When San Francisco’s Gold Mountain Monastery moved to its present location in Chinatown, the first person visitors saw when they came to bow to the Buddhas was the Elder Upasaka Guoli Zhou. He always stood behind the counter with a kind smile, making people feel welcome and right at home. Completing his arduous life journey in this Saha World, this Elder passed away on December 27, 1997, leaving many people who knew him in boundless grief.
“When I think of Upasaka Zhou, I have the recurring image of him kneeling next to the Master with his pad of paper in hand, writing down the Master’s instructions,” says Bhikshu Heng Shun.
Upasika Guozheng Tan says, “Even the most well-liked people are usually slandered and envied behind their backs. However, those who knew Upasaka Zhou felt only deference and gratitude toward him.”
Upasika Guoxu Liang says, “Upasaka Zhou was very discreet in his words and deeds. He always kept a low profile. For over ten years he followed the Master, quietly practicing the Bodhisattva Path. He never criticized others or complained about anything.” “Upasaka Zhou never listened to gossip,” recalls Upasaka Guorui. Since he didn’t care about gossip, there was never any gossip about him.
Upasaka Zhou, whose full name was Liren Zhou, was born in 1918 in a family of scholars in Liaoning Province, Manchuria (northeast China). His mother, whose maiden name was Zang, was the sister of Qifang Zang, the Chancellor of Dongbei University, and the aunt of Professor Guang’en Zang, who earned his doctorate in Japan. Upasaka Zhou majored in history at college. Later he escorted his aunt to the south of China due to the unsettled political situation, and was unable to return to Manchuria. He could only follow the government to Taiwan, where he found work at the National Textbook Editorial Bureau. For nearly forty years in Taiwan, he lived a bachelor’s life, neither remarrying or taking a girlfriend.
In the spring of 1975 in Japan, Upasaka Zhou met the Venerable Master Hua and became his disciple. That fall he came to the United States and devoted himself to Buddhism. He stayed with the Ven. Master for 15 years. His work was to transcribe the Master’s lectures on the Sutras and handle the Master’s correspondence.
When the Master gave his lectures on Reflections in Waters and Mirrors and Lives of the Buddhist Patriarchs, he would orally deliver the text, and Upasaka Zhou would take notes and write it on the blackboard. The monthly journal of Dharma Realm Buddhist Association, Vajra Bodhi Sea, had been published in English. After Upasaka Zhou was appointed Chinese editor, the journal gradually adopted its present bilingual (Chinese/English) format.
When Upasaka Zhou first arrived in the U.S., he took charge of cooking at Gold Mountain Dhyana Monastery. Mrs. Lei reflects, “When I first took refuge with the Master, I didn’t know how to cook vegetarian meals. It was Upasaka Zhou who taught me everything, including how to wrap jiaozi (dumplings).” Moved by Upasaka Zhou’s sincerity in toiling without any complaint, Mrs. Lei took over his kitchen duties.
Upasaka Zhou was well-versed in both Buddhism and Confucianism. When he lectured on the Analects at Gold Mountain Dhyana Monastery, he never used notes, and he would incorporate the wondrous principles of Buddhism into his explanations, causing his listeners to gain insight into Buddhist teachings through the Confucian doctrines. During class, he would tell stories from a wide range of sources and was always ready with Buddhist anecdotes, like a walking Buddhist dictionary. He was able to integrate the principles of Confucianism and Buddhism without conflict.
In order to repay the Venerable Master’s kindness, Upasaka Zhou made three great vows before Guanshiyin Bodhisattva: (1) Never to contend for gains or try to avoid losses. (2) Never to defend himself. (3) Not to forget when people are kind to him. He concentrated on cultivating patience with insult. No matter what adversity he encountered, he could take it calmly and without opposition. Why?
It was because on the morning of the Buddha’s Birthday in 1982, Upasaka Zhou suddenly felt great pain in his right leg, as if hammers were striking it, and he couldn’t move it. The pain was alleviated after the Master used a mantra to aid him, but he didn’t fully recuperate until he had rested for half a year.
When people get sick, there is always a reason. According to the Master, Upasaka Zhou had been President of the Board of Civil Office back in the Song Dynasty. He had sternly applied the law and sentenced one offender to death. The offender’s wife had then hung herself, and the baby boy in her womb also died. Thus with three deaths, the family was destroyed. Now the souls of the wife and her unborn baby had come to demand the Upasaka’s life. When Upasaka Zhou heard the Master’s words, he deeply regretted that though he had been just and fair, he had not been considerate enough and had caused extreme suffering to others. As a result of that grave mistake, he did not qualify as “an official whom people could regard as their own father and mother.” He was deeply repentant. Although this time the Master had helped to resolve the problem and the souls of the woman and her infant had given up their grudge and left, who knows when the retribution for his other mistakes would ripen and come to find him? How could he not be cautious?
From that time on, Upasaka Zhou had a repentant attitude and was even more careful in his treatment of others. In all matters, he preferred to take a loss himself rather than make things difficult for others. When the Master told him or someone else to do something, he always tried his best to see that the job was done successfully.
Upasika Guozheng Tan says, “I’m sure everyone who knew Upasaka Zhou will agree that his vows were not made in vain; he put them all into practice.”
Upasaka Zhou went to great pains to encourage and train the younger generation. The Master wanted Upasika Guoxu Liang to learn to lecture on the Sutras, but was afraid she would refuse, so he and Upasaka Zhou came up with an expedient method: Upasika Liang would read aloud the Master’s commentary on a Sutra in Mandarin and Cantonese. The Master himself would listen from outside, or pace back and forth next to her. Elder Upasaka Zhou would be in the audience, never missing a lecture. And when he lectured on the Analects, Upasika Liang often skipped classes to attend.
When Upasika Liang was learning to lecture the Heart Sutra, Elder Upasaka Zhou busily collected material from the lectures of eminent monks and laymen for her to use as reference; when she was learning to lecture the Dharma Flower Sutra, knowing that she was flighty and impatient, he didn’t require her to lecture the Sutra sequentially; he was always concerned that young people might retreat from their Bodhi resolves.
When the Master asked Upasika Liang to start a Chinese School, Upasaka Zhou helped her to find volunteer teachers and gather teaching materials. He never spoke of people’s faults, except when Upasika Liang was late to class. As she walked in the door of Gold Mountain Monastery, he’d say, “If you are one minute late, multiply that by the number of students you have and that’s how much time you’ve wasted.”
In 1990, he accompanied his wife, who was seriously ill, back to her hometown. After his wife’s death, he himself became ill in his old age. His family urged him to remain at home. Not wishing to burden the Master, he did not return to the United States despite the Master’s repeated entreaties.
Upasaka Zhou revered his teachers and the Way, truly practiced the Six Guidelines, and cared little for fame and profit. Quietly following the Master to propagate the Buddhadharma, he could be said to have “given his all without resting till the moment of death.” He was a model lay cultivator and lay resident in the monastery. Although Upasaka Zhou has temporarily departed the Saha World, he has surely been received by Amitabha Buddha. We hope he will soon return with the Master upon the power of vows. How fortunate that will be for the Proper Dharma and for living beings! Here is a verse in memoriam:
With the country in chaos, it was long before he could go back.
In Japan he encountered the Venerable Master and was saved.
For fifteen years he followed and served the Master,
Repaying the kindness of his Dharma-body’s mother.
Vigorous in favorable as well as adverse conditions,
He vowed to cultivate patience under insult.
Since he didn’t contend for benefits,
Naturally there was no gossip about him.
Temporarily departing the Saha World,
His body is gone, but his virtue will be imitated.
Good indeed, Upasaka--
You are revered and admired by posterity.
You have now returned to the West
To meet your Greatly Compassionate Father;
May you come again riding upon your vows
To save those in the six paths and three destinies.