Master Hsu Yun brief Biography
By Upasaka Lu K'uan Yu (Charles Luk)
The Mountain Path / Vol. 1 - OCTOBER
1964 - No. 4
Ch'an Master Hsu Yun was born on 26th April 1840 at Chuanchowfu
in Fukien province. His father was an official of the prefecture
and his mother died immediately after giving birth to him. His
uncle was childless and adopted him as his heir; so his grandmother
decided that he should take two wives to continue both families.
When he was 11, his grandmother died and monks
were invited to perform Buddhist rites. This was the first time
he saw monks or sacred objects and it made him very happy. After
this he read the sutras which deeply impressed him. When his uncle
took him on pilgrimage to Nanyo, he became so attached to the holy
place that he was reluctant to return home. When he was 14, his
father discovered that he wanted to renounce the world and, in
order to keep him, engaged a Taoist to teach him meditation. After
practicing Taoism for three years, he decided that its teaching
failed to reach the ultimate goal. One day he fled to Nanyo but
was soon found and brought home. Some time later his father sent
for the two girls and celebrated Hsu Yun's marriage. Although the
latter lived with his two wives, he had no intercourse with them
but taught them the Dharma, which they understood.
At 19, together with his cousin Fu Kuo, he fled to Kushan monastery
at Fuchow where his head was shaved, and here he followed the Master
Miao Lien and received full ordination. After being ordained, his
cousin left in search of enlightened masters but was never heard
of again. Hearing that his father had sent servants to look for
him, Hsu Yun hid in a grotto behind the monastery where he practiced
austerities for the next three years. At 25 he learned that his
father had died in Hunan province and that his stepmother with
his two wives had entered a nunnery.
During these years in the grotto, he made very good progress and
had most interesting experiences. He says in his autobiography:
"I was able to make my heart content and became free to go
anywhere I wanted. As there were mountains to stay on and herbs
to eat, I started wandering from place to place." At 31, he
went to Wenchow where he met a monk who urged him to call on the
old master Yung Ching who was well-versed in both teaching and
Ch'an transmission. This master urged him to resume eating rice
and to use the Kung An (koan) "Who is dragging this corpse
of mine?" and ordered him to study the Ch'an rules, the Lotus
teaching and other important sutras. From 36 to 43 he went on a
pilgrimage to P'u T'o island off Ningpo, which was the bodhimandala
of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, thence to the monastery of King
Asoka at Ningpo and to many other holy places where he called on
well-known masters and made good progress in his Ch'an practice.
At 43, he took stock of his achievements which were not complete
and remembering how he had sacrificed his love for his parents
in order to join the Sangha, he was ashamed that he had attained
so little. In order to repay his debt of gratitude to them, he
decided on a long pilgrimage from P'u T'o to the Five-Peaked Mountain
(the bodhimandala of Manjusri) in the North-west to pray for their
rebirth in the Pure Land. From the thatched temple of Fa Hua on
P'u T'o island, he set out with incense sticks in his hands, prostrating
himself every three paces until he reached his destination.
In his long walk with prostration at every third step and concentration
on repeating Manjusri's name, he succeeded in realizing singleness
of thought which was the key to his subsequent success in Ch'an
training. Twice he was in danger of death and twice he was saved
by Manjusri who appeared as a beggar called Wen Chi to hide his
identity, instead of Wen Shu as he was called in China. The first
time he had been caught in a heavy snowstorm and was very hungry,
tired and exhausted for several days after which he was given some
yellow rice gruel which brought him back to life. Later he caught
malaria and dysentery and was dying in a deserted temple on the
top of a mountain when the beggar appeared again to give him the
hot water and medicine that saved him. Chi asked several questions
which Hsu Yun did not understand and could not answer because he
was still unenlightened and did not understand the living meaning
of Ch'an dialogue (Japanese, mondo). Although he was told by the
beggar that the latter was known in every monastery on the Five-Peaked
Mountain, when he arrived there and asked the monks about Wen Chi
no one knew him. Later he mentioned the incident to an elderly
abbot who brought his palms together and said: "That beggar
was the transformation body of Manjusri Bodhisattva." Only
then did the master realize that he had actually met the Bodhisattva
who had saved him twice on the long journey.
After sitting in meditation, he paid reverence to the Bodhisattva
on the Five-Peaked Mountain, thus fulfilling his vow taken three
years before to pray for the liberation of his parents. During
this long journey, which took three years, he succeeded in realizing
singleness of mind (i.e., the pure and undisturbed mind) even in
the midst of hardship, adversity, illness and danger. On the mountain
he saw, as many other pilgrims including devotees from foreign
countries have done, balls of light dancing from one peak to another.
The master then went west and south, passing through many holy
places where he paid reverence and sat in meditation until he reached
the holy site of Samantabhadra Bodhisattva on mount O Mei in West
Szechwan. There he saw at night countless Buddha-lights, like a
constellation of bright stars in the sky. He continued his westward
journey and entered Tibet where he visited the Potala, the seat
of the Dalai Lama, and that of the Panchen Lama at Tashi Lunpo
monastery. He then left Tibet to visit the holy sites of India,
after which he crossed to sea to Ceylon, and thence to Burma. He
then returned to China where he first visited the Cock's Foot Mountain
in Yunnan which was the bodhimandala of Mahakasyapa, and then passed
through the provinces of Kweichow, Hunan, Hupeh, Kiangsi and Anhwei.
In his autobiography the master wrote of these two years of travel:
"The scenery changed every day but my pure mind was like a
bright moon hanging solitarily in the sky. My health grew more
robust and my steps were rapid."
In his 54th and 55th years, the master stayed on a mountain to
read the tripitaka. At 56, he was invited to the famous monastery
of Gao Ming at Yangehow to assist its abbot in supervising the
twelve weeks of Ch'an meditation. On his way to Yangehow, he slipped
and fell into a rising river and was caught in a fisherman's net.
He was carried to a nearby temple where he was revived. He was
very ill but went on to Kao Ming monastery where he was asked to
help at the forthcoming meditation weeks. Without disclosing his
illness, he politely declined the abbot's request, asking only
to be allowed to attend the meditation meetings. His refusal was
regarded as an affront to the whole community and, according to
Kao Ming's rules of discipline, he was punished by being beaten
with a wooden ruler. As the master was practising the relinquishment
of attachment to ego, ksanti-paramita and virya-paramita, he willingly
accepted this punishment which aggravated his illness. In order
to cure it, he sat firmly in the meditation hall day and night
with increasing zeal. He said in his autobiography: "In the
purity of my singleness of mind, I forgot all about my body. Twenty
days later my illness vanished completely. From that moment, with
all my thoughts entirely wiped out, my practice took effect throughout
the day and night. My steps were as swift as if I was flying in
the air. One evening, after meditation, I opened my eyes and suddenly
saw I was in brightness similar to broad daylight in which I could
see everything within and without the monastery ..." Knowing
that he had only achieved an advanced but not the final stage,
he refused to cling to it, resolving to wipe out the final hindrance
caused by his last subtle attachment to ego and Dharma. One night
when the meditation ended after six successive incense sticks had
been burned, a monk came to fill his cup of tea. As the boiling
water splashed over his hand, he dropped the cup, which fell to
the ground and broke with a sound which was heard by his pure mind
that was now able to perform its non-discriminating function of
perceiving externals. Instantly he cut off his last link with samsara
and rejoiced at his realization of the Absolute. He wrote in his
autobiography: "I was like someone awaking from a dream"
which meant that he had leaped over the worldly stream to the other
shore of Bodhi. He then chanted the following two gathas:
1 - A cup fell to the ground
With a sound clearly heard.
As space was pulverised,
The mad mind came to a stop.
2 - When the hand released its hold, the cup fell and was shattered,
'Tis hard to talk when the family breaks up or someone dies.
Spring comes with fragrant flowers exuberating everywhere;
Mountains, rivers and the great earth are only the Tathagata.
After his own enlightenment, the master immediately
began his Bodhisattva work of guiding others out of the sea of
suffering. His first act was to pray to the Buddha for the liberation
of his mother whom he had never seen. Previously he had taken the
vow to go to the monastery of King Asoka at Ningpo to pay reverence
to the Buddha's relics and to burn off there one of his fingers
as his offering to the Buddha for her liberation. Each day he prostrated
three thousand times and increased the number until he ached all
over and was seriously ill. He became so weak that the chief monk
did not approve of his burning a finger on account of the risk
involved. The master burst into a flood of tears and finally the
superintendent of the monastery and another monk agreed to assist
him in fulfilling his vow. He was helped to the main hall where
together with the assembly, he paid reverence to the Buddha, performed
the ritual and recited the text of the rules of repentance and
reform. He wrote later: "With singleness of mind, I repeated
the Buddha's name and prayed Him to liberate my affectionate mother.
At the beginning I felt pain, but as gradually my mind became pure,
my awakening wisdom manifested clearly ... When my finger had burned
off, I arose to bow down before the Buddha. I did not need others
to support me and entirely forgot my illness. After walking unaided
to present my thanks to the assembly, I returned to the sick bay.
Everyone present was surprised at my transformation, and I moved
out of the hut for sick monks."
From then until his death, the master performed his Bodhisattva
work by expounding sutras, transmitting the precepts, reconstructing
many temples that had fallen in ruins, building new ones and starting
seminaries for novices, Buddhist associations for lay men and free
Buddhist schools for children. His field of activities was not
confined to China but also included Burma, Thailand, Malaya, Singapore
and Hong Kong where the number of his disciples could not be counted.
In the course of this Bodhisattva work, the master survived dangers,
illnesses, poisoning, beating, torture and persecution. A translation
of his autobiography is being published by instalments in World
Buddhism, a monthly journal published in Dehiwela, Ceylon. Before
passing away on 13th October 1959, the master said to his attendant:
"After my death and cremation, please mix my ashes with sugar,
flour and oil, knead all this into nine balls and throw them into
the river as an offering to living beings in the water. If you
help me to fulfil my vow, I shall thank you for ever."
Hsu Yun in his extreme old age had chosen hardship and suffering
to protect the Buddha Dharma in his country instead of seeking
safety across the water in Hong Kong.
 'Pure mind' is a technical term
for the innate primordial intellect.
[birth date]: The "Mountain Path (vol 1. Number 4)" shows the birth date 26th April 1840. However, in the "Auto biography of the Chinese Zen Master Xu Yun" the dateis 26th August 1840. Additionally, the "Pictorial Biography of the Venerable Master Hsu Yun" edited by the venerable Master Hsuan-Hua we read: "The next year, between three and five a.m. on the 30th day of the seventh luncar month (August 26, 1840) Mrs.Hsiao went into labor and gave birth to the Master". This is still more precise and in agreement with Richard Hunn's biography. Therefore, it seems quite probable the Mountain Path magazine had some mistake with that date, despite it was the first publication in a western language of this autobiography.
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