Walking the Way: Praxis and Gnosis in Religious Experience
Institute for World Religions Fall Faculty Lectures Berkeley, California
Dr. Akpinar: Our speaker is Heng Hsien Shi, one of the senior Sangha members in our organization who has been a Bhikshuni for twenty-seven years. She holds a doctorate in South and Southeast Asian Studies from the University of California at Berkeley and a Master's in Mediterranean Studies from Brandeis University. She is going to talk about her reflections from the convent as an intellectual. This is in alignment with the lectures our faculty have given this semester on how to adjust one's intellectual life to one's spiritual path, the balance that we find in it. Next to Heng Hsien Shi, we have Heng Liang Shi, who is also one of the Bhikshunis of Dharma Realm Buddhist Association, and who has been a Bhikshuni for almost twenty years. Next to Heng Liang Shi we have Heng Yi Shi, who has been a Bhikshuni for almost ten years. Both Heng Liang Shi and Heng Yi Shi will speak on the same topic. Without further ado, I will let the Bhikshunis speak.
Bhikshuni Heng Hsien:
I have been asked to reflect upon my own experience, and how I have integrated the intellectual or academic aspect of my life with my spiritual path. Some people start on the spiritual path first as monastics who then broaden their skills and go out into the world, pursuing academic degrees as monastics. I have had the opposite experience, and it's a very interesting story. I don't know how much you will relate to it, but as students coming to a monastery I believe you will. The other two nuns here will also share their experiences. Let me expand a bit on their connection with the university. Heng Liang is our registrar for the Dharma Realm Buddhist University, and has a Master's degree from our university, so she's gone through both training as a nun and university training. Heng Yi Shi, from Taiwan, went to Fu Ren University, which is the Catholic university in Taiwan, for her bachelor's degree. She has also spent time as a student at the Dharma Realm Buddhist University. She has a Master's degree in translation from us and also has worked in the registrar's office. We bring an unusual focus to the topic tonight, and that's why all three of us are here to talk tonight.
Now I will explain how I got interested in Buddhism. I was born in Palo Alto and grew up in the Bay Area. My father was a professor at Stanford, then later transferred to Berkeley. I grew up in Berkeley, in an era when there was a lot of interest in Eastern religions and philosophy. As a student at Berkeley High, I had a course in Far Eastern religions. In those days, although the term Buddhism was thrown around, it meant mostly Zen. People were reading Suzuki, and there wasn't much written in English that explained the Mahayana, or great vehicle. There was a lot from the Theravada tradition, which is the religion still actively followed in Sri Lanka. I read this material and found it interesting, but not as interesting as some of the other religions I was reading about at the time, such as Taoism, which was especially appealing to me as a high school student. Later it became clear that it was the connection with Mahayana Buddhism.
Even before high school, however, I began asking questions. For example, one day I remember posing a question to myself—probably because we were studying reincarnation—"Well, do I believe in reincarnation or not?" Reincarnation means that there is more than one lifetime. In the U.S., our schooling was largely scientific, so I was really questioning, "Does this match my scientific beliefs, and does this all add up for me?" At that time, even the scientific principles that I had studied led me to the conclusion that reincarnation made sense because of the conservation of matter. Why shouldn't there also be the conservation of spirit? If matter changed into different forms, including energy, then why shouldn't spirit, from life to life?
During my time of spiritual searching there was a lot of confusion. People were searching for answers with drugs and looking for enlightenment in strange paths. Some people lost their way. I am sorry to talk in less than upbeat terms about it, but there were some ugly elements that came into the picture. The ideals from that time, in some sense, seem to have been betrayed. If you read the books people are writing about the 60's and 70's, you will read about the things people believed in and how the dreams went bad. Sometimes people say to me, "Oh, you stayed with it," because people tried out this and that, and then they settled into whatever they did for the rest of their lives. I settled into being a nun, although I started out on the intellectual path because I was born and raised in the intellectual community.
I studied languages because I was trying to understand the philosophers, theologians and religious voices from the past, to gain insight into the messages of the ancients and a way to apply the insight to life today. I can't say everyone should follow what I did in language. Language is one key. But the pitfall of trying to understand Dharma from the point of view of language is that I spent a lot of time studying the language—so I got sidetracked. One day, however, I ended up in the class on the
Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit. I chose to
study Sanskrit to understand the Indian philosophies. During a strike, we held some of these classes off campus. When we met off campus, we talked a little more informally. I had a spiritual discussion with one of the members of the class after the Sanskrit lesson. Something clicked, and a while later I received a Buddhist journal in the mail. It was the first issue of the
Vajra Bodhi Sea. At that time the journal was small in size, printed only in English, and looked like it was mimeographed. It was gold in color, representing the center and the Earth and all kinds of special things which I didn't know yet. I opened it and found a photograph of the fellow student with whom I had been having the conversation after the Sanskrit class. In Sanskrit class, he looked very much like an academic, mainstream, non-spiritual student about to pursue an academic career. His name is Dr. Epstein, and he often speaks here. He told me that he was an adherent, or an intellectual scholar and Buddhist practitioner. It turned out he was a member of our temple, which at that time was called the Buddhist Lecture Hall and was in the oldest temple in Chinatown. He was the president of the Vajra Bodhi Sea Society, which had just been formed and was publishing this little journal.
This was a real eye-opener for me. It was a real answer to a question because I had been wandering and searching to understand what was important in this world, and what we were supposed to do. Before I ended up in that Sanskrit class, I had a vision where I saw universities closing down and holding very precious things inside which you could no longer get out. I was in Amsterdam at the time, wandering and searching. The message to me was to go back to the university and get the precious things while I still could. The message was clear. I was to study Sanskrit and Chinese. Although I had considered Sanskrit, I had never considered Chinese before.
So I did just that. It took a little time, but I got back. At that time you could audit at Berkeley because in the late 60's the idea was that the public should be allowed to attend classes at public universities. It was too late to enroll in the term so I audited Sanskrit. I also tried out Chinese. I had the idea that I would study classical Chinese right away so that I could study the philosophy. But they didn't allow me to do that. I had to take two years of Mandarin. So I went to the Mandarin class, which was filled with Cantonese speakers learning Mandarin; it was not a place for a beginner. I studied Sanskrit instead and ended up in the discussion with Dr. Epstein, who turned out to be a disciple of our Master.
The special thing about the Vajra Bodhi Sea was that it talked about the Master, the spiritual life, and the temple. An international group studied there, and it was meaningful for me that they were not cut off from the larger intellectual community of the world. Many of them were graduate students, many of whom had been at the University of Washington and came down to attend the session under the guidance of Dr. Epstein.
To be continued