Venerable Master Hsuan Hua
The Venerable Master As I Knew Him
He was the happiest person I have ever known.
By Kuo Ts'an
It is difficult to write about someone as special as the Master. The boundaries that limit most of us did not exist for him. His heart reached out and gathered in everyone - the wealthy, the poor, leaders of nations, common citizens, children, the elderly, Buddhists, Christians, Moslems, Jews, Asians, Americans, Europeans. He saw through all of the differences that come between us, deeply understood us all, and used every ounce of his energy to bring the Buddha's teachings into our hearts and expand the capacity of our minds.
Yet, to me, the most miraculous quality of the Master was his simplicity and ordinariness. All that he accomplished was do without any pretense on his part. He was always one of us. He conducted himself as an ordinary human being; never drawing attention to himself as being special or better than others. He never asked anyone to believe in him, but he did encourage us to believe in ourselves. Isn't that the most amazing thing of all, that ordinary living beings can become Buddhas?
In the over twenty years that I have been lucky enough to be his disciple, I have watched the Master forget himself completely for the sake of the Dharma and give of himself endlessly to help others. He never neglected even the tiniest thing he could do to help others, and always refused to take even a moment for himself. Yet, he was the happiest person I have ever known. It is his joy in the Dharma and his unfailing sense of humor that I treasure most in difficult times. I only pray that we can see through the illusory differences we put between ourselves and others, and repay the Master's kindness by working together and delighting in the joy of the Dharma.
I heard him speak of pulling weeds in the street,
Of cleaning toilets with his bare hands,
Of doing what others could not do.
Not just once - many times.
I saw him get out of the car after traveling for hours,
And not stop to rest even for a moment,
Before coming to speak the Dharma.
Not just once - many times.
I watched him give away whatever he could to others -
food, clothing, happiness,
Even the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas
he gave to all living beings.
He gave whatever made others happy,
Not just once - many times.
I got to be there when he made big problems seem small,
And little problems disappear,
Sometimes only with a smile or a few words,
Not just once - many times.
I watched him bring people together that others
swore could not get along,
East and West, North and South,
And they worked together.
Not just once - many times.
I saw his great compassion move people to
completely change their lives.
Turn from the improper to the proper,
From the small to the great.
Not just once - many times.
But I never saw him do anything out of selfishness,
Or forget others to protect himself,
Or act in any way for personal gain.
Not even once - never.
Remembrance and Gratitude
He showed me that it is real and alive,and even more importantly,a possibility and practical ideal for our own lives.
By Ron Epstein (Guo Rong)
After having been invited to the United States by some disciples from Hong Kong, the Master established a Buddhist Lecture Hall in San Francisco's Chinatown in 1962. In 1963, because some of the disciples there were not respectful of the Dharma, he left Chinatown and moved the Buddhist Lecture Hall to a first-floor flat in a rundown Victorian building on the edge of San Francisco's Fillmore District and Japantown. The other floors of the building contained individual rooms for rent with communal kitchens.Those rooms were occupied by poor, elderly black people and a bunch of young Americans who were, in various ways, eagerly searching for meaning in their lives.
I first met the Master in January, 1966. I was a poor student in need of a place to stay and rented a room on the second floor of the building. The young people in the building all consciously or unconsciously knew that the Master was a very special person, but because we knew next to nothing about Buddhism, we had no categories to use to express our understanding or lack of it. We knew that the Master was a Chinese Buddhist monk, but didn't really know what that meant. One young man had actually taken refuge with the Master, but we didn't know what that meant either, or even whether it was different than leaving home. Basic Buddhist courtesy and the notions of making offerings and moral precepts were totally alien to us. The Master never mentioned that he was a Patriarch and had thousands of disciples in China and Hong Kong.
Many local Chinese Buddhists were angry at him for leaving Chinatown. Only a handful of the most loyal disciples would regularly come to see him and make offerings. Nonetheless, the Master would share what he had with the people in the building. He would put bags of rice in the communal kitchens, so that no one would have to go hungry. Sometimes, on Buddhist holidays or when he had extra food, he would invite several of us to lunch and often prepare the food himself. We all thought the food was delicious.
In those days when sometimes only one or two people who didn't even understand Chinese came to hear the Dharma, the Master lectured the same way that he did in later years when there were hundreds or even thousands. I remember going to listen to him lecture on the Lotus Sutra. With the same awesome demeanor that we have all come to know, he would sit at the head of two fold-out picnic tables with an ancient blackboard behind him. Often there was no one to translate, and when there was, it was usually two young high school students who could not translate very well. I didn't understand the Sutra at all, but when I went, it was to be in the Master's presence and to listen to the sound of his voice.
More popular with some of the young Americans was the Master's open meditation hour from seven to eight every evening. There were usually a few people there, and I sat with him more and more the longer I lived in the building. Although the popular San Francisco Zen Center was just a couple of blocks away, I began to be sensitive to a special quality of my meditation when in the Master's presence.
It took me about six months to have a clear realization about the Master. When it finally came, I was amazed. I still knew practically nothing about Buddhism, but I understood that the Master was like no one else I had ever met in my entire life. I saw that he was truly without any vestige of selfish individuality, and thus I could never feel any real conflict of interest with him. He knew me more deeply than I knew myself, accepted me in a way that no one else did, and was compassionately concerned about my welfare, so that there was nothing to fear from him. I sensed that he had great wisdom and special psychic power, and yet there he was everyday, always appearing ordinary and entirely inconspicuous. I suspect that the insights I had about him at that time were in no way special to me, but that something similar or even more profound was deeply felt by all those, Buddhist or not, whatever their ethnic background or education, who opened their awareness to him.
A few months later, with great excitement I traveled to Asia to meet the Buddhadharma in its homeland. How strange it was for me to naively encounter for the first time the 2500-year-old shell of Buddhist institutional tradition. With precious few exceptions, I found it to be devoid of any living spirit. Shortly after my return to the United States, I entered the university world of academic Buddhist scholarship and became a graduate student first at the University of Washington and then at Berkeley. I marveled at the extensive and keen intellectual knowledge of the Buddha's teachings possessed by some of my mentors. Yet at the same time I wondered why almost all of them vigorously resisted allowing the living spirit of the Buddhadharma to enter their personal lives. The two fold disillusionment I experienced during those years was painful to bear. Yet perhaps for me, those difficult lessons were necessary to help me learn to cherish the rarity and the preciousness of a genuine Master.
It would have been enough for me just to have had the opportunity to be in the presence of such a genuinely selfless person. Yet the Master was so much more for me and my family. We, like so many others, literally owe our physical lives to him. And he never failed to be there for us, to counsel us in times of personal crisis, and to advise us and our children. It goes without saying that we are grateful beyond words for what we received.
Equally or even more valuable to me is that he gave ultimate meaning to my life. He showed me every day in his every single action that the wonderful world of the Buddhadharma portrayed in the Sutras is not fantasy, fairy tale or intellectual abstraction. He showed me that it is real and alive, and even more importantly, a possibility and practical ideal for our own lives. I remember him saying that we should explain the Sutras as if we ourselves had spoken them, to make them our own and not distance ourselves from them. Clearly that is the example that he expressed through his own life.
The time of receiving is now over. It is time to grow up and become an adult in the Dharma. That is not easy for me, even after so many years. It is important not to be overwhelmed by the enormity of the debt owed, and the fact that, within the scope of my limited understanding, it can never be repaid. The Master always told us, "Do your best." Now more than ever before, it is time for me to do what I can, in my limited way with my limited vision, to continue his work both within myself and in this difficult world of impermanence and suffering. Although he has left his physical body, I know that the Master is still here, deep down in my heart, in the true pure land which has no inside and outside.
The Infinite Dharma Wheel
The Master's life was one of total selflessness. He vowed to take the suffering and hardships of all living beings upon himself, and to dedicate to them all the blessings and happiness that he himself ought to enjoy. He practiced what was difficult to practice and endured what was difficult to endure. No amount of hardship could deter him from fulfilling his lofty resolves. He composed a verse expressing his principles:
Freezing, we do not scheme.
Starving, we do not beg.
Dying of poverty, we ask for nothing.
According with conditions, we do not change.
Not changing, we accord with conditions.
We adhere firmly to our three great principles.
We renounce our lives to do the Buddha's work.
We take the responsibility to mold our own destinies.
We rectify our lives to fulfill the Sanghan's role.
Encountering specific matters, we understand the principles.
Understanding the principles, we apply them in specific matters.
We carry on the single pulse of the Patriarchs' mind-transmission.
Through his unwavering, lifelong maintenance of the six guiding principles of not contending, not being greedy, not seeking, not being selfish, not pursuing personal advantage, and not lying, he brought benefit to many. Teaching with wisdom and compassion, dedicating himself to serving others, and acting as a model for others, he influenced countless people to change their faults and to walk upon the pure, bright path to enlightenment.
Living beings have deep obstructions and scanty blessings indeed, for this Sage manifested entry into stillness in 1995 and we of the Saha World suddenly lost our harbor of refuge. Yet the Venerable Master's life is actually an enactment of the great Sutra of the Dharma Realm - the Flower Adornment Sutra. Although he has manifested entry into Nirvana, he constantly turns the infinite Dharma wheel. Not leaving any traces, he came from empty space, and to empty space he returned. His disciples can only carefully follow their teacher's instructions, hold fast to their principles, honor the Buddha's regulations, and be evermore vigorous in advancing upon the path to Bodhi so that they may repay a tiny fraction of the Venerable Master's boundless and profound grace.
Fasting and Praying
By Stella Tarn
Everyone knows that one of Venerable Master's vows is that wherever he goes, that place will be peaceful and without trouble. Once he leaves the place, it is another matter. When the Venerable Master arrived in America, his first task was to pray for blessings on behalf of the country and people who had given him an opportunity to propagate the Dharma for the benefit of living beings.
The Cuban Missile Crisis occurred in 1962. The American government discovered that the Soviets were secretly building missile bases in Cuba. Since the island of Cuba was located in the Caribbean Sea, right at the "back door" of the United States, the Soviet move was a serious threat to U.S. security. President Kennedy took immediate action by deploying the U.S. Navy and Air Force to stop delivery of all offensive military weapons to Cuba. He was also considering an attack on Cuba. People all over America were very worried and feared that a major war would break out. A nuclear war would result in countless casualties. In September of that year, less than six months after the Venerable Master had arrived in America, he suddenly announced to the assembly that he would embark on a five-week fast in order to pray for world peace and to eradicate the disasters and hardships of the people.
Unexpectedly, just as the U.S. was preparing to deploy the troops, the Soviet Union suddenly agreed to negotiate. On October 28, President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Khrushchev successfully reached an agreement in their negotiations. On November 2, President Kennedy announced that the Soviet missile bases in Cuba were being dismantled.
During the Venerable Master's fast, he was often accompanied by two boys aged thirteen to fourteen. Their names were Jimmy Wong and Kim Lee. Jimmy recalls, "At first the Venerable Master drank a glass of water every day. In the last two weeks, the Master didn't drink a single drop, yet he continued speaking the Dharma without taking a rest. How could an ordinary person have taken that?"
At the end of that year, the Venerable Master fasted for another five weeks. Later on he fasted three more times. Two of the fasts were two-weeks long each, and the other fast was for one week. In 1963 the Master went to Honolulu and fasted for two weeks at Tanhua Monastery. Altogether he undertook seventeen weeks of fasting to pray for world peace and to help Americans avert war.
On July 25, 1963, Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union signed a limited nuclear test-ban treaty. Everyone praised President Kennedy for his heroic and decisive action, which had intimidated the Soviets and resolved the crisis. Only those with wise discernment could see the hidden response of cause and effect. As always, the Venerable Master had quietly endured hunger and suffering in order to resolve the crises of living beings!
In limitless and boundless worlds throughout the ten directions, I shall rescue and protect all living beings, without renouncing them. This is the path practiced by the fearless one.
Ten Conducts Chapter, the Flower Adornment Sutra
Leland Eagleson, an American disciple of the Venerable Master, wrote an essay in which he said, "There is one thing that is difficult to understand: the conjunction of the Venerable Master's fast for world and the defusing of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In my mind the connection is clear: Heaven responded to sincerity."
Layman Leland Eagleson also wrote a poem to convey his understanding of the mystery:
The world hung by a slender thread,
Evoking a Sage's deep concern.
Heaven and Earth moved in response
To great and compassionate vows,
Quelling war's forces, stilling man's fears;
Saving the world for all living beings:
Living and not yet born,
Left free to choose their lives.
We disciples must understand
The depth of the debt we owe to
The greatly compassionate one.
How can we not offer up our lives
That once were nearly forfeited?
How can we not offer up good conduct
In homage to the chance freely given?
Goodness Elementary School Began
Spoken by Mrs. Teri Nicholson, evening of March 11,2000, Buddha Hall, City of Ten Thousand Buddhas
Copied from Vajra Bodhi Sea issue # 361, June 2000. Pages 33-35
You asked me to talk about some of my experiences with the school when it first started, so I'll try. I believe some of you have heard this before, so bear with me. When it first began it was actually this time of year. It was election time and Gold Mountain Monastery invited many local candidates come to the Monastery to speak to us about their platform, why they were running
for office, and why we should vote for them. There was Carol Ruth Silver, a woman who was running for District Attorney at that time, and she had a six-year-old adopted son from Taiwan. After the forum was over, she asked us if we would be willing to start a school because she really wanted her son to learn Chinese since he had originally come from Taiwan. We said that,
yes, we were interested in starting a school. She helped us get all the papers done since she was a lawyer herself. By March 1, we were ready to start. It really didn't take very long.
We began in the basement of what was the International Translation Institute. It was a very small place, but since we only had eight students, it was big enough. The youngest was four years old, the oldest was eleven.
At that time, I had no experience as an elementary school teacher had only taught nursery school, but because I was the one who really liked children, everybody asked me to be the teacher. It was difficult because most of the people at that time were left-home people. Having just left home, they really didn't have any interest in being with children, so they really didn't want to teach. The other problem was that I had another job outside. I taught at the nursery school in the morning. Then I would come home in the afternoon and teach. It was sometimes very difficult for the people who had to watch and teach the children in the morning. They had even less experience than I did.
I remember one time, I came back and they had lost the children in the park. There wasn't anywhere for the children to play, so we had to take them to the local park. I came home and they didn't know where any of the children were. They left them in the park. The kids ran off, and they didn't know what to do. A few weeks later, I came home and all the kids had gone on strike. They didn't like what the teachers were telling them to do, so they sat down on the ground and refused to study. The people who had been helping out and teaching got very disgusted and said that these children were just too naughty, and so they refused to teach anymore and quit. I was still pretty young at the time and I really didn't know what to do. I just went upstairs, sat in the Buddha Hall, and cried.
After a little while, the phone rang. Of course, it was the Venerable Master, wanting to know how things were going. I told him that nothing was going right, nobody wanted to help, and the kids wouldn't behave. I just didn't know what to do anymore. Shifu said to me, "Well, you can't just cry. That's not going to work. You have to think of a method. You've got to find ways to teach the kids." During the evening lecture, he called me up to the high seat. He had a whole bag full of prizes that he had put together. There were little toys for the kids, candy, and all kinds of sweet treats. He said, "You can't cry. You have to think of a method. Here's a method. When they behave, you give them a prize. The one who does the best gets a prize. When they do their lessons, they get a prize. You've got to think of ways to get them to behave well." Very gradually in this way, the Master taught me how to teach. These children were really quite amazing. They had a great deal of joy in studying the Dharma. We didn't force them to do any ceremonies at that point. Although they brought their own lunches, sometimes during their lessons, they would ask if they could go upstairs to do the meal offering with everyone, even though they didn't eat lunch with them.
They were very interested in studying meditation and some of them even tried eating one meal a day and sleeping sitting up. They were all quite young. The oldest was only eleven! It was a very small group, but after a while, they got very enthusiastic about the Dharma.
Actually, I believe that first year, all the students took refuge with the Master on their own. They had to get their parents' permission before they were allowed to take refuge. It was very interesting. Shifu gave them Dharma names that were the seven precious gems from the Amitabha Sutra, so there were Camelian, Gold, Silver, Lapis Lazuli, etc. There was a little girl with the name Ananda and another little boy whose name was Joshua. In Chinese this sounds like Kashyapa. Shifu was very, very happy to have these young disciples.
When we held our first summer camp at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, originally the entire assembly was going to be moving here during the summer time, so I set up a summer program for the children to come here to study, posting advertisements and everything. At the last minute, everybody decided to stay in San Francisco. It ended up being just me and the children. Actually there was a left-home woman and a laywoman who later did leave the home life with us, but only these three adults and the children. We were missing all of Shifu's lectures which was very difficult for us since we had
never missed lectures before. There were a few men at the Tathagata Monastery, but we didn't ever do anything together. We never saw them. There wasn't even an office at that point. There wasn't even the Buddha Hall where we're having lectures now.
We're more used to the hot summer now, but at that time, in the beginning of June of that particular year, it was over 100 degrees and continued that way all summer long. We were not at all used to the heat and we didn't have a car so we also couldn't go anywhere else. We had to think of expedient ways to do things. What we decided to do was to have lectures in the afternoon. We would come inside to have lectures in the afternoon when it was hot and in the evening after ceremony, we would let the children go out and play when it was cool, holding evening activities outside. The Master gave us a job, and that was to feed the birds. Every evening after evening ceremony, we would recite the Great Compassion Mantra over the birdseed and sprinkle it outside. That was the children's job. We would recite the mantra over the birdseed and feed the birds.
When I was really having a difficult time getting people to teach, Shifu came up to visit and said that he had time and he would come and teach the children. When he came into the classroom he wrote two lines on the blackboard in Chinese. They were: "People have two legs. Animals have four." He held a short, very light-hearted discussion with the children about the difference between animals and human beings. His main point was that people should "not do any evil and offer up all good conduct." For children, that boiled down to if you want to be a person you have to be filial to your parents. When he asked if there were any questions, one little girl raised her hand and asked: "What about if mostly you're filial but sometimes you're 'just a little bit' unfilial, can you still get to be a person?" Shifu smiled and replied, "Well yes, you would probably still be a person, but maybe you'd be just a little bit ugly." She sighed in relief and then with a huge grin on his face he continued, "Like perhaps maybe you'd only have one eye..." He laughed at her and she wasn't sure whether he was kidding or not.