I first met the Venerable Master in December of 1967 when I was eighteen years old. At that time he was living in a temple occupying the fourth floor at Waverly Place, in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The background for my first meeting with the Venerable Master goes as follows:
Upon graduation from high school, Steve Mechling, my good friend at the time, and I traveled together first to Mexico and then Hawaii. While living in Hawaii, Steve corresponded with his eldest brother, Nick Mechling, who was living on Sutter Street in the same building as the Venerable Master. Steve told me that Nick would go listen to the Venerable Master lecture on the Sutras every week and would also mention various things about the Venerable Master in his letters. Because I was living the life of a carefree surfer, I didn’t really have much interest in what Steve told me. However, after a very profound religious experience in the dormant volcano, Haleakala, on the island of Maui, I became very interested in spiritual pursuits and wished to find a teacher who could explain such things. I enjoyed living the surfing life, but the pressures of possibly being drafted to fight in Vietnam and the profound religious experience I had just gone through forced me to take my existence more seriously.
Around Christmastime, Steve and I left Hawaii to return to California where we planned to enroll in college and settle down. [Editor’s note: During the Vietnam War, high school graduates in the United States could avoid the draft by enrolling in college.] Following Steve’s suggestion we decided to first go to San Francisco to visit his brother before returning to our homes in Los Angeles. Little did I know how much this decision would change my entire life.
When we arrived in San Francisco, it was already dark and very cold. We didn’t know anything about the city. With suitcases and sleeping bags in tow, we took two buses to get to Nick and his wife Susan’s house. We were quite excited and talked late into the night. One plan we made was to go soon to the Buddhist Lecture Hall to meditate and hear the Master lecture.
At that time the Master was lecturing on Monday and Wednesday evenings and also on Sunday afternoons. The evening lectures, scheduled from eight to nine o’clock, were preceded by one hour of meditation. Those who attended were mostly young Americans. Because the Master lectured in Mandarin Chinese, a couple of boys in their late teens, Kim Lee and Jimmy Wong, were always present to translate.
The first lecture we attended was in the evening. I remember climbing the three long flights of very squeaky stairs to the Buddhist Lecture Hall and entering to find a few people seated on bowing cushions facing the walls. There was a strong smell of Chinese incense and the room was dimly lit. After meditating for most of an hour, someone rang a small handbell and more lights were turned on. A few more people had come during the meditation period and now there were about fifteen people present. The Master sat at the head of a long table formed of four small tables pushed together and proceeded to give a very animated lecture. I don’t remember a single word he said. In fact I didn’t have much of a feeling for him or Buddhism at the time. I arrogantly thought to myself that enlightenment is a serious business, but the Master’s lecture didn’t seem to confirm my feelings.
After we returned to Nick and Susan’s house, we talked about the evening’s experience. I asked Nick if it was possible to go and talk with the Master. I wanted to discuss my volcano experience with him. Both Nick and Susan, to my surprise, encouraged me to call him. So, the next day I called and asked the Master if I could come for a visit. His response was very warm and encouraging, and he asked me to come the next evening.
The next evening, when Steve and I reached the temple, we timidly pushed the door open. It was dimly lit as before. The Master was sitting on a bowing cushion facing the door and motioned for us to come over to him. Then he directed us to each get a bowing cushion and sit down on either side of him. The first thing he asked was if we could sit in full lotus position. I said I could because I had started practicing about a month earlier. The Master looked at my legs and said I was sitting with the wrong leg on top and that I should reverse them. I did this with a little more difficulty, and then we proceeded to talk about all kinds of things.
Because we didn’t know any Chinese and couldn’t understand the Master’s English very well, we had some difficulty communicating at first. However, the Master has many ways to communicate, and it didn’t take long for us to become totally enthralled with what he was saying and doing.
At one point, the Master took my left hand and put it next to his left hand. Then he used his right hand to point out the similar lines on the palms of our hands. Right then something clicked inside, and I knew what he was saying. Because my entire life to that point had been so foreign to that of a monk’s lifestyle, I didn’t know how I could ever conduct myself in the proper manner, but still I found myself asking the Master if I could be a monk. The Master replied that becoming a monk was a lifetime commitment and not to be taken lightly. After some more discussion, the Master said I could leave home if I got my parents’ permission.
Towards the end of our conversation, the Master said I could take a translation of the
Sixth Patriarch Sutra from a shelf to my right and borrow it to read. Forgetting that I had been sitting in full lotus, I stood up abruptly and fell down just as fast. In the past I had been able to keep my legs up for just a few minutes at most. Because I was so concentrated this time, I had completely forgotten about the pain in my legs and didn’t even realize that they had gone numb. Fortunately I didn’t hurt myself.
After a week, Steve and I hitchhiked south to our homes. When we mentioned our plan to become monks to our parents, there was a lot of concern in both households. Steve’s mother convinced him that he should wait a bit, and my parents wanted me to go see their local pastor and a psychologist. I complied with their wish and after numerous conversations, agreed to wait until I graduated from college before becoming a monk. I think all of us were relieved with this decision.
After the Christmas holidays, Steve and I drove my Volkswagen bug back to San Francisco to live and study with the Master. When we told him of our decision not to leave the home-life right away, he suggested that we enroll in college. We checked into City College of San Francisco but found that registration was already closed. At someone’s suggestion, we enrolled at College of Marin, north of the Golden Gate Bridge, rented a small house nearby, and began our studies in a couple of weeks. This was the beginning of a long relationship that continues to this day. What follows are many experiences and teachings the Master has provided.
Many things happened during the winter and spring of 1968. Many people drew near the Master and were taught by him. Janice Vickers Storss (Gwo Jin) came from Texas, and Nancy Lovett, Steven Lovett’s (Heng Gwan) wife, returned to the United States from Taiwan. Spring break also brought a few students from the University of Washington including Ron Epstein, Jon Babcock, Steve Klarer, Randy and Theresa Dinwiddie, and Loni Baur (Gwo Yi), who came to the Buddhist Lecture Hall to attend a meditation session. Because our spring break did not coincide with the others’, Steve and I could only attend for the weekend. However, even just two days of meditation made us feel extremely happy.
Besides the Master’s lectures on Monday and Wednesday evenings, Joe Miller also lectured on Tuesday evenings. Because we were full-time students living thirty miles away from San Francisco, Steve and I could not attend all the lectures. When we could, we would go into the city around four or five o’clock to visit with the Master and others for a while before the evening meditation and lecture. This was a very good chance to investigate many basic questions. One time the Master asked me about my girlfriends. He said sex should wait until marriage. During the late 1960s, the sexual revolution had changed everyone’s thinking, and this was not something I expected to hear. That was my first glimpse of the real teachings of Buddhism.
One afternoon Janice Vickers Storss and Nancy Lovett told us they were going to take refuge. That afternoon the Master asked Steve if he was interested, and I requested to be included as well. The Master consented and set a date. On February 7, 1968, just three days before my nineteenth birthday, the four of us took refuge with the Master and formally became disciples of the Triple Jewel. The ceremony lasted for about an hour, and the Master did his own translation.
In the spring of 1968, my parents came to visit us and to see who this person was who had caused me to change so much. As was the case when anyone’s parents come, the Master was happy to meet them. Unfortunately, on the afternoon of their visit, the only one there to translate was Alice Lum, one of the Master’s disciples from Hong Kong whose English was not very good. During the conversation she got quite flustered. My mother, who can be very direct, asked the Master,
“What are your credentials, and where are you from?” The Master replied that she should ask me, her son. My mother wanted to get to the bottom of things, and she thought the direct route was the correct way to deal with the situation. Unfortunately, Alice couldn’t cope, but just when it looked like we had reached an impasse, Joe Miller and his wife walked in the door. Joe, a white-haired man with a goatee and a vaudeville past, proceeded to explain Buddhism in his own dramatic self-styled way. When the conversation ended, my mother was quite turned around and left with a satisfied feeling. However, my father was still somewhat suspicious.
Sometime during the spring, the Master announced that there would be a Shurangama Sutra summer study session held at the Buddhist Lecture Hall. It would last all summer and single men could stay in the temple and others could stay at another house or on Pine Street. Immediately after school was out, Steve and I went home for a short visit and then went back to the temple to attend the session.
During the session, the meals were taken care of by two people each week. Everyone also took turns washing dishes and cleaning up. Three meals were served each day, but as the Master encouraged us to eat a vegetarian diet and take one meal a day, more and more people began to skip dinner and breakfast. The Master also urged us to stop bad habits like smoking cigarettes and other substances. By the end of the summer, many of us had begun following his instructions, and when it came time to take the precepts, those with long hair and beards cut their hair and shaved off their beards. Many of the women also cut their hair shorter.
At the beginning, Kim Lee translated the evening lecture, but after a week or so, those attending the session full time began to translate for all the lectures. The translators were Ron Epstein, Paul Hansen, Jon Babcock, Steve Klarer, and Julie Plant. They all took turns and spent a lot of time preparing before each lecture. At that time, I wasn’t aware of any internal conflicts. One day, however, none of the translators showed up and the Master had to translate for himself. The tapes for the afternoon lecture on the 4th of July are testimony to this.
After the summer session, Steve and I went back to school at College of Marin. An estate within walking distance of the school was looking for a caretaker, and I was tempted to move there, but when I discussed it with the Master, his reply stopped me cold in my tracks. He said,
“If you move from here, you will not come back.” Therefore, I decided to remain living at the Buddhist Lecture Hall and commute to school.
The Venerable Master devoted his time to many different things, and everything he did was to benefit living beings. I remember going with him to the park to feed hungry birds.
In the mid 1970s California suffered through a severe drought. During those years, I sometimes had the opportunity to drive the Venerable Master to different places in the San Francisco Bay Area. One particular day, my three year old daughter and I (I was still married at the time) came to pick him up early in the morning. After he climbed into the car, the Master asked me if I knew of any lakes in Golden Gate Park. I said I knew of a few, and he said,
“Let’s go take a look.” After showing him three or four, he selected one smaller lake that was a bit more secluded than the others we had seen. As we got out of the car, from the canvas shopping bag he often took with him when he went out, he pulled a plastic bag full of left-over bread and said,
“We are going to feed the birds.”
Walking over to a bench and sitting down, he instructed us to recite the Great Compassion Mantra as we fed the birds. In no time we were surrounded by hundreds of birds including different kinds of gulls, loons, and ducks. they flew all around us grabbing the bread as we threw it in the air. Sometimes they landed on our shoulders as they fought to get closer to the food source. We must have looked like three flowers being swarmed by a hive of bees. A couple of gulls were the most aggressive, and the Master teased them by tossing bread in the opposite direction. Then all three of us would laugh at their foiled attempts to steal the bread from the other birds. This feeding went on for about twenty minutes until the bread ran out. After the last crumb was eaten, we got up to leave and the Venerable Master said,
“They are very hungry.” I reasoned it was probably a result of the drought. The very next day we did the same thing.
The Master didn’t just lecture Dharma. He taught by doing, and his classroom was the Dharma Realm. Although he was lecturing the
Avatamsaka Sutra eight times per week, establishing new monasteries, helping numerous people with their problems, and probably doing a lot of other things we weren’t aware of, he still took time to feed birds that were suffering from the results of a drought. For him no matter was too small to tend to, and no matter was too big. His only wish was that we learn to be that way too.
One final observation: The way the birds acted with the Master was quite extraordinary. They were all over us seeking a handout. I didn’t realize how unusual their behavior was until about two years later, when I returned to the same pond to again feed the birds. I expected them to swarm around me as they had done before, but this time only a few birds appeared, and they kept their distance.
In the West, the Buddhadharma radiates a bright light of dawn;
As in the East, it rescues beings and bestows long life and health;
If you can awaken to your basic identity, your unborn being,
On the spot you ascend together to Ten Thousand Buddhas’ Land.
──by Venerable Master Hua