Planting lotuses

By Yeang Soo Ching, The New Straits Times, April 24, 2005

It is not everyday that you get to meet a holy man, what more one apparently revered by millions. YEANG SOO CHING comes away a changed person.

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia -- IT is quite an unnerving experience meeting Venerable Master Hsing Yun, the 48th Patriarch of the Linji Ch'an School in China. Not that the 78-year-old Master is anything but serene and contemplative. Rather, it is the lay disciples around him who put one in awe.

<< Ven. Hsing Yun

Behaving more like bodyguards, these lay disciples wear their reverence for the Master like a cloak, silently observing all and sundry who come into their midst. It bespeaks their devotion to the Master, a monk who works tirelessly to promote the Dharma (Buddha's teachings).

While waiting in line to meet Hsing ? at the Fo Guang Shan Dong Zen (Buddhist college)-cum- monastery in Jenjarom, Kuala Langat ? I sip fragrant Chinese tea and nibble on delectable snacks and fruits; which somewhat inexplicably whet my appetite for a little sustenance for the soul.

This comes soon enough. Face to face with the larger-than-life figure of Hsing, I automatically clasp my hands in greeting.

Now, I think I understand why his people are so enamoured of him. It's his presence. He exudes equanimity. For a fleeting moment, I considered plonking myself down at his feet on the chance that I shall be favoured to learn the meaning of life. Instead, I nervously start to bombard him with questions, and then try to decipher the nuances and subtleties he throws back at me.

What is Humanistic Buddhism? I ask. (Hsing has been preaching the concept for some time.) "What the Buddha says," he replies.

"What people's needs are; what is benevolent and beautiful; what is pure; what is calm and harmonious; what is wholesome..." Humanistic Buddhism incorporates the Five Vehicles of Teachings; the Five Precepts and Ten Wholesome Deeds; the Four Boundless States of Mind; the Six Paramitas and Four Ways to Bring Harmony; the Cause, Conditions and Effect; and the Ch'an, Pureland and the Middle Path, Hsing patiently explains.

Hsing's ideals of Buddhism find strength in the pragmatic. For example, he elaborates, when you're down, you must have the strength to pick yourself up. When your mind is not calm, you have to seek peace, and when you're not content, learn courage.

"There must be harmony in the family, and mutual respect. There must be responsibility in discharging duties, and contribution to society." But it's a very troubled world we live in, Master, how can devotees stay inspired? I press.

"Joy or sorrow, it's the same. Emptiness is existence," he says, with a slight wave of his hand. "Look at this room. It was empty, now it is filled with furniture and people. Look at this glass. It was empty, now it is filled with tea." When it comes to religion, Hsing adds, people take only what they need and what they think is appropriate. It is up to them to tread their own path, to find their own meaning.

"Learning is a lifelong process, and perfecting ourselves is good," he advises.

What about Buddha's advice to engage in the world but remain detached from it? I show off. "It is like in First Grade or Second Grade; high school or college. If you engage in the world but can't transcend it, it becomes mundane; if you transcend the world too much, you become too idealistic. "It is best to harmonise the spirit, and to take the middle path." For spiritual cultivation, there is no place other than the human world to do so, according to him. Compassion, respect, generosity, discipline, patience, diligence, wisdom, and perfection of character are among the values to cultivate.

"It is a common mistake to believe that there are other places for spiritual cultivation," he says.

Hsing has steadfastly always encouraged a life of joy. However, there is a catch. True joy comes from painstaking effort and the willingness to connect with others.

"Joy doesn't come just because you want it to. "When I became a monk at 12, life for me changed totally, but I stuck to the principle of making everybody I deal with happy. This hasn't changed since." Over the years, his understanding and practice of Buddhism have blended, which in time allows him to understand the Buddhist definitions of kindness, compassion, joy and generosity.

He deems speaking kind words and acting to benefit others as being the way to spread joy.

As Hsing wrote in his diary: "A promising individual contributes to the wellbeing of society so as to give others faith; an outstanding individual never mouths words of refusal easily so as to give others hope; a capable individual always shares benefits with others so as to give them happiness; and a compassionate individual is always willing to serve others so as to give them convenience." Making it convenient for others, in Hsing's view, means offering them alternative solutions when a given task faces obstacles.

"Always consider the possibility of offering others even the least bit of help, hope and convenience." How did this founder of the Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Monastic Order (FGS) become a monk in the first place? "The war between China and Japan broke out when I was 12. My father had left home to do business and we never heard from him again. "After trying to contact him for two years without success, my mother took me to Nanjing in search of him.

"By chance, I came across the host monk of the Chi-hsia Shan monastery and he asked if I wanted to become a monk. ?Yes,' I blurted." In less than half-an-hour, the abbot of the monastery, Venerable Master Zhi Kai, sent for him. Asked again if indeed he wanted to become a monk, Hsing affirmed his decision.

"A commitment made in a moment has been kept for a lifetime," recalls Hsing who was born in Jiangdu, Jiangsu Province, in 1927, By 14, Hsing was fully ordained and began formal monastic training.

He left for Taiwan in 1949 at the age of 22, where he became editor of various Buddhist publications. In 1952, while staying at Lei-yin temple in Yilan, he initiated chanting groups, student and youth organisations, a Sunday school for children and various Dharma teams. His efforts provided the strong foundation for his subsequent endeavours in the promotion of Dharma.

It was in 1967 that he founded the FGS, which has since evolved from a mountain monastery to the largest Buddhist monastery in Taiwan. Literally translated, Fo Guang Shan means "Buddha's Light Mountain". In 35 years, more than 200 branch temples have been established worldwide. (There are 17 FGS centres in Malaysia.) The Hsi Lai temple in North America, the Nan Tien temple in Australia, and the Nan Hua temple in South Africa are renowned for their magnificent structures as well as their role as centres of Buddhist education.

The order also has the largest number of female monastics compared to any other Buddhist order today. Under Hsing's guidance, there are more than 1,000 monastics and millions of lay disciples worldwide.

But for Hsing, spreading the Dharma has not been without its trials and tribulations, and likewise the building of monasteries and founding of schools.

He remembers eagerly announcing plans in 1963 to set up a Buddhist college when an influential devotee spoke up.

"Master, if you insist on a Buddhist college, which we cannot hope to fund for the long term, soon you will have to go without food," said the devotee.

Hsing knew resources were extremely short, but he also realised that they could not stand idle.

He went ahead with his plans, and as a result, graduates from the Eastern Buddhist college, the oldest building at FGS, have numbered in the thousands in the last 40 years.

"If at any point I had been the slightest bit hesitant, many Buddhist leaders and fine talent would have not been," he says.

In 1985, Hsing stepped down as abbot of FGS to travel the world to disseminate the Dharma. Seven years later, he set up the Buddha's Light International Association (BLIA) for lay Buddhists to become involved in Dharma propagation. Since its inception, BLIA, with Hsing as its president, has grown to total more than 200 chapters spread over 173 countries.

Headquartered in Los Angeles, BLIA now has more than one million members, and has become an NGO member of the United Nations.

In 1995, Hsing was included in the "Who's Who of the Year" list compiled by the American Biographical Institute for outstanding accomplishments in the 20th century. Hsing has also set up the Fo Guang Publishing House which produces Buddhist texts and audio-visual materials. Since 2000, he has also published the Merit Times, the first Buddhist daily newspaper.

As part of his cultural mission, nine art galleries, 26 libraries and 12 bookstores have been established in different parts of the world.

It is akin to "planting pure lotuses in boisterous cities", he says.

The order's emphasis on education can be seen from its 16 colleges and four public universities to date that provide free education. In Malaysia, one such college is located at a 6.4ha site in Jenjarom.

The universities are the Hsi Lai University in Los Angeles, Nan Tien University in Wollongong, Australia, and the Nan Hua University and Fo Guang University in Taiwan.

As for charity work, Hsing has set up children's homes, nursing homes, and free mobile medical clinics. Under his guidance, BLIA is active in carrying out aid relief work as well. The organisation is in the midst of building a school in Thailand and an orphanage in Sri Lanka for tsunami victims.

In 1996, Hsing was invited to preside over the Triple Gem Refuge ceremony held at the Shah Alam Stadium in Selangor, which was attended by 80,000 people. The following year, Hsing held a religious dialogue with the late Pope John Paul II at the Vatican City. Hsing has also met with the 14th Dalai Lama on numerous occasions.

In 1998, Hsing had his first official meeting with then Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri (now Tun) Dr Mahathir Mohamad in Kuala Lumpur.

In the same year, he presided over the first combined Mahayana, Theravada and Tibetan Triple Platform Ordination ceremony in Bodhgaya, India. The ceremony was held to restore the Bikhusuni Precepts of the Theravada tradition which had been lost for more than one thousand years. It was also in 1998 that Hsing visited Thailand to receive an important religious relic, Buddha's tooth, and to escort it back to Taiwan to be enshrined at FGS.

This was followed by the Chinese Government authorising Hsing in 2002 to escort a finger of the Buddha from Famen Temple in Xi'an to Taiwan.

Based in Taiwan, Hsing has been hailed as a reformer, innovator and educator. Under his leadership, Buddhism has reached out from behind temple walls to transcend international borders and reaffirm its relevance to people living modern lifestyles in bustling cities around the world.

"Community transcends the individual, and in so doing, the individual is fulfilled," he says.

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