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.

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