The Bodhi Lectern


By Bhiksu Heng Ju

Upasika Kuo Ts'an, Terry Epstein, was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1955, the youngest of four children. She did well in grade school when there were teachers around her that really cared, but in general was over-awed by the brilliance of her older brother and sisters, not realizing that she was in the same class with them. In the seventh grade she became extremely repulsed when she saw a movie about how a cow becomes a cheeseburger. She wanted to become a vegetarian at the time when no one else was doing it.

In high school she was repeatedly disillusioned by the limited insight and the lack of true concern for students which she encountered in every teacher she met. She began working with retarded children, and found that she was able to help them get rid of their emotional problems, and get up on their own feet. She was moved by their complete helplessness, their emotions, more intense than other children's, and their difficulty in understanding.

She joined the Northeast Lakes Federation of Temple Youth and was elected Worship Chairman of her youth group a position entailing, a lot of travelling. She spent a lot of time writing contemporary services, songs, and poems, and trying to relate the ancient traditions to current world events, such as Vietnam, moratoriums, peace marches, etc. But despite her vigorous dedication, she still felt a very big empty spot in her spiritual life, and felt that her work was too limited and incomplete. The exclusiveness paranoia began to bother her, as did the extent to which Judaism was becoming not much more than a belief in Israel. She just didn't think that Israel was as great as her peers esteemed it to be, and she certainly wasn't interested in snuffing out all Arabs.

      Her first exposure to Buddhism was through her brother, Upasaka Kuo-jung Epstein, lecturer in Oriental philosophies and religions at University of California, Davis, and long-time cultivator at Gold Mountain Monastery.  Even though he went to college when she was seven, she felt very close to him and respected what he said. He taught her to recite the name of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva in order to help calm her mind. She didn't really understand the method, but tried it anyway and found it to be very efficacious. She met the Master Hsuan Hua when she was fifteen, and upon seeing him felt that he was "very special," and felt very much at home at the Buddhist Lecture Hall.
      In her senior year she became interested in all religious paths, and found that they all had their strong and weak points. 

She had become very frustrated with Judaism and disillusioned about the youth federation; neither went far enough. Her search for peace and meaning became the major objective of her life. At that time, together with some close friends, she applied for and received a grant from a private foundation and opened a school for ghetto children. The thirty-six kids that attended gave her a real education. She saw how the children were trapped and molded by their environment even at the young age of eight, and had her ideas and ideals about education severely tested. It was one of the most difficult undertakings she had ever experienced, but the school was a success, and she and her friends learned a lot about teaching in the process.

In the summer she came down with a severe case of mononucleosis, and was terrified at the prospect of a long illness. Her brother again helped her by teaching her to recite the Great Compassion Mantra. In less than three weeks she was well. She didn't know what to think about this, and it caused her to wonder and investigate Vajra Bodhi Sea. As a result she gave up eating meat in spite of the fact that she hated vegetables. She went to Kirkland College, a small, old, isolated school in upper New York State--no grades, no exams, lots of innovation. She liked the school, but didn't dig the artistic elitism and the all night parties. She found a friend, a disciple of Kirpal Singh, and began learning how to meditate, and her fascination with religions opened up again as she looked to the East for a way to wisdom and release from suffering. The idea of karma began to make sense, as did the principle that all living beings have the same enlightened nature at their source.  Fascinated with what people call religion, she decided to major in religious studies. She had seen that there is something in all religions, the sacred wisdom that transcends the boundaries of dogma. But in a philosophy course called "The Problem of Evil," she couldn't help stumbling over the Western concept of God, an almighty, theoretically benevolent, all knowing being who let his children suffer. This didn't make sense; the evil in the world could not be reconciled to "things that passeth understanding." It was obvious to her that Christianity is just the lack of a better answer. She wanted to solve the problems of life now. She found that the more she studied Buddhism, the more sense it made. There w/nothing "beyond understanding," and because all beings inherently have complete wisdom; good and evil, no longer absolute, ceased to be obstacles as she realized that the Buddha-nature is neither good nor bad.

After much deliberation she took a leave from Kirkland and enrolled in a work/study program at Gold Mountain. She thought that there would be a lot of pressure on her but found that she was able to work at her own rate, and allowed to develop her own natural abilities. Nobody forced her to do anything. She felt very much at home, and strangely drawn to the Venerable Abbot, and got herself involved in various temple projects that suited her.  She wrote afterwards: "To my surprise everyone seemed to think it was fine if I was interested and fine if I wasn't. However, I found myself immediately feeling at home and very drawn to the Abbot. In fact, a few days after I arrived I attended a taking refuge ceremony and was very much torn between wanting to take refuge and knowing that it was too soon. Two months later, glad that I had waited, because I understood more about what it meant to be a Buddhist disciple, I did take refuge. I spent most of those six months attending the Abbot's lectures (I only missed one or two), auditing a Chinese class, proofreading, editing, and typing. Though I had never been able to read Vajra Bodhi Sea very well, once I arrived here I couldn't put it down and read the first 58 issues in about a month. To fulfill the written part of my work-study protect I wrote two papers. One was a basic introduction to Gold Mountain, explaining ceremonies, the Buddha Hall, etc. The other, a more detailed explanation of how to perform specific ceremonies and offerings.

Before I took refuge I had read in Vajra Bodhi Sea about all the people who had seen the Abbot emitting bright light and various other miraculous happenings and I wanted something special to happen to me so that I would know for sure that he is my teacher. But then I began to realize that everything about the Master is special. There are many people in the world who can emit lights and manifest spiritual powers, but few if any have a heart of compassion and wisdom as great as our Master's. In fact, just to have the opportunity to draw near to him is a rare privilege. When I realized these things, there was no doubt in my mind that he was my teacher."

Kuo Ts'an is currently a senior in religious studies at University of California, Santa Barbara. She is also working on classical and modern Chinese so that in the future she will be able to help in the translation of Buddhist texts and the Master's commentaries.