THE SAGELY CITY OF TEN THOUSAND BUDDHAS

5 August (Day 8)

Brickfields, Malay University, Kuala Lumpur

News of the Abbot’s “bombshell” has spread like wildfire. In closely knit Asian communities any bit of tasty news is savored to the fullest.

Lunch at the Buddhist Mission Society at Brickfields is prepared this time by members of the Buddhist Society of the University of Malaysia – a festive, happy affair, youthful and vibrant. These young people gather at the Brickfields Temple twice a week to chant, recite Sutras, and listen to Dharma Masters (such as the Venerable Sri Dhammananda) instructions.

In the afternoon we drive to the University of Malaysia. A crowd of bright-eyed and smiling students – over six hundred of them – wait eagerly at the lecture hall. With true receptivity, obstructions melt like ice in hot water.

Porf. Kuo K’ung, Kuo Lei, and myself five talks. All through the trip, the Abbot always lets his disciples steal the limelight, while he himself walks last. He lets us shine, and all the laypeople speak with a genuine earnestness and natural eloquence that moves young and old, rich and poor alike.

“You are all energetic, capable young people, bound to do great things in the world. You are our future leaders and models, so don’t take yourselves lightly, nor the hope I entrust upon you. I wish to sign a contract with you: that you pursue true principle above all else.

Last night we discussed confused belief (superstition) at Klang. There is “confused belief” and “belief in confusion”. In the former case there is still hope for here, although people follow superstitious customs, they still have some faith, and their faith can be ameliorated into belief in confusion – is more serious, because it means belief in deviant knowledge and views – deliberate belief in improper dharmas.

Why are people so confused? Because they haven’t the faintest idea where they come from and where they’ll end up. You look at yourselves daily in the mirror and the reflection you see is not the real you. In fact, you want the truth, you have to find out who you really are. Everybody is confused by the five desires: wealth, sex, fame, food, and sleep. I bet there is no one amongst you who has not calculated about money: “How much money am I going to make after I get this degree? How much money can I get from a job? What pretty wife or big house can I afford?

Stupid or dull people, as dumb as clumps of wood or stone, do not think about money. But there are other types of people who do not think about money. They have transcended greed and are called “sages”. Why don’t sages hanker after money? Because they are already rich in internal treasures. The reason why people grab onto any tiny bit of gain and are constantly on the lookout for good bargains is that they are poor. They feel as if they don’t have enough. They are always hungry. Such people are extremely pitiful, for they have lost track of their inner wealth.

Do not be like that. Didn’t I make a pact with you earlier on? Do not live as if drunk and die as if in a dream. Find out who you really are. Start out by becoming a good person: be filial to your parents, reasonable with your husband or wife, trustworthy to your colleagues. Be an honest person in society; don’t live off the fat of others. Cultivating Buddhism is just this: in all you do, respectfully offer up the good, and do not do the least bit of evil. Right within everyday affairs make yourselves models. If each Buddhist can take on this responsibility, there is no fear that Buddhism will not flourish in the entire world.”

An enthusiastic outburst of appreciation comes straight from their hearts. Students remark that they have never seen such a large turnout for any Dharma Master, and that the Dharma this afternoon was particularly refreshing.

At night we go to the Wisma Buddhist Association, this is a newly finished Buddhist mansion, a handsome four-storied building with a large hall that can hold several thousand and an upper story with a spacious balcony that looks out over Kuala Lumpur.

A semi-gala event has been prepared. About twenty Dharma Masters and swarms of excited guests stand in welcome as our delegation enters the red-carpeted hallway. A huge gilded statue of Shakyamuni Buddha sits on stage against a backdrop of moving clouds projected from a movie screen. The hall is adorned to impress, as is the welcoming speech given by a thirteen-year-old girl, delivered on behalf of our ailing host, Dharma Master Ching An. As if to return our host’s gesture, Shramanera Kuo T’ung (also thirteen) is the first to speak. He talks bravely and well on the four magnanimous vows of a Bodhisattvas and wins a full round of applause.

Tonight the Abbot delivers another magnificent blow. He prefaces himself,

“It’s funny how so many people came to hear this Dharma Master who’s half out of his wits. I say things that nobody wants to hear, yet I can’t help myself; I have to tell the truth.”

After this he launches into a light-hearted attack on the corruption and selfish practices within the Sangha:

“Buddhism is not delineated by countries, sects, or temples. This is the Space Age, a new era. Buddhism should go to every planet, every star. If you’re still stuck to your old-fashioned ways, you will not stand up to the tests. Why should monks hoard private property, guarding their money for dear life? Why should monks seek advantages, always playing up to laypeople? If you like money so much, you shouldn’t have left home in the first place. Now, what is the biggest sore spot in Buddhism? Selfishness and greed. If you work only for your own good, never thinking of sharing with all other Sanghins and Buddhists, what type of a Buddhist disciple are you? Shouldn’t we reflect and ask ourselves, ‘Have I really crossed over living beings? Have I cut off my afflictions? Have I helped people become Buddhas?’

A prime minister of the Ming Dynasty once said,

The Western Heaven is just three steps away,
And the Eastern Sea is but one cup deep.

The Western World of Ultimate Bliss is not necessarily millions of Buddhalands away. If your mind is pure, it exists right in there. Although the Eastern Sea is vast, it is but a tiny cupful measured against the boundless, expansive sea of the Seed-Nature. So, I’d like to alter his couplet a little and change it to,

The Western heaven is just half a step away,
And the Eastern Sea is just one drop deep.

The audience is all ears and smiles. Our host has mysteriously disappeared ever since the beginning of the lecture, and will not join us during a short refreshment break after lecture, pleading illness.

Straight talk, though it helps one’s conduct, is unpleasant to the ear,
And good medicine, though it helps to cure one’s illness, is bitter to the taste.

That is, unless you do not consider yourself sick; in which case there is no point to argue, you should seek out a doctor who can diagnose your illness and prescribe the appropriate cure.

Left-home people should look upon fame and money thus: as floating clouds, as bubbles in the water, as flowers in empty space.”

6 August (Day 9) Malacca

We hold a refuge ceremony at 9 a.m. today at Hoeh Beng Temple. By 7 a.m. hundreds of people are milling around the courtyard. The temple, which can comfortably hold a couple hundred, is now bursting its seams.

Originally six hundred people signed up to take refuge. At the last moment, several hundred more show up. About a thousand people take refuge with the Triple Jewel – a record-breaking event in Kuala Lumpur Buddhist history.

In a short ceremony, the Abbot tells his new disciples about his vow:

“I vow that wherever I go there has to be the Proper Dharma. I will absolutely not allow the Dharma Ending Age to come into being. As for all you new Buddhist disciples, begin a new life today. Get rid of your bad habits, do not smoke or drink any more, don’t get angry, don’t be selfish, and don’t slander the Triple Jewel. I’m waiting for all of you to become Buddhas before me. Do not keep your teacher waiting.”

All smile – a happy lunch.

We drive to Malacca in the afternoon. After a little over three hours, we arrive at the farmed Ching Yun T’ing (Blue Cloud Pavilion). A crowd of a hundred and fifth are gathered in the front courtyard. Dharma Masters Chin Hsing and Chin Ming, our hosts, escort us into the oldest Buddhist temple in all of Malaysia.

This temple was built over four hundred years ago, in the Ming Dynasty. The cobblestones in the courtyard are worn smooth and shiny, with deep grooves where devotees have prostrated themselves on the steps over the years. Huge bronze burners are brimming with incense smoke, a sight with which we’re familiar by now. We are led into the main hall. In the center is a shrine that houses the famous, enigmatic bronze Kuan Yin statue, from which the main hall derives its name Kuan Yin T’ing. Beams and latticework fan out in symmetrical elegance, lacqured poles and statues glisten in the afternoon sun, their dark ochre tint an illusive and subtle hymn to the passing of the centuries.

Nothing concise is known as to how the statue got to Ching Yun T’ing. Legend has it that it appeared on the seashore one day, apparently washed up by the tide. Its entire body was shiny, black broze cast, and the Indian residents were convinced that this was a holy relic which had come all the way from their mother country. Many people tried to haul it up, but to no avail. The statue wouldn’t budge. Later a Chinese asked for divine guidance form the Bodhisattvas, and the instructions came back that they should build a Way-Place right where the statue was washed ashore.

Right afterwards, the townspeople began to work. The statue allowed itself to be lifted and was stored temporarily at a laypeople’s home while a temple was being built.

After construction was completed, the Black Kuan Yin was ceremoniously “invited” back to preside over Blue Cloud Pavilion. It has stood in the spendidly adorned environs of the temple grounds ever since. Mysterious efficacy and spiritual “power” has been attributed to it; it is a much-frequented shrine by world travelers and Buddhist pilgrims.

Uncannily enough, over the past four hundred years, the seashore kept on receding. The temple now stands – surrounded on all sides by busy streets – on what was once the ocean floor. The sea has receded half a mile or more since that time.

Our hosts graciously take us on a grand tour around the temple compound – amused, obviously delighted by the sight of such a motley – looking Buddhist delegation from the “New Continet”. Strong black sea is served while temple residents pop in to steal a glance at us: youths and young girls in the hai chings (black ceremonial robes), bright-eyed, children, cackling old Fukienese women telling their beads, devout businessmen, and some twenty resident Sanghins – all come to share a smile.

The temple is built according to traditional Chinese structure, with a labyrinth of side halls adjoining the main one, connected with corrdors of red flag-stones and stucco porticos. Ancestral plaques of red flag-stones walkways on both sides. The men stay on the upper story of the complexes, whereas Dharma Master Heng Hsien and myself stay in the building right across the street.

It is an elegant antique of a house, converted to the women’s quarters. The furniture is old teak and mahogony. The hall is full of long, sturdy tables and large, stiff chairs invalid with gray marble. The walls are a faded green, the tiles are stamped in with the lotus-flower motif, that sparkling symbol of purity that withstands the ravages of time. The colors have dimmed by now; pinks, mauves, and soft greens blend in with the spray of the ancient fans in a declining afternoon.

Come evening, the slanting golden sun bounces off glass panels lining the bookcases; inside them are clothbound volumes of the Avatamsaka Sutra, arranged row by row in meticulous order along with Shastras and other Buddhist classics.

The wind chimes hanging from the front porches tinkle softly while the cicadas pipe in their song. This is another place, another epoch, and exotic “dust mote of a ksetra” in our roving time-space capsule.

During evening lecture, the Abbot speaks out against the superstitious pitfalls within Buddhism. It seems appropriate – in a temple which runs its own prosperous incense and candle concession, plus many similar flourishing businesses in its immediate environs – to speak the Dharma of reform and cleaning up. Many old Fukienese women in the audience listen with a pained expression on their faces. After the lecture the crowd excitedly mobs us. They have gotten into a habit of requesting autographs from members of the delegation. It seems that each young person, particularly teenage girls, carries a little memo book around. This is a distracting dharma which I find to have very little saving grace. Certainly they can reap more benefit by truly digesting the Abbot’s instructions.

7 August (Day 10)

Ching Yun T’ing is one of the few temples that regularly hold morning and evening recitation. At 4:30 a.m. the drums, wooden fishes, and gongs sound out full blast, piercing the murky dawn. An old monk – in his 70’s, almost blind – leads the chanting, adding a certain raspy lilt to the mantras and prayers. About fifteen of us, seven or eight monks and one resident shramanerika plus some lay people, attend morning recitation. At about 5:00 the neighborhood mosque, one of the oldest in Malaysia, starts its call to the morning prayer. As the faint echo etches the milky sky and resounds through the sleeping town, it paints a real, vibrant portrait – a land of many contrasts, colors, and dreams.

I had learned of Malacca a long time ago by poring through adventure books as a child. The name conjured up visions of Portuguese colonialists trading with tawny natives for spices – cloves, nutmeg, turmeric. It also called forth images of palm groves, lush jungle, and sapphire waters. The town happens to cover and area of four square miles. However the island in a nutshell packages layers of acculturation, from the Chinese (fifteenth century), the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the English. It is a living proof of the hodgepodge mixture that is Malaysia – the nation of a thousand differences.

All day long, Heng Sure bows by himself in the temple courtyard. His tall and slim figure clad in gray robes and brown sash, an upright symbol attesting to an eternal heritage, and uninterrupted legacy that is passed from Mind to Mind. Heng Ch'au is sick with diarrhea. All day long devotees come in, each buying their own large wad of incense sticks; they bow and then leave. Many stay on, though, watching us, eager to catch our words, our moves, our smiles. Curious, animated, the sun-browned natives of Malacca are visibly entertained.

In the morning some members of the delegation are given a quick tour of the Island’s delights, and afterwards we come back to another gigantic food-spread for lunch. Dharma Master Chin Hsing and Dharma Master Chin Ming chat heartily with the Abbot like old friends who meet again after a long separation.

In the evening we head over to Jasin, a little town about twenty-five kilometers away. The local innkeeper absolutely charmed by the Abbot, drives us over in his Mercedes Benz.

8 August (Day 11)

We go on tour this morning to Hsiang Lin Kindergarten and Elementary Schools, of which Dharma Master Chin Ming is principal. The Kindergarten boasts over four hundred students, and the elementary school has over six hundred Little tots perform a dance and drill for us. The school complies with state requirements, and also include classes in Buddhism from Grade Two onwards.

Dharma Master Chin Hsing and Chin Ming both agree with us that the hope for peace depends largely upon how young people are reared. Proper education at an early age enables them to withstand the forces of greed, anger, and stupidity, so prevalent in our time. I see a similarity here with the spirit of Instilling Virtue Elementary School at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas.

A young Theravadin monk who received his ordination in Bangkok comes to see the Abbot and expresses a sincere desire to further his training at Dharma Realm Buddhist University. The Abbot immediately consents. Buddhism is all one, with ultimately no discrimination between the Northern and Southern Schools.

The Abbot talks to the townspeople about suffering, mainly the eight types of suffering: birth, old age, sickness, death, the suffering of being apart from those your love, the suffering of having to be with those you dislike, the suffering of not getting what you seek, the suffering of the blazing five skandhas (form, feeling, thought, actions, and consciousness).

“Life is extremely short. Most people convince themselves that they have plenty of time, yet before they know it they have one foot in the grave, and it’s too late. ‘You shouldn’t wait till old age to cultivate. Most lonely are the graves of the young.’ When you still have a young and healthy body, be sure to make good use of it.”

After lecture the entire audience surges forth in enthusiasm. Again we experience an unguarded candidness that spills forth from peoples’ hearts – old and young alike. The Abbot’s total lack of guile and his child-likeness inspire a faith that goes beyond words. Students throng the delegation from all sides, children ask to be blessed. With a smile that lights up a thousand sun the Abbot waves goodbye.

His illustrious kindness draws me close to him,
His virtue stills my (troubled) mind.

Chuang Tze, Great and Venerable Teacher

At night we speak at the Shakyan Temple to a group of six hundred people. Wherever we go the reaction of the young – particularly the educated young– is most enthusiastic. These people on the one hand receive training in science and logic at school,

And on the other they witness their parents and grandparents involved in burning joss sticks and paper money, and other “nonsensical” customs in temples. In their minds are big question marks: does Buddhism solely consist of superstitious rites involving ancient gods and spirits, or does it have something for them as well?

It is here that the Abbot’s message rings loud and clear, and here that the American brand of Buddhism leaves such a sharp, unmistakable impression. All of us speak. The Abbot says,

“This group has diverse personalities, different people talented in their respective fields; they can appeal to a whole range of audiences. You can say this is an arrangement of the Bodhisattvas.”

Kuo Ts’ai talks about his discovery of “filiality” through the study of Buddhism. He has re-established strong and wholesome relations with his family ever since coming upon the Dharma. Kuo Lei speaks of how the technological advancements in the West cannot answer the basic questions of the mind, hence the turn towards Buddhism for a lot of Americans. Heng Ch'au puts it another way: “All the scientific progress the West has amassed does not measure up to one dust mote’s worth in the vastness of the Dharma Realm, and the sum total of modern man’s progress does not compare with single line from the Avatamsaka Sutra!”

As usual, young people react from gut-level. The delegation is practically mobbed as we start to leave. They can’t bear to see the Abbot go. Again, an evening filled with Dharma bliss.

9 August (Day 12)

Today is our last day at Ching Yun T’ing. At lunch we are again treated to a scrumptious spread. Some very interesting phenomena have occurred ever since our change in diet, and all things manifest to speak the Dharma. So far we’ve been lauded and feasted. The food is rich Chinese-Malaysian, replete with many fried bean dishes, vegetables and casseroles braised in more oil, sugar, and red chill peppers than we’re used to. On our third day in Kuala Lumpur, the two monks went on strike and resorted to sheer raw greens: lettuce, carrots, tomatoes, bean curd, plain boiled rice, with only soy sauce and catsup for seasoning. The causes: too much good food led to muddled bowing and brought a flood of desirous thoughts. They start to fall asleep while bowing in the afternoon. Having bowed for fifteen months along the California coastal highway, feeding mainly on wild greens picked from the roadside and dry cereals, and accustomed to the company of wind and surf, this sudden catapulting into a cast of thousands has understandably left them slightly uncomfortable.

The rest of us, though our palates may not be as sensitized, also suffer. Lunch has become an ordeal. We’re too poor to enjoy such blessings. It is hard to cultivate the Way when you have too much comfort. “One banquet given by a rich man equals half a year’s ration in a poor man’s house,” quips the Abbot. More and more we insist on simple food: mainly plain rice, bread and butter, and lightly seasoned vegetable dishes. We eat to sustain our bodies, not the other way around.

At first, our hosts laugh off our requests. They really do not believe us, and probably think that we are saying this out of politeness. They are used to visiting Dharma Masters who enjoy scrumptious lunches as they eat their way around the usual temple circuit. But not this group from America. Off-beat, we are old fashioned, not hip, not slick. Just down-home cultivators with a job on our shoulders.

When our hosts find out that we’re actually leaving all the fried and spicy dishes untouched, and eating mainly boiled rich and greens, they start to pay more attention. Lately our food has become more simple. It is a lot easier to eat our fill without dealing with adverse side effects, such as dizziness, diarrhea, and too much fire.

The five colors blind the eye;
The five tones deafen the ear;
The five flavors dull the taste;
Racing and hunting madden the mind;
Valuable tings entice one along the destructive path.

Tao Te Ching

The cultivator turns the tide of the six senses around; he “shuts the entrances and closes the door, masks his brilliance and blends with the dust.”

In the afternoon is a refuge ceremony in which over three hundred people take refuge. There is a certain custom much practiced among these people – in fact, in all of Asia – which is that of taking refuge under many Dharma Masters. Some people take refuge with as many as thirty or forty Dharma Masters, the direct cause of much contention and jealousy, blatant and hidden, among Sanghins. This is totally outside the context of the Proper Dharma. Much of this seeking is motivated by nothing but greed.

Because of greed and ignorance, Buddhism has degenerated to its present state in Asia – an ugly dragon writhing in its own filth and debris. The fall and rise of Buddhism is every Buddhist’s responsibility. The reason that Buddhism is in such bad straits is because we have not each done our best, we have not fulfilled our responsibilities as genuine Buddhist disciples.

Part of the Abbot’s address to his new disciples:

“Kuan Yin is now at Kuan Yin T’ing protecting and certifying all of you. The Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of the ten directions and the three periods of time have all come to certify you. So don’t be so muddled that in coming face to face with Kuan Yin you don’t even recognize him. That will be too great a pity. If you take refuge as a Buddhist disciple, you should be a true one who actually practices the teaching. We should strive to be different from ordinary people. By your own example, convince other people of the truth of Buddhism.”

10 August (Day 13)

We leave in the early morning. A huge rain squall clears the sky, the air is perfumed by frangipani and jasmine. The spell of Malacca hums like butterfly wings in our eardrums.

An hour’s drive takes us to Maur. Ching Yieh Ssu (Pure Karma Temple) welcome us with a dance and drum parade performed by the local Buddhist band. This is a large, new temple, spacious and stunny, with huge Buddha statues. The floors are covered by cool tiles inlaid with the lotus motif. The second floor opens into a wide balcony. All of us stay on the upper storey.

After lunch we drive over to a neighborhood Buddhist association, a small temple where about a hundred lay people are waiting eagerly for the Abbot’s arrival. As usual, people start lining up with their assorted illnesses and complaints. One elderly man beseeches the Abbot for help. He has been hexed and has suffered form chronic depression and loss of sight and hearing faculties. The Abbot raps him gently on the head with his staff three times. Other come, some blind or partially crippled, some suffering from other hexes and evil spells.

Just as we are leaving, the aforesaid man throws up a huge puddle with white foam right in front of the temple steps. Inside the foam is found many little worms. Afterward he found himself miraculously cured.

News of this ad other more apparent “cures” have by now spread far and wide. Newspapers carry articles, praising the Abbot as a “healer with spiritual powers”. The Abbot’s comment on this type of publicity:

“I’m not interested in curing people’s illnesses, perse. I am not a doctor. It’s just that at times when people are really sincere, a response comes from the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, that’s all.”

As we go from temple to temple, it becomes clearer to us that real Places of the Way are hard to come by. A magnificent temple may not necessarily house corresponding cultivators. Everywhere there is an emphasis on external show but not on content. It will not be too harsh to imply that the precepts are not kept purely, that meat is eaten and wine drunk, plus a lot of other things which should not happen on temple premises. It is not uncommon to smell garlic and onion during cooking hours, though the precepts strictly discourage their use. (The meals they serve us, however, do not carry such ingredients.) liberal cigarette-smoking inside Buddha halls and temple grounds is more the rule than the exception. Everywhere the Abbot has to request repeatedly that people not smoke during the lectures. And the strangest aspect – so many huge temples on ordinary days are empty! For all the money and energy poured into building large Way Places, hardly anybody cultivates inside them!

So tonight, riding on the name of this temple – Pure Karma – I talk a little about the state of most Buddhist disciples – that of entanglement in a mixture of the pure and defiled, good and evil. In our attempt to aim at the lofty we also create a lot of impure karma on the side. There is a general lack of respect for the Sangha. The slandering and slackness that goes on in most Buddhist communities must pain the Buddha’s heart. Of course, the Sangha itself is not free from blame. If they are not blatantly acting out of the context of Proper Dharma, why would they be subject to so much criticism and disrespect? Yet, such mutual back-biting gossiping, usurping, and fighting makes for very bad seeds. No matter how adorned our temples, how can the merit offset the offenses we create through heedlessness?

Just before the lecture we experience an entire blackout. We sit in the main hall, lit now by red candles. The Abbot is asked how he teaches and transforms Americans, and he launches into an animated story of how he does not permit the earth to quake in San Francisco, as well as his previous pact with the Jade Emperor that typhoons should not hit Hong Kong for as long as he lived there. The story of the latter incident goes like this.

“When I had finished building Hsi Le Yuan (Garden of Western Bliss) in Hong Kong, I planted some bamboos, pines, and papaya trees in the garden. After a year, the papayas started to bear very sweet fruit. That year a typhoon came and slashed all my trees and bamboos to shreds. By then I almost lost my patience, and I complained to the Jade Emperor (Lord God), saying, ‘If you were responsible for this typhoon, let’s get this straight. For as long as I am in Hong Kong, don’t even let any of these typhoons come again, otherwise I will not be polite with you.’ And, true enough, for years whenever a typhoon would head towards the colony, it would veer off in another direction as soon as it had come to within fifteen or twenty miles of the island. In 1960, after my departure for Australia, a huge typhoon came and ripped the colony of Hong Kong apart. Later, in 1962, I went to America. The following year saw a most devastating typhoon in Hong Kong. A whole mountainside caved in at Shatin and over a hundred and fifty people were killed.”

As for the earthquake: seismologists, geologists, and all types of prophets have been predicting, since 1968, a cataclysmic earthquake that would rock San Francisco off the West Coast. Perched right by the San Andreas Fault, San Francisco is supposed to fall straight into the ocean. On Chinese New Year of 1968, some thirty American disciples of the Abbot came to pay their respects. At that time, he told them that he would not allow the earth to quake for as long as he was in San Francisco – not that the earth couldn’t quake, but that he wouldn’t allow it to. Sure enough, there was no earthquake in April, 1968 as was predicted, and none has happened in San Francisco since 1968, despite a wave of vehement yearly predictions for disastrous quakes in the area. “This is one of the ways I convince my American disciples,” the Abbot finishes with a good-natured chuckle. The audience listen like captivated children. By now three hours have passed.

Right after the Abbot speaks his last lines, the light returns. The timing is os perfect, it could not have been more on cue. “You see, darkness is just ignorance. After the refreshment of Dharma, the light returns, and this light should spread to all corners of the world.”

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