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Lohan from Nan Hua Si 


The Thirty-first Year (1576-7)

Since I had no one there to consult with about my enlightenment experience, I read The Surangama Sutra, hoping to gain insight and verification. I had previously read the Sutra but I hadn’t understood its main theme. Now, however, I absorbed its meaning effortlessly. As the months passed, my understanding deepened and expanded until I could grasp its profundity without a single doubt.

When spring came Master Lian Chi visited Five Peak Mountain and spent a few days with me. We talked and talked, happy to discover that we were of the same mind.

That autumn, in the seventh month, Prefect Hu came to see me. He had been transferred from Ping Yang to Ying Ping. Although the weather up on the mountain was pleasant, down in the valley and along the trails he had used, it had been uncomfortably hot. Prefect Hu thoroughly enjoyed the coolness and the spectacular view. As we ate a good meal of oats mixed with wild vegetables and leeks, we watched some of his men go up to a frozen stream and break off pieces of ice to chew on. Then Prefect Hu turned to me and said, “What a wonderful world you have here. You know, when I arrived my thoughts were rushing wildly like a running brook, but here in this peaceful place they’ve been stilled, frozen like ice into serene silence.” That winter, in the tenth month, accusations were brought against Abbot Master Da Fang, and he was forced to stand trial in ecclesiastical court. Despite the obvious falsity of the charges, he was found guilty and was sentenced to leave the Sangha and return to lay life. The shock of all this nearly destroyed his monastery. Master Zhe Hong of Lu Shan was so upset by the court’s decision that he braved a heavy snowfall to come to me personally to deliver the sad news. I offered to see what I could do and immediately set out for prefect Hu’s house.

The Prefect was glad to see me. “I intended to send my messenger to invite you to spend the winter here with me,” he said. “Now, you have come without needing an invitation.” As soon as he heard my testimony about Abbot Da Fang, he reversed the court’s order. The monastery was saved.

I accepted his invitation to spend the winter at his house. He used every opportunity to question me about the Dharma, and I answered him as fully as I could.

Viceroy Gao had been transferred to Dai Zhen, and when he heard that I was staying at the Prefect’s house, he told him, “Though I own a garden of verses, the flowers are all of ordinary varieties. I would very much like to grace my garden with a rare poem, one composed by an eminent person.” Prefect Hu understood his meaning and promised to ask me to compose a poem for him.

I was flustered when he made the request. “My mind has been emptied,” I said. “There’s not a single character left in it. How can I write a poem now?” I firmly refused. But Prefect Hu cleverly left a collection of ancient and modern poetry on my table, and naturally, as soon as I flipped through the pages, the book stimulated my thinking. Now the words and sentences tumbled out of me and I could not stop writing. When Prefect Hu returned in a little while, I had already written twenty or thirty poems. Immediately I realized what was happening to me and, seeing the danger, I said to myself, “This is the Demon of Literary Fame!” I stopped writing and selected a poem to satisfy his request.

But the thinking process could not be stopped. Every poem I had ever written appeared before me. The entire universe seemed to be filled with my words and phrases. Worse, my body felt like a collection of open mouths and every one of those mouths was reciting a new poem. I was so giddy and buoyant and filled with hot air that I thought I’d soon be levitating. I couldn’t stop. The poems just kept escaping from me.

The following day, when Prefect Hu accompanied Viceroy Gao to his home, I was left alone and could think about my experience. This was precisely the Chan sickness that Master Fa Guang had told me about. I had caught the disease and had no doctor to call. Maybe I can sleep it off, I thought. Then I closed the door and tried to sleep but I was too restless. I sat up and then, after a long while, I fell asleep right where I was sitting. Now I really slept.

For five days in a row, a servant boy came to my door and knocked, but he never got an answer. When Prefect Hu returned and heard about my failure to respond, he ordered his men to break into my room through the window. They found me wrapped in my robe, still sitting in the same place. He tried to wake me up using every trick he could think of, but his efforts were all in vain. I did not respond.

Suddenly he remembered once having picked up a small musical instrument called a Ching that was on the table of his Buddha shrine. He had asked me what it was for and I had explained that in India people used it to wake up monks who had entered deep samadhi and couldn’t be awakened by other means. He got the Ching and holding it close to my ear began to strike it. Slowly I awakened. When I finally opened my eyes, I didn’t know where I was or how I had got there. “This is your fifth day of sleep,” the Prefect said. I said, “It feels more like my first day of life.”

I continued to look around feeling as if I were in a dream. I could remember my days at the mountain and all my past journeys, and these events, too, were also dream-images. My mind was empty of everything that I had once thought of as real. I experienced a serene clarity of vision as when rain ceases and the clouds disperse. Delighted with the perfect tranquillity, I said to myself:

    In utter stillness, the bright light, pervading all, enfolds the great void.
    Worldly things, when closely looked at, are like illusions in a dream.
    The Buddha’s words are true.

Before I left for my mountain cabin in the first months of the following year, I secured the Prefect’s help in preserving the trees on the mountain. I pleaded that if the merchants continued to chop down trees for their commercial purposes there soon wouldn’t be any timber left for religious use. The Prefect then wrote an order prohibiting the merchants from cutting down any more trees. Because of this, in the future there was lumber available to build new monasteries.

The Thirty-second Year (1577-8)

In the spring I left Yan Men to return to Five Peak Mountain. There I read Master Nan Yue’s vows to deliver the spirits of his dead parents so that he could repay his great debt of gratitude to them. I began to think about the great debt of gratitude I owed my own parents. In fact, I could think of nothing else. My Dharma progress halted as my thoughts remained fixed on my parents.

Desperate for a solution, I decided to make a copy of The Avatamsaka Sutra using my own blood for ink. The happy result of this would be that I would offer my work as a sacrifice of gratitude to my parents while at the same time I would have the opportunity to gain the sutra’s wisdom.

As it happened, my name was on the list of Buddhist monks who could be called upon by the Empress Mother to recite sutras for the protection of the country. When the Empress Mother learned about my decision to copy the sutra she kindly sent me gold paper. In the fourth month I started writing.

Also at that time, Master Zhe Hong decided to return to Kuang Shan. As an offering, I gave him ten poems.

The Thirty-third Year (1578-9)

Nothing could disturb me as I devoted myself to copying the sutra. With each dot and stroke, heavy or fine, I chanted the Buddha’s name. I did not break this routine even when visitors came to chat with me. Despite interruptions, the text was always correct whenever I proof read it. Each day as I began my work I would enter a state of mind in which I was oblivious to my surroundings. One day, some elderly monks, who were living nearby and had heard about my concentration and accuracy, came to my cabin and deliberately tried to distract me. They didn’t succeed. When they read for themselves all that I had written during their attempted disturbance, they asked Miao Feng how I was able to do this. Miao Feng replied, “My friend is used to being in samadhi.”

During the time of this work I had many good dreams. Once I dreamed I entered a diamond cave and came to the stone door of Great Prajna Temple. I opened the door and went in and there, in a huge area, I saw solemn temple buildings and a spacious hall. Inside the hall, Great Master Qing Liang was resting on a large meditation bed. Miao Feng was standing on his left. I quickly went to the bed and prostrated myself and then stood on his right waiting for him to speak. Finally, he said:

In the state of the Dharmadhatu, in which merge all the glorious Buddha lands, there are no hosts or guests, there is no coming or going.

As he spoke, the very state which he described enveloped me and I felt as if my body and mind had merged with it. After this revelation, Miao Feng asked the Great Master, “Venerable Sir, what is this state?” Master Qing Liang smiled and said, “This is the state of no state.”

When I woke up all of my surroundings seemed transparent to me. I could see through everything.

In another dream I saw my body rise up high in the air. When it descended, the land was flat and shining like a crystal mirror. Looking deep into the mirror, I could see myself inside a spacious chamber which contained all manner of worldly things: men, animals, children, houses, farm yards, marketplaces, everything. These creatures were not posed prettily, as in some vapid picture. They were all performing the natural, everyday acts of life.

On and on flowed these visions of ordinary people doing ordinary things, and then suddenly in the center of the chamber, there appeared a platform upon which sat a great chair of blazing red and gold. I recognized it and was overwhelmed with joy. This was the Great Diamond Throne! Thrilled by the chance to see it, I tried to move closer to it. But then I looked around at all the people who, oblivious to this magnificent throne, continued to perform their everyday, mundane acts. They disgusted me. They seemed so common, so filthy and coarse. Then as I protested that such vulgarity should be allowed to exist inside this glorious and immaculate place, the image of the throne retreated.

Chagrined, I immediately saw my error. What right had I to judge the worthy and unworthy, the clean and the unclean. “The Buddhist Dharma is for all mankind,” I said humbly, “not for just one pompous fool.” And instantly, the throne came nearer.

In a moment I saw that tall, dignified monks were standing in line before the throne. Suddenly, a bhiksu, holding a sutra in his hands, came down from behind the throne and handed the sutra to me, saying, “Master is going to talk about this sutra. He asked me to give it to you.” I received it with joy but when I opened it I saw that it was written in gold Sanskrit letters which I could not read. I put it inside my robe and asked, “Who is the Master?” The bhiksu replied, “Maitreya.”

Delighted, I followed him to the stairs. At the foot of the stairs I stood with my eyes closed, concentrating on my mind. Suddenly I heard the sound of a Ching and when I opened my eyes I saw Maitreya seated on the throne. His face was incomparably beautiful—dazzling red and gold! I saluted him and prostrated myself before him. Then, thinking I was specially selected to listen to the sutra, I removed it from my robe and opened it.

Maitreya said, “Discrimination is consciousness. Nondiscrimination is wisdom. Clinging to consciousness will bring disgrace but clinging to wisdom will bring purity. Disgrace leads to birth and death but purity leads to Nirvana.”

I listened to him as if I were in a dream within the dream. His voice, like the sound of tinkling crystal, floated on the air. I could hear him so clearly that even when I awoke his words kept on repeating in my mind. Now I realized the difference between consciousness and wisdom. Now I realized also that the place where I had been in my dream was Maitreya Buddha’s Chamber in the Tushita Heaven.

In another dream I saw a monk coming to me saying, “Bodhisattva Manjusri has prepared a bath for you on the North Peak. Please come with me.” I followed him and when we arrived we entered a large fragrant hall. Inside were many attendants, all of whom were monks.

I was led into a bathing chamber and as I disrobed, preparing to enter the water, I saw a girl sitting in the bath! I naturally didn’t want to go in, but the girl changed herself into a man and I then joined him in the bath. He began to pour water on my head. The water entered my head and washed away my insides. All my internal organs flowed out and all that was left of me was a transparent cage. Then the man in the bath called for tea and a monk came carrying a skull-cup which looked like half a melon.

When I looked at what was inside it, I was sickened by the sight of dripping brains and bone marrow. The monk picked up some of it and held it out for me to examine. He asked, “Is this not clean?” Then he put it into my mouth and I swallowed it. As he continued feeding the contents of the skull to me, I realized that it tasted like honey. When only bloody water remained in the bottom of the skull, the man in the bath said, “Give that to him, too.” I took the skull and drank. It was delicious. But as the liquid went down, it began to ooze out all of my pores.

Then the monk began to massage my body, harder and harder until he was pounding me like laundry on a rock. I woke up in a sweat feeling that all of my internal organs had been washed clean. From that time on, my body and mind have always felt purified, as though they had been bathed in wonder and delight.

Most of my dreams were about saints and sages. The more you listen to Buddha’s teachings, the more you will have good dreams.

The Thirty-fourth Year (1579-80)

The Empress Mother, wishing to ensure both the happiness of the late Emperor’s spirit and the protection of the present Emperor’s life, ordered the government to revamp Ta Yuan Temple and its Sharira stupa at Five Peak Mountain. But some of the government administrators thought that Five Peak Mountain was too far from the capital and so they decided to build Da Ci Shou Temple which was much closer to the capital. It wasn’t until the report of the temple’s completion was presented to the Empress’s mother that she learned that her wishes had not been carried out. Immediately she ordered a court official to take three thousand workers to Five Peak Mountain to carry out her original instructions.

This was the first religious work that the court official had undertaken and I worried that if the building project didn’t go well, the Dharma doors might be slammed shut. I gave a helping hand and tried to see that everything was completed satisfactorily.

The Thirty-fifth Year (1580-1)

That year, by Imperial order, a land tax had been imposed, and all lands throughout the country had to be measured.

Five Peak Mountain had always been exempt from taxation, but a local official contrived to twist the truth and to levy a tax of five hundred piculs of rice on our region. We were repeatedly sent orders to measure and declare the amount of taxable land we held. All the monks worried about this and I had to try to solve the problem. I carefully petitioned high government authorities who quickly canceled the local official’s orders. We were able to maintain the sanctity of Five Peak Mountain.

The Thirty-sixth Year (1581-2)

Miao Feng also used his own blood to make a copy of The Avatamsaka Sutra, and when he was finished, we decided to organize a great ceremonial service called a Moksha Parishad. The purpose of the service was to enable participants to confess sins and to receive instruction in morality and discipline. When Miao Feng collected enough money and the arrangements for the meeting were ready, we invited five hundred well-known monks from the capital to participate in the service.

However, at this same time, the Emperor ordered prayers for the birth of an heir. He sent an official to Wu Dang, a Daoist locale, to request the appropriate prayers, while the Empress Mother sent another official to Five Peak Mountain with the same request.

I thought that while all prayers were beneficial to the country, prayers for an Imperial heir were of particular importance. Many people thought that we should cancel the Moksha Parishad service, but I didn’t see the need to cancel it. Rather, I intended to change its purpose. Instead of the monks performing the service for their own spiritual advantage, they could offer their orisons and exhortations to the cause of the Imperial heir. Unfortunately neither Miao Feng nor the official fully understood my idea. The official was particularly displeased and criticized me openly. Finally they both consented, but not before a rumor had spread that I had disobeyed an Imperial Order by continuing to prepare for the Moksha Parishad. Though we stirred much controversy, the true purpose of our meeting was determined and no harm befell us.

Later that year, as the stupa repairs were being completed, I placed my copy of The Avatamsaka Sutra and a copy of my spiritual vows inside the structure. We had to prepare to celebrate the completion of the work, but since Miao Feng was in the capital, the preparations were left entirely to me. For three straight months I barely slept as I made all the arrangements to supply one thousand guests with food, drink and lodging.

For the Festival of Water and Land, which lasted seven days and nights, I fasted, not even eating rice, and drinking only water. I still managed to have enough strength to attend all the services. The festival was a great success. five hundred tables of offerings to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas were changed every day without any confusion.

Visitors were amazed and thought that this had to have been accomplished by gods, and indeed I knew that we had had the Buddha’s special blessing.

The Thirty-seventh Year (1582-3)

That spring I lectured on The Hua Yan Xuan Tan, State Master Qing Liang’s Commentary on The Avatamsaka Sutra. For a hundred days, a large gathering of monks and laymen came from everywhere to attend. In addition to lecturing, I had to supervise the preparation of ten thousand meals a day. Despite this number, the meals were served in an orderly fashion, and the same good silence that prevailed during the lectures continued during mealtime. But after this event, I was completely exhausted. I had no energy left at all.

Considerable money and provisions had been donated to the monastery, and when these gifts were collected and distributed, Miao Feng and I took our rice bowls and went on a journey. But our paths soon diverged, Miao Feng’s going to Lu Ya and mine going to Zhang Shi Yan in the Zhen Ding District where I planned to have a nice vacation. I composed the following lines:

    Life goes on. No mountain peak impales the sun.
    If you come to a break in your path, leap across.

That year, in the eighth month, an heir was born to the Emperor. I went to Zhong Feng Temple west of the capital where I supervised the carving of wooden blocks for printing the Preface of the Sayings of Zhong Feng.

    In the winter, I performed the Water rituals at Shi Shi.

The Thirty-eighth Year (1583-4)

In the first month of the year, when the Water rituals at Shi Shi were completed, I decided to go to Dong Hai. Also, since I had become famous—or infamous—because of the success of the Prayer Meeting at Five Peak Mountain, I decided to change my name from Cheng Yin to Han Shan. Fame does not aid anyone’s practice.

I remembered the vow I once took to rebuild Bao En, my old temple, which had been destroyed by fire. I had taken that vow seventeen years before, when I was twenty-one. I now realized that I had gone far enough away in time and place from my vow. I would go no farther than the Dong Hai region.

On the eighth day of the fourth month, I came to Lao Shan. When I had separated from Miao Feng, he told his disciple De Zong to accompany me and to serve me. Miao Feng was afraid of my traveling alone. I accepted the help.

In a chapter of The Avatamsaka Sutra I had once read about the Bodhisattvas’ abode. It said, “At Dong Hai there is a place called the Narayana Cave where, since the earliest times, Bodhisattvas came to dwell.” Subsequently I had read Master Qing Liang’s Commentary which revealed that the Sanskrit word Narayana means firm and stable, which is the meaning of Lao Shan at Dong Hai. According to another book, Yu Gong, the cave existed in the Qing Zhou district.

I very much wanted to visit the Bodhisattvas’ abode but Lao Shan, being wild and remote, was not a particularly hospitable place to live. I traveled to the south of the mountain where there was a deep valley. Behind it lay the mountains; in front of it, the great ocean. The valley was so strange and uniquely beautiful that it seemed to belong to another world.

In the valley there was an ancient temple called the Avalokitesvara Shrine of which only the foundation remained. I researched the history of this temple and learned that in the beginning of the Yuan Dynasty (1280-1341), seven Daoists, by forging the name of the Emperor Shi Zu, who was away from court on a mission, were able to take possession of this Buddhist property—which they quickly converted into a Daoist temple. Upon the Emperor’s return, Buddhist monks petitioned him to restore their property to them. Eventually, however, the remoteness of Lao Shan was too great. Nobody cared about the temple and it fell into ruin. But I liked its isolation. I liked the prospects of being left undisturbed, and so I decided to stay there.

At first, I lived on a mat under the shelter of a tree, but then, seven months later, Upasaka Zhang Da Xin, a native of the district, came and built a hut for me. I stayed alone in the hut for a year with great enjoyment. During this time I had only one friend: Dharma Master Gui Feng of Ling Shan Temple at Ji Mo. He was the region’s Dharma Eye.

The Thirty-ninth Year (1584-5)

That autumn, in the ninth month, the Empress Mother, grateful for the successful prayer meeting held for the birth of the Imperial heir, wanted to reward Master Da Fang, Miao Feng, and me for organizing the meeting. Master Da Fang and Miao Feng received their reward, but since I was absent, she had to send Duan An, Abbot of Long Hua Temple, to search for me. Knowing that I was at the seashore, he came to deliver the news that Her Majesty desired to reward me. I told him that the greatest reward I could possibly receive was to be allowed to remain at Lao Shan for the rest of my life.

When the Abbot reported my reply to Her Majesty, she graciously granted enough land on the Western Hill to build a temple residence for me to use. But when the official arrived to inform me of this reward, I declined to accept it. Then, when he reported my refusal to Her Majesty, she persisted and sent an official to give me three thousand gold coins with which I could build a rectory at Lao Shan. Again, I declined the reward, saying that I was very happy with my hut and didn’t need anything more. But the official insisted that I accept. He was afraid to return to Her Majesty without having fulfilled her instruction.

I offered a compromise: it was a time-honored practice for the Imperial household to extend relief to famine victims. Since there currently was a severe famine occurring in Shandong province, I asked, “Why not extend Her Majesty’s mercy to those starving people?” I then asked the official to distribute the money to those who needed it.

When the records of the donations were delivered to Her Majesty, she was greatly pleased and deeply moved. Later, however, I was accused of misusing court funds. When I was brought before the district court, I asked the magistrate to refer to the accounts in the court treasury. He reviewed the records and, upon determining that all of the funds had been used for famine relief, declared the accusation to be entirely false.

The Fortieth Year (1585-6)

The people living in this eastern district of Dong Hai were not Buddhists. They followed the Lo Qing cult of Daoism which had originated in Cheng Yan, at the foot of the mountain, and spread eastward. No one had even heard about Buddhism’s Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.

One day, a member of the Huang clan, the largest clan in the area, came to see me to inquire about the Dharma. I was able to convert him to Buddhism, and then, after a while, when clan elders and their followers also came, I converted them, too.


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Last modified: July 11, 2004
This work courtesy of Grandmaster Jy Din Shakya
Published by the Zen Buddhist Order of Hsu Yun, 1998