LIFE WITH THE MASTER
by Richard Josephson
When I arrived back in the U.S. from India, I went to the San Francisco Zen Center to practice Buddhism. But, after only a week I became discouraged because I was used to a much more vigorous practice. One of the people there told me of Gold Mountain. He said that few people go there because the practice is so difficult. I went to Gold Mountain the following day, and the first thing I saw on the wall was a picture of the Master Hsu Yun. I enquired about the picture and a monk there told me that Master Hua carried his lineage, but unfortunately the Master was on a South American tour and would not return for two months. I said that this was no obstacle, and I waited in the Buddha Hall for two months, sleeping under the stairs.
My practice during my earlier years at Gold Mountain was the recitation of mantras and cleaning the temple, and this is what it remained for the entire ten years I was with the Master.
It is difficult to relate a sudden awakening or a sudden non-awakening to another because the interaction between a ripe student and his teacher (or circumstance) is a very personal one. For example, Master Hsu Yun had a major awakening when hot tea was accidentally poured on his hand. The cultivation that ripened Master Hsu Yun’s mind for his awakening took many months and his state of mind at that moment was unique to Master Hsu Yun. If this were not the case, anyone who had hot tea poured on his hand could obtain enlightenment. Having no sudden awakening to share, I would like to share a sudden non-awakening. As painful as non-awakenings were, they too formed an important part of my cultivation.
I once handed the Master a gatha that read: “To see Amitabha in the Western Pure Land; how can this be done when facing East?” At that time, I was in charge of the meditation hall at Gold Mountain and always faced East during my many hours of daily meditation. The question put to the Master was from my heart and not merely a Zen game. In order to appreciate the Master’s reply, one has to know something of the Master’s third floor room at Gold Mountain. The walls and ceiling were supported by offerings from lay people, which included thousands of bars of soap and toothbrushes, piled everywhere with no order whatsoever. When one visited the Master’s room he would often stick his hand in one of the piles and give you something. The Master couldn’t read the English labeling, and never looked anyway, but nevertheless it often seemed as if the Master gave you just what you needed.
For the weeks that followed my giving the Master my gatha, I continued my meditations awaiting the Master’s reply. Unfortunately I didn’t recognize it when it came unexpectedly one day as I sat meditating alone in the Buddhahall. The Master used to be able to break my meditation by looking at me. As I meditated in the hall he caused me to be aware of his presence on the far side of the hall near the office. He began walking towards me. He looked very different. He was expressionless, deep in trance, and not looking at me. But as he passed my bench he gave me a toothbrush. Then he continued on to circumambulate the Buddha, still deep in trance, in reverse direction, with the Buddha on his left. Only Shr Fu and myself were in the Buddhahall. I looked a moment at the toothbrush, saw nothing peculiar about it, and put it under my meditation bench. Shr Fu continued around the Buddha in reverse circumambulation.
A week passed before I thought to have another look at the toothbrush. I then realized, with my heart in my stomach, the brand name of the toothbrush: Dr. West.
One of the Master’s most important teachings was that a disciple should not attach to “marks” or the form of a practice. Shr Fu helped us to realize a lofty purpose in our practice. When Heng Ju left to bow over a thousand miles to see his mother he failed after a single day. He didn’t have the right motivation to sustain his pilgrimage. However, after he returned defeated to Gold Mountain, the Master gently directed Heng Ju’s viewpoint from a purely selfish and egotistic one, to a lofty and altruistic one—World Peace. After that, Heng Ju completed his bows from San Francisco to Marblemount, Washington.
Now that Shr Fu is no longer with us, it is our duty as his disciples to make sure that Shr Fu does not become a mere memory. I personally feel a deeper sense of urgency to spread Buddhism now that Shr Fu is gone than I did when the Master was still with us. Shr Fu has carried his torch (his body) for as long as he could, doing the work of a Bodhisattva. Now he has passed the torch on to all of us. It is not only our duty as disciples to carry on the Master’s work, but also the best way we can honor our Teacher.
Every day do something in honor of the Master and allow that seed to sprout. Shr Fu taught Dharma to all of us who have been touched by him. That very special feeling that each of us feels in his heart for the Master is his Dharma transmission. Without trying to intellectualize it, allow it to work through you.
If someone were to ask me what is the most important thing I gained from being with the Master for ten years, I would have to say that it is my deep conviction that I am Buddhist and my faith in the Buddhist teachings. When I first entered Gold Mountain, the idea of obtaining enlightenment seemed very remote and impossible. I was more concerned with ending this life’s afflictions. But, after years with the Master my aim changed. I now understand that one must resolve to cultivate to end birth and death and realize the Bodhisattva ideal. Shr Fu pushed us all to “do what others cannot do,” so that we might have an experiential awareness of the truth of Buddhism rather than a merely intellectual one. Woven within all my daily thoughts is a Buddhist thread, a thread that holds the fabric of my being together, and Shr Fu within my heart. The conviction that I am a Buddhist is unshakable.
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