Monday, February 26, 2007

The Renunciation of Chen Xiaoxu

The Dhammapada says:

"If by forsaking a limited happiness,
He would realize an abundance of happiness;
The wise man should forsake the limited

for the sake of the abundant."

It is all over the news - Chen Xiaoxu, once famous for playing the female lead Lin Daiyu in the adapted Chinese Classic "Dream of the Red Chamber" on TV in the 1980s, has renounced the world & ordained as a Bhikkuni in the Buddhist Order. From virginal beauty to famous actress to successful business women and finally to Buddhist Nun - the life of this 40 yr old Chinese beauty is nothing less than legendary.
Even at that time, most people thought that Chen awas perfect for the role of Lin Daiyu. As those of you familiar with the Chinese Classics would know, Daiyu is a frail beauty who is deeply sentimental & melancholic in character. Chen's ethereal features & real life character was no different from the role she portrayed in the "Dream of the Red Chamber". It was a role that shot her to instant stardom, but also one that ended her acting career. The portrayal of Lin Daiyu was so deeply ingrained in the hearts & minds of the people that nobody could really accept her as anything else. In fact, Chen herself was so deeply influenced by the character that it became her alter-ego. She only managed to act in another adapted classic before resigning from the acting scene altogether. With the end of her acting career also spelt the end of her first marriage.
Chen subsequently married her current husband, Hao Dan. Together, they ventured into the advertising business, & in a few years grew to become a successful multi-million Yuan company. With the fame & success brought material well-being for her whole family, but in her heart she continued to feel unfufilled in terms of true happiness.
One day in 1999, Chen happened to hear a recording of Ven Chin Kung preaching the Sutra of Amitayus in her friend's car. Ven Chin Kung is a modern day Patriarch of the Pure Land school and his teachings struck a chord in Chen's heart. She was so deeply moved by the Venerable's words that she wanted to meet him immediately. Learning that he had been preaching in Singapore for some time, Chen flew from Beijing to Singapore to look for Ven Chin Kung. She found him at the Amitabha Buddhist Society in Geylang and asked to be given the 3 refuges. Ven Chin Kung was happy to see her newfound faith, & promptly gave her the refuges and the 5 percepts. Chen was also bestowed the Dharma name of Miao Zhen.
From then on she dutifully practiced the Pure Land teachings everyday, reciting the Sutra of Amitayus in the morning & Ksitigarbha Sutra in the evening. After Chen returned to China, she became vegetarian & even set up an altar in her office for her chanting. Her gentle devotion to the Dharma also moved her husband, such that he too became a Buddhist.
But it was not until last year that Chen decided to take a step further. She contracted breast cancer & by the time it was discovered, it was already at an advanced stage. Struck by a life-threatening disease in her middle-age, she finally gained a powerful realization of impermanance; though she had a happy married life and great wealth, yet all the money in the world could not save her from the Lord of Death. So Chen decided to not to fight her cancer but rather put all her energies to purifying her own mind through intensive Amitabha recitation. She made a vow that if she could somehow survive, she would renounce the worldly life and devote herself to propagating the Dharma.
True enough, Chen managed to pull through without any chemo-therapy. She did have treatment by Chinese medicine, but the cancer still gave her a lot of pain. Despite the pain she had gathered enough mental strength to fufill her vow, which was to become a Buddhist Nun. And so on the 6th day of the Chinese New Year, with the support of her husband and her family, she went through with the ordination ceremony at the Xinlong Monastery in Changchun, China. Now she is known as Ven Bhikkuni Miao Zhen. Her faithful husband will also follow in her footsteps and become a monk in Shenzhen after settling all their assets.

The fact that Chen developed a heart of faith immediately after listening to the Dharma for the first time in 1999 shows that she had cultivated good roots for many lifetimes. Like a fertile seed within her mind, it came to fruitition upon meeting the right conditions in this life. Most of the ordinary people will just hear and forget if they were in her situation, like pouring water into a leaking urn. But not Chen, as her karma is already ripe for receiving the Dharma.
Whenever old age or illnesses befall us, foolish people will think how tragic it is to lose their strength, & wallow in self-pity. Only the wise see that these signs of decay are really Devaduta - divine messengers proclaiming the truth of Anicca (Impermanance), Anatta (Not-self) & Dukkha (Suffering) to us. They remind us not to waste time indulging in sensual pleasures anymore; prompt us to seek the Dharma & to reach the doors of the deathless. Will you take heed? Or will you rather be heedless and suffer in the future? That is the challenge they present to us everyday. Just like when Prince Siddharta witnessed the 4 sights, they inspired him to give up his family & kingdom to seek the Truth. In the case of Chen, her cancer was not bad karma as most people might be conditioned to think; it was in fact the catalyst that awakened her true potential. Without it she might not have gained the determination to let go of all her fame, wealth & love; which although provides us with temporary happiness, they are also the things that bind us to the wheel of samsara life after life. As sure as the Sun will rise in the East, Chen will be able to gain liberation in her remaining life & be reborn in Amitabha's Pure Land. Let us rejoice for her.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Year of the Pig 2007

The Classic of History say:

"When Heaven creates calamity,
There is still hope to be forgiven;
But if you yourself create calamity,
There is no hope of escape."

The Year of the Pig has arrived once again. This year belong to the heavenly stem & earthly branch of Ding Hai. Contrary to popular belief, this year is not the Golden Pig, but belongs to the Fire Pig, because the heavenly stem of Ding in under the element of Fire. According to the Tongsheng (Traditional Chinese Almanac) forecast, this year will be one of abundance in crop harvest. The Earth Mother Scripture says:

"Sowing in Summer one encounters thirst in Autumn,
The harvest in Autumn comes to 80 percent;
Plagues will be rampant among the people,
And the livestock will face great difficulty;
The joy of the silk women would be in vain,
For although the silkworms are many,
Yet they do not form cocoons."

So although agricultural nations can expect a good harvest, they will encounter drought in autumn. And for silk farmers, they will not be able to get much silk this year since the silkworms will be many yet unproductive.

One important thing to note is the mention of plagues among men & animals. Coincidentally, the annual Flying Stars movement chart also foretell of such problems. This year the 2 Black Star have taken central placing, whereas the 5 Yellow Star have shifted to the Northeast. These are the unlucky stars that bring trouble for Man. 2 Black is the Star of Pestilence & 5 Yellow is the Star of Plague or Calamity. Thus we might expect a virus outbreak in the central & northeast regions of the world. The "world" can mean China, Asia, or perhaps even the globe. Bird Flu is a likely candidate since it continues to plague many regions in Asia, but new viruses mutations are also possible. We should also not forget the year 2003, where the 5 Yellow Star was in the Southeast, corresponding to the SARS outbreak in Southeast China (Guangdong province) & Southeast Asia (Singapore). Will history repeat itself this year? The wise knows that precautions need to be taken no matter how things turn out.

Whenever plagues bring calamity to Man, the root cause can always be traced back to his negative karma of killing. In the case of SARS, it was the indiscriminate killing of civet cats & other wild animals in Guangdong that led to the birth of that terrible virus. In the case of Bird Flu, it was the inhumane killing of fowl that caused it to spread to human beings. Once every few years, the collective karma of all these killing will reach a boiling point, erupting into a new virus outbreak against Man. In reality the stars do not give us disaster, but we give ourselves disaster. The unlucky stars are merely a reflection of the bad karma we create by not observing the 5 percepts of refraining from killing, theft, sexual misconduct, false speech & intoxicants. But history reveals that often it is the sin of killing that bears negative fruits in the swiftest time.

Therefore if we really want to avoid suffering, we must stop taking lives & cultivate compassion towards all sentient beings. Although vegetarianism is optional in Buddhism, even though we need not give up eating meat in our Dhamma practice, we must always observe the 4 rules of pure consumption, namely:

1. Not to eat if one sees the animal being killed.

2. Not to eat if one hears the animal being killed.

3. Not to eat if the animal is killed specially for you.

4. Not to eat if the animal is reared by yourself.

If we can observe these 4 rules, then we would not create negative karma in our daily dietary needs. If we can be vegetarian, that is even better; but depending on physical conditions, not everyone can adjust to a completely vegetarian diet. That is why the Buddha recommended flexiblity on this point. The most important teaching to remember is to have compassion for animals in the same way as humans. Do not do unto them what we would not do unto ourselves. To refrain from killing as well as to observe the rest of the 5 percepts is the true path to happiness. If we observe the percepts as though our lives depended on them, then no plagues or calamities can ever befall us, sadhu.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Original Face

What is the Original Face? It is the face all of us have before our parents gave birth to us. Before we even have the 6 sense organs of eyes, ears, nose, tounge, body & brain to perceive the 6 sense objects of form, sound, smell, taste, feeling & thought. Before we even know good & evil, happiness & suffering, samsara & nirvana. Simply the pure awareness untainted by all 6 senses - that is the real YOU. That is also me, that is also all sentient beings & all Buddhas. This is the Dharma that the 6th Patriarch revealed to his pursuer Hui Ming on Da Yu mountain. By temporarily shutting down your 6 sense organs and blocking out the 6 sense objects, by abandoning duality, what is left at that instant is your true nature. Like the still lake without a single ripple, or like the clear blue sky without a single cloud; the original face is vast, limitless, formless & completely free. It is not dull nothingness like an unconscious person, but a living, unmoving awareness that pervades all things, yet remaining unaffected by all things. Besides this, there is no other esoteric teachings that the Buddha & the Patriarches can impart to us.
But alas, for all of us, after we have picked up a physical body in our mother's womb, we have totally forgotten our original face. We started to grasp on to our sense organs, believing that to be our Self, our Ego. This is where the ignorance without a beginning - Avijja takes over. When our sense organs contact the sense objects, we instinctively allow the objects to enslave the organs, such that craving & aversion developes without an end, engulfing the entire universe. From Avijja arises craving & aversion, & from craving & aversion arises endless suffering.
Thus realizing this, the Zen practitioner should, in a single thought understand his or her own mistake, & immediately detach oneself from one's senses & its objects from within. Throwing away all concepts, directly penetrate the veil of Avijja & recover your original face. This is the common hope of all Buddhas & Patriarches for all sentient beings. Let none of us dissappoint them, sadhu.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Is Pure Land more practical than Zen?

There are some Pure Land teachers who claim that in this Dharma Ending Age, you can only hope to acheive result through Amitabha recitation. They believe that seeking rebirth in the Pure Land is the only reliable way of transcending Samsara. All the other Mahayana schools, especially Zen, only works for the ancients, who have greater aptitude & determination than any modern person. They say there are almost no enlightened Zen masters left in the world today, whereas there are still thousands of Pure Land practitioners who have achieved rebirth there. So this is a proven method with live examples that we should all follow. What are we to make of this kind of rhetoric?
Chan Master Ven Xuyun had this to say:

"For those who have attained enlightenment, all Dharmas are universally penetrating. Zen contemplation is the Way, Buddha recitation is the Way, even mundane chores like digging the soil is the Way. In my whole life I have never discouraged anybody from recitation, but I'm not happy with those people who discourage others from contemplation."

There are 84,000 methods that lead to enlightenment; no one path is superior to another. Zen is Zen & Pure Land is Pure Land, what good does it do to put down one in order to elevate the other? Saying that the ancients are superior to modern men is self-defeating talk. Although people of the present have much more distractions then those of the past, but in terms of intelligence, didn't modern men built airplanes, bullet trains, satellites, super computers, sky-scrapers & spaceships that could land on the moon? If we talk about the kleshas, the mental defilements that affect sentient beings are the same for all men, no matter whether they lived in the past, present or future. Just go through the Sutta Pitaka & you will realize that some of the Buddha's followers have even worse obstacles than we do, but that did not stop them from eventually reaching enlightenment in one lifetime. So why should we look down on ourselves & give up before we have even made a good effort?

As for saying that there are no more enlightened Zen masters left in the world; who then is Ven Xuyun? Who is Ven Yuexi? Are they Pacceka (Solitary) Buddhas who attain enlightenment on their own? Surely not. They too learned from other enlightened masters in their younger days. The fact is that the Chan lineage in China was never broken. The heart transmission of Zen carries on, generation after generation from the 6th Patriarch up to this day. The same could be said for the Zen lineages in Korea, Japan & elsewhere. Those who say that there are no more people who achieved result from Zen contemplation are surely misguided or misinformed.

Regarding the claim that many practitioners who practiced Amitabha recitation achieved rebirth in the Pure Land, with auspicious signs to prove, I believe that there is nothing wrong with that. These serve as inspirations for those inclined to practice the Pure Land teachings. However, at no point should anybody make use of these stories to put down other schools & propogate Pure Land as the only method that works! The scriptures say:

"Virtuous One, concepts of superiority & inferiority exist in your own mind. They are not in accordance with the Buddha's wisdom."

A truly wise teacher will not only encourage people to practice the method of his own school, but at the same time he should also praise the merits of the other schools without any discrimination. Only in this way the teacher can be in accordance with the Buddha's wisdom & ensure the long-term harmony of His Sasana, sadhu. Happy Chinese New Year 2007 to all!

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Huang Bo's instruction to the dying man

Ven Huangbo Xiyun (776 - 856 CE), a native of Fuzhou in Fujian province, is one of the great Chan masters of the Tang Dynasty. He is also the teacher of Ven Linji Yixuan, founder of the Linji (Rinzai) school of Chan Buddhism. His teachings, recorded in 2 books, "The Dharma Essence of Chan Master Huangbo's Heart Tranmission" & "Wanling Records of Chan Master Huangbo", have a far-reaching influence on Chan or Zen practitioners up to this day.

Huangbo had this to say for instructions to a dying person:

"If an ordinary man, when he is about to die, could only see that -
The 5 aggregates & the 4 elements as void and not Self;
The True Mind as formless and neither coming nor going;
His nature as something neither beginning at his birth nor ceasing at his death, but as perfect and unmoving in its very core;
His mind and its projections as One --
If he could thus enter straight into sudden enlightenment, he would no longer be entangled by the 3 Realms and become a World Transcender.
One should not even have the faintest tendency towards rebirth.
If you should behold the glorious vision of all the Buddhas coming to receive you, surrounded by every kind of auspicious manifestations, you should feel no desire to follow them.
If you should behold all sorts of horrific forms surrounding you, you should also experience no fear. Simply forget your own mind and become one with the Dharmakaya, gaining absolute freedom.
This is the essential principle."

How should we understand this? It means that a person, whether living or dying, must come to the realization that our entire physical & mental world is totally illusionary. The true mind is like a movie screen. The elements, aggregates, sense organs, its objects, & our consciousness; all these are movie images projected onto the screen. These moving images tells all sorts of stories, some happy, others sad, some long, some short, but all coming to an end at some point of time. But the screen? It simply remains as a screen no matter how many movies have been projected onto it. Since time immemorial, this screen has always remained the same for all Buddhas & sentient beings alike. However, due to the obstruction of Avijja, sentient beings never see the screen itself, only the movies on the screen. They believe these ever-moving series of images to be their self, their life, their only reality. Death is like the short intermission between one movie & the next. At this point where all images dissolve temporarily, it is the easiest to see the movie screen, provided one possesses the Right View.

Therefore the Chan practitioner must cultivate Right View & let it be permanantly carved into one's mind. Even if you do not reach enlightenment in this life, it will surely guide you to enlightenment when you recall it at the moment of death.