English | Vietnamese
Once in a Thousand Years
A reflection from a visit to China’s Gao Min Monastery by Ajita Square
Vol.1, No.2, Winter 2005 Dharma Mirror
Emperors stayed there, Patriarchs were enlightened there, and it is home to the 100-day Chan session. For more than a thousand years, Gao Min Monastery has been a pillar of Chan Buddhism. Founded in the Sui Dynasty (~600 AD) and coming to prominence during the Qing Dynasty (~1700 AD), Gao Min Monastery has been through wars, famines, and revolutions. Currently, due to the state of Buddhism in China, Gao Min Monastery is forced to loosen its Chan only policy and offer more approachable activities such as Avatamsaka Sutra recitation, and recently, a Precept Transmission (San Tan Da Jie) for a thousand novices, a first in a thousand years. I was fortunate to attend the Transmission with my Traditional Medicine teacher this summer.
We arrived in late afternoon and first went to pay respect to the Abbot, Elder Master De-Lin. Master De-Lin is 92 years old, tall for his age, and speaks with a loud and clear Northern accent. At 19, he ran away from his wealthy Tianjing family to study with the famous Chan Master Lai-Guo at Gao Min Monastery; he has been there ever since.
Master Lai-Guo was one of the great masters of the early twentieth century. He preside over Gao Min Monastery during one of the most difficult times in China, yet he was able to maintain all the rules of a traditional Chan "Forest" Monastery. He refused to hold any non-Chan-related activities (Fo Shi), the traditional way monasteries generate income. Often the monks only had rice bran to eat. Once, on Buddha's Birthday, they had no food to offer so they boiled hot water, offered it to the Buddha, drank some themselves, and went back to meditate.
Master Lai-Guo passed away in the early 1950s, a few years after China's "liberation". The lineage was passed to his disciple Master Chan-Hui, who was later classified as a "Rightist". I never found out what happened to Master Chan-Hui. Perhaps he was beaten to death. (Master Hsu-Yun was severely beaten during this time, and his only written work, an annotated Surangama Sutra, was burned. A few of his disciples were executed after being classified as a "Rightist").
During the Cultural Revolution, Gao-Min Monastery was bitterly attacked. All was destroyed including the famous Chan hall where numerous masters became enlightened and which housed five “Flesh Body Bodhisattvas” (Ro Shen Pu Sa i.e. “whole body relics”). Like Master De-Lin told us, “Gao Min Monastery had disappeared.” The place was turned into a sweater factory. Only the old mountain gate, a gift from Emperor Kang-Xi, survived, perhaps because it was made of stone and would be too difficult to destroy. During the revolution, despite the enormous destruction, many things were spared because they were far away, made of stone, covered by pictures of Mao, or protected by monks willing to burn themselves to scare away the mobs.
In 1985, several years after the revolution ended, in accordance with Deng Xiaoping’s “Reform and Open” policy, the local government decided to restore Gao Min Monastery. Elder Master De-Lin was invited to take care of business. He was already 72 years old. “People retire in their 50s. I started working in my 70s,” he said.
His work has been to restore Gao Min Monastery according to Master Lai-Guo’s vision. It is not easy considering that Gao Min Monastery is no ordinary monastery. During the Qin Dynasty, it hosted emperors a total of 8 times. Emperor Kang-Xi liked it so much that he built a palace next to it. The palace was so lavish that Cao Xue-Qin, the author of The Dream of Red Chamber, whose grandfather supervised the construction of the palace, said “there is more gold and silver than there is soil.” But after wars and revolutions, not much was left. The only reminder of its former glories are the two parallel rivers in front of the old mountain gate. Directly in front of the Gate is the famous Beijing-Hangzhou Great Canal, linking Ancient China’s economic center (Hangzhou) to its political center (Beijing). The river further from the Gate was dug by Emperor Qian-Long when he stayed at Gao Min Monastery. It is said he couldn’t sleep because of the noises made by boats traveling through the Great Canal, so he ordered another canal to be dug further from Gao Min Monastery.
Reconstruction is especially difficult when you must maintain the tradition of a Ten-Direction Forest Monastery dedicated to Chan alone. Part of Master Lai-Guo’s vision for Gao Min Monastery was that it remains a place for people to become enlightened.
Master Lai-Guo liked to compare Chan sessions to ancient China’s Civil Service Exams. For the exam, a scholar would study rigorously for years, come to the exam, do their best and… Bam! The next thing he knew, he was up in the Imperial Court working with the Emperor and his ministers. The rules in the exam room had to be strict so people could concentrate. Similarly, Gao Min Monastery is well known for its rules. Master Lai-Guo is also famous for being strict in the Chan hall and hitting people with his Chan stick to help them in their practice. Once, a wealthy lay person offered Master Lai-Guo 7 gold bullions (equivalent to US $200,000~$500,000) if he would hit her with his Chan stick to help erase her karma. He refused, saying, “My Chan stick is reserved for people with the potential to become patriarchs.”
“There is no tourist business, no quasi-Buddhist mega-stores, and no fortunetelling stands to generate revenues”
Even to this day, there is no tourist business, no quasi-Buddhist mega-stores, and no fortunetelling stands to generate revenues. The monastery does not even hold Buddhist events that traditionally generate revenues legitimately. They live by growing vegetables in the summer and meditating in the winter. All the while, they must be open to lodge traveling monks. These are the traditions that Master De-Lin is trying to preserve while he works to restore the monastery.
When you don’t have money, you need to be flexible and do things slowly. Master De-Lin has been working on the restoration of Gao Min Monastery for 20 years. It is already a huge monastery spanning 230 Chinese-acres, with more than 200 monks and nuns. But to complete all the planned construction, Master De-Lin estimates it will take another 20 years at the current rate.
Furthermore, in China, when you don’t have money, the government does not like you. For years the government has pressured Gao Min Monastery to become a tourist hotspot. They have persistently insisted Master De-Lin to collect entrance fees. “They tell me that I need to ‘open up’ Gao Min Monastery. I think we are the most open because we are free. I don’t know how we can be more open by charging entrance fees,” Master De-Lin commented.
The Abbot of a nearby “Buddhist Disneyland” explained to us the typical setup between the government and a monastery—the monastery will get 20% from the entrance fees and the government will get 80%, which is used to promote the monastery through the making of road signs and the publication of tourist maps and packages that include information about the monastery. Monasteries, if they wish, can charge additional fees for activities such as ascending towers, hitting bells, etc. They can even rent out spaces to small businesses. During the Chinese New Year, popular monasteries set up hotlines so people can call to reserve expensive tickets. Hitting the bell for good luck is auctioned off to the highest bidder. The local government, I believe, just taxes these revenues as if the monastery was a regular business. This is quite generous compared to how monasteries used to be treated: the monks beaten and the monastery torn down. As a result, very few monasteries remain free to the public. I heard there were only two in existence today.
The young Abbot of the “Buddhist Disneyland” informed us that he has no choice but to collect entrance fees and to rent out spaces to businesses since it is for the sake of the “unavoidable historical progress.” Under Marxist ideology, all societies evolve towards communism, the ideal human society. Religions are considered good only if they advance the socialist agenda, in this case, promoting local economy. Spiritual practices that deny the material-only reality are considered “feudal”, a Marxist term meaning obsolete. From the communist point of view, Marxism is “scientific”, and therefore the Truth, and searching for Truth outside Marxism is not encouraged. (Scientific and Truth are often used interchangeably in China). Religious people should know that their role in this modern, “scientific” age is not to practice “feudal superstitions” but to manage the society’s cultural assets and to provide psychological solace to weak-minded people. The same reasoning claims that monks should be able to eat meat and get married in order to attract “high quality” people to the monkhood, i.e. people who can manage a monastery like a business and who can pacify people with their teachings.
The young Abbot graduated from the official Buddhist seminary in Beijing. As a well indoctrinated monk, he said he will use the money generated from the monastery for a Buddhist seminary and for charitable works. Though he is young (early 40s/late 30s), he is already in charge of two famous monasteries. He was also happy to inform us that he will get a seat in the provincial Politburo next year. Not a small feat in this country.
For an old stubborn reactionary like Master De-Lin, who was probably considered a “Rightist” before, and now considered a “Leftist,” but one way or the other, always on the wrong side of history, life is not so easy.
Big chunks of Gao Min Monastery’s land were occupied by various entities for various reasons. It took years of negotiation to get most of the land back. When the river surrounding Gao Min Monastery became too polluted to drink, the government refused to bring in water pipes. Only through the mediation of certain “leaders,” did they finally obtain tap water. On a government website, the government criticizes Gao Min Monastery for not utilizing their resources well and thus dragging down the tourism potential of the district.
When you don’t have respect from your government, it appears that you don’t get respect from the neighbor-hood peasants as well. Some peasants set up a fake parking lot in front of the Mountain Gate. When you tell them you are going to park inside the monastery, they insist you pay them an entrance fee.
It must have been a trying 20 years for Master De-Lin. No wonder he said, “I don’t like to see doctors. Whenever I see one, they always tell me I need to be hospitalized.” My teacher said, “My advice is that you at least lie in bed and have people serve you.” “Oh that would be my dream!” Master De-Lin joked.
After talking to Master De-Lin, my teacher and I took out the donation collected from family and friends and gave it to him. In the past, an Arhat made a vow to help people create blessings by appearing whenever there is an event of more than one thousand monks, as expected with a Precept Transmission ceremony. Hence, we were very happy to support the occasion. We bowed to the Master and went out.
We then went to see Master Wen-Long, who will become the next Abbot. Due to the increasing pressure from the government, Master De-Lin has decided to retire after the precept transmission. He picked Master Wen-Long, who has been his disciple for more than twenty years, to succeed him.
Master Wen-Long is a very unassuming monk. When we first met him, we had no idea that he was Master De-Lin’s “deputy.” He chatted with us and showed us around the monastery. When we mentioned Master De-Lin’s retirement, he told us not to worry. He said that Master De-Lin was his teacher, thus he would always abide by his directions. He vowed to resist the government’s pressure to charge entrance fees. However, Master Wen-Long is quite ill. One of our purposes of visiting Gao Min Monastery was to treat him. He has rheumatoid arthritis along his spine and was bed-ridden for many months last year. It is a very painful condition. He felt that his health might not permit him to take on the responsibility of running Gao Min Monastery. But after taking herbal remedies prescribed by my teacher, he has been able to wane off his intake of painkillers.
My teacher also treated two women who work at the guest building. They are frail but their problems are not complicated. They are overworked and undernourished. Master Lai-Guo allows three meals a day, but only one vegetable dish and rice. The women said that since there are many guests there now, they eat a little better, but regularly they only have plain rice with pickled vegetables. They have been living and working at Gao Min Monastery for about three years and intend to leave-home (enter the monastic order). Their request to leave home this year was rejected by Master De-Lin who told them that they needed to train for a couple more years. My teacher asked them why they didn’t try other monasteries. With the economic development of China in the last 20 years, there are very few places where people just eat rice with pickled vegetables. They only smiled shyly and said, “It’s better here.”
The next day, we went to the morning ceremony. More than 800 novices came from all over China to take the Great Precepts for becoming fully ordained monastic. The number was smaller than the expected 1,000, probably due to lack of publicity. The Precept Hall and the dormitory for the novices were incomplete due to lack of resources. During the event, novices lived in unfinished concrete buildings and slept on wooden boards covered with straw mats. Despite the poor facilities, there was an aura of seriousness. Monks walked into the Buddha Hall in small groups according to their affiliated monasteries and every group was led by a senior monk from their home monastery.
The morning ceremony is basically the same as the one at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas in California. It was interesting to hear people reciting the Surangama mantra in all different accents, and I realized how cohesive Chinese Buddhism is. Without a centralized Church to regulate the teachings, customs and liturgies, there is still unity among the different monasteries. Without much change in his lifestyle, a monk can travel to different monasteries to study and cultivate. Although great masters were not canonized, the community still recognized them as sages. They were not theologians that split people into different camps of beliefs, but simply brought out suitable teachings for different people in different places at different times. Unaffiliated monasteries would voluntarily heed their leadership. Although this environment has diminished substantially, when you see one thousand monks and nuns from all over China doing the same ceremony, you witness the footprint of a great tradition.
Just minutes into the recitation, a giant lightning flashed. Everything brightened for an instant, even inside the Buddha Hall. It was followed by the loudest thunder I have ever heard, and rain started pouring down. I felt like I was on a ship amidst a thunderstorm. The rain stopped just before we walked out of the Buddha Hall. It had lasted only about twenty minutes and did not rain again the whole day. It seemed like the dragons had come to wash the ground. I hope the rain portended a good beginning, not just for the precept transmission but for Buddhism in China. [On my later visits, I questioned two monks from Taiwan who had taken the precepts at that ceremony. They told me that it rained and thundered on the first day of each precept transmission during the whole event. (San Tan Da Jie is three precept transmissions combined into one event)].
“Gao Min Monastery is the only place I encountered so far in China where people cultivate diligently.”
Gao Min Monastery is the only place I encountered so far in China where people cultivate diligently. It is big, grand, and proud of its traditions. But even with the dedication of the Abbot and his followers, its future is uncertain. Emperors no longer visit there and the government is unfriendly to ideas and organizations that do not abide by the Party’s ideology. The “Middle Kingdom,” China, at one time proudly called “the Middle Kingdom” and well-known for its rich traditions, now feels like a spiritual wasteland. I wonder how Gao Min Monastery will sustain itself as a Chan Forest Monastery. In a country where most people are clueless about Buddhism, will traveling monks come from distant mountains and become enlightened there? Can it stay free from commercial enterprises? I don’t know.
However, I do get a better understanding of Venerable Master Hsuan Hua’s commitment to preserve Buddhism: by bringing its seeds to a new land where it can be free to flourish. Hopefully one day Buddhism will take root again in China.