“Chan enables us to transcend our human nature and realize our Buddha Nature.”
(‘Empty Cloud: The Teachings of Master Xu (Hsu) Yun’, p.18)
This short little book (under a hundred pages) is a true gem of Buddhism. In the teachings of Master Xu Yun, it contains the living Dharma of the Buddha as taught in the Chinese Zen tradition. Chinese Zen – Chan – is less regimented in style than its Japanese offspring, although in the lineage of Master Yun this doesn’t mean a lax attitude to monastic discipline and rules. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of the various branches of Chan that have this master as a patriarch is an adherence to the Mahayana Buddhist monastic code, combined with an intense approach to meditation and mindfulness.
“Discipline is the foundation upon which enlightenment rests. Discipline regulates our behavior and makes it unchanging. Steadiness becomes steadfastness and it is this which produces wisdom.
The Surangama Sutra clearly teaches us that mere accomplishment in meditation will not erase our impurities. Even if we were able to demonstrate great proficiency in meditation, still, without adherence to discipline, we would easily fall into Mara’s evil realm of demons and heretics.” (‘Empty Cloud’, p.24)
“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.” (‘Empty Cloud’, p.4)
As with the life-giving moisture of the Empty Cloud, Master Xu Yun – whose name means ‘Empty Cloud’ – is able to invigorate us with his wisdom, which he shares with a depth of insight that shatters the veil of ignorance. He displays a wit and knowledge of Buddhist tradition that convey the Buddhadharma in an engaging and apparently effortless manner. There’s the personal touch found in his words that livens the teachings and makes them more accessible:
“In Chan we’re not sure of too many things. We only really know one: Enlightenment doesn’t come with a dictionary! The bridge to Nirvana is not composed of phrases. As old Master Lao Zi wrote, The Dao that we can talk about is not the Dao we mean.
So the Buddha spoke in silence, but what did he say?
Perhaps he was saying, ‘From out of the muck of Samsara the Lotus rises pure and undefiled. Transcend ego-consciousness! Be One with the flower!’
There! The Buddha gave a lecture and nobody had to take any notes.”
(‘Empty Cloud’, p.53)
In the chapter ‘Gaining Enlightenment’, there’s a great explanation of the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism, with the following words relating to the ever-changing nature of the ego:
“It’s like trying to play football when the length of the field keeps changing; and instead of one ball in play, there are twenty; and the players are either running on and off the field or sleeping on the grass. Nobody is really sure which game is being played and everybody plays by different rules. Now, anyone who was expected to be both player and referee could never find pleasure in such a game. He’d find his life on the field to be an endless exercise in fear, confusion, frustration and exhaustion.” (‘Empty Cloud’, p.31)
What an accurate description of the egocentric state! Master Yun goes on to explain the eight aspects of the Path with equally captivating imagery, including a description of the basic five precepts of the Way. Anyone who thinks Zen is for libertines should think twice! In telling of the second precept, which is to refrain from false speech, he relates the humorous story of two merchants in Tokyo that were always in competition and completely distrusted each other. One day they met at the railway station and the first merchant asked the other where he was going. After the second merchant replied that he was going to Kobe, the first merchant exclaimed,
(‘Empty Cloud’, p.35)
We humans can be really dumb creatures sometimes can’t we? And it’s all down to our own stupidity, wallowing in our egoistic views of the world! Another example of human ignorance is found in the chapter called ‘Mo Shan’, the name of a highly revered female Zen Master (Mistress?). A rather chauvinistic monk called Quan Xi paid Mo Shan a visit to test her knowledge of the Way. In his arrogance he did not kowtow her as he should, simply because she was a woman. After some initial verbal jousting, not uncommon in the annals of Zen Buddhist history of course, Quan Xi asked where the man in charge of Mo Shan was to be found. (‘Mo Shan’ was both the name of the monastery and of the master.) Mo Shan replied that the one in charge was neither male nor female, to which the monk responded:
“‘The person in charge ought to be powerful enough to complete the transformation,’ he challenged, his machismo again getting the better of his brain.
Mo Shan looked intently at Quan Xi. Slowly and gently she said, ‘The One in charge of Mo Shan is neither a ghost nor a demon nor a person. Into what should that One transform?’” (‘Empty Cloud’, p.89)
Empty Cloud: The Teachings of Xu Yun