Today I want to share with you a little secret about my first visit to the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas (CTTB). When I first came in 1990, I was aware that CTTB is a place of cultivation with an austere lifestyle. However, I still wanted to try it out for myself.
One day at lunch there were some loquats in the kitchen that had been grown in the City. They were quite small and covered with black spots. After lunch, I saw a Dharma Master putting the loquats into a pot with a tube coming out from it. In my haste, I forgot to address her properly and simply stammered, "What are you doing?" She answered blandly, "Making juice." The yellow loquats, surprisingly, produced a purplish juice resembling grape juice—pretty amazing! I asked the Dharma Master, "May I take a sip?" "No," she said, explaining that the juice would be set on the table for everyone to drink. The reason I wanted to take a sip then was that as a food server, I often did not take my own meal until the assembly had finished their meal. If the juice was set on the table and people finished it, I wouldn't get a chance to taste it. And so I was eager to have a sip.
That afternoon I lingered in the kitchen doing this and that, looking for an opportunity to sneak a sip of that juice. I had received the Bodhisattva Precepts at CTTB that year, and I knew very well that I would be breaking precepts. But I wanted to taste the loquat juice, so I told myself I would drink it first and then repent.
When no one else was around, I opened the bottle cap, which went "pop" and disappeared. I was frantic, but then found the cap next to a pillar of the same color, making it difficult to see. "The Dharma-protecting dragons, gods, and spirits here are certainly watchful!" I grumbled to myself. Although I was nervous, I didn't forget to take that hard-won sip of loquat juice, which turned out to be rather sour but otherwise quite ordinary.
The next day I saw that strange-colored loquat juice, of which a little bit was left, sitting on the assembly's table as if beckoning to me. I was filled with self-reproach and vexation. If I had known there would be some left over, I would not have had to steal a sip!
When I had a chance to speak Dharma while accompanying a Dharma delegation in Malaysia two years ago, I told this anecdote, which made the audience break out in laughter. After all these years, this memory also seems funny to me. On a recent trip to Taiwan, I participated in a Repentance Ceremony of the Emperor of Liang at a temple. Chapter Seven, "Explanation of Retributions," in Roll Four of the Repentance, says:
A ghost king asked Maudgalyayana: "What offense did I commit that I must swallow hot iron pellets all my life?"
Maudgalyayana replied, "When you were a human being, you were a novice monk. At that time you took clean water to make rock sugar soup. When the rock sugar hardened, you thought of stealing a small portion before it was served to the assembly. Since you stole a mouthful, you incurred this offense, the karmic retribution of which takes place in the hells." When I recited that passage, I thought to myself, "Oh no! I also stole a sip at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. Although my motives were different, the theft was the same." In monasteries in Taiwan, it is permissible for cooks to sample the food after it is done. I did that for years and no one ever told me not to. When I came to CTTB, I brought my old habits along. Although I knew the precepts are observed strictly here, my curiosity drove me to break the precepts and even try to justify myself. At that time, I was filled with remorse and wished in vain that I could spit that mouthful of juice back out!
Later I attended another Buddha recitation session, during which I recounted this matter and asked the Dharma Master hosting the session to shed some light on my quandary. The Dharma Master said, "What can you do now? You drank it, and it's over and done with. Simply repent to the abbot of the monastery." The Venerable Master also said that when you have done something wrong, you can eradicate your offense more quickly by confessing and repenting before the assembly. That's why the Master often allowed his disciples to confess their deplorable deeds in public.
Today I plucked up the courage to recount this incident, and I confess and repent sincerely before the abbot and the assembly. I now realize why the Venerable Master wanted us to hold the precepts carefully—it's because the retributions we receive are never the slightest bit off. I hope the Abbot and the assembly will accept my repentance and forgive my foolishness. Amitabha!