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Grand Master Xu (Hsu) Yun Chapter 6 - Difficulties

Sometimes the teaching of Chan can be as frustrating as the learning of it.

There was once a Chan Master who undertook the instruction of three novices. He explained to them the need for spiritual discipline and ordered that, starting from that very moment, they observe the rule of absolute silence. Then, holding his finger to his lips, he ordered them to go to their rooms.

The first novice said, "Oh, Master, please let me tell you how grateful I am to receive your instruction!"

Whereupon the second novice said, "You fool! Don't you realize that by saying that you broke the rule of silence?"

And the third novice threw his hands up and wailed, "Lord! Am I the only person around here who can follow orders?"

Sometimes we look around and suppose that nobody else measures up to our

  Painting by Yao Xin
standards. We are like those three novices. Often, like that first novice, we say we want to learn but then we don't really pay attention to what our books or teachers tell us. Or, like the second novice, we understand the rules but think that they apply only to others. Or like the third novice, we clamor for praise every time we do what we're supposed to do.

Sometimes we share the frustration of that Chan master.

Perhaps we see inattention, laziness, frivolity, or intellectual smugness. Worse, we may see people who are accomplished hypocrites - people who pretend that their interests are purely spiritual while in fact they are a ninety-nine percent amalgam of pride, greed and lust. And then we throw up our hands in dismay and conclude that the Golden Age of Chan is over. We're too late. There is no hope for Chan. We came just in time for the funeral. Every age thinks that it has just missed being included in the Golden Age of Enlightenment.

Master Yong Jia, who studied under Sixth Patriarch Hui Neng, worried about the future of Chan. He despaired of the profusion of worldly men and the scarcity of sincere followers of the Buddha Dharma. "Alas!" he cried in his Song of Enlightenment, "In this time of decadence and worldly evil, no one cares to submit to discipline. The Holy Period's over and the Era of Perversion has begun."

Now, Master Yong Jia, for all his worries about being in an era of darkness, managed to attain enlightenment in a very short time. He was what you'd call an "Overnight Sensation." In fact that's how Hui Neng referred to him. "The Overnight Enlightened One!" Master Yong Jia's lamp burned for a long time in what was supposed to be a dark era.

Master Wei Shan who was born in 771 and died in 863 saw his earthly life end just as the Tang Dynasty's Golden Age of Chan was ending. Master Wei Shan used to lament, "Isn't it regrettable that we were born at the end of the Enlightenment Period?" He despaired of the profusion of worldly men and the scarcity of sincere followers of the Buddha Dharma. How he wished that he had been born earlier! He truly feared that there would be no one to take his place.

But let's take a moment to recall how Wei Shan got to be called Wei Shan.

Wei Shan's original name was Ling You and he was from FuJian Province. He studied Chan under Master Bai Zhang Huai Hai.

Now, Master Bai Zhang Huai Hai had been born back in the middle of the Tang Dynasty; but he also despaired of the profusion of worldly men and the scarcity of sincere followers of the Buddha Dharma.

Bai Zhang Huai Hai was so upset about the state of Chan that he decided to solve the problem by starting a new monastery on Mount Wei, Wei Shan, which is in Hunan Province. Naturally, since he thought that there were so few enlightened men available, he supposed that he'd have to go there and do the job himself.

One day while he was trying to figure out just how he would accomplish this feat, the old ascetic soothsayer Si Ma happened to pay him a visit.

"Give me your advice," asked Bai Zhang Huai Hai. "First, what do you think about building a new monastery on Mount Wei?"

"Excellent idea," said Si Ma. "It's an ideal location and can easily support a community of fifteen hundred monks."

Bai Zhang Huai Hai was delighted to hear this. But then Si Ma added, "Don't get any ideas about going there yourself. The mountain is young and strong and you're old and weak. You'll have to send somebody else."

But who? Bai Zhang Huai Hai couldn't imagine that anyone around could replace him.

Si Ma tried to help. "Let's see who you've got available," he said.

So, one by one Bai Zhang Huai Hai summoned all his monks. Naturally, he started with his head monk.

Si Ma took one look at the head monk and shook his head, rejecting him. He continued to reject each of the various candidates until finally it was Ling You's turn to be interviewed. When Si Ma saw Ling You, he nodded his approval. "This is the man!" he said. "Send him to Wei Shan."

The head monk didn't like this judgment very much and asked Master Bai Zhang Huai Hai to affirm the decision by examination, that is, to let each candidate actively demonstrate the depth of his Chan.

So Bai Zhang Huai Hai held a contest. He put a pitcher in the middle of the floor and one by one invited his monks to come into the room and answer the question: "Without calling this object a pitcher, what should it be called?"

His head monk came in, looked at the pitcher, thought for a minute and then answered, "Well, it can't be called a wedge." Bai Zhang Huai Hai was disappointed. This obviously contrived answer showed that the head monk was approaching the problem too intellectually. He was still too involved with names and forms.

Every candidate gave an unsatisfactory answer until, finally, it was Ling You's turn. Ling You came into the room and when Bai Zhang Huai Hai asked, "Without calling this object a pitcher, what should it be called?" Ling You spontaneously gave the pitcher such a kick it shattered against the wall. Bai Zhang Huai Hai threw back his head and laughed. Si Ma was right. Ling You was indeed the man. A pitcher? So much for name! So much for form!

So you see, teachers, too, sometimes need to learn a lesson. Bai Zhang Huai Hai thought that the glorious days of Chan were all in the past. He was wrong. Ling You went to the mountain and founded a monastery and that is how he came to be known as the great Master Wei Shan.

Over a thousand years have passed since that contest and Chan masters are still despairing of the profusion of worldly men and the scarcity of sincere followers of the Buddha Dharma.

Take my own case. When I was young, most of the monasteries in the area south of the three rivers were destroyed during various rebellions. Many monks of the Zhong Nan mountains came south, on foot, to help rebuild these monasteries. What did they have? Nothing. They carried a gourd and a little basket and the clothes on their backs. That was all. Everybody wondered what on earth they could possibly accomplish. But they did the job. They rebuilt the monasteries.

Later as these monasteries flourished and more monks were needed, new monks began to arrive. They came in carts, needing yokes and poles to carry all their possessions. And everybody thought, "Oh, they are too worldly. They won't get anything done." But they did, didn't they?

And now, when I travel someplace and I see monks getting on trains and airplanes with their matched sets of leather luggage, I find myself saying, "Oh, they are too worldly. They won't accomplish anything." But they will, won't they?

You will, won't you?.

[Introduction]  [Chapter 1]  [Chapter 2]  [Chapter 3]  [Chapter 4]  [Chapter 5]  [Chapter 6]
[Chapter 7]  [Chapter 8]  [Chapter 9]  [Chapter 10]  [Chapter 11]  [Chapter 12]  [Chapter 13]
Last modified: July 11, 2004
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