I was intrigued by the Abbot. The ordinary things he did made such a profound impact on me that I often found myself weeping with joy. And he was very, very funny.
＊ ＊ ＊
One afternoon a very deliberate and hard-looking woman, with a bunch of tough-looking friends in tow, came in for the Master’s Sutra lecture. Their vibes were bad. These people did not appear sincere; they looked angry. One wore a leather belt with chrome spikes sticking out. The Abbot, long-since accustomed to strange-looking Westerners, spoke the Dharma in his usual manner, and when finished, asked if anyone had questions. The woman stood up.
“I have two questions,” she announced.
“First of all, this world has millions of people who are starving to death. Every day thousands die of hunger. What does Buddhism think about this? And what is your position in this regard?
“Secondly, the world is
filled with implements of nuclear destruction. The
major powers have way more weapons than they’ll ever
need, enough to blow up the whole world many times
over, yet there never seems to be enough. What do
you think should be done about all this?”
The Abbot smiled patiently and waited for the translator to repeat the question. After a short silence he calmly replied with his delightful deadpan humour,
“There’s really a single solution to both of these problems. Take all the extra bombs and drop them on the overpopulated areas.” The women gasped in shock. Everyone else roared with laughter.
But then the Master went on to answer what was undoubtedly the real issue. He said that basically there is no problem, and that is the official Buddhist position. Unfortunately, however, people are not satisfied with this state, so they go out and create problems for themselves where originally none existed. Basically everything is okay, but we make it not okay. The point of Buddhism is for each of us to try to reach this special state of
“no problem.” When we are able to dwell in the midst of all problems and at the same time realize there are no problems, then we’ve arrived. Buddhism, for the most part, remains apolitical.
When the lecture ended, everyone seemed satisfied with the answer.
The incident reminded me of the line in the Tennessee Williams movie,
“Night of the Iguana.” Richard Burton asks Ava
Gardner why her Chinese cook always says “Meiyou wenti!” every time he is asked a question or told something to do.
Ava throws back her head and laughs.
“Meiyou wenti?” she says. “That’s 10,000
years of Chinese philosophy in two words!”
“Really? Well, what exactly do those two words mean?” asks Richard.
“No problem!” smiles Ava.
＊ ＊ ＊
On another beautiful summer afternoon, after the noisy rhythm and clatter of ceremonies, when everyone was settled in elbow-to-elbow for the lecture, I overheard the Abbot quietly turn to layman Jones and tell him to keep a particularly close eye on people. He warned him to carefully watch the door because there was someone in the building who planned on stealing. Jones seemed to quickly forget what the Master had said, but I didn’t. Maybe I felt the Abbot was also talking to me─he had a way of doing that. His mind was not singularly impeded like the rest of ours. He was aware of his connections and could read people from the inside. I was now sure of this powerful wisdom and looked for it in everything he said.
When the lecture ended, the ancient hall erupted into the usual hubbub of chitchat and socializing. Sure it was outflowing, a big release of energy, but folks just felt too darn high to contain themselves. While everyone indulged in their tête-à-tête, including Jones who’d forgotten what the Master had told him, I noticed a middle-aged Asian woman sneak into the vestibule off the main hall and try to rifle the donation box. It was like a living dream: first the prophecy, then the reality. The Master’s mind flowed in and out of the future seamlessly, and he was taking us all along for the ride.
I alerted Jones, who quickly rushed in, grabbed the money from her hands, and shooed her out of the temple. The Master had already gone to his tiny room behind the altar, but his words echoed in my mind. He knew what this person was going to do before she did it! Amazing! It was as natural for the Master to read her mind, or my mind, or anyone’s mind, as it was for me to speak English. How did he do it? And why was he revealing himself to me? Would I be able to do this kind of stuff if I cultivated? These incidents caused my heart of faith to grow astronomically. I really believed in Buddhism. I decided I was going to learn more about this amazing Abbot and his wondrous Buddhadharma.
＊ ＊ ＊
One day, just to
start the ball rolling, I informed the head monk
that I wanted to become a disciple of the Master and
that I wanted to take the five precepts. He informed
the Master of my intentions. A couple of days later
the Abbot approached me and said there was going to
be a “Take Refuge” ceremony in a few minutes. He asked me if I really wanted to do it. I told him I was sure. He smiled and returned to his room. The ceremony was about to begin when one of the American monks came rushing out and informed me that if I wanted to take refuge I’d have to shave my beard.
Now, I had grown quite attached to my beard in the short time I’d had it. It made me seem tough and masculine. Dark and curly, it was part of my chosen identity. Suddenly I was forced to make a choice. What was more important: some scruffy facial hair, or taking refuge with the Everlasting Triple Jewel? I quickly ran into the bathroom and shaved off my beard─I even gave my long hair a trim. When I came out, the ceremony was up and running.
A couple of other Americans also took refuge. The Abbot, using some method known only by himself, gave us names from a choice of about 50,000 Chinese characters. I’d noticed that it was uncanny the way the names somehow applied to the people who received them. For example, one disciple was named Kuo Li. He didn’t know what it meant, but after the ceremony he gave the Master a present of lapis lazuli, a precious stone he had kept in his private collection for many years. No one knew he had the stone, or that he was going to give it to the Master. Later, when he looked up his name in the Chinese dictionary, he found that it meant lapis lazuli!
I took refuge with the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, choosing the Master as my teacher, and was given the name Kuo Yü (He who goes beyond the limit). I loved my new name and was very proud of it, for I had gone beyond the limit all my life and didn’t plan on stopping now. After the ceremony, a bunch of Cantonese ladies were milling around the hall. The Master came out, and they drew near him like iron filings to a magnet. The Master looked at me and started laughing.
“Look at this stupid Westerner!” He said.
“He just shaved off his nice beard so he could take
refuge with me. Ha!”
My face stung with embarrassment, but there was nothing I could do to bring back the beard. I sulked over to a meditation pad to hide my feelings. I’m sure I felt a chunk of my ego fall off. My identity was going south, and there was little to take its place.
＊ ＊ ＊
Over time I found the Abbot to be very gentle with most people, but there were a few he had to lay into. That’s when I heard the expression,
“First comes the honeymoon, then comes the Dharma!” He taught each one of us according to our individual natures, using
“no fixed Dharma,” employing a radically nondogmatic approach within the framework of a highly traditional religion.
“Why is there wisdom?” He often asked.
“Because the stupid make their mark!”
Using this principle, the Master challenged our ignorant actions. We created the ignorance from nothing, and the Master responded from the depths of Wisdom Store. And he certainly didn’t explain all his unusual techniques. One minute he’d scold someone at the top of his voice, the next instant he’d gently inquire of someone else. Most people’s emotions ran like hot and cold water from a tap. The Master tried, it seemed, to lure us into the inconceivable ground of enlightenment beyond opposites. His occasional anger, if that’s what one could call it, seemed real, yet he had no attachment to it. He could burst forth with tremendous blasts of power, shaking the windows and rattling the walls, and then relinquish it all the moment it left his lips. He went after our attachments, not our being; our self, not our Self-Esteem; our ghosts, not our Buddha-nature. We were volunteers─this was no place to take things personally. The Master performed Perfect Wisdom Mirror Service, helping us view our selves truly for the first time. He once conceded that his job was to get us oscillating between opposites: between good and bad, fear and love, happy and sad, inside and out, so on and so forth, until we got to where we no longer lurked in the illusions of opposites, the world of dualities, the idea of a separate self in an
“outside world.” We had to find the middle ground that was no ground in our true self-nature that was no self-nature.
＊ ＊ ＊
The Master made free use of what he called his
“radar” to teach from “the inside out.” This put him universes beyond other so-called
“masters” who tried to teach from the outside in. How could they possibly teach when they didn’t have the ability to see what their disciples were doing behind their backs?
“Don’t get the wrong impression,” the Master said.
“I’m really a nobody, a big nothing, a living dead man. You all want to be first, number one. I want to be last. You all are so smart, while I am cultivating my way to stupidity.
Just remember, you can cheat your teacher, you can cheat yourself, but you can’t cheat the Buddhas
and Bodhisattvas. If you want to try, however, go
ahead and check it out.”
He gave the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas credit for everything.
＊ ＊ ＊
Small Novice was an American disciple who received a lot of verbal
“beatings.” This poor fellow had particular difficulty following the rules and stopping his outflows. One night, as the story goes, Small Novice became filled with the desire to go
“outside” and do something. Now, many of us had wrestled with that one, but he actually decided to act upon it. Donning civilian clothes, including a wool cap to cover his bald head, Small Novice slid down a drain pipe from the fourth floor balcony, landed on a third floor balustrade, and fled down the fire escape into the night. He was gone several hours doing God knows what. Just before morning services he snuck back into the building the same way he went out.
No one saw him leave, no one saw him return, and he told no one about his big adventure.
The next day, however, the Master approached him and asked,
“Where did you go last night?”
“Nowhere, Shrfu,” replied the trembling monk.
“Then what were you doing on the bus?” inquired the Abbot. As always, whenever the Abbot spoke, everyone in the little room listened intently. This was definitely going to be another teaching experience.
“I, I, I, don’t know,” cried the Novice.
“Just who is it that doesn’t know?” yelled the Abbot.
“I, I, I don’t know.”
“Who gave you the cigarette?”
“I, I can’t remember,” wailed the monk.
“Why were you talking to that girl on the bus?”
Small Novice’s face turned deep purple. “How did you know?” he
cried in astonishment.
“How do I know?” yelled the Abbot. “I’ll tell you how I know….
Did you know?”
The young monk looked flabbergasted.
“Well, did you know?” the Abbot yelled again.
“Then that’s how I know!” There was a prolonged silence.
“Just remember!” counselled the Abbot, “You may be able to cheat
yourself, but you can’t cheat the Great Assembly!”
＊ ＊ ＊
The Master explained to us that in the golden age of Buddhism, during the T’ang dynasty, teachers had to beat their disciples into enlightenment. He said, however, that in America we were too soft, and Buddhism was too new. There was no way he could physically beat us, even though he was sure we needed it, and that undoubtedly it would do us some good. If he did, we’d all just run away, so his
“beatings” would have to be mental, mind to mind. Just like the Patriarchs, but without the stick. If we wanted to get enlightened and obtain Samadhi, we’d have to toughen up and learn to take it. Most of us really wanted these
“beatings.” The Master’s verse addressed this principle, and he repeated it to us over and over again.
Everything is a test
To see what you will do;
If you don’t recognize what’s before your face
Then you must start anew.
The Master informed us that in the future he might test us. We wouldn’t know if it was real or a test, however, because he wasn’t going to explain everything--we’d have to do our own figuring out. Some of these tests would be very hard to take, he warned, but we shouldn’t fear a little suffering. Most of us would run away, he predicted, but that was no problem. We could run all we wanted─there was no way out of the universe. When we got tired, he’d be waiting for us; his door was open. He would neither beg us to come in, nor ask us to leave.
Some of the elder disciples asked if they could test the newer people to
“help” them along the road to enlightenment. The Master blasted that false thinking, saying that he would be the only one making up the tests. Besides, most tests would arise of themselves, from within and without. If we didn’t pass them, we’d get to start anew. Furthermore, our enlightenment, should we ever experience it in this lifetime, wouldn’t be considered genuine unless certified by a true Master, a Master certified by the lineage of sages reaching back to the original teacher, Shakyamuni Buddha.
Thus, if we wanted it, we were going to get it. Those who stayed could count on being
“beaten,” cajoled, pushed, pulled, inspired, and empowered into enlightenment. No need for fear. Most of us recognized the beatings as manifestations of the highest form of compassion. Those who kept an open mind, who patiently practised, and who acted sincerely would get a response─a response exactly commensurate with the practice. Those who stuck around would experience incredible states, see things never before seen, and have some awfully rocky territory to navigate on the road to enlightenment .
＊ ＊ ＊
Like many others who arrived at the Buddhist Lecture Hall in the late sixties and early seventies, I carried with me a lot of bad habit energy. Actually, I had them all beat in that department. But thanks to the Master, most of us were able to give up drinking, smoking, drugs, meat-eating and many other dark attachments. To help displace this ugly
Ch’i, the Master filled our minds with ancient words of wisdom: the teachings of the Patriarchs, Ch’an talks, words of Dharma. The meditation periods worked hand in hand with the talks to bring about a centering effect, a vacuum of emptiness into which the teachings could flow. Just by sitting still, the six senses─the abilities to see, hear, smell, taste, touch, and think─became pure and enhanced. Perhaps we’d develop psychic powers, attain the ability to see into the past and future, or be able to read people’s minds. Most of all, we had the opportunity to enter Samadhi, experience Satori, an apercu─to become Buddhas.
To get there, however, we’d have to go far beyond the nonchalant, McDonald’s-type meditations so popular in America, the kind where people dozed off in chairs with their legs dangling down. Sure, these methods could make a person feel better. They provided a nice little battery charge. But how could anyone have the gall to market short naps? Our Abbot was teaching the incredible process leading to the ending of the cycle of birth and death.
＊ ＊ ＊
After innumerable hours of sitting, the muscles and tendons in my legs gradually rearranged themselves. On occasion, I could sit for the full hour in half lotus, even though it was painful, and every once in a while I could twist into full lotus for a few minutes. Still, the waves of false thought arose from nowhere, and I continued to be lost in them. Helpless to stop this spurious flow, I indulged in trying to sort things out. I spent countless hours trying to make sense of my life, but the thoughts continued to flow like smoke from a fire. I’d follow one particle up until it disappeared, and then immediately grasp onto the next ash that came floating by. I tried regulating my breath, counting my breath, reciting special mantras, staring at the floor, rolling my eyeballs, and everything else I could think of, but my brains just kept smoking away.
Eventually, however, I discovered some techniques for clearing the mind. Shrfu taught us the sweeping dharma. When thoughts popped up, rather than get lost in them, we could brush them away. This was very subtle and difficult work. Sometimes the thoughts seemed quite profound, and indeed they were, but as far as meditation goes, they were just more dust, so we swept them away and they lost their power over us.
All these changes, of course, were happening in a very short period of time. I wasn’t really aware of how these processes were working. We weren’t just
“studying” Buddhism, we were living it, and even though just beginners, were already reaping some of the rewards of practice.
＊ ＊ ＊
The Abbot devoted his primary
energy to the left-home people. We laypersons were
free to learn from them and to benefit from their
mistakes; they made plenty. The Abbot alternated
between building them up, nourishing their egos and
attachments, and then letting them fall back down,
leaving only, one hoped, a shiny Buddha-nature. It
was certainly fun to watch. Sometimes he’d pick a
tiny little thing they’d done, and then seem to blow
it all out of proportion. No one, for example, could
ever forget the famous cottage cheese incident, when
a tall, silver-tongued American monk manipulated a
laywoman into offering some cottage cheese. For the
next few weeks the Master would resurrect the
incident again and again to drive his point home,
showing us how the monk was acting like a “P’an Yuan (Climbing on Conditions) Ghost,” and how we were all caught up in the three evils of greed, hatred, and stupidity. The way to get rid of those evils was by practising morality, concentration, and wisdom. In the midst of all this serious teaching we’d often be laughing through rivers of joyous tears.
The monks and nuns had put themselves in a position to be taught. They had no beards, no hair, no clothes, no money, no anything. They’d taken a giant leap of faith, leaving the world and its dust behind. I was a little jealous. I wanted special attention from the Master; I ached for it. For the time being, however, I contented myself with just sitting back and watching the show. My brief moment in the spotlight would come.
＊ ＊ ＊
The Abbot especially encouraged his monks and nuns to cultivate the “Awesome Manner.”
“Don’t walk around with your
heads lowered, going ‘Mee-mee, moo-moo’!” Don’t act like a bunch of frogs!” he said.
“Walk tall and proud, be fierce and fearless, and
emit blazing light. Walk like the wind! Sit like a
bell! Stand like a pine!”
The Abbot certainly demonstrated The Awesome Manner himself. Though his mind was still, many people trembled when in his presence. This was because of their demons within. Those with a pure mind, with nothing to hide or be ashamed of, had no trouble being around the Master.
The American monks and nuns could sit in full lotus without moving for the full hour meditations. I was still scared of the sitting meditation pain. I didn’t feel I’d ever make a breakthrough. When it was 10:00 PM and lights out, I was ready to lie down and stretch those legs; I had my limits. These other people seemed to never stop cultivating. Even at night, when they were allowed to sleep, they’d stay up into the wee hours working on translations. And all this on only one meal a day!
＊ ＊ ＊
Although Buddhism was now my religion of choice, it occurred to me that I didn’t have to turn my back on Christianity. On the contrary, by following the precepts of Buddhism, I had become a better Christian than ever. For one thing, I was not
“living in sin,” but learning to “know, love, and serve God.” My whole idea of God changed, however. I no longer thought of
“Him” as some eighty-foot tall, long-haired guy in the sky, but as a cosmic force pervading me and the universe, a force beyond all opposites, including birth and death, with which I would have a chance to reunite if I practised the principles of Buddhism. Why wait to go to heaven; I could experience God and
“heaven” right in this life. We didn’t have to be lambs any longer; in Buddhism we could be lions. I liked the idea of faith, practice, and results in this life. But Christianity had its wonderful purpose in the world, and most religions had the power to help people grow spiritually. Even groups as radical as the Hare Krishnas were taking druggies off the streets and making them clean up their act, eat vegetables, and start thinking of someone else besides themselves. Shrfu taught us that all these religions were lights taking away the darkness of the world. So I gratefully took the love, compassion, knowledge and wisdom bestowed on me from all the virtuous nuns, brothers, priests, and my good Catholic family, and used it as a foundation for Buddhist studies.
At the Buddhist Lecture Hall we were free to create our own spiritual program from 84,000 mysterious Dharma Doors. The Master encouraged us to see through everything as false, illusory, and empty, and asked that we let go of it all, even to the point of letting go of Buddhism.
“There are no fixed Dharmas!” he often said. “Your mind should be like empty space.” So, with my heart resolved on Bodhi, I let go of my past and moved forward into territory unknown. Together, with brothers and sisters of like mind, I was on an extraordinary journey to the roots of consciousness. Each of us alone, yet together, shared a common bond of faith. It was, as the Abbot taught, our good roots and our vows from past lives bringing us back together. We were extremely fortunate to meet with this opportunity. We were all on a spiritual roll and the Abbot was blowing people’s minds, tirelessly turning the awesome Dharma Wheel, sharing this magnificent treasure with everyone.
An Exhortation to a Dhyana Cultivator Who Vowed to
Bow Every Three Steps for World Peace
Composed by the Venerable Master Hua on October 19, 1973
At Gold Mountain Dhyana Monastery, in the United States of America, the Sangha is young and numerous. They concentrate on safeguarding the proper Dharma, and each one has his particular good points. Now you have made a vow never made
before, and will practice Sagely conduct which has never before been practiced, bowing every three steps to the eternal Jewels of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha throughout the ten directions. Because your sincerity and earnestness in seeking for world peace is genuine, you will certainly evoke a magnificent response. Although your initial resolve came easily, it may be difficult to fulfill your vows. Don’t give up; remain firm, sincere, and constant. The thousand miles over which you will pass is only one small step within the Dharma Realm. Be resolved not to cease until you have reached your goal. Raise up your spirits!
I leave you this verse of parting:
Practicing what is difficult to practice is the conduct of the Sage;
Enduring what is hard to endure is the genuine patience.
All Buddhas throughout the ten directions have walked down this road,
And the eighty-thousand Bodhisattvas have followed right along.
Blow the magnificent Dharma conch, and raise up the cry;
Shake your precious tin staff, transform stingy greed.
Your work complete, the result full, return amidst songs of triumph─
Then I’ll give my disciple a meal of berry pie.