Buddhist friends. What is more, I was very curious and eager to make more friends. I really wanted to know more about Buddhism and about this renowned lofty Buddhist master. So I agreed to first visit the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas and then make my decision. Helen was delighted. A few days later, she told me she had bought the plane tickets and invited myself and my wife (Ms. Liu Jinding) to tour the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas.
To make a long story short, we went to the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. By coincidence, we met Professor John B. Tsu and several other old friends there (including Professor Tang Degang, Professor Xie Jueming, and Mr. Lu Jian). We stayed overnight at the City. Unfortunately we didn’t get to see the Venerable Master. Helen said,
“The Master is in the hospital and cannot receive visitors right now.” I felt a bit regretful. It was truly as the saying goes,
“I went in high spirits and returned in disappointment.” On the way back, we stopped to visit the International Translation Institute, where I met the president of the Buddhist University.
The following year (1992) in May, Helen called me again and said,
“The Master has left the hospital and would like to meet you.” She asked if I wanted to meet the Venerable Master. I replied without hesitation,
One week later, Helen bought the plane tickets and made an appointment for me and my wife to meet the Venerable Master Hua at the International Translation Institute in Burlingame.
On Wednesday, May 20, 1992, at nine o’clock in the morning, the three of us (Helen; my wife, Ms. Liu Jinding; and myself) arrived in Burlingame. Dharma Master Heng Sure (the Venerable Master’s disciple), Dr. Akpinar (the newly appointed Chancellor of the University), former Chancellor Dr. John B. Tsu, and others welcomed us. Ten minutes later, we walked into a small meeting room on the second floor and met the eminent Chan Master and Tripitaka Master, Venerable Hsuan Hua. I bowed in respect to the Venerable Master, who placed his palms together and smiled in welcome. In a soft voice, he said,
“Please take a seat.” My wife and I seated ourselves and began telling the Master about ourselves. He asked me what village and province I was from. When he asked my age, I said,
“I was born in the year of the horse, the seventh year of the Chinese Republic.” He smiled and said,
“I was born in the year of the horse, too. We are the same age.” Then he asked,
“What month were you born in?”
I replied, “The third month
of the lunar calendar.”
“What day of the third month?” asked the Master.
“The thirteenth day of the third month,” I said, telling him my birthdate.
The Master smiled some more and said,
“You are three days older than I am. I was born on the sixteenth day of the third month.” (At that point in the conversation, the others who were present became quiet, smiled, lowered their heads, and glanced at each other. I didn’t understand why then, but later, Helen told me that was the first time they knew the Master’s date of birth. In Buddhism, left-home people are not supposed to reveal their age to others. The Master made an exception and told me his birthdate, probably because I had told him my birthdate.)
The Master then asked about my schooling. I told him I was educated in a private school in my village (the village of Nanji in the district of Li, Hebei Province). I had studied the
Analects, Mencius, the Three Character Classic, and the Hundred Surnames. The Venerable Master smiled as he listened. He told me he had only had two and a half years of schooling, and that he had also studied the Four Books and Five Classics, the Definitive Anthology of Ancient Essays, the Tang Odes, and so on. He had studied all of these and moreover was able to recite them fluently from memory. He had also studied the treatises on Chinese medicine and had often healed people.
I then gave the Venerable Master a book entitled
Fifty Odes from the Yuan Dynasty (in English) and a collection of poems and couplets that I had written in recent years, as a token of our first meeting. The Master immediately gave me a book of verses written by himself and a set of the
Avatamsaka Sutra. He had heard of my penchant for writing poems and couplets, and he recited two poems that he had written: one was in memory of Zhou Enlai, and the other was in ridicule of Mao Zedong. (Note: Everyone is familiar with these two poems and can recite them from memory, so I will not repeat them here.)
The Venerable Master told me that he regularly taught a class on matching couplets to his disciples. He would give them one line and have them come up with a second line to form a couplet. He considered it to be an excellent language drill that also improved their thinking power.
Without waiting for me to respond, the Master said,
“I’m going to give you all a line of verse. Let’s see if you can match it with a second line.” I nodded my head in assent. The Master gave this line:
In the white-water spring, there is one great sky.
I immediately noticed that the wonder of this line lies in the fact that the words for
‘spring’ 泉 and ‘sky’ 天 are decomposed and then put back together. The second line would have to have the same characteristic to match it.
Ever since my youth, I loved to play word games such as that of matching couplets. I had read many matched couplets, couplets pasted on doors at the New Year, and even funeral couplets, and collected many books on the subject. I remember one couplet in which the first line was very close to the line given by the Venerable Master. It went:
Beside the white-water spring, a girl is nice;
a young girl is even more wonderful.
Beneath the mountain-rock boulder, an old tree is withered;
this wood can serve as firewood.
The words ‘spring’ 泉, ‘nice’ 好, and
‘wonderful’ 妙 in the first line and the words ‘boulder’ 岩,
‘withered’ 枯, and ‘firewood’ 柴 in the second line are decomposed into elements and the recombined to make sentences. So I immediately wrote down the words
“Beneath the mountain-rock boulder” as the first half of the second line. To match the word
‘one’ in the first line, I thought of the number ‘two.’ Then I suddenly thought of the word
‘man’ 夫 because it is almost the same as ‘sky’ 天. ‘Sky’ 天 is formed by combining
‘one’ 一 and ‘great’ 大. ‘Man’ 夫 should be the combination of
‘two’ 二 and ‘people’ 人. But how could I match the phrase
“one great sky”? Sitting next to me, the Master saw me puzzling over this and couldn’t restrain himself from giving me the answer:
“Wouldn’t the phrase ‘two (people) men’ do?” It suddenly hit me:
‘Two (people) men’ was a precise match for ‘one great sky.’ Thus, I was the first one to turn in my paper. The resulting couplet was:
In the white-water spring, there is one great sky.
Beneath the mountain-rock boulder, there are two men.
The Master looked at it, nodded, and smiled without saying anything.
During our conversation, Helen reminded the Master two or three times that it was time for lunch. Ever since he left the home-life, the Venerable Master had, for sixty years, consistently observed the practices of eating one meal a day at noon and of sleeping sitting up. Yet on that day, our conversation lasted until way past noon. Because we were so engrossed in our dialogue, as if deploring the fact that we had not met earlier, the Master paid no attention to Helen’s reminders and continued talking in a happy and animated manner. Only when it was past two o’clock did the Venerable Master vaguely realize that it was time to eat, and so our conversation came to an end. (Note: This was the second time the Master made an exception to his rules.) Later Helen told me the Master rarely talked for more than twenty minutes at a time with his disciples, how much the less a friend he had just met. Yet on that day, the Master talked with me for more than four hours, breaking his usual custom. This reminds me of the story of the great Buddhist monk Huiyuan of the Jin dynasty and the poet Tao Yuanming. They were close friends. Tao Yuanming often went up the mountain to visit the Venerable Huiyuan in the monastery, and following the custom, Venerable Huiyuan would accompany his guest down the mountain as far as a small creek named Tiger Creek. The Venerable Huiyuan would never go beyond Tiger Creek. One time, however, they were so engrossed in their conversation that when they reached the foot of the mountain, Tao Yuanming crossed Tiger Creek and the Venerable Huiyuan followed right after him. It was only when Tao Yuanming placed his palms together to salute him that the Venerable Huiyuan realized that he had crossed Tiger Creek and broken his own custom.
＊ ＊ ＊
That long conversation with the Venerable Master on our first meeting left a deep impression on my mind and evoked my profound admiration and respect for him. Despite having received only two and a half years of schooling, his attainment in the Four Books and Five Classics of China was extremely profound. Even someone such as myself, a Ph.D. with forty years’ teaching experience in universities, felt ashamed of my inadequacy compared to him. It was because his lofty virtue and deep cultivation surpassed those of ordinary monks that the Elder Dharma Master Hsu Yun chose him to be the ninth generation heir of the Weiyang lineage of the Chan Sect. Because of his far-reaching vision, the Venerable Master crossed the ocean alone and came to a foreign land (America) to propagate the Buddhadharma. In the history of Chinese Buddhism, the Venerable Jianzhen of the Tang dynasty was the first monk to cross the ocean and propagate the Dharma in Japan, and the Venerable Master Hua is the second eminent Buddhist monk who endured toil and hardship in order to cross the ocean and spread the Dharma to the people of another country.
The Venerable Master Hua also wished to improve American education, so he established Instilling Goodness Elementary School, Developing Virtue Secondary School, and Dharma Realm Buddhist University at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. Out of my great esteem for the Venerable Master, immediately after my first meeting and long conversation with him, I decided to accept his invitation to go to the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas and take up the duties of teaching again.
In August of 1992, my wife and I arrived at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. I taught three classes at Dharma Realm Buddhist University (DRBU): Elementary Chinese, Advanced Classical Chinese, and Beginning Classical Chinese (taught on Wednesday evenings so that the fourfold assembly in the City could attend).
When the Venerable Master heard that I was giving classes at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, he was very happy and told Dr. Akpinar, the Chancellor pro tem, to ask me to serve as Chancellor of Dharma Realm Buddhist University. I politely declined. The Venerable Master said,
“Well, if you aren’t willing to be Chancellor, I will give you another title:
‘The Honorable One of the University.’ That means everyone in the University should honor and respect you.” From that point on, I was known to those at DRBU as
I had originally planned to teach for one semester, but when the semester ended, the entire student body of the University (including the Sangha) requested me to stay on and teach one more semester. I had no choice but to agree, and so I ended up staying at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas for an entire year.
That year was a very happy one. Here is a poem giving my impressions on teaching at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas:
I’ve had the conditions to come to the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas
To play my music and sing in continued joy.
Venerable Hua’s virtue wins the trust of the multitudes;
The resolve of the old man from Li County is to praise the heroes.
Pursuing studies and practicing the Way, we should refine ourselves.
Bowing to the Buddhas and reciting Sutras, we stress cultivation.
I delight in the yard’s profound tranquility.
Fallen leaves cover the ground; it is deep in the autumn.
＊ ＊ ＊
My wife and I didn’t actually live in the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, mainly because we had not yet become accustomed to a totally vegetarian diet. The University bought a one-story house right next to the City for us to stay in. We were separated from the City by a stream, which had dried up due to several years of drought, and so we simply had to cross the stream to reach the back of the City.
We were very pleased with the secluded and peaceful surroundings. It was a great contrast to our residence in Los Angeles. The house itself was not large, but it had a spacious backyard. The original owner had planted twenty-three walnut trees and four varieties of grapevines in the backyard. We moved in during mid-autumn, and the walnut trees and grape vines were laden with fruit. The sight of this delighted us to no end. I wrote a verse describing our yard:
During the height of autumn, we came for the first time, when the
skies were blue.
How leisurely we are in this small town to which we have moved!
Grapes sweet and crisp fill the yard;
The plants by the door are gradually withering.
Walnuts cover the ground with no one to gather them;
Seeds fill the feeder, waiting for birds to eat them.
The Elder Tao often spoke of the beauty of fields and gardens;
I finally understand the words of that man of quiet integrity.
(Note: The Elder Tao refers to the Jin dynasty poet Tao Qian. His other name was Yuanming, and he was posthumously known as Jingjie
＊ ＊ ＊
The Venerable Master didn’t always stay at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, because there were six or seven major Way-places and he had to go around to each one to expound the holy teachings and instruct his disciples. However, when I first began teaching at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, the Master also happened to come to the City for a temporary stay of several weeks. Whenever he was at the City, in addition to giving instructional talks to his disciples, he would teach a class on matching couplets every week. He knew of my great interest in matching couplets and invited me to take part. I joyfully accepted. Then he reminded me that the class was held at five o’clock in the morning and asked with a smile,
“Can you get up in time?” “Sure, I can get up, no problem,” I insisted.
One day, my young friend John Chu called and said,
“The Master will be teaching a class on matching
couplets at five o’clock tomorrow morning and
invites you to attend.”
Early the next morning, I hurried into the City to join the Master’s morning class. To my surprise, the Master gave the following line as the first line:
The Honorable Yang teaches foreign language (yang wen);
Yang and yang are two different words with the same sound.
When I arrived at Wonderful
Words Hall, the hall was already filled with people.
The Venerable Master was sitting upright on the
speaker’s platform. After he had written the first
line on the blackboard, he softly asked his
disciple, “Has Professor Yang arrived?” I had just entered the hall and quietly taken a seat in the back. Hearing the Master’s question, I stood up and answered,
“I’m here.” The Master smiled.
As soon as I saw the line given by the Master, I knew that I was supposed to come up with a matching line. I pondered for a long while but couldn’t think of an answer. In a sudden flash of inspiration, I remembered the Master saying that he was not only from the same village as the Catholic Cardinal Yubin, but also a good friend of his. I immediately wrote the second line:
Cardinal Yu sings fishing (yu) songs;
Yu and yu are different in form as well as meaning.
＊ ＊ ＊
The following week, the Master gave another class on matching couplets, and of course I went to attend (even though I still wasn’t used to getting up so early.) This time, the Master gave the following as the first line:
Golden Lad Liu (Liujintong) raised the golden knife and
brandished the sharp sword;
With every thrust of the knife, he slashed the air with no
As soon as I saw it, I understood. The Master was using my wife’s name as the subject of the first line, but he probably felt it would be impolite to use her full name (her name is Liu Jinding) so he used
’Liu Jintong’ instead. Although I understood the Master’s intent, I’m afraid his disciples didn’t grasp the wonderful meaning hidden in the line. I matched it with the line:
It was told in a letter, but the letter writer spoke recklessly;
Every person scolded and ridiculed him,
so he didn’t become famous.
(Note: I once wrote an autobiographical sketch using Chinese brush and presented it to the Venerable Master. Thus, the Master knows the details of my personal life and family.)
The third week, I again participated in the Master’s matching couplets class. The Master gave the following line to be matched:
Yang Yuchen, the general who shocked the West, conquered enemies and won battles as easily as one digs into a pocket to take something out.
When I saw it, I understood it at once. The Master had composed the line based on my son’s name. (My son’s name is Yang Xizhen [Editor’s note: Xizhen 西 means
“one who shocked the West,” and the words Yu 雨 and
chen 辰 when combined form the word ’shock’ 震.] I don’t think any of the Master’s disciples knew my son’s name. Helen Woo knew because I had given her a copy of my autobiographical sketch.)
I came up with two matching lines. The first one is:
Hu Baishui, the freak in the spring, stirs up the wind and makes waves, doing nothing but hurting heaven and harming the people.
[Note: Bai 白 and shui
水 combine to make the word ‘spring’ 泉.]
Another matching line says:
Wu Guyue, a doctor from Hubei, suspended the pot and saved the world, renouncing himself for the sake of others.
[Note: Gu 古 and yue 月 combine to make the word
In the fourth week, the Master’s line was no longer based upon the names of my family members. Instead it mentioned the name of Professor John Tsu. It said:
Professor Tsu (’grandfather’) and Founding Father Sun
(‘grandson’): Of the grandfather and the grandson, who is old and who is young─who knows?
My matching line was:
A male doctor and a female nurse: of the man and the woman,
who is good and who is bad─who can judge?
During the year I spent at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, I participated in more than ten matching couplets classes given by the Master and derived considerable benefit. I agree with the Venerable Master’s view: matching couplets is an excellent way to train one’s thinking.
It is said, “Propriety must be observed mutually.” It is also said,
“If one does not return the favor, then one has not observed propriety.” Since the Venerable Master gave everyone (including himself) so many first lines to match, here’s my first line:
At the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, ten thousand Buddhas attain Buddhahood; the Buddhas’ light shines on all.
The disciples lowered their heads and tried to think of matches, but no one came up with anything for a long time. The Venerable Master, however, was a genuine expert. After brief consideration, he wrote the following second line on the board:
At the Mountain of a Thousand Flowers, a thousand immortals offer up flowers; the flowers’ fragrance wafts afar.
I racked my brains but couldn’t come up with a suitable matching line myself. Thus, I stood in even greater awe of the Venerable Master’s outstanding skill.
One time, as the disciples were racking their brains trying to come up with a match, I happened to be standing at the Master’s side. He spoke to me in a low voice,
“Do you know the story of Venerable Jidian?” I replied that I didn’t. The Master then told me before the Venerable Jidian left the home-life, he was living in his fiancee’s. He was poverty-sticken and moody. One day, his fiancee saw his condition and gave him a line of verse to match:
Living here as a guest, you are accompanied only by the
loneliness of the chilly window.
Venerable Jidian knew that his fiancee was making fun of him, and with hardly a thought, he composed a matching line:
Going far away to escape the road of delusion, I shall return to the lotus path of leisure.
Not long afterwards, he left the home-life and became a monk.
I found this story very interesting and have recorded it here so that it will be remembered.
Since the Venerable Master had used my name and the names of those in my family in his couplets, I wasn’t going to be outdone, so I used the Master’s Dharma name in a matching couplet. The first line goes:
Proclaiming and propagating the Buddhadharma, teaching and nurturing superior talents, the Elder Chan Master has lofty virtue and high repute, and people all look up to him.
The second line says:
Rescuing and liberating those bound by offenses, turning the wheel amid worldly defilements, the Venerable Abbot is calm and peaceful and the multitudes are delighted.
I regret that I never presented this couplet to the Master to ask for his critique. I only told Howard Hu and two or three other young friends. I hope they remember this couplet.
＊ ＊ ＊
While I was living at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, the Venerable Master once mentioned to me his wish to set up and administer schools and asked me if I had any thoughts on this. I spilled my thoughts to the Master, telling him all my ideas. After I returned to my residence, I wrote out my suggestions in ten thousand words and submitted it to the Master. In a few days, the Master told me,
“I quite agree with your proposal for setting up a
(Note: My proposal was to set up two graduate institutes under Dharma Realm Buddhist University; one would be a Buddhist Studies Institute and the other a Chinese Culture Institute. Together, they would be called the Zhisheng Graduate Institute and would be a branch of DRBU in the Bay Area. The Dharma Realm Buddhist Association had purchased a former YMCA building in San Mateo. The Master said it could be renovated and serve as the site of the Jhirrsheng Graduate Institute. Unfortunately, for various reasons the renovation was not successfully completed. Those were the plans of three years ago. Even today, I am filled with regret when I think of them.)
＊ ＊ ＊
The Venerable Master Hua not only propagated the Buddhadharma and began educational reform, he also promoted the virtues of respecting the elderly and honoring the worthy. On December 20, 1992, the Dharma Realm Buddhist Association held the first Celebration for Respecting the Elderly at Tian En Vegetarian Restaurant in Los Angeles. The Venerable Master Hua called the luncheon
“A Birthday Banquet to Revere the Elderly, Esteem the Worthy, and Respect the Virtuous.” Seniors over seventy were invited to attend. The Master also wrote a matched couplet, which was hung in the dining hall. The couplet said:
Respect elders and honor the worthy
for their seniority and longevity,
thus perfecting blessings and wisdom.
Learn from the Buddhas and study with the sages,
and at the advanced age of seventy or eighty,
one will attain the Tao and virtue.
The horizontal title read: “Evergreen like the pine and cedars.”
The Venerable Master also wrote another eight-line verse with seven characters to a line:
To respect elders and honor the worthy is the instruction
of Confucius and Mencius.
To learn from the Buddhas and study with the sages is the teaching
transmitted by the disciples of Shakyamuni.
Seniority and longevity are reached through the
At the advanced age of seventy and eighty,
one knows the vastness of heaven and earth.
When one perfects blessings and wisdom, all people rejoice.
When one attains the Tao and virtue, even the grass and trees are
The bamboo and plum tree, which endure the ice and snow,
put my resolve to shame.
I wish all of you good health, resembling the pine and cedar,
I had told the Venerable Master that ten retired professors, including myself, had formed a club called Ten Seniors Returning to Youth in Los Angeles that met for a monthly luncheon. This club is modeled after the Seven Immortals of the Bamboo Grove and the gathering of Wang Yizhi and his followers. The ten club members included Mr. Wu Junsheng, Mr. Wang Shifu, Mr. Ding Xian, Mr. Yang Zhiquan, Professor Li Maiguang, Professor Ding Shifan, Mr. Hu Guocai, Professor Tie Hongye, Professor Yang Xuntiao, and myself. Mr. Wu Junsheng is the eldest. The year of the birthday banquet, he was already ninety-one. Professor Yang Xuntiao is our
“little brother”─he’s only seventy. The other eight members are also in their seventies─already very elderly. The Master asked me to invite all of them to the banquet. The entire club came except for Mr. Ding Xian, who had another engagement. Thus, there was a full house at the banquet hall and everyone was bubbling with excitement.
The eldest guest at the birthday banquet was the 104-year-old Bhante Dharmawara from Cambodia. The second eldest was probably Mr. Wu Junsheng. The Venerable Master Hua invited these elders to sit at the table of honor. That day also happened to be the eightieth birthday of the Venerable Master’s brother, Mr. Bai Yutang. I extemporaneously composed a verse for his birthday:
It’s very ordinary for people to live to seventy years.
At eighty, one is still a young man.
When one reaches ninety, life has just begun.
I wish you blessings and eternal life!
I recited the verse aloud and everyone applauded. Then I led everyone ing singing
“Happy Birthday” for all the seniors.
During his talk at the International Translation Institute, the Venerable Master later announced that a Celebration for Respecting the Elderly would be held every year around the twenty-seventh day of the eleventh lunar month.
＊ ＊ ＊
Another occasion that I will never forget was in April 1993. It was the time of my seventy-fifth birthday, which was also the Venerable Master’s birthday. The Master’s disciples, particularly Upasika Helen Woo, wished very much to celebrate the Master’s seventy-fifth birthday. However, she was well aware that, in the Buddhist custom, a left-home person would never permit his birthday to be celebrated. How much the less would the Venerable Master, the eminently virtuous Ninth Patriarch of the Weiyang Sect, allow his disciples to celebrate his birthday. Therefore, she discussed the matter with me in private (for we have been friends for thirty years) and tried to think of a way to celebrate the Master’s seventy-fifth birthday. I had a bright idea.
“How about if my family holds a birthday party for me and I invite the Venerable Master to come? Then during the party, I will announce that we are also celebrating the Master’s birthday. It will be a surprise! What do you think?” I asked Helen.
She said, “Not a bad idea.
But we have to tell the Master the truth. Otherwise
we’ll be breaking the precept against lying.”
To make a long story short, Helen told the Master of her original intention to celebrate my birthday and mentioned that I wished my birthday and the Master’s birthday to be celebrated together. Unexpectedly, the Master agreed, on one condition: that my name be placed before his name.
The first Dharma assembly to celebrate the Venerable Master’s birthday was held on April 4 at Long Beach Monastery in Los Angeles. The Master was in high spirits. Earlier on, he had composed a couplet for the occasion. The first line said:
Bald-headed and without eyebrows, his silvery beard
The God of Longevity descends to offer congratulations
on this birthday.
The second line said:
With noble ears and broad foreheads, in utter devotion
The eminent ones of the ten directions join the banquet
to continue the lineage.
The horizontal title read:
East and West congregate, in the happiness of perfect unity,
at a joyful banquet for old and young.
The Master told John Chu to ask me to write the couplet in Chinese calligraphy, and I happily complied. Although I’m not a great calligrapher, the Master asked me and not someone else to write the couplet; thus I felt he showed great affection for me.
It was a great coincidence that April 4 happened to be my lunar calendar birthday (the thirteenth of the third lunar month) and also the lunar calendar birthday of my son (Yang Xizhen) (his birthday on the Western calendar is April 10). Helen and Wesley Woo were also celebrating their birthdays in April. This was truly rare. (Helen asked me not to mention their birthdays.)
To honor the Master’s birthday, I presented him with a poem that I had written by hand and framed. It says:
To propagate the Buddhadharma, you came across the ocean.
You nurture superior talents and benefit all nations.
A Bodhisattva of the higher realm, you inspire our wisdom.
A teacher in the world, you guide the foolish and blind.
(Take the first word of each line in Chinese, and you get
“Venerable Master Hsuan Hua.) When the Venerable Master heard me read it, he nodded and smiled, and spontaneously composed two poems for me. The first poem goes:
Widely learned and erudite, he is such a penetrating scholar.
His clear, resonant voice opens up a bright future.
Enriching the country and planting the woods,
he trains the talented.
He cultivates himself, regulates his family,
and has great aspirations.
The second poem says:
With full energy and a magnificent spirit,
The sentimental old man from Li County has a unique sense
The dull-witted monk from the mountain composed
these rustic lines
To wish you a hundred years for sure.
(It took me several days of hard thinking before I came up with the four lines of my poem. The Venerable Master, right during the celebration, was able to spontaneously compose seven-character verses that are both pleasant to read aloud and deeply meaningful. He fittingly deserves to be called an erudite scholar, and I sigh that I cannot match up to him.)
＊ ＊ ＊
According to Helen, at least a thousand people attended the celebration. Both the Buddhahall and the garden were seated to capacity. It was truly as the Venerable Master’s couplet said,
“The eminent ones of the ten directions join the banquet to continue the lineage.” In July 1993, after my professorial duties at the Dharma Realm Buddhist University were finished (originally I had agreed to teach for one semester, but at the request of the students, I taught an additional semester, completing one full academic year), I returned to my retirement life in Los Angeles. Just at that time, the Venerable Master happened to take up temporary residence at Long Beach, so I entertained the idea of getting together with the Master a few times, not just for idle conversation, but to get to know the Master better, to become familiar with his thinking and experiences, to listen to his teachings, and to further our friendship. I can say with absolute conviction that ever since the Venerable Master met me, he never regarded me as an outsider. Rather, he treated me as an intimate friend. Whenever the Master was at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, in addition to attending his matching couplets classes, I had numerous conversations with him. The Master discussed everything under the sun with me, and so naturally I also talked about everything with the Master. In fact, I often joked with him, hoping to make him laugh. His disciples, particularly Laywoman Helen Woo, also noticed that whenever the two of us were together, the Master always had a smile on his face. When the Master was not at the City, whether he was in Burlingame or Long Beach, he would regularly call me and inquire about my life. Once when I heard his voice on the phone, I casually said,
“One day without seeing you is like three autumns.” Hearing my words, the Venerable Master laughed and said,
“You can’t use that expression. Those are words of affection used by lovers.” I replied,
“The two of us can also use words of affection to express the affection of friends, right?” The Master laughed and didn’t answer.
Of course, I am honored to have known the Venerable Master Hua, such an eminent monk. In my seventy-fifth year, I wrote a poem entitled
“Feelings at Seventy-five”:
It’s very ordinary for people to live to seventy years.
At seventy-five, I am still a young man.
Renouncing all fame and gain, I’ve set my mind at ease.
Avoiding gossip and mischief, I save myself from
worry and agitation.
As I immerse myself in studying, I feel the time is short.
When inquiring about the Way, I should have a lofty resolve.
In the latter part of my life, I’m happy to have met
a bosom friend.
As companions in the sunset of life, we make music
and sing together.
With the aim of “inquiring about the Way” and understanding my bosom friend better, I asked the Venerable Master if I could interview him. What I didn’t expect was that the Venerable Master would generously assent. Thus, from the beginning of July to early September, we met ten times. At first, it was just the two of us chatting casually in the meeting room on the second floor of Long Beach Sagely Monastery. Later, when disciples at Burlingame and the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas heard about it, they asked the Venerable Master if they could also listen in. Thus, the last two meetings were held in the Buddhahall at Long Beach Sagely Monastery. The local disciples were invited to participate, and disciples at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas and Burlingame were hooked up with a long-distance telephone call. Disciples were allowed to ask questions at any time, and the Venerable Master would answer them. It was a very joyful occasion.
My original intent was to gain a better understanding of the Venerable Master’s lifetime of cultivation through his own words. Based on his words, I could then write a Biography of the Venerable Master Hua. Unfortunately, because the Venerable Master had to travel to the other Way-places to give instructional talks, our interviews were temporarily interrupted in mid-September.
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Every time the Venerable Master came to Long Beach Sagely Monastery after that, I would always meet with him. One time, his old friend Professor Cheng Xi paid a call on the Master and stayed at Long Beach Sagely Monastery. The Master knew that Professor Cheng Xi and I were old classmates, so he called me and arranged for me to see my classmate. I hastened over to Long Beach, and we had an extremely happy reunion. During the period when the Master was propagating the Dharma in Hong Kong, he and Cheng Xi had become good friends and had often visited each other. Cheng Xi and I are both graduates of Yenjing University. When I was teaching at the University of Pittsburgh, I arranged to have Professor Cheng Xi come to the University of Pittsburgh to teach summer school. (He taught at the University of Iowa for many years before he retired.) Thus, we know each other quite well.
Another time, forty or fifty people took refuge with the Venerable Master in Los Angeles. That evening, the Venerable Master gave me a great honor by inviting me to speak to those disciples who had newly taken refuge.
On another occasion, when Upasaka Yang Zuoxiang came from Tianjin (China) to pay his respects to the Venerable Master, the Master invited me to take part in the Dharma assembly in the evening. He asked me to sit at the front and speak to the assembly.
During my year at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, whenever the Venerable Master held a class on matching couplets, he would ask me to stand on the stage and help correct the matching lines written on the board by his disciples. Every time the Master gave an instructional talk to his disciples, he would also have me sit on his left and speak to the disciples.
Another time, the Venerable Master asked me to speak to students from the nearby Humboldt State University who had come to visit the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. I remember using the analogy of the Pacific Ocean. I said,
“Due to the advances of modern scientific technology, the Pacific Ocean as we knew it is no longer an
“ocean.” We should rather call it the “Pacific River,” and China is on the other bank of this
“river.” From America’s standpoint, China is no longer a distant foreign country, but a close neighbor. Jesus said to his disciples,
‘Love thy neighbor.’ Thus, we should not hold prejudices against China...” I finished speaking and stole a peek at the Venerable Master. He nodded his head and smiled, as if expressing approval for my words.
Examples like these are too numerous to relate. In the three years that I have known the Venerable Master, I believe that he has understood my every word and deed as clearly as the palm of his hand. I, in turn, have felt the utmost respect for his virtuous character and erudition. Once I made a plan with the Master to retreat into seclusion in the woods when we both turned eighty. At that time, we would have ample time for friendly conversations. I would have plenty of time then to seek instruction from him in the mysteries of Buddhism. He would also have plenty of time to compose verses for his own amusement. We would compose things together and be friends brought together by literature. I never expected that he would leave before I did. When I heard the sad news, I wanted to cry but no tears came. I can only use the following couplet to express my grief:
Seekers of the Way have lost the proper path;
I have lost a bosom friend!