Master Empty Cloud, or Xu Yun, was born in China on 26th August 1840 during the Qing dynasty. This was at the time of the first Opium War when Hong Kong was ceded to the British Government. He was born into the privileged Xiao family who were descendants of the Buddhist Emperor Liang Wang Di. The Master was born in his caul or skin bag. The next day a barefoot doctor came and cut him out of the bag but his mother died of shock and despair soon afterwards. Xu Yun received a Taoist education but had a strong urge to follow Buddhism so, at the age of seventeen, he ran away from home to become a monk. He was soon caught, however, and taken home and kept under house arrest. Soon afterwards he was forced to marry two teenage girls to continue the family lineage as he was the sole heir for the entire family. The Master had a platonic marriage with the girls, becoming their Dharma teacher. Later they ordained as nuns along with his stepmother who had raised him.
When nineteen he ran away again and soon he received novice ordination at the Bubbling Spring Chan Monastery on Drum Mountain, Fujian, in South China. The next year he received full ordination there and was given the Dharma names, De Ching and Gu Yan. After that, he lived and practised alone in hiding near the monastery as he did not want his father’s scouts to find him again. Three years later his father died so he was then free to wander openly, living as a hippy-style, poetry-writing type of enlightened young sage, eating wild herbs and drinking spring water, until one day he found a Buddhist teacher in a thatched temple on Tian-tai Mountain. There he learnt about Chan meditation and he quickly and significantly improved his spiritual practice.
Twenty years after becoming a monk, he went on a ‘three steps, one bow’ style of pilgrimage, starting off from Pu To Shan Island, near Ningbo City, right up to Wu Tai Mountain near Da Tong City in North China. It took him three long years and he recited the name of Manjushree Bodhisattva at each prostration along the way. After that, he walked across China and into Tibet, then on to India and Burma before returning to China.
In 1895, aged 56, he went on a twelve week meditation retreat at High Heaven Monastery near Yangzhou on the Yangzi River. One evening during the eighth week, a tea server missed the tea cup he was holding out and spilt hot tea on his hand. He dropped the cup and it broke. The sound caused him to have a deep spiritual experience or awakening. He said that his mad mind had come to a stop.
In 1900, the Master was near Beijing as the western armies were attacking in retaliation for the Boxer Uprising’s assassinations of westerners. The Master left with the fleeing Imperial family, some of whom he knew from meetings where he had taught and inspired them in various monasteries. They joined in the flight to Xian along with the Empress Dowager and the Emperor. Soon after reaching the Reclining Dragon Chan Monastery in Xian he helped lead Buddhist ceremonies. They prayed for snow and rain to end the terrible drought and famine in the area. (There were even corpses being eaten in the streets.) However, he left secretly one night to climb the nearby Zhung Nan Mountains which are still, to this day, frequented by Taoist and Buddhist hermits. There, high up in the clouds he found a very secluded spot far away from the red dust of the world. There he built a stone thatched hut and called it the’ Lion Hut’. Here he grew potatoes, he chanted the Diamond Sutra and he meditated. It was at that time that he changed his name to Empty Cloud to avoid detection.
A couple of years later whilst boiling some of the potatoes, he sat down in meditation to wait for them. Ten days later, other nearby hermits came to wish him a happy New Year and to check on his absence. They saw tiger’s footprints in the snow outside his hut. Seeing that he was deeply absorbed in meditation, they rang a small bell in his ear to awaken him. He awoke and said, ‘The potatoes should be cooked by now so please eat’. But over one inch of mould had grown on them. He had been sitting there for ten days unmoving. They laughed and joked then melted ice to cook some more. Soon after this he left one night with just a backpack to avoid the too many visitors who kept coming to find out about his enlightenment.
In 1906, he went to Beijing where the Emperor signed an edict instructing that he was to be overall abbot of the monasteries on Chicken Foot Mountain in Yunnan, S.W. China. He was given the title ‘Grand Master Buddha’s Compassion and Vast Dharma’ and also a copy of the Buddhist cannon and a purple kessa (robe), together with a Sudan chair. He returned to Chicken Foot Mountain and soon after collected money from neighbouring countries to restore the monasteries on the mountain to their former glory.
This included going to Thailand where the King became his personal student, partly because Empty Cloud sat in Samadhi for a week and no one dared to disturb him.
The Master was later invited back to Drum Mountain in Fujian province, where he had been ordained, and he restored the monastery. A while later he moved to the large monastery of the Sixth Patriarch known as Southern Flower Chan
Monastery in Guangzhou and restored that, then to Cloud Gate Chan Monastery nearby, completely rebuilding it. The money came in part from Hong Kong which he visited a couple of times on fund raising events. However, thugs looking for gold and money attacked Cloud Gate Monastery. They broke the Master’s nose and ribs, torturing and beating him almost to death. He was aged 112 by now: it was during the spring of 1951. The Beijing government found out and sent officials to investigate where they stopped the imprisonment of about one hundred monks, together with the Master. It was at this time that the Master dictated his life story.
Soon after, he went to Beijing to help found the Buddhist Association of China, then he got planning permission to supervise the rebuilding of the last Buddhist Monastery before the Cultural Revolution, True Suchness Monastery, near Nanchang City, Jiangxi province. Money soon came from Shanghai, Hong Kong and Canada. The monastery was quickly rebuilt, from a pile of rubble that the Japanese army had left behind, into the cultural treasure that it is today.
The Master had been a simple Buddhist monk for a hundred years when he died there aged 119, alone on his simple plank bed one chilly October night in 1959. His last home was the converted thatched adobe cow shed that he liked. Master Empty Cloud was the Dharma heir to all five of the Chan sects in China. He led many meditation retreats where people experienced awakening. He taught Pure Land Buddhism and lectured on the Sutras. He restored five great Chan monasteries and many smaller temples during his hundred years of life as a monk. He injected new life into the Chan School which had been in real danger of being lost in China. His example inspired the present generation of Chinese Buddhists, who were inspired by his direct students, the last generation of refugee monks. Some of them taught Chan internationally as was his wish and some remained in China throughout the Cultural Revolution.
Empty Cloud restored six great Chinese monasteries during his lifetime: