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Casual Notes from Great Compassion House: Impressions Upon Reading Memoirs like Dust and Shadows

沙彌親峰 文By Shramanera Chin Feng
武曉 英譯 English translation by Wu Xiao








When I first came to the Sagely City, someone handed the set of books entitled Memoirs like Dust and Shadows to me and recommended them to me. That was the first time I read them. At that time my understanding of Buddhadharma was slight. I skimmed through the books and found them uninteresting. Recently I happened upon these books up again and started to read them. This time I could hardly put them down. I was so excited that I hardly slept that night.

Why was I so excited? Because, following that clear sketch of Elder Dharma Master Tan Xu's life and personality, I felt as if I was re-living  those hundred years. During that tumultous time, Elder Tan used all his  strength to hold up a great institution on the verge of collapse. Hanging  onto the last glimmer of hope, he exhausted himself for the sake of  Buddhism's survival in northern China. In 1949 he left Zhan Shan  Monastery, which he had built on Qingdao only a few years before, and moved to Hong Kong to spend his remaining energy writing the last pages  of his life. That was in 1963.

He was determined to attempt the impossible. If he could save just one more living being, he was willing to do it. When most of the great Buddhist monks, such as the Venerables Xu Yun, Yin Guang, Tai Xu, and Hong Yi were drawn to the south, Elder Tan was the only one left supporting north and northeastern China (Manchuria). Reviewing his life, we see that in his time he experienced numerous revolts and crises: the Boxer Rebellion, the army of the Eight Allies, the Russo-Japanese war, Battles between Zhi and Feng, the Zhi-Wan Battles, the Northern Expedition, the September 18th Incident, the Nationalist/Communist war. Under those circumstances, Buddhism had trouble just surviving, not to mention propagating the teachings. Not only did the Elder Tan prolong the life of Buddhism, he infused the declining Buddhism in the north with new blood. Thus, it survived a few years longer, until the Communists took over and Buddhism became a mere name. Reading those Memoirs, one cannot help but weep.

We lament the hardships of the greatly virtuous ones, yet they, returning on their vows, seem not to mind the worldly suffering they endure. Let's briefly review that period of history.

Elder Tan was born in the first year of the Guangxu reign in the late Qing dynasty (1875), in the Beitang Village of Ninghe County, Hebei Province, only 25 li [8.3 miles] from Nanhekou, where the Eight Nations' Allied Forces landed. As a young boy, Elder Tan witnessed his countrymen dying by the guns of the foreigners, leaving the river banks strewn with corpses. When food became a problem, he and a few villagers decided to flee to escape famine. Like a bird flying randomly through the woods, first they found a job working as coolies for the Germans. On account of the language barrier, they nearly suffered a beating. Later they worked for the French, hauling loads. Once they had to haul bags of rice from a ship to the trains. Each bag weighed 160 catties. Elder Tan, suffering from a case of malaria, was too weak to continue. The French boss was supervising the workers like a tiger, holding an iron rod. Elder Tan had no recourse but to hide under the train wheels to avoid being punished.

When he reached Dalian, he obtained a job through someone's introduction, but then the Russo-Japanese war came and he was unemployed again. With no options left, he temporarily used what he had learned of astrology before to tell fortunes for people, thus getting through the hard times. Later he opened a dispensary and his family moved to Yingkou. Life finally started to settle down a bit. At that time, he met Mr. Wang Feng-yi of Chaoyang County at the Buddhist Lecture Hall. Elder Tan was also able to concentrate for eight years on studying the Shurangama Sutra, thus laying the foundation for his future work of propagating the Dharma and benefiting living beings.

To be continued


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