Home : Literature : The Autobiography & Maxims of Master Han Shan
 » Becoming a Monk
back  index  next page
Lohan from Nan Hua Si 

Becoming a Monk

The Eleventh Year (1556-7)

One day several monks came to our house. They carried gourds and bamboo hats and looked strange to me.

I asked my mother, “Who are these men?”. “They are wandering monks,” she answered.

At last I had a look at wandering monks. I watched them lay their belongings beside a tree then come and ask for offerings of food.

My mother treated them with great respect. “Venerable Ones, please sit down,” she said as she immediately got up and busied herself preparing tea and a meal for them.

After they finished their meal they picked up their belongings and prepared to leave. Just as they began to raise their hands in a gesture of gratitude, my mother stopped them saying, “Venerable Sirs, please don’t give me any thanks.” Immediately the monks turned and left.

I thought the monks were impolite. “They should have said ‘thank you’ anyway,” I said.

“No,” my mother said. “If they persisted in thanking me, then I would have had to accept their thanks and then, you see, I would have gained no merit. My gift would have been given in exchange for thanks instead of being given freely, for love of the Dharma.” So I saw immediately that what I had thought was impolite conduct was actually the greatest kindness. I was then able to understand why monks were so highly respected. After that, I really desired to become a monk and regretted that I didn’t yet have the necessary holiness to become one.

The Twelfth Year (1557-8)

The things of the world didn’t interest me at all. When I found out that my father was looking for a wife for me, I immediately stopped him. I didn’t want to get married.

One day I learned from a monk who came from Nanjing about a certain Xi Lin, a very virtuous man, who was Abbot of Bao En Temple. I wanted to learn about the Dharma and I wanted him to teach me. But naturally when I told my father that I wanted to leave home and go to Nanjing to study Buddhism, my father refused to allow it. So I talked to my mother and she talked to my father.

She said, “We raised him in the expectation that he would achieve his own goals. This is his goal, so let’s allow him to pursue it.” She won my father over and in the tenth month of the year I went to Bao En Temple to study.

When Abbot Xi Lin saw me, he seemed delighted. This boy is different! I think it would be a pity if he were to become a common man.” Abbot Xi Lin took me to see Master Wu Ji who was giving Dharma talks in the Tripitaka Hall of the temple. There I met the great scholar Zhao Da Zhou who patted my head and said, “This boy will be a teacher of men and of heavens.” Then he asked me, “Which would you rather be, an official or a Buddha?”

I immediately replied, “A Buddha.”

“This boy is special,” Zhao said. “We should teach him well. I think he’ll be a great man one day,” he graciously added.

When I attended the Dharma lectures, I didn’t always grasp the technical meaning of what was said, but intuitively I understood it. And a wonderful feeling would come over me as I listened. It was as if the Dharma was a song I once knew but had forgotten, and now I was hearing snatches of melody, a few bars here and there that I could recognize—though not yet put together to reconstruct the song.

I also found my first real brother in the Dharma: Xue Lang. At thirteen, he was a year older than I. He had just left home to become a monk of Master Wu Ji and was the first member to enter the religious life so young. He came with Master Wu Ji who was the first Master to give Dharma talks in our area.

The Thirteenth Year (1558-9)

First, the Abbot’s Master selected a monk named Jun to be my tutor. Jun was an educated man of very good character. He began my instruction with The Lotus Sutra, and in less than four months I was able to recite it by heart.

The Fourteenth Year (1559-60)

I continued my studies with Jun, learning by heart many other popular sutras. This, of course, pleased the Abbot’s Master. “Anyone who learns so well should be given careful guidance,” he said. And so, another good teacher was found for me.

The Fifteenth Year (1560-1)

At the Master’s request, my teacher began my instruction with the classical literature required for the scholar’s examination. As soon as I showed that I could handle this subject, I was additionally given The Four Books to study. I was sick all year.

The Sixteenth Year (1561-2)

In this year I finished studying The Four Books and was able to recite it front to back without missing a word.

The Seventeenth Year (1562-3)

While demonstrating my proficiency in The Four Books, I studied The Five Classics, The Sage’s Books, history ancient literature and poetical composition. I began to write poems and articles that were actually appreciated by my classmates.

The Eighteenth Year (1563-4)

My eighteenth year was not a good one. First of all, the chief examiner’s attendant taught only Daoism. Not terribly Daoist himself, he’d require students to flutter around him, parroting his lines of Daoist wisdom. If they didn’t sing along, they didn’t get promoted. I thought the whole business shameful and wanted to abandon my studies. Fortunately, I was also sick that year and didn’t have to go to class.

The Nineteenth Year (1564-5)

Finding a shortcut to success was the only thing my classmates and I ever thought about. For me, that shortcut meant going to the capital to take the scholar’s examination; I therefore set about making the necessary applications. It so happened that while I was doing this, Master Yun Gu, he of the Right Dharma Eye, began to make regular visits to Qi Xia Mountain Monastery. It was my privilege to go there to serve him during his month-long visits.

When Master Yun Gu learned that I was going to take the scholar’s examination, he feared that I might leave monastic life, so he sat me down and had a long, man-to-man talk with me. He brilliantly argued the case for my becoming a monk and following Chan’s Path. Describing the mind and all its wonders, he assured me that by abandoning worldly desire and practicing Chan, I, too, could realize these wondrous states of mind. One by one, he told me about the lives of past Masters and of their great accomplishments.

I then came upon a copy of The Sayings of Zhong Feng and started reading it. Immediately, I knew that I had found my true path. The book was an absolute delight! I was in complete agreement with every point it made. With no hesitation I decided to become a monk and join the Sangha. I asked Abbot’s Master to have my head shaved, burned all my books and writings, and devoted myself to practicing what little Chan I knew.

Having neither training manual nor teacher, I didn’t know much about the various Chan techniques, so I had to content myself with the basic practice of concentrating my mind on Amitabha Buddha while repeating his name. Day and night without interruption I recited his sacred name. Then, one night I dreamed of Amitabha Buddha. He was standing on air just high enough off the ground for me to look directly at his feet when I knelt before him. Slowly I looked up and when I saw his radiant face I was filled with love for him. Then I prayed to Guan Yin Avalokitesvara and Mahasthamaprapta, his two attending bodhisattvas, and immediately they appeared in half-size. After that, whenever I prayed, these three of the Western Paradise—the Buddha Amitabha, Guan Yin Avalokitesvara and Mahasthamaprapta—would appear to me. Thus I knew that my practice would be successful.

That winter I received full ordination under Master Wu Ji.

It was an exciting time. The hall I ordained in, which was actually the Chan Meditation Hall, was also used for Dharma talks, and since Master Wu Ji had accepted an invitation to come and lecture on The Hua Yen Hsuen Tan, which was Master Qing Liang’s commentary on The Avatamsaka Sutra, I stayed on to attend his lectures.

When Master Wu Ji got to the chapter, “The Ten Wonder Gateways of Ocean Symbol Samadhi,” I suddenly understood how all things were connected in the Dharmadhatu, the Spiritual Ground of Reality. This understanding was so clear that I decided to call myself “Cheng Yin” which means “clear impression” because I was highly impressed by the character of Master Qing Liang.

Though certain that I had awakened to this profound meaning, I nevertheless went to Master Wu Ji and asked him to test my understanding. This he did. “Do you know,” asked Master Wu Ji, “why this mountain is called ‘Qing Liang’?”

I didn’t know so he explained that the mountain top was covered with ice in winter and that even in summer snow continued to fall there. It was a place which did not feel the sun’s heat.

“Be like Qing Liang Mountain,” he said, “and always hold its presence in your mind.”

From that day on, no matter where I was or what I was doing, the snowy white scenery of Qing Liang Mountain filled my vision. In a real sense, I continued to live on that mountain. Little else interested me. I was detaching myself from the rest of the world.

The Twentieth Year (1565-6)

On the sixteenth day of the first month of this year the Abbot Master Xi Lin passed away. Only nine days earlier he had dressed himself and had gone to visit each monk at the monastery in order to say goodbye. Everyone was shocked. Then, three days after this farewell, he instructed everyone on what to do after his death. He was ill at the time but he refused to take any medicine, saying, “When it’s time to leave what’s the use of taking medicine?” He assembled his disciples and all recited the Buddha Amitabha’s name for five days and nights. Then, holding his rosary close to his chest, Abbot Master died. He had been the abbot of Bao En Temple for thirty years. His favorite sutra was The Diamond Sutra and this he had recited every day of his life.

Of course, there was the matter of succession. Two years earlier, on New Year’s Eve, Abbot Master had gathered all his disciples together saying, “I am eighty-three years old and soon will leave this earth. Though I have over eighty disciples, none of them will be able to take my place.” We were all puzzled by this. Abbot Master then patted my back and said, “I wish I could see him grow up, but that’s not possible now. Yes, although he’s young, he’s as able as an adult. After my death, despite his youth, he should be consulted in matters concerning the monastery.”

Everyone was astonished when, two months after his death, on the eighteenth day of the third month, the Abbot’s rooms caught fire and burned down. Now we understood his meaning. No one could replace him.

In the tenth month of this year Master Yun Gu organized a Chan Meditation meeting at Tian Chi Temple. Fifty-three well-known masters agreed to come and though I was no master, Master Yun Gu urged me to attend. He also urged the abbot of Bao En Temple to allow me to participate. Fortunately, the abbot agreed and I was able to join the group.

I was, after all, only a beginner and, as a beginner, I was having trouble controlling my mind. Carrying an incense stick in a gesture of respect, I called on Master Yun Gu and asked him to instruct me. He told that for the next three months I should work exclusively on trying to solve the Kung An, “Who is repeating the Buddha’s name?”

I threw myself into this task a little too strenuously. At the outset, no doubt because of the strain, a large red abscess formed on my back. It worried the Master so much that I feared he would prevent me from continuing with my new meditation. I put on my robes and went to pray before the shrine of Monastery Guardian Wei Tuo. “Oh Protector of the Temple,” I said, “no doubt I am guilty of a serious sin and must suffer this infirmity in order to atone for it. I don’t ask you to relieve me of paying my debt but merely to postpone payment until I’m able to complete the three-month meditation period. To show my good faith I will recite The Avatamsaka Sutra ten times.”

It was after midnight when, exhausted, I was finally able to fall asleep on the meditation mat. When I awakened I forgot all about my abscess. Master didn’t. At daybreak he asked me about my ailment and I assured him that I was fine. He insisted on examining the abscess for himself and to everyone’s surprise, it had completely subsided. Thus I was able to continue the Kung An meditation which I entered so single-mindedly that for the following three months I seemed to be living a dream. I didn’t notice the assembly’s presence. I didn’t even know what was going on. When I went into a crowded marketplace, I was unaware of a single person. I’m sure the other monks thought that what I had achieved was merely a loss of sanity, but I knew that I had attained complete concentration.

The success of Chan in the eastern provinces south of the Yangtse River was largely due to the efforts of Master Yun Gu. Before he organized the Chan meeting, it had been the custom for monks to wear ordinary, bright colored clothing. After the Chan meeting, however, I resolved to change the custom. I stopped wearing laymen’s clothes and wore instead a Sangha robe. People gave me strange looks when they saw me.

back   page 4 of 12   next page
Acknowledgments   ~   Introduction
Early Training   ~   Becoming a Monk
Meeting Miao Fang   ~   Samadhi
One Bright True Mind   ~   "Purify Your Mind"
The Court   ~   Song of the Placard Carrier
The Last Year   ~   Maxims of Master Han Shan
Last modified: July 11, 2004
This work courtesy of Grandmaster Jy Din Shakya
Published by the Zen Buddhist Order of Hsu Yun, 1998