The end of the year is always filled with the somber spirit of death. At the end of last year, several elder Dharma Masters and laypeople passed away, causing us to lament the ephemeral nature of the world. Elder Upasika Guowu, the Ven. Master’s disciple for over twenty years, also passed away on December 19th of last year.
I. Wealth Did Not Hinder Her Pursuit of the Spiritual Path
Although Elder Upasika Alice Phuong came from a rich family in Hong Kong and grew up in pampered comfort, she was friendly and easygoing, never the least bit haughty. This is due to the influence of her Buddhist family.
Her father was a devout Buddhist who had taken refuge with the Venerable Elder Master Hsu Yun. As a child she frequently saw the Elder Master Yun, and the Elder Master even visited their home. It is apparent that she had abundant good roots, which enabled her to draw near two pre-eminent great masters of our time.
II. Not Recognizing the Good Advisor
After marriage, she continued to enjoy a wealthy lifestyle, living in a luxurious house in Saigon, Vietnam, with seven servants attending upon her. Upasika Helen (Guo Xiang) Woo says, “Whenever I went out with her, she never remembered to bring her purse or to close the door, because she was used to having servants follow her.”
Upasika Phuong once recalled, “At the end of 1974 the Venerable Master came to Vietnam to propagate Dharma for the first time. I was in charge of taking care of them. I myself lived in a large room, but I put the Master in a very small guest room.” She regretted this for many years afterwards, and felt remorse for not having showed more reverence toward the Master. These circumstances led her to take refuge with the Master. Gradually she came to understand what a tremendous teacher he was.
III. Who Could Have Foreseen the Change of Power During War?
In early January 1975, the Ven. Master returned to the United States. On the 17th he sent a telegram to Upasika Phuong saying, “If the Upasika has taken care of her business in Saigon, I hope she will come with her husband to America a little sooner. See you later. --Gold Mountain Monastery.”
Upasika Phuong followed the Master’s instructions and came to the United States on March 10. Her husband, who was concerned about their business in Vietnam, temporarily went to Hong Kong. On April 17, her husband felt that nothing was happening in Vietnam and urged her to go back to Saigon. When she consulted the Master, he said, “Wait three weeks and then decide.” Two and a half weeks later, Saigon’s government changed hands.
Looking back, she was extremely grateful for the Master’s foresight, which allowed her family to leave Vietnam safely; he had in effect saved her whole family.
IV. Staying Near the Master and Diligently Protecting the Dharma
After arriving in the United States, Upasika Phuong stayed constantly by the Master’s side, listening to and actively protecting the Dharma. When Dharma Realm Buddhist Association was first founded, she gave up her position and endured hardship, often living at the temple and helping the Bhikshunis to transcribe and edit the Master’s commentaries on the Sutras. Being fluent in Chinese, English, and Vietnamese, she helped with the translation of Buddhist terms and Chinese idioms in the early days of translating Buddhist texts. She also supported the Master’s decision to buy the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas.
No matter where the Ven. Master went to propagate the Dharma, she was always in attendance at his side. In the 1980’s, virtually every disciple of the Master knew Upasika Phuong. She was always bustling about at the temples in Los Angeles, Seattle, and Canada, extending warm hospitality to every person. When people first came to a temple, they usually met her before they met the Venerable Master.
Gold Wheel Temple in Los Angeles was founded in 1976, before the Master had been there. She and Upasika Woo covered a table with a red tablecloth from Upasika Woo’s amateur opera singing days and placed a small Buddha image on it. Upasika Phuong then asked everyone to offer incense, and that was how Gold Wheel Temple started.
Although Upasika Phuong was getting on in years and had severe asthma, as long as she had the strength she would always be there helping out; she was never the least bit lazy.
V. Her Asthma: A Frightening Case of Cause and Effect
Upasika Phuong herself explained the cause of her asthma. When she was younger, she didn’t understand cause and effect; after she had given birth, she heard that pigeons were very nourishing, so she ate one live pigeon every day. As a result, she suffered from asthma from then on, and it became even more miserable in her old age.
The Venerable Chan Master Zhi ate two pigeons every day. One day he commented that one of the pigeons was missing a wing. No one confessed, for the offense of stealing the National Master’s food merited execution. Chan Master Zhi said no more, and quietly finished off the pigeons. Then he calmly walked outside and spat out two live pigeons, one of which was missing a wing.
Someone asked the Venerable Master if it was permissible to eat meat. The Master replied, “If you can eat something dead and spit it out alive, then you may eat meat.”
VI. Going to Singapore in Her Old Age and Illness
In the winter of 1988, despite her son’s opposition, she resolutely came to the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas to attend a Dharma assembly. On the first day she became gravely ill. Her face had turned pale and her lips were black, yet she still forced herself to go to the Buddha Hall for ceremonies. Actually her situation was quite dangerous. Upasika Woo immediately told the Master and sent her to the hospital for emergency treatment. The first day in the hospital, the laywoman who took care of her didn’t get any sleep because she was constantly at the bedside wiping Upasika Phuong’s sweat, thinking she wouldn’t make it. But by the next day Upasika Phuong was back in the Buddha Hall attending evening recitation.
When she was sent to the hospital, her liver was so swollen that the doctor could feel it with his hand. Usually a swollen liver will not shrink back to normal size. However, after a few days her liver did just that. Upasika Woo says this miracle must have been due to the Master’s silent aid.
In 1989 her family urged her to return to Southeast Asia. Still bound by worldly ties, she left the United States and went to Singapore for a period of convalescence until her death at the end of last year.
VII. A Good Dharma-Companion on the Bodhi Path
Upasika Phuong always had the patience to teach newcomers to Buddhism about the rules and ceremonies. Through her own practice, she served as a model for the assembly in the Buddha Hall, the dining hall, the kitchen, and just about every other place. Upasika Woo admits to having been deeply influenced by her. Although she was often absentminded in worldly matters, she never forgot to help and guide living beings. This Elder Upasika, who devoted herself to Buddhism, will forever be a good companion for every Dharma friend on the path to Bodhi.
Vajra Bodhi Sea is published by the Dharma Realm Buddhist Association (DRBA). DRBA was founded by the Venerable Master Hsuan Hua in the United States of America in 1959 with the goal of propagating the Orthodox Dharma. One of DRBA major tasks is the translation of the Mahayana Buddhist scriptures into the world's languages. DRBA has also established various educational and social service programs to promote peace, happiness, and a high standard of ethical conduct for the world. At its headquarters, the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, are housed Dharma Realm Buddhist University, Developing Virtue Secondary Schools, and Instilling Goodness Elementary Schools.