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