Editor's Commentary: The Venerable Master Hsuan Hua is a native of Shuangcheng ("Twin Cities") County, Jilin ("Lucky Grove") Province, of Manchuria, China. He was surnamed Bai, His father, Mr. Bai Fuhai,was thrifty and frugal in managing the household, and was a farmer by occupation. His mother's maiden name was Hu. A vegetarian for her entire life, she recited the Buddha's name without cease for years, and was by nature a charitable and generous person who gave to anyone who asked. Her attitude was, "doing good deeds is the utmost happiness." As a result, her neighbors praised her constantly and gave her the name, "The Living Bodhisattva." On the night of the sixteenth day of the third lunar month, Mrs. Bai (Madame Hu) dreamed that Amitabha Buddha, his body shining with golden light that illuminated the entire world, came down, and the earth trembled and shook. Startled awake, she smelled an unusual fragrance that she had never known before. The scent was pure, and permeated her lungs and midriff; a truly inconceivable state of being. Soon after this experience, the Venerable Master was born. He cried incessantly for three days and three nights, perhaps feeling that the suffering of the Saha World was simply too painful for people to bear. The following is the Venerable Master's account of how he came to leave the home-life.
Before I reached age twelve, I was obstinate to the extreme. How stubborn was I? Whenever anyone provoked me, I'd always start to cry; and once I began to cry, I wouldn't stop. I disobeyed my parents, and did only what I pleased. Sometimes I refused to eat and drink, and cried my eyes out; my parents simply couldn't handle me. I knew at the time that my father and mother were very fond of me, and if I stopped eating, their hearts would yield, and I would get my way. That's how unfilial I was as a child. I had no appreciation of the trouble my parents went to on my behalf. Reflecting on my behavior, I regret that I was so naughty.
One day the neighbor's boy came over to play, and I'd just learned to crawl. He too, was a new toddler, and we both started to crawl on the bed; we held a race to see who could crawl faster. I took the lead, but then he started to bite my heels from behind. Stupid as I was, it didn't occur to me to resist or fight back; all I could do was to sob and cry. Thinking back on it, it was pretty funny!
In my eleventh year I went to the countryside with some other children to play, and discovered the dead body of a small child. Having never before witnessed the phenomenon of death, I assumed that the baby was just sleeping. When I called to it, however, it didn't wake up, and I noticed that its eyes were closed. Further-more, its breath had stopped. I couldn't figure it out, and ran home to ask my mother what the matter was. "Why was the child sleeping out in the countryside?" I asked. She answered, "That child was dead." "Well, why do people die? How can they avoid dying?" I asked. A relative of the family who was visiting answered, "The only way to not die is to leave the home-life and cultivate the Way." The sight of death scared me, and I didn't want to die. The idea of undergoing round after round of birth and death seemed meaningless, and I conceived the idea of leaving the home-life, since only by cultivating the Way can one put an end to birth and death.
One day I said to my mother, "I want to leave the home-life and cultivate the Way. Is that all right with you?" She said, "To leave home is a good thing, and I cannot prevent you from doing so. But I hope you will wait until after I die before you leave home; it won't be too late." Having obtained my mother's permission to leave home made me very happy, even though I could not fulfill my wish right away. At the time I reflected on my unfilial behavior in the past. I recalled how I had made my parents upset and wasted their energy in concern over me. I asked myself how I was going to repay their kindness in raising me and giving me my education. Tossing the question around in my mind, I struck upon a dumb idea: I would bow to them, to demonstrate my shame and remorse for my misbehavior. At that point, I decided to make a vow to do this.
As soon as I began to bow to them, my parents were startled, and asked me, "What are you bowing for?" I answered, "Because in the past, before I knew that I should be filial and respectful to my parents, I did many wrong things and made you both angry. Now I know I was wrong, and from today on, I am going to bow to you to make up for the past." My father said, "Since you already know that you were wrong, all you need to do is change; you don't have to keep on bowing like that." I responded, "I've always had a stubborn streak, and whatever I say, I will certainly do!" My parents were well-acquainted with my temperament; they didn't say anything, but silently complied with my wish and accepted the morning and evening bows that I made to them.
From then on, I'd rise early in the morning while the family was still in bed, and go out into the yard to bow three times to my father and three times to my mother. Each evening after my family had retired, I'd go out again and bow three times to each of my parents. Before long I felt that these bows were insufficient, and I added some bows to heaven and earth. At the time I had never heard the names of God, or earth-rulers, or kings among people; I knew only about heaven, earth, the emperor, parents, and teachers. So every morning and evening, I'd bow three times to heaven, three times to earth, three times to the leaders of the nation, three times to my father, three times to my mother, and three times to the teachers I would meet in the future. Time passed and I felt once more that this wasn't enough, so I increased my prostrations to include bows toward all the great filial sons and daughters on earth, and the great samaritans, and also the great worthies the world has known, and the great sages as well. The bows continued to expand to all the great good people, and even to all the great evil people in the world. While bowing to heaven, I made a wish that the really bad, evil people on earth would change their ways, reform, and become wholesome.
I kept adding bows in this way, until the total number of bows reached 830. The entire course of bows took two and a half hours to complete, and I bowed twice each day--morning and night. I spent five hours in the yard each day; regardless of rain or wind, the bowing still went on. Even during the winter while the snow fell, I continued to bow in the courtyard. I used a stupid sincerity to fuel my bowing, and I sought for the winds and rains to be regular and harmonious, for the country to be stable, and for the people to be at peace.
My practice of bowing continued for several years. After my mother passed away, I observed filial mourning by her graveside and continued bowing. The period of mourning completed, I left the home-life and began to study the Buddhist Sutras. These Sutras were, in my opinion, the most complete and wholesome texts on earth. I found them to be the richest and fullest resources. The spiritual classics of other religions were simply left in the dust; they couldn't compare.
Before I left the home-life, I occasionally joined the activities of other religions. I took part in a Catholic Mass and joined a Christian service. I also sat in the assemblies of the various heterodox sects and cults. To sum it up, I took every opportunity to look into the methods for resolving the matter of birth and death; and, frankly, I wound up disappointed by my inability to find any approach that dealt with the fundamental problem. The various methods proposed by the religions were not thoroughgoing and not ultimate. However, I realized that Catholicism and Christianity had been widely accepted by many people. Why? Because their Old and New Testaments had been translated into the languages of each country, and because the principles they contained were quite shallow and easy to understand.
The principles of Buddhism in the Sutras, although perfect and complete, were presented in very learned prose which was beyond the understanding of the average reader. Thus believers in Buddhism were very few. At this point, I made a futile vow, making up my mind to translate the entire Three Storehouses and Twelve Divisions of the Buddhist Canon into colloquial speech, and, further, to translate them into the languages of every nation on earth. The vow was "futile" because I myself didn't understand all the languages on earth, nor did I hope to get a chance to learn them. I lacked this wisdom, and didn't know whether or not I could achieve my vow.
In 1962 I came to America to propagate the Buddhadharma, and when the opportunities ripened, my American disciples began the work of translation in order to fulfill my vow. After several years of effort, they've had a bit of success, but are still far short of the ultimate goal. I hope they will all forge ahead and work hard. If they can carry out this instruction, they will be doing the work of the sages; it is exalted and supreme work. The merit and virtue of this task, once the Three Stores of the Buddhist Canon are all translated into English, is truly limitless and boundless.
Today a disciple made a vow to translate the Buddhist Sutras into English, and it brought to mind the vow I made in the past. I hope that my disciples will work together and put their hearts and minds into the completion of my vow!
Note: At Nanhua Monastery, when the Venerable Master Hsuan Hua drew near to the Venerable Hsu Yun, he received the Elder's full attention, and was subsequently appointed as Director of the Nanhua Vinaya Academy. Soon the Master's duties were elevated to Director of Education. During the Precept Ordination Ceremonies, the Venerable Master Hua was asked to serve as Certifying Master (Acharya). Later on, the Elder Master Hsu Yun transmitted the "pulse of Dharma" of the Wei Yang Sect to the Venerable Master, making him the Ninth Patriarch of the Wei Yang Chan School.
In order to continue the Buddha's life of wisdom, the Venerable Master traveled from Hong Kong to America, where he has delivered lectures on several dozen Mahayana Sutras and promoted the five main schools of Buddhism--Chan, Teachings, Vinaya, Secret, and Pure Land--with equal emphasis, eliminating the artificial separations between them. Taking the revitalization of Buddhism as his personal duty, he teaches his disciples that every day they must meditate, recite the Buddha's name, bow in repentance, investigate the Sutras, and genuinely cultivate in order to uphold the orthodox teaching and enable the proper Dharma to dwell long in the world.
The Venerable Master has peerless wisdom, and his memory retains at a glance any material that he reads. Before explaining the Sutras or speaking the Dharma, he has no need to prepare outlines or notes. Instead, he delivers his lectures according to the potentials that he perceives on the spot and talks to the audience based on the particular location, time, events, and people involved. His eloquence is truly unimpeded; the words pour forth in an unending stream, and every sentence tallies with the Way. The principles he elucidates are perfectly meshed and all-encompassing, and those who hear them praise them as worthy of deep consideration.
When the Venerable Master lectured on the Flower Adornment Sutra, he delivered the words of the text with his eyes closed, reciting from memory without being off by a single word. (I saw and heard the event with my own eyes and ears and felt it was unprecedented. It inspired my deep respect.) The assembly of disciples attending the Venerable Master's lectures include many intelligent, well-educated young people, who display the utmost respect and admiration for the Venerable Master's virtuous conduct and his erudition.
The young men and women who have responded to the Venerable Master's reputation for excellent virtue and strict standards include natives of China, America, Vietnam, and other countries, who have come to take the Three Refuges and the Complete Precepts, to leave the home-life, and to cultivate the Way. They include holders of Bachelor's, Master's and Doctoral degrees, and many have renounced lucrative occupations and luxurious lifestyles in the world to study the true principles of the Buddhadharma. Some cultivate asceticism, with fasting of one week, or three weeks; some fast as long as thirty-six days, and even up to seventy-two days. Such a vigorous ascetic regimen is unparalleled in the history of Buddhism in America, and can be considered extremely rare! There are also some who, for the sake of world peace, have vowed to bow once every three steps, and they have done so continuously for two and a half years. Undaunted by the wind or rain, they practice this in order to serve as models for all Buddhists. Inspired by the Venerable Master's exalted virtuous conduct, they strive to emulate the Master's spirit of forgetting himself for the sake of others to practice the Bodhisattva Way.
The Venerable Master's teaching methods are effective; his disciples are well-behaved. They cultivate earnestly and observe the Buddha's regulations of always wearing their precept-robes, eating one meal a day at noon, and not lying down to sleep. It would be hard to find another place with comparable standards. Therefore, the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas has become a center of world Buddhism and serves as an inspiration for all Buddhists.
In 1962, the Venerable Master brought the Proper Dharma to the West, and in the years that followed, he founded the Dharma Realm Buddhist Association (formerly the Sino-American Buddhist Association), the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, and other Way-places in the United States, Canada, Taiwan, Malaysia, and other countries. In order to educate people to become good citizens of the world, at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas the Venerable Master established Dharma Realm Buddhist University, Developing Virtue High School, and Instilling Goodness Elementary School. For the sake of causing the Proper Dharma to remain in the world and to train Buddhist workers in both theory and practice, he established the Sangha and Laity Training Programs. He also founded the International Translation Institute so that Buddhist Sutras might circulate throughout the world. Many monks, nuns, and laypeople are now diligently working to translate the Sutras into English. Over a hundred volumes of Sutras and Buddhist texts have already been published in Chinese, English, and other languages and are being circulated worldwide.
The Master's whole life has been one of hardship and distinctive achievement, of selfless dedication to the Dharma. Although the branch monasteries of Dharma Realm Buddhist Association have spread throughout the United States, Canada, and Asia, the Venerable Master remains as humble and modest as ever, calling himself a tiny ant that walks beneath everyone else and would never contend with anyone. He has said, "The City of Ten Thousand Buddhas is not a private institution; it belongs to all the Buddhists of the world, and in fact, the followers of all religions have a share in it. The people living at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas are putting their nose to the grindstone everyday; I am just the person who watches the door, a custodian waiting for those living beings who have affinities to come here and cultivate together. None of you should stand outside the door and be afraid to come in; all of you are members of the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, and in the future you will become Buddhas.
A talk given during a Chan Session from July 16-23, 1981
The Hall of Ten Thousand Buddhas, The City of Ten Thousand Buddhas