Ji Gong – The Crazy Monk of China
The 11th Century Chinese monk Daoji is commonly known by the name Ji Gong. He was a Chan Buddhist monk of the Southern Song Dynasty in ancient China. He was born with the name of Li Xiuyuan. Daoji was also known by the name Hu Yin which meant ‘Recluse from the Lake’ and Elder Fang Yuan, ‘Squared Circle’.
The image of Ji Gong is romanticised as a dishevelled monk wearing a monk’s hat emblazoned with the Chinese character ‘Buddha’ while carrying a worn-out reed fan in one hand and a wine gourd in the other. After his passing, Ji Gong became somewhat of a folk hero and minor deity in Chinese Taoist folk religion and later became the Buddhist figure that he is known as today. He is frequently mentioned in Chinese folktales, koans (Chan Buddhist parables) and is sometimes invoked by temple mediums to assist in people’s affairs.
Ji Gong is said to have possessed supernatural powers that arose due to his spiritual attainments. He would often aid the poor with his abilities and stand up to injustices inflicted upon the downtrodden. However, he was also known for his wild and eccentric behavior, especially for his love of alcohol and meat which were considered sacrilegious amongst the Buddhist clergy of his time. This is consistent with the tantric tradition of Buddhism.
Although tantra never really gained mainstream acceptance in China, many aspects of Ji Gong’s life seem to be consistent with that of a great tantric adept – a mahasiddha. The tradition of mahasiddhas arose in India during the later period of Buddhism when great practitioners led the life of wandering yogins who engaged in tantric sadhanas at charnel grounds and achieved great realisations. These itinerant yogins are frequently characterised by their often-controversial behaviour of drinking alcohol, eating meat and so forth.
As far as Ji Gong is concerned, there is no evidence to suggest that he ever received tantric transmissions or ever practiced tantric sadhanas. Nonetheless, his behaviour has all the hallmarks of a mahasiddha. This is probably due to the fact that his mahasiddha-like behaviour was because he operated from the ultimate truth. This is in contrast with the rest of us, who operate from the standpoint of conventional truth.
Conventional truth focuses mainly on the ordinary matters of daily lives, which are centred on our ego and attachment. In Buddhism, there are many conventional truths and they differ according to our background, upbringing and experience. People hang on to these truths but, in reality, they have no real concrete basis as they are impermanent and are based on values we project on them. On the other hand, the ultimate truth is singular and based upon the nature of reality, which is that all things are free of inherent existence. In Buddhism, this is the highest wisdom and the ultimate truth.
One can achieve this view of the ultimate truth through the tantric path or through other methods such as the beautiful Zen/Chan tradition of Buddhism. Hence, those of us with the conventional view would perceive a great practitioner’s behaviour as controversial or crazy, since we perceive his actions based on our conventional perception and our limited view. The mahasiddha example and explanation is used not so much as to suggest Ji Gong was a tantric practitioner but to shed light on the meaning of his controversial actions.
The Life of Ji Gong
Ji Gong’s real name was Li Xiuyuan and he was born to a retired military strategist, Li Maochun. Before he was born, a Feng Shui master told his parents that they did not have the fortune to have children. Distraught from this revelation, the parents embarked on a pilgrimage to various temples.
While the parents-to-be were praying and making offerings at a temple which had a prayer hall to 500 Arhats, a statue of the Arhat Taming Dragon fell off the altar on its own accord. The mother was later found to be pregnant and she recalled the incident of the falling statue to mean that her unborn child was, in reality, the incarnation of the Arhat Taming Dragon.
In his youth, Ji Gong led a comfortable life until the untimely demise of his parents when he was 18. From then on, Li was sent to Hangzhou and was ordained as a monk at Lingyin Temple. He studied at the feet of the great Vinaya master Huiyuan and was given the monastic name of Daoji. Unlike many of his peers in the monastery, Daoji did not always adhere to the traditional monastic code of conduct. Somehow, he developed a penchant for eating meat and drinking wine while his robes were often dirty and tattered due to his constant travelling. He was also often seen stumbling as he walked because he was highly intoxicated.
It was due to his unrestrained behaviour that he created uproar in the temple. Some of the monks called for him to be expelled. His teacher somehow knew who he was and defended him by saying, “The Gate of Buddhism is so vast! Why is this crazy monk not forgiven?” Therefore, the monks were frustrated and resorted to calling him ‘Crazy Monk’. After his teacher passed away, he was forced to move to Jingci Temple.
Daoji however, had a good heart and was always on the lookout to assist and extend a helping hand to ordinary folks. There are many accounts of him healing the sick and fighting against injustice inflicted on the downtrodden. Unfortunately, such behaviour was at odds with what was expected of a monk. The monks at his temple were bewildered and frustrated with his behaviour and the elders finally decided to expel Daoji from the monastery. From then on, Daoji wandered from place to place and always strove to help those he met.
It is said that while engaging in his meditations, Daoji attained supernatural powers due to his practice. Eventually, people began to recognise the fact that his eccentric, benevolent nature was because he was actually an incarnation of a bodhisattva, or even an emanation of an arhat. Eventually, he became widely recognised by many people to be the incarnation of the Arhat Taming Dragon, one of the 18 Arhats, a Chinese equivalent of the 16 Arhats. Daoji passed away at Jingci Monastery in the year 1207. It was said that he left this verse before he passed away:
Sixty years’ life in disorder
From east to west, I fight always
Today, I review and return
All is same as those before
His remains were interred in Running Tiger Spring Area and a special monastery named Jigong Tayuan was founded in honour of the memory people had of this great master.
The Incredible Tales of Ji Gong
The following are a few stories told of Ji Gong that are immortalised in books, songs, poetry, plays and artwork. Each unique story reveals an aspect of Ji Gong’s eccentric manner in which he delivers the teachings and benefits people. Hence, it is no surprise how intertwined Ji Gong is with traditional Chinese culture.
The Buddha Statue
Ji Gong always sought to teach people not to jump to conclusions based on external appearances. On one occasion, Ji Gong and his students were trying to stay warm during a particularly wintery night.
The cold was so bad that Ji Gong had to dismantle the wooden altar they used for worship and start a fire out of it. One of his students was horrified and cried out, “What are you doing? That’s our sacred altar!” Then Ji Gong took the statue of the Buddha and chopped it into two pieces. The student exclaimed, “You are cutting the Buddha! Don’t do that!” Ji Gong answered, “This statue is not the Buddha himself. This is just a piece of wood.”
In doing so, he wanted to teach his students how to let go of attachment and that what really matters is our true intent at heart. Wood decays over time but compassion is timeless and it touches people at the deepest level. It was not important to Ji Gong whether or not a person appeared to have great virtue because appearances meant nothing to him. He was only interested in the qualities of one’s heart.
Summoning Logs from a Well
While he was living at Jingci Temple, Ji Gong was appointed as the scribe monk of the temple. On one occasion, a fire broke out and destroyed the main prayer hall of the temple. It was then that the abbot turned to him to procure large quantities of wood for restoration works.
Instead of searching for suppliers, Ji Gong slept for three days because he was intoxicated. Upon waking, he shouted at the monks, “The wood is here, take it from the well!” Large logs were miraculously transported into the well of the temple continuously until there were enough logs for rebuilding the prayer hall. These days, there is a Shenmu Well in Jingci Temple that is purportedly the very same well.
Stopping a Landslide
This story highlights Ji Gong’s creative manner in which he saves people from imminent danger. On one occasion, Ji Gong was walking towards Lingyin Temple when he suddenly felt a jolt right in his heart. Immediately he knew something was amiss so he used his clairvoyance to investigate. He realised that a landslide was about to come crashing down the side of a mountain onto the nearby village.
Alarmed at what he saw, Ji Gong began shouting to the townspeople and screaming for them to run for their lives. But the people just laughed and dismissed him as “the crazy old monk” who was drunk as usual and screamed for no apparent reason. Ji Gong realised he was not taken seriously and so he looked around and spotted a wedding procession passing through the village. This gave him an idea. He barged into the procession and snatched the bride, threw her over his shoulders and ran down the road out of town.
This caught everybody by surprise and the worried groom and wedding guests screamed for everyone to chase after the kidnapper. Soon, the entire village was chasing after them. As soon as the maddening crowd ran past the village gates, a loud crash was heard behind them. Everything behind them came down in a huge crash. Huge rocks came crashing down the side of the mountain, shattering rooftops and flattening buildings in an instant.
Ji Gong turned around and he noticed that back in the village, a little girl had been left behind and a gigantic boulder was thundering towards her. He immediately lifted his palm at the boulder and it fell aside. Today this hill is known as Hangzhou’s “Flying Peak” and it has since become a tourist attraction. In fact, visitors today can see the imprint of a hand sunk into the base of the rock bearing testament to Ji Gong’s psychic abilities.
Saving a Suicidal Old Man
On another occasion, Ji Gong came across an old man who was on the verge of hanging himself from a tree. The man tied a noose to a branch and was just about to place his head through it when suddenly he saw Ji Gong who was dressed in rags come by. Ji Gong was muttering to himself, “Die! Die! Everything is over after I am dead. Dying is better than living. I will hang myself now.” Ji Gong had a noose in hand and was just about to hang himself just next to the old man at the very same tree.
This puzzled the old man and he asked Ji Gong why a monk would want to commit suicide. Ji Gong explained that he was commissioned to raise money for the monastery’s renovation plans. He had begged for three years and accumulated a sizeable amount but on his way back to the monastery, he stopped by a bar, got drunk and was robbed of all the money. He was embarrassed and dare not return to the monastery so he decided to end his life here. The old man easily believed his story and said, “Don’t worry, I happen to have some money left, which is of no use to me now.”
He gave Ji Gong five pieces of silver, which was all the money he had. Ji Gong took the silver and said, “Your silver does not shine as much as what I used to have but I will take them.” So he took the money and walked away with a big smile. Giving away his money did not change a thing for the old man so he continued his plans to hang himself. But Ji Gong returned not long after and the old man initially thought that the monk had returned to thank him for the money.
But Ji Gong said, “I see you’ve got some nice clothes there. Why don’t you give that to me so you can nakedly leave this world just as you nakedly came?” The old man was stunned with the monk’s audacity and he looked up to the sky and sighed. He said, “Why is it so hard to die as it is to live? How can I end my misery?”
Ji Gong said, “Look, after your death, the wild dogs will come to tear you up and your nice clothes would be wasted. But if you give it to me now, I will make good use of it.” Ji Gong went on to tease and play with the desperate man until the latter became amused and started to laugh along with Ji Gong. The old man soon found this eccentric monk quite friendly and extremely entertaining. He started to open his heart and told Ji Gong his tragic story about how he lost his daughter. Soon, he had a change of heart and no longer wanted to commit suicide. Ji Gong eventually helped him to look for his daughter, and the story had a happy ending.
For more interesting information:
- 84 Mahasiddhas
- Holy Relic Sites of China – Very interesting!
- Fo Guang Shan monastery
- The Beishan Grottoes
- TANTRA teachings by Tsem Rinpoche
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