THE SAGELY CITY OF TEN THOUSAND BUDDHAS

Singapore

8 September (Day 43)

It is like a skilled conjuror,
Who manifests all phenomena,
Merely serving to increase pleasure’s craving,
In the end nothing is attained.  

The world is just like this,
Its manifestations are many.
(The Bodhisattva) crosses over the multitudes,
Causing them to know that Dharmas are an illusion.

Avatamsaka Sutra, Ten Patiences Chapter

Today we leave for Singapore. In the morning a crowd of well-wishers gather at Hoeh Beng Temple and at nine we leave for the airport. There, amidst very warm wishes and blessings, we wave a temporary goodbye. As the Abbot says, “See you again soon!”

The flight to Singapore takes forty-five minutes, and we touch down at around eleven. We are welcomed by Dharma Master Hui Seng, Dharma Master Wu Fung, Dharma Master Kuang Ching, Dharma Master Yuen Tu, Dharma Master Fa Chuen, Dharma Master Hui P’ing, Dharma Master Fa Shen, and a large retinue of lay people.

The delegation is staying at the Singapore Buddhist Lodge, the official lay people’s association. Tucked half way up a gentle slope in a residential section of town, the lodge is a four-story building that opens out into a large courtyard and patio shaded by green and yellow willows. The first floor is the main Buddhahall which can hold two thousand people. The rest of the floors are divided into offices, libraries, conference rooms, and guest rooms. On the second floor is a huge terrace for eating. The entire place is airy and bright.

Singapore, one of the most progressive cities in Southeast Asia, flourishes with a conservative external wholesomeness in commerce as well as in industry. The streets are clean; the city blooms like a perpetual garden. Houses and cottages wear the well-scrubbed look of the affluent, decked with an exuberant burst of flowers in season – gardenia, lilac, and wisteria, their entwining shrubs ablaze with blue, white, and yellow clusters. We criss-cross huge arbor-lined avenues, touch with faint Dutch and English flavors leftover from the colonial days, but the spirit is youthful and driving. Skyscrapers span the horizon, the hum and whir of modernity on the climb.

At night we address a capacity crowd of over a thousand. There hasn’t been much publicity about our arrival, but it’s apparent from the turnout that many people have heard about us and have come out of curiosity, if nothing else. The Abbot delivers another of his surprises – one that nearly rocks people off their seats. The first delivery in Mandarin is almost unbelievable to their ears. After the English and then a very proficient Fukienese translation by Bhikshuni Hui Shen, the Abbot’s words gain credibility.

“Dear Good Knowing Advisors, this is my third visit to Singapore. The first time was twenty years ago, when I spoke at Upasaka Pitt’s place, concerning the problem of left-home people and their sashes; the second time was in 1973, when I stayed at Kuan Ming mountain, and this is my third time now. Seeing some of my old friends, Dharma Master Hui Sheng and Dharma Master Wu Fung, whom I knew from Hong Kong scores of years ago, I will tell you a story which transpired from those memorable days.

I arrived in Hong Kong from the Mainland in 1949. From there I went to Thailand and stayed for half a year, after which I returned to Fu Rung Mountain in Hong Kong and lived at Kuan Yin cave at the back of the hill.

Now the Cave was extremely dank. There were no chairs or tables or a bed, just a big rock, on which I Saturday in meditation most of the time. After about half a month, upon waking up in the morning, my hands and feet were completely numb; they had absorbed too much moisture in the cave. I had to learn to move my muscles again like a little child, but even then my entire body arched with pain. I would have wanted to move elsewhere, but there wasn’t any place. so, I said to myself, ‘I might as well resign myself to dying in this cave.’

If you can’t give up death, you can’t exchange it for life;
If you can’t give up the false, you’ll not accomplish the true.

So in the midst of my suffering, I realized this was what I deserved and I took it willingly.

To endure suffering is to end suffering,
To enjoy blessings is to exhaust blessings.

I then built a little thatched hut, with sorghum stalks and some wax paper glued on the outside – it was about fifteen by fifteen feet. By now demonic obstacles arrived; somebody told the prefect at Fu Rung Mountain a false rumor, ‘Tu Lun has struck it rich living in his cave. His Dharma protectors lavish on him plenty of offerings. Your temple need not feed him every day.’

So they stopped feeding me. The person who circulated the rumor was my neighbor, a certain Dharma Master. For half a month I subsisted on what little I had inside the cave – some rice and noodles, and after that my supplies were truly exhausted. It seemed as if I was destined to starve to death inside Kuan Yin cave, but I stuck to my principles,

Freezing I do not climb on conditions,
Starving I do not scheme,
Dying of poverty I do not beg.
According with conditions I do not change,
Not changing I accord with conditions.

At this time a certain elderly layman in Hong Kong had a dream. He dream that Wei To Bodhisattva came to see him and said, ‘Several months ago you were bitten by a dog and you still haven’t recovered from your mishap. There is a Dharma Master Tu Lun at Kuan Yin Cave up on Fu Rung Mountain. If you make offerings to him, your illness will most certainly be cured.’ Wei To Bodhisattva then showed him a picture of me. The dream happened three times. By then the layman was convinced. He somehow amassed $70 and thirty catties of rice and carried it all the way up to the mountain.

He had just arrived at the mouth of the cave when he ran head-on into my good neighbor. My neighbor took one look at the offering and said to the layman, ‘You should hand these things over to me. I am in charge of this cave.’ The layman refused. He said, ‘I’m looking for a Dharma Master Tu Lun, and you are not that person.’

They started arguing heatedly outside and created such a ruckus that I came out from the cave to see what was going on. As soon as he saw me, the layman exclaimed, ‘Yes, that’s him, I recognize him from the picture!’

I explained to him, ‘Since both of us live in this area, why don’t you split your offering into two. We share whatever things we get.’ Only then did the layman concede to splitting up the offerings into two shares. But my good neighbor never let off. He insisted that from now on, whenever people brought me offerings, I would have to show them to him first. He took on an intense dislike of me and later on convinced the people at Fu Rung Mountain to ask me to leave.

So I left. I move to Hsiao Chi Huan at Ma Shan village, where there was a lot of unoccupied land, and I built a little Way Place. it was about thirty by thirteen feet. I was on a barren, steep mountainside, and I name it Hsi Le Yuan, Western Bliss Garden.

Originally this place do not have water, but as soon as I came, a crack appeared on a rock and from it gushed forth a rippling stream. Nobody knew how it came about. Now in Hong Kong, particularly on a high mountainside, water is a prized item. Soon my neighbors had scores of buckets lined up next to my rock. Finally I had to surround the rock with barbed wire to protect the water supply, and it never exhausted itself. No matter how many people came to the Dharma assemblies, the rock kept bubbling forth with clear water.”

The Abbot then launches into a humorous account of the typhoon story, much to the audience’s amusement. Slowly, but surely, they are awakened from their blasé attitude. The eyes of tight-browed Fukienese ladies start to pop, their mouths take on a youthful mixture of disbelief and delight, too surprised to pass judgment. The Abbot catches people off-guard and ambushes them with the truth. He continues,

“Now in Hong Kong there are wild rumors of my ghost-catching prowess. it started like this: a certain Dharma Master and seven Sanghins under him often went out to recite the Sutras. One time the niece of a local businessman, Ch'an Sui Ch'ang, was possessed by a ghost. A ghost inhabited the girl’s body and refused to go away. The seven monks at T’ung P’u To were invited to exorcise the ghost. They made a big ceremony of it, donning robes and sashes, reciting the Vajra Sutra, the Great Compassion Mantra, and the ten small mantras with great flourish. Yet, whenever they recited, the ghost would too. The ghost would recite its own Sutra and mantras, completely defeating the monks’ efforts. This persisted for a good while, until the monks were at their wits’ end.

Finally, Ch'an Sui Ch'ang came to the cave and asked me to help. Normally I did not meddle in other people’s business, but since he was so insistent, I went along with him to his house.

I did not recite any Sutras, I just sat quietly next to the bed of the sick girl. In ten minutes she crept out of bed and knelt beside me.

I asked her, ‘Who are you?’

The voice answered, ‘I’m a ghost.’

I asked, ‘Why are you vexing this poor woman?’

‘Because I have affinities with her,’ the ghost replied.

The ghost asked to take refuge with the Triple Jewel. I told him that I had no wish to take any new disciples and why wouldn’t he take refuge with any of the seven monks present?

‘Ha!’ he said, ‘Not only would I not take refuge with them; even if they came and asked to take refuge with me, I wouldn’t accept them as disciples.’

At this point I took off the prayer beads that I’d brought all the way from Manchuria and placed them on the woman’s neck. The ghost immediately started whining. He said, ‘Ouch, ouch, I am being roasted to death, please Dharma Master, have mercy!’

I took the beads off and administered the refuge ceremony for him. Ever since that incident, people started calling me a Mao-shan – a Taoist – saying that my specialty was exorcising ghosts. In Malaysia I heard people introducing me as one of the Five Great Freaks, or a great demon king. They may be completely right. Actually I don’t mind, whatever name you call me, it’s all the same. If I minded, would I called myself an ant, a horse, a mosquito?”

The Abbot then introduces the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas to the audience and concludes,

“I’ve said a bunch of crazy stuff and I know many of you don’t believe me. But I most certainly believe in every single word I’ve uttered. Why do I want to give away such a big place as the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas and not keep it for myself? Somebody’s thinking I’m a great fool. Yes. I am a fool, not smart like you. What I like to do, nobody else wants to do.”

There is loud applause. A pretty earthshaking first encounter with the Proper Dharma.

Here and in Malaysia, many people have experienced a heart wrenching sensation when they encounter the Abbot for the first time. For example, Ng Fung-Pao and his wife cried for several nights upon first meeting the Abbot in Kuala Lumpur. Many other lay people report similar experiences. They cannot explain the spirit that overcomes them and leaves them quite literally “beside themselves” with a curious mixture of joy and sorrow.

9 September (Day 44)

In the morning we take a trip to Kuang Ming Shan (Brightness Mountain) to Pu Chiao Ssu (Universal Enlightenment Temple), where the Abbot stayed in 1973. It is the headquarters of the Buddhist Sangha Association. Our host, elder Dharma Master Hung Chuan, is ill and cannot join us. Several young monks represent him. Here again we see the Abbot exercise consummate skill in transforming people. No matter what disposition beings have, whether bright, average, or dull, the Abbot is truly non-discriminating. He is particularly accommodating with Sanghins, treating old and young as his own children. The compassion flows out of him like precious nectar, filling people with a subliminal energy that they cannot explain.

There must be a true person,
In order for there to be true knowledge.

Chuang Tzu, Great and Venerable Teacher

So, what started out as an awkward situation is quickly turned into a fascinating interchange. The Abbot says,

“When you’re young, you should make use of your youth to the maximum – don’t waste a single minute. I’ve never recited the Sutras for money and I won’t do it for anything, not even if I were to die of poverty. If you like money, you shouldn’t leave home. Why can’t left-home people put down fame and money?”

Pretty soon the younger monks are nodding their heads in unison. Many are invited to share in the gift of the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas.

During a lunch of raw greens, cheese, bread, and butter, laywoman Pitt Chun Hui shows up. Upasika Pitt is a well-known figure among the side circle of Buddhists – vibrant, dressed in a white cheongsam with scarcely a wrinkle on her face, she smilingly defies her seventy-eight years. She was entrusted by her teacher the late Dharma Master Tze Heng ( a Flesh body Bodhisattva whose memorial hall is venerated in Taiwan) the task of widely propagating Buddhist teachings. For decades she has dedicated herself to the building of educational institutions, like the famous Maha-Bodhi School. She is Vice-President of the World Fellowship of Buddhists, as well as the President of the Singapore Regional Centre of the same organization. The Abbot met her during his visit to Singapore twenty years ago, and this time as old friends meet they enjoy a happy chat over lunch.

During evening lecture, in front of two thousand people, Heng Ch'au talks about several dreams he’s had, lessons in the infallibility of cause and effect learned during Three Steps One Bow.

“The Avatamsaka Sutra says,

According to living beings’ actions,
The Buddha countries will appear.

Your thoughts are directly linked to your world. If you have pure thoughts, your world will be pure; if you have defiled thoughts, your worlds will be defiled. Peaceful thoughts in the daytime mean peaceful dreams at night; scattered thoughts lead to scattered dreams or nightmares.

On one occasion we were expecting some people to come from Gold Mountain to pick us up and take us to Los Angeles, where we see the Master once a month. I knew I should be intent on bowing, but I was so excited that whenever I got up from the ground I was scanning the highway for signs of the car. Instead of doing Three Steps One Bow, it was more like, Three Steps One Peek.

That night I had a dream: a little child came towards me and I said, ‘Oh, how cute!’ It climbed onto my lap and instantly turned into a fierce iron-cast demon. It started strangling me so hard that I could hardly breathe, at which point I yelled, ‘Shih Fu, Shih fu, please help this shami out!’ All of a sudden some lines from the Shurangama Mantra popped into my head. I recited them five times and the demon quickly loosened its hold over me. It fell on the ground, turning into a lifeless heap.

When I woke up, I became aware of the true power of Mantras. I learned something: that I could rely on my master’s help and mantras. Yet, I had not learned my real lession: not to rely on outer aid. I still kept on with my false thinking. Pretty soon I had another dream in which I was again attacked by demons. This time not only one, but a whole gang of them surrounded me. As they drew nearer and nearer, I yelled, ‘Shih Fu, Shih Fu, help!’ no Shih Fu appeared. They were pressing closer and closer, and I was truly frightened. Right in the nick of time came the faint murmuring of the Sangha reciting a mantra. From a distance they drew near, encircled me, and I was released. Later on the Abbot appeared, but this time there was no smile on his face. He said pretty sternly, ‘Kuo T’ing, if you didn’t do so much false thinking, I wouldn’t have to waste time in helping you out in your dream.’ From this time on I knew I have to save myself and nobody else is going to do it for me. I cannot forever seek advantages from my teacher’s conditions.

Incidentally, the Abbot knew all along. When we arrived at Los Angeles, he asked me how about my dreams. I didn’t even have to tell him. ‘Now that you know about the dangers of false thinking, will you stop this nonsense?’”

The hall is so jam-packed that people have spilled out to the courtyards. The crowd is a colorful cross-section of Chinese-Singaporeans: old women with silver-streaked hair neatly tied back in chignons, wearing horn-rimmed glasses and the traditional white blouse over black pantaloons; elderly gentlemen with canes and wispy beards; prosperous businessmen and their fashionably attired wives; enthusiastic young people in their teens and twenties; college professors and students. The elderly cock their heads in delighted attentiveness; especially during the translation into their native Fukienese.

Considering the length of our Dharma Assemblies, which run at least two hours, more often close to three the audience is extremely attentive and polite. We’ve been told that the ordinary maximum speaking time for any Dharma Master is one hour. After that, people nonchalantly get up from their seats and saunter out. The Abbot’s lectures, however, are magnetic enough to keep such a heterogeneous crowd riveted for several hours.

Prof. Kuo K’ung gets up to speak. His style is unique – unbounded, free-flowing, loosely structured, packed with years of home-spun wisdom. From deep faith and conviction arises unobstructed eloquence. He has just composed a Ch'an poem and now reads it to the audience. It is called The Missing leg Gatha of the Mad One of the Way.

To seek the Sagely Way is Nalanda Temple hard,
Just get rid of desire and cut off afflictions.
Regarding people, do not argue between common and sagely,
With things neither grasp nor dislike.
The two slides dispelled, the three realms are exhausted.  

Once broken from the mark of self,
The ten thousand things respond to causes and accord with conditions.
Sleeping with your two legs in lotus,
You need not spend much on rent.
Coarse rice and bland tea suffice,
Why bother to get angry or upset?  

Now people say I’m a madman.
But just wait for another three, five, or ten years.
By then: if I smile at my own grave,
I’d either be nuts or an arhat.
By then, if you burst into sobs,
Why didn’t you listen to my advise years ago?

By now it is near 10 p.m. The Abbot concludes,

“When I come to Malaysia and Singapore to study the Dharma, not only do I learn from the highly virtuous ones here, I also learn from everybody else – including the members of our delegation. So you shouldn’t be prejudiced and assume that I always speak better than they do. They all speak better than I. Everybody else in this delegation is a tiger, I’m not even a little lamb. It’s only because I am a little older in years that I’ve become the chairman of the group.”

He then transmits the mantra for opening wisdom. The ears perk up. People buzz back and forth in their seats. Such an animated receptivity shows deep affinities with this dharma-door.

There is a visibly relaxed mood tonight. Everywhere we see the gradual transformation from hard to supple, from disbelief to faithful veneration. The audience in Singapore is no different in these aspects from the audiences in Malaysia. The Abbot is surrounded by a huge crowd as he leaves the podium. We all retire, worn out and content.

10 September (Day 45)

Every instant of the day is a chance for awakening, every interlude an opportunity for understanding. When you truly want to cultivate, moments melt into one another like the continuous ebb and flow of the ocean surf. Every wave makes sense and tallies with every other waves.

Latterly we’ve gotten into the habit of bringing our blankets and sitting pillows into the Abbot’s room during morning meetings, and today he sees the chance and springs on us with the lesson of the pillow.

“The reason you people use a pillow while sitting is that you rely on something outside of yourself. I see you doing it in America – even when the seats are cushioned with rubber foam, everybody still sticks a pillow underneath his bottom. This is called attachment to Dharma. When I was young, I trained myself so that I could sit anywhere on the ground without any support. At Kuan Yin Cave I sat on a rock for months. There’s nothing you can’t do, unless you don’t want to apply effort.

If there is attachment, there is a burden. With even a single trace of attachment to Dharma, you’re stuck. You’re suspended in that space, you can’t move on and improve. I’ve seen all of you become attached this way, so today I must tell you. The same attachment extends to everything else: food, sleep, clothes, etc. all dharmas should be cultivated naturally, without any force or artificiality.

Now I know that my body deserves no blessings. A bit too much of nourishing food – even an extra morsel – my body can’t take it. Even when you have enough Way virtue, you shouldn’t make others serve you; how much the less when you don’t even have any! I see that some of you allow others to do your laundry for you. These people aren’t paid to serve us; we are not living in a hotel. I wash my own clothes, even at Gold Mountain or the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. why? Because I don’t want to trouble people. That’s just another way of piling up your debts. Eventually you have to pay it all back and that’s not a lot of fun. If we are true Buddhist disciples, we should always set an example for everyone and not make people cater to our comforts.”

And now, turning to the two monks:

“Of course, you can’t wash your clothes right in front of people, otherwise they will grab them from you. See, it is discretion in these cases that is the high art within Buddhism. Have any of you ever seen me do my own laundry?”

Heng Sure quotes from the Ten Practices chapter of the Avatamsaka Sutra, a passage on which he tries to model his cultivation.

The Bodhisattva never, because of causes and conditions of his own desire,
Vexes or harms other living beings.
Rather, he offers his conduct for the benefit of all.

In the evening about two thousand people pack the hall; it is Sunday. Quite a few monks and nuns show up. The Abbot, without any further ado, launches into the heart of his subject,

“I am one of shallow learning and virtue. So when I speak crazy words, not many people like to hear them. However, I feel that the move to rejuvenate Buddhism is every Buddhist’s responsibility. The mistake we all make is being selfish and self-seeking, on the one hand telling other people about the Bodhisattva conduct, on the other being selfish. This selfishness is worse than a festering cancer within Buddhism. There is no more unity and all-embracing vision. Everyone vies to build impressive temples: you build a fifty-foot temple, I’ll build a fifty-one footer, he builds a fifty-two footer, and so on until we have temples that are thousands of feet high. Yet, these temples are empty; nobody lives or cultivates in them. They obstruct Empty Space. Therefore, when people ask me what I do, I reply, ‘I am a temple dismantler!’ (loud applause)

What temple do I tear down? Just the little ones built exclusively for one Sanghin only. I tear down the little temples so that these people will move into the big Way Places and lives together under the same rules. Why are small temples not desirable? Because within them one can live without any restraint or discipline. You easily become too comfortable. You become your own boss, lording over everything, too comfortable with sleeping, eating, wearing clothes, to the point that you forget to cultivate. All you think about is how to butter up more Dharma protectors for offerings.

This custom greatly scatters the strength and unity of Buddhism. Some lay people are under the impression that acting as a Dharma protector for one Sanghin member results in limitless merit and virtue. This is a mistake. You protect their Dharma to the point that they run back to lay life. Then your loss is great indeed. Left-home people may get so comfortable that in the end they will not be comfortable at all. (cheers from the young, smiles and approving nods from the older crowd)

Now it is my suggestion – I say ‘suggestion’ only, so if you don’t like it, there’s no need to get angry – that Sanghins should not hoard any private assets. Once Sanghins have money, they give rise to false thoughts, and that leads to endless afflictions. Once ignorance flares up, people may do a lot of upside-down things that are not in accord with Dharma. If you don’t have any money, you may still be okay. Once you have some, then you have the means to go wild.

Wake up quickly, my friends! I speak not for myself, but for everyone. If I have even one single hair of selfishness within me, I vow to forever stay in the hells. Now you think: am I so stupid to make such a vow if I didn’t mean it? (heated applause. By now some irate Dharma Masters stand up and stomp out.)

Don’t laugh, all of you; this is no laughing matter. Buddhism is about to perish, and we have to quickly find ways to save it. You should take the rise or fall of the Dharma as your very own responsibility. Don’t keep on passing the buck. Don’t be telling other people to give and yet give nothing yourself. Just think, you can’t take this money with you to your grave. You came with nothing, you will go with nothing. When you still have the time, why don’t you create some great merit instead? Don’t be stingy! You have to give things up in order to have true attainment.

This afternoon, when I was talking to the Buddhist Youth Association, I said, ‘I never accept any private offerings.’ Somebody doesn’t believe this. They say, ‘We see all those red packets you take in every day, and you say you don’t accept private offerings?’ Since the day I left-home, whenever I have been given private offerings, I have always stuffed them into the public alms box, and only when nobody could see me. When I came to America, my American disciples wanted to follow suit. Some of them keep the precept of not handling money, many eat once a day at noon, and some sleep sitting up. Now, I don’t know why, but this morning, somebody brought up a whole tray of bread, butter, milk, and fruit into my room. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, all I could say was, ‘No, no, I don’t want it.’ I don’t know who conceived of this idea. Perhaps they wanted to test me out, to see whether this Dharma Master really adheres to his rules, or whether he can be persuaded to take a nibble.

I had three conditions set up from my days in Manchuria. The first is, ‘Freezing I do not climb on conditions.’ All of you rich people don’t worry. I guarantee that I won’t have designs on you or butter you up. If we want money, we needn’t have left the home life. The second condition is that I don’t recite the Sutras for money. No wonder people call me a weirdo: I’m in complete opposition to what most Sanghins do. The third condition is that I don’t want any post, like head of the assembly or head prefect, etc. at Nan Hua Monastery the Elder Hsu Yun requested that I be Head of the Assembly, and at first I refused. He said, ‘If you young people don’t do anything, all the work would fall on us old folks.’ Then I had no choice but to accept the appointment.”

It is by now close to eleven. People have sat quietly for almost three hours. The Abbot waves everybody goodnight before coming up the stairs. Dozens of people await his audience, as they do every night. Deep into the night he compassionately listens to their questions and requests. He retires every night around two, and is always up by five in the morning or earlier.

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