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Lohan from Nan Hua Si 

Early Training, My First Years

I was born into the Cai family, my father being the honorable Yen Gao Cai.

I’ll tell you about my birth. My mother, whose maiden name was Hong, had been devoted to Guan Yin all her life. One night, early in the year 1546, my mother dreamed that white-robed Guan Yin came to our house leading a little boy by the hand. My mother was so filled with joy as she welcomed them that she knelt and hugged the little boy. Right after she had this dream, she discovered she was pregnant! And so, on the twelfth day of the tenth month of that year—on the 5th of November—I came into the world. My body was covered with a thick, white caul which not only was a sign of good fortune but resembled—or so my mother thought—Guan Yin’s white robe.

The Second Year (1547-8)

When I was a year old, I caught a very bad cold which nearly killed me. My mother prayed to Guan Yin, promising that if I recovered she would allow me to become a monk. Of course, I did recover. So my mother registered my name at Long Life Temple. After she did this, she gave me the nickname, “Heshang,” which means Buddhist Monk.

The Third Year (1548-9)

I wasn’t what you’d call an energetic child. I used to sit alone, never caring to play with other children. My grandfather often said, “This kid is like a wooden stake.”

The Seventh Year (1552-3)

When it was time for me to get an education, my parents sent me to a neighborhood school. Nothing philosophical occurred to me until one day when an uncle of mine died. Though I loved my uncle very much, I hadn’t known he was even sick. When I returned from school and found him stretched out so quietly on the bed, I didn’t know what to think. My mother played a ‘mind-game’ trick on me.

“Your uncle is sleeping,” she said. “You can wake him up.”

I called and shouted at him trying to get him to wake up, but he wouldn’t respond.

My aunt wasn’t amused. “What’s wrong with you?” she snarled. “Can’t you see he’s gone!”

I couldn’t understand how he could be gone when he was still right there. My mother explained,

“Your uncle is dead. His body is here, but his spirit is gone.”

And so I wondered where the spirit goes when the body dies. Soon after this, another aunt of mine gave birth to a boy. My mother and I went to visit them. When I saw the baby, I asked, “Where did this baby come from?”

“He came from your aunt’s belly,” she answered.

This was very mysterious. I asked, “How did he get into Aunt’s belly?”

My mother patted my face and said, “You silly boy! Where did you come from? From my belly! Don’t you know how you got into there?”

I didn’t know how I had managed to do that, and so I was really puzzled. This is what started me wondering about birth and death. To be honest, I’ve never really understood it.

The Eighth Year (1553-4)

When I was eight years old I was sent to a more advanced school that was located on the other side of the river from where we lived. It was necessary for me to board at a relative’s house. This was a truly painful time of my life. My mother knew how important education was and how miserable my future would be without a proper education. But I was a child. I didn’t understand. All I knew was that I missed my mother. I was so homesick that I couldn’t concentrate on my studies. My mother tried to force me to get over my attachment to her by not allowing me to come home more than once each month. Well, during one visit I decided not to go back to school. I refused to go to the dock to get the ferry back to the other side of the river. My mother got angry. She started hitting me with a stick, chasing me to the dock. But I still refused to get on the boat. This got her so mad that she took me by the hair and threw me into the river. Then she went straight home without so much as a look back at me. Fortunately, my grandmother saw the whole thing and got someone to pull me out of the river. Saved, I was happily sent home.

My mother wasn’t glad to see me. She screamed at my grandmother, “Do you want him to become a failure? If he doesn’t do well in school he’ll be useless. I would rather see him drown now than to let him stay here with me and become a failure!” My grandmother accused my mother of being hard-hearted. But my mother ignored the accusation and picked up another stick. With it she drove me back to the dock.

This time when I got on the boat my heart changed. I believed that my mother was cruel and that she didn’t love me at all. I stopped missing her and got over my homesickness completely. It wasn’t until years later that I learned how often my mother would go to the dock and sit there crying for me.

The Ninth Year (1554-5)

I transferred to a monastery school. Everyday I listened to the monks recite The Sutra of Guan Yin Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva who could deliver the world from suffering. Hearing it made me so happy that I begged for a copy of it so that I could learn to chant it, too. A monk gave me a copy and I soon learned it by heart. I knew how much my mother worshipped Guan Yin, how she burned incense and prayed to Guan Yin every day, but I had never heard her chant to Guan Yin. So one day I asked my mother, “Do you know that our Bodhisattva has a special sutra?”

My mother was surprised. “I didn’t know that,” she said. I then recited the sutra for her. She was absolutely delighted. “Where did you learn this?” she asked, adding, “You chant just like an old monk!”

The Tenth Year (1555-6)

I was no more scholarly than I was sociable and energetic. I was tired of schoolwork and couldn’t see the slightest use in studying. My mother had to force me to do my homework. She tried hard to motivate me. Whenever I complained, she’d give me a pep talk, assuring me that if I got an education I could become a government official. I thought about this possibility.

“An official of what rank?” I asked.

“Of any rank,” she answered, “from the lowest to the highest. Why, if a person is talented he can become Prime Minister.”

“And after he becomes Prime Minister, then what?” I asked.

She said, “Then he can retire!”

I thought I could win this argument, “Well,” I said, “what is the point of working so hard all my life to attain a high position if I’m only going to quit when I reach the goal?”

“I wouldn’t worry about attaining a high position if I were you,” she countered. “You don’t have that much talent.”

After deflating my ego, she tried to steer me to the religious life, saying, “You might be able to become a wandering monk.” I was curious. “What is a wandering monk? Is it good to be one?” She told me that wandering monks are disciples of Buddha who travel all over the country receiving offerings from people. She also said that these monks were truly free. I thought, Hmmm. Free and supported by gifts.

“That suits me,” I announced.

“If that’s what you think,” she said, “then you don’t have the right spirit.”

“What is the right spirit?”

“Men who try to become Buddhas or Patriarchs are more than itinerant scholars. They’re holy men who are dedicated to the Dharma.”

I thought about this. “I could be holy,” I said, “but would that be enough for you to let me leave home to become a wandering monk?” “I’ll tell you what,” she replied. “If you become holy, I’ll let you become a monk.”

From that day on, I kept the thought of becoming a monk securely in mind.

back   page 3 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