Dharma Master Heng Hsien

Dharma Master Heng Hsien was born three days after Pearl Harbor by flashlight during an air raid. Childhood memories carry a strong thread of continual prayers for world peace. From the beginning her world focused in academic communities. Her father taught at Stanford and later accepted a position at the University of California, Berkeley. Heng Hsien was precocious and drawn to an adult world, especially that of her grandparents' generation, and often wished she had been part of their time when life was more disciplined and moral concerns more primary.

Although Heng Hsien preferred books, she was a filial child and responded to her parents' concern that she be a well-rounded individual. While remaining an honor student she became active in volunteer community work, joined a college sorority, and traveled in Europe and North Africa. She studied in Paris for a year.

      Dharma Master Heng Hsien's interest in religion came early and was far-reaching. Although specific religious affiliation in her family had ceased with mixed marriages several generations’ back, and Heng Hsien's family did not attend services, Heng Hsien always wanted to be taken to church. When she was old enough she went on her own or with friends. She was especially responsive to Judaism and Mormonism; she read volumes about mystics and memorized much of the Bible, but as she puts it, "I never found reason to believe in one religion rather than another, or rather, saw it as an intellectual decision one made to believe without considering the possibility of faith being based on concrete experience."

Having "proved" herself by making "aristocratic" friends, gaining academic recognition, popularity, and the good life, Heng Hsien graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, with a B.A. in Comparative Literature with honors, the Departmental Citation, and a Phi Beta Kappa Key. A Brandeis University fellowship followed which led to a Master's Degree in one year, and the opening of insights which left her dissatisfied with course work and searching for a teacher. She returned to graduate school at Berkeley.

She began pouring over Indian and Chinese philosophy and randomly adopted their schools of practice but no system seemed right for long, she still thought she had to learn everything and devise her own eclectic philosophy; she had no idea she could ever have full faith in a single teacher. Her mother died of cancer and Heng Hsien chose to stay with her father rather than accept a Bryn Mawr fellowship offered to her.

Later she wandered through Europe and North Africa again, and then returned to U.C. Berkeley for a Ph.D. and a last ditch attempt to "salvage what mattered to me from an education system that I felt was somehow 'closing over' and soon to become Inaccessible to spiritual aspirants." She felt the desire to gain whatever was left of that kind of scholarly competence while there was still time.

By 1969 Heng Hsien's interests were focusing on Buddhism and that fall she met Upasaka I Kuo-jung in a Sanskrit class at U.C. Berkeley. He told her of the Venerable Abbot of the Buddhist Lecture Hall in San Francisco and gave her a copy of the first issue of Vajra Bodhi Sea. That summer Heng Hsien attended a special study session on South Asia at the University of Washington in Seattle and concentrated her study on the Heart Sutra. Among reference materials recommended to her were the Venerable Master Hua's Standless Verses and commentary on the Sutra.

That fall upon her return to San Francisco, Heng Hsien went to the Buddhist Lecture Hall and on her second visit during the evening lecture on the Lotus Sutra, although she didn't understand Mandarin Chinese at the time, she had the distinct feeling at one point that the Master was talking directly to her. When the translation of that portion of the lecture was made and reached the same point, she learned that the Master had been quoting the Heart Sutra. Heng Hsien began to attend lectures more and more regularly and started taking careful notes, a practice she still never neglects. She began to give her income for the support of the Monastery, saving only the minimum to cover her own living expenses.

During the summer of 1971 after Gold Mountain Monastery was established, Heng Hsien came to San Francisco to live to draw near the Master and his teachings. In the middle of the summer session of 1971 she received the precepts of a Sramanerika. Heng Hsien began serious study of Chinese and also commenced teaching languages at the Monastery including Sanskrit, German, and Portuguese--all the while looking to her dissertation which dealt with a Sanskrit portion of the Avatamsaka Sutra.

In the spring of 1972 Heng Hsien passed her Ph.D. orals and immediately turned her full attention to the intensive precept platform held at Gold Mountain Monastery during that summer which led to her full ordination as a bhiksuni on August 8th, 1972. She became the first woman to receive the Complete Precepts of the Thousand Buddhas on American soil. In 1972, with issue number twenty-one of Vajra Bodhi Sea, Heng Hsien began writing a Sanskrit lesson for each issue. During that time she also taught a course in Indian Civilization at U.C. Berkeley as a part-time Acting Instructor. She also became an active member of the Buddhist Text Translation Society, editing The Amitabha Sutra and the Vajra Sutra texts and commentaries.

In 1974 Heng Hsien joined the group of translators who give on-the-spot translations into English of the Venerable Master's Sutra lectures and Dharma talks. In the late spring of 1975 Heng Hsien's Ph.D. dissertation was submitted and approved. At present Heng Hsien is working on a translation of National Master Ch'ing-liang’s Preface to The Avatamsaka Sutra.