The Bodhi Mirror
SRAMANERIKA HENG CHEN
A "DHARMA TREASURE" (CHEN)1 BOARDS
THE PRAJNA BOAT OF THE TRIPLE JEWEL
Sramanerika Heng Chen was born on January 6, 1947, in Fresno, California and moved with her family to Visalia (a smaller city near Fresno) when she was nine. She went through most of the phases and enthusiasms of American girls—from girl scouts to rock and roll--much earlier and faster than her peers and seemed decidedly over-mature for her age. She took piano and violin lessons and later taught herself the recorder, flute, trumpet, viola, and cello; played in school, community, and private ensembles, and sang in choirs and choruses. The violin soon became the main vehicle of her passion for music. She commuted to Fresno to play in its junior philharmonic orchestra, took lessons from a music professor there, participated in music festivals, competitions, and camps, attended and played in endless concerts and hero-worshipped virtuosos and composers. In high school she fell under the spell of words and poetry, and would spend hours on end poring over dictionaries and reading, reciting, and writing poetry. She especially loved Shelley and Keats and entered fully into their romantic exaltation and despair. She read omnivorously and often brooded over death and ultimate questions without formulating definite beliefs in regard to these matters--emotiona11y affirming the spiritual, but intellectually rejecting it, on the basis of Western science.
She entered Fresno State College in 1964, and, under the influence of Shelley's vegetarian tracts and a Seventh Day Adventist friend, became a strict vegetarian virtually overnight in her freshman year. While there she played the violin in the Fresno Philharmonic Orchestra, the college symphony, and a string quartet, and completed majors in music and Russian and a minor in Latin. Often carrying fully twice the number of recommended units, she also studied Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, German, and one year each of Chinese and Japanese. She also worked her way through Persian and Finnish grammars independently. Throughout her undergraduate years she continued to read extensively in the areas of philosophy, psychology, psychic research, comparative religion and mysticism, theosophy, and occultism, a varied sampling spanning many centuries and countries.
One summer, when she was nineteen and in the grips of existential anguish and a feeling of utter desolation, while reading Yogananda Paramhansa's autobiography she became aware of the visitation of a benevolent and loving presence, and, her skepticism at last dissolved in tears of joy and relief, she knew that the miracles, doctrines, and selfless compassion described and portrayed in the book were true. From that time on she read every book on yoga, yogis, and Indian philosophy she came across, attended every lecture given by itinerant yogis at the college, and soon decided Ramakrishna Paramhansa, the 19th century Bengali saint who revived Vedanta, was her guru. She toyed with the idea of becoming a Vedanta nun, and knew she was somehow destined for the contemplative life. In a spiritual vacuum in Fresno, she visited the Vedanta temples in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Berkeley, and San Francisco, but was chilled by their establishment Protestant church air. Discouraged, she continued to pray to Ramakrishna and do the yoga asanas and meditation exercises she learned from books.
1 -chen. Sramanerika Chen's Dharma name means "precious, treasure".
Upon graduation (summa cum laude) from Fresno State College in 1969, she won a four-year full expense fellowship from Stanford University in Slavic Languages and Literature. She completed her master's degree in Russian in two years and transferred to the department of linguistics in her third year. At Stanford, she did course work in general, Indo-European comparative-historical, Slavic and Russian linguistics and literature, Polish, Czech, Serbo-Croatian, Old Church Slavonic, Greek, Old English, Gothic, Italic, and Sanskrit. In summer sessions at UCLA and UC Santa Cruz, she studied Ukrainian, Hungarian, and more specialized topics in linguistics.
Still searching for a spiritual path, she met a member of a yoga society (Ananda Marga) who had signed a list for a Bengali class she and another India enthusiast had arranged and was duly initiated and came to accept its guru as hers. She moved into a yoga commune and, feeling she had finally found her spiritual haven and karmically related people, participated in their retreats and other activities. She then decided to specialize in Sanskrit and Indology, intending to serve as a translator and philosophy teacher for the group. The following year she attended UC Berkeley on a UC Stanford exchange program and took graduate courses in Vedic, Sanskrit, and Prakrit. A fellow student was then Upasika Kuo P'u Jastram (Bhiksuni Heng Hsien) who invited her to visit Gold Mountain. Heng Chen did come a few times, but infatuated with her yoga society, left with a superficial and on the whole negative impression of the temple. Living in a Berkeley yoga commune, teaching Sanskrit to her fellow aspirants, and sharing their tastes for natural foods and nutritional fads, visiting psychics, Sufi dancing, astrology, sitar music, kirtan jam sessions and the Indian trappings of yoga, her scholarly interests were eclipsed by an overwhelming desire to go to India and see her "sadguru."
Since Stanford would not grant fellowship students leaves of absence, she withdrew, gave her department her linguistics books, and began preparations for her trip to India. She joined another guru-seeker on a freak bus caravan on "the route" overland to Istanbul from Amsterdam and took public transportation on to her destination in Patna, India. Disillusionment with the aimlessness of the international hashish-seeking hordes, the anti-glamour of traveling, and the thorough-going degeneracy and corruption of the countries she visited was a prelude to the disenchantment She felt with the chaotic spectacle of her yoga group in India, and after waiting three months to see the guru, who was and still is to date a political prisoner, she flew to Katmandu for a change of scene. She taught English for the USIS there for two months, saw the refugee lamas and their tripped-out Western votaries, and met a monk who had "defected" from her yoga society for reasons with which she could not but sympathize.
Feeling that she was getting nowhere in her assumed "road person" role she bought a return excursion ticket from a friend and returned to the U.S. After recouping funds in NYC to pay some debts, she left her "do your own thing" Brooklyn commune and returned to California, and, foregoing the back-packing, mountaineering trip she had planned, spent the rest of the summer house-sitting for her parents. Now she found that her meditation, which prior to her trip abroad had brought her such deep peace and happiness, was disrupted by depression and lassitude, and found little comfort in praying—and crying—to Ramakrishna, Meher Baba, Sai Baba et al. In a quandary of anxiety about where to turn next, fearing that any spiritual community she might affiliate herself with would fall apart (as her yoga society in the U.S. had her friends were now involved in a variety of different cults) on the advice of a friend she drove up to Mt. Shasta to see an alleged "channel of the 'White Brotherhood"' and devote herself to meditation on the "mystic mountain." Since the psychic was a fraud and she didn't have quite Milarepa's stamina for cultivation, she ended up reading books on Buddhism on the mountain and thinking about Heng Hsien and Gold Mountain and what appeared to be a stable, if forbiddingly austere, spiritual community.
Intending to systematically investigate all the Bay Area groups before committing herself to any, she came to Gold Mountain and was strangely moved by the ceremony in progress when she entered the non-dual door. She soon had the chance to speak briefly with the Abbot, the Venerable Master Hua, and In reply to her question, "Are you my Master?" he replied that if would be climbing on conditions to say "yes" and that it was entirely up to her to accept him or not. It was clear he wasn't out to lay a trip on her and she attended the rest of the summer session, unable to bring herself to check out any other groups. At the suggestion of the Abbot that she return to school, she began auditing classes in Pali and Sanskrit at UC Berkeley and working part time while attending as many temple functions as possible. The initial freak-out occasioned by the vast gulf between her yoga society lifestyle and the awesome manner of Gold Mountain soon gave way to the conviction that she had found what she had been searching for for so many years. A few months later she asked the Master to allow her to leave the home-life. He then disclosed to her that she had been his disciple not once, but many times, for more lifetimes than he could remember. He had already told the bhiksunis that he recognized her when she first came two years before, and knew that she would be back but had said nothing at the time. "When the disciple is ready, the guru appears," for only then can the student recognize his teacher.
Sramanerika Heng Chen is presently teaching Spanish at Gold Mountain and will collaborate with Bhiksuni Heng Hsien on translations of sutras and the Venerable Master Hua’s biography into that language. She has translated the Heart Sutra into Russian, and is making fast progress in her study of Chinese. She hopes to turn her account in the years to come in propagating the Buddhadharma.
On Maitreya Bodhisattva’s birthday, the first day of the lunar New Year in 1974 Sramanerika Heng Chen made the following vows: