Introducing the Eminent Dharma Protector


By Bhiksu Heng Kuan

Everyone has his own causal conditions, and when these conditions ripen, there is attainment. During the winter of 1974-75 the Venerable Abbot of Gold Mountain was invited to lecture in seven different countries of Southeast Asia. While he was there many people wished to become his disciples, among them a man named Li Yen-wu, who is a retired General in the Army of the Republic of China.

It may seem to some that the compassion of Buddhism and the destruction of war are strange companions, but consider this possibility: Perhaps in his last life the General was a bhiksu, and a diligent cultivator of the Way, able to renounce family, wealth, pleasure, able to renounce everything except his desire to lead, to be a great official, a minister, or a general. On the one hand he single-mindedly meditated on "Who is it who recites the Buddha's name?" and on the other he single-mindedly thought, "Next life I'll be a general and protect the country."

On the one hand he cultivated the Way, and on the other he thought about being a heroic leader and guardian of the land, so in this life he became a general in his early twenties, giving up his life as a student to defend his country against the invading Japanese. He is a graduate of the Chiang-wu-tan Military Academy in Manchuria. He also attended the Army War College to study strategy. During the September 18th and July 7th incidents, he recovered much land from the Japanese.

General Li is not only a strategist, but a calligrapher and poet as well. On one occasion he showed the Venerable Abbot an autobiographical poem he had composed. The Venerable Abbot glanced at the eight lines, set the paper aside and said, "You didn't write this."
     General Li, amused, said, "What do you mean? I composed it with my own brush!"
     "No," said the Venerable Abbot, "I composed it."
     General Li laughed.
     The Venerable Abbot said, "If I hadn't written it, how could I recite it after barely glancing at it? And then he proceeded to recite the poem from memory:

The Black River has flowed a thousand years;
The White Mountains have stood ten thousand aeons.
My home was the rustic wilderness, hidden away on a mountain peak;
There I planted the fields, dug wells, and was happy with my growing
At twenty I tossed away my brush like the heroic Pan:
Now my face is ashen and wrinkled and I have to stay in a foreign
When can I return again to my old hometown,
To circle the pine tree before the cottage?

General Li was born in the Black Dragon River
Valley of Manchuria in Northeast China, near the majestic White Mountains. The third line of the poem is an allusion to the ancient text from the time of Emperor Chiang Hsiung, which says:

When the sun comes up I go to work.
When the sun goes down I rest.
I dig wells and am able to drink;
I plant the earth and am able to eat.
What do I need the emperor for?

The feeling he wishes to convey here is one of rugged, independent happiness. The reference to the "growing family" is from the Book of Odes, the first of the Chinese classics. General Li is saying that in his old home he planted the fields and dug wells and was happy as the family grew every day.

"Tossing away the brush at twenty" refers to his response to the invasion of the China mainland by the Japanese. This line is an allusion to Pan Ch'ao of the Han, a great general, who ceased his studies to repel a foreign invasion.

But now, the poem goes on, he is old and wrinkled and far away from his boyhood home. He thinks about returning to his native village to circle the pine tree before his cottage. This refers to a dream his mother had before he was born, that he was walking around the pine tree before their house. Shortly thereafter he was born.

At this point the Venerable Abbot stopped and said, "You really haven't got any guts. You were a son once, and you still want to go back and become a son all over again." The General laughed. He was really surprised.

When General Li took refuge with the Venerable Abbot he saw a number of inconceivable things (see letter which follows), and during the ceremony his heart of great compassion was born. With its birth, every thought of desire ceased and what he experienced was subtle and wonderful. At that time the Venerable Abbot gave him a method to cultivate the Way, the mind seal, for it can be said that he had already had an enlightenment. Then the Venerable Abbot taught him this verse:

Walking, standing, sitting, and lying down.
      Don't separate from This.
      Having left This,
      You've made a mistake.

The General wrote a poem in reply:

Every minute, every second, one must be on guard.
Every second, every moment, one must cultivate the Way.
Not drifting off for even an instant,
Not even for a moment can one leave the Middle Way.

General Li's letter to the Venerable Abbot of Gold Mountain, along with other examples of his calligraphy, appear on the following pages. The letter itself appears on page 58 with an English translation on page 62. His calligraphy of the poems in the proceeding article will appear in future issues of Vajra Bodhi Sea.

Master of the Orthodox Dharma

    The Mind’s Lamp is Eternally Bright.

Respectfully written in Taiwan by Disciple Li Yen-wu

Master on the High Seat of the Way:

When Yen-Wu took refuge recently in Taiwan, he looked up in awe at the Master's inconceivable Dharma power. When the Master was on the High Seat this disciple had a sudden awakening to the meaning of "The mind's lamp is eternally bright." After taking refuge, a tremendous thought of compassion remained in my mind at all times for about a week. Because of that thought, this disciple had no extraneous thoughts of desire. Because of that, this disciple had a further awakening to how compassion enables one to be empathetic towards others, and how it can sever desire.

This disciple further realized why it is that most people, when reciting the name of Kuan Shih Yin Bodhisattva, add on the words, "Greatly Kind and Greatly Compassionate." It is because those who cultivate in this way must not only maintain a heart of kindness, but also must maintain compassionate thoughts. From today on this disciple will at all times cultivate and maintain the words "The mind's lamp is eternally bright," because upon awakening to the mind's lamp, this disciple has been totally filled with good thoughts. These thoughts are truly as the Master describes, "understanding the mind and seeing the nature." Would the Master say it is appropriate for me to diligently cultivate in this way? If the Master would give but a line or two of instruction, this disciple would be most happy.

At the refuge ceremony when the Master was on the High Seat speaking Dharma, Yen-wu noticed that the Master first appeared to be a Bodhisattva, and then appeared to be a great General. Then these two appearances began alternating in rapid and endless succession while at the same time his Dharma fingers opened out in a compassionate gesture and closed up into a fierce fist again and again without cease. Yen-wu became totally enthralled and absorbed in watching this and suddenly had the awakening to the mind's lamp.  After the ceremony was finished this disciple asked those of great virtue who had been in attendance if any of them had seen the Master manifest such Dharma appearances. No one had seen them. Yen-wu alone had seen them. Again, how fortunate!

After the master finished speaking Dharma he instructed his disciples: "You should bear what others cannot bear; yield what others cannot yield.  Even if you are beaten or scolded you should bear it and be yielding." After that instruction he asked, "If someone were to scold your Master what would you do?"

At that time, yen-wu was muddled and unclear and blurted out in reply, "Laugh it off."

The Master said, "What if someone wanted to kill your Master?"

This disciple immediately answered, "Stand up and come forward." The meaning being that this disciple would die in the Master's stead. Because the ceremony for taking refuge had been long, it was feared the Master was too tired, and so it was not convenient to ask for more instruction at that time.

After this disciple left he realized that "Laugh it off" was not the way to be patient and yielding. This disciple should have said that he would try to explain the doctrine to that person, and if that person still did not understand, then this disciple would "shake out his sleeves and leave," that is, he would have nothing more to do with him. It would not be appropriate to scold that person in return. And if someone wanted to kill the Master, upon further reflection, that answer was also not right. This disciple should have said he would try to reason with the person or would use his strength to protect the Master. If he could not sufficiently protect the Master, then he would die in the Master's stead. After Yen-wu thought this over, he wrote a note and told how these two answers were incorrect, and what he felt he should have said, and tacked the note on the wall of the Chih Lien Ching She (the temple where the Master had spoken Dharma and transmitted the three refuges) to let those of great virtue examine it and judge for themselves. This disciple doesn't know what the Master would say about this.

When the Master departed from Taiwan, Yen-wu went to see the Master off. Because he observed that others just gave the Master a brief bow, Yen-wu did likewise, and thought that he had done the right thing. But then Tsang Kuang-en arrived and made a full prostration before the Master. Seeing that, Yen-wu realized his mistake, and immediately tried to correct it by making a full prostration before the Master right then and there. The reason for this breach of etiquette was that this disciple has not cultivated, nor has he had much opportunity to be in the presence of the Triple Jewel, and so he does not know the rules. Adding to that the fact that he is a coarse person, these were the factors that contributed to the mistake. Because of his previous mistake, after Yen-wu finished his full prostration before the Master, his back broke out in a profuse sweat and he experienced total and endless shame!  After he returned home, he knelt before the Buddha at the altar in his home and painfully chastised himself further. It is still difficult to forget. This disciple doesn't know if the Master will extend his compassion to forgive this disciple's vulgar lack of clarity. Having been a disciple for such a short time, Yen-wu has already made so many mistakes. As he writes, this feeling of regret remains with him still. It is impossible to say how agitated and regretful—how deeply sorry he is. It is concerning these matters that Yen-wu has written the Master, and respectfully bows.

Compassion and peace

Common Disciple 
Li Yen-wu

P.S. After the refuge ceremony this disciple wrote out the four words "The mind’s lamp is eternally bright" on a scroll and has airmailed it to the Master by way of remembrance.

Don't say that the lives of tiny creatures are insignificant;
They, too, have bones and flesh; they, too, have skin.
I beg you. Kind Sir, do not shoot the birds in the boughs,
For the babies there are waiting for their mother to return.

"Poem on the Prohibition against Taking Life" 
by Pai (Po) Chu-i.

Copied respectfully in the summer of Chia-yen 
      as a keepsake for San
      Gold Mountain Monastery
                      By Li Yen-wu of Ch'ang-shan

Translated by Bhiksuni Heng Yin

General Li Yen-wu is an accomplished calligrapher whose work is held in highest esteem. Among contemporary calligraphers, no one has been able to match the strength of his brush; his characters are written as if they were carved in stone. Some say that he has even surpassed the running style of Mr. Yu Yu-jen, upon whose work he based many years of his own practice. The combination of strength and value in General Li's calligraphy is very rare.  His poems and calligraphy have been widely published, and can be found in museum collections.