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August, 2006
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Aug. 2, 8:46 GMT


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August 2

Uposatha Day

Today is the 1st Quarter (8:46 GMT--check here for the moon's exact position)


It's Just a Tale
A Little Folklore Fieldwork

(Stories about Hua Yan Temple begin here)

During our week in the temple, my able translator (and good friend) Diego did an amazing job of translating lots of material, a task which would be daunting even for a person twice his age. In our first few days, we were establishing ground rules, and I think he was sometimes surprised at what I wanted.

Two times on our first full day together, Venerable Hui Jing, the administrator of Hua Yan Temple, spoke to Diego at length, and Diego turned to me and said "It's just a tale."

Both times, I explained to him that, in fact, nothing is "just" a tale; that tales were the best part of the experience; and that I in fact need tales. First, because, having read so many "tales" in books, it was a real thrill to be hearing them from a monk as we stood in front of the very statues that "starred" in the tales. And second, I pointed out that I might be the first person to be hearing these exact tales about this exact statue in English.

This is the statue who featured in the two tales: Da Ri Fo, "The Great Sun Buddha" which I discussed on July 22. And here are the two tales:

One night, burglars broke in and tried to steal the statue. It was so heavy, it took thirty men to carry it. They struggled all night to get it down the mountain. When the sun came up, they discovered that they were still in the hall where the statue is kept: they had been walking in circles inside the hall all night!

* * * * * * * *

Another time, the statue was successfully stolen and thrown into a fire to melt it down. No matter how they stoked the flames, the iron statue wouldn't melt. It did, however, levitate, floating within the flames. But it remained intact, so the robbers returned it.

Now, these tales are far from "original." But they add color to the story of this temple. We could get lost in questions about the value of "miracle" stories in Buddhism, connected as they are to deeper questions about "faith" and "devotion," aspects of the Mahayana. But when you're standing in front of the statue, and a diminutive monk is telling you these tales in Chinese, all those theoretical questions drop away, and you are simply charmed by the power of the tale.

The role of devotion is quite important, however.  Hsi Lai Temple has a small bead in its museum, which they say is a bone relic of the Shakyamuni Buddha. One day I asked the then-abbot, my friend and student Venerable Hui Chuan, how there could be so many relics of the Buddha in the world. With utmost sincerity, he responded that relics multiply in reaction to devotion to them.

I find this idea highly instructive (if not entirely plausible). Put it this way: "Relics are created by devotion." That much, I think, is true.

This ties in to another problem. Every temple claims to be hundreds of years old (usually dating back to "the Tang Dynasty"). And yet we know that many of them have been built in the last few years. (I have yet to visit a temple with even one truly old building.) How can this be? Well, we know of the Cultural Revolution (Access in China); this "new construction" is largely a result of the ravages of that terrible time. So the temples' locations are old, as are their names. They have history.

And there is one interesting argument that the temple is not the building, but the statue. That may be why there are so many great stories about the supernatural qualities of the statues.

For a short time, I was trying to pursue a 33-temple pilgrimage in the western prefectures of the Japanese island of Kyushu--one of the only pilgrimages I have started but left unfinished (so far). One of the temples (Number 12? I'll have to check my notes in Shenzhen) was nearly impossible to find. The address I had led only to a small residential neighborhood. After asking around, though, I found it: It was a house! The proper temple had long been destroyed, but the honzon--the main statue--had been preserved, and was now "enshrined" in a room over the garage of the modest-looking house. It was still actively venerated, and thus the "temple" still existed.

Now, of course, the question arises: What if the statue is a fake? The monk at Hua Yan had made it clear that devotion would empower any statue; therefore any revered statue is "authentic."

So, the question remains, "What is a temple?" And I guess what we have come down to is this: A temple is constituted by the activity of the people. A bogus statue in a rebuilt temple still represents "continuity" if it is the object of ongoing devotion by the people. I think that's a fine resolution to the problem.

Given the Buddhist grasp of impermanence, what more could we ask for?

* * * * * * * *

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August 3

At the Feet of Master Ji Qun
Learning from the Master

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to drink tea with Master Ji Qun, described to me as one of the great Chinese monks of the 21st century.

Given the chance to ask him questions, I began with some queries about his work. This soon led to a discussion of how the dharma is experiencing a new birth in China, a sort of "Buddhist Renaissance."

Here are some notes on what was said:

Following the opening reforms of some of the great monks of the 20th century (such as Taixu and Hongyi), the Cultural Revolution was a tragic setback to the cause of Buddhism. It resulted not only in the destruction of numerous monasteries, but, perhaps more devastating, it left few monks capable of teaching the Dharma properly. In his efforts to help re-establish the teachings, Master Ji Qun has traveled all over China, as well as to Australia and Singapore.

I asked who his audience was; he replied that he had generally spoken only to Chinese people. When I asked if he would take his mission to America, he thought about it for a moment, then (I think wisely) replied that with just some effort in China, he was able to achieve great results; but that even with much effort in America, the result would be small.

I joked that when he was "finished with China," we would love to have him in America. He "got it," but answered with gracious thanks for the invitation.

In speaking further about the content of his mission, Master Ji Qun pointed out that the so-called "Cultural Revolution" had damaged not just Buddhism, but many aspects of Chinese culture. He felt that part of his calling was to re-establish not just the dharma, but the cultural matrix in which it had flourished. Thus temples would become centers for the revival of many aspects of culture.

Furthermore, with a shortage of qualified teaching monks, he saw the advisability of training up lay teachers to carry the dharma into the broader culture.

At the end of our tea, before most of us went outside for dinner (and Master Ji Qun returned to the temple), he told me that he had an Institute in Suzhou, and invited me to come visit. I promised that I would.

* * * * * * * *

That evening, after we had all returned from the Hermitage (where we had tea) to the main temple, the Master was conducting a Question and Answer session with the kids. Following are my notes on Diego's translation of some of the more interesting Q&A:

Q: How can one be happy?
A: Know who you are.

Q: Who are you?
A: There is no me. [lifting his tea cup] "My" cup has no [intrinsic] relationship to me. Just so, my body is not "mine" in any real sense. It came to me as the cup came to me. This is simply the result of Cause and Effect. When we view a photo of ourselves, we may point to it and exclaim, "That's me!" But the photo is not me, and just so the body is not me, because there is no me--only a concept of me.

Q: How can one have a calm heart?
A: 1. Simple life, simple heart.
.....2. Don't care too much about things; move through life like a bird passing through the sky, not clinging to anything.
.....3. Let Dharma teach us wisdom.
.....4. Pray or sit daily.

Q: How can I help other teenagers study Buddhism?
A: First, be a light to those around you. Everyone has Buddha Nature, even if you don't see it. Give sunshine to others. Tell them why you are happy. Recommend books or homepages. Use Dharma to help others.

Q: What is the meaning of the expression, "Put down your knife and become a Buddha"?
A: The Buddha was once approached by a man holding a lotus in each hand. He told the man to put down the lotus in his left hand, then to put down the lotus in his right hand. He then told him to put down the rest [of the lotuses?], but there were no more. The Buddha was referring to the things that we carry in our hearts. [NB: I cannot find this story; any help out there?]

Q: What can we do about the stress of study caused by competition?
A: Take care of your health. [NB: Seems mundane, and yet...?]

Q: I often have nightmares. How can I prevent them?
A: Train yourself by thinking positively in the daytime; your dreams are often a continuation of your daytime thoughts.

[The next was from my young friend Brian]:

Q: What does the Heart Sutra mean when it says "Form is emptiness; emptiness is form"?
A: [After a few other words on the idea that what we call something is just a convention.] For example, what is the significance of a name? You use different names when using email and QQ, but "you" are still "you." The change of name changes nothing.

Q: Did God create man, as other religions teach?
A: The Buddha did not consider this a useful question. When a man is shot by an arrow, he does not need to know who shot it, or what the arrow is made of, or what kind of bow was used; rather, he must attend to the arrow. [A well-known illustration from the Pali Canon, Majjhima Nikaya, Sutta 63, among others]

At the end of the session, I asked permission to put one question to Master Ji Qun. Here it is:

Q: If you could give these young people one piece of advice on how to live a good life, what would it be?
A: Cherish your life; Grasp the present; Learn the Dharma. [I have paraphrased this: "Make the most of your life; Live fully in the present; Seek wisdom."]

* * * * * * * *

It was a great opportunity to learn from this wise monk, and I hope we will have a chance to meet in the future.

* * * * * * * *

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August 4

The Sutra Study Continues
Check In and Learn Some Dharma

I have posted more Sutra Studies, on schedule. You can see the comments for Lesson 5 and the new questions for Lesson 6.

Also, I used to declare "Foundations Fridays"; but I think from now on I'll trust you to find the Foundations Essays for yourselves.

* * * * * * * *

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August 5

That's Bob!
Coming Full Circle

Amongst the hundred or so kids that were at Hua Yan Temple the week I stayed there, a few stand out in my memories. One of these was "Bob."

Bob was a very quiet, unassuming 23-year-old. Not really shy, Bob was somewhat reserved, and extremely gentle in manner.

When we first met, I asked him his name. He gave a Chinese name, and then I asked (as usual): "Do you have an English name?"

"Yes," replied Bob, "but I forgot." Even Diego chuckled at this.

Actor Robert Urich on the set of "The Lazarus Man"

Later on, when I was alone, I suddenly thought: "I'd like to call that kid 'Bob.'" I was thinking about one of my greatest friends ever, actor Robert Urich, who had died of cancer at the too-young age of 55. So the next time I saw this Chinese boy, I asked, "Would it be OK if I gave you a name?"

"Oh, thank you!" he cried.

"How about 'Bob"?" I asked.

"OK, OK, ah, how to spell?"


"Thank you! Thank you!"

And so, he was Bob.

* * * * * * * *

The Three Sages of the Pure Land:
Da Shi Zhi Pusa, Amitofo, Guan Yin Pusa (l to r)

A day or two later, I was taking photos in the first floor of the Tian Guan Hall. My usual entourage of Diego, Brian, and Bob were with me. I had figured out two of the three main figures in the Hall, and, not really addressing anyone, I mused aloud, "I wonder who that is?" while looking at the left-hand figure.

"That is Da Shi Zhi," Bob said.

"Really? Bob, how do you know that?" Da Shi Zhi is not one of the more popular bodhisattvas.

"I lived in a temple for a year," he explained.

"Why?" I asked.

"I had...a...disease," he said, struggling for the word "disease."

This, I thought, bore investigating.

* * * * * * * *

Tuesday night, Master Ji Qun conducted a Question and Answer session. Afterward, he distributed copies of his books for free, and graciously signed them for as many kids as requested him to. To my surprise, many of the kids came over and asked ME to sign their books, also!

Bob did, too; but instead of just "name and date," he asked me to write the name I had given him.

So I wrote:

I, James Baquet,
on this 18th day of July, 2006,
do give you the name
in honor of my great friend.

After reading it, he asked me about this other Bob. So I told him that he was a TV star who had passed away four years ago. "Sorry," he said, eyes on the floor, and that was that.

* * * * * * * *

Hangin' in the Courtyard

The next day, lounging around in the temple courtyard, I finally had a chance to ask Bob his full story. Occasionally Diego had to jump in to help with translation, but mostly, Bob and I did this in English.

Two years ago, at age 21, Bob was diagnosed with bone cancer in the shoulder. His elder sister went to a Buddhist nunnery and asked the nuns if Bob could stay there to convalesce. (Apparently that temple was set up to receive such guests.) So Bob stayed there for half a year, then moved to another such place for nine more months. At the end of this time, he was cancer-free.

"Did you receive medical treatment during this time?" I asked.

"No," he said, "only tests."

I was overwhelmed. This boy had been healed by nothing more than peace and quiet--and prayer.

I told him that, in fact, "my Bob" had died of cancer. We agreed that having this new Bob as my friend was a sort of a happy ending.

I then asked him if he was thinking of being a monk. (The kids had asked me this question in class a few days earlier, and I had answered, "Ask my girlfriend.")

Bob answered that he was thinking about it, but that it wasn't good to be a monk if you were (he asked Diego the word) "hesitant."

Very wise, this boy.

* * * * * * * *

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August 6

Cause and Effect
It Ain't Feng Shui

Every now and then you meet someone that you suspect might become a "friend for
life." Venerable Dun Chao is such a person.

Venerable Dun Chao

We had several good discussions, mostly about his temple.

I later learned that my patron, Mr. Wu, had been distressed over the condition of San Feng Si (Three Peaks Temple) in his hometown of Shouning. He brought together a group of younger monks to conduct an eight-day prayer service at the temple. Aside from the "supernatural" benefits of such an event, it was also meant to announce to the town's people that the temple was still alive, well, and functional. The aged abbot of the temple had moved into the city to be near medical care, and the temple staff had become rather lax.

After the ceremony, the monks who had come to conduct it sat down to discuss the situation. They decided that some of them would come stay at the temple to "put it back on its feet." After some time, Venerable Dun Chao was the only one remaining. So he is now the temple administrator (and de facto abbot).

The Kidz from Shouning

Many of our discussions involved him picking my brain for ideas about reviving the  temple. He had, through his own efforts, brought 18 of the approximately 100 kids at the summer camp, and he is starting a fund to make sure that all eligible kids in Shouning have the financial means to go to university. We talked quite a bit about ways to make that happen.

But the first real discussion we had about his temple was a lament.

He listed four reasons why the temple had declined. (This does not include a proverbial expression about the place, something about "bad water, bad air," etc.) The four reasons were:

Economy: The general economy of the area had declined since its heyday.

Culture: There had once been a mayor of Shouning who was a cultural icon; since his time, things had changed. The Cultural Revolution was the final blow; after that, the best and the brightest of Shouning culture went off to the cities, leaving the area bereft.

Government: Given the economic situation of the area, and the "brain drain," the government had lost the incentive and even the means to do anything to change the situation.

These three reasons were all endemic to the area, not just the temple. The fourth reason was specifically temple-related:

Reputation: The monks of the temple had become lazy. They left people with the impression that they were more interested in money than in dharma, and had relinquished their teaching mission.

In just a few short years, Venerable Dun Chao had already begun to turn this situation around. He was finding ways to truly serve the community; witness the scholarship program described above, which places the temple in the forefront of means to restore Shouning to its former prosperity.

On the Grounds of San Feng Temple, Shouning
(Photo by Diego Wu)

Look at those four reasons for decline again, and you will see in them a microcosm of the decline of Buddhism in China in general. Despite the jibe that one monk had made about America's feng shui, the fact is that Chinese Buddhism has fallen on hard times, and is just now beginning to resuscitate.

And I want to help. I am working on a plan which, if successful, will take my efforts at "The Temple Guy" to a new level of professionalism, and hopefully have a beneficial effect on the spread of the dharma in China. Watch for developments in the next few months.

* * * * * * * *

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August 7: I will leave this evening for China,
arriving Wednesday morning at 10 a.m. China time.
More posts later in the week!

..Contents (C) 2006 James Baquet

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