"Matching couplets" is an ancient Chinese game of words widely loved by students. Take a look at the various written languages we have in this world: it seems that none can be "taken apart" and "combined" back and forth like a game the way Chinese can. Along with the Buddhadharma, the Venerable Master has also transmitted this form of Oriental literature to his Western disciples. Whenever the Master has a little time or wants to let his disciples relax for a while from the serious life of cultivation, he walks into Wonderful Words Hall with a face full of kindness and teaches disciples matching couplets. The Master has also encouraged the assembly to promote matching couplets in the West and to do it in English.
The atmosphere in the matching couplets class is relaxed and full of laughter, very different from that of the lecture hall and the Buddha Hall. Why is everyone so excited about matching couplets? Well, there are a lot of things you have to figure out. It is an expedient way for the Master to test everyone's wisdom. To match a couplet, the words have to be in good order and the meaning contained in the matching line represents the author's character, talent, knowledge, cultivation, and so on. Some write their thoughts in the matches, requesting the Master's advice; while others express the principles they have realized, seeking the Master's certification; still others might take the chance to request the Master's permission to leave the home-life. Though sometimes the Master cannot correct every one of the matching lines personally, he still listens very carefully to each match. One by one, he teaches people according to their potentials. Even though the Master may change just a couple of words, the change contains a limitless teaching which only the author of the match will understand. There is a silent response between the teacher and the students; it is sealing the mind with the mind.
Four years ago, the Master gave as the first half of a couplet:
Everything is a test to see what I will do.
If I don't recognize the state I’m in, I’ll have to start anew.
Being a beginner, I also tried to match:
There are winds and waves to all things;
Let the waves have their way.
When the boat is about to capsize while sailing,
We must stand on our feet.
The Master changed the second half of the last line to "we should promptly put our feet down." Musing on it carefully, I saw that this was actually my biggest problem. In small matters, I apply a petty intelligence, but in major affairs, I become greatly confused. I am especially indecisive at the crucial moment, always in a flurry. The Master's correction of my line was just the right medicine to cure my problem. This is my personal experience of the Master's teaching and transforming through the medium of matching couplets.
In learning to match couplets with the Master, living beings are seeking a refuge within their minds and a response from the Buddhas
and Bodhisattvas. Not only can one take this chance to draw near the virtue of a sage, one can also try to match one's skill against the wonderful wisdom of the sage and worthy. Sometimes, when we have no idea, when we have reached the end of our wits and still don't understand the meaning of the dharma, our embarrassment and anxiousness are probably similar to what the Great Master Shenxiu must have felt when trying to come up with a verse. Many novices can only come up with something less than ideal after racking their brains, but the Master compassionately lets it pass. Therefore, whether they are old, young, Chinese, American, left-home, or lay people, as long as they know a few Chinese characters, all are willing to give it a try with the translator's help. Even those who do not understand Chinese are happy just to watch.
When you run out of ideas, you might think of this expedient: picking two matches from the board, then joining the first half of the first one to the second half of the second to
make a match... It's not known if anyone has actually done this, but the
Master has made very clear to the assembly, "When people match couplets, their wisdom becomes apparent. One's match should be sharp
and insightful; then it will be a good line that stands out. Don't always
play the same old tune and just do what others do, running back and
forth on the same track until it is pitch black. If we just follow after
others, we will fall behind. We should run to the front."
Though it is not easy to come up with a good matching second line, it is even harder to come up with a good first line to be matched. But it always seems so easy for the Master. There was a brief period of time when the enthusiasm for matching couplets was very high; for several consecutive months, whenever the Master came back to the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, we would have matching couplets session. Among the various couplets, there were simple ones like "At the summit of Wonderful Enlightenment Mountain, dragons fly and lions dance." The assembly tried their best, covering the entire board with their
matches. There was the game of "combining words," as in, "In the white water spring, there is one great sky." The characters "white" and "water" combine to make the character "spring"; and "one" and "great" combine to make "sky." There was also the game of "using characters with the same radical," as in, "The Golden Lad Liu lifted the golden knife and brandished the sharp sword; with knife after knife he slashed empty space, but no blood was seen." This line contains six characters with the "knife" radical: "Liu," "sharp," "sword," and "knife" three times. We finally came up with a match containing the required characters of the same radical, only to find that we'd forgotten to match the repeated character "golden."
Seeing his disciples becoming lazy, the Master gave this couplet, "Just eating one's fill and waiting to die: how pathetic." Observing his disciples as they stopped laughing and sank into deep self-examination, and noting the pitifully few matches on the board, the Master made a match himself: "Willing to be lazy in passing the days: the sorrow and suffering lasts forever." Finally, one disciple understood the Master's compassionate intent and matched it with, "Exhorting people to do good with a kind heart: the kindness and compassion are truly deep." Later, out of sympathy for living beings, the Master made another couplet urging disciples to be vigorous in their cultivation: "The air is polluted. Move to the moon. The three disasters are coming soon." The three disasters are imminent and if we don't cultivate and hurry to get out of the three realms, there will not be another chance.
Good couplets have hidden Chan meanings within them. The first lines the Master gave became more and more wonderful. "Professor Tsu, National Father Sun; grandfather and grandson. Who is old and who is young? Who knows?" [Note: In Chinese, Tsu and Sun are surnames, but they also mean grandfather and grandson, respectively.] Professor Tsu is still alive, while National Father Sun was a person of the past. Between the grandfather and the grandson, who is old and who is young? The assembly was not willing to admit defeat; people rallied to the attack regardless of whether the matches were good or not. The next day, the Master was in high spirits, and he gave another similar couplet, "Arrest the minister, Napoleon. Qin took in the two heroes. Which one was loyal and which was treacherous? What's the difference?" [Note: The Chinese transliteration for Napoleon sounds like: to pick up a broken wheel.] "Arrest" and "Qin" sound the same. "Arrest" is used to take minister "Qin." In this couplet, we have to match two persons and use two characters with the same pronunciation and rhyme. Even when we succeed in matching the characters, the meaning might be off. The Master said, "The harder you feel it is, the more of this kind I will give you."
Interestingly, no matter how difficult the couplet is, there will always be people who try to match it. For instance, Professor Yang once gave a couplet with eleven characters all with the same sound yu but differing only in tone. [Note: Chinese is spoken in four tones.] His couplet meant, "Yu-yu and I wanted to go fishing. Encountering rain, we stayed at Yu's apartment to avoid the rain."
So, even though we have different education and backgrounds, we are equally able to apply what we know in testing our wisdom.