Mr Yen was giving a party. He had invited several friends around to take tea and to meet a Mr Patel, an Indian follower of the philosopher Shri Aurobindo, who wanted to talk about Buddhism. I found myself sitting next to a Mr Wong and we got on to the subject of modern physics. He asked me to tell him about relativity and I told him, as far as I could, about the difference between the old idea of particulate atomic structure and the modern theory of relativity. I tried to show that there was a parallel between the essence of Buddhism called sunyata or emptiness and the fundamental energy of matter. I was saying that if you cut up a piece of wood, and then divided it again and again, eventually you would end up with the indivisible, the cutting apparatus would not be able to go further. One would be left with emptiness. Mr Wong was intrigued but Mr Yen, overhearing us, wagged his finger at me. “Not quite right,” he was signalling and I was itching to go over and ask him where I was wrong.
Another Chinese gentleman, a busy looking businessman, had also heard the conversation. He said to me, “How come that a young officer in the army is so interested in these arcane Buddhist problems? Really we think all this is only suitable for old men who see death approaching and want to understand their lives. A young man like you might be better off sowing your wild oats, as you say. You can leave all this till you are older!” I was reminded of Gunner Barry at Brickhill and his suggestion that I get myself “cleaned out proppa like, Sir!” Perhaps they were right but, for the present, my intuitions were not leading me in that direction. The clean-out would have to wait!
Mr Wong was enthusiastic about our conversation and wanted to talk about such things further. He got Mr Yen to arrange a meeting at the premises of a Buddhist temple I had not seen before. It was dark when Yannang and I walked up Tai Hang Road. There were no street lights and the only illumination came from the flanking houses the top storeys of which were on a level with us so steep was the slope. Between the buildings, we could see the flickering fires and lamps of the squatter folk in the maze of slanting huts that clung precariously to the opposite hillside.
Mr Wong met us at our appointed rendezvous, dressed in a capacious, white Chinese suit, wide flared trousers and a neat jacket done up at the neck by a stiff, little collar. He had an air of assertive confidence that differed from his attitude when in Western dress. Leading us down a steep flight of steps he took us along a dim passageway between tall buildings. A scramble up further steps led us through a door into a tidy room, furnished with the heavy, wooden chairs and tables common in Chinese homes. There is little comfort in such furnishings, no cushions or curved surfaces and a rather stiff, almost Edwardian, atmosphere. Facing the door through which we entered was a wide barred window below which stood a gong and a massive, bronze bell. On one wall, facing the focal point of the room, hung a long scroll, depicting a full moon poised in splendour over a fully opened lotus bloom.
We sipped tea together while Mr Wong told us about his faith. He was a member of an esoteric sect known as the Secret Sect or True Word Sect from the privacy of its practices. This is the most Indo-Tibetan of the sects of Chinese Buddhism and makes use of Tantric practices is a way not usually undertaken by Chinese Buddhists. The doctrines are graded to suit the understanding of the practitioner and much is hidden, requiring personal revelation from a master. The teachings are found in three famous sutras, the Great Sun Sutra, the Diamond Head Sutra and the Resting Place Sutra, the first describing the meditation method and the others consisting mainly of ceremonies and mantric chants for particular occasions.
“We believe six qualities to be the roots of all phenomena and of Buddha nature itself. These are earth, water, fire, wind, space, by which we mean the emptiness between and within things, and finally feeling or perception, that is consciousness. Since these qualities exist in all things and in the Buddhas themselves, it follows that everything, this chair, this table, knife, yourself and myself are all Buddha. Our task is to come to understand this directly in experience. It is a great and wonderful truth to which our minds are usually blind. When we realise that peace resides within all things, then we know we are Buddha. Before we come to understand that, we are only Buddha unrealised. All forms of Buddha spring from the one root we call Vairocana the Great Sun Buddha. Sakyamuni, yourself, myself, all persons, are enveloped, as it were, by this same truth. When we talked the other day you called it energy but terms and words are of little importance. I have studied this for twenty years but I only know my old books, so I was most interested in what you had to say coming from an entirely Western source.”
“How in your scheme of things does one come to know Buddha?” I asked him.
“There are two main ways, both of which we practise here with the aid of our master. The first is meditation on the Moon and Lotus Flower and the second involves the correct performance of certain ceremonies. Most of them were invented or elaborated from Indian or Tibetan sources by Kobo Daishi, a great monk of Japan who founded the Shingon Sect on Mount Koya. We are close followers of that tradition.”
He drew out a number of beautifully bound books. In one were photographs of a recent Buddhist conference in Japan and another contained photographs of Mount Koya. He poured us out another cup of tea.
“Look,” he continued, “you see that scroll over there?” We turned to look at the painting. At first glance it was not remarkable, simply a white disc above an open lotus bloom, not great art at all. Yet, as I continued to gaze at it, I became aware of certain optical peculiarities on the disc. It seemed to shine as might the face of the moon on a cloudless night, seeming almost to pulsate or breathe very slowly, growing into a semi-sphere for a moment, before reappearing as a plain, undifferentiated disc. There were faint suggestions of cream colouring within the white surface which may have been part of a design to produce this effect.
“This picture is our chief subject of meditation. We quieten our minds by gazing upon the moon and allowing the breath to flow gently in and out of the body. After a time the moon becomes spherical; at first for short time but then for longer and longer periods until it is continuously present. We then add the lotus bloom to our contemplation until the two are suspended together against a background of great emptiness. We have then the global moon of purity above the lotus of nature. We then begin the use of certain gestures we call mudras. If I fold my fingers into a particular pattern my hand becomes the bodily symbol of a particular Bodhisattva and of the virtue he or she represents, Amida for purity, Kuan Yin for mercy and so on.” And he demonstrated the mudras with his fingers.
I was intrigued to realise that, in this scheme of things, meditation was not only mental but could involve sound and gesture as well. Chanting mantras and performing the mudric symbolism evokes the attributes of the Bodhisattva upon whom one is concentrating.
“If one carries through these movements correctly and in the right frame of mind, then the symbol of the Buddha you are concentrating upon will gradually appear somewhere on the moon.”
Mr Wong took a pencil and drew a Sanskrit letter to be pronounced ‘holik’.
“Of course, if one has reached this stage there is no need for drawing. Moon and lotus can be produced entirely in the imagination and the rest follows. The highest attainment is when the Bodhisattva himself actually appears.”
The ceremonies are likewise designed in the same way. The mind is calmed and a long and complicated chant sung accompanied by movements and the manipulation of certain instruments. I enquired after the use of mandalas, concerning which C.G. Jung has written in his commentary on The Secret of the Golden Flower, an ancient Taoist-Buddhist text translated by Richard Wilhelm.12*
“Yes, we use mandalas too for meditation, although in Hong Kong that is not a common practice. They represent the totality of the universe and its spiritual attributes in one complex and beautiful circular design. Now, time is running on I am afraid. You must come upstairs and visit our shrine and the ladies are waiting for us over the way.”
Upstairs we visited a beautiful little upper chamber where we had to remove our socks before entering. Within the room, tastefully designed as a small temple, wooden columns, entwined with elaborate carvings of plants and animals, climbed to the ceiling and led towards a delicate little altar, complete with tiled roof and steep eaves enclosing a small gilt image of one of the Buddhas, backed by an elaborate mandala depicting a number of Buddhas in a circle about a central figure. Cleverly disguised lighting brought out the colours with refined intensity. The brass instruments used in the ceremonies stood before the altar on a little table together with a stool for the master. There was also a side chapel containing ancestor tablets belonging to members of the institute and a small altar to Kuan Yin. It was here that Mr Wong himself practised.
He picked up a small porcelain image. “This little Kuan Yin has been with me for years. Once, during the war, a Japanese shell fell nearby and it was thrown to the ground. As you can see only part of the base was broken and the figure was unharmed. Then, when I was hiding in the interior, some robbers stole many of my valuable possessions but again, after they had left, I discovered this little thing lying still unbroken under a table. I find it very curious.”
Yannang wanted to know how he felt when he was carrying out the chants. “Can you hear what you are saying or is it automatic? How do you feel when you have finished?”
“Well”, smiled Mr Wong, “I have never seen a Bodhisattva or anything like that and I believe that anything that occurs in that way has reality only in the mind. The importance of practice lies in the values and qualities we place upon it. Yes, of course, I hear and know what I am saying. Even after twenty years I must concentrate on the meaning of each word and gesture for, without that, the whole affair would have no meaning. And afterwards? I rise refreshed and go about my work with a quietened mind that refuses to distinguish opposites. I see you are puzzled so let me try to explain.”
He paused a moment before continuing, “After all these years I can say I look upon the world in a different way than I used to do. Good and evil are basically all the same to me now. Against a background of disinterested calm both are identical forms of illusion. Placing the problems of life into a cosmic context, I find I am not moved to extreme feeling by good or evil or anything. I am quite happy and I no longer know that sense of random striving that I used to have.”
“I understand,” Yannang remarked. “There is, of course, all the difference between the simple putting into words of these matters and the true feeling that is the expression of them. It is easy for us to stand here and to discuss them. To actually do them is another matter.”
Afterwards Yannang remarked that this way of life must have some good if it resulted in true feelings that were more than just words. Yannang hates empty ceremonial but he seemed content with Mr Wong’s interpretation of the meaning of ritual. As for Yannang himself, he was not a stranger to placing the difficulties of life into a cosmic context. He had told me that, when troubled, he would go out at night and look at the stars, reflecting that cosmically everything would be the same in a thousand years.
Mr Wong now led the way along more dark passages and through heavily padlocked doors to another building. His Association of the Mantra Sect owned two houses, one for men and one for women. They all gave us a cordial welcome and again showed us a beautiful upstairs shrine.
Everywhere the Japanese influence was pronounced. Floors were covered with loose rush mats resembling tatami. Many pictures and images came from Japan but there was a Chinese flavour, the carvings and decorations had a more ponderous feel than the refined delicacy of Japanese interiors. It was all spotlessly clean but again lacked the fastidious attention a Japanese shrine would have received. We were treated to some lotus seed soup and presented with fine prints of Kuan Yin by a famous artist before we departed.
At the Cheero Club, Gunner Davis was waiting for me with some friends. They had been bathing with Chinese girls on Stanley beach. Davis smacked his lips. “Good uns they was, Sir,” and his companion offered me his finger to smell. “Want to sniff my woman, Sir? Lovely she was.”
I did not doubt it. Their eyes held the gleam of their delight and the moon must have cast magic upon the earth that night. As we crossed the pass of Wong Nei Chong and went on down towards Repulse Bay I looked up at the moon. “I seem to have a lot to do with you in one way or another these days,” I said to myself.