The Bodhi Mirror Presents

Shramanerika Kuo Shan
compiled by Bhikshuni Heng Chih

Question: Why did you leave the home-life?

Kuo Shan: To answer that I'd have to go back to the day I was born--even before that. Ultimately, I realized that for me, there was nothing else to do--nothing else WOULD do.

Question: Why?

Kuo Shan: It seems to fall into two aspects--worldly and transcendental.

Question: Let's explore them both.

Kuo Shan: First of all, I got a heavy enough does of suffering in my youth to realize from early on that life has suffering in it--is inseparable from it.

Question: Can you elaborate?

Kuo Shan: The first and perhaps deepest pain, was in watching my parents suffer. They were good-hearted people, but I perceived they were sinking. It seemed they had little expectation from life. Close to death, they were fraught with problems, afflictions, and faults that seemed to send them in a downward spiral. I always hoped they would change and be happy and make each other happy.

Question: Isn't that awfully idealistic?

Kuo Shan: Yes, I admit to being a romanticist. But in truth, I believe that hope was more than an impossible fantasy. I can see now that I am an ambitious person in the sense that I don't want to just live and die and have nothing in between. I wanted to be able to foster that resolve in my parents as well. I also believe that hope I held for my parents was grounded in something more than live-happily-ever-after fairytale. Its real roots are 
compassion, I know now, but I didn't learn that until later in my 1ife.

Question: How did you make that discovery?

Kuo Shan: It was when I learned about Kuan Yin Bodhisattva. That was when I began learning about Buddhism. Once the concept of compassion was defined, it was immediately evident to me that it is the perfect frame of reference. The romantic ideals I had held up to that point were the closest thing to goodness I'd been able to find in the world. The difference between compassion and romantic love, however, is that the former is selfless and the latter is selfish--all the difference in the world! It's just that point which distinguishes a sage from an ordinary person.

Question: So now we are seeing the the transition from worldly to transcendental understanding that took place.

Kuo Shan: Yes, but of course you can't call it "understanding," because I really don't know what compassion is all about. You could call it "a little glimmer of light," perhaps--the first good idea I've had this life that was grounded in something beyond the narrow concepts of selfishness, greed, gratification, beyond self-pity and pity for others.

Question: And so we come to the transcendental reasons for your leaving home?

Kuo Shan: I had had glimpses of monastic life flit through my consciousness all through my life, and that is why it's hard to say when I decided to leave home. At the basis of all else that transpired, was the search for this. "Where are the monks and nuns," was my continual silent question.

When I began to look into Buddhism, I gravitated toward the Tibetan tradition because I heard it had a strong monastic emphasis, but in fact, that is not the case. At least not in my experience. Adherence to precepts is lacking. Immoral behavior is more the rule than the exception.

It was the monks AND NUNS that I was looking for and that was what drew me to Buddhism. I found out that it isn't sexist. The opportunity for women to walk the sagely path is wide open. It is not "for men only." The feelings of helplessness that are instilled in women by the culture, bred resentment in me and fear. But beneath them in a sounder place, stirred the sense of the universality of the human potential, so when I heard that Kuan Yin Bodhisattva appears in both male and female aspects and what is more that ANYONE CAN BECOME A BUDDHA, you can imagine my relief at some higher verification of my suppressed expectations. I mean, even rocks have the Buddha-nature, so certainly a woman stands a fair chance.

I knew that this was a point of view I could live by; that I was free to exploit my potential and that I could heal my feelings of resentment, helplessness, and fear. Unfortunately, this realization was not untainted by residual confusion. So I was simultaneously still trying to overcome these afflictions by exploring behavior patterns designed to "liberate me from my inhibitions." This mixture of true principle with deviant views seems to be the lot of humans. If only we could fix on what is true and right and then pursue it undaunted!

Nonetheless, I was fortunate enough to continue exploring Buddhism throughout it all and when the Tibetan tradition proved unwise for me to explore further, I decided to try Zen. It was just about that time that I heard about Ch'an and four things drew my immediate interest:

      1) It came from Chung Kuo (China). I had a lot of affinities with that.
      2) It was the mother of Zen. Why not go to the source, my common sense told me.
      3) It had MONKS AND NUNS. At last! This was the best point yet!
      4) Gold Mountain Ch'an Monastery was reputed as mysterious. My curiosity was aroused.
No one really knew what was going on there despite lots of speculation.

      I asked about it and eventually got to go there. The moment I walked in, I felt totally at home. And when the Venerable Abbot appeared, I realized that at last I had found a true monk. I had never seen a pure person before. I couldn't take my eyes off him. Sensing the strength of vows and depths of virtue he embodies, I wanted to be exactly like him. It's as simple as that.

But it's not that simple. For instance, during the first session I attended, I came face to face with pain. Everywhere else I'd gone I was told, "Sit any way you want." But at Gold Mountain, I was told to endure the pain and out-wit my self-imposed resistance to it. I soon learned what a child I was. I had sold out to comfort long ago and locked away the spiritual part of life because of a fear of pain and discomfort. However, I had a valiant go at trying to outwit myself. "You can run as long as you like," I told myself, "But in the end, you will have to die and what will you do then?" I also had to sit and review the mistakes I had made this life, right down the line. My lack of success in being filial overwhelmed me with remorse. My weakness in standing up for the moral code I basically believed in, brought an acute sense of shame. I had to look into myself and ask, "Why did these things happen? Why did I make myself and others unhappy; even those I 1ove--my parents, friends, family, and children?"

The thought of compassion took on a new meaning: it is just wanting not to hurt people and wanting to be pure. And in learning more about Kuan Yin Bodhisattva, I understood that this does not always mean kindness in the obvious sense of the word. Rather, it means giving someone what they want by knowing what they need. Then, even if it's a scolding, it will make them happy.

So the decision to leave home is based on interactions of my whole life, and in doing so, I am resolved to take across those with whom I have affinities. I see that my choices, and the development of my own faith, vows, and practice, are part of a vital chain of events-- involving the lives of many. If I fail and fall, others will fail and fall. Those who would follow me, and who could learn from me, will be deprived of that chance unless I make good myself.

I am a human being blessed with an alert mind and all my faculties. How could I not take the opportunity now? I have to. There's no question about it.