*After graduating, the author returned to CTTB during the summers to teach her younger classmates.
The City of Ten Thousand Buddhas was my whole world when I was growing up. I remember trying to tell one of my classmates in college about it. I went on for about half an hour, and then he said, "I have no idea what you are talking about. I can't even imagine that kind of community." My heart sank. I realized that what had been such a central, dominant and treasured experience in my life was marginal, strange, and inaccessible to most people.
My earliest memories are of attending Sutra lectures with my parents. (Sutras are Buddhist scriptures). Every evening we would go to the temple, and I would play with the other kids while the adults chanted and then listened to our teacher, Master Hsuan Hua, give Dharma talks (lectures on Buddhist teachings). Master Hua was a respected, high monk in Asia but nothing about him made that obvious to me. From my point of view he was a kindly older monk whom everyone called Shr Fu, a Chinese term meaning literally "teacher-father."
My parents used to drive Master Hua back and forth from where he lived to the lecture hall, so I got to spend quite a bit of time with him at a very young age. I always thought of him as a grandfather, a member of the family. He was very accessible but could also be stern. He would always carry candy in the long sleeves of his robes to give to the children. I remember once my friends and I followed him all the way up to his room in hopes of getting more candy, and he scolded us for being too greedy. I felt deeply ashamed and will never forget his teaching. However, I never had the sense of being scared of him. He was someone who was incredibly compassionate and to whom you could always talk and who was very, very wise. I think I took his presence for granted because for all of my life he had always been there. I don't know if all children feel that way about their grandfathers, this complete trust and confidence, feeling like there was someone there you could always talk to about things. In elementary school and even up through college, if there was something that I was really seriously thinking about or was troubling me, I would go and talk with him about it.
Master Hua encouraged me, and I got the impression very early on that we were important as children, and as human beings, that we could make a contribution. We were encouraged to do whatever we could to fulfill our potentials—men and women, lay people, monks, old and young, everyone should do this. This was just standard.
When I was in elementary school, Master Hua started teaching a matching couplets course in the morning. This is a form of traditional Chinese poetry where one person writes a line, and someone else has to match it. If the children wrote their matches in English, someone would translate them into Chinese, and then we'd go up and write our line on the blackboard. He took everyone seriously—the five-year old as well as the forty-year-old head monk. Every once in awhile he would let the kids sit in front of all the monks and nuns in the lecture hall. This is not what you do in a traditional temple where there is a hierarchy.
How things are done at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas is very traditional, strict, and conservative in many ways. The monks and nuns follow strict monastic rules: they eat one meal a day, sleep sitting up, and follow a rigorous schedule. Yet, Shr Fu was very flexible, innovative, and had a humorous spirit about him. In monasteries, usually the abbot gives all the lectures and everyone comes to hear him, but Shr Fu had a system where he would speak last or sometimes not at all. Sometimes he would draw straws. It was like a game. One nun would speak, then one monk would speak, then one laywoman and one layman. This was a very good model. In traditional Buddhism men are higher in the hierarchy. Here everything was very democratic and equal. At the end someone would be chosen to go up to give a review or critique, and then perhaps Shr Fu would talk. His comments were very down to earth—not esoteric, scholarly, or obscure. He always focused on how to put the Dharma into practice and how to be a good person. There was this constant spirit of inquiry, not accepting things on faith but constantly questioning and thinking for yourself. That made a very strong impression on me when I was little.
*The author, while studying at the Girls School at CTTB, played the role of Tripitaka Dharma Master Hsuan Tsang of the Tang Dynasty (on horseback).
The creative and innovative spirit that infused the traditional Chinese practice of giving Sutra lectures was extended to our education as well. As kids, we were also encouraged to give lectures in the Buddha Hall. Even if we were scared to do it at first, we were kindly encouraged, and once we did it a few times it became more natural. Another highlight of my elementary school days was putting on Buddhist musicals. Our teachers would adapt stories from the Sutras into plays and one of the nuns would write songs to go with them. It was great to learn about Buddhism in this way. We even made one of our plays—the Three-Cart Patriarch—into a record. The whole class got to go to a recording studio to record it.
Although we didn't have all the activities that a ritzy private school might have and most of our teachers were volunteers, we had excellent instruction. One of my favorite classes was art with Flory Chow (cover artist, Grace Millennium, Issue 1) who taught us sculpture, drawing, and painting. I remember doing an acrylic painting of a northern Californian Buddha sitting under a redwood tree. Our learning about Buddhism wasn't just book learning. We did a lot of different creative activities, and we had many opportunities to interact with the monks and nuns and participate in the activities of the monasteries.
Once when I was young, there was a world religions conference at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas with representatives from different religions. Some fundamentalist Christians set up camp on Talmage Road with huge protest signs. It scared me that they were protesting, because I didn't realize that anyone would find our community objectionable. Without telling anybody, Shr Fu rode out in his little golf cart and talked to them in English—something he did not usually do. He said it was really hot out here standing in the sun and invited them to protest under the trees near the monastery. I guess this really shocked the people who were protesting. Some of them didn't want to come in and they left, but others were moved and ended up coming in, going to the conference and having lunch.
To be continued