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Ch'an Master Li Yu
This English translation is drawn from the original Chinese text entitled ‘离欲上人’, or ‘Li Yu Shang Ren’ accessed through the Chinese search-engine Baidu. Master Li Yu lived for a 124 years. Like the great master Xu Yun (1840-1959), Li Yu was born in the Qing Dynasty of Imperial China, lived through the Republican Era, and into the new China founded in 1949. His long age is believed to have been a product of his pure and simple lifestyle and naturally virtuous character, as denoted by his title ‘Shang Ren’ which can translates as the ‘highest of beings’, or ‘sage’, etc. Master Li Yu is essentially a modern Chinese Ch’an master who had very ancient roots, and his example shows that Ch’an monks can, and often do, live well beyond 100 years of age. Indeed, in Li Yu’s case, his venerable age was ascertained and confirmed through the consultation of official records of birth.
Li Yu Shang Ren (1868-1992), was born in Ni Xi Village (泥溪乡 – Ni Xi Xiang), He Chuan County (合川县 – He Chuan Xian), situated in Sichuan Province. His lay name was ‘Hou Yu Jun’ (侯喻君), and his natural disposition was known to be one of strong fortitude, and great wisdom. His family had a business, but after 15 years of success, the business went into decline and the family became penniless. One day, whilst at his aunt’s home, he read the ‘Diamond Sutra’ (金刚经– Jin Gang Jing) and immediately understood its profound meaning. Since that day he saw through the world of fame and fortune, and left home to seek instruction in the ‘Way’ (道 – Dao). During the 11th year of the Republic of China (1922), he was at the DongShan Temple(东山寺 – Dong Shan Si), situated in She Hong County. His teacher was the old Ch’an master Ben Kong (本空禅师 – Ben Kong Ch’an Shi), whom officiated over the ritual of shaving of his head and the donning of the Buddhist robe. He gave him the ordained Dharma-name of ‘Jue Kong’ (觉空),and the further name of ‘Li Yu’ (离欲). He followed the monastic discipline through winter and summer for 13 years without relenting for a moment – then suddenly he realised a great enlightenment (大悟– Da Wu).
After this, master Li Yu travelled to the Bao Guang Temple (宝光寺 - Bao Guang Si), situated in the city of Xindu, and received full ordination under the abbot (方丈 – Fang Zhang), the Ch’an master Zu Dao (祖道禅师 – Zu Dao Ch’an Shi). In the ‘Containing Precious Light Hall’ (承宝光堂 – Cheng Bao Guang Tang) at this time, the poor old master passed on his almsbowl and robe to Li Yu – giving him the further Dharma-name of ‘Complete Emptiness’ (圆空 – Yuan Kong), and making him a 41st generation descendent Ch’an master of the Lin Ji lineage (临济宗 – Lin Ji Zong). He often sighed when recalling the events of his long life of arduous study and practice – and is quoted as saying; “Young people today can not even bear to hear harsh words, how can they lay it all down (and achieve non-attachment)!”
Touring China & Restoring the National Spirit
After attaining enlightenment, master Li Yu toured the country, visiting temples and teaching the Dharma. In the 19th year of the Republic (1930), he travelled to Zhong Jiang County (in Sichuan) on foot, heading to the Bao Guo Temple (报国寺 – Bao Guo Si). (At that time the Bao Guo Temple had been in a state of bad repair for many years and the halls had collapsed. However, master Li Yu was adamant that this temple was the perfect place for cultivating the Dao (道) or ‘Way’.) The master’s robe was tattered, and he carried a rotten bed-roll on his back, when he finally arrived at the temple seeking a night’s lodging. His visit coincided with the holding of a Dharma-gathering of the four congregations (i.e. monks and nuns, plus male and female members of the lay community) at the temple to perform a ritual dedicated to Guan Yin (观音) – the Bodhisattva of Mercy. The master declared himself to be a poor monk, but as the whole temple was engaged in the performance of the ritual there was no means of support for him. Instead he decided to join-in with the ritual to the Bodhisattva and sit in meditation for seven days and seven nights without sustainence. Those present thought this was absurd, and the leader of the community said: “If you can truly meditate for seven days and night without food and water, I will worship you and accept you as abbot – if you can not, then get out of the gate!” The leader sent someone to monitor master Li Yu, who reported that the master had sat in meditation for seven days and nights, and that as the ritual had not ended on the seventh day, he had continued to sit in meditation for another three days. Those present were greatly shocked by what they saw, and the leader and the community hastened to take refuge in master Li Yu. As he adhered completely to the Dharma, his pure character naturally gathered many friends around him, who were willing to assist in the re-building of the temple. The Guan Yin Hall, the Buddhist Sutra (storage) Tower, the Head Monk’s Room, and the monk’s dormitory, etc. In this way the entire temple was restored to a perfect condition through the spiritual influence of master Li Yu.
Compassion and Joy Transform Society
In the 20th year of the Republic (1931), master Li Yu travelled on foot to Chengdu, where the Sichuan military commander – Fan Shao Ceng (范绍曾) – had been shot through the shoulder blade and was suffering from severe pain caused by inflammation. The hospital advised amputation, but Fan refused to be treated through this method and instead asked to be cared for by a French doctor. This doctor charged 400 silver Yuan per consultation and after 40 days the pain was even worse. One day, due to a chance meeting, Fan asked master Li Yu for treatment. Fan was given two sweetened jujube dates (蜜枣– Mi Zao) which he ate, and after a short time the pain began to ease. He woke up in the night to find that the pain and swelling had completely gone. He suddenly felt some thing on his back and discovered that the bullet had come out of his body. Fan was greatly surprised and very grateful. He gave master Li Yu 100,000 silver Yuan for his help, but when a severe drought struck northern Sichuanprovince, the master used this money to relieve the suffering of starvation and thirst amongst the people. He devised a system that advocated the ‘generation of relief through work’ (以工代赈 - Yi Gong Dai Zhen). This followed the regulatory model as practiced at the Bao Guang Temple (宝光寺 – Bao Guang Si). He also established the ‘Ancient Buddha Temple’ (古佛寺 – Gu Fo Si) situated in Shehong County, as a means to assist all beings in the ten directions. This temple follows the Ch’an tradition as devised by master Bai Zhang (百丈), simultaneously with the practice of ‘Agricultural Ch’an’ (农禅 - Nong Ch’an). Master Li Yu also had a salt factory built, and had planted more than 30,000 trees. In the 33rdyear of the Republic (1944) there was a council held for the ordination of monastics and was attended by 136 monks. The temple, under the guidance of the master, often served as a hospital for the sick and injured, providing funds for medicines and treatments. The master’s compassion was very deep indeed, and was always willing to use his great knowledge to assist others. Many trusted his good judgement came to request treatment from him. Some times, due to the complicated nature of a disease, he would use treatments from both Western and Chinese medicine. As a consequence he saved countless lives. He used a number of methods to affect a cure which ranged from the prescribing of medicine, the changing of diet (making use of fruit and various other healing foods), talking with patients, suggesting that patients stay in the temple for a short while, and generally making use of skilful means. These methods were very successful. As a consequence his good reputation as a doctor spread far and wide, and many people came in search of his medical knowledge. In this way he also encountered very strange and unusual ailments.
Dharma Teaching in Chengdu Benefits All Beings
In the 30th year of the Republic (1941), master Li Yu was invited (again) to transmit the Triple Gem Formula and teach the Great Dharma to his disciples in Chengdu. The people of the Ren Jia Wan area of the northern suburbs (now Renmin Bei Lu) greatly respected the master, and donated much of their excess wealth to his charitable work, so that he could organise the building of the ‘Li Yu Buddha-name Chanting Hall’ (离欲念佛堂 – Li Yu Nian Fu Tang). A total area of 4900 square meters was cleared for the project, with the actual hall occupying 2100 square meters. This was a most auspicious time for the propagation of the Dharma. Many of those who donated money were rescued from the risk of disease, and many other patients recovered from their illness due to the loving kindness that had inspired the project. During the war against the Japanese, the Chengdu area was bombed by the Japanese air force on a regular basis. Many refugees come to the hall for safety –as this area was never hit by falling bombs. On a particular day during the summer of 1940, the Japanese used over a hundred planes (the Chinese text states the specific number of ‘108’) to indiscriminately bomb the Chengdu area. The master had just finished his evening meal when he suddenly said that there will soon be an emergency and that he must go to Iron Foot Lane (铁脚巷– Tie Jiao Xiang), where Ye Qing (叶青) was about to get married. When he arrived at Ye’s home, he raised the alarm and people ran for their lives. The master sat crossed-legged and calmly explained to Ye: “The people in your family should not be panicked, this danger applies to another person.” At the exact moment that the master finished talking, there was an urgent knock on the door, a middle-aged woman ran in, desperately seeking help. She wanted to take refuge (in the Dharma) and the master, with a smile, immediately accepted her as his disciple. He gave her the Dharma-name of ‘Good Escape’ (昌逃- Chang Tao). With a smile the master Said: “This is a Good Escape because a life has been saved.” Afterwards, when everyone had left Ye’s house, the area was devastated by Japanese bombing, and rubble was everywhere. However, the master was found to be sat safely and unharmed between two rooms that had survived the blast. When the people heard this they crowded around the house to see for themselves. When they saw the master they exclaimed: “Dharma-master Li Yu! Immortal! Immortal! Living Buddha!” Immediately, many people came and one after the other requested to take refuge. At this time the Sichuan army general called Deng Xi Hou (邓锡侯) and others became the master’s disciples.
The Difficult Task of Restoring the Temple to Splendour
In 1951, master Li Yu returned to the Bao Guo Temple, and encouraged the activities of forest protection, bee-keeping, weaving straw sandals, and engaging in physical labour; all these activities allowed for the maintaining of a deeply peaceful state of mind. This religious life continued up until around 1964 - after this time the Bao Guo Temple was burnt and much of it left in ruins at the beginning of ten years of disaster experienced during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Although master Li Yu was 97 years of age at the time of the initial destruction of the temple, he was motivated by a sincere love of both country and Buddhism, to resolutely shoulder the burden of re-building the temple alone. He personally dealt with the planning of the re-construction project, and over-saw its implementation. Master Li Yu’s pure and noble spirit attracted assistance through his selfless dedication to the task, and because of this four disciples from the general public contributed money for the work. This meant that the re-construction did not require any financial help from the central government. After eight years of struggle and discipline, the Buddhist temple was finally built anew, and restored to its former splendour. It shone with spiritual power. Within the temple grounds trees and plants were cultivated that gave forth flowers and fruit, which created a leafy shade. The temple was peaceful, pleasant and welcoming to all beings. The restored temple saw the arrival of thirteen Jade Buddha (玉佛 – Yu Fo) statues which were from Myanmar. These statues – four of which measured 2.5 meters high - were treated with much respect. Master Li Yu also designed a ‘Thousand Buddha Grotto’ (千佛岩 – Qian Fu Yan) along the lines of those existing elsewhere in Sichuan and Nanjing. In this grotto was placed a statue of a Reclining Buddha (卧佛 – Wo Fu) which measured 13 meters long, a four meter high statue of Amitahba Buddha (接引佛 – Jie Yin Fo), a statue of the Medicine Buddha (药师佛 – Yao Shi Fo), and two statues of the Bodhisattva Guan Yin (观音菩萨像– Guan Yin Pu Sa). Today, the Bao Guo Temple is famous as a place of worship and ritual, as well as a sightseeing spot for tourists.
The Tireless Teacher is Destined to Bring Universal Salvation
During his lifetime, Ch’an master Li Yu committed himself to the deep and arduous study and practice of the Ch’an method to realise the Buddha-Mind (佛心 – Fu Xin). He taught his many disciples according to their karmic-roots, and generally advised that they chant the Buddha’s name to be reborn in the Pure Land. He said: “The will-power of ordinary beings is limited, but the Buddha’s virtuous strength of purpose and compassion has no limits. The will-power of ordinary people is like that of a small needle, whereas the Buddha’s strength and power is enormous and incomparable like Mount Ci (磁山 – Ci Shan). When we practice Buddhism, the mind must be made clean and bright, so that its nature is directly perceived. To achieve this all karmic barriers must be removed without exception. If sincerity and diligent hardwork is coupled with reliance upon the good natured chanting of the Buddha’s name, then the unlimited strength of Amitahba Buddha will come to our aid. This is the Dao (道), or ‘Way’ of achieving double the effect with half the effort.” The venerable master was tireless in the teaching and enlightening of others (with whom he shared a karmic connection). His words were simple, but profound. His demeanour was awe-inspiring and he approached each task with a sincere zeal. He was resolute and firm, and yet moderate. He had the ability to present the advanced teachings found in the Buddhist ancestral language, in plain and commonly understood Chinese language. He told stories that explained the practice of Buddhist cultivation, by referring to everyday and common experiences. In this careful manner, the master encouraged his disciples to attain realisation. Ch’an master Li Yu said that if a student wants to successfully apply the Buddha’s method, then it is of vital importance that the essential ‘Dao’ of Buddhism is thoroughly learnt and understood. At the beginning of study, the practitioner’s mind is usually full of delusion, but the correct study of the 12 divisions of the Tripitaka can help to dispel this ignorance. The deluded mind (妄心 – Wang Xin) and the true mind (真心 – Zhen Xin) share exactly the same pure essence, but attachment in the mind obscures this reality. When the deluded mind is transcended, the true mind manifests immediately. The ancient master Virtuous Cloud (Gu De Yun -古德云) said: “Strike down and kill the thoughts (of the deluded mind), and allow the Dharmakaya (of the true mind) to live”, this statement is the exact truth and is not false. How should ignorance be dispelled? A great mind must be developed through diligent practice that strives to transcend the cycle of re-birth and death, whilst generating loving kindness and compassion toward all beings. At the same time, a practitioner should pay careful attention to the content and function of the three activities of speaking, acting, and thinking, as well as maintaining good control and discipline of the six attributes of vision, hearing, smell, taste, bodily sensation, and thinking. Also practitioners should follow the virtuous examples of those masters from ancient times, and even though the body hangs every day like a bag, one must guard the mind from generating evil thoughts, and not let the smallest delusion arise so that we can be freed from the bag of the body. In this way the good thoughts (which are like white seeds) are selected over the bad thoughts (which are like dark seeds), as one day the karmic price of our good and bad thoughts (and the actions they cause), will have to be paid. Eventually the good seeds out-weigh the bad seeds. Therefore the emphasis for Buddhist cultivation is always on good practice. To put this simply, from the beginning, the mind should be trained in the cultivation of vigour, discipline and awareness. There is no other way of following the Dharma – there are no short-cuts in this training. A number of novices once approached the Buddha and asked: “Our deluded thoughts are many, how can we control the mind?” The Buddha replied: “You should, at all times, and in all places, strictly control your own six disciples.” The novices looked at each with confusion and asked: “How can we have disciples, where are they?” One among them who had achieved enlightenment suggested: “Eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind?” The Buddha replied: “Yes, very good. Every practitioner should learn this method (Dao), because delusion (in the mind) is too strong. The mind is like a white cloth that has become stained and is difficult to wash! You should chant the Buddha’s name, then the karma associated with bodily behaviour, speech, and thought, will be purified. If everybody chants the Buddha’s name, then one day enlightenment will be realised.”
Living as an ‘Uncarved Block’ – There is Happiness in Poverty
The teacher and his students lived simply together and followed a vegetarian diet. This did not change throughout master Li Yu’s life, as he lived the life of an ascetic and did not seek fame and fortune. He found happiness in the Dao of a poor and simple life, and never had any worldly ambition, but always strove to cultivate the Dharma – his straw sandals never left the (isolation of the) mountain gate. His daily diet consisted of vegetables grown in his garden, pickled vegetables, and soybean products. Part of what was grown was taken to be sold at the local market by students and the money acquired used to create a fund for temple repairs and construction. His bed mattress had many patches in it, and all his furniture was old and damaged. The master’s mind was calm and tranquil in these circumstances, and he did not allow anything to be replaced. In 1991 in Rongchang County, some lay practitioners saw that the master’s bedding was worn, and bought him very expensive and high quality products for his daily use. However, the master preferred not to use them, and instead had them sold so that the money could be used for temple construction. More wasteland around the temple was purchased and opened for the cultivation of fruit-trees, various cereals, and vegetables. The monks carried out this agricultural work as part of their daily training. Although the master was over a hundred years old by this time, he sometimes personally worked on the land, assisting in watering and weeding, demonstrating the principle of ‘agricultural Ch’an’ (农禅 – Nong Ch’an), and setting an example for the other monks to follow.
Prediction of Dying in Serene Meditation
The master’s body shape was tall and slender; his silvery beard was fine and elegant, his eyes were bright, his spiritual energy (气 - Qi) was bright and clear, his vision and hearing were acute, and his walking was strong and vigorous. On the 15th day of the 3rd lunar month of 1992, master Li Yu predicted the time that he would soon pass away. This prediction came true on the 17th day of the 4th lunar month of 1992, in the senior monk’s room (丈室 – Zhang Shi) at the Bao Guo Ch’an Temple. Master Li Yu passed away (and transitioned) serenely whilst seated in the meditation position (坐化 – Zuo Hua). It was thought at the time that he had been alive in the world for 107 years. As for the master’s age, according to the Lei Zhi County records of prominent Buddhist people, an investigation in the He Chuan and She Hong areas of Sichuan revealed that in fact the master had been born in the 7th year of the Tongzhi reign of the Qing Dynasty in 1868. This made the master’s real age to be 124 years old when he passed away. In reality master Li Yu was unbothered by the matter of age. Some one once asked: “Master, people say that you hide your true age, is this true?” The master smiled and replied: “There is no reason to make such a big issue over this matter.” A young person once asked: “Master, how old are you?” The master replied with a smile: “The same age as you!”
In the past, the master was the abbot of the Ancient Buddha Temple (古佛寺 – Gu Fo Si) in She Hong County, as well as being the abbot of the Bao Guo Temple in Lei Zhi County. He was President of the Lei Zhi County Buddhist Association, and was the Honorary Vice President of the Buddhism Association of Neijiang City.
©opyright: Adrian Chan-Wyles (ShiDaDao) 2013.