The life of a wandering hermit
My 61st year 1900 -1901
For ten years, I had been living in Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces. I now wanted to make the long journey back to Wu Tai or Five Peak Mountain. After that I intended to deepen my practice back on the Zhong Nan mountain range living as a hermit, living alone. So leaving Chi Mountain I walked to the high, Cloud Terrace or Yun Tai Mountain, and then going to Shang Dong province I arrived at the 1,524 metre high Eastern peak of Tai Mountain. Then going west I passed by the temple of Confucius. Soon after, I spent one night in a ruin of a temple. The only thing there was a rotten coffin with an upside down lid. Thinking it was not being used it seemed good to sleep on, until about midnight when I felt something stir inside! Then a voice said “I want to get out” “Are you a ghost or a man?” I asked “A Man” “Who are you?” “A Beggar” Smiling I got up to let him out. He looked as ugly as a ghost, and he asked me who I was. I told him that I was a monk. He was quite angry complaining that I had squashed his head, he wanted to hit me. I said that when I had sat on his coffin he hadn’t moved, so why did he need to hit me now? Grudgingly accepting my reasoning he went out to urinate, then coming back to sleep in the coffin. By dawn I had already left. The Boxer rebellion had begun, whilst walking along the road one day I had a gun pointed at me by a foreign solder. He asked “Are you afraid to die?” not in the least worried I said “If it is my Karma to be shot by you, then shoot” when he saw that I really was not frightened he let me go. I quickly went on to Five Terrace Mountain and offered incense. Then instead of going to the Zhong Nan Mountains I went straight to Beijing, as the Boxer rebellion had broken out. Then I climbed Hong Lou Mountain for a Buddha’s name recitation (Pure land style chanting) retreat and then went to stay the Great Bell Monastery in Beijing. Here I saw the remarkable great Bell cast in the Ming Dynasty. On the outside is cast the entire Flower Adornment Sutra and on the inside the Lotus Sutra. On the crown is the Surangama Mantra and on the lip is the Varja Mantra. It was offered by Empower Cheng Zu 1403-2, for the liberation of his Mother. It weighs 46 Tonnes stood 5.5 metres tall and measured 3.5 metres across. I left the Big Bell Monastery and went to Dragon Spring or Long Guang Monastery just to the south of Beijing. In May, the Boxer Rebellion got out of control. The Empress Dowager had secretly ordered the assassination of the Japanese and German ambassadors. Then on the 17th she issued a declaration of war on the foreigners, a month later they marched their army’s right into Beijing. The Princes and ministers that had been staying at the Dragon Spring Monastery at the same time as me urged me to flee with them to Xian in the west. Panic was now widespread in the city. Also in confusion the Imperial Majesties fled. Day and night they ran for their lives on forced marches. There had not even been enough time to pack any food. The dignity shown to the Son of Heaven was not in evidence. At Fubing we were met by General Chen Chuanxuan with his army from Jangsu Province. We were escorted through the great wall at Wild Geese or Yun Men Pass. The Emperor met there a monk then 124 years old, he gave him some yellow silk and ordered a gate of dedication to be erected. Marching on westward we found severe famine had taken hold in Bingyang. The locals gave the Emperor and Empress some Taro and potatoes leaves which they said were delicious, when reaching Xian City they stayed in General Chen’s compound. During this period people were so desperate they even ate dead bodies found on the streets. The Imperial government tried to help by banning cannibalism, and set up eight free food distribution centres. Food was also sent to the towns and villages in the countryside around the city. At the Reclining Dragon or Wu Long Monastery, I was invited by General Chen to pray for rain and snow to help end the long drought. Afterwards, the Abbot Dong Xia asked me to stay on, however as there was so much hustle and bustle I left secretly. In October I once more climbed the Zhong Nan Mountain to build a thatched hut & live in seclusion. There in the remote stillness behind Jai Wu Tai’s summit I found the Lion Cave. It was at this time so to avoid uninvited visitors that I changed my Dharma Name from De Ching, to Xu Yun or “Empty Cloud”. As there was no water I had to melt snow, and I ate wild vegetables. At that time other hermit monks also lived on the mountain. On the Broken Rock or Poshi peak was the Master Original Brilliance or Ben Zhang. Master Wonderful Lotus or Miao Lian was in at the Guan Di Temple and in the Five Flower or Wuhua cave, lived Master Bright Way or Dao Ming. Living separately in thatched huts on the back of the mountain were the Masters; Wonderful Completeness, Compete Cultivation and Blue Mountain. Master Blue Mountain or Qing Shan was from Hunan, he was greatly respected by the monks on the Zhong Nan Mountain. He lived not so far from me and we often visited each other. I planted a vegetable garden which included plenty of potatoes. In September 1901, I had an unexpected visit from three Monks; Facheng, Yuexia and Liaochen who arrived at my Lion hut. They were surprised to find me there and said “We hadn’t heard of you for many years, who would have expected to find you here” Laughing, I replied with a searching Chan question “Let’s not worry about here, how is it there?” After greetings I cooked Taro (potatoes) for them. We went together to the ‘Broken rock peak’ where Master Moon Mist or Yuexia told me “On Chi Mountain the Old Master Dharma Patience or Fa ren is lecturing on the Lotus Sutra at the Gui Yuan Monastery in Hangyang. He does not enjoy the noisy environment, so he asked me to look for a new place for him in the north. That winter Master Blue Mountain asked me to go to Xian to get his shopping. On the way back there was a lot of snow falling. Close to his new thatched hut I slipped of the path, falling into deep snow. Shouting for help, Master Oneness or Yiquan came from a nearer hut and rescued me. My robes were soaked through. It was now dark but I thought more heavy snow would block my path so I pushed on to Master Blue Mountain’s hut. When he saw the state of me he laughed teasingly saying that I was useless. Nodding in agreement I smiled and hurried back to the Lion Hut to pass the New Year.
My 62nd year 1901-1902
All that spring and summer I lived in my hut alone. Not so far away, Commander Su had been given the job of land clearance and he foolishly donated roughly 1,515 acres of land at the Yabai mud bank, for all the monks on Cui wei mountain to grow food. This was because Old Master Dharma Patience or Fa ren had now come to Shensi province with around sixty people. Half of them stayed at Huang yu monastery, and the others at Xing shan monastery and in the newly built hut. The local people were very disgruntled at having lost their land and went to court, and they won their ancestral land back. The old master Fa Ren, disappointed returned south, disbanding his students. Just before he left he gave everything to Master Ti an, and to Master Yue Xia. Thinking about this avoidable failure, it was obvious to me that just by only relying on powerful people could easily bring disaster. All the monks who had come from the south had suffered a lot of hastle. I felt certain that “Feng Shui” is always very important. (There was bad Feng Shui in this plan & Empty Cloud had advised against it) At the end of that year, I lived alone in my thatched, stone-rubble walled hut. My mind and body felt pure and clear. The Mountains were all snow covered and the severe cold got right into your bones. One day I was cooking Taro in a cauldron. Whilst waiting for it to cook, I sat in the lotus posture, and then slipping in to a deep Samadhi state quite unintentionally, I totally forgot all about my surroundings and there far from the red dust, I slipped away from the world of men.
My 63rd year 1902-1903
The hermits who lived locally were all surprised that I had not been seen for a while; so they all came to my Lion Hut to wish me a Happy New Year. When they arrived there were many Tigers paw prints on the ground outside. Coming in they saw me sitting in deep Samadhi, ringing a small stone bell; they invited me out of my meditation. They then asked me if I had eaten yet and I replied” I have not, but the Taro should be quite cooked now”. Lifting the lid we saw half an inch of mould growing on the cold Taro, Master Fu Chung was so surprised and said “You surely must have been in Samadhi for a couple of weeks!” After this we melted some ice and cooked taro eating till we were full, and then we all shared a few jokes before they left. A few days later I had visits from both monks and laymen, from far and wide, both day and night. To get some peace and quiet I left one night with just a backpack.
Reaching the Big White or Taibai Mountain (3,767 metres) I stayed in a grotto. However a few days later Master Fu cheng who had followed my footsteps arrived. We made a plan to go to Emei Mountain together. Arriving there we climbed Jingding summit. We saw “Buddha Lighs” (the Northern lights) just like on Chicken Foot Mountain, later that night we saw many “Heavenly Lamps” like the ones at Five peak mountain. At Xi Wa Hall I met the great Chan master Zheng Ying who at over 70 years of age was the leader all the monks on that mountain. He happily kept me there for a few days. Descending the mountain we saw the Elephant washing lake and passing by the Great Mountain Monastery and then crossing the “Old Age Plain” we arrived at Silver Village or Yin Cun. I waited all morning for a boat, whilst watching the rising the rising water level. When it docked I ushered Master Jia Chen to get on board first, then I passed him over our bags. The mooring line broke just as I was climbing on-board! Then falling in to the water, I managed to grab the end attached to the boat and held on tightly. The boat was so loaded and low in the water that any rocking would have capsized it, so instead of climbing aboard I just hung on to the Gunwale. Towed along in the fast current my robes and feet were cut by the rocks in the water. That evening we docked at the Shai Jing customs office, and I was lifted out of the water onto the land, it was raining and cold. The Inns there would not allow monks in; there was a small Temple with only one monk who also refused to let us have a bed for a night. We asked him a few times but he only permitted us to stay under an outside stage. We were soaked through and the ground was also wet so we gave him money for some bundles of straw. He gave us wet straw and we could not burn it to warm up. We sat with great patience shivering until dawn, until we could buy some breakfast. Not long after we reached Yunan province, then crossing the Jinsha River. I was arriving once more; at Cock’s Foot Mountain where we stayed under a tree for a night. Just as on the last occasion I had visited, a bell was heard ringing behind the stone door. Next morning we climbed up to the Gold peak or Jinding summit, where we offered incense. Again, I thought about restoring Buddhism on this mountain and improving its now sad decadent state. So I made a vow to build a thatched hut where I could receive pilgrims. However the hereditary monastic system, then prevalent in Yunan, prevented me from doing this. (Temples there were almost like private dwellings with no interest in traveling monks stopping even for one evening) I was so sad I cried. Descending Cock’s Foot Mountain, we stayed, at the invitation of Chen kuan ci, who was a devout Buddhist at the Fortune & Prosperity or Fu Xiang Monastery in Kunming. There Master Jai chen assisted me in entering an isolated and sealed room for Chan meditation. I passed the New Year in there.
My 64th year 1903 -1904
During my retreat, a monk came from the Welcome-good luck Monastery and said that there was a very aggressive Cockerel on the loose. It was attacking the other birds. So I went there and gave him the three Buddhist refuges and the five precepts. I also taught him Buddha name recitation. Not long after he stopped fighting and perched on a tree branch alone. No longer eating insects he now just eat grain instead like a vegetarian. When he heard the signal bell and the struck, he would then follow the monks into main hall for chanting, after which he went back to his same perch in his tree. He was taught again to chant the Buddha’s name in Chinese and he could crow it aloud “Fo Fo Fo”. Two years later after chanting he died standing up having flapped his wings thrice. For a few days he just stood there dead! Then somebody put him in a box for burial. I wrote this poem then. This cockerel had a violent nature. Attacked other birds until they bleed The sacred precepts, had stopped his mind Now a lone vegetarian he harmed no insects Gazing over the gold Buddha statues He crowed the Buddha’s name with ease Dying after flapping his wings three times Does this living being differ from us in his Buddha nature?
My 65th year 1904-1905
In the Spring I was invited to end my solitary retreat by Abbot Qi Ming and other Dharma protectors from the Gui Hua Temple. They asked me to lecture on the Sutra of great Enlightenment and the Sutra of forty two sections. Whilst there, more than three thousand people became students of mine. That autumn the Abbot Meng Fu of Qiong ju Monastery invited me to lecture on the Surangama Sutra. There I supervised the wooden block carving to print the Surangama Sutra and the poetry of Master Cold Mountain or Han Shan. (The Tang Dynasty Chan poet (627-664), the wooden blocks were kept there afterwards. Also I was invited to lecture on the Buddhist precepts. After the meeting Zhang song- lin the commander in chief and General Lu fu- xing arrived together with officials and some other important people. They invited me to Dali prefecture to the San Ta’s, Shangha Honour or Chong Seng Monastery. When I got there a few more thousand people became my disciples, whilst I lectured on the Lotus Sutra. Li Fu- xing asked me to stay but I told him that “I do not wish to live in Towns. But I have taken a vow to live on Cock’s Foot Mountain; however the Monks there would not allow it. You all are Dharma protectors can help me fulfil my vow if you find a place on the Mountain to build a hut where I can receive pilgrims, and then I can save the Shangha from disaster, so restoring Mahyakasyapa’s, holy place. Everybody gave their approval and an order was given to the administration in Binchuan to help me fulfil my vow. On the Mountain a ruin of a Monastery called Bo Yu was allocated for this, and I went there despite it having no rooms to live in, or food to eat. Soon lots of visits were made by Monks, Nuns, male and female Buddhists form many places. Bo Yo temple had been abandoned from the Jai Jing reign 1796-1820 in the Ching dynasty. This was because the “Feng Shui” energy there was disturbed by “White Tiger energy” in the form of a large boulder to the right of the Monastery. I wished to break up this rock to dig a pool to release living creatures like fish in it. Workmen were employed to do this. After digging the ground away from the rock the bottom was not found. This rock was nine feet four inches above ground and seven and a half feet across. You could sit on it in lotus posture for meditation. The workers Forman came with more than 100 men to move it 280 feet to the left. After three days of trying they failed. After they had gone, I recited Mantras and prayers offering them to the Guardian Spirits of the Monastery. Then together with ten monks we succeeded in moving the rock of to the left side. There was uproar from those watching as they were wondering about the divine help. ‘Yun Yi Shih’ (Cloud moved rock) was written on the rock by somebody. Scholars and Officials who herd about this also came and wrote verses on the rock. I wrote a poem to mark the occasion. This strange rock boldly stands out Since olden times covered in moss It was left to me when the Dharma was distorted & the Chan School’s decline, meant I must restore it. Laughing at Yu gong’s patience in moving mountains A Dharma hearer looking for truth Seems to find it in a hill with roaming tigers. From now unmoved by gain and loss. He lived up amongst the clouds with few trees. Bo Yu summit goes up to the palace of Brahma A seeker of the way will walk ten thousand miles To visit the home of the Mahakasyapa I also have overcome ten thousand obstructions Arriving on the mountain, reaching this rock covered in Moss In brightness of self-natured Bodhi, the deluded play But for him who looks down through the world of illusion He hears the sound of bells riding on a heavenly breeze. I then started the Monastery’s reconstruction, so that visiting pilgrims could stay. It was urgent that I collect the necessary funding. So then after leaving Master Jia chen in charge, I left alone for Teng yue; soon arriving at the Hemu tree. The long road there had been in poor condition and had been hard to travel along, but around 90% of it had already been repaired by a Monk from another province. He had been working hard on it for a few decades. The locals reported that he only accepted a small amount of food for this work from the travelers who went along it. The locals at Pipiao wanted to thank him by offering him the Peacock Monastery, offering to renovate it for him. Declining the offer he just kept on with the road repair. Hearing this story I went to find this monk. Around sunset I saw him carrying a Mattock and basket, just as he was leaving the road. I walked up to him with my palms together (in a bow) He just Stared at me with wide open eyes and kept silent. Ignoring his behavior I just followed him to a temple. There he downed tools and sat in lotus posture on a cushion. I went and bowed to him but he said not a word, and just ignored me completely. So I also sat in meditation face to face with him. In the morning he got up to cook a rice breakfast, I stoked the fire; after the rice was cooked he still said nothing, so I just filled my begging bowl and ate breakfast. After which he picked up his Mattock and I shouldered the basket and we went off to work on the road, digging, moving stones and levelling sand. So we worked together like this for over ten days in total silence. Then one evening I walked out of the Temple to sit in lotus posture on a big rock. On that evening the moon light was a bright as broad day light. Late at night I sat there but did not go back inside. Creeping up on me from behind he shouted ‘What are you doing here?’ Slowly opening my eyes I replied ‘I am here to see the moon’ ‘Where is the Moon?’ he asked ‘In a magnificent glowing light’ I replied ‘Finding pearls in fish eyes is hard. Do not mistake a rainbow for the brilliant light’ He said I said ‘The light embraces everything, but has no past or future. Unobstructed, it is neither Yin nor Yang’ Then he grabbed me by the hand, and laughed loudly. Then he said it is late go into the temple & rest. Next day he was happy and talkative His story was that His Dharma name was Chan xui or Cultivator of Chan. He was from Xiang tan in Hunan Province. As a young man he had left the home life and aged 24 he had entered the Chan hall at Gold Mountain or Jin Shan Monastery (At that time one of the best training monasteries in China until it was closed in the 1930’s). Whilst there, he had managed to stop his wondering mind. After that he went on pilgrimage to China’s four holy mountains, then on through Tibet and Burma before returning. As he found the road in such bad repair, he felt sorry for the people & horses going along it. He was now 83. This was the first time he had meet somebody of like mind whom he felt he could share his story that he had kept to himself for so long. I then went on to tell him my life story. Next morning I left strait after breakfast we said goodbye, laughing out loud. Then I walked in to Tengchong on the Burmese border to raise the money to restore my monastery. I went to stay at the Hunan Province administration Hall, but before I could put my bag down, a group of male mourners came over and said ‘Master please recite Sutras for us’ I replied that I was not there for that purpose. One of them said ‘We know that people like you recite Sutras’ I replied ‘I have not heard of Monks in this area’ Then the hall’s leader jumped in and said “Venerable Master, you should go with them to recite Sutras, as this is a special occasion. They are the grandsons of the Imperial Historian Mr Wu. He was known as a man of virtue. He just died at over 80 years of age. He has many descendants some of whom are well known academics and scholars. Just before he died, he said that he had been a Monk in his past life. He asked for monks robes to be put on his body and there should be no crying inside his house. There was to be no butchering of animals & no Daoist priests allowed in performing any chanting. Then he sat in Lotus posture and died. He had also said that a great Master would come to cross him over to the other shore (of Enlightenment). Next day his completion was still fresh. Venerable Master, you’re coming here surly must have a karmic connection.” I agreed to the invitation after hearing this. After traveling to their house I recited Sutras and performed the Meng Shan Ceremony, for feeding Hungry ghosts for one week. The complete population and officials of the area asked me to stay at Tengyue. I had to refuse explaining that I had come to collect the funding to renovate a monastery on Cock’s Foot Mountain. They were happy to hear this and donated a lot of money. I went back to Cock’s foot Mountain, I was then able to buy the Shangha all they needed, put up buildings, had additional rooms built. I then went on to introduce the proper Monastic rules, started Meditation and Sutra lectures also transmitting the Buddhist precepts. Discipline was restored and ordinations were given to over 700 Monks & Nuns, male & female lay devotees. Then all the other Monasteries also started to follow our example, the Monks again started to wear proper Chinese Buddhist robes and returned to a vegetarian diet, and many came to my Monastery for training.