Living as a hermit, then walking through Tibet to India
My Forty-Sixth Year 1885 – 1886
That spring, leaving Mount Xiang and the Kuan Yin monastery, I walked through the Da Quing pass and on into Shansi County. After going through Yauzhou and San Yuan I arrived at Xiangyang where there grew an ancient Sweet Pear Tree, the one under whose boughs Zhao Bai the Ancient had lived. Arriving at Xi’an, with its imposing city walls, I saw many old ruins. North-east of Xi’an was the famous Wild Goose Pagoda. Close to the Pagoda was the Temple of Great Compassion or Da Cien Si, which was originally built in 589. (It was here that the Tang Dynasty Master Xuan Zang translated the Sanskrit sutras that he had brought back from Nalanda University, India. They were kept there in the fireproof pagoda. His is the story of the ‘Journey to the West’, or the Monkey Tale. The pagoda has seven stories with stone-carved calligraphy, some from the Tang dynasty). Nearby was the Prefect’s Confucian College with its more than seven hundred stone steles, indeed a forest of steles. At the East Gate of Xi’an rose a 72-span viaduct with a covered pavilion for people to meet and chat. I also encountered and walked under the Yuan Guang Pass with its three gates on my way to Hua Yen Monastery to prostrate at the stupa of National Master Quing Liang (the imperial and National Master to Six Emperors in turn) and to Master Du Shun who was the first patriarch of the Hua Yen School. Next, I walked on to Ox Head or Nui Tou Ox Head Temple and Xing Guo Monastery where I prostrated at the stupa of Dharma Master Xuan Zang (660-664 AD). After arriving at East Wu Tai on the Chung Nan Mountain range, I wandered in the mountains, visiting the Silver Cave or Yin Dong of the fifth patriarch Master Zong Mi of the Hua Yen or Avatamsaka School. I decided to stay there with Masters Jue Lang, Ye Kai and Fa Xing. They each had built thatched huts and invited me to stay together on the Chung Nan range at South Wu Tai. On the first of March I glimpsed a shooting star and it left a lingering feeling with me and I wondered what it might signify. My Forty-Seventh and Forty-eighth Years 1886 -1887 During the years 1886 and 1887 I stayed in a large-sized thatched hut on South Wu Tai of that Chung Nan Mountain range, having the most wonderful benefits of staying with the three Dharma Masters and practising Chan there together with them. In the February, I left the Chungnan Mountain Range and went to Royal Wealth or Huang You Monastery on Cui Wei Mountain. I spent the New Year there, at the Precious Light or Pao Guang Monastery. Continuing on, I walked and walked as far as Sichuan to Emei Mountain (the tallest of the four sacred mountains of Buddhism in China). I walked with my begging bowl and robes, free of any hindrance. I wandered over mountains and crossed streams, clearing my mind along the way.
My Forty-Ninth Year 1888 – 1889
In January I went to Chengdu and climbed to the Peak of Emei Mountain to offer incense. Then I walked on into Tibet and to Lhasa where the Dalai Lama held office with 20,000 monks. It had taken a full year to get there, walking in the day and resting at night, meeting nobody for days on end. The birds and animals I saw were different from and Tibetan customs were different. Most monks there ate meat and did not follow the same rules as in China. Remembering the Jetavana assembly (of the Buddha) I cried.
My Fiftieth year 1889 – 1890
Not wishing to remain in Tibet any longer I left. It was spring. I walked into Bhutan and wrote this poem: ‘What is crossing the horizon, Looking like clear emptiness? This bright and silvery world, that does not differ from brilliant jade.’ Reaching India I visited the Holy places of the Buddha, then went south through Calcutta to Sri Lanka. I took a boat to Burma and visited some of the main Buddhist sites. In July, I went back to China, through Yunnan. I had made a vow to visit Chicken Foot Mountain, the mountain associated with Mahakasyapa (one of the Buddha’s chief disciples). That monk is said to be cocooned in Samadhi waiting for Maitreya Buddha to arrive. At the bottom of the mountain was Vulture Peak or Ling Shan and half way up was Ming Ge Terrace where they say that eight princes followed Mahakasyapa to the top. Unwilling to leave, they stayed on as Dharma protectors. People pay homage to them at Great King or Da Wong Monastery. Having got to the top of the mountain, I went to Mahakasyapa’s cave shrine where his image was kept. They also say that Ananda, the Buddha’s cousin, went there, and when he got to the cave the stone door, or ‘Flower Blossom Gate’, opened unaided. This ‘Hau Shou Men’ looks like a large city gate over a hundred feet wide and over two hundred feet high. The doors look solid but closer up you can see the join in between them clearly. It just happened that on that very day it was busy with pilgrims and local guides. While I was offering incense and prostrating, suddenly a large bell was rung three times. Everybody exclaimed happily and I was told, ‘That only happens when an enlightened master comes here. Occasionally we hear drums or other instruments but today that bell! Are you an enlightened Master?’ I told them straight away that the bell could not be for me as I was not enlightened. That was on July 30th, 1890. I went up to the summit of Chicken Foot Mountain, that’s about ten miles up from the foot. It is called Geaven’s Pillar or Tian Zhu. A Surangama stupa was evident and a bronze shrine. Records tell how, previously, there were seventy-two monasteries and three hundred and sixty hermitages there. Now, only ten monasteries remain. The monastic tradition there had broken down and you could not tell who was a monk or a layman. Visiting monks were not allowed to stay even one night and the monasteries’ ownership had passed on to others. When I recalled the glory of the past, of Buddhism in China, and compared it to what I saw there, I had to sigh heavily. I really wanted to restore the former glory and tradition but did not know how I could ever get the opportunity. I left the mountain and passed through a few other places before arriving at Chu Xiong County, staying outside the west gate at Gao Ding Monastery. Just after I arrived I noted there was a strong smell of orchids in the air. The manager offered me his congratulations, telling me that it was rare. Then the abbot turned up, saying, ‘This is because of you. It only happens rarely, when an enlightened master comes and today the fragrance fills the whole mountain!’ He insisted that I stay but I wanted to get back to my home province of Hunan. So I left the next morning for Wuchang in Hubei province. At Bao Tong monastery I prostrated to Abbot Zhi Mo, staying there to learn repentance and reform rules of Avolokitsivara Bodhisattva. Then I went up Luo Mountain and met Abbot Zhi Shan and stayed there for a Pure Land recitation retreat. Then it was on to Anhui Province, where I climbed the Nine Peaks or Jau Hua Mountain. (One of the four Buddhist mountains in China. This mountain is dedicated to Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva.) There I prostrated at Ksitigarbha’s shrine and at the Bai Sui Monastery. I also met the Abbot Bao Wu, a strict follower of the Discipline School. His unshakeable mind showed a monk of the highest possible standard. Next, after crossing a river, I met Abbot Sheng Sing on Bao Hua Mountain. I stayed there for the New Year Festival. Over the last two years, apart from using boats to cross the sea, I had travelled so far mainly on foot, wading through streams, crossing mountain ranges whilst exposed to all kinds of harsh weather conditions. However, though the landscape changed my mind did not – it seemed like a bright moon hanging in the air. My health got stronger and I walked like the wind. The journey had not seemed hard, but was reasonably easy. I had realised that the self-indulgence on my part, earlier in my life, had been harmful. As it is said, ‘After reading ten thousand books, walk ten thousand miles.’