Meeting with Master Xu Yun

by Jy Din Shakya



The Master’s name, Xu Yun, is translated into English as “Empty Cloud”, a translation which often confuses people.  We all know what a cloud is, but what, we wonder, is meant by “empty”?

In Chan (pronounced Jen) or Zen literature the term “empty” appears so often and with so many variations of definition, that I will begin by trying to clarify its meaning.

To be empty means to be empty of ego, to be without any thought of self, not in the sense that one functions as a vegetable or a wild animal – living things which merely process water, food and sunlight in order to grow and reproduce – but in the sense that one ceases to gauge the events, the persons, the places, and the things of one’s environment in terms of “I” or “me” or “mine”.  A person who is “empty of self” seldom has occasion even to use these pronouns.

Let me be more specific.  We have all heard about a parent, or friend, or lover who claims to be completely unselfish in his love for another.  A husband will say, “I kept nothing for myself.  I gave everything to her, my wife.” This man is not empty.  He has merely projected a part of his identity upon another person.

A person who is truly empty possesses nothing, not even a consciousness of self.  His interests lie not with his own needs and desires, for indeed, he is unaware of any such considerations, but only with the welfare of others.  He does not evaluate people as being likable or unlikable, worthy or unworthy, or as useful or useless.  He neither appreciates nor depreciates anyone.  He simply understands that the Great Buddha Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light and Goodness, dwells within every human being, and it is in the interest of this Buddha Self that he invests himself.

Attaining such emptiness is never easy.  An old Chan story illustrates this:
A Chan Master once undertook the instruction of a novice who was having great difficulty in detaching himself from the persons of his former, secular life.  “You cannot serve the Dharma until you sever these bonds,” said the Master.  “You must destroy these possessive relationships!  Kill them!  Regard them as if they no longer existed!”
The novice asked, “But my parents?  Must I slay them, too?”
And the Master replied, “Who are they to be spared?”
“And you, Master,” said the novice, “must I kill you, too?”
And the Master smiled and said, “Don’t worry.  There is not enough of me left for you to get your hands on.”

Such a master was Xu Yun.  There was not enough of him left for anyone to grasp.
I will tell you about this remarkable man, this Empty Cloud whose presence so defined my life.  I will tell you things that I remember and I will do my best to transmit to you his Dharma teachings.  Perhaps if you learn from him you will be able to experience some of the joy I knew from knowing him.

To be in Xu Yun’s presence was to be in the morning mist of a sunny day, or in one of those clouds that linger at the top of a mountain.  A person can reach out and try to grab the mist, but no matter how hard he tries to snatch it, his hand always remains empty.  Yet, no matter how desiccated his spirit is, the Empty Cloud will envelop it with life-giving moisture; or no matter how his spirit burns with anger or disappointment, a soothing coolness will settle over him, like gentle dew.
This is the Empty Cloud of Xu Yun that still lingers with us.  Time and the sun cannot destroy it, for it is the sun, itself; just as it is also eternal.

Now I will tell you some of the history he and I share.
During the 1920’s, when I was still a boy, Xu Yun had not yet come to Nan Hua Monastery, the monastery which Hui Neng, the Sixth Patriarch of Chan, had founded near the town of Shao Guan, where I lived.  Shao Guan lies about one hundred miles north of Guang Zhou (Canton) in Guang Dong Province, which is in the south of China.
In all the centuries since its founding in 675 AD, Nan Hua Monastery had gone through cycles of neglect and restoration; but when I was a boy, it was definitely in one of its neglected phases.  As I can clearly remember, it was much more like a playground than the shrine it is today.
In those days, Shao Guan was a sleepy, little river-town, a place with not much for kids to do.  Going out to Nan Hua monastery was fun for us.

What made this Monastery playground even more exciting to visit was that no one seemed to be in charge of it.  About a hundred monks and a few dozen nuns lived there, but mostly they busied themselves with bickering.  Nuns argued with nuns.  Monks argued with monks.  Nuns argued with monks.  And the buildings of this great religious center were merely the places in which all these arguments took place.  It didn’t seem to matter that the wood was rotting and the stonework was crumbling and the ironwork of the old red and white pagoda was rusting.  The decay had merely kept pace with the decline in monastic discipline.  Devout Buddhists, like my parents, would visit and put money in the donation boxes; and if the unruly boys they brought with them, like my older brother and me, climbed on ancient structures, or played hide and seek behind the sacred statuary, or ran through hallowed hallways, well, nobody objected.  To have restrained us from enjoying ourselves might have restrained the donations.  I suppose the monks figured that they already had to suffer with dilapidated buildings, so why should they risk worsening their problems with financial shortages.
So we always had a good time whenever we went to Nan Hua.  We’d run across the Caoxi (Ts’ao Xi) River bridge and climb one of the nearby mountains in which there was a natural stone niche.  The Sixth Patriarch was said to have meditated in this niche.  We’d sit in it and laugh, imitating his pious posture.
No wonder that the Sixth Patriarch appeared to Xu Yun in a vision and begged him to go to Nan Hua Monastery to straighten out the mess it had become!

I didn’t meet Xu Yun until 1934 when I was seventeen years old and he was in his sixties.  He looked then just like the photograph I have reproduced at the beginning of the text.  I’ll tell you about this meeting.  But in order to appreciate it, you’ll need to know a little more of my background.
My family name is Feng.  Originally my family came from FuJian Province, but my father moved to Shao Guan and that is where my older brother and I were born and raised.  By local standards my family was considered rich.  My father owned two businesses: a building materials and supply business and a commercial shop in which he sold dried foods such as mushrooms, scallions, and other varieties of vegetables.

I suppose my parents originally hoped that one day my brother would take over one business and I would take over the other.  But my brother’s talents were not in any of the academic pursuits and my parents soon began to worry about his abilities.  When I was four years old I began to study with the private tutors they had engaged to educate him.  He was then two years ahead of me.  But I learned quickly and began “skipping” grades until I was ahead of my brother.  So, at the conclusion of the Six Year Primary School education, although I was two years younger than my brother, I was graduated two years ahead of him.
I then entered Secondary or Intermediate School.  The school I attended was named Li Qun which means a school that “encourages people”.  It was a Roman Catholic school and all the teachers were Catholic priests and nuns.  It was considered the best school in the area.  But the study of Christianity was more or less optional; and in my case, it was definitely more less than more.  All I really cared about was ball playing.  If you could throw it, kick it, bounce it, or hit it, I was interested.  In Intermediate School that’s what I felt most “encouraged” to do.
But I attended to my studies sufficiently to gain admittance to a three-year Education College.  I didn’t feel much like selling dried vegetables so I thought I’d become a teacher.
And there I was, in 1934, a cocky kid of seventeen…  a smart Alec, you’d say, who one holiday went out, as usual, to Nan Hua Monastery with all the other teen aged boys and girls to have some fun.  I had never even heard of Xu Yun and I certainly didn’t expect to discover that a holy man had just come to Nan Hua.  And there he was…

Something happened to me when I looked into his face.  I suddenly dropped to my knees and pressed my forehead against the ground, kowtowing to him.  My friends were all astonished.  I had never kowtowed to anybody in my life…  and there I was, inexplicably, with no suggestion from anyone that I do so, humbling myself before him.  Filled with awe and wonder, I kowtowed to Xu Yun three times in succession.  The Great Master smiled at me and asked, “Who are you and where are you from?” I barely whispered, “I’m Feng Guo Hua, and I come from Shao Guan.” And Xu Yun smiled again and said, “Enjoy yourself here at Nan Hua Temple.” He was surrounded by many other monks who looked on silently.  I suppose they didn’t know what to make of it, either.
Now I couldn’t wait until I returned to Nan Hua…  but not to have fun…  I wanted to see Xu Yun again.
The second time I saw him he asked me if I wished to take Buddhist Precepts, that is to say, formally to become a Buddhist.  I said, “Yes, of course.” And so I received the Precepts from Xu Yun.  He gave me the name Kuan Xiu, which means “big and wide practice”.
No more soccer, basketball, or even ping pong.  Now, during my summer vacation, I traveled the twenty miles or so out to Nan Hua Monastery twice each week.  I’d take the train to Ma Ba Mountain, a landmark rock formation, and then I’d walk four miles to the monastery.  Xu Yun gave me books about Buddhism to study; and that is how I spent my vacation time.  For the first time in my life, I felt religion in my heart.  I wanted to become a priest.

But my sudden religious conversion caused confusion at home.  Things there were not so simple.  In the first place, when I was born my parents went to a famous astrologer to have my natal horoscope cast.  This astrologer clearly saw in the stars that I would become a high ranking military officer and that I would die by the time I was thirty.  Having a dead hero in the family was an honor that they’d just as soon pass up.  They therefore were happy that I did so well in school.  That meant that the family businesses would be safe in my hands, especially since it was becoming more and more apparent that the businesses wouldn’t do too well in my brother’s hands.  When my parents finally learned of my desire to become a priest, as Buddhists, they received the news happily; but as businessmen, they were very apprehensive.  The wrong son had desired to become a priest!
But before I actually felt called to the priesthood, I had had other intentions about my future.  I had never put any credence in the astrologer’s predictions, so, being a little bored with the prospect of becoming a school teacher, I decided that after I finished Education College I’d go ahead and enter Chiang Kai Shek’s Military School (Whampao Academy) in Canton.  Chiang was Commandant of Whampao in those days.
Because of this ambition of mine, my brother was forced to prepare himself as best he could to take over the family businesses.  Fortunately, or unfortunately, he never had to prove himself in the commercial world.  After the Japanese invasion came the Communist revolution and there were no businesses left to take over.

But in 1934, when I was seventeen, and in my first year of Education College, the War with Japan had not yet begun.  Xu Yun, with the foresight of the truly wise, immediately discouraged my military ambitions.  Actually, I had abandoned that idea the day I met him.  I wanted to become a priest but I didn’t communicate this desire to anyone because I thought that it would sound vain and frivolous.  To me it would have seemed less conceited to say that I wanted to become a general than to say that I wanted to become a priest.  But later on, in one of my many private talks with Xu Yun, I did confess to him my hope to one day become a priest.  He simply said that he wanted me to stay in College and complete my education.  Afterwards we’d talk about the priesthood.
In 1937, I was graduated from Education College.  That autumn, at the Mid-Autumn Festival in mid-September, or the Eighth Month Full Moon by the Chinese calendar, I had my head shaved.  Immediately I moved into Nan Hua monastery as a resident novice and awaited the Ordination Ceremony which would take place in three months’ time.  And sure enough, I and two hundred other monks were ordained at the mid-December, 1937, Ordination Ceremony.
It was on this occasion that Master Xu Yun gave me the name Jy Din which means “to understand and achieve peace”.  He also gave me many of his old garments which I felt very privileged to wear.

Shortly after I became a monk, the Japanese invaded China and I began to suspect that Xu Yun had had a premonition – that he had deliberately discouraged me from attending Military School because he feared that if I became an Army officer I might also become an Army casualty.  He had other work for me to accomplish.  And Xu Yun was a man for whom the word “failure” did not exist.  He had goals; and to him, I was one of the instruments he would use to achieve his goals.
Life at Nan Hua monastery was hard.  The monks and nuns raised their own vegetables, did their own cooking and cleaning, and even sewed their own clothes.  They slept on wooden planks that were covered only by a thin grass mat.

When Xu Yun arrived at Nan Hua in 1934, he knew that there could be no happiness there until discipline was restored.  He therefore established strict rules and regulations.  The first time someone broke a rule, he or she was punished.  The second time that person broke a rule, he or she was dismissed.
Xu Yun departmentalized all of the various jobs and duties and established a hierarchy, an ascending order of responsibility, to oversee each department.  Everybody had to do his job, and Xu Yun tolerated no laxity.  He had a strong stick which he carried with him wherever he went, and he was not afraid to use it.  Amazingly, all of the arguments and misbehavior ceased.  Law and order brought peace.
It was not enough, however, to restore monastic discipline.  Xu Yun knew that the monastery buildings also had to be restored.  Although my father did not supply any of the building materials – another company received the contract – he did donate money to support the rebuilding project.  Fortunately, the dormitory buildings were the first to be restored and everyone who lived at Nan Hua was able to appreciate the improvement in accommodations.
In 1938, Master Xu Yun was invited to come to Hong Kong, where Cantonese is spoken, for a long series of instructional talks and services.  Since Master spoke Hunan, a northern dialect, and I spoke both Hunan and Cantonese, it was necessary that I accompany him in order to act as interpreter.
While we were there, the Japanese attacked Shanghai, to the north, and Nanjing, to the south.  The casualties in Shanghai were staggering and, as far as Nanjing was concerned, the attacks there were so terrible that to this day the attack is known as the infamous Rape of Nanjing because of the deliberate slaughter of so many innocent civilians.

Because there were so few roads out of Nanjing and these were all dangerous, many refugees tried to escape the Japanese invaders by taking river routes.  Naturally, because the city of Shao Guan is located at the confluence of two rivers, many boatloads of refugees arrived there.
When Xu Yun learned of the attacks on Shanghai and Nanjing, he anticipated this refugee crisis and immediately concluded the talks in Hong Kong.  He and I returned to Nan Hua and began a program of refugee assistance.
Xu Yun decreed that the monks of Nan Hua adopt the ancient Buddhist custom, still followed by Theravadin Orders, of eating only two meals a day, breakfast and lunch.  No food of any kind could be taken after the noon hour.  The food that would have been eaten was donated to the refugees and, when necessary, to Chinese soldiers.  Because of the people’s great distress, Xu Yun held many additional religious services for the dead and injured.  These services helped to bring hope and consolation to many anguished souls.
But to Xu Yun, a goal was a goal, and not even the Japanese invasion would deter him from restoring Nan Hua Monastery.  The rebuilding program, therefore, continued. The rebuilding effort had a salutary effect on everyone’s morale.  It provided a sense of purpose and futurity.

Now I will tell you about the bombing of Nan Hua monastery to which I earlier referred:
After the Japanese attacked Nanjing and Shanghai, governors from fourteen Chinese provinces (states) held a series of meetings at Nan Hua Monastery in an attempt to develop a coordinated defensive policy and strategy for resisting the Japanese invaders.  These meetings were supposed to be top secret; but the Japanese, who had established an air base at Guang Zhou (Canton City), quickly learned about them.
Of course, though later everyone tried to blame the security leak on spies within one or another governor’s staff, the fact is that, in the way that politicians usually are, nobody took much trouble to conceal the meetings.  The governors and their entourages arrived splendidly…  in limousines.  There was enough dazzling chromium in Nan Hua’s parking lot to attract the attention of someone on Mars.  The Japanese in Guang Zhou, certainly, had no trouble in targeting this secret political meeting place.
Therefore, in an effort to destroy so many important civilian leaders in one strike, the Japanese sent three fighter-bombers north to attack Nan Hua monastery.
When the planes began to bomb and strafe the monastery complex, Xu Yun immediately ordered everyone to take cover and to remain calm.  He sent the governors into the Sixth Patriarch’s Temple and the monks into the larger Ming Temple.  He, himself, calmly went into the most obvious target, the Meditation Hall, to pray for everyone’s safety.

In the first run, one of the two men who were assigned to guard the governors’ cars, was killed.  He had left his post and had taken cover in a large sewer pipe that was destined to be used in the rebuilding project, and one of the bombs fell on the sewer pipe, killing him.  Ironically, the other guard remained at his post in the very visible guardhouse, and he escaped injury.
Another bomb whistled down to earth and struck just outside the monastery walls, destroying a large Joshu cedar tree and creating a hole in the ground that is still there today, filled with water, like a small pond.
But then, after Xu Yun entered the Meditation Hall and began to pray, a miracle occurred.  Two of the three bombers crashed into each other and fell to earth at Ma Ba Mountain.  The remaining airplane immediately returned to its base in Guang Zhou.
Naturally, the midair crash was credited to Xu Yun’s spiritual power.  All the Chinese who knew him had no doubt about this; but what is more important, the Japanese evidently began to believe it, too.  Governors or no governors, they never again attempted to bomb Nan Hua.
The Japanese pressed the war into the interior and at the end of 1944 they finally succeeded in taking the city of Shao Guan.  But even then, despite being so close to Nan Hua, they did not attack it.  We believed that they feared the spiritual power of Xu Yun.  Throughout the occupation, they never permitted their occupation soldiers to disturb the sanctity of the monastery.

But to return to my story – in 1940, Wei Yin, the man who would one day succeed Xu Yun as Abbot of Nan Hua Monastery, became a monk.  It was my honor to shave his head and to give him his name Wei Yin which means, the Dharma Seal of Cause and Effect.  His secondary name was Zhi Gua which means know the results.  In other words, determine an action’s cause and its effect and you will obtain the desired results.  Wei Yin stayed at Nan Hua monastery to assist Xu Yun with the additional burdens of helping the war victims.  Also that year, knowing of the disrepair and disorder into which the once great Yun Men Monastery had fallen, Xu Yun sent me there to help restore order and to oversee the building restoration.  For this task Xu Yun elevated me to the rank of Master.
It was necessary that I pass many Japanese soldiers during my two-day walk to Yun Men monastery.  But again, Xu Yun’s influence was so great that it extended even to me and no soldier dared to interfere with my passage.  Having safely arrived, I took up residence at Yun Men.  I remained there until 1944 when Xu Yun decided to establish a Buddhist College at Nan Hua in order to teach the ancient Vinaya Monastic Code to all those who would become monks and nuns.  Now I could understand Xu Yun’s goal and his advice to me to stay in college.  My teaching degree qualified me to supervise the organization of this new Vinaya School and also to become one of the teachers.
Because Xu Yun believed in the necessity of providing children with a good education, he also decided to establish a primary school at Nan Hua.  He wanted this school to be a first rate institution and, in short order, students from many parts of China came to Nan Hua to be educated.  Naturally, rich parents donated money for their children’s tuition, books, and school supplies and also for their room and board.  But Xu Yun believed that all children, rich or poor, deserved to be educated and so poor children were permitted to attend this fine school without cost of any kind.  Xu Yun provided them with books and school supplies and whatever food and lodging they required.  I regarded my responsibilities at the school as sacred and did my best to perform my duties with great devotion and care.  Everyone associated with the school felt the same way as I, and because of all our untiring efforts the school quickly gained its reputation for excellence.

While Master Wei Yin and I resided at Nan Hua, Xu Yun went to live at Yun Men Temple in order to continue the supervision of the Temple reconstruction.
Then the direction of my Dharma Path took another turn.
Many Chinese people had moved to Hawaii, especially during the war years.  But though there were many Chinese Buddhists living in Hawaii, which was then only an American Territory, there was no Buddhist Temple or even any priests to teach and to conduct services.  These Chinese-Hawaiians repeatedly sent delegations to Hong Kong asking that priests be sent to Hawaii to serve the people and also to supervise the construction of a temple.  Naturally, they wanted Xu Yun to come to Honolulu to create the new temple, but Xu Yun had dedicated himself to the restoration of Yun Men Monastery and so he decided to send me in his place.

In 1949, I completed the first stage of this mission when I arrived in Hong Kong and initiated the necessary immigration procedures.  I would not arrive in Honolulu until 1956.  Hawaii became a state in 1959; our temple, which I named Hsu Yun (Xu Yun) Temple, was the first Buddhist Temple in Hawaii.
Not long after I arrived in Hong Kong in 1949, the Chinese Civil War ended, and the Communists took control of the government.  Cadres of Communist thugs, supposing that Churches and Temples were repositories of hidden gold and other valuables, marched on the defenseless religious buildings and demanded that the clergymen turn over these nonexistent treasures to them.

In 1951, while I was in Hong Kong, a cadre of these thugs came to Yun Men Monastery and demanded that Xu Yun give them the temple’s gold and valuables.  Xu Yun tried to explain that there were no such valuables at Yun Men Monastery.  But they refused to believe him and one by one, they beat the monks in an effort to force a disclosure of the treasure’s location.  One monk was actually beaten to death; several monks disappeared and their bodies were never found.  Many suffered serious injuries such as broken arms and ribs.  During the three months the thugs occupied the monastery, they would regularly interrogate and beat Xu Yun and then throw him into a small dark room for days, depriving him of food and water.  Several times he was beaten into senselessness and left for dead.  But despite the numerous internal injuries and broken bones this old man of ninety three had sustained, he exercised his enormous willpower and refused to relinquish his life until he had completed his mission.  He knew that his living presence, if only to a small degree, was serving to restrain the attackers.  He also knew that for so long as he remained alive, he could inspire his followers; and in those difficult times they needed all the inspiration they could get.
Determining that his will to survive must be greater than his attackers’ will to destroy him, Xu Yun, though physically frail, was yet indomitable; and he recovered despite the tortures to which they had subjected him.

Though the thugs had tried to keep secret their treatment of this holy man, news of his torture soon reached the outside world, and Chinese people from around the globe complained bitterly to the Beijing government.  It was unthinkable that Japanese invaders would respect the priesthood and the monasteries but that the Chinese militia would violate them.
The Beijing authorities sent a delegation immediately to Yun Men but because Xu Yun feared reprisals he refused to file any formal complaints.  As soon as he had regained his strength, however, he made the difficult journey to Beijing and personally petitioned the government to restrain these cadres.  He insisted that they order that all religious institutions be respected, that the clergy be left unmolested, and that the Chinese people be permitted to practice freedom of religion.  The authorities, fearing perhaps the power of his now legendary reputation, relented; and for a time, at least during the remaining years of Xu Yun’s life, the government’s policy became more tolerant towards religion.
The government would not, however, tolerate further criticism of any kind from outside sources, and so all lines of communication were severed.  In Hong Kong I desperately tried to get news about Xu Yun’s fate, but it was impossible to learn anything.  I wrote numerous letters, but none was answered.
However, as is customary, I continued to send Xu Yun copies of all of the essays and articles on Buddhism that I had written.  In happier days, according to custom, I would have received comments from him.  But in those unhappy days, none of my submissions to him were acknowledged.

Then in 1952, I wrote a dissertation on the Heart Sutra that was particularly well-received.  The government in Beijing decided to permit its publication.  I immediately wrote to the publisher in Beijing expressing my great desire to learn of my master’s response to the dissertation.  Miraculously, one of the clerks in the publisher’s office decided to hand-carry my letter and dissertation directly to Xu Yun and to await his reply.  Xu Yun read both, then he told the clerk that he approved of the dissertation and sent me his blessing.  His words were relayed to me; and this indirect communication was the last I ever had with my beloved master.

On October 13, 1959, at the age of 101, Master Xu Yun entered final Nirvana.  The news of his death saddened me beyond description.  Publicly, I held special memorial services and wrote an epitaph for him; but privately, I was overwhelmed with sorrow.  For days I wept and could not eat or sleep.  I knew how very much I owed him.  I knew that in his wisdom he foresaw the threat to our Chinese Buddhist Dharma, the Dharma of Hui Neng and Lin Ji and Han Shan.  He wanted this Dharma transplanted to the United States where it would be safe, and he had given me the honor of doing this.
The manner of Xu Yun’s death also caused me to appreciate even more the power of his great heart.  I understood clearly that he was able to transcend physical existence and to postpone his entrance into final Nirvana until he had fulfilled his sacred obligation to use his influence to protect all clergymen in China.
I and other Buddhist clergy, along with many clergymen of other religious faiths, owe our lives to Xu Yun’s devotion to the Buddha Amitabha and to his unshakable conviction that this Glorious Presence dwells within the hearts of all human beings.
Shanti. Shanti. Shanti. Amitofo! (Amitabha) !

Source : J.crow’s site