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How the Master Taught the Dharma in the West

Bhikshuni Heng Chih on December 11, 2008 in the Buddha Hall at CTTB


A few days ago, I was at Gold Buddha Monastery in Vancouver and someone asked me a question: Think about what it would be like if the Master had never come to the West? What would it be like?¡¨ I said, Who could possibly answer such a question?¡¨ But I thought about it in the reverse. There are certain things that we know the Master brought west, which have endured for forty years now. So, by process of elimination, we can know that certain things that might not be here had the Master not come west. I will talk a little about these things.

First, by 1969, he allowed Caucasian westerners to enter monastic life. This was the beginning of a realization of one of his goal: to have a Buddhist monastic Sangha in the west, composed of western- born people. Now it is not to say that the other monks didn¡¦t come to do that. They did, but not in the same way, and not to the same extent that the Master did. Five became fully-ordained in 1969. Shortly after, four more became fully-ordained. Both those times the ordination was done in Taiwan. The third time, the ordination was performed in California, adhering to the expedients stipulated in the Vinaya regarding exceptions in non-Buddhist countries.

So then we had quite a group¡Xmore than ten who were being taught as monastics by the Master. The Master¡¦s methods for the monastic disciples were quite different than methods he used for lay disciples, and so it became very interesting to lay disciples to watch the dynamics of the Master teaching his monastic disciples. It was quite entertaining, I can assure you. Because of that, laypeople became interested, and they too felt that they would like to also be monastics. The Master¡¦s guidance and teaching of monastics had a great influence on other Westerners, and the number who entered monastic life with the support and permission of the Master grew.

I know that the Master was early in doing this because now there are monastic conferences quite often for western people who became monastic, ten, twenty; thirty, thirty-five, forty years ago. We get together and talk about the wonderful joys and also the difficulties of being a western Buddhist monastic. We talk very frankly with each other, and I know that the Master was early because almost always, I'm the longest precepted one there, even among Tibetan and Theravadan. So the Master gave the west a monastic Sangha very early. I think we can dare say¡Xfirst.

I think that the second most important thing that might not have come if the Master hadn¡¦t come west is vegetarianism in Buddhism. From the very beginning, from the moment we walked in the door of the Buddhist Lecture Hall, we became vegetarian, and most of us had not been before. From the very beginning, the Master talked with great detail, great logic, and principle about why it¡¦s good to be a vegetarian. Now why do I say this is important to the Master¡¦s coming to the West? Because to this very day, Tibetan Buddhists eat meat, Theravadan Buddhists eat meat, and even... I am sorry to say, among Great Vehicle countries, many of the monastic Sangha don¡¦t keep to a totally pure vegetarian diet. So I feel it was a very important contribution for the Master to let us know about vegetarianism, for these reasons: first of all, compassion; second of all, our own health; third of all, the health of the world.. . of the planet; and last, and certainly not least, the karmic involvement we make with beings when we eat their flesh.

Rarely do you hear the Master criticize members of any tradition of Buddhism regarding not keeping totally pure vegetarianism. That wasn¡¦t his way, at least in my experience. His way was to continue to advocate the good points of being vegetarian.

I think the next thing that the Master did very early in the West was to oversee the translation of Buddhist canonical texts into English. It was nor easy for him to achieve this, because he only had westerner disciples at that time. He didn¡¦t yet have young, dynamic Asians to help with translation, It¡¦s not like now where you people sit down to translate, and you have people proficient in English working together with people proficient in Chinese. The result is bound to be hundreds of times better than what we did in those days, because we were crippled by the lack of knowledge of Chinese. But I think what the Master gave us was the gift of fearlessness. He told us to have the courage to go ahead to do what he wanted us to do and not to worry. He encouraged us and said: "Don¡¦t worry about it... do the best you can! You translate it and publish it, and the very least ... " ¡X this was forty years ago¡X ¡¨it is going to give the westerners some idea of what the Shurangama Sutra says or what the Lotus Sutra says. Don¡¦t worry about it because people will come after ..." ¡X of course, those people coming after are you, the ones here¡X ¡¨They¡¦ll know so much more and be so much better at language skills that they will retranslate the texts and commentaries and those will be published again: second editions, third editions, fourth editions. So you don¡¦t have to worry about the first one if it¡¦s not perfect.¡¨

He also encouraged us and said: ¡§Never mind! Don¡¦t worry about publication, just translate. Translate and put it there on your book shelf, and then let it sir there, and don¡¦t worry about it; and then some day.. .30, 40, 50 years later, somebody will find it on your book shelf and they¡¦ll say: ¡¥Oh! This is a real treasure! We don¡¦t have this in English!' and they will be happy to find it.¡¨ Of course, part of what the Master told us was to help us with our egos. He didn¡¦t want any of our egos to run away with us with thoughts like: ¡§Oh! Look at me, I am translating classical Chinese.. .a Buddhist canonical text!¡¨ So he was very, very careful how he handled this to try to keep us humble. He did his best.

The Master let our less-than-perfect translations, that passed through the BTTS four-committee process, be published very early, which means that BTTS publications, canonical texts with commentaries, were available in the 1970¡¦s. Were they correct? Nah, they weren¡¦t correct. We didn¡¦t get the words right, we didn¡¦t get the phrasing right, we missed the meaning a lot of times, there were idioms that we didn¡¦t bother to try to translate because we had no idea what they meant. Nonetheless, the Master encouraged us: ¡§Never mind, as much as you¡¦ve got, let¡¦s put it out and later people can do it better.¡¨ And we got criticized a lot. From that time to this time, and even though we published things, we didn¡¦t know how to handle distribution, so the Master did not become widely known through those early English translations.

The lack of expertise in distribution is probably a legitimate criticism, but on the other hand, there are people here, and elsewhere at our branches, who somehow came across one of our books and read a little bit and realized what an outstanding individual the Master was, and how easy his commentaries were for us who knew no Buddhism to understand. And so you can say, yes, we haven¡¦t distributed widely, but if we distributed it into one person¡¦s heart, and that person comes, and wants to learn more, there¡¦s some success in that.

The other thing is that we are international. Among us are Malaysians, Vietnamese, those from Mainland China, Canadians, Taiwanese, Hongkongese, and Americans. And so when westerners come here, it¡¦s comfortable because there are all kinds of people here. Often as Buddhism moves into the western culture, a phenomenon called ethnic Buddhism occurs. That¡¦s when the Thai people come and build a Thai temple, and they speak Thai, read Thai, and sing Thai. Or the Chinese come and build a Chinese temple and they speak Chinese and sing Chinese. Or Vietnamese build their temple and they speak Vietnamese. What about us westerners?

These ethnic Buddhist groups are here in the West, and where do westerners fit in? I even see this phenomenon sometimes in our own branches. I visit our branches and sometimes it¡¦s all Asian. I¡¦m not criticizing. I am telling the truth.

A westerner will come to the door, and the Chinese all start talking Chinese, saying: ¡§You should watch him, he might steal something. Better have somebody follow him. I wonder what he¡¦s here for? Don¡¦t let him scare our women...¡¨ Such western visitors don¡¦t have to understand the language to know that they are being judged. I mean the vibes are there. So I hope that the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas will remain very international, and that all our branches will follow that example, so westerners will feel welcome. That way the Master¡¦s coming to the West and bringing the Dharma will take root and have good results.