Records of the Lives of the High Masters

THE HIGH AND VIRTUOUS MASTER GUNAVARMAN1
"MERIT ARMOR"

Continued from issue #55

From the lecture of the Venerable Master Hsuan Hua
Translated: Bhiksuni Heng Yin
Edited: Bhiksu Heng Kuan
Revised: Bhiksuni Heng Chih Sramanerika Heng Chen

 

When he announced his decision to join the Sangha, all the ministers, scholars, and the people knelt and begged him not to abdicate.  He denied their request and they wept. "All right," he finally said, "if you insist that I remain emperor you must agree to three conditions.  Otherwise, I am going to leave home."

"What are your three conditions?" they asked.

"First of all, within the country I rule, everyone must be respectful toward, make offerings to, and take refuge with the Triple Jewel.  All the citizens must do this."

"That can be arranged," they said.  "What is the second condition?"

"All the citizens must uphold the five precepts and cultivate the ten good acts: no killing, no stealing, no sexual misconduct, no greed, no hatred, no stupidity, no lying, no vulgar speech, no abusive speech, no backbiting.  What is more, they must cease killing and eat only pure vegetarian food."

See how this Dharma Master first convinced his mother to quit eating meat and now his disciple, the King has convinced the whole country to do so!

"There's no problem with that one," they said.  "What's the third?"

"You must distribute all the treasures and wealth in the storehouses to the needy, the sick, the widows, widowers, the orphans, and the childless."

"Fine," they said, and the King remained on the throne.

He then erected a temple for his teacher, Master Gunavarman.  He joined the other carpenters and industriously pounded nails. On one occasion a board fell on his toe, which swelled up considerably.

"Master," he cried, "my toe!"

"You," Master Gunavarman said, "are just looking for trouble.  Why are you working as a carpenter?"

"I wanted to express my true sincerity toward my Master," the King replied.

"Well then, you will undergo a little pain," said the Master.  But then he applied a mantra, which healed his toe on the spot, and the King's faith was redoubled. 

Having converted the King of Java, Master Gunavarman became well known.  In China, during the Sung dynasty, Buddhabhadra's3 disciple Hui Kuan, as well as Hui Tsung and others, went to the Sung Emperor Wen4 and asked that someone be sent to request Master Gunavarman to come to China to spread the Dharma.  The Emperor ordered the Magistrate of Chiao Chou along with Dharma Master Fa Ch'ang and Tao Ch'ung and others to serve as envoys to request Master Gunavarman to come to China.  Basically the King of Java did not wish to let his Master leave the country, but when he thought it over he realized that people should not be selfish and his own country was small, whereas China was large.  He thought it best to allow his master to go to China to teach and transform living beings.  But, before the party from China arrived in Java, Master Gunavarman had already set sail on a merchant ship intending to travel to a small kingdom to teach the Dharma.  Strangely enough, a wind came up and blew the Master directly to Canton.  Hearing of his arrival, the Emperor of China sent people to welcome him and bring him to the capital.  On the way he passed through Shih Hsing where there was a mountain called Hu Shih "Tiger City" which Master Gunavarman said resembled Mount Grdhrakuta "Vulture Peak," in India, and its name was accordingly changed. 

In the monastery on the mountain, many Sangha members cultivated the Way.  The Master built a small dwelling place about a mile from the monastery where he cultivated Dhyana samadhi.  Although the sound of the monastery bell did not reach as far as his hut, whenever the small hand bell was rung, the Master immediately arrived at the monastery. 

It was generally known that the Master had certified to the First Fruit of Arhatship because his actions differed from those of ordinary men.  He looked like he was walking on the ground when actually he was walking in space, about one inch off the ground. People noticed that when it rained, the bottoms of his shoes did not get muddy, and so they knew he was a sage.

There were many man-eating tigers on the mountain, but whenever the Master met one, he would put his staff on the tiger's head, and speak the Dharma for the tiger, which then would tamely saunter away.  After this happened several times, the tigers never bothered anyone again.

On several occasions the Master entered Dhyana samadhi and did not emerge from his room for days on end.  Once, the monks sent a novice to inquire after him, and the novice saw a white lion guarding his door and green lotuses filling empty space.  Startled, the novice called out, but by the time the other monks arrived, the vision had vanished. Such miraculous occurrences were many.

The Emperor invited the Master to come to Nanking, and, in the year 431, he arrived. The Emperor asked him, "I wish to be a vegetarian, but the exigencies of the court etiquette and the pressure of those around me, all of whom eat meat, prevent this. What can I do?"

The Master replied, "The Way is to be found within the heart, not in specific affairs. The Emperor's cultivation will naturally differ from that of the common folk, for the Emperor has the charisma, which the people do not. You need not necessarily eat vegetarian food.  What you should do is benefit the people.  Be a just and benevolent ruler and command the people not to kill.  Teaching the people not to kill is your form of vegetarianism and its merit far surpasses that derived from simply eating one meatless meal and saving one creature's life.  Your cultivation does not reside in simply eating less meat or in drinking less wine.  Teaching your subjects to be filial is your form of filial piety. You must influence the citizens not to commit evil actions, but to practice all good deeds.  That should be your cultivation."

The Emperor exclaimed, "Most Sramanas are confused about broad principles and most scholars are caught up in the specific teachings.  Those confused about broad principles speak about cause, effect, and the illusory nature of things in an unclear way.  Those attached to specific teachings cling to their books and literature.  Today, having had this discussion with the Dharma Master, I finally understand the great Way of the gods.  The Emperor arranged for the Master to live in the Jeta Monastery, and made abundant offerings to him.  Many Bhiksus, Bhiksunis, Upasakas, and Upasikas cultivated there, attending the Master's lectures on Sutras such as the Lotus Sutra and the Dasabhumika Sutra.

One day at lunch, after he had taken a few bites of food, Master Gunavarman suddenly rose and returned to his room.  There he sat upright in the full-lotus position and died. When his attendant noticed he had left the room, he went to ask after him and found that the Master had suddenly gone to rebirth.  He was sixty-five years old.  He had announced to his disciples previously the time of his death, and had also written a set of thirty-six verses, which narrate the events of his life as a cultivator and describe his contemplation of corpses. He had watched the corpse swell, turn green, leak pus and blood and then be eaten by worms.  Finally, only the skeleton remained.  He had realized that no matter how beautiful the woman or how charming the man, when they are dead, their corpses are equally disgusting.  What is there to cling to?

Through such contemplation he had won great bliss and his meditation was ineffably delightful.  He had then certified to the First Fruit of Arhatship.  After that, he had continued to cultivate, but had been disturbed by the constant barrage of people who came to make offerings to him and consequently he had retired to the mountains and saw no one.  He had continued to cultivate in the stillness of his retreat and had attained the Second Fruit of Arhatship. He then left Ceylon for Java, and later went to China to propagate the Great Vehicle.

When the affinities, which drew him to this world, had been fulfilled, he died and was cremated according to Buddhist custom.  He truly had independence over birth and death.  When he was burned, in a heap of sandalwood, his faithful disciples saw the smoke form into lotuses and watched as a dragon flew out of the smoke into empty space.  Because of these occurrences, everyone trusted his translations of the Sutras and Vinaya, and knew that his merit and virtue was exceedingly great.  In our own cultivation of the Way we should imitate the greatly virtuous ones of the past by never relaxing or slacking off, but always forging ahead with all our might in order quickly to put an end to birth and death. 

The end

MORE INSTALLMENTS OF RECORDS OF THE HIGH MASTERS WILL APPEAR IN FUTURE ISSUES OF VAJRA BODHI SEA.