He was a literati, a writer, an editor, a social commentator, and a historian without peer.” And yet the Venerable Master wrote an eight-line verse for every line of the Great Compassion Mantra and every line of the Shurangama Mantra. He wrote the Verses without a Stand for the Heart Sutra. He wrote verses for the Patriarchs, adding to Elder Master Hsu Yun’s Lives of the Patriarchs. He wrote not only verses but excellent rhymed essays. He was a master of prose and verse. The Master’s scattered writings, occasional verses, and songs number in the hundreds. One of the things about the Master that has touched me the most is his contribution to literature, in the form of songs, essays, and poetry.
The Master would teach a matching couplets class, in which he would put the first line on the board regarding a state or a situation or a disciple’s habits, and invite everyone else to come up and add the second line. It was amazing how just the few Chinese characters of your couplet line could reveal your character, your nature, your shortcomings, your literary skill, your education... He even had children who were not able to speak Chinese come up and put matching couplets on the board that were surprisingly sophisticated in form and refreshingly pure and straight in content. It was a wonderful experience to have the Master teach couplets. It’s probably the first time in any American Way-place that a Buddhist teacher has done this (and maybe the first time in Chinese Buddhist history for a long time). So this is just to point to one aspect of our teacher that I think needs to be remembered.
What kind of a poet was he? I’d like to tell a very personal story, because it shows the way the Master taught. Perhaps many people who talked today never actually got a teaching from the Abbot, and they don’t know what it was really like to be on the receiving end of his teaching—how bittersweet that experience could be. So I’d like to talk about how the Abbot taught me and caught my mind in a place where I didn’t even know I was vulnerable. This was on a bowing pilgrimage I did with another monk. We got to a place called Half Moon Bay on the coast. I was bowing along when something inspired me and I wrote down a poem. I thought, “That’s a pretty good poem. Boy, I can write Chinese poetry! This really has captured my state. I’m going to give it to the Master next time I see him.” We hadn’t seen the Master for about three weeks. When you’re cultivating alone, it’s really easy to get into a state and think you’re hot stuff. My poem went like this:
“Words are false; books are many.
Energy is precious, and Buddhas are few.
Still dreaming? Stop talking.
Do no more false thinking.
After awakening, cross living beings over in everything you do.”
Pretty good poem, huh? I was working on it—which is called false thinking—I should have been bowing, not thinking about what a great poet I was. I thought, “Well, someday I’ll have a chance to read it to the Master.” At lunchtime, a familiar station wagon pulled off the road; it was the Master and some other people. After the meal, I cleared my throat and said, “Master, I wrote a poem! Could I read it to you?” He said, “Hmpf! You wrote a poem? All right, let’s hear it.” So I said my poem. He said, “Not bad. But I want to change it.” He said,
“Your words are false, your excuses are many.
Value your energy, and you can become a Buddha.
You’re still dreaming? Really stop talking, and do no more false thinking.
After awakening, you’ll see all along that there hasn’t been a single word in it anywhere.”
Right on the spot! It took him less than a minute. He turned my own words around and pointed right at my false thinking. My wonderful poem was scattered to the wind. He made it not only a better poem, but exactly the right teaching for my mind. It was like looking in a mirror. Here I’d been, very proud of myself, and in the blink of an eye, the Master showed me—”See? False thinking. Go back to work.” So this is the Master—the poet, the literati, and the teacher.
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