This is the story of the Chan Master Xu Yun or Empty Cloud. 1840-1959
Part one; the master’s personally dictated autobiography, recorded at the Cloud Gate Monastery in 1952
(Comments in brackets are mine)
Part two; is my biography of the last seven years, based on the records of his personal students.
Copyright Yan Li 衍力
The Imperial period
page 1 aged 0 – 42 Ordination
page 2 aged 43 – 45 Pilgrimage to five peak mountain
page 3 aged 46 – 50 Living as a hermit. Walking to Tibet & India
page 4 aged 51 – 60 A time of Awakening
page 5 aged 61 – 65 The life of wandering Hermit
page 6 aged 66 – 70 Abbot at Chicken Foot Mountain, Yunnan
The Nationalist period
page 7 aged 71 – 76 Abbot at Chicken Foot Mountain, Family letters
page 8 aged 77 – 82 Abbot at Cloud Perch Monastery & the Jade Buddha
page 9 aged 83 – 94 Abbot at Bubbling Spring Monastery, Drum Mountain
page 10 aged 95 – 104 Abbot at the South Flower Chan Monastery
page 11 aged 105 – 111 Abbot at Cloud Gate or Chan Monastery
The Communist period
page 12 The Cloud Gate Incident
page 13 Moving to Cloud Abode Mountain
page 14 On Cloud Abode Mountain
page 15 The last year page 16 Epilogue
My First 42 Years
My First Year 1840-1841
I was born into the privileged Hsiao Mandarin family at Guangzhou Prefecture’s headquarters on 26th August, 1840, the last day of the seventh month of the year ‘Geng Zi’, the twentieth year of the Dao Guang reign. I was born in a caul (the amniotic sac which clings to a baby as it is born) and the anguish of such a birth caused my mother to grieve to death. She had longed for a child and had tried for many years to provide an heir for my father and our family. The next day an old Bare Foot Doctor, who sold medicines, came to our house and cut open the skin bag ‘caul’ and handed me to my stepmother for my care.
My Eleventh Year 1850 – 1851
I had been adopted by my uncle as his heir and it was then that my grandmother chose two girl brides to continue our family lineages. That was just before she died in the winter of 1851. The girls were also from Mandarin class Hunan families, one named Tian and the other Tan. The families had known each other for generations. Grandmother died in the winter.
My Thirteenth Year 1852 – 1853
My grandmother’s coffin was taken back to Xiangxiang for burial. I went too, with my father, and Buddhist monks conducted the funeral. Straight away, I found that I had a natural affinity with the monks and their ways. After returning home to our house, which had a good collection of books, I found the story of ‘Incense Mountain’ and read about Avolokitsevara Bodhisattva or Kwan Yin Pu Sa. I was very impressed. Then, in August, together with my uncle, we visited some of the monasteries around Nan Yue on Heng Mountain. I did not want to return home though I hid my feelings.
My Fourteenth Year 1853 – 1854
I had already decided to become a ‘Home Leaver’ (as a monk is called) and before long my father found this out. A private Taoist teacher was employed for my further education and I learnt the breathing exercises of Taoist yoga, and thus I was educated. By the winter, the traditional three year period of Confucian-style mourning was over and my father left for his work in Fujian, leaving my uncle in charge.
My Seventeenth Year 1856 – 1857
I had been studying with my teacher at home for three years but I could sense that his teaching was not really as deep as that of the Buddha Dharma. I played a game of pretend to keep my uncle happy. However, when he went out one day I quickly packed a bag and left to return to Nan Yue. It was a difficult, confusing journey and I had only got half-way when I was caught by the fellow sent by my uncle to bring me back. I and my cousin Fu Go were then taken to Guangzhou. Not long after this my two fiancées were carried over on Sudan chairs draped in red and we were married. I had no choice as I was living under the ‘house arrest’ imposed by my own family. I had a pure-minded, platonic relationship with my two wives. I taught them the Buddha Dharma – they had an affinity with the teaching and understood it. Fu Guo, my cousin, also taught them the Buddha Dharma. We were like brothers and sisters in the Dharma together.
My Nineteenth Year 1858 – 1859
Fu Guo and I made a vow to run away from home together. We made secret enquiries about how to get to Drum Mountain or Gu Shan in Fuzhou. I also wrote the ‘Skin Bag Song’ (See the Poetry page) and I left this for a memory for the two girls before fleeing with my cousin to the Bubbling Spring or Yung Kuang Monastery on Drum Mountain. There Old Master Eternally Open or Chang Kai shaved my head as a novice. (The Samanera Ordination or tonsure.)
My Twentieth Year 1859 – 1860
At Drum Mountain, I received the higher ordination from Master Wonderful Lotus or Miao Lian. I was given the Dharma name Gu Yan, also Yan Che, and then Pure Virtue or De Ching. After our ordination Fu Go, my cousin, went off in a search to find Enlightened Masters, and that was the last time I saw him. My father had sent Guangzhou men to find me as he had returned there to work. I hid in a cave around the back of Drum Mountain. There I studied the text ‘The Awkening of Faith in the Mahayana’, practised repentance and reform and made offerings to all the Buddhas. I was very concerned about being discovered and did not venture out. At times tigers and wolves would visit my abode but I was not scared.
My Twenty-Third Year 1862 – 1863
I lived in that cave for three years and completed the rules for repentance and reform. One day a monk arrived to tell me that my father had now retired and gone back to his home in Xiangxiang. He informed me that, ‘Master Wonderful Lotus says you can now return to the monastery, where you will be given certain tasks as further aspects of your cultivation.’
My Twenty-Fifth Year 1864 – 1865
I heard that my father had died at home in Xiangxiang. After that I did not ask or hear about my family. I carried on with my duties at the monastery.
My Twenty-Seventh Year 1866 – 1867
One day a messenger arrived and told me that my stepmother and my two wives had become ‘Home Leavers’ (nuns). My stepmother took the Dharma Name of Profound Purity or Miao Jing, my Tian wife became True Cleanness or Chun Jie , and the Tan wife Clear Chastity or Qing Jie . For four years I did a variety of jobs whilst on Drum Mountain at the Monastery. I worked as waterman, gardener, hall keeper and verger. In the monastery, at certain times of the year donations were shared around but I always refused my share. Every day I ate only one bowl of rice porridge (congee). My health was excellent. During my stay there, whenever I had the chance, I had many lengthy conversations with Master Old Moon or Gu Yue who maintained the most austere type of practice there. I thought to myself, ‘The jobs that I have been doing here have not helped my practice develop.’ I considered the case of Master Xuang Zang (The Famous Tang Dynasty Monk Translator and the idea behind the Monkey Tales) who went to India in search of Sutras and who had trained himself by walking up to sixty miles a day. He had also learnt to manage without eating cereals and by cutting back on food and water to mimic harsh desert conditions. I thought, ‘Why can’t I follow the ancient’s example?’ So I resigned from my work, gave away my robes, and set out with what clothes were on my back, a straw raincoat and a sitting mat. I returned to the cave.
My Twenty-Eighth, Twenty-Ninth and Thirtieth Years 1867 – 1870
For the next three years I ate grass and pine needles (meaning that I led an austere life) and I drank water from the mountain streams. After a while my shoes wore out as did my trousers. I was left with only a tattered robe. As my beard and hair had grown over a foot in length, I tied them up in a knot. I did not speak to anybody because they were frightened by my piercing bright eyes. They ran off thinking I was a kind of mountain spirit. I experienced many unusual things during the first and second years there. Whilst single-mindedly reciting the Buddha’s name, I was able just to observe and not get caught up in false thinking. Deep in the marshes and mountainous areas, neither insects nor snakes bit me. Nor was I attacked by wolves or tigers. I ate only raw food and did not need human company. I lay on the ground under the stars feeling a oneness with the universe. Feeling free from my body I lived in bliss. It seemed to me that to have a body and a mouth was a disaster. It was said by Master Han Shan that the smallest attachment even to a begging bowl causes more trouble to the mind than a thousand ringing bells! I did not even have my monk’s begging bowl – I was totally free from such attachments. With a clear and clean mind I got stronger every day. My eyes and ears became highly focused and deep. I walked very quickly – I felt like I was flying. I really could not explain how I had got like that. During the third year I just wandered about on the mountains eating wild herbs. Time had slipped away from my mind.
My Thirty-First Year 1870 – 1871
Arriving in Wen Zhou, I stayed in a mountain grotto. One day I was visited by a Chan monk and he said, ‘For a long time I have heard of your high virtue and now I beg some instruction from you.’ I was humbled and replied, ‘I have only shallow knowledge, having had no opportunity to go to any great masters for teachings. Perhaps you can teach the Dharma to me?’ ‘How long have you lived like this?’ he asked me. I told him my story to which he replied, ‘I also, like you, have not had the opportunity to get teachings, but if you go to Dharma Master Interpenetration Mirror or Yang Jing on Mount Heavenly Terrace or Tian Tai Mountain. There on the Flower Peak or Hua Ding summit you will find him at Dragon Spring or Long Guan Temple. He is a Tian Tai style teacher.’ So I set off and climbed up to the Hua Ding summit where I saw a monk outside a thatched roof temple. I asked him where the master was and he replied, ‘He’s the one in the patched robe over there,’ and pointed him out. I went over and prostrated before him. He ignored me, so I said, ‘Please be kind enough to teach me.’ He stared at me for a time then asked, ‘Are you a monk, a layman or a Taoist?’ I replied that I was a monk, to which he replied, ‘Have you had your ordination?’ I told him that I had received full ordination. He asked, ‘How long have you been like this?’ I told him my story and he asked who had told me to practise like this. I said, ‘Because enlightenment was reached using these methods amongst the ancients so I followed.’ Next he said, ‘You know how they discipline the body, but how about the mind?’ He continued, ‘You have wasted ten years training. You are completely on the wrong path. If you think that living on spring water in caves enables you to live like an immortal you actually have fallen into one of the false states as told in the last chapter of the Surangama Sutra, far away from the real Tao or Way. Even if you improve you would only be at the stage of Stream Entry, the first fruit of Enlightenment. But on the Bodhisattva path the idea is to help others, going to the other shore without leaving the ordinary world. If your only method is not eating rice and the extraordinary idea of not even wearing trousers, you cannot expect to realise the final fruit of enlightenment.’ Master Interpenetration Mirror or Yang Jing had seen right through me. I prostrated again and pleaded for his teaching. He replied that he would only teach me if I did everything I was told, or I must leave. I said, ‘I will not disobey your instructions as I came here to receive them.’ I was given new clothes and sent to the bath house to get cleaned up and to shave my head. The master gave me jobs and taught me how to enquire into the ‘Hua Tao’ (meditation style using ‘Mind before thought’ to break through illusion) ‘Who drags this corpse around?’ I started to eat rice and porridge again and practised using the Tian Tai meditation system. The master praised me for working hard at the practice.
My Thirty-Second Year 1871 – 1872
I stayed on at Dragon Spring or Long Quan Temple, serving the abbot. He showed me how to uncover the concealed wisdom which we all share deep down. He was a master of the Buddhist Sutras as well as a Chan meditation teacher. He was also a strict disciplinarian, sticking closely to the Buddhist Vinaya as his guide. He was then over eighty years old. Soon after my arrival, when visitors came he put me on the lecturer’s seat to explain the Dharma to them.
My Thirty-Third Year 1872 – 1873
Master Yang Jing then sent me to Gao Jing Monastery to study the rules for Chan practice, then on to Fang Guang Monastery to study the teaching of the Lotus Sutra.
My Thirty-Fourth and Thirty-Fifth Years 1873 – 1875
I continued to study the Lotus Sutra at Guo Qing Monastery combined with trips back to Master Yang Jing at the thatched Bubbling Spring Monastery.
My Thirty-Sixth Year 1875 – 1876
Next, I walked to the High Heaven Chan Monastery. (This is the Gao Ming Monastery where Empty Cloud became enlightened later, aged fifty-six) Here, I heard more lectures on the Lotus Sutra from Master Ming Xi. With sadness I had to say goodbye to Master Yang Jing after spending a few evenings talking together. Having wished each other good luck I then descended the Heavenly Terrace or Tian Tai Mountain. Walking on through Xue Tou, I got to Yue Lin Monastery where I listened to the teachings of the Amida Sutra. After that I went to Pu To Mountain (actually an island dedicated to Avalokitesavara Bodhisattva or Kuan Yin Pu Sa near Ningbo) where I stayed at the Hou Si Temple over the New Year.
My Thirty-Seventh Year 1876 – 1877
Leaving Pu To mountain, I went to King Ashoka or Au Wong Monastery in Ning Bo. There they agreed to feed me for three yuan a month. I spent my time prostrating to the Buddha’s finger bone relic and reciting from among the Mahayana and Hinayana Sutra collections. My purpose at that time was to make merit to transfer to my parents. Then I went to Heavenly Child or Tian Tong Monastery (where the Japanese Zen Master Dogen, 1200 – 1253, was enlightened under Chan Master Ru Jing – this was in the Song dynasty – see Photos page). Whilst there I attended lectures on the Surangama Sutra.
My Thirty-Eighth Year 1877 – 1878
After Ningbo I took a boat to Hangzhou and started on a pilgrimage to San Tien Chu, amongst other places. On board the boat, which was overcrowded and quite small for the number of passengers who were largely sleeping on deck, there were many young women. One night, while everybody slept, I was woken up by feeling somebody touching me. It was a girl next to me taking her clothes off and offering herself to me. I said nothing, got up and sat in meditation posture, then recited the Surangama mantra. She did nothing more. Had I made the wrong move, I would probably have been seduced, losing my precious vow of celibacy. It is because of this I warn monks and nuns to be very careful in similar situation.
My Thirty-Ninth Year 1878 – 1879
I went back to Heavenly Child or Tian Tong Monastery, where I prostrated to the Abbot Pure Light or Qing Guang, staying for the winter.
My Fortieth Year 1879 – 1880
Climbing Jiao Mountain I prostrated myself to Great Water or Da Shui, the Abbot. Peng Yulin was also staying there (he was a director in the police force) and he asked me quite a few times to teach him the Buddha Dharma. I was treated with respect, courtesy and trust.
My Forty-First Year 1880 – 1881
I sat in meditation for the winter with Masters Contemplate Mind or Guan Xin, New Woods or Xin Lin, and Great Samadhi or Da Ding, at Gold Mountain or Jin Shan Chan Monastery in Zhen Jiang.
My Forty-Second Year 1881 – 1882
In 1882, returning to Tall Heaven or Gao Min Monastery at Yang Zhou, I prostrated to the Abbot Moon Aura or Yue Lang. I made good progress with my practice right through the winter.