Ch'an Master Lai-Kuo

        --by Upasaka Kuo Yu Linebarger

Upasaka Linebarger has been a diligent cultivator and faithful disciple of the Venerable Master Hua for many years. He will receive a Masters degree in Chinese Language and Literature from California State University, San Francisco  next summer.

      Ch'an meditation has always been an important part of Buddhist practice.  The word ch'an, or zen as the Japanese pronounce it, comes from the Sanskrit dhyana which roughly means meditative concentration and investigation  Many students of ch'an have heard the names Han-shan1, Shih-te, Bodhidharma, and Hui Neng, the Sixth Patriarch, who are still sources of great inspiration.

      During the twentieth century there have been a handful of ch'an masters who are their equal; among them the two most renowned are the Venerable Hsu-yun and Ch'an Master Lai Kuo.

      Hsu-yun is known widely throughout China, Thailand and other Buddhist countries for his vigorous cultivation and his restoration of many monasteries.2 tie is held to be an eighth stage Bodhisattva3 as indicated by his birth enclosed in a thick caul. His family and doctor were extremely puzzled until an elderly herbalist came along, and, realizing the significance of the caul, cut the Master out.  Hsu-yun cultivated very hard and was enlightened in his sixties. He died in 1959 at the age of 119.

      Much less is known about Lai-kuo, because no complete biography or autobiography has yet been written about him.4 This paper is devoted to collecting fragments of information about this ch'an master in order to see why so many people were attracted to him, and why his name is known in all circles of serious Buddhist cultivators. This task can best be accomplished by studying his methods of cultivation and teaching. First we will look at his method of cultivation by reviewing his life.

      In 1882 the Master was born into the Liu family, farmers from Huang-kang, Hupei province. His style was Lai-kuo, his alternate style was Ching-ju, and his post­humous name was Miao-shu. He was moved by the teachings of the Buddha as early as six years old, and when he was eleven, he decided to become a bhiksu. Not much later, when he was fourteen, the Bhiksu Ta-hui told him that by reciting Buddha he could end birth and death. Following this, he dreamt he was reciting the Buddha's name very loudly when a monk appeared and said, "This is truly reciting. Who is mindful of the Buddha, do you know?"  Lai-kuo could not answer so the monk said, "Your path is that of a person who is patiently mindful of the Buddha."5

      When the Master was twenty-three, he met a bhiksu who encouraged him to shave his head and become a bhiksu at Pao-hua mountain.  Later the Master was beaten, a customary form of discipline in Buddhist monasteries, and ran off to a nearby river.  After not eating for a few days and sleeping with wild dogs, he wanted to throw himself into the river. Fortunately, he was rescued by a bhiksu from Amitabha temple. Following this, he went to Gold Mountain Monastery (in China) to live and study. His conduct, according to the monastic rules, was still not perfected, and one day he was beaten over 400 times with the incense board.6

      In 1909 on the twenty-sixth day of the ninth month according to the Chinese calendar, after sitting through the sixth incense stick of the evening, the Master suddenly became enlightened and was released from a thousand burdens.  He attained the goal of all Buddhists, understanding of the Buddhanature.

      A short while later, he was encouraged by the head monk at Gold Mountain Monastery to go to Kao-min Monastery. There is a short verse about these two monasteries :

The legs of Gold Mountain, The incense of Kao-min.

      Gold Mountain, where the Master was enlightened, and Kao-min were the two most famous ch'an monasteries in all of China, well known for their rigorous practices. During meditation, when one keeps his legs in full lotus position for a long time, they become extremely painful. The cultivators at Gold Mountain would not move their legs, even during the most painful times, thus 'the legs of Gold Mountain.'

      In most monasteries an incense stick will burn for around an hour, but at Kao-min, they were known to last from three to four hours. An incense stick was used to time a period of sitting meditation, so one can see how ranch longer the periods of meditation were at Kao-min Monastery. This explains 'the incense of Kao-min.'

      The Master did not go directly to Kao-min but first went deep into the mountains to cultivate, until he was besieged by a disciple to go to the monastery.  Abbot Ming-hsien was there, and was in the process of selec­ting a good time to transfer his Dharma.7

      The Master went to Kao-min and received Ming-hsien's Dharma, becoming the forty-sixth patriarch of the Lin-chi sect.8  When Ming-hsien was on the verge of death, Lai-kuo vowed: "While alive I will be a man of Kao-min; when dead I will be a ghost of Kao-min."9He also vowed to return in his next life, from which is derived his name Lai-kuo, "coming result."

      After receiving the Dharma and Abbotship, he built a jeweled pagoda, a great hall, a meditation hall, a hall to Medicine Master Buddha,10 and an infirmary. He cultivated diligently, setting an example for monks and lay followers all over China. He took many disciples, and even soldiers fighting against Japan sought his teaching.  He edited a short book entitled A Record of Self Cultivation.  When he was fifty years old, he cultivated ascetic practices11 and did not cut his hair; his outward appearance was perfected and his spirit firm and honest. 
      After the Master Lai-kuo died from a severe illness, the Venerable Hsu-yun collected offerings to build a pagoda for his relics.12 He assembled many disciples to help. and one bhiksu was so sincere that he cut off his arm as a pledge.  A lay woman also cut off a finger. The Master had been a bhiksu for forty-nine years and an abbot for thirty-five.  After he was cremated , his sarira shone as brilliantly as lapis lazuli.13

      As Lai-kuo's life was very special, his method of teaching was unusual. He is most well known for his severity, and during meditation sessions he enforced very harsh rules:

            "What if you are sick? Nothing can be done. If you live, we strike for seven;1'if you die, we strike for seven;14 if you are sick, we strike for seven; if you are well, we strike seven. In the end, we strike for seven."15 
      Before his meditation sessions started, all the participants handed their lives over to the Master Lai-kuo, and followed his rules in  hope of gaining enlightenment. Since they were all in the Master's hands, he had the authority to make them work even when they became sick. The Master said,

            "If one becomes sick and cannot run, then his body will be thrown under the sleeping platform. Regardless of whether you live or die, only when these seven days are concluded will you be sent off to rebirth."16  
There were also rules governing the time and place for sleeping, eating, and going to the toilet, all of which were rigorously enforced.

            "Normally, when you are sitting in stillness and you want to get up to go to the toilet, you must ask the Master of the Hall for permission. He would hit you six times with his incense board, and then you would be permitted to open the doors and go out. But this won't be allowed during these seven days. Daily there are twelve periods of sitting meditation, which gives you twenty-four opportunities to go to the toilet.

            "When you relieve yourself, how much excrement is there? It doesn't matter which sitting period, you won't be permitted to leave the hall. Excrete in your pants or on your cushion, but the doors won't be opened."17

      Everyone was also expected to maintain the awesome manner. This meant that a monk should always look straight ahead, walk with his back firmly erect, and not engage in idle useless chatter.  If one did not act accordingly, the Master had a punishment:

      "Moreover, let me inform you, during these seven days while you are engaged in walking and sitting meditation, while passing through the hall, or even while going to the toilet, if your head falls or you laugh, you will lose your life.  How?  As soon as you enter the hall, the line leaders and the Master of the Hall will club you up to twenty times with their incense boards not caring whether the blows fall on your head, face, or ears. They will beat you until you fall down. If you don't die, you will strike for seven."18

      Why were the rules so strict? In ch'an meditation, the object is to defeat one' s attachments to his body and everything else, and penetrate straight through to the Buddhanature. The pain from one's legs and back helps to force the cultivator to relinquish his body, the source of his suffering. When this is done, higher states of consciousness can be attained because there is no longer any worry about caring for and protecting a body. How can physical pain be experienced when the receptor of it is no longer important to the cultivator?

      I will use an analogy to explain this further. If you love someone very much and he is killed, you feel great sorrow. But everyday many people are killed and you feel no sorrow for them.  This is because you are attached only to one particular person. If you can look upon your body as not being important, like someone you do not know, then pain and. suffering will not be a problem. When your attachment to your body is broken, there is no suffering or pain to be undergone.

      Lai-kuo wanted his followers to drop their attach­ments and see the Buddhanature. The use of the incense board caused the participants to work hard out of fear of more pain. The board was used so freely that everyone was struck a number of times. Because he was so severe, the Master Lai-kuo brought many cultivators to enlightenment; they were literally driven from attachment to their bodies.  He was fierce, yet many came to study with him.

      While a person underwent this pain and suffering, the Master taught him to concentrate on a hua-tou. The hua-tou is a word or phrase which the meditator  does not merely  focus, on like some meditation techniques, but he uses it to investigate into himself. The hua-tou that Masters Lai-kuo, Hsu-yun, and others taught was "Who is mindful of the Buddha."  Lai-kuo said that the hua-tou is like medicine which cures sick living beings trapped in the revolving wheel of birth and death.19 when one penetrates to the answer of his hua-tou, the attachment to his body is cut off and he understands birth and death.

      Lai-kuo regarded the hua-tou as the sole method for investigation during meditation sessions. He said,

            "Not a single word of the many sutras and teachings stored in your stomach are relevant to the work at hand.20  During these seven days, the Buddha is not to be worshipped nor is incense to be burned."21  
All external forms were to be dispensed with as the
culutivator concentrated on one and only one thought, "Who is mindful of the Buddha?" He was to spend all energy investigating this phrase: while sitting in meditation, while walking, while standing, while eating, while going to the toilet, and even while sleeping, if he did. Only with this kind of vigor can one truly understand.

      Lai-kuo was not a revolutionary who changed the teachings of the ch'an school, but he was special in his enforcement of rules.  We have seen how those who did not follow the rules were beaten and forced to continue. In the Buddhist tradition, rules help to regulate the body, mouth, and mind. They are a very im­portant method used to cut off greed, in order that the practitioner can, along with his practice of ch'an obtain samadhi, one pointed concentration.  Lai-kuo saw the value of this, and not only strictly inforced rules, but also wrote the three volume work, The General Rules of Kao-min Monastery which explains how a monk should a act in just about any conceivable station.

      The Master was the forty-sixth successive patriarch of the Lin-chi (Renzai) sect of the ch'an school counting from the Sixth Patriarch of China, Hui-neng, who was the thirty-third patriarch from Sakyamuni Buddha. So Lai-kuo was in direct line from the Buddha himself.

      No common person can be a patriarch of this stature, and we have seen Lai-kuo was no exception. His life was devoted to cultivation of ch'an and he was the abbot of one of the most famous ch’an monasteries in all of China.  Because of his severe teaching methods, he attracted many disciples and caused a number of them to become enlightened.  The name Lai-kuo was known all over China and in many other parts of the world.  He is responsible for adding new life to the Buddha's teachings which many believe to be on the decline.22 He had many disciples of special stature and his name will live on as one of the most virtuous ch'an teachers and cultivators of all time.

1. For an excellent translation of Han-Shan's poems, see Han-shan, Cold Mountain, trans. Burton Watson, (Hew York: Columbia University Press, 1970).

2. Tripitaka Master Hsuan Hua, " (Master' Hsu-yun's Biography), Vajra Bodhi Sea. Series 4, 2, No. 17 Sino American Buddhist Association, July, 1971), pp. 1-3.

3. Bodhisattva is a Sanskrit word which can be divided to explain its meaning. Bodhi means enlightenment , and sattva means being, A Bodhisattva is an enlightened one among living beings, and he enlightens living beings, so he is called an enlightenment being, a Bodhisattva.

The development of a Bodhisattva is divided into fifty-five stages: one stage of dry wisdom, ten stages of faith; ten stages of dwelling, ten stages of practice; ten stages of transference; four harnassing stages; ten grounds. The stage of dry wisdom is the lowest, and the ten grounds are the highest.  Beyond the ten grounds is the enlightenment of a Buddha. Master Hsu-yun had reached the eighth of the ten grounds, which as one can see, is a very high position.

For a detailed explanation of the fifty-five stages of Bodhisattva development see Charles Luk, The Surangama Sutra (London: Rider and Co.,1966),pp 158-173.

4. Ch'an masters concentrate solely on meditation. and some even say the writings are totally useless (La-kuo said this in reference to the meditation week only.) The ch'an tradition was not established in writing, so a tradition of written biographies about ch'an masters has never been established.

5. This short biographical sketch is based on the introduction about the carvings in Lai-kuo's pagoda in Lai-kuo's ch'an-chi kai-shih (Hong Kong).

6. An incense board is a heavy, flat, sword shaped wooden board used to keep order, awaken meditatora, and encourage vigor.

7. Buddhism has always perpetrated the tradition of passing on the teaching from master to disciple.  This is what is meant by to transfer Dharma." See Holmes Welch, The Practice of Chinese Buddhism: 1900-1950 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967). pp 156-171.

8. The ch'an school was divided into five sects by the disciples of the Sixth Patriarch Hui Neng. see Garma C.C. Chang, The Practice of Zen (New York: Harper and Row, 1970), pp. 63-67.

9. Lai-kuo, Ch'an chi, introduction, p. 3.

10. Medicine Master Buddha is usually seated on Sakyamuni's (the historical Buddha) left, while Amitabha is seated on his right.  Medicine Master has a land in the east and is known because he can heal all diseases.

11. Ascetic practices are followed to lessen attachments to the world as an aid to gaining enlightenment.  There are twelve of which any cultivator can voluntarily take on one or more to practice:

      1. Having robes made only of rags;

      2. Having only three robes;

      3. Eating only begged food;

      4. Eating only once a day;

      5. Eating only at one sitting and not snacking;

      6. Eating a fixed amount;

      7. Dwelling as a hermit;

      8. Dwelling under a tree;

      9. Dwelling under the open sky;

      10. Dwelling in a grave yard;

      11. Dwelling in one place for no more than three  nights;

      12. Never lying down.

12. After an enlightened person is cremated, pearl-like objects of relics remain.  These are commonly put into a pagoda for worship.

13. Sarira is a Sanskrit term for the relics mentioned above.

14. The Chinese characters ta-ch'i () literally mean strike seven. Seven is used because meditation sessions are traditionally divided up into seven day periods called "ch'an sevens" or "strike ch'an sevens."

Strike is used because during a ch'an session the object is to defeat one's pain and stop rambled thinking, to put down the body and become enlightened through the active process of ch'an meditation. To "strike seven" also means to bring pressure to bear on the "seventh consciousness," the discriminating consciousness which keeps one from enlightenment.