As we began to prepare this issue, the news came to us that our Shifu, the Venerable Chan Master Sheng Yen, had passed away. It is a sad time and we send our condolences to Dharma Drum practitioners, monastic and lay, wherever they may be. Such a time is nevertheless also one for renewed focus and resolve to activate the Master’s Teachings in the world so that they may make a difference during these crisis years. We present various texts dealing with Shifu’s Will, his obituary, memorial services and accounts of personal experiences of him as a memorial of a great teacher.
Last May and June several of our Leaders accompanied John Crook on a study tour of Chinese monasteries guided superbly by Rebecca Li, Shifu’s key interpreter. Our journey ended in Taiwan at Dharma Drum Mountain thereby allowing us to meet Shifu, pay our respects to him and receive the blessing of his company. This was a journey during which we learnt much, received valuable teachings, met many fascinating people and began to truly appreciate the depth and presence of Chinese Buddhism in our time.
It is thus also appropriate that we share our discoveries with you at this time.
Dear Venerable Abbot President and Friends in the Dharma,
It is with much distress that we hear of the death of our Teacher, Shifu and Patron of our Sangha. Although many of us were aware of his ill health, a death is always a shock. For me, Shifu was my spiritual father, my root teacher, and his departure brings feelings of loneliness and inadequacy as one generation passes to another. Yet also, there is immense gratitude. I have always been amazed that he passed the Dharma to me, a non-Chinese who cannot even read his language or speak it; yet, it is true, that sometimes when we met there was a direct participation with him in the Truth and this gives me courage to continue the work in the Great Matter. Shifu was to me an inspiration and a shrewd disciplinarian. He understood my wish to convey to our British Sangha the insights of Chan in ways that Westerners could best understand - and that has been my work now for years. Shifu always questioned me in depth and with challenging koan-like subtlety concerning my plans here. I am eternally grateful that my life coincided with his, we were the same age, and that I should have met him. I especially appreciated Shifu's essential simplicity. In spite of his attainments, his learning and his vast seniority there was always a flash of simple understanding between us.
It was an especial joy to introduce several local leaders of our British Sangha to him last June when we came to Dharma Drum, and to see him once more vividly himself and so present with us. My private moments with him then were an especial renewal of an understanding.
I have seriously considered coming to Taiwan for this ceremonial occasion but travelling with a very bad back and moving with a limp would cause more trouble than any help to you. I am to see a consultant next week and trust it will then be set right. Simon will be joining you. We are receiving much mail sending condolences.
I wish you, the Sangha and our friends at Dharma Drum all Dharma blessings at this time. We shall of course continue our deep relationship with you all.
Chuan-deng Jing-di, John Hurrell Crook
On February 3rd 2009 at 4:00pm Taiwan time, the Venerable Chan Master Sheng-yen, passed away peacefully at Dharma Drum Mountain Founder's Quarters in Taiwan thus bringing to an end the life of perhaps the most influential Chan (Zen) master of our generation. At centres all over the world, communities are mourning the loss of their Teacher - ‘Shifu’.
Shifu’s health had been declining over the past three years. This rapid decline started from the time of the inauguration of the Dharma Drum Mountain World Centre for Buddhist Education, Taiwan, in late 2005, when Shifu received surgery to remove a non-functioning kidney, and the remaining kidney’s ability to function became very poor. Since then, he had been going through weekly dialysis and various other treatments, making his body very weak. Over the following two years, his health condition has had ups and downs, and remarkably, in mid to late 2008, Shifu had been noticeably stronger and able to give many lectures and attend many public events. However, in late December, a routine check-up at the hospital revealed a problem. Yet, Shifu kept on with his agenda. Shortly after, he was hospitalized and his health deteriorated rapidly. His condition looked grave. After a few days it took a turn for the better, and there was a visible improvement. Afterwards, Shifu continued to attend meetings and receive guests and also took a leave of absence from the hospital to visit the local Taipei monasteries and centres. Yet, soon his condition again deteriorated, fluctuating between good and bad. He returned to his home in the monastery that he had founded and passed away.
In 2008, Shifu published his autobiography in English carefully prepared by his closest disciples1. Here we read of a man who, like His Holiness the Dalai Lama, always considered himself to be a simple monk but who has accomplished a remarkable renewal of Chinese Zen Buddhism in Chinese communities throughout the world and extended its teachings to the West. His many books have augmented and corrected the earlier Western Zen understanding based on the previous contribution of Daisetz Susuki. Together with other masters such as Thich Nhat Hahn, Shunryu Suzuki and Jiyu Kennett, Shifu has created a Zen renaissance worldwide thereby continuing the work of that great reformer Master Hsu-yun of the twentieth century in China itself.
Sheng-yen was born in 1930 near the estuary of the Yangtze River. Floods destroyed his father’s lands and the family had to rely on a very small property and on fishing the river. This was a life of poverty soon to be made more difficult by the Japanese invasion of the area. As a boy, an old monk asked him whether he would like to be a monk. Although he had no idea what that meant, he grasped the opportunity and sometime later went to school even while battles flamed around. Eventually he became a monk at a well-endowed monastery, Wolf Mountain, near Shanghai. Here he became enamoured with the Dharma with some insight into its significance. Soon however came more trouble and the eventual arrival of the communists. The monks, forced into poverty, kept going by offering funeral services in Shanghai. They received no training. Finding the only way out, Sheng-yen eventually joined Chiang Kai Shek's nationalist army and was thus able to move to Taiwan.
In Taiwan after the usual military training, square bashing and so on, Sheng-yen became an officer in the Intelligence Corps. Although he had no understanding of the implications of the telegraphic material he was handling, the military would not let him resign his commission lest he betray national secrets. He began developing his practice in his spare time and visiting monasteries. Eventually he was able to go back to civilian life. On one occasion in desperation he sought the help of old Master Ling-yuan in whose helpful presence he relieved his mind and experienced ‘seeing the nature’ for the first time. Gradually he became known and through working on a Buddhist magazine eventually he joined a monastery mastered by the eminent monk Dong-chu who had previously been the Abbot of the famous Jian Shan monastery on a riverine island near Shanghai. Dong-chu taught him through vigorous confrontation, giving him pointless tasks to do testing his resolve and will. It was much like the ferocious way in which the Tibetan Marpa had taught Milarepa.
Shifu eventually undertook a six year solitary retreat in the mountains beginning with a long period of repentance leading into study, learning Japanese and developing a determination to study Buddhism at a university in Japan, there being no place of advanced Buddhist learning in Taiwan. He obtained his Doctorate at Rissho University but also undertook gruelling retreats in Japanese sesshins where his learning was ridiculed in true Zen style. He developed the wish to take Zen to the West but had his doubts because he knew no English. “Ha,” said his Master, “Do you think Zen is taught by words?”
Shifu found a sponsor and began teaching in Toronto and New York. But his sponsor was disappointed. Shifu had less English than he expected and other disappointments between them flourished. Eventually a friend, C.T. Shen, arranged for him to live at the Temple of Great Enlightenment in the Bronx, New York. Although Sheng-yen had the qualities of a Master, the temple treated him as a mere novice monk giving him only basic cleaning work to do. Yet again, C.T. Shen stepped in and had him made Abbot. Gradually a few, then more Westerners began coming to the monastery. Although Sasaki Sokei-an had taught Zen, especially from the Platform Sutra, in New York in the 1930s, Shifu was the first Chan master to teach contemporary Chinese Chan to Westerners on the east coast of the US. The only other such teacher in the USA at that time was Master Hsuan Hua over in California.
Then he was called back to Taiwan. Master Dong-chu needed help in his monastery and it took time before the arrangement of alternating time in Taiwan with time in America became stabilised. When Shifu returned to the USA, he needed to live near the monastery and not with his sponsor much further away. He had then to finance his own life but having no money, he became a wanderer, sleeping on the streets, or ‘nodding with the homeless through the night in coffee shops, foraging through dumpsters for fruit and vegetables.’ For a man then in his fifties living this way in a New York winter was a hard life. Yet again, C.T. Shen assisted him finding places where Sheng-yen could teach and hold retreats. Shifu has always said that living in this way was a training invaluably testing his resolve, ingenuity and determination. In any case, as he pointed out, his life had always been like that and the self-discipline imposed by Dong-chu's fierce training came to his aid.
Gradually a Chinese community with some Westerners formed around him and in time they bought a small building on Corona Avenue in Elmhurst in Queens. Although the present Meditation Centre on Corona is not in the same building, his presence in that area was established for many years. A pattern developed. Through his writings in Chinese and in English translation, he became known and through his personal charisma, Shifu grew into an influential figure in both Taiwan and New York. In Taiwan, he headed the Institute of Chung-Hwa Buddhist Culture and also inherited Dong-chu’s monastery outside the capital. Donations flowed in and, given the economic success of Taiwan, the sums contributed were large. Shifu was able to obtain a large mountainous estate on which, gradually, a magnificent monastery has been constructed. It is now an architectural showpiece and a functioning Chan Centre and monastery complete with a seminary developing full university status. In New York, he likewise obtained a large estate in the Catskill Hills thereby creating a beautiful meditation centre in the woods. It must be said, however, that Shifu’s poor command of English and his long stays in Taiwan limited the success of his mission among Westerners in the USA.
It was during this period that I first went to New York to 'sit' in an intensive retreat with Shifu. He was very interested in my own work in Britain and in the little centre I had created in Wales. After I had attended several retreats, he came over to Wales in 1989 and led the first of four retreats in Britain. My work with him developed into a close understanding and Shifu made me the first of his Western Dharma heirs in 1993. I helped him lead retreats elsewhere, guestmastering for him in Berlin for example. But he was also developing retreats in Poland, Switzerland, Russia etc. This was a time therefore of increasing international involvement. As his name became known, he represented Chinese Buddhism at numerous conferences; in an important public dialogue with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, thereby healing a breach with Tibetan Buddhism that had lasted for centuries; and finally co-chaired conferences of world religious leaders under the auspices of the United Nations.
Chan Master Sheng-yen had become an international figure. In his addresses to conferences, his approach was always one of complete sanity, carefully attuned to the world situation and presenting the Dharma in ways his fellow religious leaders could understand and to a degree accept.
For me, writing this, what I recall are his more personal traits. On retreats, he could be a hard taskmaster but always understood the limits to which he could drive the participants. It became clear that this approach was deeply compassionate. As Master Dong-chu had taught him, confrontation with the ego is essential if wisdom is to sprout. In interview, Shifu could appear as a warm friend, as a critical schoolmaster, as a father, or present a remote even chilling distance after which one spent hours struggling to understand. Sometimes there was a depth present that left one groping to follow after him.
After his retreats in the UK, I was fortunate enough to be his guide for a few extra days. Once we drove through Wales to Hereford Cathedral, on through Oxford looking at the colleges and thence to London where we stayed in a ‘pad’ in Great Russell Street then occupied by my children in their late teens. Another time, I took him to see some of the amazing documents and paintings collected by Marc Aurel Stein in Dunhuang and Central Asia around 1900 and now kept in London. In Westminster Abbey, he bought the guidebook in Japanese. During these few days, Shifu was totally relaxed, a charming guest, a wonderfully insightful conversationalist and great fun to be with. At my children’s pad, he noticed some unclean coffee cups hiding under a chair. He found this a great joke and humorously made good friends with my kids. In the museums, the bright ink of the ancient documents that often looked as if they had been written only yesterday delighted him. I was also able to drive him in terrible rainstorms up into the Pennine hills to visit Throssel Hole Abbey of the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives. He spoke warmly with the monks and was very impressed by the life of this British monastery.
Shifu’s death creates a tragic loss for all those who had the great good fortune to be taught by him but it is also an inspiration. His wisdom lives on in books, tapes, and video and in institutions. It is now the task of his Dharma descendants to take up the roles he has left for us to occupy.
1 Footprints in the Snow; the Autobiography of a Chinese Buddhist Monk. Doubleday 2008
1. I was born in 1930 in the Jiangsu Province of China, and my family’s surname is Chang. After I pass away, do not issue the obituary notice, make meal offerings, build the grave, stupa, or monument, erect my statues, or collect my relics, if any. Please invite one to three eminent elder Dharma masters to respectively preside over the rituals of sealing the coffin, bidding farewell, cremation, ash burial, and so forth. All this must be carried out in a simple, frugal manner, and never in an extravagant and wasteful way. In the mourning hall, only hang an elegiac plaque with the words “Quiescent Cessation Is Blissful” written by a calligrapher as an encouragement. Request people not to present flowers or elegiac couplets, but just recite “Namo Amitabha Buddha” to form pure affinities for rebirth in the Western Pure Land.
2. If, after I pass away, there is any cash offered to me by Buddhist believers and any revenue from my copyright royalty, they should be donated to Dharma Drum Mountain Buddhist Foundation and Dharma Drum Mountain Cultural and Educational Foundation. I have no personal properties during my lifetime. All my belongings have been offered to me by the general public, so they should all go to the Dharma center of Dharma Drum Mountain (DDM), and be handled according to both the codes established by the Buddha and my will, which has been notarized by the court.
3. All the Dharma centers that I have founded and have been in charge of belong to the Dharma lineage of Dharma Drum Mountain. Except that they are financially independent in their operation, they should adopt a unified mechanism with respect to the sustaining of DDM’s Dharma tradition, education of talents, mutual loving care, and personnel arrangement. However, the branch Dharma centers overseas should take as its principle to have a uniform style of Chan and make use of local manpower, so that the pure, authentic Chan teachings will not decline and Chan practice will take roots and spread in societies of different cultures.
4. Whether the post of the abbot president of DDM’s headquarters is assumed by one who is elected internally or is an eminent bhikshu or bhikshuni invited from outside of DDM’s system, he or she, while succeeding to the post, also succeeds to DDM’s Dharma orthodoxy, and shall inherit and carry on DDM’s Chan lineage, and shall not relinquish the vision and aims of Dharma Drum Mountain, which all shall abide by permanently. The Buddha said, “I don’t lead the assembly; I am a member among the Sangha.” The abbot president is the Sangha’s spiritual nucleus, as well as supervising and advancing the monasteries’ operation and Dharma affairs of the Sangha, making sure that they are resolved and executed by monastic members in accordance with the Dharma, precepts, and regulations, and that all live in joyful harmony, diligence, and purity.
5. In order to avoid misuse and adulteration, any manuscripts of my writings which have not been reviewed by me personally shall not be compiled into books hereafter, except for those that have already been published and can be included in the complete collection of my works.
6. After I pass away, please request Professor Lin Qixian and his wife to complete the “Chronicle of Master Sheng Yen’s Life” up to the time of my death, as historical materials for the reference of future generations. Therefore, please do not compile or print any commemorative collections and the like.
7. DDM’s Sangha is entrusted to carry out the instructions in my will. Please perform the ceremony for my death not as a funeral, but as a solemn Buddhist ritual.
8. My monastic and lay disciples have nothing to dispute over regarding properties, funds, power, and positions. Rather they are expected to act in compassion, wisdom, harmony, and respect, and carry out the education based on the Four Kinds of Environmentalism. Virtuous followers, please cherish yourselves. We have the good karmic roots and blessed causes and conditions to walk the bodhisattva path together, and we have formed affinities while practicing under the guidance of innumerable Buddhas in our past lives. We will also be cultivating together the supreme enlightenment at the assemblies of innumerable Buddhas as fellow practitioners for one another in the right Dharma.
9. The wills that I made prior to this one can be used as a reference. However, this Will shall be the standard one.
As a conclusion, I compose the following verse:
“Though nothing happens,
we’ve grown old in our busy lives1.
We cry and laugh, all in emptiness. There is originally no self,
So both life and death can be cast aside.”
Bhikkhu Sheng Yen, Founder, Dharma Drum Mountain.
1 See alternative, improved translation by Jimmy Yu in Valedictory Address, below.
Feb 15th 2009, Bristol Chan Group Memorial Service
“Gaté gaté paragaté parsamgaté. Bodhi Svaha.”
Here we have the great mantra of the Heart Sutra but today it is Shifu who is “gaté gaté - Gone Gone” and we meet together to mourn this great loss. He has been my personal guide and our patron for many years. Perhaps also he has been the greatest Zen master of our generation. Not only has he introduced Chinese Zen throughout the world, spoken diplomatically with the Dalai Lama thereby helping to integrate differing approaches to the Mahayana, attended conferences of World religious leaders at the United Nations but, most importantly, he has brought together the Chan teachings into a fresh unitary lineage at his monastery of Dharma Drum.
Yet the mantra ends with “Bodhi Svaha” – Wisdom arise! So at this time we must also bow in gratitude for the life of this man, a simple monk who has thought so deeply about the problems of humanity. Together we need to renew our focus on the great teachings he has left us and recall the long lineage that he has continued into our time.
Perhaps for us in a British Sangha, one of the most important aspects of his teaching has been the clarification of problematic issues arising from the history of Zen’s arrival in Europe. Shifu was able to help here following his long solitary retreat and his subsequent period of research in Japan. The great Daisetz Suzuki, right until near the end of his life, only presented to the West the approach of the Linji school (Jap: Rinzai) of Japanese Zen in which koans and hua-tous are the prime methods used during meditation. When eventually the West discovered the Caodong (Soto) school, some arguments developed about what was proper Zen. This dispute had arisen in China in ancient times between monasteries competing for support and subsistence. The stories are well known. We find them in the Platform Sutra and again later, in the apparent disputes between Masters Hong-zhi and Ta-hui. We now understand that although there were political motives undoubtedly involved, the prime issue was merely a preference in meditation method – there was no fundamental dispute at the level of Dharma. Indeed, while disagreeing about method, it is clear that Ta-hui and Hong-zhi were friends. Never the less, these divisions in lesser minds promoted a dispute that has come down to our time. Shifu examined these issues carefully. Already in Japan, under the leadership of Master Harada, an approach integrating these schools was developing and Shifu had attended retreats with a successor of Harada, Master Bantetsugyu. He was therefore aware of the need for reconciliation.
When I received transmission in 1993 Shifu gave it to me in the Lineage of Linji, saying that that was the only lineage with an intact sequence of names. Further research, however, enabled him to correct our understanding of the Caodong lineage. Since Shifu himself was teaching and offering retreats using methods from both schools, Silent Illumination from Hongzhi and Hua-tou from Koans from Ta-hui, he then created an integral lineage including both approaches and updated my own transmission. This is the Dharma Drum Lineage, containing both Linji and Caodong, which we inherit from him today and within which both Simon and I are Dharma Heirs. (See further, Li, Rebecca (ed) 2002. Chan comes West. Dharma Drum Publications)
A further Dharma clarification has arisen from Shifu’s meeting with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, going a long way to sort out a long stand-off between Tibetan and Chinese Buddhism and restoring Dharma good will between them. This is very helpful for those of us who have additional interests in the Tibetan approach.
I have been so fortunate in my life to have met such a teacher. Shifu was so alert, so focussed and at heart so deeply compassionate, yet often very strict and confronting in his personal teaching. When I first met him he introduced his retreat with such bleak authority that I wondered whether it had been wise for me to come. Yet, I soon realised this was a front to get participants truly focussed on the seriousness of their endeavour. Shifu could be quite a trickster. As he said when he first came to The Maenllwyd, that he had come not so much to give us enlightenment, that was ridiculous, but to show us how confused our minds were! He was very good at that.
On my first visit to New York I had told him about the Western Zen Retreat. This interested him and we had much discussion about it. After I had done several retreats with him, he agreed to come over to Wales to teach us. What a privilege! After that, the best we could do was to create the Bristol Chan Group to continue with what we had learnt. I have so many memories of Shifu: kindness itself; humour; profound thought and mutual delight in conversation; sudden rejection of my mistakes; sometimes quite fierce confrontation leaving me angry and disturbed until I suddenly saw his point and dropped my egoic reaction. What insights, what teaching! Sometimes he taught very indirectly leaving me to puzzle over what had happened between us. This was very insightful, causing me to reflect again and again until I got the point. I am still getting it today!
To illustrate Shifu’s style, I will use a story I recently received concerning an encounter experienced by an early student, Merrick Lex, at the Queens’ meditation centre in New York. Lex wrote:
“I continued to study with Shifu when he visited NYC. In either late '79 or early '80 the building for Dharma Drum Meditation Centre had been purchased, and we started to fix it up. One day, Shifu took me to the picture window downstairs and asked me to open up the old metal security grate that was spanning the window. I did that and we saw that the window was completely covered with grime and grease. It was a depressing sight. "I want you to clean that window up," Shifu said. He took a single edge razor blade out of his sleeve where he had been hiding it and gave it to me. I looked at the tiny blade and then at the huge window and must have looked pretty forlorn, but I set to cleaning it up. After many hours of scraping and wiping with rags, I finally had it cleaned up and spotless both inside and out. I was standing and admiring my work, when Shifu came in and asked me to get to work on the basement.
When I next came to the building about ten days later, somebody had painted the old metal grate with bright gold paint. Shifu asked me to take a look at it with him, then he asked me to open up the grate again. When I opened it, I discovered that the painter had not taken care to cover the glass window, which was now splattered with blobs of gold paint from top to bottom. My beautiful clean window! I turned around with a look of shock on my face. Shifu was only smiling at me for a moment, then, he slowly took the razor blade back out of his sleeve, handed it to me, and walked away in silence. I was filled with surprise, frustration, and finally humour and burst out laughing. Then I set to work to scrape the whole window again! And so it went with my greatest teacher!”
Shifu has followed a long tradition and left us his final verse at the close of his will. It reads:
Busy with nothing, growing old
Within emptiness, weeping and crying
Intrinsically, there is no "I"
Life and death, thus cast aside.
There is so much one could say about this verse. Some of us may ‘get it’ immediately. Others may not yet be ready for it. For me, it reveals both the clarity of his being and of his teaching. Rather than talking about its inherent philosophy, I would like to present a brief prose-poem written earlier that seems to sum up my feeling as I read what he has said. This poem symbolizes Shifu’s gift of clarity that is always available for us. Let us open ourselves to his clarity and then sit for a little while with it – as it were under the light of the Moon.
“Knowing the full moon was shining and the hoar frost sharp, I went out in to the garden closing the door on the yellow light of the room behind me. Suddenly, a different world; silent, frozen literally into stillness, everything either dark or silvery bright where the moonlight landed, black shadows looming where it did not reach. Looking back at the house now massive in these contrasting shades, it seemed a presence as if unknown to me – as if I were some stranger in a realm often available but seldom visited. Surrounded by stars, some brilliant against deep black, some tiny almost blinded by the moon, Orion was hanging in its iconic place: a great spread of sky constrained by lines, shades, shaped shadows and the sheer bulk of the emptied house; the bird seed holder so far below, motionless, without a visitor; no one there, simply a witness to where the vast silence of outer space touched down upon the lawn.”
Some three years ago, I was in New York staying with Rebecca Li and David Slaymaker prior to running a retreat at the Dharma Drum Retreat Centre at Pine Bush. After the retreat, I suggested to Rebecca that, as she was Shifu’s main interpreter, she would be the best person to act as interpreter to a party I hoped to arrange to travel to Chinese monasteries. We would pay her expenses. I was extremely happy when she accepted. Rebecca, David, Simon Child and I then began planning our itinerary. I wanted to visit the major Chan monasteries that had been important throughout the history of Buddhism in China. I had already led a previous party to two of the famous Dharma Mountains in China, Putuo Shan and Jiuhua Shan (NCF 23, Winter 2000) and together with my friend Yiu Yan-nang had spent time in both Nan Hua Si and Yun Men Si in the south of the country (NCF 16, Spring 1997) so I decided not to repeat those visits but to concentrate on the North, including the famous Dharma Mountain of Wu tai and the important monasteries west of Shanghai.
My aim this time was to take several of our group leaders of the Western Chan Fellowship to China to provide a living education in Chan today in its homeland, its current state, main monastic and archaeological sites, problems and revival. I believed this would also be an inspiration to them in their task of passing the Dharma on to the participants in their groups. I also realised that we could return via Hong Kong and cross over to Taiwan to visit Shifu at Dharma Drum Monastery near Taipei. This would be the final and most important port of call enabling us to pay our respects to our Teacher and Patron, The Venerable Master Sheng Yen.
The suggestion was warmly received and we soon had a party. It consisted of the following: Simon Child, Alec Lawless, George Marsh, Jake Lyne, David Brown, Pete Lowry, Hugh Carroll, Eric Johns, Stephen Ward, Sophie Temple-Muir and Sally Masheder together with Rebecca, David and I. Yiu Yan-nang and Eva Tang, who had been our interpreter on the previous visit, joined us for part of the journey and Jack Tang (no relative) was once more a splendid group guide and tour manager. Jannie Mead joined us in Taiwan.
Rebecca and I began an extensive e-mail correspondence about the preparations for this trip. We wanted to stay in at least some of the monasteries to witness their life and practice but this needed diplomatic correspondence in Chinese. None of these monasteries other than Dharma Drum were familiar with Western Buddhists, they might suspect our motives and the Chinese authorities might prove a problem to them. Rebecca did wonders and, although we did not actually sleep in more than two monasteries, we stayed close to all of them. We also decided to visit other cultural sites of touristic interest to boost our knowledge of Chinese history and culture and these included major locations in Beijing, the gardens of Suzhou and the city of Shanghai. Yiu Yan-nang once again offered valuable advice. Our eventual itinerary was as follows:
May 21 (Wed) Arrive Beijing
May 22 (Thu) Visit Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and Lama Temple.
May 23 (Fri) Visit Fa Yuan Temple (the Buddhist Institute) and Hutong Tour by rickshaw in old city area including family visit, and drum tower.
May 24 (Sat) Visit Temple of Heaven. Train to Datong.
May 25 (Sun) Visit Yungang Grottoes, and, in Datong, the Upper and Lower Hua Yan Temple, Shan Hua Temple.
May 26 (Mon) Transfer from Datong to Mt. Wutai, visiting the Suspending Temple on Hengshan Mountains en route.
May 27 (Tue) Visit Xian Tong Temple, Ta Yuan Temple and Pusading.
May 28 (Wed) Transfer from Mt. Wutai to Taiyuan then flight to Nanjing.
May 29 (Thu) Visit Qixia Temple. (Overnight at Qixia Temple).
May 30 (Fri) Transfer to Yangzhou, visit Da Ming Temple and He Garden. In the afternoon visit Gao Min Temple. (Overnight at Gao Min Temple).
May 31 (Sat) Depart to Zhenjiang, visit Jiangshan Temple and Jinshan Temple.
Jun 1 (Sun) Transfer from Zhenjiang - Changzhou, visit Tianning Temple, transfer Changzhou – Suzhou
Jun 2 (Mon) Visit Humble Administrator's Garden, Garden of Master of Nets, Lingering Garden.
Jun 3 (Tue) Transfer from Suzhou-Wuzhen, visit Wuzhen, transfer to Shanghai
Jun 4 (Wed) Visit Jade Buddha Temple, Bund, and Long Hua Temple. In the evening, Huangpu Cruise trip.
Jun 5 (Thu) Transfer to Ningbo. Visit nearby Tian Tong Temple
Jun 6 (Fri) Fly to Hong Kong, followed by a visit to Dharma Drum Monastery in Taiwan.
Our journey was extremely successful, without negative incidents, and taught us much about China, its people at the present time and the marked revival of Buddhism. We found Chan to be thriving although its form tended to be the more simplistic Pure land type, without the depth of either Silent Illumination or strict Linji work with koans or hua-tou, but none the less very sincere. Even so, intensive practice was observed in several places notably Gao Min Si, Tian Tong Si, and on Mount Wu Tai, while in several conversations with us individuals expressed deep understanding. We also had the great good fortune of meeting two amazing ancient Masters who taught us with depth and great virtuosity. We visited two seminaries and, taken together with training witnessed at Jiuhua Shan previously, it is clear that scholastically inclined monks can receive a good education in the Dharma and that this must be gradually spreading again across the country. Furthermore, the big, enthusiastic crowds visiting monasteries during festivals together with extensive Chinese inland tourism revealed a widespread popular involvement with Buddhist faith-based practices of a folk nature. In Taiwan, it was a joy to renew my personal acquaintance with my Shifu once again and to introduce so many of our leaders to him.
I am extremely grateful to Rebecca for her great skill in interpreting this journey to us and to Jack Tang for his accomplished leadership of a complex cultural tour. Eva Tang helped us enormously by negotiating our interview with the ancient Master of Wu Tai mountain.
In the articles that follow, we draw on the reminiscences of several of our travellers to present an account of what we discovered and now wish to share.
There is also an online gallery displaying some of the photographs taken by the party – see www.westernchanfellowship.org/china2008
On two occasions during our tour, we met extraordinary ninety-year-old masters who were clearly delighted to be talking with us. These two men were rarities indeed. Their monastic careers cover a vast length of time including the period of repression of Buddhism under the communists. In Yun Men Si some years ago, my friend Yiu Yan-nang and I had talked with the Guestmaster who had said that the lack of such masters meant that many monks in China nowadays could learn only from books. Here we had found two genuine, living roots of Chan enlightenment.
Master Meng Can
The first of these remarkable men lived in the nunnery of Pu-shou Si, well off bounds to tourists on Mount Wu Tai. Eva Tang, who had been our interpreter during a previous visit to China, knew of him and had kindly arranged for us to meet him. It may seem unusual for a monk to live in a nunnery but as a refuge for elderly monks and their attendants this seems to be not so uncommon. The nunnery itself was an exemplary institution. We attended the Evening Service and noted the almost military precision of the assembly, row by row neatly drawn up facing the Buddha and the delicacy, discipline and decorum with which the nuns behaved. The chanting was some of the best we encountered in China. As most of us were males, we were fortunate even to be admitted.
We were taken to a large upper room and made comfortable. When Master Meng Can (Dream Investigate) came in aided by an attendant we all prostrated and sat. As the leader of our party, I sat facing him below his raised rostrum directly under his gaze. That gaze alone was extraordinary for a ninety-year-old man. It was direct, demanding attention, vigorous and keenly involved in getting his message across to us. He seemed to enjoy the novelty of meeting a group of Western lay Buddhists. It was a gaze that could have been wilting had I not raised my game to hear him. My record of what he told us is shaky so I am relying on notes from Rebecca who interpreted. Here is a summary.
“You must know that the purpose of Chan practice is to illuminate and understand the mind and to see the true nature of experience. Indeed, for us, the meaning of the word “Buddha” is “Awaken and Understand”. Naturally, this requires one to reflect upon one’s past, including past lives, so that one can get a clear idea of one’s personal karma. One should see this life as resembling a dream. It is illusory and when we wake up, as if from a dream, the illusion disappears. As the Heart Sutra says, Form is Emptiness and Emptiness is Form. They are two sides of the same coin. The experience of Form implies the experience of Space. To understand form one needs to understand space.”
“The practice is one of letting go of body, family and career. These are all not ‘I’. They don’t belong to your essential nature yet they are your illusory ‘me’. In my case, I just live in this monastery. It does not “belong” to me, not ‘mine’ in any way. I simply make use of its facilities and of my body for what they can be used for. This is letting go of self.
“Regardless of differing schools of thought, the essence of Buddhadharma is ‘Nature empty - Conditioned co-arising”. Nature is emptiness; the conditioned arising of our thinking experience appears as not-emptiness, a seeming solidity. This means that all forms of family and human relationships are the result of karmic connections. They have no other reality. Every person is equal in Buddhism. One has to pay back the karma one has collected in the past and this applies to the wealthy, the poor and to people of all nationalities.”
“Before you practice, make sure it cannot cause anyone harm. Then, in each moment, let go of everything. When you do that, you are Buddha. When attachments return, that is Samsara. If one can let go of attachment moment to moment, one has accomplished one’s cultivation.”
“We are meeting today because of distant association in the past. This is good. I wish you well.”
The vigour of the Master’s mind was truly amazing for someone of more than ninety years of age.
Master De Lin
Gao Min Monastery in Yangzhou has the reputation of being the best in China for the propriety and discipline of its pure Chan regime and of its monks. This has been so, whatever the national situation, for well beyond a hundred years. It is one of the few with an active Chan hall recently re-constructed. The old master we met at Gao Min Monastery is Master De Lin (Virtue Forest). He is a Dharma heir of Master Lai Guo, one of the most important masters of the 20th century, an associate of the famous reformer Master Xu-yun. Again we were ushered into a comfortable room and treated with every respect. The ancient Master was led in by very attentive assistants and was seated comfortably. Again, the vigour of his gaze and the forcefulness of his presentation were remarkable. Master De Lin emphasized the importance of serious study of the Dharma (sutras and sastras) to build the foundation of one's practice and spoke clearly of Silent Illumination. What follows is an edited version of David Brown’s recording of our interaction. I soon realized that his questioning was rhetorical – to enable him to provide the answer whatever I might say!
Master de Lin (MDL): “How is Sheng-yen instructing you?”
John Crook (JC): “He says the most important thing is to ‘See the Nature’ with a compassionate heart. Can you help us with how we should do this?”
MDL: “That is pretty good. It is better to practice Chan as a lay person because Chan is daily life. It is difficult to explain Chan. So first, I would like to understand your view of Chan. I understand there are a number of PhD’s here so you should have grasped something! (NB several of the group had doctorates of one type or another, mostly medical or in psychological science).
JC: “Actually, none of us has a PhD in Buddhist studies.”
MDL: “Is Buddhahood attained by practicing?”
JC: “Practice is preparation.”
DL: “The word Practice in Chinese has two characters, meaning ‘repair or rectify’ and ‘practice’. So to practice is to rectify our behaviour. Buddhist practice can be summarized in one sentence: ‘Buddha - mind is pure whereas ordinary people have impure minds.’ The mind of purity equals ‘wisdom’; the impure mind equals ‘vexation’. Where does vexation come from?”
Jake Lyne answered “From attachment”, but MDL went on:
MDL: “Vexation comes from absence of wisdom, just as wisdom is the absence of vexation. The key to practice is to know that you have vexations and thus to find a way towards wisdom and be like Buddha. There are many paths and practices. You need to find one that suits you. You must engage in Chan practice outside retreat, in daily life. If you can do that then that shows progress. Even when one cannot go on retreat one can practice Chan in daily life.”
With emphasis MDL went on “The most important thing is to maintain Unified Mind outside retreat not just during retreat days. It is very important to investigate what Chan is during our practice. For example: Is it the Buddha of your inner nature that you are investigating when reciting the Buddha’s name or are you looking outside yourself for some Buddha in the Western Paradise? You have to think about the relationship of Chan and your heart. What is it you are doing?”
MDL then asked if we had learned any non-Chan methods. JC replied that some in the group had done Theravadin and Tibetan practice.
MDL responded: “Theravadin practice is different from Chan practice. What does ‘Buddha’ mean? The word Buddha literally means ‘Awakened one’. Sentient beings are ‘confused ones’. But what are we confused about? How do we practice to attain Buddhahood and lose our confusion? We must understand the direction of the path clearly. I want to share with you the many decades of my practice in one sentence – even though Buddhahood is only attained over many lifetimes. The one sentence is this: ‘Do not engage in any unwholesome deeds whatsoever’. This applies not only to actions. I do not engage with any thought that arises in my mind whatsoever. Not engaging in unwholesome deeds means that you are not a bad person. But what do you do to become a good person? Engage in wholesome deeds! Do both to perfection as well as you can.”
“There are several important principles to follow.
1. No unwholesome deeds whatsoever, using a very strict definition of unwholesome to include not giving rise to thoughts of attachment. Even a single thought of attachment means you cannot see your Buddha Nature. A single thought of attachment is like a small thin reed in front of your eyes that can hide a whole mountain from your sight. You must do repentance for any unwholesome deeds.
2. Engage in wholesome deeds. Use the 10 great vows of Samantabadhra as a guide to wholesome deeds. Do this to perfection for the benefit of oneself and others.
3. Purify one’s mind. Because we haven’t done this, we fail to see Buddha-mind. A pure mind is not a dull empty mind. Everything is there in a pure mind but it is not then illusory.”
MDL then asked how we practice Silent Illumination as taught by Master Sheng Yen. Without waiting for an answer, he went on, “Use a method to gather and quieten the thoughts. There are many ways to do this. It is important to understand the difference between merely a quiet mind and a quiet but also illuminated mind that reflects everything. The path of practice involves adjusting our attitude and mindset. For ordinary sentient beings, the mind is ‘out there’ in the sensory world. But the mind of the Buddha is not anywhere, it is not abiding in any place or realm.’
MDL then mentioned the Diamond Sutra which says much the same, and the story of Hui Neng’s enlightenment on hearing chanting of this sutra, and in particular the famous phrase ‘Without abiding anywhere the mind arises’. He said: “This is very difficult to understand. You should read the sutras to get a sense of this. Otherwise your practice will be more difficult. Silent Illumination means that ‘in Silence there is always Illumination’, and ‘in Illumination there is always Silence’. And Silence and Illumination are Not Two, they are One. Consider the Heart Sutra that says that ‘Form is Emptiness and Emptiness is Form’. You must have this understanding to practice Silent Illumination correctly”.
MDL then went on to say that the last chapter of the Vimalakirti Sutra deals with non-duality. “If we have Silence without Illumination or vice versa we are in duality, not non -duality, not oneness. The path is to find a way to practice to attain silence and illumination together (non- dual). As Manjushri says in the scripture ‘To my mind, all dharmas (the elementary, momentary events of existence) are without names, explanations, purposes, thought. They are outside all questions and answers.’ This means that if you search you will not find. If you ‘find’ it is not correct Chan’. ‘Chan is the present moment. You have to acquire a method to collect and silence your mind. Silence is an attitude, like ‘agreeing silently’ or ‘accepting’.
Concerning effort in practise, MDL said that one’s sharpness of roots makes a huge difference. He again used the example of Hui Neng who ‘saw the nature’ without practice because he had very, very sharp roots from practice in previous lives. “If you are unable to attain silence in Silent Illumination practice it is because you have a course mind. There are three layers of thoughts to be aware of. There are course thoughts, fine thoughts, and very subtle wandering thoughts. These must all be recognized in the practice. Wandering thoughts are habitual. Deal with the habit by developing another habit to replace the wandering thoughts, for example, by reciting Buddha’s name. This leads to focusing of the scattered thoughts. It’s simple if you understand it. Otherwise it is an impenetrable wall.”
“Attachment to wandering thoughts is why we appear different to Buddha even though we have the same mind. All phenomena are the products of our mind. This is just as waves have the same nature as the ocean. When there are no waves (no disturbance in the mind) you can see to a depth of 10,000 feet.”
Later several of us had a conversation with the monk who is head of the Chan Hall. Unlike Master De Lin who had such a clear understanding of Silent Illumination this monk was surprisingly sceptical. He suggested that Silent Illumination no longer existed anymore in the world. The belief in Linji lineage, he said, is that Silent Illumination method died out completely many centuries ago and that no one alive now truly knows how it was practiced by Hongzhi and other ancient masters of the method. Was this some sort of political statement? Was it the attitude of younger partisan monks in the monastery? We are not sure. MDL was perhaps especially interested in Master Sheng yens teachings on this topic and wished to pursue it with us. We are not too clear about what methods are used today in the Gao Min Si Chan hall – probably “Who is repeating Buddha’s name “as elsewhere in China. Certainly, in speaking of Silent Illumination, MDL seemed to be concerned with the possibility of ‘quietism’ which is one of the traps in Silent illumination that the Chinese call ‘The Cave of Demons’. Again, he clearly used Pure Land approaches as a Koan for inner development not for finding some refuge in a ‘Pure Land’ of imagination.
To meet such Masters was a privilege and a revelation. The idea that before the Communists came Chan was already dead in China, as some Japanese teachers used to argue, was clearly revealed as manifestly false. Again, today, in at least some of the most disciplined monasteries in China, a very clear Chan (Zen) from both a Rinzai and a Caodong approach is present in the hands of elderly Masters and differentiated from the more simplistic of Pure Land approaches. In some places at least the parallels with the teachings of Shifu at Dharma Drum are striking. We wished that more of the monasteries we visited in China had proper Chan Halls and the application of method we had seen only in these few. The significance of Dharma Drum in the revival of Chinese Zen was clearly apparent.