This text is from Charles Luk's English translation of Master Xu Yun's Chinese Language biography rendered into English as 'Empty Cloud - The Biography of the Chinese Zen Master Xu Yun' (compiled by Xen Cue Lu) and edited by Richard Hunn (1988) - Published by Element Books. The Copyright to this text belongs to the Luk family - particularly Irene Luk - the daughter of Charles Luk.
Master Xu Yun (1840-1959) was adamant that everyone follows the Vinaya Discipline. Of course, although the Buddhist monastics have to follow all the hundreds of rules – the laity have to follow fewer (minus the ‘celibacy’) rules – but those that are followed are still ‘Vinaya’ rules. This is as well as the Bodhisattva Vows - which monastics and laity generally follow (as they do not demand ‘celibacy’). Therefore, a firm ‘moral’ (Sila) base is established that limits bodily movements and assist in the ‘stilling’ of the mind. Buddhist morality advocates psychological and moral ‘non-attachment' to worldly sensation. This in-turn prevents a stimulation of the mind that generates and encourages greed, hatred and delusion. With the three-taints ‘cut-off’ - the practitioner can effectively focus all their efforts upon looking within and realising the empty mind ground. Furthermore, there is a belief within Buddhist culture that by following a morally pure existence an individual guarantees a good rebirth either as a human-being or in one of the divine ‘heavens’ reserved for people who have acquired very good karma but who are not yet enlightenment. Taking this model into account, a devout ‘Buddhist’ guarantees a future rebirth free of the suffering generally associated with the lower realms of demi-gods, spirits and hungry ghosts, etc.
Simply following moral rules, however, does not guarantee enlightenment even if it does generate a morally pure behaviour and conduct. Unless a Buddhist practitioner ‘looks’ firmly and carefully into the interior of the mind – and perceives the empty mind ground – no mind-development can take place. This means that although following arbitrary rules of conduct creates pure karma – this process in and of itself does not break the practitioner ‘free’ of the ‘samsaric’ cycles within which humanity in trapped. Just as the moral force of good karma eventually runs-out – an individual is then propelled back into the lower realms of existence to start the process all over again. This means that ‘suffering’ is transformed in a number of ways – but is never transcended and overcome. The Buddha’s path requires that the ridge-pole of karmic ignorance is permanently ‘broken’ once and for all, and for this to happen, morally purifying action must be undertaken so that the Buddha’s meditational methods can be fully applied in an efficient manner. If a person immorally behaves in the world and reinforces greed, hatred and delusion, then no amount of meditation will ‘uproot’ the three-taints and ‘clear’ the surface mind. Indeed, in such a situation, meditation in such a situation might well have the effect of strengthening and magnifying the three-taints and making their presence ever more obvious and domineering!
Precepts, therefore, only work if the attention of the mind is firmly ‘turned within’ so that the meditator can clearly perceive the underlying reality of the empty mind ground. This is the exercising of the ‘Mind Precept’ as taught by Master Xu Yun and which is part of the Caodong Ch’an tradition. This is clearly explained throughout the Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra whilst never being mentioned by name. Unless the Buddhist method is being firmly applied to the mind – then all the precepts are relegated to ‘karma-purifiers’ and lose their enlightening function as ‘mind-realisers’. The hua tou and the gongan, for instance, are Ch’an methods for effectively ‘looking within’ - and it is through ‘looking within’ that the ‘Mind Precept’ is established. The empty mind ground is the essence of a) the mind and b) all phenomena. This means that all the hundreds of precepts of the Vinaya Discipline have the empty mind ground as their origination – with the understanding that this can only be known by ‘looking within’ and realising it as being so. By ‘looking within’ - the surface mind is ‘stilled’ and greed, hatred and delusion is fully and permanently ‘uprooted’. The emptiness of the mind eventually expands and becomes ‘all-embracing’ as it envelops all phenomena. This is how the ‘Mind Precept’ underlies all precepts and should serve as the foundation of genuine Buddhist self-discipline.
We must navigate our way through the tangle of worldly pathways until it is time to transition to whatever comes next (if anything). I always remember your kind postcards and inspiring emails. You certainly seem to possess a sincere and deep connection with the Dharma. Master Xu Yun (1840-1959) would have been intrigued by your commitment, energy and ongoing Dharma-work! He always thought about the West and how the Dharma could be spread to help the ordinary people. This is probably because he met a surprising number of Western people during his very long life! I have spent a number of years carefully working my way through old Chinese texts and making extensive notes - keeping an eye on the dates and times, as well as the locations and the individuals involved. Every time I add up the years and cross-reference the dates and locations - the chronological age of Master Xu Yun always comes to 119-years-old - with him dying within (and during) his 120th year of life! I was once contacted by a Western scholar who was determined to prove Master Xu Yun's age 'wrong' and to suggest Master Xu Yun was 'lying'. He provided a photograph of an engraved tomb-stone in China which appear to suggest that Master Xu Yun was born in or around 1859! I located this stone and flew-out to China with permission to investigate. It transpired that once the moss and dirt was cleaned away - the date actually said '1839' rather than '1859'! The Chinese language numbering had been completely obscured but when restored it read '一千八百三十九' or more specifically the '20th year of the reign of the Emperor Daoguang'. This suggests that the Western solar years 1839-1840 span the single Chinese lunar year which began on February 3rd, 1840 (which was the 'Metal Rat'). However, the Emperor Daoguang ascended the throne on October 3rd, 1820 - whilst Master Xu Yun was born on August 26th, 1840 (according to Charles Luk's calculations). This is probably an editing error and should read 'August 29th' according to my research. As '1820' is counted as 'year 1' of Emperor Daoguang's reign (meaning that '1839' is year twenty of his reign) - it follows that any date before 'October 3rd' 1840 falls within the twentieth year of Emperor Daoguang's reign - and therefore Master Xu Yun was indeed born in the twentieth year of the reign of Emperor Daoguang. If he had been born on or after October 3rd, 1840, then Master Xu Yun would have been born during the twenty-first year of the reign of Emperor Daoguang! You are probably aware that within Chinese culture, when a baby is born - he or she - is already considered 'one year's old'! This habit of counting the first year as 'one' was used in dating and measuring reigns, etc, with another year added to a person's life when they died (out of respect)!
Knowing when to ‘assert’ and when to ‘give-way’ are important attributes for any spiritual traveller. As human-beings, we can find ourselves in all kind of circumstance as the day unfolds and our life progresses. Much of this will be mundane, but occasionally reality will take a shocking turn for the worst! No one saw the Covid19 pandemic arriving and virtually everyone was taken by surprise – despite numerous horror films over the years expressing narratives involving dystopic futures on a planet ravished by some type of illness, plague or other torturous device! Usually, such story-lines involve society collapsing back into an armed feudalism where brutality is the order of the day. Only the strong survive by preying on the weak. Of course, due to poverty and asymmetric economic development around the world, many people already live in these hellish conditions. I would add that even within the so-called ‘civilised’ areas of the world – killing and barbarity still exists – although it is hidden to a far greater extent (like a bad dream that people would rather forget).
Most people grow-up in the world learning to survive. Indeed, this is a crucial and necessary skill. It is not the skill of the huntsman or gathering skills of the scavenger – but rather the ability to navigate the character and personality of our fellow human-beings. Children can be cruel and adults can be deceptive – for many these observations are facts of life. This imbalance in the inner and outer environment must be dealt with in one way or another. Ch’an is not an easy undertaking because it requires a devoted self-effort to take on our own inner world before we set about attempting to make changes in our outer worlds. Many will attack and ridicule any attempt at self-discipline – but for the world to be a better place – self-discipline is exactly what is required. Looking within with clarity and steadfastness eventually develops to looking without with wisdom and knowledge!
Our personal circumstance can vary wildly through our lives. Many will experience poverty, homelessness, abuse and all kinds of deprivations – whilst others will experience only affluence and relative well-being, etc. The point is that regardless of the differences that define our outer existence, the empty mind ground is exactly the same for all beings! Master Xu Yun (1840-1959) lived a life continuously ‘gazing’ at the empty mind ground without any deviation whatsoever! More to the point – Master Xu Yun integrated his expedient self (or that which will eventually fall away) with the permanent and ever-present empty mind ground! Regardless of the situation he found himself in, or the circumstances he had to traverse – Master Xu Yun judged human reality not from the ego infected with greed, hatred and delusion – but rather from the pure and clean empty mind ground which underlies all reality and permeates the universe without end! Knowing where to place oneself in the phenomenal world - so as to maximise compassion, wisdom and loving kindness – is exactly possessing the skill of ‘moving’ and remaining ‘still’ in all situations!
Walter Liebenthal - Chinese Source
According to this, it says that:
'In 1937, it was recorded that "Walter Liebenthal (Li Huade - 李华德), a Ph.D originally from the University of Berlin, Germany, intended to translate the "Zhao Lun". However, as he had 'doubts' about its content and meaning, he visited the Great Master Taixu (太虚) to ask for his advice.'
Master Taixu (1890-1947) was a forward-thinking Buddhist modernist - although his views do not always 'agree' with those held by the more traditional Chinese Buddhist Masters alive in China today. It is interesting that Walter Liebenthal never thought to approach Master Xu Yun (1840-1959). Walter Liebenthal preferred Chinese Buddhism and developed the idea that the Chinese cultural system 'purged' Buddhism of all its 'Indianness' and imported Confucian and Daoist influences into its place. This seems overly simplistic to me - particularly as so much of the rhetoric of Ch'an, for instance, insists upon an Indian origin (imagined or actual). Buddhism is definitely viewed as 'foreign' within Chinese culture, and certainly not 'Chinese' in origin.
It is similar to how Buddhism in the West is often viewed through the lens of the Judeo-Christian tradition simply because this tradition was already here and thoroughly familiar when Buddhism arrived. The use of Judeo-Christian paradigms to interpret Buddhism does not necessarily mean that a 'deliberate' sanitisation of 'Asian' Buddhism occurred in the West - even if the effect may have appeared similar in certain aspects. Just so, the early transmission of Buddhism into China was 'filtered' through the apparatus of an existing State Confucianism and the popular Daoism (practiced amongst the ordinary people)!
The UK has the highest Covid19 death-rate in the world! To date, over 100,000 men, women and children have died. Covid19 is no respecter of class, gender or age – we are all equally susceptible to its deadly embrace! In the Classic of Change (Yijing) - Hexagram 36 is entitled ‘明夷’ (Ming Yi). This is often translated as ‘Darkening of the Light’ or ‘Brightness Obscured’ with both renderings describing a time when the outside world (literally, figuratively – or both) – is plunged into a natural state of actual perpetual darkness (such as experienced during unusual weather conditions, volcanic activity, earthquake or Tsunami, etc), or is subject to corrupt leaders, debilitating warfare, illness, famine or drought, etc. The ‘brightness’ that denotes a progressive and vibrant society has been compromised so that normal activity in the world has become severely restricted or even non-existent due to the danger that is present.
In fact, ‘明夷’ (Ming Yi) can convey a more in-depth explanation of events depicted in the situation. Indeed, ‘明’ (ming2) is constructed using the left-hand particle of ‘日’ (ri4) denoting ‘sun’ - and the right-hand particle ‘月’ (yue4) referring to the ‘Moon’. As both the ‘Sun’ and the ‘Moon’ are shining with full intensity, the Chinese ideogram means a situation of out and out ‘Brightness’. In the ancient Chinese-language texts – this ideogram referred to a time of day when the Sun is rising in the sky and the Moon has not yet disappeared – that is ‘Dawn’ - a time of great hope and inspiration for a new day ahead! This is the ‘ideal’ situation involving human society that is a ‘positive’ and ‘inspiring’ tine of unending clarity and insight – which allows great things to be achieved without end!
As the ideogram ‘夷’ (yi2) is entering the situation, however, things have changed for the worse. This change is dramatic, traumatic, and out and out ‘negative’! There is no redeeming features and civilised human society has suffered a terrible set-back! The ideogram ‘夷’ (yi2) is comprised of the inner particle of ‘大’ (da4) which translates as ‘great’, ‘big’, or ‘large’, etc, literally ‘something greater than a person’. The outer ideogram is ‘弓’ (gong1) which refers to the use of a ‘bow’ as a weapon. This ‘bow’ is manufactured from a suitably ‘curved’ tree-branch which is strong and yet flexible. Due to this association, this particle can also carry the meaning of ‘bend’, ‘arch’, or ‘curve’, etc. That is, ‘something that is not straight’, or ‘departs from the norm’, etc. When placed together, ‘夷’ (yi2) can refer to a ‘great’ non-Han people who were experts in the use of the bow and arrow - and who lived to the ‘East’ of the Central Plane. In later times, this ideogram was used to refer to any disruptive population, group or tribe that continuously attacked and disruptive the everyday cultural activity of the Han people.
As the ‘明夷’ (Ming Yi) Hexagram (36) uses the latter meaning of ‘interference from barbarians’ - this gives a clue when this Hexagram’s commentary was formulated (or at least ‘settled’) - which would have been after the life of Confucius (probably around 300 BCE). Confucius tends to see this tribe as ‘ancient’ rather than ‘disruptive’ - but in later times, this concept took-on the meaning of ‘obliterate’, ‘eradicate’ and ‘destroy’ through ‘violence’. As something bad has happened in society – the ‘wise-person’ turns-away from all forms of social interaction and intently ‘looks within’ to perfect his or her character. This is achieved through silent and seated meditation, interspersed with periods of study deep and profound philosophical texts that assist this process. This fits-in with the current Covid19 Crisis which involves a withdrawal from interacting within normal society to prevent the spread of the illness and keep one another (and the entirety of society) safe! Master Xu Yun (1840-1959) would have told us all to behave ourselves and behave with civility and discipline!
‘We are here to inquire into the hua-tou which is the way we should follow. Our purpose is to be clear about birth and death and to attain Buddhahood. In order to be clear about birth and death, we must have recourse to this hua-tou which should be used as the Vajra King’s precious sword to cut down demons if demons come and Buddha’s if Buddhas come so that no feelings will remain and not a single thing (Dharma) can be set up. In such a manner, where could there have been wrong thinking about writing poems and gathas and seeing such states as voidness and brightness? If you made your efforts so wrongly. I really do not know where your hua-tou went. Experienced Chan monks do not require further talks about this, but beginners should be very careful.’
Master Xu Yun (113-114 years-old) - Ch’an Week - 1953-1954 – Fourth Day - Jade Buddha Temple (Shanghai)
Master Xu Yun never wastes a single word. This is because he is never confused as to the origin of a single thought. Master Xu Yun exists (psychologically and physically) within the permeant realisation of the empty mind ground. According to the historical (Indian) Buddha, ‘life’ as we experience it is unsatisfactory, seldom stable and prone to disappointment and ultimate dissolution. Physical life begins through the chemical explosion of conception, and ends when the body naturally shuts-down (during biological death), or is extinguished early through accident, illness or disaster, etc. Master Xu Yun lived through many such episodes throughout his extraordinarily long life (of two-cycles of the Chinese Zodiac). He lived within the space of the enlightened mind as explained in the Surangama Sutra. This is described as a round, all-embracing mirror that sees everything and rejects nothing. Like the sun – such a realised state shines on everything equally – bringing light and loving kindness to all phenomena whilst clearly distinguishing between this and that. This is why Master Xu Yun described the enlightened state as being ‘this and thus’ in his final years.
What many believe to be exalted states experienced when training in methods of self-cultivation, are nothing more than marks of progression and subtle expressions of delusion that must be ruthlessly ‘cut-down’ without hesitation. Buddhas in the mind are only shadows in the imagination, nothing else. Being obsessed with a shadow is not the realisation of ‘enlightenment’ but just more delusion indulged in a more favourable direction. These achievements signify spiritual ‘dead-ends’ that many reach and mistake for the state of ultimate ‘enlightenment’. Practitioners then become satisfied to remain in these dark corners of the imagination and to lead all other into the same cul-de-sac of doom! When attachment mixes with a false attainment, then an individual will not be able to move-on for very long extended periods of time. All is lost as darkness replaces light – and ignorance dominates genuine wisdom.
This quagmire can be avoided or escaped simple by applying the hua-tou correctly and effectively. What was once inevitable instantaneously ‘melts’ away as the hua-tou detaches the mind’s faulty awareness from this delusion and turns it toward the empty mind ground. This demonstrates the power of a) delusions to fool and distract the mind, and b) for the hua-tou method to quickly resolve this issue. The hua-tou is a very effective method of self-cultivation now only found in the Chinese Ch’an School of Buddhism (and the various lineages that have spread to other countries). Looking within is a matter of proper view – nothing else. Looking correctly will reveal the empty mind ground – looking incorrectly will reveal the delusion of the mind which cannot be escaped. Settling the body and directing the awareness is more important than all the passing phenomena of the external world (good or bad) - and has nothing to do with existential circumstance. This is why Ch’an is both difficult and easy.
Artist: Yang Bo (杨勃)｜ Contemporary Spirit · Young Oil Painting Artist Series - 2017-05-19 13:31
Supervisor: Guangdong Federation of Literary and Art Circles
Organizer: Guangdong Lingnan Fine Arts Publishing House
杨勃 ｜ 当代精神 · 青年油画艺术家系列 - 2017-05-19 13:31
Author’s Note: Charles Luk wrote this Foreword for the British Buddhist – John Blofeld – who had spent time in pre-Revolutionary China (working as an academic in the various Universities) studying Chinese Buddhism and Daoism in his leisure time. During that time, John Blofeld even had a personal encounter with Master Xu Yun (1840-1959) - the details of which are recorded in his biography entitled ‘The Wheel of Life’. John Blofeld also travelled all over Asia before marrying an Asian woman and settling in Thailand. The ‘materialism’ Charles Luk discusses requires clarification. The Buddha recognised that the physical world existed in-front of the senses and that the human mind was ‘attached to that which it ‘sensed’. This physical world, however, exists in a continuous state of flux (or ‘change’), and is ‘empty’ of any substantiality or permanent entity. In the enlightened state, the physical world does not ‘disappear’ as if by magic, but is rather transformed through the attainment and realisation that it is ‘free’ of self, ‘free’ of greed, ‘free’ of hatred and ‘free’ of delusion! The mind is disentangled from its habitual attachment to existing material externals, and the inherently ‘empty’ mind ground is realised, cultivated and developed (as described by the Cao Dong School’s Five Ranks). The Chinese Ch’an School combines the practical teachings of the Pali Suttas and the sublime teachings of the Mahayana Sutras and forms a perfect synthesis of understanding. Charles Luk uses the term ‘materialism’ to describe the mind’s attachment to physical externals, and humanity’s obsession with accumulation of wealth and material goods through the unbridled indulgence of ‘greed’. Charles Luk laments the fact that in the early 1960s, (the time of his writing), people were more interested in the accumulation of external profit, rather than the inner process of spiritual attainment. Whereas the exclusive possession of material goods seldom grants the assumed well-being associated with amassing profit – Charles Luk states that through the proper self-cultivation associated with the inner journey of Ch’an development, true peace of mind and relief from suffering is secured! This ability to ‘self-heal’ - Charles Luk says – resides in the minds of all human-beings! The material world is not necessarily or inherently ‘bad’ per se, but becomes so, depending upon how human-beings decide to relate to it. This is why the enlightened position of the Ch’an Master is described as being ‘neither attached to the (realised) void nor hindered by (the existing) phenomenal world’. Interestingly, Charles Luk discusses the concept of the ‘patient endurance of the uncreate’. After realising relative enlightenment, (or stage three of the Cao Dong School’s Five Ranks System), the perception of emptiness only exists within the mind (or ‘head’) of the individual practitioner. To traverse into the fourth and fifth positions of the Five Ranks – a practitioner must sit with ‘patience’ whilst contemplating the void with non-attachment and adjusting themselves to circumstances. This requires the maintaining of an ‘indifference’ to those circumstance. When this process is facilitated successfully, the emptiness within the head ‘expands beyond the bony limitation of the skull – and ethereally embraces the entire environment (and everything within it). Within phonetical Sanskrit the ‘patient endurance of the uncreate’ is written as ‘anutpattidharmakshanti’, whilst in Sanskrit script it is written as ‘अनुत्पत्तिधर्मक्षान्ति’. ‘Anutpatti’ translates as ‘unborn’, ‘non-born’ ‘uncreated’ - whilst ‘dharma’ represents the ‘entirety of reality’, and ‘kshanti’ equates with ‘patient endurance’. Material reality both ‘exists’ and yet is ‘uncreated’. It takes the practice of the right method of meditation to understand this reality - whilst abiding within the state of eternal patience and endurance (or perseverance). The Standard Sanskrit Dictionary describes this state as being a ‘preparation for a future state, and acquiescence in the state and moral condition which is yet to come.’ A possible Chinese translation is - anutpatti (uncreate) ‘起源’ (Qi Yuan) or ‘that which has not yet come to fruition – but which will eventually germinate and spring-up and sprout from the ground (when watered)’ - reality (dharma) ‘達摩’ (Da Mo) which means ‘unencumbered material reality which is realised (and encountered) everywhere without hindrance’, and ‘尚蒂‘ (Shang Di) ‘to continuously uphold and esteem without hindrance or obstruction’. Therefore, the Sanskrit term ‘अनुत्पत्तिधर्मक्षान’ (anutpattidharmakshanti) is translated into the Chinese language as ‘起源 達摩尚蒂’ - although, of course, there may be other examples generated at different times and in various places as Dynasties (and policies) came and went. Incidentally, the ‘Da Mo’ is exactly the same as that found in the Chinese translation of the name of the Indian Buddhist monk Bodhidharma - ‘菩提達摩’ (Pu Ti Da Mo). ACW (22.10.2020)
Respectfully dedicated to that true Buddhist, learned scholar, and author and translator of many valuable Ch’an texts, Charles Luk
FOREWORD by Charles Luk
The ancients had their unexcelled ways of teaching which seem strange to the people of this modern age of materialism, not only in the West but also in the East. For the human mind is now more concerned with material than with spiritual values; it seeks only the satisfaction of its ever-increasing desires – though these are the very cause of our sufferings – and it casts away ‘its own treasure house’, which is its paradise of eternal bliss. So long as we allow our minds to discriminate and to grasp at illusion, the ancient teaching will seem strange, even stupid and silly, to us. However, if we succeed in disengaging our minds from externals – that is if we stop all our discriminating and discerning – the profundity of that teaching will become apparent to us, for it inculcates not only theory but also that practice which will give immediate results in the sphere of reality; for a teaching cannot be regarded as complete unless it gives the practical method of reaching the ultimate goal. When the Great Pearl preached his Dharma of instantaneous Awakening, he taught its doctrine, its aim, its substance and its function; thus his teaching consists not only of the right interpretation and correct understanding of theory but also of the practical realisation of substance and function, which are the two essentials of complete enlightenment. In other words, he taught the right Dharma which is immanent in everyone and which does not come from outside.
The Master’s numerous quotations from Mahayana Sutras, together with his unsurpassed interpretations and comments, show that all great master read the whole Tripitaka before or after their enlightenment, and refutes the unjustifiable contention that sutra can be dispensed with in the Transmission of Mind introduced into China by the Twenty-Eighth Patriarch Bodhidharma.
The Great Pearl urged his listeners not to let their minds abide anywhere and at the same time to keep from illusory non-abiding, so that a state of all-pervading purity and cleanness would appear of itself. And even this pure state should not be clung to, in order to release the mind from all remaining relatives and thereby attain realisation of the ‘patient endurance of the uncreate’ (anutpattidharmakshanti) which is an essential condition of complete enlightenment. Thus, his instruction followed exactly the same pattern of the Dharma as laid down by the Buddha who said in the Sutra of Complete Enlightenment that his disciples should keep themselves again and again from all illusions, including the illusionary idea of keeping from them, so as to wipe out all traces of subject and object until nothing further remained to be avoided – for only then could bodhi appear in full.
Therefore, Part One of this book gives the Mahayana instruction for self-realisation of mind, for perception of self-nature and consequent attainment of Buddhahood. And Part Two contains the dialogues between the Great Pearl and those who came to him for instruction. If we seriously follow this teaching and practise self-cultivation, beginning with the mind as the starting point, there is every possibility that we shall succeed in reaching the same mental states as those described by the Great Pearl in his twenty-eight-line gatha.
(Upasaka Lu K’uan Yu)