The Bodhi Lectern
INTRODUCING THE EMINENT DHARMA PROTECTOR
UPASIKA KUO CHAO EBERLE
Kuo Chao Eberle and her two younger brothers grew up on Long Island, New York, in a big rambling house just blocks from the Sound. One room of the house is given over to two large pianos, and there Kuo Chao's talented mother taught the town's children how to play. Kuo Chao displayed her independent streak early by refusing to take up piano and turning to the visual arts to express her view of the world.
The Eberles are a close knit family in which there is much mutual respect and sharing. Mr. and Mrs. Eberle are unusually open-minded, happy, and supportive parents, and all their children are devoted to them. Mr. Eberle, who is a TV director, wisely told Kuo Chao when she left the nest to make her way in the world that the most important thing was to learn to regard herself and her problems with detachment.
Kuo Chao decided to attend State University of New York at Stony Brook where she studied fine arts and was occasionally lured into working for the school paper. In this connection she had some important experiences
"Once I found myself trapped with a delegation from that paper in the riot area in Chicago during the Democratic convention when the riots of the summer of 1968 flared up. It was like a small isolated war, with crowds, police, troops, and violence running amok through the streets day and night. Some people were believed to have been beaten to death in those riots, and it was in general a very brutal and dangerous situation. My friends were scattered and lost, and there was no way to get out of the area, but after a week in the thick of it, I escaped entirely unscathed. Curiously enough, just days before, my attitude towards violence had undergone a major change. While stopping one night at a truckstop in Indiana, my friends had gone into the diner. I stayed behind by the roadside. Without really knowing why, I walked over to a huge parked truck, lifted up the canvas flap and looked inside. When my eyes adjusted to the dark, I saw scores of tightly crowded live pigs, obviously on their way to slaughter. They were very still and quiet and the street light glinted dimly on some of their eyes as they looked back at me. I was totally unprepared for such a confrontation. At the time I hadn't studied Buddhism, accepted no religion or system of morality, and believed myself to be a kind of existentialist. My abstract philosophies justified the slaughter of these animals, but eye to eye with the reality of them, the philosophy became empty words and pages, useless thoughts running through the mind, and appeared to be entirely too indirect an approach to life. I stopped eating meat. Strangely enough, having decided to do no part of violence towards others, I was able to escape several days of street riots without a scratch."
Eventually she wound up in Berkeley working at a small rest home alone on the midnight shift.
"Arriving at work one night the aide I was replacing told me one of the patients was dying, a woman of about 65 whose kidneys were failing and whose lungs were filled with fluid. The doctor had been there and said she would die inside 24 hours and that there was nothing to be done. The aide explained to me how to wash and dress the corpse, what funeral home to call, and left. Later that night I had finished my work and sat on a couch at the foot of the stairs, put my feet up, and listened to the woman's breathing. After a few minutes I found myself in a very strange state. I couldn't move my body no matter how much I wanted to, and although I could still see myself and the room around me, everything started to revolve. I began to feel frantic, and was able to lean forward, but there seemed to be a strong centrifugal force from the revolving room that pulled me over and down. I tried to get off the couch and found myself on my hands and knees on the floor. I began to hallucinate leering corpses rolling around the halls on their beds, and blood and excrement everywhere. Two or three times I tried to make it down the hall, reeling from wall to wall, and would suddenly find myself back on the couch. About the third time I suddenly recognized an evil presence that wished me ill, and resolved that it not be allowed to have its way. That time I made it down the hall to the kitchen, where there was a mirror. When I looked at my reflection, my eyes were extremely demonic looking, and my pupils were contracted to the size of pencil points. Sitting at the kitchen table, I returned by degrees to a normal state. After a while I forced myself to go upstairs. Everything was in order and the woman was still alive.
"The next night I was afraid to go to work. I was not yet a Buddhist, but a friend of mine was and gave me copies of the Great Compassion Mantra and the Surangama Mantra. Although I'd never recited them before, I believed in their power and for the next two or three nights recited them by the woman's bed, with no further ghostly problems. Then I had a night off, and when I returned to work the woman was almost completely recovered, sitting up, eating, and drinking. Strangely enough, a hundred-and-four year old woman across the hall, who constantly said, 'I wish I would die,' who, though not sick, had been bedridden for the past several years, had died. Ever since then I've used Buddhist mantras to protect against ghosts, demons, grizzly bears, and the like, and they've never failed. Furthermore, when that deep unreasoning fear grips you in the night, say a few lines of the Great Compassion Mantra and everything will be all right."
In Berkeley Kuo Chao came to find Out about the study and practice of Buddhism at the Buddhist Lecture Hall which centered around the compassionate instruction of the Venerable Master Hua. Mustering her courage, she decided to try out a week-long intensive meditation session in the winter of 1969, even though she had never had any formal instruction in the practice of meditation That week during one of the periods of instruction, the Master gave everyone a chance to talk about their experiences, and Kuo Chao commented:
"I have never meditated before and I was really in the dark when I came in here. I didn't really know what to do. So I've been sitting here trying to pick up some clues from things the Abbot has said so that I might know what I should try and think about, and occasionally I have caught myself either drifting off to sleep or becoming confused without knowing how it started.
"Eventually, however, my legs hurt so badly that it became something very immediate and close to home that I could examine. I did my best, but the pain got worse and worse until finally I started yelling in my head, "What hurts? Who hurts?" but still I did not have any success. Then I began to ask, "who is able to hold in mind the Buddha?" and I noticed--it was pretty subtle and imperceptible--that there is a part that does not have to be attached to the pain at all. I can't say, of course, that I was detached from my knees, but maybe just for a minute I got a much better idea or vision of how a person might really do this."
That glimmering of an idea, coupled with her recognition of the Master's deep compassion and vast Way virtue, led Kuo Chao to commit herself to a 98 day meditation session which began in the fall of 1971. She had tasted the mysterious flavor of ch'an in the one week session, and felt sure that a full 98 days of investigation would reveal more of the inconceivable functioning of which the "stinking skin bag" is capable when the gates break open and the Dharma wheel turns.
During the first days the Master encouraged participants to be "living dead men", to pay no heed to their surroundings but to concentrate on perfecting full lotus posture and penetrating whatever topic they might be investigating. The Master said, "When I attended long, intensive formal ch’an sessions, I sat in the hall unmoving. I paid no attention to anyone or anything. I was intent upon what I was doing and even if they had torn the building down around me I would have remained concentrated on my work of investigating ch’an."
Although several tens of people started the grueling session, the group quickly diminished as the intensity of the endless succession of hour-long sits and fifteen-minute walk periods began to grow. Only one meal was taken a day, and instructional talks were given in the evening. Other than that there was nothing to interrupt the pattern: sit, walk, sit, walk, sit, walk, from 2:30 AM until 12 midnight. Kuo Chao was game, however, and even took up the practice of never lying down although prior to the session she had never tried it.
Gold Mountain was being built at that time, and a lot of work had to be done to prepare it for use. As the workmen volunteered their services for this task, many of the participants in the session left. At that time Kuo Chao thought, "There was a time when if the wind would blow the grass would bend, but not this time,” and she stuck stubbornly to her topic, "Who? Who's leaving? Who's staying," walk, sit, walk, sit, walk, sit, day, night, lunch, sleep. Weeks turned into months as hundreds of incense sticks burned down.
Cold penetrated the dim room as the remaining participants kept up the pace. Cold penetrated the bones as the same false thoughts came and went for the thousandth time.
One day the street noises seemed particularly intense to Kuo Chao. The pitch increased until it was nothing short of an uproar. She realized that workmen had begun gutting the building immediately adjacent to the ch'an hall! The rooms on the other side of the old wooden wall that Kuo Chao had been staring at all these months gradually disappeared as steel balls beat them down and caterpillars raked them up and new rooms appeared as the staccato of hammers began to renovate the structure. The noise was at times almost unbearable, especially when coupled with Chinatown's piped opera, which saturated the streets almost nightly.
"This is insane," thought Kuo Chao, "How can I be in this dark, cold, empty hall trying to achieve stillness in the midst of such deafening turmoil and constant hunger!" But then suddenly she remembered the Master's words "...even if they had torn the building down around me I would have remained..." 'Amazed at this obvious example of foresight, Kuo Chao immediately let the insane false thought pass and got back to work on her topic.
Of the many who began the session, Kuo Chao was one of the few who were able to complete the 98 days of meditation. The experience has had a decided effect on her cultivation since that time. Patience and samadhi are more apparent in her and have stood her in good stead as others have come and gone. Kuo Chao remains a faithful and devoted student of the Venerable Master. She says, "Whenever I try to cultivate I run into extreme difficulty. On the other hand, the thought of completely giving up makes my hair stand on end. What state I'd be in had I not met the Venerable Master there's no telling, and a world without Buddhadharma is a dark and unrecognizable place."
In 1972 when the Venerable Master traveled to New York, Kuo Chao made arrangements with her family, and Mr. and Mrs. Eberle and their two sons opened their home to the Sangha with an elaborate vegetarian feast and invited a gathering of people in to join them in hearing the Master and his disciples speak Dharma. (See VBS # 37 & 38).
Kuo Chao is now a student at San Francisco State University where she is studying Chinese.
By Bhiksuni Heng Ch'ih
AVAILABLE FROM THE SINO-AMERICAN BUDDHIST ASSOCIATION:
Records of the Life of the Venerable Master Hsuan Hua. The remarkable story of the early life of a sage, and a vivid glimpse of the religious life of China under the Republic. The Venerable Master Hsuan Hua, who has brought the orthodox Buddha-dharma to the West, is now Abbot of Gold Mountain Monastery in San Francisco. First of three volumes. With photographs, Paperbound, 96 pp. $3.00
AVAILABLE FROM THE SINO-AMERICAN BUDDHIST ASSOCIATION:
TO BE PUBLISHED IN 1975
Records of the Life of the Venerable Master Hsuan Hua, Vol. II. The Master’s life in Hong Kong.
The Heart of Perfect Wisdom Sutra, with commentary. The essence of Buddhist wisdom.
Three Steps, One Bow. Two American Buddhist monks’ record of their extraordinary 1,100-mile journey for world peace.