True Suchness Monastery, Cloud Abode Mountain, Jiangxi, China
This is one of the top Chan training monasteries in China today Remaining largely unchanged since Master Empty Cloud’s reconstruction.
Copyright; Yan Li 衍力 Nov 2011
28th Oct 2011
We were driven to Hangzhou train station by a kind Chinese lady, a lay Buddhist, who we had met at a local temple at lunchtime that day. At the station we bought two single tickets to Nanchang. The first train was full so we had to wait 4 hours for a train and that left at 6pm. It was gone midnight when we arrived at Nanchang Station. As we came through the exit we saw many homeless people sleeping on the ground and wondered if we would be joining them as we had no hotel reservation and it was so late. Then we saw a girl touting for clients for a very cheap hotel only 5 minutes’ walk away. We followed her with our half empty suitcases and she led us to a dilapidated building where her mother accepted £4.00 each for the night. Her husband was already asleep in bed in the middle of the reception area; they were too poor to have their own room. The next morning after realising there was no chance of a hot shower we found the girl’s mum asleep in the same bed her husband had been in when we arrived. I later saw it propped up against the wall – when not being slept in. When we left I told them to keep the £1.00 deposit, they needed it much more than we did. We left the building noticing the daughter sitting huddled up, cold in a doorway, displaying her parent’s hotel sign. Returning to the station, we ate at a roadside stall providing cheap but nutritious breakfast foods, finishing up in Macdonald’s for coffee. We tried three banks before finding one that would change our English pounds, a helpful member of staff looked on his computer and found the Zhen Ru Chan Si website, then outside he hailed us a taxi telling the driver to take us to the bus station for Cloud Mountain. There we had a great big and piping hot vegetarian Chinese meal, for £1.00, and Sam got her boots polished by a girl sitting on a low stool outside the bus station to the amusement of a crowd. Inside it was easy to buy two bus tickets to Cloud Mountain. Thirty minutes later we were on (maybe) the worst bus in China, it was not roadworthy, and simply past its life span as a public bus. Two and a half hours later we arrived at the foot of Cloud Mountain, very shaken and quite bruised from the lack of upholstering in the seats and the poor condition of the road.
The conductor indicated we had arrived by pointing to a sign in Chinese characters that said Chen Ru Si, and asked if that was where we were going. I answered yes and we got off to find a mini cab driver looking for fares up the mountain. We hired him for £9.00 and he was so captivated at having foreigners in his car that he nearly crashed and left the road more than once. I had to shout in Mandarin that he should drive safely, just as we were passing a young Chinese man devoutly going up the mountain road in the Three Steps One Bow method of meditation and homage. After about half an hour we reached Chen Ru Si. The driver wanted to wait to take us back down, but he heard in disbelief that we had no intention of going back down for at least a week. I had returned to Chen Ru Si, fulfilling my dream after 26 years (my teacher Ven. Sheng Yi had brought me there from Hong Kong via Pu To Shan in 1985). We prostrated to Maitreya Buddha in the Four Deva Kings Hall and proceeded to the Guest Master’s office, with our email letter of invitation. We entered the Guest Masters Hall and introduced ourselves, in Mandarin, no one spoke English; we gave them our invitation and passports. After a few minutes wait, with a cup of green tea, we were given keys and taken to our rooms. At 3.30pm I went to the afternoon chanting session and entering the main hall. I was stopped by a monk in his late 60’s who barred my entry. I asked him why but he could give no reason. I showed him my robes and chanting book but that was not good enough; then I showed him the initiation incense burns on my head and as a small crowd gathered he suddenly smiled at me and said ‘Hai Ke Yi’ (you can). I slipped into my robes as he now suggested and entered the main hall. It was just like I had seen it 26 years previously except the old monks had gone and the new generation of much younger monks were all in there chanting beautifully. After the hour’s chanting was over I met Sam outside, she had also been barred by the kindly old monk, presumably on the grounds that she was just some random western tourist.
We went for a walk around the monastery. By mischance we entered the Abbot’s quarters uninvited. There we did prostrations and were told that one of master Empty Cloud’s relic or Sharia was on the Offering Table. We turned around and did more prostrations – having joined the short queue first – then we were offered a seat and cup of green tea. Some of the people present left to go into a side room; Sam had spoken to a tall girl who spoke English whose Dharma name was ‘He Hui’. I sipped the tea then pulled my legs into full lotus which surprised the monks who soon became friends (they came to inspect me) and just relaxed into this most amazing arrival at the Monastery of Empty Cloud. I had recognised Abbot Chen Wen from photos and video clips I had saved on my Facebook page from the Monastery Website. Soon the tall girl “He Hui” called us into the side room and translated for us when the Abbot’s questions got too complicated for my Mandarin. Where are you from and why are you here? He asked. I told him we were from England and said I was building a website about Empty Cloud and that my teacher had brought me here 26 years previously. He seemed very pleased and said he knew my late teacher and monastery in Hong Kong. He kindly gave me permission to sit in the Eastern Chan Meditation Hall, together with some of the monks and the novices. He then asked Samantha if she had taken refuge and what her name was. He then slipped into a meditative state repeating her name Sam..Sa ..Am..mm. Returning to normal consciousness he said her Dharma name was to be ‘He An’ (He合 is the family name here). Then we went together into the main room again when we realised that there was a ceremony to take refuge in the Triple Gem, or formally to become a Buddhist. This short simple and moving ceremony lasted about 15 minutes, after which Sam’s name was recorded in the monastery register along with the other two refuge recipients and they were given their ordination cards properly stamped and that had all the relevant details filled in. I was moved to tears as the Abbot gave me a special edition of hand bound books on Master Xu Yun to translate for my website. He also gave me a copy of the ‘100 years a monk’ Xu Yun Film.
Afterwards we went with He Hui and her three girlfriends and a flute player from Shanghai to take supper just outside the monastery gate, in a private house in the small village. It was a simple meal of local rice with local mountain vegetables cooked in traditional Chinese style – stick-fire wok-cooker. Afterwards, we strolled back to our rooms around Bright Moon Lake. Once back in my room I had a wash from the hot Thermos flask and sat in meditation for a while before sleeping under two duvets, it was quite cold that night.
30 October 2011
Morning chanting was to start at 4.30am. I made sure I was there early and waited at my place, centre-back of the hall, waiting for the procession of monks followed by the master to enter. The morning bell chant had finished and the morning drumming was just finishing. After three prostrations, the Surangama Mantra began. The most wonderful chanting filled the hall. Everybody knew the entire liturgy competently from memory. The abbot had entered with a huge presence and his voice roared over the top of everybody else’s – he would not permit anybody to be out even a little; he patrolled up and down listening to everybody chant from memory, to see how good and accurate we all were. One hour later it was finished and we had a 20 minute break before breakfast. Breakfast was formal and has remained, as most things, unchanged since the time of Master Empty Cloud. We queued up outside in formal robes and kessas until the disciplinarian prompted us in. The meal chant was chanted enthusiastically by the many young monks, holding up their begging bowls to be filled. Breakfast was both plentiful and healthy. At the end we chanted the chant to thank the food donors and raced back to the main hall chanting Kwan Yin Bodhisattva’s name. After circumambulation in the the hall three times, we chanted the transfer of merit hymn and left the hall in file. Soon after that we were given a tour of the monastery by a young friendly monk with a small group of Chinese lay visitors, including He Hai who translated. The abbot suddenly appeared with the guest master, so we could all have photos taken with him, then we went on a tour of Master Xu Yun’s last monastery, Zhen Ru Chan Si. This took a couple of hours. We were introduced to a lot explanation of Buddhist symbolism and standard Chinese Buddhist theory.
Then he finally took us to the Empty Cloud Memorial Hall, where we took time performing prostrations, carefully examining the exhibits and photos, and asking questions about the Great Chan Master. Empty Cloud Memorial Hall As you go into the hall, there is a life size statue of Empty Cloud, right in front of you with very long white eyebrows; apparently he would flick them out of the way when drinking his soup or rice porridge. To the right was a glass cabinet, with his old patched clothes, on the wall behind a collection of his photos. To the right was a glass cabinet containing books about him and on the wall behind was his autobiography written on a large board in Chinese characters. The hall is plain and simple, but a fair size, well-built of stone blocks. There were side rooms on the ground floor and a balcony along the back wall with rooms at each end. The caretaker was a 78 year old monk who never met the master and neither did he go to school. He demonstrated how to sit full lotus for two and a half hours at a time. He glowed with happiness and clarity. Reaching the end of his life with no school or money he has achieved something quite wonderful using only his mind through his practice of Chan Buddhism. We left the Memorial Hall slowly, in awe, returning to the monastery a few minutes walk away, for the formal lunch at 11.30am. We queued silently outside the dining hall, lunch was also eaten in silence, with chanting before and after, much as it was in the old days with all the monks using their begging bowls to eat from. Inside the Memorial Hall After lunch we were rushed at a canter back to the main hall where we dashed around three times chanting Kwan Yin Pu Sa, finishing with the Transfer of Merit Anthem. Leaving in file and rank with the disciplinarian monk making sure all was done properly or otherwise he would give a loud reprimand to any offender. This was usually a young monk using the wrong foot to step out of the main door threshold (you use the foot nearest the outside of the door to step over) and do not use the middle, that is reserved for the abbot).