Events in the Life of the Venerable Master Hua

From In Memory of the First Anniversary of the Nirvana of Venerable Master Hsuan Hua
(Compiled from the Venerable Master's Lectures by the Editorial Staff)

At first I was slow to learn--incredibly dull. I couldn't remember my lessons no matter how many times I read them. Since I had heard my mother recite The Hundred Surnames at home, I could memorize it right away. But I had never read or heard The Three Character Classic before. I would study the first few lines:

People at their birth are by nature good.
Their natures are close to the Way,
But their habits take them away from it.
If there is laxness in teaching them,
Their natures will change.
The way to teach them is to be single-minded.

But no matter how I tried, I couldn't memorize them. In those days, studying consisted mainly of memorizing lessons. Whenever you memorized a passage to the point that you could rattle it off easily without thinking, you would go to the teacher, give him your book, and then turn around with your back to him and recite from memory. Well, I had finally memorized the lines very clearly, but as soon as I turned my back to the teacher, my mind blanked out and I couldn't even think of the first word. It was just that strange!

So you see? If you try to teach children to study well, it's very difficult for them. But when it comes to less noble things, they are really smart. No one needs to teach them. I remember watching people gamble when I was little. There's a card game called Heavenly Nine, which uses thirty-two cards and has four players. The biggest combination was a pair of "heaven," a pair of "earth," and a pair of "people." There's also an "emperor" and "three singles and six sets." It took me only five minutes to remember what the thirty-two cards looked like, and when I returned home I made a very pretty set of my own. Take a look! When it came to studying, I was a hopeless case. People tried to teach me to study, but I always failed and forgot my lessons. Yet when I saw these cards, no teacher had to explain them to me, but I committed them to memory in five minutes!

Why did I forget my lessons? I was really puzzled. This had gone on for many days. I wondered, "What's going on? How come I remember it so well when I'm on the kang (brickbed), but forget everything as soon as I get down from it? Is it that I haven't bowed to the sages?" No, I had already made many bows to the sages, even before I entered school. So that wasn't a valid reason. I looked into it some more and finally discovered that it was because of fear. I was afraid that if I made a mistake in reciting, the teacher would bop me over the head with his big pipe. And so, as soon as I went to the teacher, it was like seeing King Yama. All my concentration fled, and I forgot everything I'd memorized. All I could think was: "Is the pipe going to come down on my head?" Once I understood, I was no longer afraid. If I was in for a beating, so be it! What was there to fear? From then on, I maintained my concentration both on the brickbed and on the floor. I could remember everything I read without forgetting a single word.

After being in school and looking into this problem for a month, I found the path to studying. Once I entered the door, so to speak, everything became easier. Not only could I memorize things quickly, but I never forget them afterwards. When I began The Great Learning, at first I was very slow, but after a while my study progressed rapidly. What I covered in one day, others could not cover in twenty days. How could I do this? It was because I had discovered the secret to studying. I simply used single-minded concentration--I have no other method but this. When I studied, I didn't think about other things--such as eating, drinking, wearing nice clothes, or living in a nice place. I had no random thoughts at all. What was the extent of my concentration? I'll tell you, this is a most wonderful method. When I studied, people could be putting on a play, beating drums, blowing trumpets, playing flutes, or ringing bells beside me, but I wouldn't hear them. Actually I could hear them if I wanted to, but I could also tell my mind not to pursue those sounds. I could control my mind and keep it from running after external states. Once I set my mind to studying, I didn't think of anything else. In that way, I mastered what I studied very quickly. In the beginning, I might read a lesson thirty times without understanding it. But once I discovered the method, once I could concentrate my mind, it was really wonderful. After reading it once, I would remember most of it. After the second time, I remembered the whole thing. By the third time through, I would never forget it.

Seeing that I could memorize anything after reading it twice, my teacher praised me, saying, "From the looks of you, I would never have thought you were so intelligent. You really are a lot like Yan Hui. Even though you don't look smart, you have a marvelous memory." I became proud, thinking, "How could I compare to Yan Hui? Anyways, I don't want to be like Yan Hui. He was so intelligent that he ended up dying young. If I'm like him, won't I die young too?" I gave myself an arrogant nickname: "Like-a-Fool." Basically, there's no difference between a long life and a short life. If you're afraid your life will be short, then you are attached to the mark of a life span. If you would like to have a long life, you're even more attached to the mark of a life span. That's why I don't want to be short-lived like Yan Hui, and I don't want to be long-lived like Peng Zu [the Methusaleh of China].

I was quite mischievous in school. When we had to match couplets, probably twenty-five of the thirty-some students in our class asked me to write matches for them. I imitated their handwriting and helped them write couplets. I remember once the teacher gave the first line: "The goose flies through the air." I wrote a match for my classmate: "The deer roams in the hills." When the teacher saw it, he looked at my classmate and asked, "Did you write this?" "Yes," said my classmate. The teacher said, "I never would have thought you could come up with such a good match." It was pretty funny.

Once I knew the secret to studying, I read the Standards for Students. The first few lines give the major themes:

These standards for students are guidelines
Handed down to us by the sages.
First be filial and fraternal,
Next be careful and honest.
Cherish all living beings,
And draw near to good-hearted people.
Whatever energy you have left
Should be devoted to study.

These are rules for students and disciples, as well as for sons, daughters, and brothers and sisters. These rules are teachings left by sages. The sages teach us first of all to be filial to our parents and respectful to our brothers and elders. Secondly, we should accord with worldly conventions and be cautious in our speech and behavior. We should speak seriously and in earnest. We should regard all beings with universal kindness. Then, if we have any spare time, we should learn more literary Prajna. The next lines are even more clear:

When father and mother are calling,
Answer them right away.
When they give you instructions,
Obey without hesitation.

When your parents instruct you,

Respectfully do as you're told.
When your parents scold you,
You should compliantly accept it.

In the winter make sure they are warm.
In the summer make sure they are cool.
Each morning cheerfully greet them.
At night wish your parents a pleasant rest.

Before going out, tell your parents.
Let them know when you return.
Dwell in a fixed place
And finish what you begin.

When I read this book, I thought it was wonderful, for it sets forth clearly the principles of how to be a good person. I would memorize my lessons as I walked. Keeping my eyes on the road, I recited the text from memory both with my mouth and in my mind. If it was a new lesson, I would recite it over and over. If it was an old lesson, I would review it once or twice every day. That way, once I finished a lesson, I would never forget it. That's on the road.

I also memorized on the pillow. When I went to bed, I reviewed my lessons. After reviewing them, I would ask myself: "The sages handed down these teachings as standards for those of later generations to follow. Can I follow these standards? Can I emulate the sages?" That's how I grasped the intent of the teachings. I would say: "Okay, I'm going to apply this sentence in my life. I'm really going to do it." No matter what I studied, I would ask myself if I would act or speak that way. I would treat the text as if I were speaking it myself, and then I'd be able to remember it. I would take every passage and use it as a standard to measure my own life and behavior.

I had three places for studying: on the pillow, on the road, and on the toilet. I studied the fastest in the toilet. Even though you're only in the toilet for a short time, it's a great place to study. You can remember what you couldn't remember before. Why? You have samadhi. If you single-mindedly concentrate on your studies and have no other thoughts, you'll be able to remember everything. That way the time you spend there won't go by in vain. Once you understand the three "on's," you should also know:

When you're pursuing your studies,
On three places focus attention:
Your mind, your eyes, and your mouth.
It's essential to have faith and understanding.

You look at the book with your eyes, think about it with your mind, and read it with your mouth. They are three, yet one; one, and yet three. The mind, eyes, and mouth work together.

Once I discovered this method, studying no longer presented any difficulty. Many children are very smart, but once they leave their books, they forget their studies. I, however, became one with my books, so I studied and memorized them very quickly. Those were my experiences with studying. I did not find the Four Books and Five Classics difficult to study either. After reading through them once, I was able to remember them.

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