Monday, September 29, 2008

E-book Review: Empty Cloud: The Teachings of Xu Yun

Portrait of Master Xu Yun by Tan Swie Hian

“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)

In his introduction to the book, Master Jy Din Shakya, who studied under Master Xu Yun, gives the reader a brief biography of his teacher, recounting how the venerable master helped refugees during the Japanese invasion of China in World War Two, establishing the habit of not eating after midday as in Theravada Buddhism. He later faced communist thugs that nearly beat him to death, and actually did kill at least one other monk at the monastery Master Yun resided in. Surviving all this, he went on to continue his restoration of Chinese Buddhism up until his death at the age of one hundred and one. After his demise, Buddhism along with other religions and traditions were ruthlessly attacked and practically wiped out during the so-called Cultural Revolution. Master Yun had previously had the foresight to send some of his disciples to the West to propagate the Buddhadharma there, including Master Xuan Hua and Master Jy Din Shakya. Of his teacher, the latter Zen master wrote in the preface to ‘Empty Cloud’:

“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)

‘Empty Cloud’ is steeped in Chinese cultural history with references not only to the old Zen masters, but also to Lao Zi (the author of the famous Dao De Jing, referred to above), warlords, dragons, and emperors. The book contains chapters focused on various themes such as ‘Chan Training’, ‘Stages of Development’, ‘Wordless Transmission’, and ‘Layman Pang’, the latter being a delightful account of the life and teachings of a famous Chinese Zen layman and his family. For more on this chapter, see ‘Master Xu Yun and Layman Pang’
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,

“You liar! You tell me you are going to Kobe because you want me to think you are going to Osaka; but I have made inquiries, and I know you ARE going to Kobe!”
(‘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)

Finally the penny dropped that he was in the presence of an enlightened master and Quan Xi then kowtowed properly to his superior. Master Yun presented such stories as these in a way that made them easily accessible to his listeners, and in this English translation of his teachings compiled by Chan Master Jy Din Shakya, we have a wonderful collection of Zen anecdotes, meditation instructions, moral lessons, and Buddhist doctrines to inspire the reader for years to come. Appropriately, the last words here will be Master Xu Yun’s:

“Dear friends, be grateful for the Buddha Dharma. Be grateful for the Three Treasures. Never forget that eternal refuge that exists for all is all in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Be thankful for the Lamp that leads us out of darkness and into the light.” (‘Empty Cloud’, p.66)

To download a free copy of the above e-book, please click the following link:
Empty Cloud: The Teachings of Xu Yun


JD said...

This Xu Yun stuff seems pretty interesting. I might just try to peruse the e-book about him. Thanks for an interesting post G, and be well in your practice.

G said...

Very interesting, Justin!
As well as Master Jy Din & the Zen Order of Hsu Yun, Master Xuan Hua & the Dharma Realm Buddhist Association have established themselves in America, having been senior disciples of Master Xu Yun. Many Zen Masters in both China & Taiwan studied under Master Yun, also. In many ways there are parallels between this monk & Ajahn Chah who has many ajahns in both Thailand & the West, sharing the Dharma with those who have ears to hear.

Thanks for the comment, Justin.

pb said...

The book sounds good. I'll read it and comment again when I have.

G said...

It'll be interesting to read your take on it, pb. Thanks for the comment.


Anonymous said...

This a perfect gem of Buddhism I'm totally agree actually the great writer Sildenafil Citrate collaborated with this book that's why this book is successful.

G said...

Thanks, Carlo!