Records of the Lives of the High Masters



From the lecture of the 
  Venerable Master Hsuan Hua

     Translated: Bhiksuni Heng Yin
Edited: Bhiksu Heng Kuan

Revised: Bhiksuni Heng Ch’ih
           Sramanerika Heng Chen

      The greatly virtuous High Master Gunavarman, "Merit Armor" was born into the royal family in Kashmir. His grandfather, Haribhadra, "Lion-hued Worthy," had been a highly respected virtuous king, but eventually was overthrown by his subject for being too rigid and unyielding. Consequently his son, Sanghananda, who was Gunavarman's father, never became king but fled to the mountains to cultivate the Way. Gunavarman also liked to cultivate and was especially intelligent, even as a child.

When Master Gunavarman was fourteen years old, his mother, who enjoyed eating the flesh of wild beasts, asked Gunavarman to find some meat for her.  Gunavarman refused. "All creatures love life and dread death," he said. "Eating the flesh of animals is not compassionate. Not only do you destroy your own compassionate sensibilities, but you create killing-karma as well."

His mother flew into a rage. "Supposing," she said, "just supposing there were an offense involved. It would be my offense, not yours. I would stand in on your behalf to receive the retribution for it."

      Gunavarman did not reply, nor did he go out hunting for his mother. A few days later, he accidentally splattered some boiling oil and burned his hand in several places. In great pain, he went to his mother and said, "Mama!  The pain is excruciating'. Won't you please stand in for me and undergo this pain on my behalf?"

You're just a child," said his mother, "and not a very bright one, at that. Your body, not mine, is in pain. How can I possibly bear it for you?"

"If it is the case that you can't take the pain I suffer in the present, how much the less will you be able to represent me in undergoing the karma for my offenses to come in the future? Several days ago you said that if I went hunting you would take the retribution on yourself, but now you can't even undergo the pain of a burned hand for me. How do you expect to suffer for my offense karma?"

One who wishes to save his mother and father must have a clever method.  Suddenly his mother understood. She ceased killing and ate only vegetarian food. The young Gunavarman had purposely splattered the oil on his hand in an attempt to cause his mother to believe in the Buddhadharma. His method worked extremely well.

When he was eighteen years old, a physiognomist said of him, "When you are thirty you will sit with your back to the north and your face to the south, you shall be proclaimed an honored one and will be the emperor of a great nation. However, should you dislike worldly glory, you may leave home and you will be able to certify to the fruit of sage-hood and become a world-transcending sage."

When he was twenty, Gunavarman left the home-life and received the complete precepts. Then he traveled around propagating the Buddhadharma.  People were very respectful of him and had great faith in him. He read all the Great and Small Vehicle Sutras, several million words, and could recite many of them from memory. When he was thirty, the King of Kashmir died without leaving an heir. The officials and the common folk got together to select a leader and since they greatly revered the Master, they decided, "Gunavarman is virtuous and learned and should become emperor." They asked him to ascend the throne, but he refused, saying, "I left home to cultivate the Way and care nothing for worldly matters. Find someone else. I won't do it."

He continued to travel throughout India, spreading the Great Vehicle Teaching. The people persisted and asked him again. In fact, they asked him three, four, five, six, seven times to take the throne, and what do you think happened?

He ran away. He went off to the deep mountain valleys where no one could find him, ate leaves and roots, and saw no people at all. He cultivated the Way among the wild beasts and later he traveled to Ceylon (Simhala) where he studied and propagated the Teaching. Among the people it was known that he had certified to the First Fruit of Arhatship. His speech was cogent and principled and his deportment was so awesome that the people had but to see him once and they brought forth the resolve to attain enlightenment.

Then the Master went to Java. The day before he arrived the Emperor's mother had a dream in which she saw a boat flying across the sea, carrying a Sramana. When Gunavarman arrived the following day, she recognized him.  "Yesterday I dreamed a Sramana was riding in a flying boat. Today a sramana has come to our country. He looks just like the "one in my dream." She believed in him a great deal and received the five lay precepts from him: no killing, no stealing, no sexual misconduct, no false speech, and no intoxicants. She studied under the Master, cultivated, and learned a lot.

One day she spoke to her son, the Emperor. "I have a great affinity with you and so you are my son and I am your mother. This is most propitious.  But I am a Buddhist and you are not, and so our causes and effects are divergent. I fear that in the future things will not be as fortunate, for we are headed down two different roads."

The Emperor understood that his mother wanted him to become a Buddhist, even though she had not said so openly, and she certainly would not have demanded it. "I shall take the five precepts," he said to her, and he forced himself to go ahead, even though he wasn't very interested in the Buddhadharma. Because Master Gunavarman had given proof to the first fruit, he taught the doctrines so effectively that the King eventually came to believe in the Dharma. "It's incredibly wonderful," he said. "Why didn't I begin studying it sooner? How fortunate I am to have such a fine mother who believes in the Buddhadharma and has saved me as well!" He was overjoyed.

Just when he was most elated, trouble came. The neighboring country invaded. The Emperor went to Gunavarman and said, "Master, if you believe in the Buddha, then people bully you! If you're evil, people fear you, but if you're good, they push you around. Before I became a Buddhist, no one dared oppose me. Now they have come to wage war. If I fight them with troops I will kill many men. If I don't fight, the country is finished. Master, I ask you, what am I to do?"

Gunavarman said, "If they attack, use your troops, but hold thoughts of compassion, not cruelty. Since you have taken the five precepts, you should pity your enemies, not hate them."

The King instructed his troops to recite "Homage to the Greatly Compassionate Bodhisattva Who Contemplates the Sounds of the World" (Avalokitesvara) and to take pity as their guiding principle rather than the intent to kill. So although they went off to battle, they recited the Bodhisattva's name. As a result, as soon as they met the enemy, the enemy retreated, frightened by their awesome virtue. The King was injured, having been shot in the foot with an arrow, but was still happy about the victory.  Gunavarman recited the Great Compassion Mantra over some water and then washed the King's wound. It healed completely in just a few days, and didn't hurt at all. This caused the King to believe in Gunavarman even more sincerely.

Having gained such a victory, the King realized that the Buddhadharma was truly unfathomable. He studied every day and after a while he had an awakening: he awoke to the fact that being a King was a lot of trouble-- "This is a problem! We'd better ask the King. That's a problem. We'd better ask the Emperor.' Ask the King: Ask the King!"--and he decided he would be better off leaving home to become a member of the Sangha than remaining so caught up in trivial worldly matters.

To be continued


Gold Mountain Monastery

1731 15th Street

San Francisco, Ca. 94103

October 29, 1974

Venerable Masters:

We wish to express our gratitude for the hospitality we experienced during our visit to the Translation Institute on October 18, 1974. The group of students from Mills College and myself were deeply impressed by the Venerable Abbot's instructions and also the practice of the Dhamma they found realized by those who took the vows as monks and nuns. Certainly this kind of work will bear fruit and be of benefit to all of us. It is also an example for our own cultivation.

Sincerely yours,
in Dharma
        Ruth-Inge Heinze, Ph.D
        Research Associate
        Center for South and
        Southeast Asia Studies