Abbot at Chicken Foot Mountain & letters from his family
Aged 71-76 My Seventy-First Year 1909 -1910
( The last Emperor, Pu Yi, abdicates, ending 2,000 years of Imperial Rule. The Nationalist era begins.)
After the arrival of the Tripitakata and the new Imperial Decree stopping the taxation on the monasteries or their property, the Yunnan Sangha (Buddhist family) could all live in peace once more. The Dharma was flourishing once again on Chicken Foot Mountain. Viceroy Li of Yunnan sent a messenger to me informing me that he had told all the members of his family to become my students. They soon arrived with gifts and I wrote a letter back to Viceroy Li in thanks. I then asked Master Jia Cheng to stop his retreat and to start the education of younger monks, to stop bad behavior and to call on the local monasteries, urging them all to keep the Vinaya (rules for monks, nuns and lay Buddhists). I also discussed with Binchuan’s magistrate about the release of monks in prison and a release for all the petty offenders. Two letters from my family were sent from Drum Mountain or Gu Shan.
Thinking of the half a century that I had been a monk, I wrote three poems, here are a couple of lines from them: Pure karma in this life. Otherwise an empty mind. Since all worldly things have been forgotten long ago. Be careful of taking habits from the land of clouds. (Empty Cloud’s editor, Chen Xue-Lu, comments here: ‘The Master was taken aback by the letters from his family. He had mixed feelings about them – happy because of his wife’s excellent practice and sad because his family had been so let down.’ They also provide strong historical evidence supporting this story.) My poems were read by the central government’s chief secretary, Chen Yung-Chang, who added them to the letters. He then got them inscribed on a Stele:
Empty Cloud’s step mother’s letter and poems:
‘I, Bhiksuni Miao Jing or Profound Purity (a title for a Buddhist nun), was formally Miss Wang. I was Empty Cloud’s stepmother. The Master’s other Dharma names are Gu Yan and De Qing. He is from the Ziao family in XiangXiang, Hunan. His family are descendants of the Buddhist Emperor Liang Wu Di. His father, Xiao-Yu Tang, was an officer stationed at Quanzhou in Fujian. His mother came from a Yan family. Still childless aged over forty she prayed to Kwan Yin Bodhisattva for a boy, and soon after she became pregnant. Then one night she and her husband had a dream where they saw a bearded man wearing a blue robe and he was carrying a statue of Kwan Yin on top of his head. He rode a tiger which jumped on to their bed. She woke up scared but noticed a wonderful smell in the room. At the Master’s birth only a skin bag was delivered and his devastated mother died from grief. Next day an old bare foot doctor arrived and cut a baby out of the skin bag. This was Master Empty Cloud who was then brought up by his stepmother. As a child, Empty Cloud did not like to eat meat. He was Confucian educated but he preferred Buddhist books to the other teachings. His father was not at all happy with this and criticised him. When aged seventeen, he, as the family heir to his father and uncle, was selected two wives from the Tian and Tan families. He did not want any marriage so he ran away to Drum Mountain in Fujian. There he took refuge with Abbot Miao Lian. In 1864, after his father’s death, his stepmother and two wives together left home and ordained as nuns. Miss Tian, who suffered from tuberculosis, passed away four years later. Miss Tan, now Bhiksuni Quing Jie, is still alive and lives on Kuan Yin Mountain at Xiang Xiang.’ The Master’s stepmother passed away in 1909 sitting in lotus posture having chanted the following:
‘What use is there in bringing up a son who ran away as soon as he was strong enough? His mother’s life had hung in the balance, but thanks were given after the birth. Despite cleaning dirty nappies, he was carefully weaned, like the treasure of the unicorn’s ball. As he left both his stepmother and childhood behind, she had no one to look to in her old age. Without siblings and then your father’s death, whom could your family depend on? I am so sad thinking of this after the trouble of rearing you as a child. Parting was more painful than death. Obsessing about birth and death, can’t you remember Peng Yan stayed and practised at home? Love for Dharma and worldly feeling are the same are they not? Birds in the mountain know to roost when the sun sets. Both following our vows, we wash the cold mountain (enlightenment) of its blue green (desires) daily. You must know, as the son of the king of emptiness, that Lord Buddha taught his own family. I hate this world of strife and wait for my return to the land of bliss.’
‘It’s delusion to stay in the world for love. Also, desire is the reason for forgetting the true self. Eighty years of life, a dream-like delusion, When all returns to dust, nothing is left. Free at last of attachment In the lotus realm I dress in a pure and wonderful body. We who recite Buddha’s name return west We must not allow descent into chaos (Samsara).’
Bhiksuni Cleaar Chastity or Qing Jie ‘s letter & poem
‘Distant greetings, Venerable Master. Since you left us, I have never stopped thinking of you. Because of the cloud-covered mountains between us, I have heard no news about you. I hope you have found harmony between stillness and movement, and that your integration with the Dharma is in harmony. It’s more than half a century since you left home. As you were impossible to find, it was impossible to assist you. But in January I had news you were living a free and easy life in Fujian province. Half happy and half sad to hear this, I had no idea how to find you. Thinking of your failure to honour your parents and leaving behind your feelings for your wives, I fail to understand how you can bear the burden. Also because you have no siblings and your parents were old, our family lines have come to an end. There was no patriarch at home and no support for our family. I cry every time I think about it. The Confucian teaching stresses family duty. The Lord Buddha treated friend and foe equally, liberating his cousin, Devadatta, and then his wife, Yasodhara. Is it really true that we have no Karmic affinity? Don’t you even you care that we come from the same place? Can’t you even remember the filial duty to your parents? I must update you on our family situation. After you ran away, scouts were sent out by your father to find you. Heartbroken, he lost his health. He went back home to find a cure but died one year later on the 4th December 1864. The funeral over, I left home to ordain with your stepmother and other wife. Your uncle was left in charge of family affairs and he gave most of our things away for charity. Four years later, your other wife, then called Bhiksuni Miao Jing or Profound Purity, died of tuberculosis. Then, in 1875 your uncle died at Wenzhou. My older brother now holds a post in Xingning. Your cousin, Hun Guo, went to Japan with your wife’s third brother. Your cousin Hun Guo is now your successor. Your cousin Fu Guo has not been heard from since you ran off together. It is said that ‘those of great virtue leave no descendants’. You must have been a monk in the past, now reborn. But you broke our two family lineages. You, a bodhisattva helping all that lives, can expect ridicule because of your filial failure. I have also failed, but admire your constant determination and deep roots. It’s like the lotus flower unspoiled by the mud from which it grows. Why did you leave your home district, forgetting where you came from? This is the reason for this letter. Your stepmother passed away to the western paradise on 18th January 1910. Sitting in lotus posture she chanted her poems first. Leaving the convent in a rare smell of fragrance which lasted a few days, her body remained sitting upright, just as it had done when alive. Despite the world being an illusion, even ‘the wooden man’ could not help crying. This letter is to let you know the family’s affairs. I hope you, on receipt of this, will go back home together with your cousin Fu Guo. Also, the Buddha Dharma is declining and you must restore it. IIluminate Mahakasyapa’s example and radiate a golden ray so we can be together in the Dharma. I, heartbroken, hope for this until the end of my life. Talk is cheap and even a thousand words could not convey my meaning which you must intuit. You are like a goose having left its home, Preferring to soar above, flying south alone, His pitiful friend left alone in the nest, Whose grief is sadder over the distance between them. On the horizon I see the moon, My eyes are filled with unceasing tears. I stayed a long time on the bank of the river Xiang. The bamboo has grown many joints, The great Dao will surely be realised by you, The sun of wisdom will shine brightly, Once together in ‘The Burning House’ (Samsara), Now we are relatives in the Dharma abode. Signed: Bhiksuni Qhing Jie, bowing one hundred times, choking on tears and sobbing on Quan Yin Mountain. 29th March 1910.’ My Seventy-Second Year 1911-1912
That spring, after the precept transition we held forty-seven days of Chan meditation where we started to introduce longer periods of sitting meditation, each period lasting for the time it took several sticks of incense to burn. That September we got the news that a revolution had started in Wuchang and that the walled town of Binchuan was under siege. I was a diplomat on the side of peace. Commander Li Gen-yuan came with his troops and surrounded Chicken Foot Mountain. He had attacked it upon false information but, after listening to my words, he had a change of mind and then formally took refuge in the triple gem of Buddhism and left together with his troops converted to the Dharma. In the winter there was an argument between the Shanghai Universal Buddhist Society and the Chinese Buddhist Association, who sent a telegram asking me to go straight to meet them in Nanjing. On arrival I discussed it with four Great Masters. We decided to run the association from Jing-An or Quiet Peace Monastery. Then, together with Master Ji-chan, we went to the Fa-yuan or Dharma Source Monastery in Beijing. Master Ji-chan felt unwell one day and died whilst sitting in meditation. I made the funeral arrangements and went to Shanghai with the coffin. There we formally opened the Buddhist Association and held a memorial ceremony for Master Ji-chan. I also received the official documents authorising the association’s running of branches in the provinces of Yunan and Guizhou. Then, just as I was returning to Yunnan, Upasika Li Genyuan gave me introductory letters to the Governor Cai-o and other local officials, asking them to protect the Dharma.
My Seventy-Third Year 1912-1913
After arriving back in Yunnan, I began to organise the Buddhist Association’s branches straight away. I also held a big meeting at the Wen Chang Temple . There I invited Master Ending Dust or Lao Chen to organise a branch in Cui Xhou Province. Many lamas and hutukutus (high lamas) came a very long way. Together we agreed to open Buddhist schools and hospitals to help spread the Dharma. This was arranged together with some other charitable deeds. That year something was worth remembering. An unusual event happened. A minah bird was bought by a villager to the Yunan Tibet Buddhist Association for release into the wild. At first he liked to eat meat, but as he was taught the Buddha’s name and the three refuge verses, he could mimic them well and then became a vegetarian. He also became quite tame and was let free. He called the Buddha’s name (Amithaba) and Kwan-shi-yin-po-sa (Avolokitesavara Bodhisattva) from dawn to dusk. Then one day an eagle spotted him, swooped down and carried him off. Even though this bird was in danger he was still thinking of the Buddha. Can we humans really feel superior to that bird?
My Seventy-Fourth Year 1913-1914
After forming the Buddhist Association, we had to get planning permission for the new projects and provide details of the property belonging to the Monasteries. We were often in meetings with the local government. Lo Yungxian was a man who gave us a lot of hassle; he was in charge of civil administration. Even the Governer Cai-o could not help us. I was asked by the Tibetans and members of the Buddhist Association to go to Beijing and meet with the central government. There the Prime Minister Xiong Xiling gave us all the help needed – he was a sincere Buddhist. Lo Xian was swiftly transferred from Yunnan to Beijing and Ren Keqing was given his job. When I got back to Yunan it was obvious that he fully supported Buddhism and our work.
My Seventy-Fifth Year 1914-1915
A new military governor was commissioned in Yunan and General Cai-o was sent to Beijing. Transferring the organisation of the Buddhist Committee, I returned to Chicken Foot Mountain for a rest. Then, back on the mountain, we immediately began renovation of the Monastery and the Lo Guan Temple in Xia Yang. When the plans were finished I was invited by the Abbots of He Quing Mountain area to lecture on Buddhist Sutras. Afterwards I was invited to Jin Shan or Gold Mountain Monastery, by its Abbot Zhen Xui, who also asked me to lecture on the Sutras. This enabled me to make pilgrimage to the Taizi grotto and Snow Mountain. I went to Weixi Zhong Tian and A Tun Zi, ending up on the Tibetan border. There I visited thirteen large monasteries. After returning to Chicken Foot Monastery, there was something that is worth recalling. Whilst I stayed at Long Hua Mountain to give Sutra lectures an earthquake happened in all four districts of Dali. Nearly all of the buildings collapsed, together with the city’s wall. Only the Yu Bao Pagoda still stood intact. Fire spouted forth from below the ground and quickly spread everywhere. All the residents fled for their lives, but with each step they took the earth opened up under their feet so they fell into the crevices. As they tried to climb out they were swallowed alive by the closing of the opened ground crushing them alive and dismembering their bodies. Some had their heads still above the ground. Around a thousand homes were destroyed. The Buddhist sutras talk about these hell scenes. It was terrible to watch. There was a gilding shop there owned by Buddhists, the Zhao and Yang families. Mr Zhao had the Dharma name, Wan Chang, and Mr Yang’s was Zhan Ran. Strangely, the inferno stopped outside their house which remained undamaged. Each family had over ten members. They remained quite calm throughout. People who knew them said they practised the Pure Land method of name recitation. I was happy to hear of this despite the tragedy of others.
My Seventy-Sixth Year 1915-1916
Following the transmission of precepts that spring, something strange happened in Dengchuan province. A man named Ding had an unmarried daughter aged 18. He had been an imperial academic during the Manchu dynasty. One day her family did not know what to do when she fainted. Returning to consciousness she spoke with a man’s voice. Cursing her father and pointing her finger towards him, she proceeded to curse him: ‘Ding, do you remember me? By using your influence, you were responsible for my death by falsely accusing me of banditry. Before, I was Dong Zhanbiao from Xi Chuan in Dali province. Before the ‘God of the Dead’ I have accused you. I come for revenge because of the crime you committed eight years ago.’ Next, the girl grabbed an axe and chased her father. Scared, Ding ran away and hid, afraid of returning home. Daily, the girl underwent this transformation, disturbing the household and annoying her neighbours. It happened then that Chicken Foot Mountain had sent a couple of monks named Su Qin and Su Xhi to the Dengchuan town hall and, passing Ding’s house, they saw a disturbance. One monk said, ‘Please don’t disturb the peace’. ‘Mind your own business,’ the girl replied. Replying, the monk said, ‘Of course, it is none of my business. But our Master says not to hold small grudges as they grow into never ending ones’. Thinking for a bit the girl asked, ‘Who is your Master?’ ‘The Abbot of Zhu Sheng or Celebrating Sage Monastery, Master Empty Cloud’. The girl replied, ‘I have never seen or heard of him. Would he transmit me the precepts?’ ‘He is so compassionate, how could he refuse when he had made a vow to liberate all living beings? Ask Ding to pay for a ceremony to free the girl.’ ‘He is a murderer. I do not want money from him.’ ‘If the town’s people pay, peace can return.’ Angrily the girl replied, ‘I will never be satisfied until I have revenge. But grudges grow. There will be no end to this. Come back tomorrow after I have asked the God of the Dead.’ The possession left the girl and she was left blushing to the crowd. She left embarrassed. The next day she went up to the monks, blaming them for being late. Apologising, they said they had been held up at the town hall on monastic business. The girl said, ‘I have spoken to the God of the Dead who says Zhu Sheng Monastery is a holy place. I can go there with you two.’ About ten people went together with the monks and the girl. Next day an offering table was erected for Sutra recitation and the precept transmission. So peace returned to Mr Ding’s home. From then on, the people of Dengchuan often went to the Zhu Sheng Monastery.