Born in New York City, Dharma Master
Heng Ching spent an uneventful childhood in the Bronx Park Zoo. He
visited the zoo several times a week to see a certain small group of
animals: the cassowary, whose feet could rip up the hide of any
animal in the world; the llama, who could spit better than anyone he
had ever met; and the electric eel. Since he could lie in bed at
night and hear the sounds of the penned lions he seldom went to look at them.
When he was twelve, his family moved to the countryside in Bucks,
England, where they lived in a thatched roof house located on
several acres, backed by a shrub fence separating them from a large
cow pasture at the edge of a thick grove of trees. Next door was a
strange place called Nonsense House, built without a single right
angle, and situated in a tangled garden at the side of a lake known
to be bottomless. The lake was haunted by the inhabitants of a coach
which fell in on a winters night some two hundred years ago. One
morning, after a very rare snowfall, he was a bit surprised but not
mystified to see a set of wagon tracks running from the edge of the
lake, along the border of the two properties, straight up to the
wall of his house.
The house was in the village of Stoke Poges and he sometimes
stopped by the graveyard, which is the subject of Thomas Gray’s
famous elegy, and the words, "the knell of parting day" were
commonplace in his family. Often he would go to nearby Windsor
castle to visit the chapel and dungeons, to climb the parapets and
look across the Thames at the fields of Eton, but spent most of his
time studying at home, reading a book called Orpheus, A History of Religions .
As son of a Jewish family it was a matter of course that he would
be Bar Mitzvahed at the age of 13, and he
began a crash course in Hebrew, theology and ritual. He was
impressed and felt compelled to search further in religious studies.
Unfortunately his education had left him totally unfit to memorize,
and so he didn’t get far. Nonetheless, he continued to attend
synagogue regularly, and at the same time extended his readings in
religion. Nothing eventful happened during the next few years,
except that Heng Ching indiscriminately consumed every book he met.
In 1962 he went to Southern Illinois University and, by quirk,
began to study Chinese. At that time he was planning on being a
linguist, poet, or rabbi, none of which really demanded a knowledge
of Chinese. But it interested him, and so he kept it up. In 1963 he
lived in Germany for a year, and more certain in his thought of
being a rabbi, he nonetheless sank deeply in to the unbearable gloom
and depression connected with the usual young existentialist trip.
Following his sojourn in Germany, he moved to France, and,
prepared by three years of French in high school, took up Chinese
studies at the National School of Oriental Languages in Paris. That
year found him repeating 1st year Chinese in French. He somehow
managed to learn both languages even though he had discovered a new
pastime which was, for a time, as absorbing as religion: hasheesh.
Somehow he found a way to make hasheesh, Chinese, and the Talmud mix
as he began to attend courses at one of the centers of Jewish study
connected with the University. Through a series of events which even
he found difficult to believe, he found himself one Friday evening
in a small synagogue on a back alley in one of the poorest sections
of Paris. It was full of bearded old men who muttered, rocked, and
swayed in the light of the Sabbath candles. Heng Ching stood frozen
as they stopped and looked at him. Not knowing what to do, he stood
there until they sent several young boys to escort him in. A big
fuss was made, and he was accepted by one of the men who was a rabbi
and ritual slaughterer, and spent the next few months in the homes
and at the services of these strict Hassidic Jews.
Once in the course of the chanting and singing he felt a great
flame spring up within him. For a week or more he floated when he
walked and was aware of a great joyous light everywhere. However,
the prohibitions they wished him to accept were too narrow, and he
recognized the hypocrisy of washing the blood off one’s hands to
copy out religious texts. The state he had learned to experience
with them could be made to appear only with great effort and was
clearly impermanent, and so he left.
After studying Oriental Languages in Paris for two years he went
to the University of Washington for a reason which he is quite
unable to explain, as he had already been accepted at the University
of Hawaii and in fact had even arranged transportation. His good
roots were immediately recognized by Prof. Edward Conze, the eminent
Buddhist scholar, author, and translator of many important works in
Buddhism, and for two years he heard Dr. Conze lecture three times a
week, talked with him privately, and intensely studied Buddhism. It
did not take him long to realize that the philosophical background,
depth of thought, subtlety and sense of coherence that had been
lacking in everything else was to be found in Buddhist doctrine.
Heng Ching said of this period of time,
"All I really understood
of what Dr. Conze taught in those two years was this: Buddhism is
alive. To divorce its philosophical system from its practice is to
kill it. The principles must be practiced, and to be practiced they
must ultimately be learned from a traditional teacher, a
Bhiksu of an orthodox lineage, because the
true teaching is handed down from master to pupil. If there is not
such a teacher, one can only rely on the texts and commentaries, and
consequently it is essential that the finest academic procedures be
used in translation, but never at the cost of the true meaning of
the text. Where scholarship and Buddhism disagree, the Buddhists are
the authorities. Scholars are scholars, Buddhists are Buddhists and
what we need is scholarly Buddhists."
Although he did not know
the Sanskrit required to learn the techniques of translation from
Dr. Conze, Heng Ching decided to translate Buddhist texts using the
works of Dr. Conze and Suzuki as models.
After two years in Seattle, during which he also studied with Dr.
Hurvitz and Father P. Serruys, the opportunity arose to study with a
master whose language he knew. While still in Seattle, Dharma Master
Heng Ching’s good roots with Buddhism caused him to hear of the
Venerable Tripitaka Master Hsuan Hua. He traveled to San Francisco
to meet and pay his respects to the Master early in 1968. Within
three days of his arrival he took refuge and became a disciple with
the Dharma name of Kuo Ning. That summer he attended the 96-Day
Meditation and Shurangama Study Session at
the Buddhist Lecture Hall, and began to apply the principles of
Buddhism to his own life. At the beginning of this session he was
extremely capable in written Chinese, but knew no spoken Chinese.
Within two months, however, he was making fluent spot translations
from Chinese into English of the Master’s daily lectures on the Shurangama
After that summer passed, he decided to stay on and went looking
for a job. Weeks passed and none appeared. One day, on the way to an
interview, he passed by a slaughterhouse.
"Morbid curiosity compelled me to take a look. At that time I
had already maintained vegetarian eating for almost a year. In the
street was a seemingly endless flow of carcasses on the backs of men
in stained white smocks. I went behind; there were large pens there,
but they were empty. In a pile of I don’t know what, a large black
dog slunk with his tail between his legs. Looking up at the main
building I saw, on the 4th floor, the terrified face of a lamb,
looking back down to earth. It disappeared.
On the floor below was a
high window behind which a light bulb burned. It could barely be
discerned through the crusted substance on the glass. I was
incredibly confused, horrified and moved by emotions, which I still
cannot name. Suddenly there broke into my consciousness the whack of
a club against flesh and a noise for which terror is too mild a
word. It was the sound of a sheep. Everything transformed, all the
places, times, worries, the horror that I used to sense in the air
of Germany, all coalesced and became something else.
I tried to say
the Great Compassion Mantra but couldn’t remember it without a book.
I knew then what the Buddha meant in the very beginning of the Sutra
we had spent 96 days studying. He told Ananda that to be widely
learned is still no substitute for cultivation. Without doing the
work there is no understanding of the way.
The sound of the sheep
continued in my ears as I went home to the temple. It continued for
a week until I asked permission to leave home. It still continues.
Not until all sentient beings have been liberated from the sea of
birth and death will the sound of that sheep stop. It is for this
reason that we must work hard to spread the Buddhadharma in the
West, to put an end to suffering, and an end to killing–––and end
the sound of the sheep."
In December 1968, a Seven-Day Meditation Session was held at the
Buddhist Lecture Hall in San Francisco. Although Heng Ching had left
home for three months, he hadn’t done anything and continued to be
lazy. He was, however, looking forward to the session. About a week
before it began he fell ill with a severe cold which turned into a
case of Hong Kong Flu. After remaining in bed for about a week, his
condition did not improve. The session began and he lay on a couch
in an ante–room of the temple with a burning fever. The meditation
session progressed, so did his fever. In all he did not eat for
about two weeks. Midway into the session his delirium reached a
peak. Heng Ching has described this time well:
"Finally the heat and the pain became unbearable; I was sure
that it was impossible to stand anymore. So severe was this sickness
that I could not even keep my mind clear enough to remember the word
Buddha. When it got to be too much I passed into unconsciousness
again, and this time I emerged into a cool and clean place, without
heat or pain, the anti-thesis of what had been racking my body for
the past ten days. It was like stepping into the center of an
air–conditioned emerald, but one made not of matter as we know it.
There were a number of people whom I recognized, all of whom I knew
to have been dead for some time. This did not cause me to reflect on
my own state, however. They were all ecstatically blissful, calm and
radiant, their bodies shining with cool light. They were also not
bound to one place but were free to drift through space at will. In
short, it looked like the best of all possible worlds, particularly
when I stopped to take a look at the sweating pain–wracked hunk of
meat of which I still had a vague awareness.
My contact with that body grew weaker as I began to feel the
strength and bliss of this new realm. Everyone invited me to stay
and told me that I would be free to do as I pleased and enjoy
whatever I wanted. I agreed and was taken for a tour on which I was
shown all manner of blissful existences. In a landscape of
indescribable loveliness, lush and fecund, strolled many beings with
shining bodies. At the base of a cliff splashed with the most subtle
of pastel wash colors, on an exquisite lawn, sat a number of people
in a semi–circle. All sat in meditation posture and were beautifully
adorned. They did not move but their faces held a serene and fixed
smile. They seemed to be able to sit in one place and enjoy
everything that could be enjoyed.
At that time I thought that this would be a fine place to
practice Buddhism and asked my guide if it would be possible to
‘Cultivate,’ he said, ‘what is that word? There is no such
thing here.’ Startled I went and asked some old friends and
relatives if I could cultivate in that place. The reply was the
same. Surprised, I asked if it would be possible to see my Master if
I lived there. The reply was the same; no one even knew what a
Master was. ‘Here, we are all our own masters,’ they said, ‘we are
free to do as we please; no one controls us. This is independence.’
Alarmed at the prospect of not seeing my teacher again I firmly
resolved to go to wherever he was and study with him there. The cool
green crystal world faded away and I returned to the Buddhist
Lecture Hall. My fever broke and although it reoccurred slightly,
someone always seemed to come and cool me off when it began. Within
a few days I was sitting up and began to eat, and within a week I
was out of bed. The process of learning what cultivation is has not
been easy and is really only beginning. It is for certain that the
joy of those heavens is an illusory one since the basic process of
birth, sickness, old age and death, by which one learns of life and
death, is not recognized there. The heavens, like everything else
impermanent, are bound to come to an end."
Alert and concentrated, Heng
Ching enjoys translating sutra lectures.
Heng Ching’s cultivation consists of rising each day at 4 AM to
bow to The Lotus Sutra, followed by a day filled
with meditation, recitation, translation, and hearing lectures on
the sutras. He also cultivates the practice of eating only once each
day before noon. Although he is vigorous, he is often prodded by the
Master, who uses many expedient devices to test Heng Ching’s
patience; for example, he is often scolded for doing something wrong
when he is right, and praised when he is wrong. Heng Ching’s
cultivation of Ch’an (Zen) meditation is precise, and he has arrived
at important understandings and awakenings.
Dharma Master Heng Ching spends many hours each
day translating Buddhist texts. His translations have included work
on The Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva Sutra,
The Shurangama Sutra, The Diamond Sutra,
The Sixth Patriarch Sutra, The Record of Water Mirror Turning Back Heaven, the Ta Pei Ch’an, and lengthy
passages from the Vinaya among others. Of these, he has given
particularly careful attention to The Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva(Ti Tsang) Sutra, and gives
weekly lectures on this sutra in order to strengthen the
establishment of the good Dharma and to uproot the false
Dharmas popular in the West today. In
order to help others gain a first hand knowledge of the sutras he
has given freely of his time to instruct in spoken, written, and
Dharma Master Heng Ching made the following vows at the Buddhist
Lecture Hall on February 15th, 1970:
- I vow to always be born in places which have not had
Buddhist Sutras before and to translate Sutras.
- I vow to propagate the Pure Land Dharma Door.
- I vow to propagate the Ch’an School.
- I vow to save the Demon King.
- I vow to leave home in every life.
- I vow to attain the five eyes and six super–knowledges and to
cause those who study me to do the same.
- I vow that after I accomplish Buddhahood, if any sentient being
is possessed by demons or is insane and calls my name or sees my
image, I will cause that sentient being’s karmic obstacles to be
suddenly wiped away; he will ultimately attain to Buddhahood.
- If one possessed by demons or insane sees another person who
recollects my name, I will cause that person’s karmic obstacles to
gradually be wiped away.
- If there is one who wishes to learn languages for the sake of
propagating the Buddhadharma, and if he recollects my name or bows
to the images of any Buddha, I will cause that person to be able
to speak, understand and write the languages of all countries and
to have unlimited eloquence.
- I vow to cause those who are born in my land to see Amitabha Buddha.