A time of Awakening
My Fifty-First Year 1890 – 1891
Having arrived in Jiangsu Province, I then spent the summer at Xian Qin Monastery with Abbot Ren Zhi. There were lots of repairs going on there. I walked on to Chi Shan Monastery, in Gu Rong, under its Abbot Fa Ren, where I also helped with repairs, staying on right through winter.
My Fifty-Second Year 1891-1892
I moved on to Nanjing where I stayed and helped with repairs at Jin Cheng Monastery along with Abbot Song Yan. I wintered there too. A lay Buddhist, Mr Yang Ren Shan, often called on me and we frequently discussed the Dharma together.
My Fifty-Third Year 1892 -1893
I went back up Nine Peak Mountain with three other monks. There we repaired the huts on Cui Feng peak and that meant we could stay in the huts as well. Master Pu Zhou taught on the five parts of the Flower Adornment of the Avatamsaka or Hua Yan School. (There is a section from each one of the Five Patriarchs.) Some of the text was almost lost but when people heard that it was available, many came for the teaching, so the Xian Shou or Wise Head Teaching was revived south of the Yangtze River. Master Wise Head or Fa Zang, 643-712 AD, was given the title as China’s Number One Teacher by the Emperor.)
My Fifty-Fourth and Fifty-Fifth Years 1893 – 1895
Staying on at Cui Feng Peak I studied the Sutras in my hut. The first summer, Master Di Xian came and stayed. The next year I continued studying the Sutras.
My Fifty-Sixth Year 1895 – 1896
Abbot Cool Moon or Yue Liang arrived on the mountain from High Heaven or Gao Min Chan Monastery in Yang Zhou. He said that a Mr Zhu had sponsored a twelve week long Chan meditation retreat at Gao Ming. He also said that the Old Master Fa Ren from Gold Mountain Monastery would be there. He hoped that we could all go and help him lead the retreat at his monastery. I was sent on first, ahead of the retreat starting. Arriving at Da Tong, I went to Di Gang harbour and found the river was in flood. The boat fare was six local pennies but I had no money at all. Walking along the bank, suddenly I slipped and fell into the swollen river. I floated in the river for what must have been a day and a night. As I bobbed past the Cai Shi pier, a fisherman accidentally caught me in his net and pulled me out. As he saw I was a monk he called for help from the nearby Bao Ji Monastery. They sent a monk who recognized me as we had previously lived together. He said, ‘This is Master De Jing.’ (That was Master Empty Cloud’s given ordination or Dharma Name.) He thought I was dying and carried me to his monastery. As a result of all the injuries to my body, blood oozed from my mouth, nose, anus and penis. However, after only a few days rest I was able to go on to the High Heaven or Gao Min Chan Monastery, determined to get to the retreat. Arriving there, the Guest Master, noticing that I was gaunt and pale, asked me if I was unwell. I said, ‘No, I am OK.’ I went to see Abbot Cool Moon. After he had caught up on the news from Nine Peak Mountain he asked me to take a position during the meditation retreat. I declined his offer, expressing the view that I only wanted to sit and concentrate on my practice. The monastery had very strict rules and if you refused a position you were considered as having insulted the monastery Sangha. The punishment was to be taken to the main hall and beaten on the back with a wooden stick. I was happy to receive this punishment as it meant I could just sit undisturbed throughout the retreat. However, it made my illness worse and again I began bleeding and discharging fluids. I really thought that my end had come, so I sat with increasing determination day and night in the meditation hall. In a very controlled and strict focus and with great clarity, I let go of my body and then, twenty days later, I had completely recovered. By that time Abbot Te An Who had brought robes as offerings and had arrived from the monastery where I had been rescued. When he saw me he was very surprised. He told the others about my serious accident. I was praised and relieved of all duties, leaving me free to concentrate totally on the practice. From then on all my false thinking stopped, day and night were as one. I walked like I was riding effortlessly on the wind. Then one evening when the signal to end the meditation period was given, I opened my eyes. All was as bright as in daylight with a radiance so clear that I could see inside and outside the buildings. I saw that there was a monk who did the lamps and incense, pissing up against a wall outside and I also could see a guest monk in the latrine. Over at the nearby river I saw the boats and trees along its banks. It was all as clear as day. Next morning I asked the Incense Keeper and the Guest Monk if what I had seen was true and was told that it certainly was. Knowing this had been only a temporary mind state, I remained detached from it. In December, on the Wednesday evening of the eighth week of the retreat, the sixth period of sitting meditation had just finished. The first server came round with the tea cups followed by the second server with the tea, which was carelessly poured and scalded my hand. Dropping the cup it hit the floor and smashed to pieces with a loud resound. Immediately, the doubt or Hua Tao about my mind’s root, and birth and death, was completely gone. I was happy beyond words. This was my life’s quest. Like waking from a dream, my life story slid past my mind – about leaving home life and the many years wandering, being desperately ill in a snowbound hut by the Yellow River, then being questioned by the beggar who saved my life. What would he have said if I had kicked over his cooker? (This means, removed all attachments and ideas.) If I had not maintained indifference to both good and bad situations I could have wasted my life. I chanted my enlightenment poem (a traditional custom in China after an awakening): Cup smashed on the ground, Sound splinters resplendent, Space also smashed, Crazy mind suddenly stopped. 杯子扑落地，响声明沥沥， 虚空粉碎也，狂心当下息。 Then another Gatha: Falling from the hand, The cup was shattered. Difficult talking when people die and families split. Fragrant flowers come in Spring, All blooming. Mountains, rivers, and Great Earth are the Tathagatha
My Fifty-Seventh Year 1896 – 1897
That summer I went to Gold Mountain Monastery or Jin Shan Si to help in an ordination ceremony. Old Abbot Great Samadhi or Da Ding asked me stay on for the winter.
My Fifty-Eighth Year 1897 – 1898
In April I was invited to Parched Jiao Mountain to help give lectures on the Surangama Sutra. Over one thousand people came to listen. Then, when I had finished there, I went back to King Asoka Chan Monastery or Au Wong Si, near Ningbo. At that time I was invited to help at the nearby Heavenly Child Monastery or Tien Tong Chan Si (where the Japenese Zen Master Dogen was enlightened) but declined as I had something else on my mind. When I was born my mother had died, so I never saw her except in a portrait. So, in order to fulfil a vow made previously, I did three thousand prostrations a day, using only my bowing cloth instead of the easier bowing hassock. I did this in front of the Buddha’s Finger bone relic which was kept at the monastery. At night I sat in Chan meditation. One evening I had a dream-type vision during the meditation. I saw a bright golden flying dragon which landed in the pond in front of the monastery. I climbed on its back and it flew off into the sky, into a dark green woodland full of beautiful flowers, a heavenly realm with a wonderful array of buildings. Seeing my mother at a window I called, ‘Mother, come and ride this dragon to the Western Paradise.’ That was the only time in my life I saw my mother. When the vision was over, I found myself back sitting on the cushion. From then on I went with others to do prostrations in front of the Buddha’s Finger. Each saw something different. At first, when I had seen it, it was like a green bean, then it was dark purple. In the middle of October it seemed brilliant red. I realised people saw it according to their spiritual development. In my enthusiasm I increased the number of daily prostrations and became so ill by mid-November that I could not even sit up. I was moved to the sick bay. There the Head Monk and the superintendent together with Miss Lu did everything to help me no matter what the cost. However, nothing worked. Everybody believed that I was dying. This I did not mind but I was determined to burn off a finger in fulfilment of my vow. On the sixteenth of November eight monks came to visit me in the sick bay. They had no idea how ill I was. Remembering that the seventeenth was the day we had set for the finger burning offering, I insisted that we go through with it. The head monk and the others there were worried about the risk, but I was determined. I broke into a flood of tears crying, ‘Who can escape birth and death? I vowed to burn off my finger in gratitude towards my mother. I would rather die than fail.’ The twenty-one year old superintendent Zong Liang said, ‘I will arrange everything and the vegetarian food will be paid for by me. There is no need to worry.’ I thanked him, joining the palms of my hands together in a bow. Early next morning I was helped to the Main Hall by a few kind people. Together we held the ceremony for burning a finger as an offering, prostrating to the Buddha, and reciting the rules of repentance and reform. I recited the Buddha’s name with a single mind, praying for my mother’s liberation. There was pain at first when my finger was set on fire but as I focused my mind the Wisdom of Awakening presented itself and my mind became clear and pure. Every hair on my body stood on end as we recited the sentence, ‘Amithaba Buddha’s body contains everything.’ Then after my finger had burnt away, I was able to get up unaided and prostrate myself before the Buddha. My illness was already only a memory. Thanking everybody, I walked back to the sick bay hut. All through the next day I had my hand soaking in salty water until the bleeding had stopped. A few days later I was fine, having made a good recovery and I was gradually able to re-start my prostration practices again. I passed the New Year there, at the King Ashoka Monastery. (This finger burning offering is something that still happens. A few Chinese monks and nuns are continuing the practice to this day. Here is a short account from Precious Wood Monastery, on Lantau Island, Hong Kong, in 1986 – ‘I heard that Empty Cloud had burnt his finger off and I was shocked at a Buddhist monk doing this at first, but now I saw that some of the other monks and nuns had done the same sort of thing. They had oil cloth candle burns on their heads and arms as well, which I sometimes watched them do. When I asked the Abbot about it he said, ‘If you can do this without pain it proves there is no self.’ I decided that I would like to try as well and asked Shi Fu or Master to help me. Then one day he wrapped tourniquets firmly around my wrist and elbow, wrapped string tightly around my finger and placed my hand in a bowl of medicinal clay (one of the nuns had prepared this along with healing black ointment to use afterwards) with a half of my finger sticking up out of the clay. He then wrapped oil-soaked cotton wool around it and then lit my finger with a burning incense stick. Many monks and nuns and some well known lay supporters came to watch and to chant a Bodhisattva’s or Buddha’s name. I chose Shakyamuni Buddha. We all chanted for around thirty minutes whilst the end burnt off my finger. After that I felt like I just floated out of the hall’)
My Fifty-Ninth Year 1898 – 1899
At Ningbo’s Seven Pagoda Monastery or Qi Ta Si, a large bell was cast early that spring. Abbot Ben Lai invited Master Mo An to come and lecture on the Lotus Sutra. He also came to King Ashoka Monastery to ask me. I agreed and went to help with the lectures. When the lectures were finished I went to Dong Guan and built a thatched hut to pass the winter.
My Sixtieth Year 1899 – 1900
At the invitation of Master Accumulative Luxury or Jie En of Precious Wood or Po Lin, I went to Immortal Terrace Monastery or Xian Tai Si . I stayed the summer to help with renovations and repairs. After that I went to Zhu Yang where Master Dharma Patience or Fa Jung let me use his thatched hut over the winter.