The Bodhi Lectern

By Bhiksu Heng Ju



      Kuo Chen (Christopher) Clowery was born in October 1949 in Columbus Ohio, the second of three children. He had an active outdoor childhood, and became involved in all of the seasonal sports at an early age, football, basketball, hockey, and baseball. At the age of 11, he had an unusual experience. While sitting in his favorite fantasy launching pad, a big red chair in front of a window, he suddenly had a vivid transcendental awareness of cosmic aloneness. It was sudden and overwhelming. He realized that in the truest sense he had no identity, no parents, no need to live, that the physical body was just a small part of his real body, that all limitations are made from one's own mind, and that each person can free himself from all these limitations and problems. He understood from then on that the most important function of a living being was to penetrate to the meaning of ultimate reality, and to aid others in their quest. It was like a cosmic maturity.

Always kind to people and animals, he empathetically experienced the deaths of rabbits, birds, squirrels, and fish around his home and deeply touched, he still remembers each occurrence. At age fifteen, he took up the study and practice of Hatha Yoga. No one else that he knew was doing it, and he told no one. He was outstanding in all of his high school studies, and was particularly active in sports, photography, and the theatre, taking leads in three musical comedies. In his senior year, he was elected president of the student council. Recognizing it as non-ultimate, he danced through it all.

At the age of 17 an experimental Chinese studies program was introduced to his school by an ex-green beret, and he took full advantage of it. He continued his Chinese studies at Middlebury College in Vermont and in 1967 entered Oakland University, one of Michigan's finest and most progressive liberal arts colleges, in Asian Studies. On the first day there he met Bhiksu Heng Yo, who was then a student at Oakland, and became fast friends with him.  Kuo Chen worked three jobs at once for three years in order to support his studies. He was a photographer, a Chinese tutor, and a folk singer.

One evening in 1968 while studying the Sixth Patriarch's Sutra, he experienced a very deep understanding of the Patriarch's sudden teaching. He realized very suddenly the wisdom beyond study and knew that there was no need to "learn" or "succeed" but that all knowledge and all wisdom are already lying dormant within. The challenge was to bring this awareness into consciousness, keep it there, and tell others about it. He was ecstatic, and although the awareness gradually faded, he was motivated to recapture and substantiate this state of mind.

In 1969 Kuo Chen went to Tung Hai University in Taiwan to further his Chinese studies. He investigated Buddhist temples on the island. He began to seriously investigate the Chinese classics, the Lao Tzu being his favorite.  When his studies that year were finished, he moved to Japan. When he left the United States it was his original intention to travel through the Orient to find out about Zen (Ch'an) Buddhism: did it still exist? Were there any living Masters who were still teaching? He found an excellent temple in Kyoto, An Jai Ji, and sat a five-day, fourteen hour per day session. It was such a fine experience that he lived there for several months, under the instruction of Uchiyama Kosho Roshi. It was there that he became aware of his need for training and discipline and for a teacher, because Buddhism was what he wanted to study and practice. He contemplated at this time how young both he and all Westerners are, and how they could benefit from the Buddha's teachings. He gave up eating meat.

His father's health was deteriorating, so he joined the Merchant Marine and shipped out back to California.

When he returned home he was jilted by an old and very close girl friend; his father died; and with his emotions reeling, he went into a long and deep depression. He and Heng Yo took a house in Rochester, Michigan, and sat zazen in the mornings. Because he planned to go back to Japan after graduating from Oakland, he spent the summer studying Japanese at Middlebury Summer School. But in 1969 he won a Danforth Fellowship, a rare honor bestowed upon students who show exceptional skills and concern for religious questions or questions aimed at solving the enduring problems of mankind. He was called upon frequently to lecture on his Zen experiences. He graduated cum laude from Oakland, a "Student of Distinction."

After directing a theater group in Connecticut for several months and lecturing on Zen, religion, and meditation, and deepening an interest in astrology and the Buddhist sutras, he went to Berkeley where he spent three strenuous years as a graduate student in Oriental Languages. He also spent a great deal of time with astrology. He ran into his old friend Heng Yo again and consequently came to visit Gold Mountain. Kuo Chen said that he was kind of frightened by his first visit, because he felt that the Master could see through his games, and he wasn't quite ready to relinquish them. He spent the summer of 1972 under the auspices of the Danforth Foundation at the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, a high powered think tank for the rich, famous, and expert. As the angry young counter-culture man in residence he met in seminars and socially with oil barons, senators, nobel laureates, artists, federal justices, and businessmen. He taught Buddhism, held meditation seminars, taught vegetarianism and abstention from harmful habits, and got the reputation of an articulate, spaced-out symbol of the "new consciousness." The institute was full of powerful men and women who had reached the pinnacle of success, social prestige and worldly wealth, and yet he found not one he wished to imitate or learn from. Although the place was the ultimate of worldly dharmas, his fellow students were turning to him for instructions in peace of mind and listened eagerly to his ideas about the coming revolution of faith and values in America. He was shocked since he had no real training or wisdom to offer. He realized how necessary Buddhism is to the West, how empty our national spiritual heritage is, and how ripe we are for positive input. At this point he vowed to find a teacher who could instruct him in the kind of wisdom needed in America, and in the West.

He returned to Berkeley totally absorbed in the question: how to make a living in a righteous way that can bring the proper teachings to Westerners.  He began to read Vajra Bodhi Sea, sent to him by Bhiksu Heng Yo, got thoroughly involved in astrology, and began writing his M.A. thesis on Dreams in the Ta Chih Tu Lun. He drew closer to the Venerable Master.

In November 1975 he writes, "I was watching my chart and saw a new moon coming to rest on a crucial degree of Sagittarius (Progress Sun conjunct the ascendant at 3 Sagittarius). On the very day of the conjunction, the phone rang and Bhiksu Heng Kuan asked if I wanted to take refuge at 3 P.M. My mind completely fused, I got in the car, drove into town and took refuge with the Venerable Master. Afterwards I felt greatly relieved, committed, and certain of my roots.

"Even then I was constantly plagued by doubts of my future, how to harmonize and blend all the things I wanted to do, astrology, photography, theater, music, writing, teaching, etc. all forms of communication, when the underlying message is missing? The voices nagged incessantly until May of 1974 when I entered Gold Mountain Monastery for a week of retreat and thesis work. Miraculously, suddenly, the inner voices fell silent for the first time in four years. I rejoiced in the silence and decided to walk through the opening door that approached. The only remaining choice is no choice at all--leave home, become a bhiksu, obediently and diligently apply the Master's teachings to my own life, support the Triple Jewel, and help bring the medicine of the Buddhadharma to the unwell patient America, Canada, and the West."

      Presently, Kuo Chen is in residence at Gold Mountain Monastery where he has involved himself with the practice and propagation of the upright Dharma.  He is working on a translation of the novice precepts, works in the darkroom, lectures the sutras, teaches an excellent course in spoken and written Chinese, and holds a full time job. He is quiet, polite, and vigorous in his practice. He actually works for the benefit of Buddhadharma, not himself, and his daily conduct exemplifies all he has said about the need for new values in the West. His Dharma name, which was bestowed upon him at the time of taking refuge, is Kuo Chen 
(). It means the fruit of genuineness. The character Chen is a stand with ten eyes on top of it. It means so genuine that ten eyes could not find fault. In Taoism, it represents the transformation of man from a mortal to a sage. In Christopher Clowery it represents the imminent fruit of Buddhahood waiting to be accomplished.