Meeting Ming Hai, Abbot of Bai Lin Si, the temple of Zen Master Joshu

To my Zen and Chan brothers, sisters and friends,

As you may know, I spent about 6 months in China last year. I stayed at one particular temple for a two month stay in early spring and another 3 weeks in October. The monk is a Soto (Cao Dong) monk, and his favorite Zen text is the Blue Cliff Record. For one month, I did a pilgrimage through some of the temples and sites that we have all read and heard of through the years. There is a brief travelogue with some pictures on my website,

I also have a much longer narrative that I will put online at some point.

However, I thought I would share the highlights of the conversation I had with Ming Hai, the abbot of Bailin Si, that is, Cypress Forest Temple, in September, 2013. You might find it useful or interesting.

First a little background. Minghai Da Hesheng (that means Big Monk, or Abbot in Chinese) is the disciple of Jing Hui Lao Hesheng (Jing Hui, the ‘old monk’–the equivalent of Roshi–an honorific title for a revered older teacher). Jing Hui, who died almost a year ago at about the age of 80, was very important in the recent history of Chinese Buddhism. He became a monk at the age of 13, and was the disciple and attendant of the legendary Chinese monk, Xu Yun “Empty Cloud”. Xu Yun lived from 1840 to 1959.

As I noted in my recent blogpost, Xu Yun lived through some of the most tumultuous and difficult times in Chinese history. Specifically, he lived through the 15 year long Taiping Rebellion of the 19th century, which resulted in at least 20 million deaths due to civil war and social chaos. Then again, with the collapse of Chinese society and the Qing Dynasty, in 1911, followed by the Japanese invasions and occupation of large areas of China between 1938-45, together with the civil war between the Communists and the Nationalists, China experienced the death of another 20 million people in WWII, as well as the terrible social disruptions that attended all that.

So Xu Yun, we might say, is a Holocaust Survivor of not one, but TWO Holocausts.

Following the Communist takeover in 1949, institutional Buddhism was suppressed, culminating in the Cultural Revolution between roughly 1966-75.He also was severely beaten by Red Guards, but somehow survived that.

Jing Hui was one of several important disciples of Xu Yun.
Hsuan ‘Hua, who founded City of 10,000 Buddhas, was another one you may have heard of.

During the Cultural Revolution, severe repression took place. Jing Hui had trained with Xu Yun, and I would imagine, it was his position within Chinese Buddhism as a notable monk, that resulted in his imprisonment for 15 years in a labor camp.

However, after the Cultural Revolution, and the rise of Deng Xiao Ping as the ideological successor to Mao, a major transformation began to occur, with religious freedom of expression allowed. One of Jing Hui’s first acts was to gather together overseas Buddhists from Japan, Singapore, Taiwan and Korea, to rebuild Bailin Si. That is the temple of Joshu, in English it is Cypress Forest Temple.

Following Joshu’s (Chinese: Zhao Zhou) death, over a long period of decline, Bailin Si, along with many other Buddhist monasteries, fell apart. By the 1970′s all that was left of Bailin Si was a pagoda tower, that had been severely damaged in an earthquake. All the other buildings were gone, leaving just vacant land.

So Jing Hui, prevailing on the desire to rebuild the temple of one of the most important Zen Masters, raised the funds to rebuild Bailin Si. It is now a very active temple in a smallish city outside the provincial capital of Hebei province. It is about two hours on the 180 mile per hour high speed train from Beijing to the provincial capital Shijiazhuang, and another hour by car from the train station to the temple.

Because of my previous trips to China, I had heard of Ming Hai, who has succeeded as abbot to Bailin Si. He had been in a 3 year solitary retreat, however, with the unexpected death of Jing Hui, he was asked to give up his retreat, to step into Jing Hui’s shoes.

I had also had the great fortune to meet Jing Hui and have a dharma discussion with him in 2010, as noted at my website. Several people had urged me to meet Ming Hai as well. So, on my arrival at Bailin Si, I asked to see Ming Hai, but he was very busy. Finally, I got his phone number, and told him that several of our mutual friends had urged me to see him. However, he had left Bailin Si, to visit another temple, preparing for some special occasion, the dedication of a new temple. While Western news reports a lot about China’s economic rise, and building whole cities from scratch “Ghost cities”, what is not reported is a massive temple building program.

Incredibly, he arranged for a car to drive me the hour and a half ride to where he was staying. I was later to learn the good fortune of that trip too.

So that is the background for our meeting.

I started off, by telling him about my background in Zen training, both as a student at the San Francisco Zen Center, and currently as a student of Nelson Foster, who is a lineage holder of Robert Aitken Roshi, who had trained in the Sanbo Kyodan school in Japan.

I had several concerns that I wanted to share with him.
First, I wanted to see if there is some way for Americans and Chinese to meet and share their experiences. Having spent quite a lot of time with Chinese in mainland China since my first trip in 2007, I have observed a tendency for Americans and Chinese to have perceptions of each other that are somewhat skewed.

Because of the history of the past 200 years in China, I think most Americans assume that Buddhism in China is pretty much dead, and that there is little freedom of thought or speech. In the past Communist party members were forbidden to practice Buddhism, but now it is quite acceptable to, and while China has human rights issues, I sense that many Chinese are quite open to discussing these issues, more so than Americans are willing to discuss American political issues.

Second, Chinese think that there is very little Buddhism in America, and often express envy for the democratic processes we are all familiar with.

In fact, Buddhism is now a strong component (though not dominant) in contemporary China. Both educated classes and working class people have large populations that visit and support temples and monks and nuns. In fact, as a pilgrim, I have generally stayed at temples to practice Chan (Zen) for free–I simply make a donation. In only two of perhaps 15 temples I have stayed at, was I asked to pay money. Most temples charge a very nominal $5-10 a day for supervised retreats, and even then, many people who don’t have money stay for free. That is, by donations. Many temples are being built or rebuilt, due to the generosity of donors wealthy and not wealthy. I have observed a really remarkable cultural trait of generosity, and that is what supports not just temples, but friendships as well.

So my question to Ming Hai, was how to overcome these misperceptions of China. I also think it is important for Chinese to understand the political, social and economic issues facing the people of the USA .

Most of all, I wish for a peaceful, harmonious world, or as my Chinese friend Lily Lee says, “A world culture of harmony”. How can we do this?

His answer was that he has met a number of Americans who have come to visit China, and stayed at Bailin Si. For example, Andy Ferguson, who runs South Mountain Tours has brought a number of groups to visit Bailin Si as well as other temples.

Ming Hai noted that when Americans come to see China for themselves, and talk with Chinese Buddhists, they come away with a better understanding and good feeling. We both agreed that it would be good to encourage more Americans to spend time in China. Two of my American friends who went on the tours told me they enjoyed them too. So how can we create the possibility for more exchanges?

Another issue we discussed is Visas. Most people who come to China to see what is happening with Buddhism, stay for a relatively short time. But what about someone like me, who is retired and has more time to stay, or others who simply want to stay in China for a longer time, to go on pilgrimage, stay in temples for longer stay, and so on?

At that point, Ming Hai took out a note book and wrote something down. I asked what was he writing about?

He replied, “I am an Assemblyman (the Chinese equivalent a member of the US Congress), and I want to bring up the subject, of making it easier for people to stay in China, based on religious grounds”.

I was quite surprised. I replied, “Do you know, that in America, you would have to make a $5000 campaign contribution, to get a direct one on one interview with your Congressperson?” “And here I am having an extended talk with you”. Not to mention that he had arranged a car to drive me to meet him. I am not some special person, like a teacher or famous author, just a humble student of the Way.
For him to go out of his way to see me and to see what he could do about making it more possible for students of Chan–Zen–to stay in China, was really heartwarming.

Visas are not easy these days, regulations are tightening pretty much everywhere, but at least Ming Hai was making an effort to promote mutual understanding, and I deeply appreciate him for that.

Ming Hai also wanted to share some concerns he has about American Zen, which I think are worth noting.

First was the issue of ethics. As we all know, there have been a lot of problems in various Buddhist communities over the years.
He may not know of the progress that has been made in these areas, in both the Diamond Sangha as well as the Zen Center. His point is still well taken that there is more work to do, in view of issues with other Buddhist teachers in both Zen, Tibetan and Theravada lineages.

The second issue is his concern about Chan Buddhism seeing itself as separate from Buddhism. In Japan, of course and then in the USA, we have seen differentiation of Zen, Jodo Shinshu, Nichiren, and so on. In China, from my observation, there seems to be less of that, although there are temples where Chan is practiced and others where it is not. I think if I understand him correctly he is concerned about a sort of sectarian elitism in Zen culture.

At Bailin Si, there is a large Dharma Hall and monks do a lot of chanting. Most temples are similar, with chanting and study being more prominent than sitting. I think it would be fair to say that Ming Hai thinks that Dharma study is important and should not be overlooked.

As for meditation, in some temples, monks have their own hall and laypeople sit in their own hall. That is the case at Bailin Si. However, at Yang Shan’s temple and Mazu’s temple, there is one meditation hall for everyone. Likewise, the temple where I have spent the most time, Tong Bo Yan Si, is headed by a Cao Dong monk, and monks and laypeople sit in the same hall. Likewise, at Nanputo, there is a large beautiful Chan Tang, or Meditation Hall, and both monastics and laypeople sit together.

I visited one nunnery, but didn’t stay there. I have heard that there are some nunneries where lay men can stay too. So there are no set rules, that I can see.

Both Yang Shan Xi Yin Si and Bao Feng Si where Mazu taught 1200 years ago, have been rebuilt and both hold meditation retreats. I have been invited to stay and do retreats at all these temples and certainly other Westerners are welcome to join in, too.

My sense is that in China, there seems to be a feeling of a need for preparation for sitting. In the West, and even in Thailand, meditation practice is fine for even rank beginners, like most of us were when we started. Many students practice by sutra chanting, and there are temples where students study the Vinaya assiduously. Or it may be that some Chinese themselves feel they are not ready to sit, and ask for preliminary practices.

One question that I did not ask was about the temple where I met Ming Hai. It had also been rebuilt by Jing Hui, and since I read only a smattering of Chinese, I didn’t know what some posters on the wall said. Later, I asked a monk about the temple. He explained that it was at this temple YuQuan Si, that Wansong, the great Soto Master, spent a lot of time writing the Shoyo Roku, that is, the Record of Ease, or Book of Serenity or Congrong Lu, the main koan collection of the Soto School. In fact that was one of the temples I had wanted to visit. I thought that I was going to miss it due to my travel schedule, and not really knowing how to get there.

So it was by accident, that Minghai happened to be there, and with his kind assistance, I was able to complete the pilgrimage of temples I had planned.

On the other hand, the Chinese say, there are no accidents.

That was how I got to meet Minghai, and see Wansong’s temple.

PS I am returning to China in two weeks and several of my Chinese friends have asked me, how can I help to open the doors to develop friendly relations with Americans. Especially American Buddhists. On possibility is to set up a website or maybe even a forum or organization. If any of you have any ideas, I would very much enjoy hearing from you.

Also, if you know of other people who would like to hear about this, please feel free to forward it.

Leave a comment

Filed under Bumbling about

Presentation to Monks in Thailand–an overview of my 2013 Pilgrimage to China

On January 21st, 2014, I gave a talk to a group of monks at Wat Suan Dok, in Chiang Mai, Thailand. They are students at a University associated with the temple, Wat Suan Dok. These monks come from Nepal, Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Lao. After I gave my presentation, there was a question and answer session for about an hour. Here are some of the thoughts I expressed at the meeting. First, I told them that I had studied basic traditional Buddhism at the San Francisco Zen Center, and had in recent years practiced several forms of Vipassana, at Wat Umong, Wat Doi Suthep, Wat Chom Thong (in Thailand). Practiced the Goenka Vipassana method and done three ten day retreats as well as spent one month at The International Meditation Center in Yangon, U Ba Khin’s center, where Goenka himself trained. I had also learned the method taught by the forest monks, breathing in ‘Pu…”, breathing out…”Dho” at Wat Tham Wua, in Mae Hong Son Province. I had studied and practiced  Zen Buddhism in the  USA. The primary difference in POV of Zen vs Thai—Bodhisattva vs Arhat. Bodhisattvas put off reaching liberation, “Nirvana”, while Arhats in the Theravada tradition have attained Nirvana (or in Pali Nibbana) in this lifetime. My opinion is that the issue is almost moot. Both practices involve meditation, knowledge of the 4 Noble Truths, the Eigthfold Path, 5 Skhandas, understanding of the how our senses work, examination of mental and emotional make up and so on. In fact, maybe only 5% or less of human beings even make any attempt at all to come to grips with their delusions and attachments. Self cultivation is very hard work. To experience the Dharma directly is extremely rare, so whether one chooses Mahayana or Theravada, and has some insight is a huge accomplishment in itself. Why China?—early influences. Having studied Zen for many years in America, I felt the need to  reconnect and understand the context of China and the development of Zen. Here is a picture of a cave in a temple in Kunming,  Yunnan Province, on my first trip.How I came to China—Dali, Meioguang Fashi. I met Meioguang Fashi ‘by accident’ in Dali. He invited me to travel with him and his friend Xiaojunjie, and later, we all went to Xiamen, his home town.A statue of Xu Yun, the legendary monk of the 20th century, whose bio I had read 30 years earlier.

  1. Meioguang Fashi, is both an expert in Chinese history and art, as well as a master artist and calligrapher. Here he is in his room and studio in a small city outside of Xiamen.

Meeting Meioguang in Dali, 2007.       In August, 2007, I got it into my head to go to China. I had studied Zen Buddhism, which had its roots in China, but had been put off going there, due to my concerns with the language barrier. But my American friend, Paco, had traveled to Yunnan province, in Southwest China, almost directly due north of Chiang Mai. A quick airplane trip to Yunnan’s capital, Kunming got me there. Plus, I went online and found a college student who spoke English, who would be my guide. So I landed in Kunming, and met Faye, my student guide. For about three days, while she attempted to teach me Chinese, she shepherded me from my hotel to sites in Kunming, and to her favorite restaurant, MacDonald’s which is considered to be way cool. She taught herself English, and was a diligent student. She came from a Muslim family in Yunnan, but has left that all behind, now she is a modern young woman making her way in the world.   Next, I took a bus with Paco and his girlfriend, Li,  whom he subsequently married, to Dali.   Dali is a small Himalayan foothills town. Wandering around Dali, I found many street vendors. One was selling silver dollar coins. “Please buy my coins, I need to make a sale to day to feed my family. “ She was selling the coins for the US equivalent of $6. But silver dollar coins in the US were selling for $12 at that time. I felt guilty buying about 10 coins, knowing I would make an immediate profit, since the woman lived in this backwater, and didn’t know the real price of silver.   Then I bought a new backpack. I knew that you had to bargain with these people, so when the shop owner asked for 180 rmb, about $25, I said, “60”. She said, “Ok, how about 120 rmb?” I said, “60”. She rolled her eyes and said, “90”. I said, “60”. She said, “You Westerners drive a hard bargain,” and agreed to charge 60 rmb.   I proudly went and met up with Paco and Li. With Paco translating (he spoke a little Chinese at the time), she said, “The bag is only worth 50 rmb, and the silver coins are fakes”. So I went back to the coin seller’s table and confronted her. “You sold me fake coins!” “No, they are real!” She clinked them together, and they had a nice ring.   So I went to some other silver shops. I said, “I want to sell my silver coins” How about buying them for $6? They said, No. $5? No, $4, No. …$1…no. They were all fakes. I was pissed. I went looking for the silver lady, and when she saw me again, she ran away. In fact, what I was soon to discover, was something far more precious.  Buying silver coins wasn’t my reason to be in China, anyway, I was looking for Buddhist monks to talk to.   Wandering around the streets of Dali by myself, I was repeating a mantra, “where’s a monk, where’s a monk….?” A Chinese fellow approached me outside one of Dali’s many antique shops and introduced himself. “Have you eaten yet”—the standard way of greeting in China, he asked.   There was a fellow in the antique shop with a shaved head, wearing clothes that looked like a monk would wear. “Is that fellow there a monk?” I asked.       Indeed he was, and Xiaojunjie, my new friend, took me to lunch, followed by wandering around through the many art and antique shops with Meioguang Fashi. (Fashi is Chinese for Master of Dharma, the Buddhist teachings).  We ended up talking for 8 hours straight, debating various points of Buddhism, and having a wide ranging highly stimulating discussion, like I had never had before. What is the meaning of the Heart Sutra? What are the wellsprings of Chinese culture? What about all the famous Zen stories, and maybe most important, is there authentic Zen Practice going on in China? The next day, Xiaojunjie invited me to travel with them to Jizu Shan, a 10,000 foot high mountain. We got there and at the foot of the mountain was a 15 foot high statue of Xu Yun, the legendary monk of the 20th Century, who lived to be 120 years old. We’ll be seeing more of Xu Yun later. But just to give a sample, it’s said that one time, he decided to boil some potatoes. While they were cooking, Xu Yun did a little meditation. Some friends came by and looked in the pot, arousing him from his meditation. However, the potatoes were moldy. He had probably been sitting for at least a week, lost in his meditation!   I’d read his biography 30 years earlier, and was in awe of his life as a monk. Seeing his statue, I felt like I was reconnecting with an old and dear friend.       To return to Dali from Jizu Shan, Meioguang hired an unregistered taxi. The driver was in a hurry to get back, so he drove like crazy—the double yellow line in the middle of the road meant nothing to him. He played chicken with the oncoming cars, and would swerve back into the correct lane again and again. At one point, I finally said to Xiaojunjie, “This guy is driving too fast, and too dangerously. Tell him to SLOW DOWN.”, but Xiaojunjie just said, don’t worry. Indeed he wasn’t the only driver driving like that, so Xiaojunjie must have been used to it. Then, on one of the curves in the mountain road, we passed a minivan on the road bank. Upside down. I just thought, thinking of our Native American Ancestors maxim before going into battle,“it’s a good day to die.”   After Jizu Shan, as Meioguang Fashi , Xiaojunjie and I proceeded on our trip, we found how much I had in common with them. They had encouraged me to come to Xiamen, study Chinese, and spend more time with Chinese, who had lost contact with the tradition of Chan, or Zen Buddhism. They had planned to go to Shanghai, and I had planned to go exploring more of Yunnan Province. But, when I told them that I thought it might be a good idea for me to visit Xiamen and check it out, the next day, they told me that they had decided to cancel their trip to Shanghai, and take me to Xiamen. So in the summer of 2007, my life took an unexpected turn—to Xiamen. They booked three first class train tickets for the three day trip, and off we went.       Meioguang Fashi lives in a suburb of Xiamen. In 2007, there was hardly even a road there, and his friends and supporters drove beat up old cars, if they owned cars at all. Now, many of his friends drive new ones. So Xiamen has come into its own, and the road to his home town is now a modern 4 lane highway.       Xiamen is one of the unique cities in Chinese history. Originally called, Amoy, it was one of the first cities that European traders found in the 15th Century. Most people think of cities like, Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong or Canton (now Guangzhou) when they think of China, but in fact, Xiamen was one of the very first ports where traders made their fortunes. As Bill Brown writes in his website, amoymagic, the USA would not have happened were it not for Xiamen. It turns out that the tea that was thrown overboard at the Boston Tea Party, came for Xiamen’s Fujian Province, and was doubtless shipped from Xiamen before being unceremoniously dumped into Boston Harbor.   However, as Brown notes, the Brits got their revenge, when in 1843, they attacked Xiamen, as part of the First Opium War. As a result, a small island off the main island of Xiamen, called Gulangyu, was ceded by the Chinese Emperor, and several foreign missions set up, mainly from Europe, but also Japan. Gulangyu is one of China’s famous tourist spots, where many couples planning to marry have their wedding pictures taken. It is also the site of a piano museum, with perhaps 20 pianos many 200 years old or more, a virtual history of the piano as it developed over time. However, Gulangyu has a darker side. It was from there that the British and later other missions colonized and exploited China.   China suffered massively from the forced importation of opium, primarily by the British. At one point, fully one fourth of China’s population was addicted to opium, and there was talk of the country committing national suicide as it sank into poverty and squalor. Can you, dear reader, ask yourself what would the USA or Europe be like, if they had 50 or 100 million heroin or meth addicts? As a post Opium War treaty port forced on China, Xiamen was a key entry point for England’s “free trade”, which had to include opium.   The British, for their part, praised the benefits of opium, while outlawing it in England. At one point even the British Parliament was going to stop the opium trade, due to the pleading of the Emperor of China to stop the forced opium trade. But in the name of ‘Free Trade’,– Parliament was dissolved so that a second opium war could further destroy Chinese society for the benefit of British drug barons.   It might also be of interest that both Presidents Bush were members of the Skull and Bones Yale Secret Society. How secret? Both George Bush and John Kerry, while running for president in 2004, when asked to explain this organization, said “we can’t talk about it”.   However, independent researchers have discovered that the founder of Skull and Bones, William Russell was the key figure in the US side of the opium trade in China. Years later, another Skull and Bonesman, George Bush the elder, who has a nickname Poppy, just a coincidence no doubt.. was Vice President. He was in charge of the war on drugs. Bo Gritz, a great hero of the Vietnam war, had searched for POW’s in Asia, and met the notorious Burmese drug lord, Kuhn Sah. This was in the notorious Golden Triangle where Thailand, Burma and Laos borders converged. Kuhn Sah offered to stop selling heroin if the US paid him off. Bush, said, ‘leave it alone, Bo, we don’t want you to get hurt’.  Years later, the opium growing moved to Afghanistan. However, the Taliban had wiped out opium production in Afghanistan by 2001. Then, his son George Jr. kicked the Taliban out of power after 911. Afghanistan’s opium poppy production has soared under US occupation. The Opium Wars have never ended, they’ve just changed venues. The main characters in the multigenerational gangster drug trade have stayed pretty much the same.But fortunately, China has had a reprieve.       Xiamen has had its ups and downs, along with the rest of China. The Japanese invaded China in the 1930’s resulting in the deaths of at least 20 million people. Xiamen was occupied by the Japanese from 1938 until 1945. When the Japanese were finally forced out, the Chinese Civil War between the Communists and the Goumintang ensued. Chiang Kai Shek, Mao’s opposite, was forced to flee the Mainland, and go to Taiwan, which had been a province of China for centuries, although occupied successively by Dutch in the 17th Century and the Japanese in the 20th Century.   As a result, for decades, Xiamen, was under the gun, so to speak of Taiwan. On the other hand, one island only an hour’s boat ride away from Xiamen is Jinmen Island, which held out against the Communists in 1949. This island, otherwise known as Quemoy, was a subject of debate between Kennedy and Nixon in the 1960 election. The question being, should the US attack China if it attacked Quemoy. Fortunately, the Communists gave up the idea of taking it back.   Lucky for us foreigners,we can now renew our visas to China by hopping on a ferry for the one hour ride out of China and onto Jinmen.       Relations between Taiwan and China have eased over the years, and as a result, the Communist government has been more willing to invest in Xiamen. Due to its status as a special economic zone, its economy has boomed.   Since I was first invited by my monk friend to come to Xiamen, the city has developed significantly, and serves as my home base for my forays deep into China.   Here, in Zhong Shan park, one of several fine parks in Xiamen, a group of musicians play using traditional Chinese string and flute instruments.   Every fall, there is an international Buddhist trade fair, where all things Buddhist are exhibited and sold. Here is a Burmese style reclining Buddha. You can also buy bells, drums of all sizes, hand written Chinese Buddhist texts, incense, stonework, statues, art work and so on. I’ve written about previous stays at temples in China, and had returned in March 2013, for a two month stay at Tong Bo Yan Si. While there, the traditional Buddha’s Birthday celebration took place. Here is a picture of the Baby Buddha, set up under the statue of the 1000 armed Kuan Yin. Tong Bo Yan Si was the place where Jing Wu, the abbot of the temple, stayed when he had finished his three year solitary retreat at the famous training temple, Bailin Si, the Tang Dynasty monk, Zhao Zhou’s (Japanese: Joshu) temple, rebuilt in the 1980′s. The picture here shows me at the entrance to a small cave, where hermits sometimes lived. The original Tong Bo Yan Si was reportedly 800 years old. Jing Wu was discovered by some lay people and his vow to start his own temple was realized in 2007. Following my stay at Tong Bo Yan Si, I went with some Chinese friends to the temple of Xue Feng, about a 4 hour drive from Xiamen, in western Fujian Province. I have special affinity because  Xue Feng (822-908) practiced meditation diligently for 25 years. While traveling with his monk friend, Yan Tou, his brother monk finally blurted out to him, “Haven’t you heard that, that what comes through the front gate is not the family treasure!”   Haven’t you heard that what comes in through the front gate (your senses) is not Your Family Treasure? Here is a statue of the old man himself.   The best meditator at Xue Feng Si. When I asked him for some truth of Buddhism, he said something, which I didn’t understand, but then, just laughed, said, Meditate More!, turned and walked away. Here, Guoji, my monk friend, and I stand on the ‘highway’ between Fujian and Jiangxi Province. After Xue Feng had his insight, he left Jiangxi province, and went to Fujian. He took up sitting in this old semipetrified tree trunk. The building you see was built around it only recently. A statue of him sits inside. Of course, Chan people have great respect for Arhats, and what you see here, is the footprint of a flying arhat, in the side of the large boulder. From XueFeng Si, I went on the main part of the trip, to Jiangxi Province. First, I went to the capital of Jiangxi, but no one knew anything about where these temples are located. Fortunately, a friend I had met at a temple two years earlier, gave me directions to my next stop, Yang Shan Xi Yin Si.It took about two days to get here, and when I arrived, there was a Buddhist summer camp. These are some of the campers who stayed at the temple for a week, learning to meditate and study Buddhism. This is a flat bell outside the kitchen where they cook meals. You see this type of bell everywhere in China and even in Japan. My home temple in the US has one like this, too. Yangshan was one of the most important early teachers of Chan. His school was one of the five schools of Chan, and this bell, with its five shapes, circle, half circle, triangle, oblong and square represent the five schools.. Also, notice the 8 spoked wheel of the Dharma on the wall of the Dharma Hall.Here is the rebuilt tomb of Yang Shan. The temple had been completely destroyed by fire in the 19th century but has been rebuilt in recent years. Note the placement of the temple nestled against the mountainside. This is typical of Chan temples. Like temples in Thailand, we can often see a pond where fish swim happily with out fear of being caught for food. The abbot of Yang Shan Si Yin Si, was very surprised to see a foreigner come to his temple. I may have been the first ever!. So he offered to help me on my pilgrimage. Pictured here are two students who speak English, along with their university professor. The Abbot then personally drove me to see two temples, both famous in the history of Chan/Zen Buddhism. The first was Dong Shan Liang Jie (Japanese, Tozan Ryokai), and the second was Baofeng Si, where I stayed for a week. Here we are at the site of one of Yang Shan contemporaries, Dong Shan Liang Jie (807-869). He had a big question whether non sentient beings are enlightened or not. Finally while on pilgrimage, he saw his reflection in the water and got his answer! Here is a new building at Dong Shan’s temple. It had probably hundreds of monks when it was active 1000 years ago, but much of it fell into disrepair, and also, during the Cultural Revolution, many temples were destroyed. They are now being rebuilt. This is one of the few surviving buildings from the Ming Dynasty, at least 400 years old. Here is Dong Shan’s tomb, which has been rebuilt Dong Shan’s school is one of the two surviving schools of Chan. And I first trained in a temple that came from his line of teaching.   Here are some rice buckets, used to serve rice at the second temple, where Yang Hang took me to stay. It’s told in one of the old Zen stories that a teacher used to serve his monks from buckets like these, and before doing so, would dance and say, “Come eat, little Bodhisattvas!”. A bodhisattva is a being training to become enlightened. So he was encouraging the monks, as he served them from the rice buckets. The temple where these old style buckets are used is Bao Feng Si, where the great Chan Master Mazu  (709-88)lived. He was enlightened when his teacher chided him for being attached to doing sitting meditation. More about that later. In the Reception Hall at Baofeng si, is a statue of Xu Yun. Hitting the wooden fish signaling meal time The meditation Hall at Baofeng Si.   Standing in front of the Chan Hall with two regular Chan sitters. The monk on the left is the head of the Chan Hall.   At the next temple I visited, which was founded by Yunju Daoying (d. 902),a successor to Dong Shan, we see many pictures and artifacts of Xu Yun, who is said to have lived or maybe died there. To understand the importance of Xu Yun, it is important to understand what happened to China, and its effects on Buddhism. The opium wars and the Qing Dynasty’s own corruption destroyed China’s defenses against colonial powers. The forced importation of opium resulted in ¼ of Chinese people addicted to opium, which resulted in virtual collapse of the society. In the mid 1800′s, another import was Christianity. A Chinese man who was converted to Christianity believed he was the younger brother of Jesus. He garnered an army to fight the corrupt and oppressive Qing Dynasty. Called the Taiping Rebellion, it resulted in chaos and civil war, lost food production, all resulting in between 20 and 100 million people dying between 1850-65. By contrast, the US Civil war lasted from 1861-65, and resulted in massive destruction in the US South, and perhaps 800,000 dead of a population of 32 million. China lost its amount of dead in a population of about 350 million. Perhaps up to 20% or more of China was killed outright or died of disease or starvation. Then WWII happened, with the Japanese invasion, which is said to have resulted in the death of another 20 million. Xu Yun lived from 1840-1959. Thus, he lived through not just one, but TWO Holocausts! Here is a picture of the elderly Xu Yun, surrounded by his disciples. Including a young Jing Hui Lao Hesheng (“Jing Hui, the Old Monk [an honorific title]“). After the Communists took power, from about 1960-75, Jing Hui was imprisoned for 15 years, but on his release, followed Xu Yun’s example and rebuilt many temples in China, including Lao Zu Si, Si Zu Si, Bailin Si, and Yu Quan Si, all of which I visited and or stayed at. Here is a picture of Jing Hui and myself. Yan Zhen, the abbot of Baofeng Si, sent me on a tour with one of his young lay students, to see Yunju Shan, and I also to Baizhang Temple, one of the most important temples in Chan history. The founder, Baizhang, had a saying, “A day of no work is a day of no eating.” This goes against the rules laid down by the Buddha, but because Chan monks grew their own food, when Buddhism was almost destroyed by a Chinese Emperor in 843-5, the Chan temples survived, while others who were not independent, did not. This inscription marks the site of a famous story in Chan. The story of the monk reborn as a fox. This is the actual cave where his dead fox body could be found. Yan Zhen is the abbot of Baofeng Si. He speaks English and visited Burma last year. Maybe we can get him to come to Thailand, or even America. Here is an image of old Mazu himself, who was a teacher for Baizhang, we will see that his students eventually produced Linji, who founded the second surviving school of Chan. Along with my vow to visit these famous temples of Jiangxi Province, I also wanted to climb two of the mountains in China sacred to Buddhists, which thousands of sincere pilgrims go to climb. The mountain shown here is Jiu Hua Shan, sacred to the Bodhisattava, Ksitigarbha, (English, “Earth Store”, Chinese “Dizhang”). It’s said that a Korean monk who was a manifestation of Dizhang, lived on the mountain for 75 years, back over 1000 years ago. Here is a stairway on the way to the top of Jiu Hua Shan. Yan Zhen sent me to his monk brother, Yan Hui, who was my guide at Jiu Hua Shan. I also spent time with Yan Hui and discussed issues of history and modern society. Three steps one bow all the way up Jiu Hua Shan.   After climbing Jiu Hua Shan, Yan Hui took me to two other temples. This bell was placed at a temple with a sad history. During the Taiping Rebellion, 3000 people took refuge there, and were massacred. So the abbot of that temple brought the bell, to be rung in memory of the people killed, to help their ghosts rest in peace. It took three tries to climb Wutai Shan, the legendary home of Manjusri Bodhisattva.The second sacred mountain  I visited was Wutai Shan, or 5 Terrace Mountain, home to the Bodhisattva, Manjusri. At one of the countless temples on Wutai Shan, I saw this classic statue of Manjusri (Chinese, Wencu Pusa). I stayed at Wutai Shan for three days, and will write about it later on, as it was not so relevant to my discussion with monks in Thailand.   Monks leaving the chanting hall at Bailin Si. This was the very famous monk, Zhao Zhou, Chan Master’s temple. The temple was totally destroyed, save for a severely damaged pagoda, over the last 1000 years. Jing Hui asked Overseas Chinese  from different countries such as Singapore, Japan and Korea to donate money, and the temple was rebuilt 30 years ago. It is a very active temple (Jing Wu, now at Tong Bo Yan Si did his solitary 3 year retreat here.) Zhao Zhou lived from 778-897. It is said that after his teacher died when he was aged 60, he went on pilgrimage for 20 years, finally settling down at age 80, and he lived another 40 years after that.The Pagoda honoring Zhao Zhou   Jing Hui’s successor, Ming Hai is the abbot of Bailin Si. He was not at that temple when I arrived, so he invited me to see him at this temple, which had also been rebuilt by Jing Hui. This temple, Yu Quan Si, was in the teaching line of Dong Shan, although it came 3 centuries later. It is the place where a monk in the Cao Dong (Soto, in Japanese) school of Chan wrote a book, The Record of Ease, or variously translated as The Book of Serenity, compiling stories of teachers of Chan told throughout several centuries, and is used in conjunction with meditation study. Here is a garden outside the meditation hall.   The final two pictures were taken at Linji’s temple. Linji was the founder of the Linji School, one of the two surviving schools of Chan, or Zen. The pagoda and the meditation hall are shown here. I was brought here by a monk I met at Bailin Si, who calls himself Peter. The young girl, a college student name Jessie, came along, and helped translate for Peter and I. A fuller discussion of my trip follows in the next post. But I wanted to include these pictures and a brief overview. I used these pictures as a presentation to the monks, and a lively discussion followed.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

How to Practice Chan in Daily Life

Last year, I had been invited to attend a conference on Chan, which I wrote about here in another entry. So this year, I felt that I would like to contribute something to the discussion. I wrote an article which a Chinese graduate student, Han Qing, translated into Chinese from English. Most of the people who attended were academics, who presented their papers. The main issue was the history of Chan in that area of China. It was in Hubei Province, where Dao Xin, the 4th Ancestor had the first temple devoted exclusively to the Chan school, since there were many other sects of Buddhism in China going back to the first century. His disciple, Hong Ren started another temple, now called Wu Zu Si, or 5th Ancestor Temple, and it was there that a young Hui Neng arrived, later to become the 6th Ancestor.  Now, in the same small city where Hui Neng gave many of his teachings,  the 3rd Annual Conference on Chan Culture took place, and I presented the following paper.

How to Practice Chan in Daily Life

1 Expression of Gratitude

I would like to thank Jing Hui Fashi, Ming Ji Fashi, and the organizers of this conference on Chan in daily Life for the chance to participate. I also want to thank all the many warmhearted Chinese people I have met who have made my practice of Buddhism in China possible. I would also like to send a long distance bow of gratitude to my teacher, Nelson Foster, for his kind instruction and support.

2 Disclaimer

Before continuing, please let me make a disclaimer, that I am presenting my own opinions, and am not a scholar or teacher,, just a student of the  Way, offering some observations that I have found useful.

3 Introduction

Of course, the topic of our conference is “Chan in Daily Life,”, and I was recently reminded of a talk given by a Korean Chan monk on the Diamond Sutra. He pointed out, that the Sutra’s first Chapter includes this passage:

One day before dawn, the Buddha clothed himself, and along with his disciples took up his alms bowl and entered the city to beg for food door to door, as was his custom.

After he had returned and eaten, he put away his bowl and cloak, bathed his feet, and then sat with his legs crossed and body upright upon the seat arranged for him.

He began mindfully fixing his attention in front of himself,


The monk pointed out that this passage includes the entire sutra. Why? Because it states clearly and simply, how the Buddha conducted his daily activity.

It is said that there were, in the time of the Buddha, 500 Arhats, that is, people who had totally stopped the chain of karma, and would no longer be reborn. At that time there were not so many people in the world, so how could there be so many Enlightened Beings? Nowadays, with so many people practicing, there must be many hundreds or thousands of such beings, and also many Bodhisattvas. Yet, in response to a question about how many Buddhist practitioners have a real initial experience of Enlightenment, Kubota Roshi, a Japanese teacher said that only about 5-10 percent of people who attend Chan Qi have such an experience, and only 5% of those people can answer all the Gong An (Koans).

The probable reason for this is that life then, 2500 years ago, was a lot simpler.

The Diamond Sutra did not say, “The Buddha arose, turned on his Ipad, checked his email, checked his text messages and missed phone calls from his many disciples, then fired up his computer to check the latest news”! The Buddha did one thing at a time. He didn’t multitask!

His physical actions were all done mindfully, with awareness. And he was also aware of his emotional and mental activities. So nowadays, as we self cultivate, we too can be mindful, that is, we pay attention to our bodily actions. The first thing we do, hopefully, when we wake up is to immediately bring attention to our body, and our breathing. However, if we notice ourselves thinking, then we are mindful of the fact that we are thinking.

4 Mindful Arising and the Importance of Daily Sitting Chan

We go to the wash room, attend to our personal needs, and mindfully brush our teeth, wash our face, and then, perhaps do some mindful stretching to bring some flexibility to our body. Then, take some time to sit. Why is sitting so important in the development of Chan in daily life? Because it is so simple, that it frees us from the usual daily complications of talking, planning and so on. We pay attention to our breathing, or to our body, or perhaps to our Hua Tou or Gong An. Nowhere else to go, nothing else to do, Emptiness can arise and we can enjoy the simple joy of Chan, just as it is!

We try to set a regimen of time that we devote to sitting Chan, whatever we find works, be it 15 minutes, 30 minutes, 45 minutes, or perhaps longer.

5 Mindful Eating

Just before we eat, we can take a few seconds to be mindful of the fact that we are eating.

Most people notice if they are hungry, but few are willing to ‘feel’ hungry for the short time it takes to look at our food, and feel grateful for it! We may even say a short poem, such as my American teacher taught me, “We venerate the Three Treasures and are thankful for this food, the work of many people and the sharing of other forms of life”

Before we eat the rice, do we consider all the incredibly hard work of the farmers who planted the rice, took care of it, dug the fields to water it, and then harvest, thresh, dry bag, transport it so we could eat it? If we eat animal products, what about the life of the animal, what it went through, probably not a very easy life, penned in with thousands of other animals and then killed so that we will not go hungry and weak?

6 Cultivating the Social Emotions of Kindness, Compassion, Sympathetic Joy and Equanimity

We probably have interactions with family members or housemates. Do we pay attention as we busily prepare for our day, that they have their own life experiences that they are dealing with? Can we use the lens of Harmony as we conduct behavior?

We are not separate selves! When we act with Chan mind, we encourage others, whether they know it or not, to awaken their own Chan Mind!

7 The Challenge of Mindful Chan Living in Modern Society

One of the biggest challenges nowadays in maintaining mindfulness is the use of mass media and mass marketing, which is specifically designed to make us think or do or feel or buy what other people want us to, So, as we walk down the street, look straight ahead, and don’t get too distracted by the billboards and other enticements. When we are in the shop or supermarket, when something catches our eye, ask the simple question, “Do I need this? Do I want this?” We can then avoid impulsive, thoughtless purchases of stuff that is often useless. When we spend money, what are we spending it on? Is it useful, will it support life or is it wasteful?

Cooking our own food is a healthy alternative to eating fast food, especially from the big name popular chains. Their meals are designed to taste good, but not for good nutrition, regardless of what they may want you to think. So eat healthy food,

These are just some of many examples of how we can practice mindful awareness in our daily life. Chan is the cultivation of conscious living, these are some suggestions.

Buddhism is wonderful because it provides so many useful tools to hone our mindfulness.

8 Importance of the Precepts

One of the best is the 5 precepts.

One list of the 5 precepts is as follows:

 5 Precepts

  • To not kill living beings
  • To not take what is not given
  • To not act sexually in a way that is harmful
  • To not lie, slander, use harsh words, or gossip
  • To not partake of drugs and alcohol
    which lead to further confusion

It is unfortunately true that people break the precepts for personal gain at the expense of others. While the precepts are short and to the point, they can be interpreted broadly. For example, speaking harshly can kill a relationship. Using the work of another person without giving due credit is a form of stealing. Cheating on a spouse or using power as a means of seduction are both forms of misusing sex. Speaking untruthfully, or slandering others can destroy the trust which holds a group of people together in harmony. And it is not just drugs or alcohol, but addiction in all its forms—gambling, watching too much television, shopping for things one really doesn’t need, even working compulsively as a ‘Workaholic’—all these take us away from our true selves.

But we can be sure that breaking the precepts will usually result in lots of thinking, often negative thinking, such as guilt. That doesn’t even include illegal actions that can result in jail time, or worse! It’s been noted that the soldiers who commit suicide were those who often killed others, often innocent people, and later feel tremendous guilt.

We humans are hardwired to do Good, and sooner or later, face the ill effects of our bad actions. So let’s use the Precepts to guide our mindful actions!

9 The Importance of Critical Thinking

In our complex world, we are faced with many difficult decisions, yet this too is an opportunity for us to practice Chan in Daily Life. During the time of the Buddha, he once met some villagers from the place called Kalama. They approached him with the following problem. On successive days, various teachers would visit their village, praise their own teaching while deprecating others’. Confused, they asked the Buddha for his advice. Perhaps we would have expected the Buddha to say, “well of course, I am the Buddha, and I have the perfect teaching!”

That is not what happened. He sympathized with their dilemma, and advised them the following:

Do not blindly believe what is written in your holy books, or spoken by Authority, or what you hear rumored, or take for granted any other form of external advice, but on your own observation and analysis, if what is said conforms with reality and benefits all, then follow that approach. And if, on observation and analysis, something does not appear to be true, and appears to harm others, then reject that approach.


Buddhism is sometimes criticized as being simplistic, with the recitation of a mantra, or simply going to a temple and making offerings. However, a most important component of Buddhist practice, and Chan practice in daily life, is to constantly use our intelligence and critical thinking skill, to thoughtfully and mindfully make wise decisions. When you are at the supermarket, read the label. When you listen to some one, it is OK to respectfully ask questions.

If someone appears to be giving bad, or worse, fraudulent advice, trust yourself! They may not have your best interest in mind, but rather theirs. It is for this reason why our great Chan Teachers like Bodhidharma, or 6th Patriarch Hui Neng, and many others became our great teachers.

10 Conclusion

Finally, we must be patient with our selves, but not too lazy!  We will falter, we will make mistakes, as we go through our daily life, but we will remember that it is our aspiration to be bodhisattvas, even if it takes eons, and regardless the obstacles, that slowly, slowly we vow to refine our life, and face the Present Moment, Here and Now, with courage, honesty and good intention.

One of my great American teachers, Robert Aitken used to say, ‘We are all in this together… and we don’t have a lot of time.” To which I will close by saying, “let us all enjoy practicing Chan together, support each other, as we find our own way, to avoid doing harm, practice all good, and purify our minds.



Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Loi Kraton Festival in Chiang Mai

On November 19th, 2012, I came back to Thailand from Beijing, where the temperature was about 3 degrees Celsius, or 37 Fahrenheit when I left in the early morning. Took a flight to Kunming in Southwest China, and, although the city is 5000 feet high, or about 1600 meters, the weather was a comfortable 22 Celsius, or 70 Fahrenheit. In the evening took a flight back to Chiang Mai, where, at 9 PM, it was still 28 celsius, or 82 Fahrenheit.


Every year around this time is a special festival to mark the Full Moon. It’s called Loi Kraton. This year, based on the Lunar Calendar, it was on November 28.  I think there is also a holiday based on the Lunar Calendar in China, too. Anyway, it is marked by three different kinds of quite beautiful offerings.

First, are the beautiful floats, mounted on trucks, with lovely Thai girls and some young Thai men, dressed it appears as either Royalty, or more likely, as Goddesses and Gods.

Second, there are small hot air balloons, made from paper, with a small burner at the bottom. The burner is lighted, the hot air fills the paper balloons, which then rise to the night sky by the dozens, sending the good wishes off to Heaven.

Third, there are many small boats, not more than a few centimeters or inches across, decorated with flowers and other small items. A Thai girl told me that the boats are an offering to the River Ping (that is the river that runs by Chiang Mai), asking the river to forgive anything the person has done wrong to the river, and I suppose, extending into the person’s life.

Right now, the weather in Chiang Mai is perfect, clear blue sky, about 28 degrees, or into the mid 80′s Fahrenheit. A lot more comfortable than Beijing, at least as far as the weather is concerned!!  This time of year, especially with the Loi Kraton Festival, is the best time of year to visit Chiang Mai.

Apparently, the young Chinese folks are finding out about it. I met a lot of Chinese both last year and this year as well. This is something that was not so when I first came to Chiang Mai, and it always give me smile when I see Chinese people here, joining the many others from Western countries.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Coming back to China, June 2012

Here is a quick update, so sorry for any typos!
So here I am back in China. This time, I started out  with the idea of going overland. I wanted to take a slow boat to China, but there is no  slow boat all the way. I could have taken a bus to the Thai Lao border on the famous Mekong River, and taken the slow boat to Luang Prabang, in North Laos, but decided to just take a bus. A highway has been built in recent years, so that, once you cross the Mekong River by ferry, it’s possible to avoid airplanes completely. china trip 2012 006
So for $60 or so, I got a travel package that included a bus to the Thai  border, dinner, an overnight stay in a guest house in Chiang Khong, a ferry to the opposite side of he river, and then a minivan from the Thai Lao border to the Lao/Chinese border.china trip 2012 010 Then I took a walk across the border,china trip 2012 013 and china trip 2012 014was taken by a taxi to the Chinese immigration office. Unlike the busy and intrusive airport security, there was hardly anyone there. They had an Xray machine for baggage, but hardly bothered with a body scan with one of those wand things to check for who knows what.
So there I was in Mohan, China, and I really wanted to get to Xiamen, through Guangzhou, where I had a friend to meet. But first, there was Pu’Er. Anytime you drink tea in China,  you’d be unlikely to Not be offered some tea from the area around the smallish city of Pu’er, in Yunnan, China’s southwest province. Some of the tea plants are reportedly hundreds of years old, and tea is aged just like fine wines in the West, sometimes selling for prices comparable to the finest wines. They even had a Tea Bubble in 2007, where tea prices and land prices went out of control and then crashed. But of course, in China, Pu’er tea will always be deeply valued, the influx of 1000 Starbucks shops notwithstanding.
I was told that I would have to wait in Mohan for an hour to get a bus to Jing Hong, and then wait further for a bus to Pu’er. But suddenly, a man pointed to a bus that was headed to some town that passes through Jing Hong, so I got a bus in ten minutes, About twenty minutes into the ride, at a different small town  named Mengla, I got off the bus for a toilet break, and as I returned a man rushed towards me, and with my bad Chinese figured out that they wanted me to switch buses and for an extra fee, about $10, get a ride all the way to Pu’er. So I got to Pu’er from the Thai Lao border, starting at 8 AM, and arriving in Pu’er at 8 PM. However, I had no info at all about Pu’er, my guide book doesn’t even mention this most important city of the tea trade. I grabbed a city bus from the long distance bus station, and in my subsurvival Chinese said, “Where’s there a cheap hotel”. A couple of guys motioned to me when to get off, and then another fellow, named Zhao Wei, showed up and in broken English asked what I needed. ” Wo zhao pianyi de lueguan” I am looking for a cheap motel. He led me to a large, somewhat shabby hotel, and for about $9, I got a reasonably decent room with TV bath and shower.
He then took me to a China Mobile Shop, since I needed to reactivate my phone. Early the next day, I went to a big tea shop, ordered, with the help of my tea literate friend Xiaowu, in Xiamen translating for me, a heavy box full of different kinds of Pu’er black tea.china trip 2012 017 A guy on a bicycle rickshaw took me to the post office, so I could send them to my friend Paco’s place in Xiamen, saving myself carrying the extra weight. I got a bus to my next big destination, Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province. I had hoped to go to Yangshuo, with its beautiful river landscapes so reminiscent of Chinese paintings, however, since my friend in Guangzhou had only a small window when she’d be free, I had to pass and go directly to Guangzhou. As soon as I got off the bus from Pu’er, in Kunming, somehow, some guy approached me and asked if I wanted to go to Guangzhou.
For about $26 I could get a sleeper bus (smallish narrow mattress with reasonably clean bedding), bodies packed in with about a foot between bunk beds, and get to Guangzhou in 18 hours. I wasn’t sure of this deal, but a phone call to one of my English speaking Chinese friends confirmed that I could use this way, not a formal bus company. If you sleep on your valuables, and keep big bags in the storage compartment, it will all work out. And sure enough I got to Guangzhou by about 6 PM the next day. The next day, with the help of my friend Yolanda (her English name) I visited the Bodhidharma temple, with its hall of 500 Arhats (not Buddhas, but totally purified beings who are bound for Nirvana),china trip 2012 025china trip 2012 027 followed by two temples dedicated to Hui Neng, the 6th great Ancestor of Chan, or Zen. I told his story in my piece about my visit to the 5th Ancestor’s Temple, Wu Zu Si.china trip 2012 039
 china trip 2012 072
Yolanda is typical of modern young Chinese, eager to succeed in life, yet feeling the pressure of work. We had a wonderful long talk about what we hope to find in life, and with her help, I got an overnight bus ticket to Xiamen.
She had set up a guest house for me to stay in, with a better rate than most tourists get. So when I arrived in Xiamen at about 8 AM, tired from the overnight ride, and damp from walking in a drizzle with my 40 pounds of baggage to last me 6 months, I got to the bus stop for the guest house, but couldn’t find it. So I stopped in to ask directions from another guest house on the street. The owner took one look at me and said, ‘you look so tired’ and you need to take a rest and a shower”. I assured her that I only needed to get to my guest house, but would rest for a bit before proceeding. I told her of my interest in Buddhism and Chan, and how I enjoy helping Chinese with their English, both by teaching, as well as editing Chinese speakers’ translations, which often range from cute, to unintelligible.
She showed me a brochure for the company she owns in Shanghai, and so, here I am staying at her charming guest house at the rear of the beautiful Zhong Shan (Sun Yat Sen) park, teaching her assistant English, and planning to edit her brochure.
Meanwhile, my good friend Lily in Beijing, let me know that an artist friend had written comments to her paintings and needed a translation. So Yolanda and I have worked the past few days preparing that. Aside from the translation, the artist’s ideas and paintings, which are distinctly modern, while reflecting Buddhist and Daiost themes, have been quite interesting and enjoyable to reflect on.
While Chinese are sometimes the ‘inscrutable orientals’ we often have heard of, my experience at least is someone who has had my path smoothed by many Chinese, many of whom were total strangers, and many more who have become wonderful friends.
I am hearing of more and more places where there is serious meditation practice going on, including a 100 day winter retreat. I don’t do well in cold weather, usually getting a bad case of bronchitis, but I do hope to revisit Xue Feng’s temple in early September, and the just mentioned temple, as well as friends in Beijing before the weather gets too cold. Before then, though, I intend to stay at a temple outside Xiamen, where I stayed last summer.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Sesshin in Singapore

Note: photos courtesy of Wah Keong

Since I practice Zen, I am interested in seeing what is going on in the Zen world throughout Asia.
In 2010,  I spent time at Bodhizendo, a meditation center in India, founded by Father Ama Sami, a Jesuit priest, who studied Zen in Japan. His teacher was Yamada Koun Roshi, of the Sanbo Kyodan lineage.

Robert Aitken Roshi , whom I sat several sesshin with, was the teacher of Nelson Foster, my teacher at  Ring of Bone Zendo, my ‘home Sangha’ which is a part of the Diamond Sangha network of Zen practitioners.  Aitken Roshi had likewise studied with Yamada Koun Roshi. So, if we think in familial terms, Nelson is my ‘Dharma Father’. Aitken Roshi was  my ‘Dharma Grandfather’. Yamada Koun Roshi was my ‘Dharma Great Grandfather’. That makes Ama Sami my Dharma Grand Uncle.

And it turns out that there are teachers in Singapore who also trained with Yamada Koun Roshi, as well as one of his key successors, Kubota Roshi. Kubota Roshi would also be considered my Dharma Grand Uncle.
So, when I told Nelson of my plan to sit sesshin, an intensive Zen Meditation retreat, he was supportive of the idea, especially since he has met Kubota Roshi. I decided to contact Wah Keong, a new Sanbo Kyodan teacher, who studied with both Yamada Koun as well as Kubota Roshi. Wah Keong, then, is my Dharma Cousin.  Wah Keong and Nelson have also met. So this sesshin was really a family affair for me.

Wah Keong graciously let me stay at his house, my having arrived a day early from Chiang Mai. I had been able to arrange a direct flight from Chiang Mai to Singapore, but flights are only twice a week. So staying with Wah Keong was convenient and helpful.

Singapore is an unusual city. It had been a British colony for many years, but as part of Malaysia. However, it separated from Malaysia, maybe because it was in a seriously impoverished condition at the time, maybe because its population is mainly Chinese, rather than Malayan. I am not sure of the details. In any case, in the last 30-40 years, it has made really amazing strides. It is a very clean modern city state of about 4.5 million people, with good infrastructure, safe streets, an excellent bus and train system, that is reasonably priced. It also has an excellent education and health care system, and many employees from what I could determine have pensions.The government also runs a Sovereign Wealth fund, which invests widely and is run for the benefit of the people. Kind of like a big trust fund. (Norway and other countries have one too.) Sometimes, nowadays, Singapore is referred to as ‘the Switzerland of Asia’.

It took about an hour and a half to get from the airport to Wah Keong’s place by bus. English is a major, though not the only language spoken. Many people speak a form of Chinese.  There are also  Malaysians, who speak Malay, as well as those of Indian descent, who speak Tamil ( a south Indian language).  Enough people speak English, though, so getting around was pretty easy.

The sesshin was held at his large flat in a condominium complex in Singapore. This was a really international group. The main teacher was Kubota Roshi, who is Japanese.  Wah Keong also gave  daily talks as well as dokusan (private interview with the teacher) the first day (while Kubota Roshi was en route from Japan.)

Wah Keong is of course Singaporean Chinese, with a full time practice as an anesthesiologist. The fact that he could go through his medical training, raise a family and become a successful doctor plus pursue his Zen study so assiduously is amazing  to me. Add to that his warm hearted and disciplined practice, and he is as good a “Dharma cousin” as one could wish for.

Along with the two teachers, were,  I think, 4 Germans, long time Zen practitioners, two Indian Singaporeans, several other Chinese Singaporeans, two Japanese fellows who came all the way from Japan to practice with Kubota Roshi, and myself, from America. There was a  total of about 11 students during the week and another 7 or so who had time on the weekend. This was a very seasoned group of Zen students.

Most of the chanting and Zendo etiquette were the same as with the Diamond Sangha. We even chanted the same translation of the Shodoka, Song of Realizing the Way, and Hakuin Zenji’s Song of Zazen.  Kubota Roshi and Wah Keong both gave excellent talks on Koans (Dialogues or stories with a subtle meaning), which I especially enjoyed, having spent much of my time practicing with no dharma talks, either in Thailand or in China. Kubota Roshi was the first Japanese teacher I had practiced with since my earliest days in San Francisco. He is an excellent teacher, both strict and warm. I also very much appreciated Wah Keong’s suggestions and support. Dokusan took place three times a day, quite unusual for me.
The schedule of sitting and length of the periods was also pretty much the same as with Ring of Bone Zendo, my ‘home zendo’ in California.Twenty five minutes of sitting, and 5 minutes of walking.

The sesshin even ended the same as Ring of Bone, with a circle of sharing experiences and a group lunch.
In the evening, we all went out to a fancy Japanese style restaurant. After the eating was done, we  had a chance to sing songs, which is a standard  Asian custom.  Fortunately, I had prepared myself, so as to spare myself the embarrassment of being asked to sing, and not knowing what to do. I sang three songs, finishing off with Blowin’ In the Wind, which is very popular in China and in Singapore as well. Of course, other students sang too, and we also had a very special slide show. You see, this was to be Kubota Roshi’s final sesshin in Singapore. He is now 80 years old and wants to concentrate his efforts in Japan, while giving Wah Keong and his wife Vivien (both of whom are Zen teachers) the chance to develop their own teaching practice. So we watched 16 years of pictures, showing many of the students at this sesshin as they were going back to 1996!

The following morning, we saw Kubota Roshi off at the airport, and I ended up staying in Singapore for another three days, mainly resting and walking around the China town area, and having tea or ice cream with my new Sangha friends. A special thanks to Maria, who helped me out with hotel accommodations one night, and Kim, who treated me to maybe the best ice cream dessert I ever had!

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Why Sit?

What is this thing about sitting meditation? Sometimes I wonder what it is that makes me sit and practice, and after all, why lots of people throughout history have done so. Most people, especially Westerners think that meditation is something weird or even dangerous. Years ago, I visited a community not too far from my university. This was a time of burgeoning spirituality in 1970.  I was talking with one of the members of the community and when I told him I was interested in meditation, he replied that meditation was a sin. Since when has breathing while being aware of one’s own breathing been a bad thing?
Another time, years later, I went on a business trip to Birmingham, Alabama, for a workshop. My host, in the midst of some cordial banter, asked, “So what did you do before you were in the insurance business? I said, “I was a Buddhist monk”. A big curtain of ice crashed down between the two of us, and his face became cold and hard. “THAT’S DIFFERENT!” he shot back. Sheesh!
Well, nowadays there is growing interest in meditation practice, but in Asia, I find that people are far more open to the subject even if they don’t do it. Seems like people at least in Thailand and China, where I have spent most of my time the last few years often consider it fairly normal. And commendable.
So the question is, what is it about meditation that is so special while not being special at all?
I did a web search and found pictures of various famous sages.  Here is a classic picture of Shakyamuni Buddha, who reportedly lived about 2500 years ago, and is considered the founder of Buddhism.

Shakyamuni Buddha sitting under the Bodhi Tree

This is Hsuan Hua, the famous disciple of Chan Master Xu Yun. Hsuan Hua established a strong Buddhist Center in California, the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, in Mendocino County, as well as other centers. There he is, sitting in Lotus Position.

Hsuan Hua, famed disciple of Master Xu Yun

Here is Lahiri Mahasaya, the famous sage discussed in Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi.

Lahiri Mahasaya

This is a picture from the Brooklyn Museum, showing a man meditating in a garden setting. I think this picture is Persian, but I am not sure, he does not appear to be East Asian.

From the Brooklyn Museum, A Man Meditating in a Garden

Here is a picture of the great sage, Laozi, who lived in China and was roughly contemporary with Gautama, the Indian who became known as the Buddha. As an aside, he got the name “Buddha’ because when people asked him who he was, he answered, “Buddha” which means literally, “Awake”. Laozi was the main founder of Daoism. The Dao is “the Way”. Things just as they are.

Laozi, who wrote the classic Dao De Jing, the most popular book on Daoism

And here is another picture of Daoist Meditation
Daoist, Meditation, “Gathering in the Light” is the method used.

Daoist Meditation, Gathering in the Light

Here we see depicted Mahavira,

Mahavira, a contemporary of the Buddha, who founded the Jain religion in India

a contemporary of the Buddha. It would hard for the average person to tell the difference between this picture and one of the Buddha. They both advocated sitting crosslegged, and both are often depicted with hands in their lap, seated on a lotus seat, with a halo on their head. Mahavira was the founder of the Jain religion which is still practiced in India.

Bodhidharma, the legendary Indian monk, who brought Chan/Zen to China. He is said to have sat meditating, facing a wall in a cave for nine years.

Some contemporary sitters in a park, enjoying their meditation together.

Meditating in Madison Square Park

What do all these spiritual practitioners have in common? They SIT!

Years ago, while I lived at the San Francisco Zen Center’s Green Gulch Farm, I spent time with a Yurok Indian Medicine Man, Harry Roberts, who actually was half Irish and half Indian, but had trained with his Uncle, the tribe’s medicine man. He told me that one of the practices that he did was to go to an isolated forest or mountain place, draw a three foot circle, and sit there for three days with no or almost no moving.
When I was waiting for an airplane in the Singapore Airport recently, I asked if there was a meditation room. In Bangkok and Chiang Mai, Thailand, there is a room for Buddhists and a room for Muslims. In Singapore there was a prayer room that is presumably non denominational but probably almost anyone using it is Muslim. There is also a meditation room, for the use of anyone. I went inside and there were just a few small mats and one chair. I arranged the mats so I could do Zazen (seated Zen meditation), and was there for a few minutes when two people entered. One sat crosslegged and one sat in a chair. Because of the hat one wore, I knew they were Muslim. I could hear them talking. Probably Malay, one said one sound that seemed to be “Buddha’. So my guess is, that they were talking about that Westerner sitting by the rear wall of the room, and guessing I was Buddhist.

Interestingly, I visited a bead shop in Singapore, and the owner sold various kinds of beads, such as necklaces. He also sold Buddhist malas. And when I saw some odd ( to me) looking malas, he told me they were Muslim beads. They have 99 beads, and Muslims chant the names of God. Buddhists use ones with 108. And of course Catholics also use rosary beads. Well, it is not the same necessarily as sitting, but they are used to help control the ongoing out of control thought process which 99% of us call ‘thinking’.

One time I found myself, through an internet chat situation with someone with an Arabic sounding name. He was fretting about the world, which I can certainly relate to. So I suggested that he go into a quiet room, sit down, and start to breath. Breathe in “Al” and breathe out “Lah”. Al  lah….Al   lah. He was flabbergasted. “How did you know I already do that, you must be Muslim!” “No, I replied, this is normal, sit down, breathe in breathe out, this is the human way to calm the mind”.
“No no…you must be Muslim… you should read the Koran.” I thanked him for his suggestion.

The forest monks in Thailand breathe in Bud, and breathe out Dho…Bud…dho. Same thing. There are all kinds of methods one can use in the process of meditation, but common to many many is the simple act of sitting. But why sitting?
Sitting seems to be the natural way for us to just settle down. But in addition, when we sit in a symmetrical way, such as crosslegged, or in a chair with feet planted on the ground, our body finds alignment and balance. Once the body is aligned and in a state of balance and in harmony with gravity, our whole being settles down, in a natural and harmonious way.
We don’t have to “do” anything. Which is exactly the point. We humans are always doing or thinking we “have to” do something. Eat, sleep, walk, talk, but these are more complicated and require more than just the act of focusing, or just observing. So we create more and more stuff from our actions. It really does get tiresome, finally!

There is nothing to do and nothing to fix. Everything is just as it is. Once we are willing to Just Sit, just standing, just walking and so on become natural, our life becomes seemingly effortless, without struggle. “Learning” to sit is the first step.
Lying down is OK, too, but it seems harder to keep the mind from wandering. Likewise with walking or standing. All of these are good and useful, especially if done observantly.
Once we reach a point of observing and focusing, then our actions start to change in subtle ways that are apparently more harmonious. Humans share some basic hardwired values, like not harming or killing, stealing lying, etc.

Of course those unwholesome activities can be very profitable, which is why lots of people do them. But in the end, settling down, seeing things as they are, life becomes somehow easier.
So, sit, be aware.
Usually, when we enter a Buddhist temple or meditation hall, there is a statue or an image of Shakyamuni Buddha, or another of his famous disciples or other Enlightened Beings. People objectify these images, and we bow to them. Some people dismiss this as idol worship. How can bowing or offering incense of flowers to a block of wood or stone be useful?

However, when I see a such a statue, I ask, what is this about? Is the block of wood saying, ‘give me money’, ‘give me incense’, ‘light a candle’, etc.? I can assure you that the image will do just fine without that (although making some offering to the temple will help support the activities there of course, and also help to open our hearts with the feeling of generosity.) But that is not what the statue is ‘saying’. I am amazed that people overlook this most direct teaching. Children learn by watching and copying others. So the wordless teaching of a Buddha image is, “if you want to be liberated and free, like me, then do what I am doing RIGHT NOW. SIT!” Said with a smile of course.
The great founder of Soto Zen (Caodong  Chan in Chinese)Dogen Zenji, gave a wonderful exposition of this practice, Universally Recommended Instructions for Zazen. In it he says,
“Need I mention the Buddha, who was possessed of inborn knowledge? The influence of his six years of upright sitting is noticeable still. Or Bodhidharma’s transmission of the mind-seal?–the fame of his nine years of wall-sitting is celebrated to this day. Since this was the case with the saints of old, how can we today dispense with negotiation of the Way?”

Of course, this sitting does not mean being a  Couch potato! It is not an excuse to zone out. However, sitting frees us from the usual tasks that living beings have, and allows us the freedom to direct our mind, or as Dogen says, to turn the light backward. Instead of always looking outside, look within.
Jesus said not to worry so much about the splinter in the other person’s eye, but to see the log in our own eye. That is the same idea. It is sitting which is the scalpel that refines our consciousness.
When we first start to practice sitting meditation, our minds and bodies may be very restless and even uncomfortable, kind of like a fish out of water, flopping around, or, as it said in some of the earlier Buddhist texts, like a calf tied to a post, jumping around, trying to escape.
However, if we use our consciousness and effort to gently and persistently return to just sitting with our meditation topic, be it mindfulness of the breath or body, or thoughts, or a mantra, or other specific mental object, or even, no object just attention to the present moment… at some point we realize that Dogen is correct when he says, that Zen sitting is ‘not meditation, It is simply the Dharma Gate of Repose and Ease.
Sitting down, settling down, we find that we and everything is somehow OK just as it is. From there, we can go out into the world and act appropriately.

Look again at all the famous sages noted above, from many spiritual traditions. What do they have in common? They sit!


Filed under Uncategorized