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Cen Xue Lu – An Open Letter to the Public
Translator’s Note: This is an English translation of the original Chinese text entitled ‘岑学吕的一封公开信’ – or ‘Cen Xue Lu – Open Letter to the Public’. Cen Xue Lu was the scholar whom the venerable Xu Yun (1840-1959) entrusted with the compiling, editing, and publishing of his autobiography. The process of correlating chronological material began in 1952 – with the first edition being published in 1953. However, details of Xu Yun’s life had been gathered together well before this time, and were recorded in the form of letters, manuscripts, inscriptions, meetings, Ch’an Weeks, Dharma-talks, and eyewitness accounts, etc. The British Buddhist John Blofeld, for instance, explains in his 1959 book entitled ‘The Wheel of Life – The Autobiography of a Western Buddhist’ (Page 87), that whilst visiting the Nan Hua Temple (in Guangdong province) in 1934, he met and discussed the Dharma with Xu Yun. Even at this time Xu Yun was believed to be well over a hundred years old. In fact, in 1934/35, Xu Yun’s autobiography records him as being in his 95th year of life.
In 1959, just a matter of weeks after the death of Xu Yun in his 120th year, the Western trained Chinese scholar Hu Shi, launched an extraordinarily amateurish attack on Xu Yun’s reputation, implying that this old Buddhist monk had lied about his age. The only ‘evidence’ Hu Shi cited was that he could not find the name of Xu Yun’s father – Xiao Yu Tang – listed as a scholar in local provincial records. In the following text, Cen Xue Lu easily exposes and demolishes Hu Shi’s argument, through an expert presentation of the often complex and bewildering world of imperial Chinese bureaucracy, and officialdom. It is obvious that Hu Shi, an otherwise eminent academic in his own right, was woefully out of his depth in this matter, and that his actual motivation, although never openly declared, was clearly designed to attack and damage traditional Chinese spiritual beliefs and culture. The exposed ignorance of Hu Shi has had ramifications that permeate even into the present time (2014), with certain Western researchers, (together with Westernised Chinese thinkers), still searching for the ‘smoking gun’ that would prove Hu Shi correct and Xu Yun wrong. To date this has not happened outside of the realm of imagination. One conspiracy theorist contacted me recently claiming that the Chinese government had altered all and every text associated with Xu Yun (there are thousands from many different sources), to cultivate the lie that he was born in 1840! In reality the reader may rest assured that currently all reliable evidence supports the fact that Xu Yun was born in 1839/1840, and that he was indeed in his 120th year at his death. Cen Xue Lu, in this text, offers supporting evidence from many different avenues of investigation.
Ever since the Hong Kong Kung Sheung Daily Newspaper published communications from Taiwan (on 9th day of December 1959), regarding a debate concerning the Autobiography of the Monk Xu Yun (虚云和尚年谱 – Xu Yun He Shang Nian Pu), there has been around 50 to 60 people coming to visit me in my remote mountain home in the last 20 days. It is pointless for me to argue, and it was not originally my intention to reply. However, concern has been raised in many other areas about this issue, and I have received hundreds of enquiries by letter. In Hong Kong all is well and there is a sense of friendliness with regard to the discussion of this matter. This is why I have been in a position to speak simply about this issue, but I can not limit myself to just speaking, as there have been many people from different places expressing their concerns. As a way to thank all these people, I have decided to write this open letter to keep a record of everything that has been said so far.
The old Buddhist monk Xu Yun was fully ordained and observed the monastic discipline exactly:
1) Xu Yun fully renounced the lay family life.
2) Xu Yun was not interested in recording his own life experience and age.
3) Xu Yun was not interested in allotting right or wrong to other people.
No one really knows his age, and when Xu Yun was questioned about it, he just laughed. When I undertook the editing of the Annals of Yun Men Monastery in 1950, an error was discovered giving Xu Yun’s age as 106 years when he arrived at Yun Men in 1944/45. At this time Xu Yun was in fact 105 years of age – but despite this error the public did not complain. This error was corrected as soon as I began editing.
During the Yun Men Incident (1951), Xu Yun (who was in his 112th year) suffered serious injuries and a life threatening illness. At this time he began to outline the story of his life, which was recorded by an attendant and hidden between the covers of an old classical (Confucian) book. This book had many of its original pages removed and replaced with Xu Yun’s autobiographical material, before being carefully rebound to its original design. In this way Xu Yun’s biography was disguised and successfully hidden from public view. The book was wrapped in random wastepaper, and placed into two cloth bags, and despite numerous difficulties and various hardships, it was eventually shipped to Hong Kong. The frightening circumstances behind this event can only be imagined. The book was delivered to me, and I spent a year of intense mental concentration editing the text and putting the information into correct chronological order. This involved the assessment and clarification of the material into two categories of knowledge; one strictly representing Xu Yun’s teaching of the Dharma (法汇 – Fa Hui), and the other recording the year by year happenings and incidents of his biography (年谱 – Nian Pu). As contact with mainland China was difficult, it was not easy to acquire the additional information I needed to clarify certain points in the master’s text. Xu Yun was so popular, however, that many of his disciples requested that his autobiography be published as soon as possible. It was eventually published (in 1953), and as a consequence, Xu Yun did not have an opportunity to correct any unintentional errors. Despite this, the first edition was sold out in a matter of several months, and this success led directly to the publishing of the second edition.
When I edited Xu Yun’s autobiography, I did not have access to other (corroborating) historical documents in Hong Kong. I worked entirely from the information contained within the forwarded biographical material. There was a great deal of information about the Yunnan era, stone tablet records, the early Gushan era (when Xu Yun was a disciple), and a relatively brief biographical sketch (which included his birthplace). Within this data was included the name of his father – Yu Tang (玉堂) – who was a local government official based in the Zhangzhou - Quanzhou prefectural area of Fujian province. I incorporated all these details into the autobiography, and did not omit or add (i.e. fabricate) any additional information. This is to make clear that the Yunnan era gathas have not been changed in anyway. (When I visited the Nanhua Temple in 1936, [situated in Qujiang, northern Guangdong province], I asked the Guest Master whether there had been any criticism regarding the inscribed details concerning Xu Yun’s life. He answered that the text of the inscriptions had been published 13 times to date, and that he had never heard of any criticism, and thought the text was factual.) This master was a fully ordained monk.
The following year (1937) the Sino-Japanese War broke out and I had the good fortune to be living in Hong Kong amongst friendly people. At this time I came across a copy of the General Records of Fujian Province (福建通志 – Fu Jian Tong Zhi). I decided to check and see if I could find Xu Yun’s father recorded as an official. Fortunately for research purposes, the entire records (110 volumes) are available, but at this time I only had access to 4 volumes. The Fujian Records stated the following details:
‘The post of Prefect (知府– Zhi Fu) was held by Huang De Jun (黄德峻). He was from the Gao Yao area (of west-central Guangdong province). He passed the highest imperial examination (进士 – Jin Shi) in the 20th year (1840) of the reign of the emperor Dao Guang (道光).
The post of Prefect (知府– Zhi Fu) was held by Xu Yao (徐耀). He was from the Wan Ping area of Shun Tian (顺天) – (i.e. Beijing). He passed the highest imperial examination (进士 – Jin Shi) in the 27th year (1847) of the reign of the emperor Dao Guang (道光).’
Later, I identified the Government Records of Quanzhou (泉州府志 – Quan Zhou Fu Zhi), and the State Records of Yongchun (永春州志– Yong Chun Zhou Zhi), both of which dated from the emperor Qianlong era (reigned 1735-1796). However, these records were not continuous and there was information missing. After I consulted the General Records (of Fujian Province), I hastily wrote a letter to master Xu Yun asking him to confirm his birth details. A few months later he replied with the following statement:
“Cloud was born in Quanzhou Prefecture, and my father was some sort of official – he held an official post. I do not have any exact knowledge about this, because after I ordained as a monk, I gave up completely the world of mundane concerns, and no longer retain any memory.”
After I received this letter, so urgent did I consider this matter to be, that I contacted my friend - Mr Zeng Dao Sheng (曾道声) - who lived in Leiyang (Hunan province), who agreed to visit Xiangxiang (湘乡) on my behalf as I could not travel at that time. This is the area of Hunan province where Xu Yun’s father is believed to have originated. There were only several women and children present, but they could not remember clearly. Later, the local village council (consisting of elderly people), was consulted. They said:
“The details of the lineage of Xiao Yu Tang can not be verified. However, it is known that there was once a local government official (from here) who travelled to take up a post in another province, and who had a son who became a Buddhist monk; this son was not heard of again for several decades. It is not clear if this is Xu Yun, and so this matter is complex.”
Later, I met with an old friend of mine (from my time in Nanjing) named Mr Liu Fan (刘蕃先生 – Liu fan Xian Sheng). He was from Ba County, Sichuan province, and we met in Hong Kong. He said to me:
“You compiled (and edited) the autobiography of the venerable monk Xu Yun. I have read this text and it seems that there are some doubts about certain facts. The post of Yongchun State Prefect was held for many years by my maternal grandfather Wang Guang E (王光锷). My father when young, accompanied my grandfather in his work and both recall that there was a venerable old master surnamed ‘Xiao’ (萧) working in local government (who was originally from Hunan province). We do not know if this was Xu Yun’s father, but you can research this matter.”
I was astonished to receive this information. I went back to the autobiography and took the text apart, re-examining and assessing the material. I then sent the finished edit to trusted friends in Shanghai, who forwarded it on to Xu Yun in Jiangxi, where it arrived safely. My intention was to check with the source the references and corrections I had made. Then in the 7th month of 1957, the third edition was published. This was an enlarged edition containing more of Xu Yun’s deeds in later life, and there were one or two errors corrected from the first edition. The third edition may be considered fully revised and correct, and the first edition can be disregarded. As children we are taught the traditional concept of the ‘Great Dao of Learning that Sustains Virtuous and Clear thinking’, (大学之道，在明明德 – Da Xue Zhi Dao, Zai Ming Ming De), which can be applied in a modern scholarly setting. This is an example of assessing the old in a new manner, so that the errors of the past can be corrected in the present. During the Song Dynasty, old texts were continuously revised by scholars and the errors of the past discarded. If a text was in error, it was not read. Master Zhu (朱) [Zhu Xi – 1130-1200] said:
“The texts of the past often contained substantial errors. Master Cheng Zi (程子) [Cheng Yi 1033—1107] tested the reliability of secular and spiritual texts by researching substantiating evidence.”
In this way even the Confucian Classic known as the ‘Great Learning’ (大学 – Da Xue) was found to contain errors. This is why I tentatively place Xu Yun’s autobiography to one side for the moment, and do not discuss it.
The Issue of Xu Yun’s Age
It is time to discuss the venerable Xu Yun’s age; prior to the time of the Yun Men Incident (1951) no one really knew how old he was. After the Yun Men Incident, he made no secret of the fact that he left home aged 19 years old, and travelled to the Yong Chun Temple (涌泉寺 – Yong Chun Si), situated on Mount Gu (鼓山 – Gu Shan), in Fujian province. His head was shaved by the venerable old monk Chang Kai (常开老人– Chang Kai Lao Ren), and at the age of 20 years his master was the venerable monk Miao Lian (妙莲和尚 – Miao Lian He Shang). This means that there are others who could attest to these facts. Many years later, Miao Lian worked at the Ji Le Temple (极乐寺 – Ji Le Si) in Penang, Malaysia, before returning to China. He was away for 18 years before being welcomed back to Mount Gu by a large crowd consisting of the general public, as well as members of the provincial gentry and other officials. After his welcome, he was made the abbot of Mount Gu. I think that he was welcomed with such respect by all sections of society due to his advanced years, and if he had not been very old at this time, the greeting would not have been so elaborate. Another area of investigation is ordination requests and ordination certificates, among other documents. In fact, there is a parallel between the issue of Xu Yun living until 120 years of age, and the acquisition of the true teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha in China. Old dates can be recorded and known; for instance, the ancient Chinese books clearly state that King Zhao (昭王 – Zhao Wang) of the Zhou Dynasty (周朝 – Zhou Chao) was born on the 8th day of the 4th lunar month of the year 1052 BCE, (i.e. the 26th cycle of the year Jai Yin [甲寅]), which is around 2,900 years ago (writing in 1960). Since that time, there has been the foreign monk Fu Tu Cheng (佛图澄), the translator Kumarajiva (鸠摩罗什 – Jiu Mo Luo Shen), and many other respectable people travelling East – bringing valuable Buddhist knowledge to China – whilst the Chinese monk Xuan Zang (玄奘), also known as ‘Tripitaka’ (三藏 – San Zang), and others, successfully travelled to India and came safely back with their crucial knowledge of Buddhism to China. Even the ancient masters and patriarchs of Chinese Buddhism, and such modern scholars as Zhang Tai Yan (章太炎), did not make arbitrary changes to the facts. In recent years, there was a gathering of Theravada scholars representing the southern Buddhist tradition in Sri Lanka. They decided, ‘to set without proof’ (定而不考 – Ding Er Bu Kao) the time since the Buddha’s death as being around 2,500 years ago, arbitrarily reducing the previous dating by around 400 to 500 years. There is no logical reason for this, and the two dates – the old and the new – are not related in anyway! More than this, however, this change is accepted without question or criticism around the world, whilst the venerable old monk Xu Yun is doubted when he says he was 120 years old! (Japanese Buddhism still uses the old calender).
I would now like to reference an article that appeared in the Xing Dao Evening Newspaper, authored by Mr Wu Huai Zhen (吴怀珍), and entitled ‘Insubstantial Talk in the Night’ (浮生夜谈 – Fu Sheng Ye Tan). I mention this article in relation to what follows regarding my assessment of Dr Hu Shi. Of particular interest are the paragraphs subtitled:
‘Scholars Should Develop a New Style’ (学者应有新风度 – Xue Zhe Ying You Xin Feng Du)
I recently read in the newspapers about the lecture given by the modern scholar Dr Hu Shi (胡适博士 – Hu Shi Bo Shi) on the 29th day of last month (November, 1959), at the National University of Taiwan. Hu Shi raised concerns about the reliability of Xu Yun’s age of 120 years, in a lecture that followed shortly after Xu Yun’s death in October 1959. Hu Shi asserts that this age can not be trusted due to questions and problems surrounding the details of Xu Yun’s family background. Since then, there has been argument and discussion between Dr Hu and Taipei Buddhist groups in the Central Daily Newspaper (中央日报 – Zhong Yang Ri Bao). This situation reminds me that in this era of democracy and freedom, scholars should develop a new style or demeanour. Scholarly endeavour should emphasise a type of study that ‘Benefits the People’ (有益于人 – You Yi Yu Ren), above all else, but should definitely not be ‘Trust Only in Oneself’ (取信于己 – Qu Xin Yu Ji), as such an attitude only brings unfortunate ‘Harm and Injury to Others‘ (伤害于人 – Shang Hai Yu Ren).
There is no doubt that Dr Hu Shi is an eminent contemporary scholar of modern China. His attitude towards academic research is very strict. Of course, his scholarship is worthy of admiration. No matter whether the learning is ancient, modern, or foreign in design - the greater the knowledge attained, the higher the respect that is accorded. He is also ‘stubborn’ (固执 – Gu Zhi), and even more ‘arbitrary’ (武断 – Wu Duan) – so that he only knows ‘loyalty to the scientific method’ (忠于学理 – Zhong Yu Xue Li) and ‘trusts only in himself’. Therefore he focuses on contemporary book learning and has little experience of the practical side of life. He is too stubborn and arbitrarily suspicious in this matter, because the age of Xu Yun and the facts of his family background are two different issues, and not the same subject. Xu Yun has conveyed the facts of his birth and his background as told to him by other family members. It could be that these facts are unintentionally in error, or that they are correct, but in reality Xu Yun’s family have no reason to fabricate details, and Xu Yun, as an ordained Buddhist monk, has no reason to tell lies about any of these facts. Dr Hu’s attitude is deliberately suspicious to begin with. Dr Hu states:
“I have no alternative other than to base my opinion on this evidence.”
With regard to the first edition of the Xu Yun’s autobiography, and the subsequent and fully revised third edition, Dr Hu says:
“It is very suspicious. After all there is only one witness (i.e. the author - the monk Xu Yun who presents the details) which I find dubious. Xu Yun states that he was born in the 20th year of the reign of the Dao Guang emperor (1840), and that he lived into his 120th year. I do not accept these statements as true, and can not believe that they are accurate.”
This attitude and approach to this matter seems to be arbitrary and lacks objectivity. Dr Hu is exhibiting a belief only in his own opinion, and his flawed methodology in assessing this evidence is unscientific. It seems that Hu Shi has a negative and biased attitude to the old monk Xu Yun; how can this be considered good academia? It certainly is not a scientific approach to collecting evidence. With regard to Xu Yun’s age, I have corroborating evidence. Xu Yun became abbot of the Yongquan Temple (涌泉寺 – Yong Quan Si) in 1929/30. This temple is situated on Mount Gu (鼓山 – Gu Shan), in the Fuzhou area of Fujian province. My late father, although not originally a Buddhist, studied Ch’an Buddhism at this time. Many years previously, (during the late Qing Dynasty), my father had been the student of the eminent scholar (and holder of the Ju Ren [举人] academic degree), Liu Xiao Gong (刘孝恭). Liu Xiao Gong knew of Xu Yun and had many dealings with him in the old days. Liu would tell my father many stories about the old monk Xu Yun – this was when my father was in his twenties. My father was born in 1866 – 16 years after the death of the Dao Guang emperor (reigned 1820-1850). Today, (in 1960), my late father would have been 94 years old. Xu Yun’s autobiography states that he was born during the 20th year of the reign of the Dao Guang (1840), making him 26 years old when my late father was born. I am of the opinion that there is nothing stated about Xu Yun’s age ‘that can not be believed’ (Bu Neng Xiang Xing).
At this time I would like to make the following very important point to all scholars. There needs to be the establishment of a new style or approach to academic study. Scholarship should focus on what is ‘beneficial for the people’ (有益于人– You Yi Yu Ren), and not be obsessed with working things out using a method that is only in accordance with personal opinions, premised upon a superficial study of a subject. This lack of genuine knowledge prevents a historically accurate textual criticism (考据 – Kao Ju) from taking place. With this lack of realism, it is often the case that ‘invention’ (发明 – Fa Ming) takes the place of fact. When invention takes the place of fact, a correct historical context can not be established, and this fabrication serves to ‘damage the people’ (伤害于人 – Shang Hai Yu Ren). For example, Dr Hu has said in reply to criticism the following:
“With regard to the age of the old master, this is a matter of faith and religious belief amongst the people. In life I think people consider this a most sacred matter. I hope you do not blame for writing these two thousand words.”
Dr Hu, if you believe this matter to be a ‘sacred problem’ (神圣问题 – Shen Sheng Wen Ti) and an issue of ‘personal belief’ (个人信仰 – Ge Ren Xin Yang), then why did you bring up this issue in a public lecture, and openly question Xu Yun’s family background and his age? You must have known that your actions would cause profound insult amongst Buddhists? Although I was not born a Buddhist myself, I am willing to raise this matter with Dr Hu, so that all scholars in the future can understand and appreciate the details of this situation.
Within his text entitled ‘Insubstantial Talk in the Night’ (referenced above), Mr Wu Huai Zhen states that he is also not a Buddhist, but believes that opinions should be presented in a fair and just manner using the clarity of logic, so that everyone’s opinions can be sufficiently taken into account.
The Power of Xu Yun’s Monastic Vows
The venerable Xu Yun is universally recognised as possessing great virtue, and as a consequence living to well over one hundred years old. The substance for this claim involves all kinds of evidence including the repairing and building of temples throughout Chinawhich are still evident today, and clearly recorded in his autobiography. I was very close to him and can attest to the power of his meticulous vow keeping and monastic practice. This gave him a personal force of character that influenced other people far and wide. He was also careful about what he said and how he behaved, as he was always being observed by others, and generally speaking he did not discriminate between people. His appearance was considered extraordinary; he was tall and lean, and when people saw him at a distance, they felt good and were compelled to come closer to him. In his presence many experienced this reaction – this may be considered the first wondrous aspect of his character. I knew him for three decades. Except for when we had private heart to heart discussions, or when we shared a joke, his face never changed its expression. Even when he talked to people, he never looked them directly in the eye, but rather humbly kept his gaze staring around six feet ahead of him, looking at the ground. This was may be considered the second wondrous aspect of his character. He was careful about not wearing new or elaborate robes. In a ten year period he would receive many offerings of robes from people, and he would give these robes to other ordaining monks, thus establishing good karmic bonds. Even in the hottest of summer months, his robe was always tied neatly together. I once toured the hills with him, but after 1 or 2 (Chinese) miles (里- Li) of the journey, he was walking swiftly – as if on air – whilst I was tired and sweating profusely. My breathing was difficult and my energy depleted. Xu Yun’s robe was neatly tied and he was calm with no sweat on his forehead. Of course, his inner garments remained dry and free from the effects of perspiration. Sometimes, due to various circumstances he was unable to bathe for days on end, and even though his clothes were not fresh, his body never emitted any unpleasant body odour. This may be considered the third wondrous aspect of his character. Furthermore, his daily habits were the same as everyone else, except for washing his face, which was different. He used to spend around 30 minutes carefully washing his face everyday. He would clean the area for a long time around each inner and outer ear, then each nostril, before washing the neck and the roots of the hair and scalp. At meal times he was silent – if someone spoke to him, he did not reply. This was the case even with regard to large gatherings with many guests. Xu Yun would just mindfully eat his food, and pay no attention to the other guests. If a waiter brought vegetables, or guests greeted him, Xu Yun would only gesture (briefly) with his chopsticks. If the guests were discussing loudly, he would ignore them until he had finished eating. Sometimes, if everything was peaceful, he would have his meal in the main (meditation) hall. At such times he would never eat more than two large bowls of cold soup and rice residue, and never showed any preference for the type of food he consumed, which would not be good behaviour for a monk. For over a hundred years he did not eat after mid-day. When sick he was often sent good vegetables by kind benefactors – but Xu Yun would always give the food to other people and never eat it himself. With regard to his interaction with others, he was always pleasant and gracious to those he encountered. This was true regardless of social background, whether those encountered were rich or poor, celebrity or common, educated or ignorant, women or children – he treated all with equality. Sometimes he would meet people whose intention was to deliberately cause trouble. In such situations, Xu Yun would not listen to their harsh words, and did not react. He would turn his back on these people and wait for them to leave – he would not debate with such people. When receiving guests enquiring about the Dharma, whether monks, or his own disciples, he would bow his head in a humble manner, and consider the question carefully before answering. Even if the exchange involved only a few words, Xu Yun would never forget the exchange and was able to recall conversations clearly from his youth during his later years!
When the Japanese invaded Hong Kong (in 1941), I returned inland and eventually crossed into South China and travelled to pay my respects to the venerable Xu Yun who was busy renovating the Nan Hua Temple in Guangdong province. When I sat with him, he wished me good health and a long life. I then asked him about the details of his autobiography concerning Hunan. He thought for a long while, and then he sighed, saying:
“You have been trying to understand for a long time, but what have you achieved? During this time, what have you achieved?”
I was shocked (and terrified) to receive this forthright reply and I can still vividly recall its affect today! This is when I truly started to appreciate the spiritual strength of this great man. It was estimated that he had multitudes of disciples taking refuge under him, I suggested that and I thought this might be too many considering his age. He had been a monk for decades and had both lay and monastic disciples, which included dignitaries, well known Confucian scholars, virtuous young women, and foreign priests. His heroic reputation was well known (throughout China) which included the remote forests as well as the sacred areas of the Three Mountains and Five Great Mountains (三山五岳 – San Shan Wu Yue). There is an old Chinese saying;
“To steal a chicken, first tie-up the dog.” (偷鸡缚狗的 – Tou Ji Fu Gou De)
In this way, and through correct behaviour, there is nothing that can not be accomplished. Everything is possible. Once the multitudes of disciples had taken refuge under him, and received their certificates, Xu Yun could not say no to their requests, and there was not ‘a single night’s sleep’(一宿觉 – Yi Su Jue) to be had. Once they had met Xu Yun, disciples could not forget him. They showed love and respect for him, like that of a child expressed toward the mother. There are adherents of the School of Dao (道学 – Dao Xue), who are good people and disciples of Xu Yun. In their meditation practice they generate Bodhicitta (菩提心 – Pu Ti Xin), and diligently strive to save others. Certainly, saving the nation is the correct direction to go. Furthermore, there has never been a case of a disciple of Xu Yun committing patricide, killing a brother, or murdering another through setting them on fire. Some people in the past thought that only imperial rule could bring peace to China, and that Buddhism was of no use in this respect – what empty words they utter!
I have discussed the circumstances surrounding the Yun Men Incident (云门事变 – Yun Men Shi Bian) which occurred in 1951, elsewhere. After the Yunmen Incident, Xu Yun travelled to Beijing and received a warm welcome from his many thousands of disciples and well-wishers who came to greet him. After this the Buddhists from the east of China invited Xu Yun to hold a Puja (法会 – Fa Hui) ceremony, or ‘Dharma Council’ for the establishment of love and peace in the world. When this task was accomplished, Xu Yun travelled to the Jade Buddha Monastery (Yu Fo Si) where tens of thousands of people met him. As the venerable master calmly travelled on foot toward the temple, knowledge of his presence in the area caused thousands more people to gather like waves outside in the streets around the temple. Everyday the master would meet the people at 1pm outside the main hall. When they saw him they would drop to their knees and bow their heads to the ground out of respect. The master would transmit the Triple Refuge (三皈依 – San Gui Yi), and give Dharma Talks in a number of dialects. In Shanghai, Xu Yun received tens of thousands of disciples. These events were witnessed by the old lay Buddhists named Jiang Wei Qiao (蒋维乔), and Gao He Nian (高鹤年), who saw everything with their own eyes and recorded it in writing. Due to Xu Yun’s popularity, his disciples donated over 3,000 Chinese dollars which was distributed to the religious sites found on the four great mountains, and between the eight great temples of China, as well as to 250 other large and small temples scattered throughout the land. Such was the affection felt for Xu Yun in Shanghai, that a special 14 volume chronicle was published, recording the events in great detail.
My Intended Purpose for Editing Xu Yun’s Autobiography
Obviously Xu Yun’s autobiography is not the usual compilation of details similar to that found in the biographies of other ordinary people. Xu Yun’s biography is different in many ways, because he was an old Buddhist monk who pursued a life of great virtue for over a hundred years. This is why the fact that he was an eminent monk (whose personal practice upheld the Buddhist monastic discipline in an exemplary manner), should be strongly emphasised when interpreting the facts of his life. Therefore, it is important to examine the following 10 points relating to Xu Yun’s life recorded in his autobiography:
a) The implications of the affects and effects of his Ch’an practice.
b) The details of the dangerous circumstances he encountered throughout his life.
c) How he responded to changing events and interacted with other people during his long life.
d) How a poor monk living in Yunnan province for several years, acquired government and public support.
e) How he was able to construct both large and small temples, and lift heavy weights (as if they were light) with ease.
f) Although he had a Hunan accent, he was understood everywhere, and everyone was satisfied with his teaching.
g) Over several decades he ordained many monks and had thousands of lay disciples.
h) People who knew him (including the elderly) treated him with an affection that never diminished – similar to the love experienced between a child and a mother. This is because when he taught the Dharma, the Buddha Mind and the mind of the people became as one.
i) How he was able to say one or two words to various people on particular occasions, but never forget the encounter or the subject of the conversation.
j) How his Dharma teaching was able to transform people of bad character into people of good character – a process that benefitted the national interest of the country.
All this information is contained within Xu Yun’s autobiography, and as such, this document is a very important record of events. Even if I were able to record just one-tenth of this content, I would be very happy because Xu Yun is such an inconceivable person! Hu Shi, on the other hand, pays no attention to Xu Yun’s ‘teaching of the Dharma to benefit life’, (弘法利生 – Hong Fa Li Sheng) and, I suspect, can not be bothered to research the matter. Instead he prefers to focus entirely upon the single issue of Xu Yun’s family background (查家宅 – Cha Jia Zhai), and investigate previous generations through consulting the book entitled ‘Noble Rank Complete Book’ (爵秩全书 – Jue Zhi Quan Shu). Even if a search of such records does not confirm the venerable Xu Yun’s lay surname of ‘Xiao’ (萧), or if his father – Xiao Yu Tang (萧玉堂) – is revealed as a seller of tofu (卖豆腐– Mai Dou Fu), what does it matter? This is not deep research, and a more thorough investigation is called for. However, Hu Shi assumes that from his meagre efforts in this matter, that Xu Yun’s age is not correct, and that therefore his autobiography is also invalid! Profound investigation is the Buddhist method! Shakyamuni Buddha taught the Dharma for 49 years – and at the end of his life he stated:
“I have never uttered a single word!”
The Buddha also said:
“Any who states that the Tathagata has a teaching to convey – slanders the Buddha.”
In this realm who would dare to use the pages of the 12 sections of the Tripitaka to wipe pus from sores? Who would dare to tell a lie, an untruth, and fall into a hell where arrows are fired at you? Who would dare?
I edited the Autobiography of Xu Yun, but originally I was afraid to perform this important function. However, when Xu Yun’s life was in danger, I could not refuse this task. I spent an entire year of mental effort working on the production of the autobiography, compiling and editing. Eventually a book was hesitantly produced. Due to the necessary haste of the work, this early version contained many errors and mistakes – this was only to be expected considering the conditions and circumstances surrounding Xu Yun at the time. As China was cut-off from Hong Kong, it was impossible to check the information. Therefore, in 1953 the first edition was published. The following year (1954), through the continuing editorial process, I discovered that this edition contained a number of errors. After this discovery, I desperately sought information to correct these errors, and eventually became aware of the following important data (in 1955):
1) The Quanzhou Government Records and the Yongchun State Records were not continuously maintained after the reign of the Qianlong emperor (1735-1796).
2) During the 20th year of the reign of Emperor Dao Guang (1840), the prefect of Quanzhou was Huang De Jun (黄德峻), who was from the Gao Yao area of Guangdong.
3) During the 27th year of the reign of Emperor Dao Guang (1847), the post of prefect (for Quanzhou) was held by Xu Yao (徐耀).
4) During the 27th year of the reign of Emperor Dao Guang (1847), the prefect of Funing prefecture was Zhuang Shou Qi (庄受祺).
5) The full details of officials serving during the 30 year reign of the Emperor Dao Guang (1820-1850), is not included in either the General Records of Fujian Province (福建通志– Fu Jian Tong Zhi), or the New General Records (新通志 – Xin Tong Zhi).
6) During the 16th year of the reign of Emperor Dao Guang (1836), the prefect of YongchunState was Shen Ru Han (沈汝瀚).
The details of prefect Wang Guang E (王光锷) of XibaCounty were not available.
I gathered together very important and valuable information such as that conveyed above, and continued with even more determination to research facts relevant to Xu Yun’s autobiography. This process of information gathering continued into July 1956 as I worked on the third (corrected) edition of Xu Yun’s autobiography (which was eventually published a year later in July 1957).
The gentleman Hu Shi sent a letter to Mr Zhan Li Wu (詹励吾) stating that Xu Yun’s autobiography contains errors, and that he had researched at the United States Library of Congress (美国议院图书馆 – Mei Guo Yi Yuan Tu Shu Guan) for information regarding the names of officials who served in Zhangzhou Prefecture (漳州府 – Zhang Zhou Fu) and Funing Prefecture (福宁府 – Fu Ning Fu) – but he did not consult any records for Quanzhou Prefecture (泉州府 – Quan Zhou Fu). Hu Shi – living in the United States -was only able to reference the government records of two areas – Zhangzhou and Funing. Mr Zhan received this letter from Mr Hu and on the 25th of July (1958) forwarded its contents to me. I am very grateful to Mr Zhan for his assistance in this matter. The language of Hu Shi’s letter is very polite, and he conveys his best wishes and respects to me via Mr Zhan. Despite the apparent respect allotted by Hu Shi from one scholar to another, his over-all attitude was full of conceit due to his own limited understanding. Whilst pointing out the errors in the first edition, Hu Shi completely ignored the fact that the third (fully corrected and up to date) edition of Xu Yun’s autobiography was already published (in 1957) –a year before he wrote his critical letter. Hu Shi, in his letter, completely ignores the important six issues I have listed above and corrected in Xu Yun’s autobiography; this fact renders Hu Shi’s criticism invalid.
Assistant Officials and Prefects
Hu Shi states that any claims that Xu Yun’s father - Xiao Yu Tang (萧玉堂) – was an Assistant Government Official (佐治– Zuo Zhi), or a County Prefect (二尹 – Er Yin) are untrue. This is because he could not find Xiao Yu Tang’s name in the (limited) government records he accessed. As I could not locate Xiao Yu Tang’s name in government records, I decided to search in a number of other ways, including looking for financial records relating to government officials (幕府 – Mu Fu) whilst in office. This included Assistant Officials (佐治 – Zuo Zhi), Non-authorised Officials (非印官 – Fei Yin Guan), and Assistant Prefects (二尹 – Er Yin). Through my research, a new document came to light entitled the ‘Xiangxiang County Electoral Records’ (选举志 – Xuan Ju Zhi), which records the names of scholars who paid the required fee to the government to secure an official or nominally official post. It is clear from the study of the Electoral Records for Xiangxiang County of Hunan, (which are preserved in 10 volumes), that the people of this area were financially vibrant during the time period in question. After researching this record, however, I am aware that there are loopholes in the recording of data. This is because there are substantial differences between the various governmental posts, and the fees paid for these posts (捐班 – Juan Ban) by the candidates. This draws an important distinction between a ‘Solid Official’ (实官 – Shi Guan) who has passed the imperial examination, and a Nominal Official – i.e. ‘Empty Rank’ (虚衔 – Xu Xian) – who is well educated and trained, but has not passed the imperial examination. In the case of the latter, the nominal post is purchased. This distinction represents two different methods of accessing governmental posts, although a fee (or ‘donation’) is payable to the government by all candidates, regardless of their method of access, and the type of post eventually occupied. In reality the names of those officials who occupy ‘Empty Ranks’ are seldom recorded in the government statistics, even though they perform the same, or similar function to an official holding a ‘Solid Rank’.
Solid Officials (实– Shi Guan)
The position of ‘Solid Official’ requires the candidate to spend a substantial amount of money, (similar to the cost of the post of ‘County Magistrate’ [知县 – Zhi Xian] – which is usually around 1000 pieces of silver) - but such a large amount would be difficult for many to afford at the start of their career, and so instead a smaller amount is paid to occupy a lower position such as ‘Candidate County Magistrate’ (候选知县 – Hou Xuan Zhi Xian). The definition of official posts is not a simple matter and there are many permutations to consider such as ‘One Month Candidate’ (单月候选 – Dan Yue Hou Xuan), and ‘Two Month Candidate’ (双月候选 – Shuang Yue Hou Xuan). However, whether Single or Double Month, the candidate still has to go through the procedure of ‘Introduction’ (引见 – Yin Jian), and ‘Distribution’ (分发 - Fen Ta), while they wait for a post to become available in the provinces. Furthermore, the rank of County Magistrate(or below) is subject to the ‘Imperial Great Ministerial Examination’ (王大臣验看 – Wang Da Chen Yan Kan), before a candidate is appointed to a province. Except for the Ninth Grade Ministerial Rank belonging to the ‘County Inspection Officer’ (县属巡检司 – Xian Shu Xun Jian Si), [a rule applicable for all provinces] – as anyone may apply. This rank is commonly referred to as ‘Flying in (and submitting to) the Divine Sky – Ninth Grade’ (飞天从九 – Fei Tian Cong Jiu) and is registered (alongside ‘Solid Officers’) in the Xiangxiang Electoral Records. Empty Rank (虚衔 – Xu Xian) Officials
The other kind of payment relates to ‘Empty Rank’ officials who hold the Honoured Cap Wearing (冠带 – Guan Dai) status. This is the only‘Empty Rank’ official post that is contained within the records. For candidates who have paid 926 pieces of silver for the rank of Ninth Grade Official (九品 – Jiu Pin), there are literally hundreds of entries in the Election Records –the list is endless. (I have read through the Xiangxiang Election Records and it is clear that the details of most of those holding the post of ‘Empty Ranks’ are either omitted, or not continuously recorded. This is why there is a problem.) With regard to ‘Empty Rank’ officials, I remember the following examples from the time of the Guangxu emperor (光绪) who reigned 1875-1908:
1) A candidate who could not study at the Imperial Academy (Jian Sheng -监生), instead paid 926 pieces of silver for the rank of Ninth Grade Official, and once licensed by the authorities, took up the post of Police Constable (responsible for law and order in a town). He then had to change his title to ‘Old Gentleman’ (老爷 – Lao ye), or ‘Your Excellency’ (相公 – Xiang Gong).
2) With a donation of around 100 to 200 pieces of silver, posts could be secured such as ‘State Support Officer’ (州同衔 – Zhou Tong Xian), ‘Pass Sentence Officer’ (通判衔 – Tong Pan Xian), and ‘Prefect Support Officer’ (同知衔 – Tong Zhi Xian), after which the candidate can be known as ‘Deputy Prefect’ (二尹 – Er Yin). ‘Master of Horses’ (司马 – Si Ma), ‘Distinguished Driver’ (别驾 - Bie Jia), and ‘Government Branch’ (分府 – Fen Fu).
3) With a donation of around 300 pieces of silver, posts could be secured such as ‘Prefect Officer’ (知府衔 – Zhi Fu Xian), giving the candidate the right to be known as ‘Grand Guard’, (太守 – Tai Shou) or ‘Grand Respect’ (太尊 – Tai Zun).
4) With a donation of around 500 pieces of silver, posts could be secured such as ‘Principle Officer’ (道衔 – Dao Xian), giving the candidate the right to be known as ‘Perceive Observe’, (观察– Guan Cha), and ‘Great Person’ (Da Ren).
All the titles, whether of ‘Real Officials’ (实官 – Shi Guan), or ‘Officials in Name Only’ (虚衔 – Xu Xian), are of equal functionality. These posts require that the candidate has undergone the correct training, has learned the appropriate ritual, and has presented the correct fee to the authorities at the right time. Therefore candidates for ‘solid’ or ‘empty’ posts must not only possess a good family background and a good education, but also have extensive knowledge and ability in the following arts and skills:
a) Longevity Poetry (寿诗– Shou Shi)
b) Longevity Literature (寿文– Shou Wen)
c) Epitaphs (墓志 – Mu Zhi)
d) Inscriptions (碑铭 – Bei Ming)
e) Excellent Calligraphy (大笔 – Da Bi)
f) Chinese characters (and their meaning), particularly with regard to the official ranks of ‘Grand Guard’ (太守 – Tai Shou), ‘Grand Respect’ (太尊 – Tai Zun), ‘Perceive Observe’ (观察 – Guan Cha), and ‘Great Person’ (大人 – Da Ren)
g) Traditions and Conventions (习俗如斯 – Xi Su Ru Si)
h) Tranquil Mind (恬 – Tian)
i) Biographical Details (履历 – Lu Li)
The candidate’s background (biography) is checked thoroughly, together with his educational record, before being considered for either a ‘solid’ or ‘empty’ official post. It was difficult to become an official in imperial China, even to hold an ‘Empty Rank’, was it not? After the mid-Qing period, it is evident that from the rank of provincial governor (督抚 – Du Fu) downward, many scholars purchased more than one title. These other posts were often in the category of ‘Way Titles’ (道衔 – Dao Xian), which involved knowledge of correct behaviour and etiquette. These posts were attractive because they permitted the holder to wear the special cap with a jade badge of office affixed to it. This was often the case even with ranks such as the ‘Prefect Title’ (知府衔 – Zhi Fu Xian), and the ‘Pass Sentence Title’ (通判衔 – Tong Pan Xian), and so on, being purchased on top of other ranks, but why was this so? It was because sometimes there was a lack of suitably qualified scholars to fill certain posts, and so those officials holding ‘real’ ranks would have to function by holding two posts simultaneously. It was also the case that a single government post such as County Magistrate (知县 – Zhi Xian) could be held by seven officials simultaneously, whilst the post of ‘Pass Sentence’ (通判 - Tong Pan) by six different officials, with each performing various aspects of the relevant duties. Whatever the case, there was always one official who out-ranked all the others, and it was his name that was recorded. This official is referred to as the ‘Grand Master’ (太尊 – Tai Zun), he was ultimately responsible for the efficient running of the government department. The other officials were usually all ‘assistants’ recruited locally. The high official referred to as ‘Great Old Master’ (大老爷 - Da Lao Ye), was responsible for local recruitment. Those candidates approaching him for consideration had to show the proper respect and refer to themselves as ‘humble servants’ (卑职 – Bei Zhi). They had to state formerly in writing (手本 - Shou Ben), their intention to apply for an official post. The Great Old Master would simply shake his head at those officials who did not conform to the required standards of education and behaviour. The office of the Great Old Master would also be responsible for collecting fees and deciding who would be appointed to posts such as ‘Prefect Support Officer’ (同知衔 – Tong Zhi Xian), and similar ranks. This could include the rank of ‘County Prefect’ (二尹 – Er Yin) if it was available. The point is that the rank Assistant Official (佐治 – Zuo Zhi), is missing from government records. This is doubly problematic as other terms can be used instead of ‘Zou Zhi’ to refer to Assistant Officials, such as ‘Member of the Government’ (分府 – Fen Fu), ‘Member of the State’ (Fen Zhou -分州), ‘Member of the County’ (分县 – Fen Xian), ‘County Deputy’ (县丞 – Xian Cheng), ‘Police Inspector’ (巡检– Xun Jian), ‘District Chief of Police’ (典史– Dian Shi), ‘Master of State Theory’ (司理问– Si Li Wen), ‘Government Academic Examiner’ (府照磨 – Fu Zhao Mo), and ‘Government Classics & Calender’ (府经历 - Fu Jing Li), etc, can all be used to describe ‘Zuo Zhi’, or ‘Assistant Officials’. Government advisors (幕僚 – Mu Liao) can also be referred to as ‘Memorial Old Master’ (奏折老夫子 – Zou Zhe Lao Fu Zi), ‘Legal Advisor Old Master’ (刑名老夫子 – Xing Ming Lao Fu Zi), ‘Levies in kind and Money Old Master’ (钱谷老夫子 – Qian Gu Lao Fu Zi), ‘Literature Old Master’ (书启老夫子 – Shu Qi Lao Fu Zi), ‘Writing and Stamp Impression Grand Master’ (朱墨师爷 – Zhu Mo Shi Ye), and ‘Teacher-Scholar Grand Master’ (教读师爷 - Jiao Du Shi Ye) can all be referred to as ‘Assistant Officials’ (佐治 – Zuo Zhi). It is important to note that the Provincial Government County Annals Bureau, (省府县志局– Sheng Fu Xian Zhi Ju), although a permanent institution, limited the data it collected whilst compiling local records. There was a single chief editor, and two to four official compilers who would travel around the province gathering information. As their number was small, their time limited, and the province large, not all data was recorded. They could only interview a small number of people locally. The chief editor simply compiles the annals from the information that is made available to him by his assistants, and never deviates from this system. Therefore, there is never an official recognition that details may be lacking. If the chief editor is asked a question about a specific person who is known to be an official, but whose details are not included in the annals, the official response is always that this person ‘does not exist’! Obviously, this kind of keeping and analysis of local official records is bias and misleading – the records are incomplete. This is why Mencius (孟子 – Meng Zi) said:
“It is better to have no book, than to believe everything read in a book.”
Conclusion: Helping Others Do Well
The venerable Buddhist monk Xu Yun (虚云和尚 – Xu Yun He Shang) passed away in 1959, on the 13th day of October (the 12th day of the 9th lunar month). He died at the Zhen Ru Ch’an Temple (真如禅寺 – Zhen Ru Ch’an Si), on Mount Yunju (云居山– Yun Ju Shan), which is situated in Yongxiu County (永修县 – Yong Xiu Tian), Jiangxi province (江西省 – Jiang Xi Sheng). He was in his 120th year of age. This sad news was quickly conveyed around the world by domestic and foreign Buddhist groups, and spread to every single temple, whether large or small. This included the lay-Buddhist community, Xu Yun’s disciples, and many millions of ordinary people. The news spread rapidly through the Chinese diasporic communities, and entered Europe and the United States of America, where there lived many foreign Buddhist students who had heard of Xu Yun and had become his disciples. Memorials were held worldwide, together with Buddhist ceremonies of respect and sutra readings by all concerned. The extent of the worldwide mourning, and sincere expression of warmth towards Xu Yun, had never been seen before in the commemoration of a single Buddhist monk’s life. Hundreds of thousands, (perhaps millions) of Xu Yun’s disciples follow his clear instruction regarding Dharma practice:
“If you diligently practice the cultivation of moral discipline, or ‘Sila’ (尸羅 – Shi Luo), one-pointed meditation, or ‘Dhyana’ (定 – Ding), and wisdom, or ‘Prajna’ (慧 – Hui), then greed, or ‘Raga’ (贪– Tan), hatred, or ‘Dvesa’ (嗔 – Chen), and delusion, or ‘Moha’ (痴 – Chi), will be eradicated from the mind.”
Master Xu Yun also taught:
“Positive thought maintains a positive mind, and in this way a great and fearless spiritual essence is cultivated, that has the power to deliver the entire peoples of the world.”
At this time, when the bright pathway of Xu Yun’s life should be remembered with respect, the gentleman Hu Shi, (who is the President of the Research Institute of China [中国研究院 – Zhong Guo Yan Yu Yuan], and considered an expert on the contextual analysis of philosophy), nevertheless, delivers a derogatory lecture in Taiwan on the 29th of November, 1959. He states that now Xu Yun has passed away, his age of 120 years old can be doubted due to one or two errors inadvertently included in the two early editions of his autobiography. What is odd is that this ‘expert’ on philosophy failed to mention that a new third (and fully corrected) edition of Xu Yun’s autobiography was available in print prior to his lecture. This deliberately disrespectful behaviour is tantamount to throwing ‘a plate of cold water’ (一盘冷水 - Yi Pan Leng Shui) over all the male and female Chinese Buddhists, and the hundreds of thousands of Xu Yun’s disciples around the world! This kind of statement has sent shock waves around the world, and has been designed to deliberately attack Xu Yun’s reputation, and cause doubt in those whose strength of mind is not strong. It also seems designed to placate those who do not believe in the value of religion, because Hu Shi's statement has enabled them to clap their hands and cheer with delight. The majority of anti-religious people, such as Mr Zhang Ling (张龄先生 – Zhang Ling Xian Sheng), and other suitable gentleman, have enthusiastically booked seats for this spectacular show! The point of Hu Shi’s statement is that it represents a vicious attack against the very essence of Buddhism, at a time of great sorrow. I would not dare to do this. The autobiography has been around for seven years, and yet it is at this precise moment that Hu Shi chooses to make his move with this deceitful discussion. Hu Shi’s true motives are well hidden!
The good gentleman Hu Shi appears to be encouraging a debate through newspaper coverage! Obviously this has involved the scrutiny of my work in relation to Xu Yun’s autobiography, a scrutiny that certainly does not seem polite. However, I would welcome the good gentleman’s instruction in this matter. Today, I am a scholar, but of course, I am an ‘ordinary person’ (寻常百姓 – Yun Chang Bai Xing), as a well as one of the ‘Hong Kong refugees’ (香港难民 - Xiang Gang Nan Min). Two words I can honestly claim are ‘Zhi Shi’ (智识), or ‘intellectual’! I am now around 80 years of age, and when I look in the mirror I see a long white beard (over a foot long), and am old and sick: I do not care much about outer appearances, and am unconcerned with worldly matters. There has been suffering, but all this is in the past now. However, despite this, I still wish to raise my head and receive respect from my peers. To achieve this I must clearly discern right from wrong in this matter and I have been ashamed for sometime that things have degenerated to this level. Having made all this clear, I must state that my memory is as strong as ever, and that I can vividly recall the details of the past with pristine clarity!
The world at present is a very dangerous place, but as long as there is blood in our veins, we should urgently help by ‘teaching the world to save humanity’ (教世救人 – Jiao Shi Jiu Ren). If you have the opportunity to be a Buddhist monk, then you can still ‘check the family residence’ (查家宅 – Cha Jia Zhai), and know whether or not a relative is one of the nine ranks of officials– perhaps a ‘District Chief of Police’ (典史– Dian Shi) for example, even though this is now an old matter! Despite the situation, ‘the mind can observe the play of the world with detachment’ (放开冷眼观棋局 – Fang Kai Leng Yan Guan Qi Ji); this is the consequence of ‘keeping the aware mind continuously and inwardly fixed’ (把定雄心听杵钟– Ba Ding Xiong Xin Ting Chu Zhong)! In the future I shall observe ‘non-criticism’ (无诤– Wu Zheng) as part of my training, even if others try to ‘slander’ (毁 – Hui) me, or destroy my‘good name’ (誉 – Yu). This is why I dare not utter another word. In the old days, the Bodhisattva Manjushri (日文 – Wen Shu) had a special sword to pursue the wisdom of enlightenment – the Buddha said:
“Stop! Stop! The Wonder Law that I teach is inconceivable!”
©opyright: Adrian Chan-Wyles (ShiDaDao) 2014.