When I access Chinese-language Daoist texts (from China) I notice that the dates for lives lived by the Daoist Masters are often extraordinary long! This is not always the case, but often enough to matter. Master Xu Yun (1840-1959) was not a Daoist - but as a Ch'an Buddhist Master - he lived into his 120th year. By accident, over the years I have found myself minutely researching his life to see if I can find any hint of misunderstanding, mis-recording, omission, or error - and I have found no such thing. In fact, when I extended the search to cross-reference key events of his life with a) well-known world events, and b) the biographies of others - at every single point everything overlaps and interconnects perfectly!
I cannot find an academic 'error' in the construction or the content of Master Xu Yun's biography! Xen Cue Lu (Xu Yun's biographer) - questioned Master Xu Yun a number of times about his birth-date, but each time Master Xu Yun repeated exactly the same (traditional) Chinese birthdate! As a number of Western commentators were pouring scorn on Xu Yun's assumed age (even when he was still alive) - Charles Luk respectfully approached Master Xu Yun to ask about his birthdate, and yet again the time period covering 1839-1840 was given (sometimes Xu Yun's dates are given as '1839-1959' which is correct due to the difference between the traditional Chinese calendar and the Western calendar).
Then, the internal evidence within his biography definitely supports this birthdate - particularly the contents of letters received from the two teenaged girls who briefly lived with him following their marriage. Both had eventually become Buddhist nuns and much later independently stated his birth year as '1840' - confirming that he left home when he was nineteen-years of age (in 1859) to ordain as a Buddhist monk! Again, both women confirmed that the marriage was not consummated.
When ‘emptiness’ is genuinely ‘seen’ into (rather than ‘imagined’ as being penetrated), a practitioner of Ch’an cannot help but remain in a permanent state of spiritual rapture. This reality is continuously ‘loving’ and ‘humorous’. It is ‘full’ of humour, but what does this mean? Obviously, the presence of humour does not mean that everything is ‘funny’, as many things that pass in-front of the senses (and across the surface of the mind), are anything but ‘funny’ - and yet humour remains... Humour lightens perception and transforms experience. It defuses conflict and removes anger. Humour has no interest in greed, and does not take ‘differences’ too seriously, whilst acknowledging the validity of how things are distinctive in their own unique ways. Humour is peace, and peace is the way through which ‘emptiness’ is perceived. Surely, the cultivation of humour is preferable to the habitual presence of ‘fear’ and ‘indecision’. Being ‘British’ by accident of birth (or direction of karma), I was always struck by how ‘funny’ the Ch’an and (Japanese) Zen dialogues are! Everything seems to be ‘diverted’ away from the ‘obvious’. Many become frustrated when their habits of thought ‘demand’ that questions and answers should only be a ‘certain’ way - which are constructed in a predictable manner - so that the answers can be ‘guessed’. Is this really spiritual development? I think not. Such an approach is a ‘lazy’ manifestation of the same inner and outer status quo, the very same status quo that we are all attempting to ‘transcend’, or ‘see beyond’.
Of course, things are only ‘funny’ if we ‘sense’ the humour implicit in the situation. When the British academic - John Blofeld - sought out Master Xu Yun in 1930s China, one of the first things Xu Yun pointed-out was that the ‘reality’ he was seeking was not only ‘here and now’, but had been even in the UK! Not only this, but Xu Yun stated (on numerous occasions) that we must transform exactly ‘where we are’ and turn it into a ‘Bodhimandala’ - a sacred or holy place of intensive, spiritual activity. The activity intended is that of intensely ‘looking within’ here and now. A ‘drilling into’ material reality, no less, using the hua tou method. Wherever a Ch’an practitioner places his or her meditation mat, then that is where this great matter will be decided! Yes, we can spend time moving from here to there, and from there to here, but eventually we must all settle-down and face our klesic demons, so to speak. Change for change’s sake only draws-out the process for no reason. When master Xu Yun slept in a cow-shed, what did the cows think? More to the point, what did the monks think? Particularly those who sought-out more comfort and greater status? What about those visiting officials (with their airs and graces) who visited the Temple to meet what they thought was a ‘great’ spiritual being? A dishevelled Xu Yun would emerge from the hay-stack and ask what they wanted... When the tyrant Chiang Kai-Shek visited Xu Yun, Xu Yun did not care who he was. He spent the time telling him off for ‘forcing’ the Chinese people to embrace Western Christianity which he (Xu Yun) thought was not compatible with Chinese culture! Afterwards, Xu Yun would not let the matter pass, and actually ‘wrote’ a letter to Chiang Kai-Shek going over all the same points he had made!
Part of Ch’an humour is a spiritual fearlessness. This obviously manifests in time, but is ‘timeless’ in essence. Ch’an humour is loving and wise. The underlying ‘emptiness’ of material reality is very different to the material reality that manifests within it – and yet there is no conflict or contradiction. Everything we need is ‘here’. It is the ‘method’ for seeing this that is required. When returning from Burma (Myanmar) with a large Buddha statue, the workmen with Xu Yun said that could not proceed as there was a giant boulder blocking the road which they could not collectively move. Xu Yun explained that he was a frail old man, and that they had been paid to carry the Buddha statue for him! As a weak and old man, how was he supposed to get the Buddha statue back to China if they could not perform simple tasks involving youthful strength? After contemplating the situation for a few minutes, Xu Yun picked up the boulder with ease and threw it to the side of the road, clearing a way through! The workmen were astonished, bowed to the ground and picked-up the statue and were on their way! The humour in this situation obviously made the boulder appear very ‘light’ to Master Xu Yu, who used the situation to clear the minds of the workmen.
Adrian Chan-Wyles (釋大道 - Shi Da Dao) is permitted to retain his Buddhist Monastic Dharma-Name within Lay-society by decree of the Government of the People’s Republic of China, and the Chinese Buddhist Association (1992). A Buddhist monastic (and devout lay-practitioner) upholds the highest levels of Vinaya Discipline and Bodhisattva Vows. A Genuine Buddhist ‘Venerates’ the ‘Dao’ (道) as he or she penetrates the ‘Empty Mind-Ground' through meditative insight. A genuine Buddhist is humble, wise and peace-loving – and he or she selflessly serves all in existence in the past, present and the future, and residing within the Ten Directions – whilst retaining a vegetarian- vegan diet. Please be kind to animals!
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