By Guo Qing
Translated by Wayne
When the new China was born (in 1949), I was only 5 yrs old. From young I received an atheistic education, never coming into contact with Buddhism or any other religions before. When I grew up I visited temples, but only as a tourist. I even visited a church with my schoolmates out of curiosity. But deep in my heart I regarded religion as mere superstition.
How then did I end up on the path of Dharma study?
The story must go back to my travels to Wutai Shan in mid-summer 10 over yrs ago.
Wutai Shan is 1 of the 4 Sacred Buddhist Mountains of our country, the site of enlightenment for Bodhisattva Manjusri. I have already visited those famous monasteries there long before. Those majestic ancient temples, the incense-filled grand halls, and the refreshing symphony of gongs and chimes; all these strike me with a powerful sense of déjà vu. At that time of my visit, I suddenly had the inspiration to seek out those hermit monks hidden deep within the mountain. I will never forget that chilly dawn and purple mist rising from the east. Feeling remarkably fresh, I packed my belongings and wielding a map I embarked on my adventure to seek out the unknown. Who can foresee that it would be a journey that would change my destiny as well as that of many others? Even today, I still regard Wutai Shan as the place of my rebirth.
Striking out, I purposely avoided the well trodden path and chose to follow the meandering tracks. The view of the high mountain peaks, the deep forests, the smoky mist and the reflective snow were breathtaking. My spirit and mind felt totally refreshed and clear. As the track got more and more uneven, I decided to wonder into the ravine to admire the ancient trees, rocks, streams and plants up close. Making the climb up, I did not realize it was already past midday. But neither having seen a hermit or a monk, I started to feel a little dejected. Just as I felt lost in the surroundings, suddenly I seemed to hear a faraway knocking sound: the “tok, tok, tok” echo from a wooden fish (used for chanting) lingered around the mountain, like a heavenly gap opening before me. Instincts told me that this sound came from the misty forest valley to the west. Immediately I trekked across stones and grass heading towards the valley. Once I entered the valley, I had the impression that I had stepped into some sort of divine paradise. The knocking sound became closer, but it suddenly came to a stop. I had my whole attention to the sound, failing to notice the flowing stream beneath my feet. It appeared like an immortal descending from heaven, pure and precious as it was. Without second thoughts I crouched down and drank the stream water. How cool and fragrant it felt in my mouth! After drinking I continued to wash my face with the water in ecstasy. Just as the water drops were splashing all around, I realized there was someone standing on the other side of the stream. I lifted my head in surprise to see who it was.
I saw an old monk with unkempt hair and beard, wearing old robes and grass sandals, standing there with folded hands. His hair and robes were fluttering in the pine breeze. Meeting his eyes across the shore, I felt a little giddy. His gaze was filled with compassion, clarity and peace. Not knowing how I got to the other side, I had the feeling that he was one of my parents from a past life, drawing my being towards him.
“Sorry to disturb you, donor (layperson).” The old monk clasped his palms in greeting.
“Oh no, it is I who have disturb your quiet cultivation.” I returned his greeting in a confused manner. Heaven knows, this was the first time I was speaking with a man of the robe. I tried quickly to muster some polite language from memory to use.
“Does the donor like this place of solitude?”
“I only wished to avoid the noisy tourist spots and take a walk in the mountain.” I felt embarrassed to say that I was hoping to have some sort special encounter.
“Oh, then I must really have interrupted you. Good journey to you, I will be on my way.”
Just as I was at a lost for words, the old monk had already breezed away towards the west. I followed him and uttered with a red face, “Please stay. Actually I had hoped to meet a high dignitary like you.”
“Sadhu, I’m no ‘high dignitary’, I’m only a stubborn guiding monk.”
“Was it you knocking the wooden fish earlier?” I opened my mouth wide.
“The wooden fish knocks the dreaming traveler awake, the clear stream washes away the dust- clogged heart.”
I silently contemplated on what the old monk have said, and even as I was still struggling with the meaning, we have already reached a clearing. Evergreen trees rise into the sky to the sound of a gushing spring. Old pear trees are planted around the clearing, with thick branches and bountiful fruits. To the north the ground is higher and more flat, with a small thatched grass shed facing the spring.
“I really met with a high dignitary aloof from the mundane world!” I was so excited with many questions, but fearing to pollute the purity of this place with my vulgar speech, I stopped myself from asking out loud.
“The world of Samsara offers no lasting place of refuge. Our time is limited and we should not wait for death to come to us. Fame and fortune always comes to naught, worldly love never fails to part and the cycle of revenge has no end.” A seemingly unintentional utterance from the old monk struck me like thunder in my mind. “Worldly men only know how to commit evil, not knowing how to repent. They only want to enjoy the fruit of their merits, but know not how to treasure it. Do they not know that ‘a single Buddha recitation produces immeasurable merits; a single prostration dissolves sin as much as sand grains in the river’?”
I involuntarily took 2 steps forward and kneeled before the old monk, “Master, please accept me as your disciple; I wish to learn the Dharma from you.”
“The Buddha Dharma is profound like the ocean; only faith can grant one entry. Do you ‘believe’?” The old monk purposely emphasized on the word ‘believe’.
I was at a lost for words. Yes, all along I had believed Buddhism to be superstition, and the thought of praying to gods and Buddhas filled me with disdain. So why did I kneel so piously before an old monk whom I don’t even know? I could not find any answers at this moment. But words like ‘emptiness’, ‘dust-clogged’, ‘repentance’ etc, have etched deeply into my mind, stirring long hidden feelings within it. In my confusion I realized the old monk was gazing at me in a compassionate way. My emotions surged and teardrops started to flow out of my eyes, falling onto his white socks. Even though I knew that I have lost my composure, but I still could not stop the tears from flowing, like a weeping child guilty of committing an offence.
“Faith is the source of the Way and the mother of merits, but there is Right Faith and Superstitious Faith. Right Faith means to believe in what is right and not what is wrong, to be awakened and not to be deluded. Those who take refuge in the Buddhist religion must first establish correct views…
“To prostrate to the Buddha is to venerate the Buddha’s virtues, to recite the Buddha’s name is to be grateful to the Buddha’s kindness , To read the Sutras one must understand their teachings, to meditate is to ascend into the Buddha’s state and to gain enlightenment is to verify the Buddha’s path… ”
I listened to every word the old monk was teaching me attentively like a thirsty man drinking water; feeling as if there was a golden light emitting from every blade of grass and there was a Buddha face on every piece of leaf. Without knowing the time that have passed, the sun had already set into the west and the old monk got up to send me out of the mountain. Suddenly as if performing a magic trick, he took out a pear from the stone hollow in the heart of the spring to give to me. Seeing the fresh yellow fruit I then realized I had not eaten any food the whole day. Thanking him I took a bite from the pear. How fragrant and refreshing it tasted, like some sort of heavenly fruit. The old monk observed my amusing expression and laughed like a child, showing hearty joy in every wrinkle on his face. That laughter moved me deeply. It is as if we had become long time friends.
“Originally this pear tastes bitter, difficult to eat; but after soaking it for 3 months in this spring water, it turns sweet. This spring is moisturizing in winter and cooling in summer. Pears picked from the trees could be stored in the flowing water for 1 whole year.”
“Wow, that means you can cultivate here for as long as you like right?” I was filled with curiosity and awe.
The old monk smiled, but did not answer.
The ancient moon, the cool breeze and the flowing stream were all there for us. We chatted along the way, and without feeling any coldness or difficulty we have arrived back in the road leading to Taihuai town. The old monk took out a piece of folded paper from his sleeve pocket to pass to me, after which he clasped his palms to bid farewell. I felt unwilling to part, but saying more would be futile.
“If we have affinity we shall meet again.” The old monk’s silhouette disappeared into the pine forest.
Coming face to face with the myriad city lights again, I felt somewhat emotional and lost. “Thus the day has passed, and our life has been reduced; like a fish lacking water, what joy is there to be found?” My mind had never felt so clear and peaceful until today. Thinking about the old monk, who said he would be finishing his retreat soon and coming out into the world to preach, I hurried myself back to the place of lodging, as if that would allow us to meet again sooner.
I sat quietly in front of my room desk and contemplated on the whole dream-like experience today, starting to relish in its profound significance. Suddenly I realized that I had forgotten to ask for the old monk’s name. Though I was upset, I remembered that he had left me a piece of folded paper, which I opened:
The sun sets on the thatched hut with deep meaning
Sitting alone on the steps I grind the jade wheel
Wax and wane could not damage the beginning mind
Plain eyes with compassion are obscured by sword dust
The orchid collects dew, the bird dwells in spirit
The myriad chanting sounds merge into the clouds
With light pleasure I dance in the pine breeze
Neither nourishing the false nor adorning the true
Those few poetic lines of primitive simplicity came before my eyes. At the bottom is another neat line of small words ◇◇◇◇◇◇◇◇◇◇◇◇◇◇◇◇ Shi Miaofa
What a wonderful “neither nourishing the false nor adorning the true”! With the address of Venerable Miaofa, I’m very pleased with the hope of bathing in the Dharma rain once again soon. Not long after, I contacted the Venerable and thus began my long standing master disciple relationship with him.
Time elapses quickly, 10 years have passed with a snap.
Now I had come close to retirement age. During this time I have witnessed the Venerable exert the utmost effort to teach countless sentient beings, with scant regard for his own body. As for me I have passed my time in vain, unable to let go of my attachments, rarely putting the teachings into practice and feeling quite ashamed about it. But I do not wish for these fresh and irrefutable examples of Karma to go with me to the grave. So after much thought, I finally picked up my blunt pen to write. If there are some words in this book that are inappropriate, or parts that are incomplete, I hope that there will be virtuous ones and Dharma friends to correct me. Lastly, I wish to share this verse with fellow practitioners for mutual encouragement:
Not willing to abandon craving and anger,
one reads the Sutras in vain;
Looking at the prescription but not obtaining the medicine,
how can one’s illness be treated?
At the beginning of the new millennium, I wish our brethren to be able to take in people of all aptitudes, cultivating both the sharp and the dull so as to grow in wisdom and merit, ultimately attaining Buddhahood. (Due to many inconveniences, I have changed the names and locations of the characters in this book. I seek you understanding on this point.)
Namo Amitabha Buddha
Ashamed Buddhist disciple - Guo Qing