by Martin Verhoeven
Like the China of Great Master Hsuan-Tsang’s time, America in the late 20th century is awash with a staggering variety of Buddhisms. Just as wave after wave of divergent Indian Buddhist schools and sects inundated China from the end of the Han up through the Tang, so have we witnessed in the West an equally rich and perplexing infusion of schools and teachings—all purporting to be genuine, orthodox, the “real teaching.”Great Master Hsuan-Tsang (c.586-664) sought to resolve the confusion of so many conflicting opinions by pilgrimaging to India to seek out the genuine Dharma for himself at its source, and to bring back the sacred scriptures to his homeland.
A great scholar and translator and one of the few Chinese to have mastered Sanskrit, Great Master Hsuan-Tsang’s stupendous journey marked a high point in the transmission of Buddhism from one culture to another. Americans now, like the Chinese of the Sui and Tang, long for the same clarity and voice of authority. Ironically, the venerable Hsuan-Tsang may have had an easier time in his quest than contemporary seekers.
For even when the texts became readily available to Americans (available in a quantity and quality perhaps unequaled in history), the “reading” of those texts proved far more difficult and daunting than we imagined. As the Great Master Hsuan-Tsang discovered, and as we Americans are belatedly discovering, Buddhism—the real and vital Buddhism—is penetrated not simply through reading texts (however carefully) and learned exegeses, but through a far more subtle and interior process called “self-cultivation.” Great Master Hsuan-Tsang’s insight and understanding of the written discourses derived from two complementary sources: his own virtuous life of spiritual practice, and his intimate contact with genuine “good knowing advisors” (kalamitryana) he encountered throughout his incredible journey.
As it is said, “The Way and the response inconceivably intertwine; practice and understanding mutually respond.” Reading Great Master Hsuan-tsang’s journal, one cannot avoid the impression that “good knowing advisors,” true personifications of the Buddha-Way, were more numerous and accessible then than now. Moreover, in perhaps that less materialistic and “primitive” time, love of one’s spiritual nature seemed more cherished; self-cultivation more refined. Thus, although our libraries and bookstores abound with Buddhist texts and works on Buddhism, our knowledge of, and more significantly our cultivation of, that sacred teaching does not for all of that seem proportionately advanced. Nor does our desire for the “unsurpassed, wonderful Dharma” seem as hungry as that of the men and women who lived centuries before ours.
Another irony: Where Great Master Hsuan-Tsang had to risk life and limb traversing god-forsaken deserts and freezing mountains to find the teachings of enlightenment and wise mentors, we in America find both teachings and teachers arriving practically on our doorsteps. Since the 1890s and especially since World War II, Buddhism and Buddhist masters have clearly set the Dharma on a new course: from East to West, from Asia to America. This fragile transfer of ancient wisdom to the New World, as with all previous migrations of the Dharma to new lands, however, depends for its success on transplanting not simply the scriptures, but transmitting the “living tradition.” Only on the strength and inspiration of living examples of Buddhism does the Dharma take root in fresh soil and grow in new hearts. Such an exemplar was Venerable Master Hsuan Hua. And such was the scope of his vow: to bring the Dharma to America.
My first meeting with the Master in 1976 underscored the importance of the direct and personal encounter. (Interestingly, I “met” the Master in a dream months before I actually met him in San Francisco at the Gold Mountain Monastery.) As was customary and proper, nearly everyone present at the monastery that afternoon to hear him lecture, bowed to the Master, showing their respect for the Dharma he inherited and passed along. I chafed at the thought of bowing to another. “How unbecoming and demeaning,” I thought as I watched others bow. “That’s so self-abasing and superstitious; I would never kowtow like that to a person!” I suppose in the back of my mind stood the Christian admonition of my childhood catechism lessons not to “worship false gods.”
Then during the sutra lecture, the Master, as if out of the blue, digressed in his commentary (or so it seemed) to observe that, “Some people come to the temple seeking the Way, but are so full of self and their own self-importance that they cannot receive the Way. Like a tea cup already full to the brim in which the water of Dharma only spills over the side, they only wish to be noticed, to be praised and given a ‘high hat’ to wear. They are arrogant and proud and so, ‘having eyes they cannot see; having ears they cannot hear.’”
These words struck to my heart. I felt they were surgically directed right at me. I didn’t enjoy hearing this criticism, yet strangely I didn’t really mind either. Somehow hearing such an honest and direct truth about myself made me forget for the moment the sting of their bitterness to my ego.
Good medicine is bitter to the taste;
Honest words grate on the ears.
I had never before thought of myself as arrogant, but I recognized immediately the Master’s skillful perception of my state of mind. After the lecture I went up to the Master and bowed. I thought to myself, “Anyone who knows me better than I know myself, deserves my respect. Truly I received an invaluable gift today from this curious monk.” The Master just smiled.
I continued to come to the Master’s lectures and discovered a teaching that surpassed my expectations. For the first time in my life I felt totally intellectually free to inquire and explore—without dogma, without doctrine, without creed or the abandonment of reason. The Master was then explaining the Avatamsaka Sutra, and I felt myself inexorably drawn into its “understanding and expanding of the mind and all its states...the unattached, unbound, liberated mind.” The Master was my introduction to Buddhism; his profound and expansive teaching my understanding of what Buddhism was. That impression was shattered when I traveled to Asia the following year.
In 1977 I was part of a delegation that accompanied the Master on a lecture tour of Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Indonesia, and Thailand. I wasn’t prepared for the acculturated forms of Buddhism that have come to dominate the Asian Buddhist world. Centuries of accretion, absorption, and cross-fertilization with indigenous customs and beliefs, local cults, and downright superstition has resulted in “Buddhisms” one would never find in any sutra.
In one particular temple the gaudy display and wai-tao (lit. ‘outside the Way’) hoopla was especially disturbing and out-of-hand. Dead ducks and bottles of wine covered the altars as offerings to the Buddha (whose precepts enjoin against intoxicants and the taking of life), choking clouds of incense smoke filled the air, making it painful to breathe and sooting the gilded images so heavily that they no longer appeared golden radiant but sticky, ocher brown. Messy oil lamps spilled all over the altars and floors as each devotee struggled to empty his or her gallon bottle into the tiny lanterns. In the corners of the temple people huddled, shaking “fortune sticks” out of cups onto the floor to divine their fate and future. Bereaved relatives burned wads of paper money to “buy off” the angry and vengeful ghosts of the underworld who they believed obstructed their departed ones from rebirth in the heavens. Outside, huge papier-mache boats, cars, houses, planes, and palaces were set to torch and “sent” to the dead to appease them and confer on them riches and wealth. The whole temple-scene resembled a circus or carnival atmosphere. There was even a Gwan-yin Bodhisattva pinball machine where for a coin one could mechanically manipulate a plastic goddess along a track to shovel out a toy ball containing a blessing or prediction of blessings and eternal reward. This was the nadir of my disillusionment with “Buddhism.”
When the Master addressed the audience, however, his tone resembled the “lion’s roar.” With humor softening a patriarch’s righteous duty to protect the Proper Dharma, he took issue with nearly everything we were witnessing in the name of Buddhism.
“If you offer a stick of incense,” he began “it is symbolic—symbolic of your desire to become pure of mind and body, pure in the precepts, so as to be a worthy vessel of the Buddha-Way. Incense-lighting signifies your sincere wish to cleanse your own mind and thoughts and to evoke thereby a response from the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. It’s symbolic, a gesture. The smoke doesn’t by itself ‘purify’ nor does it please the Buddha in the way that we people are pleased by perfume and fragrant food. To think that is to be totally confused about true principle. That actually slanders the Buddha. Think about it. How could the Buddha be the Buddha if he was still ‘flowing in sights and smells,’ still turning in the dust of the senses? Even an arhat has gone beyond enslavement to the senses! Do you think that if one incense stick smells good and pleases the Buddha, then a hundred will please him even more—like bribing an official with a present or enticing a child with candy? The Buddha isn’t greedy for good things the way ordinary people are. To think and act that way really looks down on the Buddha.”Some people began to shift nervously in their seats; others, began to sit up and take notice.
The Master continued, “Look at the Buddha statues! They’re all black and tarnished from all the incense smoke! They’re choking on it. Instead of a Pure Land we are creating a polluted land—all due to greed and ignorance.”At this point you could hear a pin drop.
Some people, obviously offended and upset over what they were hearing, actually got up and walked out. Others, however, especially the younger and better-educated in the audience, applauded enthusiastically and beamed.
The Master went on, “Even though I do not like to speak this way, I cannot not say this. I have made a vow that as long as I have breath and can speak, the proper Dharma will not vanish from this world.”
The Venerable Master continued, “As for burning paper money for ghosts, ask yourself: Is that reasonable? Does it make sense? Aren’t ghosts immaterial? So what use would they have for things material, especially fake money? Even children can’t be taken in by phony money; so how would ghosts who have ghostly psychic powers be fooled?! What use have the dead, whose bodies have returned to the elements, for paper houses, cars, boats, and airplanes? This is truly silly and superstitious!”
Then in a calm and compassionate voice the Master closed: “What is Buddhism? It’s just the teaching of wisdom. Shakyamuni Buddha said upon his enlightenment, ‘All living beings have the Buddha-nature; all can become Buddhas. It’s only because of confused thinking and attachments that they don’t realize the Tathagata’s state.’ Buddha just means ‘awakened one’; so don’t confuse the branches for the root; don’t forsake the near-at-hand and seek far and distant. Return the light to illumine within; seek the Buddha of your mind. That’s all I wish to say for now.”
Next morning as I washed my face at the water sink I met the Master. He smiled and asked me, “Well, what did you think of my talk last night?”
“Well, Shifu,” I replied, “it upset a lot of people, but it also made many people happy.”
The Master said, “I don’t speak to upset nor to please; I only speak what is true, what accords with true principle. That’s all I know how to do; I have always been that way.”
I then confessed my disillusionment with the Buddhism I was seeing on the tour in Asia. I told him that I expected to find the pure and lofty teaching here in the East, in the ‘holy land,’ so to speak, of Buddhism. But instead I encountered many of the same superstitions and strange beliefs I met in other religions. He said softy and very deliberately, “Everything is made from the mind alone. Buddhism is just the teaching of wisdom, the teaching of the mind. Buddhism is meant to liberate the mind, to activate one’s inherent wisdom. I want my students to have wisdom, to discover their inner wisdom, not to become superstitious or attached. Don’t follow me, don’t follow him. Listen to yourself—your True Self, your Buddha-nature—learn to follow true principle and to use your own wisdom. If it’s the Tao, advance; if it’s not the Tao, turn back. Remember what it says in the Vajra Sutra: ‘Those seeking me in sights or seeking me in sounds, walk a deviant path and will never find the Thus Come One.’ Do you understand?” he asked with a gentle smile.
A few weeks later on the same tour I was riding with the Master in a car en route to a lecture in the countryside. The driver, a local devout layman, asked the Master, “Master, the Theravada school says there is only one Buddha, the historical Buddha. The Mahayana school says there are many Buddhas. Which is correct? Is there one Buddha or are there lots of Buddhas?” He was, it seemed, slightly baiting the Master, yet also sincere in his query.
The Master replied, “There are no Buddhas.” The layman was stunned; the car jerked.
“Huh!? How can you say there are no Buddhas?!” he asked incredulously.
The Master smiled and said, “‘Basically there’s not one thing, so where can dust alight?’ Originally there is just great wisdom. Whoever has great wisdom, whoever can find and use their innate wisdom is a Buddha. Whoever remains confused is just a living being. Potentially every living being is a Buddha. Whoever remains confused is just a living being. Potentially every living being is a Buddha, so I say there are limitless Buddhas. But Buddha just means ‘awakened one.’ Awakened to what? Awakened to the truth of no-self. So fundamentally you could say there are no Buddhas; all Buddhas are not.” The Master paused to see if the layman understood. Then he continued, “You eat to satisfy your own hunger; you wear clothes to keep yourself warm, and you cultivate to save yourself. So whether there is one Buddha or a thousand, unless you cultivate there are still Buddhas and you are still a living being—the two are unrelated and the question of one or many is irrelevant. What do you think of my answer?”
The layman thought quietly for a long time, and then shaking his head said, “Hmm. That’s really good; really good.” I to myself said the same.
Finally, I remember observing the Master sitting in at a conference on children and education. Upon hearing the statistics and reports on the deteriorating condition of children throughout the world—children suffering from hunger, poverty, abuse, parental neglect, exposed to increasing levels of violence and depravity—the Master quietly bowed his head and began to softly weep. As the tears came streaming down his face, I was reminded of that other aspect of Buddhism the Master so often taught and embodied: great compassion. His deep sense of “being one with everyone” led me to imagine that his tears were no doubt for the children, and for those who hurt them, and for the children of those children yet to come. But he cried (incredibly) out of shame for his own “lack of virtue,” as he would say, for not having done a good enough job in his own cultivation or by the example and output of his own life, to have prevented such a tragedy.
It was this living example of a great soul “manifesting a body to speak the Dharma,” that made Buddhism come alive for me and I am sure for many others who met the Master. And it is in those meetings, those person-to-person encounters, that the Master’s spirit continues to live. What he instilled by his example and tireless giving to each individual he met, insures in some ineffable way that the Dharma will continue to live—to live not just in translations, but in the boundless living beings who had the privilege and opportunity to be kindled and transformed by his light.
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