In the mid-19th century, in Fujian, Qing China, a woman from the Xiao family gave birth to a bag of flesh. From this flesh was born the baby Master Xuyun (Simplified Chinese: 虚云). Having given birth to a bag of flesh, his mother was frightened and overwhelmed with desperation. She passed away not long after having given birth. An old man who sold medicine managed to solve the mystery the day after the birth. He cut open the bag of flesh and took out the baby boy. He was named Xiao Guyan (Simplified Chinese: 萧古岩), and he was to become one of the most influential Chan Buddhist masters of the 19th and 20th centuries.
The dates of Master Xuyun’s (hereafter referred as “Xuyun”) life are highly controversial ( ? – 13 October 1959), and dates of the significant events of his life are listed differently in various written works. While many of his followers believed that Xuyun lived up to roughly 119 years of age, in which case he may have been born on 26th August 1840 as listed in some sources, research done by Buddhist and Chinese scholars show that he could have lived to between 93 to 100 years. Regardless of the length of his life, the great achievements he accomplished throughout his life continue to inspire many.
When Xuyun was 11 years old, his grandmother decided that he should be married to two Hunanese girls from the Tian and Tan families in order to continue the family lineage. These two families had been friends of the Xiao family for many generations. Before the arrangements of the marriage could be completed, Xuyun’s grandmother passed away during a bad winter. Xuyun was 13 years old at the time. The family held a funeral following Buddhist rites, which was to be Xuyun’s first encounter with Buddhist scripture. Thereafter, Xuyun began reading Buddhist texts from the family library in his house. The story of the ‘Fragrant Mountain’ and Avalokitesvara’s attainments, in particular, had great influence upon Xuyun’s mind.
Three years after Xuyun’s first visit to Nanyue Monastery, at the age of 17, he intended to leave home to join the sangha. In order to keep Xuyun at home, his dad hired a Daoist practitioner to teach him Daoist yogas. Although he was not interested in the teachings, he continued to pretend he was interested in order to make the family happy. After three years, he decided to leave home and make his way to Nanyue, but was found half way by a man sent to find him and bring him back home. Xuyun was then forced to marry the two girls who were previous picked by his grandmother, from the Tian and Tan families. Instead of living an ordinary married life, Xuyun shared dharma with them and they became spiritual companions.
When he was 19, Xuyun decided to flee home with his cousin Fuguo who shared a similar interest to join the sangha, this time to Yongquan Monastery on Gu Shan (Mount Drum) in Fuzhou. He left behind the “Song of the Skin Bag” for his two wives and had his head shaven by Master Changkai. The next year, he received full ordination from Master Miaolian on Gu Shan and was given the name Guyan (Simplified Chinese: 古岩) together with the aliases Yanche (Simplified Chinese: 演彻) and Deqing (Simplified Chinese: 德清). His cousin Fuguo on the other hand left to search for his master after their ordination, and they never heard from each other ever again. Knowing his son’s temperament, Xuyun’s father sent people to search for him again. In order not to be found and taken back home, he hid in a grotto behind the mountain, where he was occasionally visited by tigers and wolves. He spent three years in the grotto performing purification retreats while observing the rules of repentance and purification.
One day, a monk from Gu Shan went to see Xuyun and said, “There is no need for you to hide now as your old father has retired on account of his age and he has left for home. The elderly Master Miaolian has praised your long austerities but said that, in addition to wisdom, you should cultivate the blessing that arises from altruistic activities. You can return to the mountain temple, take up a post and serve others.” Upon receiving the message from Miaolian, Xuyun returned to the monastery and joined the sangha.
Xuyun’s father passed away when he was 25. His stepmother and his two wives left home to become nuns two years after that. For four years in the monastery, Xuyun engaged in the austere roles of a water-man, gardener, hall-keeper and caretaker. He was occasionally given comparatively easier roles but he turned them down. He also refused to receive the share of any donations that were given to him. His health was robust although he only ate one mug of rice-gruel a day.
Xuyun was very much inspired by the practice of austerities and in particular the training that Master Xuanzang (Simplified Chinese: 玄奘, c. 602–664) undertook. During the Tang Dynasty, Master Xuanzang trained for 10 years before he left for India on foot, in order to bring back valuable Sanskrit texts. This training included abstaining from food for a day, and over time he was able to build up the number of days after which he needed to eat, in order to accustom himself to travelling in desert conditions with minimal food. Being inspired by this story, Xuyun once again travelled to the grotto behind the mountain, and resumed life there with minimal effort.
Three years passed, with Xuyun living on pine needles, grass, and water from the mountain stream. He also had many different types of experiences during his meditations but persevered with his practice of reciting the Buddha’s name. Although his robes were worn out, and his hair and beard were over a foot in length, he experienced great joy as if he was a celestial being on the fourth of the thirty-three levels of heaven.
It was around this time, that he began to wander to different places, unaware of the passing of time. A Chan monk came to him when he was staying in a grotto on Mount Wen Zhou, and suggested that he pay a visit to Master Yangjing of Longquan Temple, located on the Huading peak of Mount Tiantai.
During their meeting, Xuyun realised he had wasted his time pursuing the quest for the extraordinary, and that this was far from the practice that results in perfect enlightenment. Master Yangjing pointed out his weak points, after which Xuyun decided to follow the master’s instruction properly and obey it to the letter. Master Yangjing taught Xuyun to meditate on a gong-an (a meditational sentence or verse, also known as koan in Japanese). This gong-an said “Who is dragging this corpse about?”, he was also to work during his stay with the master.
A year later, Master Yangjing instructed Xuyun to study the Chan rules at Guoqing Monastery and the Fahua (Lotus) teaching at Fanguang monastery. Xuyun remained in Guoqing Monastery for two years and returned to Longquan temple from time to time to visit old Master Yangjing.
During the third year after leaving Longquan Temple, Xuyun left to Gaoming monastery to attend Master Mingxi’s exposition of the Lotus Sutra after a proper farewell to Master Yangjing. During this journey, Xuyun travelled to various places, to visit and to study many different teachings. During the journey:
- He listened to the Amitabha Sutra at Yuelin Monastery in Xuetou
- He spent new years at Housi temple on Mount Putuo
- He visited Ashoka Monastery in Ningbo, and venerated Buddha Shakyamuni’s relic and the Theravada and Mahayana canons
- He listened to the Surangama Sutra in Tiantong Monastery, Ningbo
- He went on pilgrimage to Santian Chu and other holy places in Hangzhou
- Had a girl offer him her naked body on a boat, while travelling from Ningbo to Hangzhou. In response, he promptly sat cross-legged and began chanting mantras
- He visited Abbot Qingguang at Tianning Monastery in Hangzhou
- He paid respects to Abbot Dashui on Mount Jiao, and shared Dharma and practice methods with Superintendent Peng Yulin who was staying there
- He visited Masters Guanxin, Xinlin and Dading at Jinshan Monastery
- He made good progress in his Chan practice during his stay in Gaoming Monastery in Yangzhou and paid his respects to Abbot Yuelang.
Pilgrimage to Mount Wutai
Aged 43, Xuyun decided to embark on a pilgrimage to Mount Putuo in the east and Mount Wutai in the north feeling the need to pay back his parents’ kindness. In Putuo, Xuyun made excellent progress with his spiritual training on the mountain during a few months’ stay. After that, Xuyun set out towards Mount Wutai carrying burning incense and made a prostration, after every third step he took, until he reached his destination.
He began the journey in a group with four Chan monks: Bianzhen, Qiuning, Shanxia and Juecheng. They went separate ways at Huzhou after a short period of time. Xuyun proceeded to Nanjing and paid reverence to the stupa of Master Farong on Mount Niutou. Xuyun continued with his journey to Shizi Shan and Pukou temple where he spent the new year.
From Mount Shizi, Xuyun travelled to the north of Jiangsu and entered Henan, and susequently passed Fengyang, Haozhou, Haoling and Mount Song where the Shaolin Temple was located. Eventually, Xuyun arrived at Baima Monastery in Luoyang where he practised walking meditation during the day and rested at night regardless of the weather conditions. While making a prostration, after every third step he took, Xuyun recited the name of Manjushri with single pointed concentration.
A few months after that, Xuyun arrived at a river bank, located passed the Guangwu tombs. As the day was already dark, he settled into an empty thatched hut nearby and sat in deep meditation. When he awoke the next day, he found himself surrounded with thick snow, and the roads being blocked for those who wanted to travel. Xuyun experienced extreme hunger and cold for six days as the snow continued to fall, and he gradually sank into a state of confusion. A beggar came to his ‘doorstep’ on the seventh day, kindled a fire and cooked rice for him. Xuyun began to recover after that.
While regaining his strength, the beggar, named Wenji, suggested Xuyun to visit a monk called Qingyi at the Bimo Grotto who was known for his self cultivation. The beggar suggested that Xuyun cancel his pilgrimage due to the distance and the cold. However, Xuyun was determined to continue, to which the beggar suggested that he resume his journey following the beggar’s tracks, and stay in a temple that was about 32 kilometres away. With a weakened body, Xuyun continued his journey and managed to reach Xiaojinshan Monastery. He continued his pilgrimage the next day after a night’s rest. He was invited to Abbot Delin’s monastery after he had passed Mengxian, while heading towards Huaiqing. Abbot Delin invited Xuyun to stay at the monastery seeing him prostrating on the road. Abbot Delin was delighted to find that Xuyun was from Gushan, a fact that brought back memories of his own pilgrimage to Mount Wutai with two companions from the same region.
When he resumed his pilgrimage once winter was over, Xuyun was struck with severe gripping pains in his belly, and was also infected with malaria. The pain in his belly soon became dysentery, to the extent that he passed motion a dozen or more times in a single day. After 13 days of this, he was completely exhausted and had no strength to even get up, let alone walk about. At that point, he closed his eyes and waited for his end without a single thought of regret, while staying at the ruined temple of Huang Shaling.
Two days after that, Wenji the beggar appeared and made a fire under the west wall of the ruined temple. After seeing Wenji that night, Xuyun felt that his body and mind had been purified. Wenji took care of Xuyun for a few days and offered to carry his baggage and cook for him as he resumed the pilgrimage after 19 days. Although Xuyun was weak, he felt that all delusory thoughts came to a sudden halt and he was free from erroneous thoughts. His heart and body were gradually restored, and he regained strength daily.
Unfortunately, not long after journeying together, Wenji had to leave due to temples that refused to give lay persons any lodging. Although Xuyun was given lodging at the temple, he had no mind to stay because he was worried as to where Wenji would spend the night. Before they separated, Wenji told Xuyun that other people would help with Xuyun’s baggage soon. Feeling extremely impatient, and trying to rush his journey during the night, Xuyun’s nose bled incessantly, which led to his mouth becoming smeared with blood. None of the temples would allow him to lodge there for the night after seeing Xuyun’s condition. While trying to find lodging at Jiluo Moastery in Taiyuan, not only was he not allowed to stay, but he was abused and rebuked.
Before Xuyun arrived at his final destination, he came across different people who offered him help with his baggage and lodging. He was offered travel expenses and presents that he refused to take. When he finally arrived at Xiantong Monastery on Wutai Shan to locate his baggage, he went to the neighbouring temples to inquire about Wenji’s whereabouts and offered incense. No one knew who he was but when Xuyun asked an elderly monk about the beggar, he quickly put his palms together and said the beggar was an emanation of Manjushri! Xuyun prostrated immediately to the bodhisattava and continued his pilgrimage to the five peaks where he made offerings, paid reverence, sat in meditation, and attended the Great Prayer Meeting. Thus, he was able to complete and fulfil the vows he made three years previously.
During those years of pilgrimage, although he was burdened with illness, gales, and snowfall that obstruct Xuyun’s incense offering and prostrations, he realised single pointed concentration and right thought. He was filled with joy though the journey was difficult and his mind became more at ease each time he overcame an adverse circumstance.
For two years, Xuyun continued to travel to various places in China; Tibet where he paid respects to the His Holiness the Dalai Lama; Bhutan; and India. Although he travelled more than 16,0000 kilometres, he did so on foot, except when crossing rivers and seas by boat. During the trip, he climbed mountains, crossed streams and overcame stressful conditions such as rain, frost or snow. His surrounding environment changed as he travelled, but his mind remained as bright and pure as the solitary moon in the night sky. In addition to this, his health increased as he was able to walk faster. He felt no sense of hardship, yet he realised the harm of the self-indulgent mind. As the ancient saying goes “after reading ten thousand books, one should travel ten thousand miles.”
“Humility and patience are golden coins.” – Master Xuyun, Stages of Development and Difficulties
At 51, Xuyun assisted in repairing Chishan Monastery in Jiangsu when he paid respects to the Abbot Faren. During the following year, he stayed at Jincheng Monastery, and assisted Abbot Songyan to repair the monastery. During his stay there, he often had interesting discussions with the upasaka Yang Renshan on the Hetuvidya Shastra, and also the treatise called The Lamp of Prajna Wisdom. During the following year, together with Master Puzhao, Yuexia and Yilian, Xuyun climbed Mount Jiuha, where they repaired the huts on Cuifeng Peak for their temporary stay there. Master Puzhao also expounded the five divisions of the Huayan School there. For two years, Xuyun stayed there to study the sutras.
Abbot Yuelang of the Gaoming Monastery came to Mount Jiuhua and approached Xuyun to assist with supervising twelve weeks of meditation. Agreeing, he left Mount Juihua and as he reached Digang Harbour, he decided to walk along the river bank but the river was rising. A boatman refused to help him cross the current because he was penniless and left without him. As Xuyun continued to walk along the river bank, he slipped and fell into the water. A fisherman caught him by chance after he was dragged by the current for a day and a night. Xuyun was sent to Baoji temple as the fisherman had sent for a monk from there who recognised him. Xuyun bled from the mouth, nose, anus and genital organ as a result from having taking a beating by the current of the river.
Nevertheless, Xuyun kept his promise and left for Gaoming Monastery after few days of rest. Although the monk on duty knew he was unwell, the Abbot asked Xuyun to take up a temporary post for the 12-week meditation course after asking about Mount Jiuhua, where Xuyun had stayed before almost drowning in the river. Xuyun politely declined the Abbot’s request without mentioning the incident, and asked to attend the meditation meeting instead. This was deemed unacceptable and seen as an offence to the whole monastic community according to Gaoming Monastery’s rules. Xuyun was therefore punished with a wooden stick and his illness worsened following that.
Xuyun continued to bleed and sat in meditation for 20 days, ignoring the pains of his body and his illness completely vanished after that. When the abbot of Baoji Temple came to Gaoming Monastery to offer robes to the monks, he was delighted to see Xuyun who appeared radiant. He spoke about Xuyun’s almost drowning in the river, after which all the monks started to hold Xuyun in high esteem. Following this, Xuyun was able to continue his meditations in peace, and was no longer expected to work in the meditation hall.
The experience following this led to Xuyun’s awakening. The prerequisites for a major awakening took place; all thoughts were brought to an abrupt halt thus allowing Xuyun’s practice to take effect throughout the day and night, and his steps became swift like he was flying in the air. One evening, Xuyun opened his eyes and suddenly perceived great brightness like broad daylight, in which everything inside and outside of the monastery was clear to him. He could see through walls to see what people were doing, and this was confirmed to him the next day, when he asked the very same people what they had been doing the evening before. However, Xuyun didn’t pay regard to this experience knowing it was a temporary experience.
Not long after that, an attendant came to fill their cups after the meditation session ended and the boiling liquid splashed over Xuyun’s hand. This caused the cup he was holding to drop to the ground, and shatter loudly. It was at that moment, that the last doubt underlying the nature of birth and death was instantaneously cut off. Xuyun rejoiced at the realisation and succeeded in overcoming the stream of worldly life. He chanted:
A cup fell to the ground
With a sound clearly heard.
As space was pulverised
The mad mind came to a stop.
When the hand released its hold, the cup fell and was shattered.
’Tis hard to talk when the family breaks up or someone dies; Spring comes with fragrant flowers blossoming everywhere, mountains, rivers and the great earth are but the Tathagata.
Seclusion and Restoring Degenerated Sangha
After staying in Jiangsu and Zhejiang for about 10 years, Xuyun made a distant journey to Mount Wutai and cultivated his practise in seclusion on Mount Zhongnan. During the journey, he visited the Tomb and Temple of Confucius, arriving in Shandong Province. There were signs of the Boxer Movement – a secret society with quasi-Daoist origins rising in rebellion across Shangdong. Xuyun had a gun pointed at his head by a foreign soldier who threatened to shoot him. Seeing Xuyun without the slightest concern, he was asked to leave. Xuyun hurried to make his way to Mount Wutai and proceeded to Mount Zhongnan.
Once the Boxer Movement broke out, Xuyun travelled to Beijing. When the movement came to a climax, he was back in Longquan Monastery. It was around that time that the secretary of the Japanese Legation and a German minister were both assassinated at the secret instigation of the Empress Dowager Cixi. Two months after that, a war was declared on the foreign powers, which caused the capital city being thrown into disorder.
The princes and ministers who knew Xuyun from their stay at Longquan Monastery urged him to leave with them and he followed the Imperial entourage who fled to the west. Everyone endured great hardship during the journey and were accompanied beyond the Great Wall by Viceroy Chen Chunxuan of Gansu with his soldiers. When they arrived at Bingyang, it was besieged by a severe famine, and people even began to eat corpses in the streets. The authorities put a stop to this by erecting eight booths to give free meals to the starving people, and food were also distributed in the countryside.
Xuyun continued his journey secretly to Zhongnan in order to build a thatched hut. He found a secluded place for spiritual retirement at the Lion Cave behind Jia Wutai’s peak. It was there that he changed his name to Xuyun to avoid unwanted visitors. Up until that point in time, he had still been known by his ordination name – Deqing. He drank melted snow and ate coarse herbs he grew himself.
One day after about a year living on the mountain, Xuyun cooked some taro and sat cross-legged while waiting for his meal. Involuntarily, he entered a state of samadhi and awoke after hearing a ritual instrument called a qing, which was hit by Master Fucheng and others who stayed nearby. They went to see Xuyun because he hadn’t been in touch for some time. When they arrived at his hut, they saw tiger tracks everywhere but no signs of human tracks. When Xuyun returned to consciousness after hearing the qing, they asked if Xuyun had taken his meal and found an inch of mould covering the taro. Judging by the thickness of the mould, they commented Xuyun could have been in the state of samadhi for at least half a month.
Monks and lay people from nearby and far away places alike began to visit Xuyun, most probably after hearing the story of his incredible samadhi. In order to avoid such visitors, Xuyun left to Mount Emei and ascended to Jinding Peak with Master Jiachen who caught up with him following his footsteps. There they saw countless heavenly lamps, a similar experience as to what they had previously witnessed on Mount Wutai. Xuyun vowed to build a hut on the mountain to receive visiting pilgrims as it was such a sacred site for Buddhists, and in such disrepair. This disrepair was due to the degeneration of the sangha community in Yunan province. However he was unsuccessful due to prohibiting conditions prevalent among the local monastic community. He was saddened by the situation and was brought to tears.
Xuyun was invited to end his seclusion by the Abbot Qiming of Guihua Temple and various Dharma sponsors to expound the Sutra of Complete Enlightenment and the Sutra of Forty-Two Sections at Guihua. Over three thousand people took refuge at the events and became Xuyun’s disciples. Following that, Xuyun was invited to Qiongju Monastery to preach the Surangama Sutra and Buddhist precepts by Abbot Mengfu. While there he also supervised the carving of wooden blocks for printing the Surangama Sutra and the poems of Hanshan that were kept at the monastery.
Xuyun was invited to the Chongsheng Monastery in Santa to preach the Lotus Sutra to a few thousand disciples who would take refuge under Xuyun. He declined the invitation to the monastery, as it was located in a town. Instead he told Li Fuxing, who had invited him, that he wished to stay on Mount Jizu. He told Li Fuxing, a sponsor of the Dharma, to procure him a site where he could build a hut on the mountain to receive pilgrims, saving the degenerated sangha, and restoring the holy site of Mahakashyapa.
Li Fuxing managed to find a ruined temple called Boyu which had been abandoned since the Jiaqing reign (1796-1820) of the Qing Dynasty. It was believed that a large rock found at the site, emanated negative influences and caused the site to be uninhabitable. Xuyun managed to find some labourers to break the rock apart, and he wanted to dig a pool there to liberate fish and other creatures who live in water. However the men could not find the bottom of the rock as it was deep underground. After a few days, with over a hundred men who came to help, they failed to shift the rock. Xuyun offered prayers to the guardian spirits of the temple and recited mantras. After this he managed to move the rock to the left, with the aid of ten monks. Those present at the time were awestruck at the divine intervention, and named the rock Yun Yi Shi (literally translated as ‘cloud move rock’).
After the incident, the restoration of the temple began, but a lot funds needed to be raised. Xuyun left for Tengyue by himself, with the purpose of raising the funds needed, while Master Jiachen looked after the temple. It was not easy and he was unable to raise any funds for awhile. Instead, he spent 10 days repairing the road with the 83-year old Venerable Chanxiu, who became attained during his late 20’s. Before he parted with Venerable Chanxiu, Xuyun was requested to recite sutras for the deceased scholar and academic Wu. Xuyun performed a 7-day ceremony dedicated to bestowing food to the hungry ghosts, after which he was asked to say in Tengyue.
Xuyun mentioned to those that attended the ceremony, that he was raising funds to rebuild a temple on Mount Jizu. The people were delighted with the news, and donated substantial funds for the work.
Xuyun allocated funds needed for necessities for the community, added extra rooms in the building, setup monastic rules and regulations, enforced discipline and Buddhist precepts, preached sutras and introduced meditation. Over 700 ordained and lay devotees received the commandments and gradually all monasteries on the mountain followed the same example and improved themselves, including the wearing of proper robes and eating vegetarian food. They also stayed at the temple to learn and receive spiritual instructions.
After Xuyun transmitted the precepts to over 800 people in Shizhong Monastery as invited by Abbot Baolin, he continued to travel to South Asia including Burma where he caught a serious disease. He spent sometime in the Avalokitesvara Temple at Liudong and recovered with help from Dingru, the resident monk. As he was leaving, Dingru asked him to stay. He politely declined the invitation and stated his intention to raise funds for the monastery, so Dingru gave him some necessities and traveling expenses in order to travel to Rangoon. Dingru telegraphed Upasaka Gao Wanbang to receive Xuyun and arranged for him to return to China.
Xuyun couldn’t return to China directly but had to stop in Malacca, Malaysia, where he was invited to preach the Sutra of the Medicine Buddha in Qingyun temple. Following that, he travelled to Kuala Lumpur to preach the Lankavatara Sutra at the Lingshan Temple. While preaching the sutras in Malaysia, over 10,000 people attended his precious teachings, and took refuge in him, thus becoming his disciples. He was in his late 60’s then.
When he was returning to China, the ship he was on stopped by Taiwan, where he visited Longquan Monastery. The ship then stopped in Japan where he visited a few monasteries. At the time China and Japan were not on friendly terms; Japanese monks were not allowed to visit China and Chinese monks visiting Japan were closely watched. Due to this, Xuyun couldn’t establish an association between Chinese and Japanese Buddhists.
When Xuyun returned to Shanghai, he quickly proceeded to Beijing together with Master Jichan and representatives of the Buddhist Association to present their petition to the Central Government. Xuyun was informed about the Government’s intention to impose a levy on monastic property when he was in Kuala Lumpur. Hence the rush to present the petition as soon as he has arrived. He stayed at Xianliang Monastery and was invited to preach about the Buddhist precepts to Prince Su Shanqi’s wife. Many members of royalty and high officials paid visits to him as they were part of the retinue to the west during the Boxer Rebellion period, and knew him. There, Xuyun received advice to properly present the petition and the submission was completed smoothly with help from the devotees.
The petition resulted in all provincial levies imposed on monastic properties being abolished. Following this, Xuyun informed his disciples that no emperor had presented a set of the Tripitaka to Yunan province since the beginning of the Qing Dynasty, thus indirectly advising people to submit a petition to the royalty for such an act to be granted. Prince Su happily sponsored this act, which was something that benefited the entire region. The Emperor happily granted a set of the ‘Dragon Edition’ of the Tripitaka and gave Xuyun’s monastery an additional title that means “invocation of the holy one” and granted Abbot Xuyun a purple robe, a bowl, a jade seal, a staff and a sceptre. The emperor also gave Xuyun the title Great Master Foci Hungfa (Buddha’s Compassion’s vast Dharma) and a message for him to spread the Buddha’s Dharma.
Not long after that, the old Abbot of Gushan Miaolian, where Xuyun was ordained, entered into clear light. Xuyun took half of the relics from the cremation to Jile Monastery of Penang. From there he went to Thailand and was approached by a British consul on a boat who kindly sponsored him 300 dollars which was a huge amount at that time. This may have even been half of the consul’s yearly income. But he did so knowing of Xuyun’s initial plans to raise funds when he was in Kuala Lumpur. There after Xuyun managed to travel directly to Thailand.
In Thailand, Xuyun stayed at Longquan Monastery and preached the Sutra of Ksitigarbha. The consul came again and donated another 3,000 dollars. Xuyun required tens of thousands to build a hall to house the Tripitaka but he had only collected a small sum until the consul’s offering. Xuyun continued to preach within Thailand, however he entered into the state of samadhi involuntarily, so forgot about the teaching schedule. The news of this incident spread in Bangkok and the king, ministers, and lay people all went to him to pay their respects. The King of Thailand presented Xuyun many offerings and respectfully requested Xuyun to accept him as a disciple and several thousands became his disciples after that.
After experiencing this particular incident of samadhi, Xuyun gradually began to become paralysed. Others had to feed him and no treatment, either Chinese or Western, seemed to help. It got to a point where Xuyun could no longer speak but he did not feel any suffering as he had already let go of everything, except for the bank draft that was sewn inside his collar. This bank draft was money raised for the hall that was to house the Tripitaka. The thought brought tears to his eyes as he quietly made prayers to Mahakashyapa to protect him.
That night, he dreamed an old man who looked like Mahakashyapa sitting at his bedside. The old man told Xuyun to never stray from his commandments, that go together with the begging bow and robes. He advised Xuyun to use his folded robe and bowl as a pillow and everything will be alright. Xuyun got up immediately and did accordingly. Miraculously, his body perspired profusely and he felt indescribably happy. Xuyun murmured words to pray for prescriptions at a shrine of Weituo and Xuyun started to see and speak again. Weituo is Skanda, a bodhisattva who is devoted to guard Buddhist teachings and monasteries. There are accounts that Weituo performs miracles for many in the Chinese Buddhist tradition. For the next two days, Xuyun ate the prescribed thick soup and abstained from all other foods. Xuyun managed to pass motion with ease due to that and the excrement was black. This is a good sign as the toxins in his body was being cleared in the process. In no time at all, Xuyun’s senses recovered and he was able to get up and walk. This time, the sickness lasted over 20 days, but he was well cared for, especially by Master Miaoyuan who had looked after him day and night. Xuyun made a vow to Weituo to always build a shrine for Weituo whenever Xuyun built or repaired a monastery in the future.
After his recovery, Xuyun went back to Penang from Thailand, and stayed in Jile Monastery. Before he left, the King of Thailand along with his high officials and entourage presented him a great sum of donations and saw him off. The King also offered a 4,550-acre piece of land to Xuyun as a reward for reciting sutras at the royal palace. Xuyun donated the land to Jile Monastery and requested them to set up a rubber factory there as a source of income for the monastic community.
Xuyun continued to stay in Malaysia and travelled to Selangor, Ipoh and Perak to preach dharma. Many people requested to be his disciples. When he went back to Jile Monastery in Penang, he preached more sutra teachings before he entered into temporary retreat during which he stopped preaching and receiving visitors.
Restoration of Holy Sites
“When it comes to love, be a big spender!” – Master Xuyun, Stages of Development and Difficulties
While continuing with the preaching of sutras and restoration of the Buddhist code of conduct in various monastic communities, Xuyun continued to repair and re-establish holy sites, monasteries and stupas. During the Huichang period (842-845 CE) of the Tang Dynasty, nearly 4,600 monasteries were destroyed, monastic properties were confiscated, and almost 260,000 monks and nuns were forced back into lay life. Since then, although most of the monasteries managed to recover from this damage, it was due to Xuyun efforts that they were restored to proper use.
Between 1914-15, Xuyun returned to the Mount Jizu and immediately began repairing the Xingyuan Monastery there. After that, he continued with the restoration of Loquan Temple at Xiayang. A few years later, Xuyun urged Governor Tang to preserve the Huating Monastery at Kunming. The Huating Monastery was an ancient and holy site with very beautiful gardens. However, it had fallen into ruin and was in the process of being sold to European residents for a club house to be built there. Governor Tang secretly discussed the matter with local notables after listening to Xuyun. As a result, they formally invited Xuyun to become the Abbot of Huating Monastery in order for them to restore the holy site which Xuyun accepted after the request was made verbally three times.
Three years later, in the province of Yunnan, Xuyun oversaw the building of a stupa for the Seven Buddhist Disciples as well as repairing the Stupa of the Sixteen Arhats, and the statues of the Buddhas and the Five Hundred Arhats at Shenqyin Temple. Three bronze statues were made for the main hall and three clay ones for the shrine of the Western Paradise located at the temple. In the following year, Xuyun built the additional prayer halls and sangha quarters of Yunxi Monastery while holding the position of abbot there. The bell tower for the monastery was also rebuilt.
After seven years, Xuyun received telegrams from the Guangdong provincial authorities, asking him to take over and renovate the temple of the Sixth Patriarch, the holy site of Huineng, that was last renovated by Master Hanshan (1546-1623 CE). This temple, formerly known as Baolin, was given the name Nanhua. The monastery was run down and Xuyun made some minor repairs for a year.
Between 1940-1941, despite Guangzhou having fallen into Japanese control, Xuyun managed to repair the Dajing Temple which was used as a part of the Nanhua Monastery to receive visitors. The Yuehua Monastery was also renovated for the same purpose. Prior to that, Xuyun also repaired the Wujin nunnery to receive the influx of nuns coming to Qujiang.
Xuyun was placed in charge of the construction of Dajue Monastery on Mount Ruyuan’s Yunmen Peak at the request of Chairman Li in 1944. The ruined monastery was in the same dilapidated condition as Nanhua Monastery prior to its renovation. It was in imminent danger of collapse. In anticipation of the war spreading to Nanhua, Xuyun secretly moved the bodies of Master Huineng and Master Hanshan to Yunmen as he left Nanhua Monastery.
In between restoration of the monastery, Xuyun also appealed to the Government to make regulations for religious freedom, and the preservation of Buddhist temples and monasteries all over the country. Most importantly, he urged the Government to prohibit further demolition of temples and monasteries, destruction of statues and libraries, to stop forcing monks and nuns to return to lay life, and to return the necessary amount of their land for self-supporting purposes.
Xuyun returned to Zhenru Monastery and continued with the building and restoration works after that. Xuyun began building the main hall, the shrine of the Four Heavenly Kings, the Tower of Humility, the Tower of Boundless Sight, the bell tower, prayer halls and dormitories one after another. These buildings were copied from the Gushan, Nanhua and Yunmen Monasteries. Xuyun did not appeal for funds for the rebuilding of the monastery. However, donations came nevertheless.
In less than three years after Xuyun’s arrival on Mount Yunju, new temples arose and monastics buildings were restored. These holy sites were built during the Tang and Song Dynasties. When Xuyun originally came to the ruined holy sites on Mount Yunju, he had only a staff with him. He handed the newly built and renovated temples one after another to various monks and left with that same staff as his sole possession.
Xuyun had rebuilt a score of temples and monasteries all over the country and Zhenru Monastery was the final one he rebuilt and restored during his lifetime. The final work done at the monastery was the building of the stupa, similar to that of Nanhua Monastery and a few more sutra-reading rooms for the monks. These works were completed in 1959.
Xuyun had gradually grown weaker after his grave illness in 1959. He gave instructions to the monks of the monastery to take good care of it after his passing. He also requested for his body to be dressed in yellow robes and garments, placed in a coffin and cremated, a day after his passing at the foot of the hill to the west of the cowshed where he was staying. Xuyun requested for his ashes to be mixed with sugar, flour and oil, and then kneaded into nine balls. These were to be thrown into a river as an offering to the beings there.
Xuyun has spent his life devoted to the Dharma. Through preaching the Dharma and Buddhist code of conduct, restoring monasteries and temples and holy sites, he had successfully revitalised the Chinese Buddhist teachings, especially the Chan teachings, and benefitted many. In the process he had gone through countless hardships and illnesses which did not stop him from his Dharma endeavours. The best way to describe Xuyun’s life is like the Buddhist imagery of a ‘poison-eating peacock’. This means that from the bitterness of the poisons of live, something spiritual can be awakened. Although Chinese Buddhism was being suppressed and destroyed in China, Xuyun had successfully revived its worth, and brought it to the attention of the whole world.
Xuyun’s name was, at one point, known and revered in every Chinese Buddhist monastic community and household throughout Asia. His life and example has aroused the same mixture of awe and inspiration in the minds of Chinese Buddhists as does that of Milarepa for the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. This is amazing in light of the fact that Xuyun lived well into our era, tangibly exhibiting those spiritual powers that we must otherwise discover by looking back through the mists of time to the great Chan masters of the Tang, Song and Ming Dynasties. These were great men whose example still inspires many today, but in most cases, we have scant details as to their lives as individuals, outside their recorded dialogues or talks of instruction. With Xuyun’s example being so recent, the stories of accomplishments provide new way of inspiration for the modern spiritual seeker to strive along the path towards enlightenment.
THE SONG OF THE SKIN BAG
Written by Master Xuyun in his 19th year
The Song of the Skin Bag, the skin bag is sung.
Before the empty eon it had neither name nor form,
After the Buddha with awe-inspiring voice it became a hindrance.
Three hundred and sixty tendons are linked within the body
Enclosed by four and eighty thousand pores.
Divided it splits into heaven, earth and man,
United it combines the four elements.
It supports heaven, props up earth,
But what of its mettle?
Understand cause and effect, discern the times
Survey the stupidity of past and present.
Because of wrong clinging to illusory forms,
Parents are involved and wife and children loved.
By vain indulgence in delusion karma is left behind.
The Song of the Skin Bag, the skin bag is sung.
Drinking wine and eating meat upset the mind-nature,
Indulgence in pleasure and desire leads to utter ruin.
When officialdom is strong to oppress the innocent
And readers artful against their consciences, how long
Will their wealth and power last, their pride and their extravagance?
The poor and lowly will not so last while there is cruelty and violence.
Discrimination between self and others leads to inequality,
Destroying living beings as worthless things.
Thinking and discerning cause desire, stupidity and hatred,
While becoming lost in heresies invites self-destruction.
Killing, stealing, adultery and lying have no end,
And rude behavior to others increases attachment and aversion.
To scold the wind and curse the rain is disrespectful to the gods,
While depression comes from ignorance of birth and death.
When leaving a cow’s womb to enter a mare’s belly
Who will sing of or lament your change of form?
Many evil acts without a good deed will make
Aimless and toilsome your transmigration.
Entering the three evil realms, falling into hell
Causes suffering to animals and hungry ghosts.
The ancient sages would oft repeat their warning,
Likewise the morning bell and drum at eve are to change your heart.
Good and evil karma bring certain retribution,
Escape then, worldly men, from the five periods of impurity.
The Song of the Skin Bag, the skin bag is sung;
If the owner of form is not entangled by it,
For illusory matter to interdependence owes its name –
He can readily turn his mind within
To contemplate in sovereign ease.
With no desire for fame and for wealth no craving,
Cut off all liking and from the world retire.
With no love for wife and no affection for children
Enter a monastery to keep the discipline.
Look for learned teachers, seek out their teaching.
On Chan practice and meditation to o’er-lap the three worlds.
Store what you see and hear, forsake all causal clinging
To escape for ever from the worldly way.
By taming the six senses and stopping all your thoughts,
With neither self nor other, no trouble will remain,
Unlike worldly men who sigh when mist and dew disperse.
With one robe to cover you and food enough
To satisfy your hunger, keep yourself in shape.
Give wealth away, sacrifice your body and life
Without a second thought, as when you spit or sneeze.
Keep pure the discipline, be without fault
And correct in your deportment. Be not angry
When insulted, bear no hatred when you are beaten,
Forget all derision by enduring the unendurable.
Without deviation, without interruption
Hold forever the one thought of Amitabha.
Let there be no dullness, no confusion,
But like the fir and cypress defy the bitter cold.
Doubt no more the Buddha, doubt no more the Dharma;
With innate wisdom look clearly into what you see and hear, Bore the paper, cut the hide and go back
To the source, for self-liberation means
Returning to the spring and source of reality.
There is neither ‘non-existence’ nor emptiness
Exposed is the potentiality divine, wondrous and inconceivable.
When you reach here all grievance ends.
Hurrah, for now you realize the goal.
With the ten titles of Buddha you will teach a myriad worlds.
Aha, that same leaking shell is now
The omnipresent Buddha-body.
Clearly good and evil karmas are infallible, so why
Rely on falsehood instead of practicing the truth?
When the absolute is split the two extremes appear,
The spirit mind turns into heaven and earth.
Kings and ministers are noble owing to their past karmas,
None are rich or noble, poor or humble without previous cause.
Where there is birth – there will be death,
Why grumble since this is known to everyone?
For wife, children (and self), for happiness and wealth
All prospects are spoiled by anger and desire.
For what fame or gain did I trifle
Away my last nineteen springs?
Frustrations of a thousand, nay ten thousand kinds
Harass and make your life yet more unbearable.
When you grow old with failing sight and snow-white hair
You will have vainly passed a lifetime ignorant of virtue.
From day to month, from month to year in vain will you
Regret that months and years turn like a wheel.
Who is an immortal in this world of ours?
’Tis better to revere once more the cloud of compassion
And on a famous mountain or in some renowned place
To live at ease in transcendental bliss.
Do not you know how fast the temporary flies?
Respectfully ponder a few expedient sentences,
Recite Amitabha’s name, see clearly into birth and death,
Then enjoy happiness beyond the reach of others.
Practice Chan, seek out its aim; the pure
And the spiritual are only this.
With clear tea and vegetarian food the mind
Errs not, enjoying Dharma night and day.
Forsake both self and other, relinquish ‘you’ and ‘I’,
Treat friend and foe alike forgetting praise and censure.
When the mind is free from hindrance and disgrace
Do Buddhas and Patriarchs regard its Oneness as being without use?
The World-Honored One renounced his love to climb the snowy mountains,
While Avalokitesvara left home to become a son of the Buddha.
In the days of Yao and Shun lived Zhao and Yu,
When the throne was offered to Zhao he washed his ears.
Remember Zhang Zifang and Liu Chengyi
Who cast away their glory, retiring from the world.
In this period of termination when troubles lie ahead,
Why do you not awaken to vie with the ancestors?
To indulge in ignorance, committing the ten evils
Exhausts your ingenuity and wins the world’s contempt.
Wars, epidemics, droughts and floods are frequent,
Dearth, famine and strife succeed each other and
When weird tales prevail misfortune follows.
’Midst earthquakes, landslides and tidal waves
What will you do in order to escape?
Evil acts in past transmigrations
Cause present falsehood and frustration.
When poor and in trouble virtue should first be cultivated,
Then in a monastery worship with virtuous heart the King of the Law,
Repentance and reform from past wrong deeds improve your lot.
Call on learned teachers, seek your experience to seal,
First learn, then leave both birth and death to realize the Mind- nature,
Impermanence exposed reveals eternity.
Path lies in path within your practice.
The saints and sages left clear sayings to reform the world,
Slight not then the teaching of the Tripitaka.
With earnestness and deep sincerity
I urge all human beings to be righteous
Take not my words as idle nor forget them,
For self-cultivation leads to perception of self-nature.
Hasten your practice, be ever zealous,
For the sowing of Bodhi is the direct cause of awakening.
The nine stages after rebirth in the Lotus are testified by the Buddha,
An Amitabha will take you to the Western Paradise.
Lay down your bag of skin, leap on the Vehicle Supreme.
This is the Song of the Skin Bag, hearken to it friends!
For more interesting information:
- The Six Patriarchs of Chan Buddhism
- Amongst White Clouds -Amazing!
- Ji Gong – The Crazy Monk of China
- After the Monastery
- Bill Porter (Red Pine): The Translator of Chinese Poems and Promoter of Zen Buddhism
- Falling Down’s A Good Sign
- HELP THIS NUN, PLEASE!
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