Footsteps to Follow
Reflecting on my affinities with the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas
and its Founder, the Venerable Master Hsuan Hua
by Fedde M. de Vries
A few weeks ago I dismantled my altar. It was a bookcase with on the top shelf some statues and pictures of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, the shelf below having pictures of Buddhist teachers I deeply respect – Master Hsuan Hua and Master Hsu Yun were prominent among them. The remainder of the case was filled with Sutras, other Buddhist books, and notes on Dharma that I had collected over the past few years. It was not without some pain in my heart that I dismantled this altar which had been so central in my daily life. Realizing, however, what made me do it, my spirit rose up and I felt very inspired even after the buyer had come to collect his bookcase for 20 euros.
Why then did I sell that bookcase? Why did I dismantle the altar? Why did I have it in the first place? Such questions lead me to reflect on what little I know of my future and on my scattered memories of the past. My present dismantling of the altar was part of the process of emptying the room where I’ve spent my three years of college life. I’m leaving Leiden behind this summer to spend half a year at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. After that I plan to travel in Asia before continuing my studies, which I will most probably not do in Leiden. This explains why I sold my bookcase, but the question as to why I had an altar in the first place remains, and a new question arises: what brings this young person in the bloom of his life, who grew up with the views of Western culture and modern science, from a city in the most rural province of the Netherlands to a Chinese Mahayana Buddhist monastic community in northern California? What affinities lead me there? To answer these questions I will have to go back in time and reflect on some of the steps I took as I learned to walk my life.
My memories of early encounters with Buddhism are from when I was twelve. Seeing Seven Years in Tibet, which besides showing the suffering of the Tibetan people, impressed upon me mostly the traditional wisdom that the Tibetan characters embodied. More prominent in my memories is the moment when I read about the Four Noble Truths in a children’s educational book on Buddhism. I remember vividly how I was struck by the clarity of the Buddha’s teaching – in fact, I can still recall the layout of the page where the Four Noble Truths were discussed. These truths amazed me by coming from a clearly experiential basis – who cannot recognize the sufferings of life and its inherent link with craving? Moreover, they promise freedom and a method for becoming freer: something real to do and real transformation ahead. To me, this offered something more attractive than the Christian tradition I was being brought up in and from which I already began to feel alienated. In that tradition, the link with our actual day-to-day experience was not obvious to me, nor was there a very direct promise of personal responsibility and transformation embodied by real people.
This is not to say Christianity does not offer those aspects at all; Buddhism just made them very clear and tangible to me. However, the embodiment of Buddhist principles and of transformation was not really available to me. I was – and still am – quite a reader and in the years that followed I became well acquainted with the Buddhist, Mystical, and Spiritual sections in the local library. The Internet also provided enough Buddhist materials to read. Nevertheless, however much intellectual satisfaction books can give and however helpful learning is, they do not provide the living example and proof that one can see in Dharma teachers and Dharma friends. But the Internet not only has a wealth of reading materials: there are also Buddhist discussion groups and forums. Through one such forum I got in touch with a Zen teacher who also does Chinese/Japanese painting. He would encourage me to be creative, practice different aspects of Buddhism, and believe in my own goodness. But the greatest debt I owe him is for giving me a couple of Internet links to things to read and listen to.
It was through those links that I ‘’met’’ Master Hsuan Hua: not as a flesh and blood person face to face, but very much as a living (and lively) person through pdf’s containing some of the teachings he gave, especially those he gave in the sixties and seventies. This is how I started reading his commentary on the Śūrangama Sutra. I spent my free time slowly making my way through that very powerful text while my schoolmates were playing computer games or soccer. I had read a lot, but Master Hua was something different: here someone seemed to be really speaking from a place of deep understanding and experience of cultivation. And although many of the concepts and stories were really weird and far out at the beginning, I kept being drawn into reading the commentary. Studying other commentaries in between, such as that on the Diamond Sutra, it took me a little less than a year to finish all eight volumes of commentary on the Śūrangama.
While the teachings of the Śūrangama were the first that the Venerable Master lectured on to Westerners in America, he lectured on the Avatamsaka Sutra for the longest and perhaps most formative period in the training of his early disciples. It was by being given the link to www.dharmaradio.org that through the digital network – with all the miraculous time and space configurations that implies – I was able to hear the voice of Reverend Heng Sure explaining the Avatamsaka Sutra. The miracle was not at how I accessed it – I belong to the first generation that virtually grew up with the Internet – but what I accessed; here the deep teachings of the Buddha and of Master Hua came to life through the clear and accessible elaborations and story-telling of a native English voice. Moreover, that Western voice was from someone who had actually been through intensive cultivation himself as well. Buddhism now became not just something old and Asian; modern Westerners can bring it into their lives as well, even to the point where they end up teaching Asians.
‘’Might I perhaps do that as well, practice the Buddha’s teachings, meditate and understand my mind, develop my heart, become a better person, and help others?’’ I asked myself. By then I had already taken up some meditation and other practices, such as saying short Buddhist prayers every morning and evening. The stories and teachings of Master Hsuan Hua and Reverend Heng Sure were encouraging and very rich in those aspects. The wealth of their teachings had more, however: I heard the story about the Venerable Master bowing to his parents and sitting beside his mother’s grave as well as other teachings on filial respect; I heard it being emphasized that the practice of the Way needs a good foundation and education as a person. Accordingly, I found myself not only paying attention to cultivation by, for example, learning to recite the Śūrangama Mantra and the Great Compassion Mantra, sitting in meditation and reciting Buddhas’ and Bodhisattvas’ names, but I also took my time to learn from the world. I engaged in wide reading trying to learn from Confucian, Christian, and general Western morality. I educated myself a bit on culture: visiting museums and taking interest in classical music (besides the more modern music I usually listened to and made myself). Also, I followed the Master in bowing to my parents. Although it is certain that my parents had and have their worries about the choices I have made, often in connection to Buddhism, I am sure they will agree that we have actually grown closer over time and as I’m getting ready to leave for CTTB, I think my parents actually have quite some understanding of what it is I’m trying to do. I personally feel that this practice of respecting our roots is very important as one hears a lot of stories about teenagers, who in the process of growing up, perhaps by becoming idealistic or just by living their own dreams, turn away from their parents. The broken hearts that this creates are not conducive to the openness and confidence needed for working on the level of the mind. This teaching of filiality and respect for elders is perhaps the hardest aspect for those who grow up in the modern Western world to learn in the Buddhadharma. Yet, there is immense wisdom in it and I think that by emphasizing that teaching, the Master has actually laid a very firm foundation for a steady growth of Buddhism in the West.
The voices speaking Dharma that became beacons in my life found their origin in Chinese, which means that my entire encounter with the Dharma was through translation. All the Buddhist material I read was either in English or, occasionally, in Dutch. Master Hsuan Hua’s teachings were given in Chinese and had to be translated. Reverend Heng Sure lectures in English, but he refers back to the Chinese and talks about the translation process during his lectures. Perhaps it is not far-fetched to see Reverend Sure’s lectures as a laboratory in which translations are tested and digested, quite like Master Hua’s own lectures in fact, which were for a large part intended to help the translators by giving glosses in modern Chinese. In the Netherlands we have extensive language education – besides Dutch and English also French and German – and in my secondary school we also studied Latin and Greek. Having quite a fondness for languages, I conceived of the idea to learn Chinese myself. This way, not only would I be able to understand Buddhist texts and Master Hua’s teaching without relying too much on translations, I would also be able to help translating at some point! With those thoughts in the back of my mind, I not only started actually learning Chinese, I also started working on some translations from English to Dutch.
Translating turned out to be a very good way of entering the Dharma, a good Dharma-door. For one thing, I got to go through some of Master Hua’s talks in a slow and steady pace, as I struggled to properly understand the meaning and find the right words in Dutch. But beyond that, I contacted people from the Buddhist Text Translation Society through the Internet and that way got to know some people who could give guidance and with some alumni from the schools at CTTB – even some from Holland! Now, not only could I read or listen to the Dharma, but I could also ask for advice through e-mail and chat online with young Dharma friends every once in a while. Very precious indeed!
After I graduated from school I made a journey that I had long wished to make. I spent four weeks in CTTB, first working on the organic farm, where I talked a lot with one of the high school alumni who by his openness really made me feel welcome, and three weeks in the Summer Study and Practice program, where we studied the Śūrangama Sutra. One year later I returned for two months to call the City home. Meanwhile, back in Holland I had started my BA Program in religious studies, focusing on Buddhism and learning Chinese and Sanskrit at Leiden University. Although the element of practice so essential in Buddhism is lacking in the academic program, it has enabled me to become more educated, widen my scope, and learn some useful languages. Education and moral development; the support of wholesome friends and the example of real cultivators who live the path and can speak to the heart; the work of translation and the work of cultivation. Of course there have been a lot of missteps I’ve taken – false views, attachments, disrespect to teachers, doubts – but the steps described above are those which come up as I reflect on what is leading me to CTTB as I am about to finish my BA Program.
These footsteps are quite diverse. All of them I think are also very much part of the Venerable Master’s activities when he was in the world: stressing education and translation, embodying cultivation, teaching Westerners and speaking Dharma. The Master knew about art and wrote poetry; he was firmly founded in filial respect. He made the Dharma come alive, stressing the need of speaking Dharma and of translation. He firmly imprinted all such footsteps of his in Western soil. Yet his work is far from finished; in fact, we may each carry it on in our own ways. For me, as I’m leaving behind Leiden I also leave behind a meditation group that I have set up. I’m very happy that a few participants will be taking over the organizing. When I organized the group, I had to do the different tasks by myself, a bit like an octopus with different hands: hosting the sessions, taking care of texts to read, doing some publicity. As other people will take up different tasks which suit their abilities, I expect that the group will grow. Without wishing to suggest it is in any way easy to emulate the Master Hsuan Hua in any of his one activities, let alone in all of them at the same time, I think that as time ripens and people start taking up and focusing on the different legacies left by the Master, each following his footsteps in his or her own way, the Master’s vast vision will continue to live and leave its mark on the world for many a heart to rejoice. These are some of the footsteps I hope to follow.