My friend Sheng Guang Shih came from the Fourth Patriarch’s monastery that lay not far away. We had been expecting him. He had made a few calls to the guest master and the abbot’s assistant. We
shared a common interest in Master Xu Yun. This friend lives in Canada and is a monk from Hong Kong. We had a private lunch together with him and the abbot, plus a professor of chi kung and a couple of other visitors. He had told the abbot of our friendship and my love of Empty Cloud and his teachings. After lunch, which was very special and a few grades above the food served in the main dining hall, manager He Dong came running up shouting ‘Kwai-kwai’ (quick-quick) we are going to the Western Chan Meditation Hall to sit with the senior monks, right now. I told him he must wait as I needed the toilet, then we rushed as usual (changes to schedule happen quickly there) to the meditation hall where the monk in charge had also now agreed that I could come in for one sitting. Living quarters. True Suchness Monastery Nov 2012 After the usual running-fast walk around the hall in clockwise rotating file, the wooden fish was struck and we all froze then were told to go sit down. There were four of us guest sitters and we used the row of benches along the back wall of the hall. Tea came around and I used my wrong hand to take it and held the cup the wrong way to drink, but was prompted by He Dong and the monk on my left on how to do it properly. It was nice green tea that was planted by the great old master himself. Then the signal to begin the one hour sitting was given and everybody drew their legs into full lotus and tucked rugs around knees and laps. The patrol in this hall by the disciplinarian was continuous, not as in the beginner’s hall. Here all were expected to keep up continuous attention without a break. Then suddenly He Dong’s phone went off! He searched frantically through the pockets of his robes to locate and turn off the offending device. Nobody stirred. After around 30 minutes had passed and the patrol passed by with his wooden sword or ‘encouraging stick’, the monk on my left slyly but obviously thrust out his arm to look at his watch! Next time the disciplining monk’s patrol passed, he reached a very old monk at the opposite end of the hall who had fallen fast asleep. The old monk was not – to my surprise – hit on the shoulder but the disciplinarian just smilingly stroked him on the knee. At which the old monk woke up, straightening his spine into such a wonderful sitting posture, he looked like a lotus flower opening into full bloom. I must mention that it is always hard to stay awake in this after-lunch period. Because of my fear of falling asleep I bit my tongue so hard I made it bleed, so worried was I about dozing in front of these fellows now that I had made it in, on the third attempt, most probably only because I had been taken in by the manager with the abbots special permission. The patrol passed again after around 50 minutes and the monk to my left again to my surprise took a peek at his watch! The bell rung, my hour was up and I had sat in the very hall where the grand old master Xu Yun had held his retreats near the end of his 100 years as a Monk…Wow! I heard later from Sam and He Dong Fa Shih that we had been given some tea that was planted by Xu Yun himself that had to be specially signed for. Also, that I was to be asked to teach in the new international meditation centre when it opens in 4-5 years; also again, that I would be a translator there (better work harder at my Mandarin now!). I had to wonder if being thrown out of the hall and then frog-marched out roughly hadn’t been a kind of test to see how I reacted. Sam said she felt a lot of what we had gone through since we arrived had been a test on our determination and character. Women are usually allowed only 3 days there; Sam got 2 weeks, although she was not allowed into the mediation halls she could freely do just about everything else. One of the most amazing days of my life; I got into bed that night in disbelief at all that had happened since we arrived.
Wonderful chanting again this morning, after the sitting meditation I went to sweep the leaves under the 1,500 year old ginko tree near the South Meditation Hall. As we started sweeping the monks came out with bedding and meditation mats they wanted to dry in the hot sun on the stone courtyard. Those top-rank meditation monks were most friendly and curious that day and wanted to chat. The leader who had marched me out yesterday was most amiable in telling me that he lived in the Great Bright Chan Temple, in Taiwan, and invited us to visit there. He also told us he knew about Ajahn Chah and Ajahn Sumedho, the American monk who has done so much to build Theravada Buddhism in the UK and around the world in the Thai Forest Tradition. Everybody in the place that day had become used to us, but some tourists snapped craftily secret shots of me and Sam as the only western tourist attractions in town. They were delighted when we said it was fine, but still held there cameras slightly out of our view as though they we were forbidden fruit. In the afternoon the abbot’s assistant had another go at kidnapping, this time we went to the Dragon Well to get mineral water to make his tea and for the offerings to Buddha at the shrines. The big deputy guest master came also. This time it was only a simple 15 minute walk, not involving any mountains or scorching sun. On the way back we sang Buddhist songs and the big monk demonstrated his awesome kung fu skills. He taught me the monk’s trick of flicking one’s legs into full lotus posture without using the hands. I am supple and succeeded after a few attempts once I saw the trick to it. The two monks and Sam gave a great round of applause. That evening we went to manager He Dong’s room for tea. Baby Monk and two others also came; we spent most of the night talking about why Empty Cloud had fled Beijing with the Emperor and Empress dowager in 1900. They told me he was in Beijing and had been invited to become National Master when the foreign troops invaded, so Empty Cloud was naturally in flight to Xian with them as everybody in Beijing was also running away. The Imperial family must have thought that the master could help them in the midst of the nation’s serious problems. I also learnt that Zhou En Lai had told Mao Tse Tung that he had a Buddhist teacher. Mao had asked who he is. “The Old Chan Master Empty Cloud,” was the reply. Mao asked that the Chan master go to see Mao. When the master heard this he said, “Mao rules the people but I rule the Buddhists, let him come here.” Mao never came. We sat up late drinking Zhen Ru Green ‘Fog’ Tea and chatting. Chinese incense burner.
At breakfast the abbot gave a talk, this is what I understood: “Soon the meditation retreat or Chan Seven will begin. There will be snow and the mountain road will be blocked. Then we can more easily let go of the outside world and concentrate solely on our practice.” That evening we again chatted, in He Dong’s room this time with the Buddhist layman whom we had seen coming up the mountain at the pace of Three Steps One Bow, or full prostration. He described his journey and showed us his injured knees. He said he had come to sit the winter retreat. Laymen are allowed to sit in on it here if they look competent enough to take it.
It was quite cold that morning. The winter was fast arriving according to the tell-tale winds. I worked with the monks cutting firewood. They were filling a big log shed ready for winter and the retreat when there would
be no time for anything except for meditation. Everybody was getting excited about the retreat, when everything stops – all the chanting, the formal meals; participants just get into the ‘Hua Tao’ method (see the meditation pages). The abbot had had his spies out and we had been watched and tested, we were praised beyond what we deserved, and much more, and then told he really does want both of us to help in his meditation centre when it opens. I had started packing, slowly, to leave and journey to Nanchang the next day. Baby Monk’s story was that he had come from Cloud Gate Monastery in the south of China, from one of the places that Master Empty Cloud had restored when he was Abbot of the Sixth Chan Patriarch’s Monastery Nan Hua Si, near Shaoguan City, Guangdong Province. He had only been a novice there three weeks, spoke a bit of English and was so incredibly open and sincere. He was really worried that he could not sit for long periods in full lotus so hadn’t entered the meditation hall. He was helping in the Guest Masters Hall, but was getting moved to the abbot’s quarters, as he obviously had a lot of potential. He was a smart young chap. His dharma name was Yao Gu and he was in his early 20s. He told me that he also had a problem letting go of girls, that it was hard for him. I told him it was hard for all men, but much easier in this place. Just then a really gorgeous girl, who had come to stay with her mum for the night, came up to him imploring him to go outside and chat. She appeared like Mantagni from the Surangama Sutra! The Chinese monks call these girls ‘tigers’. She was 23 and had a major in computers. She said she had taken the Bodhisattva precepts and wore a tiara like Kwan Yin Bodhisattva. Then she went on to tell me about the chocolates she had been given from time to time describing their various tastes. Although she spoke some English she preferred to coo in Mandarin like a cat. I could not help noticing Baby Monk who had run away at my encouragement, up on the balcony of the guest masters building, watching and listening. It was cold so I left to finish packing.
Sad departure to Nanchang. The Abbot had authorised a car to take us to Nanchang, and had used the monastery account to book us and He Dong a hotel for the night. He had also arranged us two express train tickets back to Shanghai. We spent the night with He Dong in a restaurant with his friends, lay Buddhist supporters of Zhen Ru Si. The next day we went to lunch with them all again then went to their Buddhist shop where we were given an incense burner and at that place He Dong’s Dharma brother turned up with a bag of very expensive incense as a gift for us. Then we were taken to the train station where He Dong sat with us for well over one hour to wait. He was so sad to say good bye. We were all on the verge of tears. He said I don’t want you to give me that red envelope in your pocket when you leave, but I slipped it into his pocket anyway – he had given us so much and suddenly our train was in and we were caught up in the rush to get on board. He left us with difficulty. He said it was terrible to say goodbye. We were soon on our train racing to Shanghai at 197 kilometres an hour.