Upasika Helen Woo was born in Peking. Her father was a celebrated professor in Chinese Philosophy. The family moved to America when she was in her teens and she grew up in San Francisco.
Perhaps due to her father's influence, part of Helen's formative education included the study of Confucius, Lao Tze, and Chuang Tze. Helen remarks that it is only long after her father's passing away that she has discovered to just what depths the teachings are embedded in her consciousness and how they have stood her in good stead throughout her life.
first knowledge of Buddhism came from her family as well. Unbeknownst to
her, her father was one of the very first people to recognize the Master
when he arrived in America some sixteen years ago. The two men enjoyed a
cordial friendship which Helen knew nothing about until after taking
refuge with the Master in 1976.
From her youth, Helen was beautiful, vibrant, and temperamental. She was a talented singer, enjoyed the Good Life, and enhanced it with her vivacity. Her world was set in the midst of abundance, culture, and the finest entertainment when she met the Master in 1976. Conditions came together and word of the Venerable Master's wisdom and Way-virtue spread until about a hundred and fifty people in the Los Angeles community decided to take refuge in an unprecedented local ceremony. Helen was chosen to make all the arrangements. She recalls. "Although-I had not even
met Shih Fu then. There was this voice inside of me that kept on giving me directions: what to prepare, what hall to rent--all the procedures. It was as if I had an invisible guide leading me by the hand through the complicated process that culminated in the Master's coming down for the Refuge "Ceremony." When she saw the Abbot alight from the plane, it dawned on Helen that although they had never met on the physical sphere, the Master's lofty spiritual presence was already providing her with guidance and inner strength.
Helen and her husband Dr. Wesely Woo, a very busy and well-known surgeon, were given the Dharma names Kuo Sure and Kuo Syang. The compound means True Mark, a term used in referring to the Ultimate mark of all dharmas, which in itself is No Mark, the true mark being Emptiness.
Helen related how right after taking refuge with the Master several strange states happened to her that enticed her along the path of cultivation. Like some other disciples of the Master, upon seeing Shih Fu she was on several occasions seized with a flood of uncontrollable tears and an overwhelming release of emotion akin to that felt by a child who after a long separation is finally reunited with its father, or that of a dust-weary traveler who suddenly arrives at his homeland. Helen's capacity to experience this mixture of joy and sadness opened her heart to depths she had never known before.
For many years prior to taking refuge, Helen had been plagued with a chronic and painful illness, which was becoming so acute that she could not even go up and down stairs and the threat of confinement to a wheel chair was imminent. Shortly after taking refuge, Helen went to Gold Mountain Monastery in San Francisco to pay her respects to the Venerable Master during an intensive session. As she entered the Buddha-hall she felt her entire body being flooded with a healing warmth. Thinking her imagination must be playing tricks on her, she stepped out of the hall into the dining area only to find that the inner sensation of warmth disappeared. Going deliberately back and forth several more times, she was at last convinced that every time she came in the presence of the Buddhas in the main hall, a healing warmth filled every fiber of her body and she felt more comfortable and happy than she had ever felt in her life.
From that day on, her disease relented, she regained her former vitality and love of life, and began to dedicate her energies to the propagation of the Dharma at the feet of the Venerable Master.
Her first major contribution was to unite the strength of Los Angeles devotees and establish Gold Wheel Temple. Then the community of disciples requested the Venerable Master to come regularly and speak Dharma for them, to, which he compassionately consented.
In May of 1977, the two monks, Bhiksu Heng Sure and Sramanera Heng Ch'au began their pilgrimage bowing once every three steps from Gold Wheel Temple to the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. Helen, together with scores of lay-people, was most ardent in her spiritual and material support of the two pilgrims. Thinking nothing of driving for hours to and from the bowing sites, she would bring offerings of food, drink, clothing, and most especially kind words of encouragement to the two cultivators on the road. Her dedication inspired many other lay-people including young people, to go pay their respects to the two monks.
Deeply moved by the strength of Bhiksu Heng Sure's vow and the devotion of Sramanera Heng Ch'au's protection, Los Angeles devotees began to realize the importance of a pure place of cultivation where men and women can hold to pure practices, and the significance of a serene environment where people can delve deeply into Ch'an meditation. So in addition to their support of Gold Wheel, they became active in the life of the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas and the recently founded Dharma Realm Buddhist University. And as they heard more and more of the precious Dharma, they came to realize how essential their own foundation of cultivation was, in addition to their planting of blessings. So now, at Gold Wheel Temple, not over 1200 square feet, it is so crowded during Dharma assemblies that they are planning an expansion. Nobody would have thought that the number of those intent upon serious and regular cultivation would increase so rapidly and significantly in such a short period of time.
Helen tries to live by the Master's teaching to "endure what others cannot endure and yield what others cannot yield." Through yielding little by little, day by day, she is gaining genuine understanding. More and more Helen feels the presence of light inside and around herself. Having learned that everything is made from the mind alone, she knows it is essential to understand one's mind and see one's nature, for which meditation is a very effective Dharma-door. So although she leads an extremely busy life, Helen meditates early in the morning and before retiring. She has experienced various states relevant to physical and spiritual progress in meditation, but at the same time is aware of the necessity for non-attachment. Deepening her affinities with Kuan Yin Bodhisattva, she recites the Great Compassion Mantra many times every day.
Helen's two children and her sister, also disciples of the Venerable Master, attend Dharma assemblies regularly at Gold Wheel. Her mother has visited the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas to pay her respects to the Venerable Master. But in addition to family, Helen's sincere expectation is that people from all walks of life, of all ages, races, countries, and creeds will find their way to the Dharma and come to enjoy and share its true principles as she does.