Master Xu Yun’s Recollections of Vinaya Master Hong Yi (1879-1942)
This article is translated from the Chinese text entitled the ‘虚云和尚法汇—文记 - 弘一大师传’, or the ‘Recollections of Master Hong Yi as Contained Within Xu Yun’s Collection of Dharma Teachings’ (Xu Yun He Shang Fa Hui Yi Wen Ji – Hong Yi Da Shi Chuan). Within Chinese Buddhism, master Hong Yi (1879-1942) is very famous and is considered as important a cultural figure as master Xu Yun himself – indeed, so important that Xu Yun wrote a biography of Hong Yi. It is important to remember that all paths originate from the same Mind Ground and return to this essence. Master Hong Yi was not a Ch’an practitioner, but rather a follower of the Vinaya – or monastic rule tradition. All authentic Buddhist teachings lead directly to the realisation of the Mind Ground and Hong Yi discovered that his Dharmic path lay through the strict following of moral discipline as declared appropriate by the Lord Buddha himself over two thousand years ago in ancient India. This is the emphasis of ‘sila’ or moral discipline within Buddhist practice, an emphasis that master Xu Yun clearly endorsed toward the end of his life when he advocated the upholding of sila (discipline), dhyana (meditation), and prajna (wisdom). Interestingly, master Hong Yi was not a monk all of his life, but spent many years as a teacher of art and history. His calligraphy – both before and after his ordination - is considered amongst the best expressions known in the world. In 1916, master Hong Yi underwent a 21 day fast within a Buddhist temple in Hangzhou – where he had a profound insight into the Dharma – this led him to his eventual ordination as a Buddhist monk in 1918 – receiving the Dharma name ‘Hong Yi’ (弘一), or ‘Great Oneness’. Master Hong Yi did not only follow the Nanshan Vinaya School, but through his hard work and diligence, his example actually managed to revive the school itself. Master Hong Yi’s spiritual strength shines through all eternity. This is how master Xu Yun (1840-1959) remembers master Hong Yi;
Master Xu Yun’s Recollections of Vinaya Master Hong Yi Da Shi Chuan
I am expounding these words in memory of the deceased venerable master Hong Yi, whose other names are; ‘Yan Yin’, and ‘Wan Qing’. His mother was originally from Pinghu, situated in Zhejiang province, whilst his father was from Tianjin, Hebei province. His father’s family name was ‘Li’ (李) and he was a scholar who had successively passed the Civil Service examination. His mother’s name was Wang (王). Master Hong Yi was born in Tianjinin 1879, and at the time of his birth a bird flew down and dropped a twig into his room – this was considered a very good omen for the young child’s life. As a child he developed an extra-ordinary ability to memorise and understand poetry, he could see into the essence. He was also very good at writing Chinese letters – particularly Seal Characters. During the 100 Days’ Reform Movement of 1898, (which occurred between June and September of that year), Hong Yi left Tianjin and travelled to Shanghai and attended Nanyang Public School, whilst also becoming a member of the Shanghai Painting and Calligraphy Association, and the Shanghai Cultural Society. In 1905, Hong Yi travelled to Japanto continue his education, studying at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts and Music School, specializing in Western painting and music. Hong Yi returned to Chinain 1910, and after the Revolution of 1911, he became a teacher in a girls’ school in Shanghai. In 1912 he went to Hangzhou and became a lecturer at the Zhejiang Secondary Normal College – where he taught Western painting and music, as well as the history of art.
Hong Yi was patriotic to the country of China and spent time studying the Way (or ‘Dao’) of the neo-Confucian theory of the Song Dynasty (960-1279). In 1915 he taught at Nanjing Higher Normal School, and at the Central University of Nanjing, as well as at the Zhejiang Secondary Normal School (at Hangzhou), as professor of drawing and music. At this time he was a very modern person, but in 1916 master Hong Yi attended a 21 day fast at the Buddhist temple called the Running Tiger of Great Kindness Temple (Hu Pao Da Ci Si), situated in Hangzhou. During this time he experienced an inner state of profound peace and contentment in his mind. A year after this experience, he took refuge in the triple gem of Buddhism and spent a further year in this temple before being ordained as a Buddhist monk at this temple in 1918, when he was entering his 39th year of age. After embracing the life of a monk, Hong Yi strove to breakthrough the fatality of the world and see into its empty essence, so that despite wearing a ragged-robe and tattered straw sandals, he could eventually experience peace and tranquillity in all situations. Even though circumstances, both inwardly and outwardly could be difficult - Hong Yi maintained his practice of following the Buddhist rules no matter what, even if it meant giving up his life for the Dharma. His determination was solid and undaunted, and even when clouds of war descended upon China, he remained fearless. However, Hong Yi was aware that many monks lacked good instruction and did not follow the Buddhist rules in a correct manner because they lacked the appropriate guidance. Although many chanted the Buddha’s name, they lacked the spiritual power gained through the following of the precepts, to make any significant breakthrough in their practice.
This led Hong Yi to study the body of Buddhist literature related to monastic discipline as introduced into China from the Indian Buddhist sect known as the Dharmagupta Vinaya School. The Tang Dynasty master Daoxuan developed this teaching into what became known as the Nanshan Lu (Vinaya) School. During this time the Nanshan Lu spread to Japan where it took root. Despite this good work, the Nanshan Lu declined at the end of the Tang, but experienced a resurgence during the Song. However, later during the Song, around three-quarters of the works comprising the Nanshan Lu were lost. During the Qing Dynasty a Chinese lay-practitioner (Xu Weiru) requested a copy of the full Nanshan Lu from Japan and the Chinese text was restored and was engraved in Tianjin. Hong Yi read through the entire text and cross-referenced it with Tibetan and Japanese sources and corrected the many errors that he discovered. In this way he strengthened the Nanshan Lu and expanded its reach and influence significantly. He was viewed as the restorer of the Nanshan Lu and some even said that he was viewed as a Patriarch of that school. He achieved all this because he followed the rules, eradicated evil and created good karma in the process. Master Hong Yi taught that the following of discipline was the first crucial step to securing re-birth in the Western Paradise. As he got older, master Hong Yi suffered from a number of minor diseases, but refused medicine and instead relied upon the power of fasting within the context of Buddhist practice. On fourth day of the ninth lunar month (in 1942), master Hong Yi passed away peacefully at the Zhengfeng monastery in Quanzhou, Fujian province. He was 63 years old at the time and after his cremation many relics were found within the ashes. His wisdom was without limit and without compare; he single-handedly restored the Nanshan Lu tradition, and in so doing strengthened Chinese Buddhism in general. His student, the monk Riu Deng has vowed to convey his master’s wisdom to future generations, and to write a book about Hong Yi and his teachings with regard to the correct interpretation and following of the vinaya rules. These endeavours are the duty of a good student – as the monk Riu Deng wishes to re-pay the kindness he received from his master Hong Yi, and exhibit the uncommon wisdom that he held.
Due to his virtuous conduct and exact self-cultivation, Hong Yi realised the Way (Dao) of the true Buddhist teachings. Despite the hardships of an isolated practice, and the illnesses he suffered, he managed to realise the essence of the mysterious Way (Dao). His mastery of calligraphy was so profound that he was removing barriers even before becoming a monk – in this regard his mastery of calligraphy (and art) was beyond compare. Many have admired the master’s lofty path of endeavour. There is a great grief and sadness when others depart from this life, but we must not allow resentment or sorrow to become excessive as such a reaction, although considered noble, can actually serve to block a dharma-door to enlightenment. Some times, even the ancients left without saying good bye. We, the living, must learn from their example. That is we should concentrate on the moral fortitude that masters such as Hong Yi developed in their lives, and be inspired by it so as to maintain a tranquil mind even amidst the chaos of the world. We must look toward the higher and leave what is lower. Hong Yi did this by disciplining his body so that he could realise the virtuous way (Dao). With the cultivation of such virtue there is always a compassionate smile to show the world. Master Hong Yi truly was a great man.
'Licchavi Vimalakirti came to the foot of that tree and said to me, ’Reverend Sariputra, this is not the way to absorb yourself in contemplation. You should absorb yourself in contemplation so that neither body nor mind appear anywhere in the triple world. You should absorb yourself in contemplation in such a way that you can manifest all ordinary behavior without forsaking cessation. You should absorb yourself in contemplation in such a way that you can manifest the nature of an ordinary person without abandoning your cultivated spiritual nature.' Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra