The Venerable Master Hsu Yun (Empty Cloud) was born to the Xiao family and was a native of Xiang County of Hunan Province in China. His father, the Elder Yutang, was an incorruptible magistrate of Quan Prefecture in Fujian province who loved the people as if they were his own children. At the age of forty, he was still childless. One day, he and his wife went to the ancient Guanyin Temple outside of town to pray for a son. Their sincerity inspired a response; soon after their return to the prefecture, Mrs. Xiao conceived a child. When the pregnancy reached full term, one night both husband and wife dreamed of a long-bearded old man, wearing a dark-green robe and bearing an image of Guanyin Bodhisattva on his head, who came riding astride a tiger. Startled awake, the woman delivered a child who emerged in a bag of flesh. (This is the state of Bodhisattvas at the eighth stage or above). Frightened by the uncanny event, the woman passed away.
The following day an old peddler of medicines passed by and cut open the flesh-bag to reveal a baby boy inside. The child was raised by his stepmother. Endowed with keen faculties, the boy considered honor and position to be meaningless. Rather than delighting in the Confucian classics, he had a consuming interest in studying the Buddhist Sutras, and at an early age, he conceived the idea of leaving the home-life to cultivate the Way. Once, he tried escaping to Gu Mountain in Fu Prefecture to become a monk, but his family dragged him back home. His father ordered him to return to their old home in Hunan, and told his uncle to keep a close watch over him and to drive the idea of leaving home out of his mind.
The Venerable Master Hsu Yun was the only child in the family. His third uncle had passed away long ago, leaving no descendants. Thus he became the heir of two branches of the family. By social custom, he was entitled to marry two wives; one to be the daughter-in-law of his parents, and the other to be the daughter-in-law of his uncle. In this way, both branches could have heirs, and both family lines could continue. To get "two birds with one stone" was a situation most men might seek but never find, but to Venerable Master Hsu Yun, it only meant suffering and affliction.
In order to preserve the family lineage, he obeyed his father and uncle, and, at age eighteen, he married Miss Tan and Miss Tian in a double wedding. Both women were well-bred daughters of noble families, and both had deep understanding of ethical conduct. On the night of their wedding, the Venerable Master Hsu Yun entered into a solemn oath with the two young women, promising that their marriage was to be in name only, and that they would never consummate their troth. Maintaining their virginity, the three of them lived together without sharing husband-wife relations.
The following year, the Venerable Master decided to leave the home-life and cultivate the Way. But first he obtained the permission of his two wives, who later both left home to become nuns. He then secretly stole away from his comfortable home and travelled to Yongquan ("Bubbling Spring") Monastery on Gu Mountain in Fu Prefecture to become the disciple of Elder Master Miaolian ("Wonderful Lotus"), who gave him the names Yence ("Thorough Expression"), and Deqing ("Virtuous and Pure"). Fearing that his family might find him again, Venerable Master Hsu Yun went off to the remote mountain wilds to live as an ascetic. When hungry, he ate pine nuts and wild plants; when thirsty, he drank mountain spring water. The bitter conditions were certainly beyond the tolerance of ordinary people, but he was one who could:
Wear what others cannot wear;
Eat what others cannot eat;
Endure what others cannot endure; and,
Tolerate what others cannot tolerate.
He faced numerous tests, but he passed each one with a peaceful, tolerant attitude. Instead of feeling miserable, he felt very happy.
Three years later, in order to draw near to good and wise advisors and to investigate the Buddhadharma, he embarked on a study-tour. Crossing mountains and fording streams, he suffered untold hardships. As long as it was a place where eminent, virtuous monks resided, all the mountains and rivers couldn't impede him from going there to seek the Way and dedicate himself to the Dharma.He met prejudice and troubles at every turn of the road, but he stood firm in his indefatigable resolve and simply forgot himself in his quest for the Dharma. Despite continual setbacks, he never gave up, nor lost sight of his initial purpose. Instead, he simply forged ahead and studied with even more vigor. This spirit inspired others' respect and caused many people to emulate him.
Later on, he made a vow to undertake a pilgrimage in which he would bow to the ground once every three steps, in order to repay the kindness of his mother. His route took him from Potala Mountain to Five Peaks Mountain, and he made prostrations all the way. Three years later he fulfilled his vow, and the merit and virtue of the pilgrimage was completed. The following is a brief account of one of the responses the Venerable Master Hsu Yun experienced in the course of his pilgrimage.
He had bowed to the banks of the Yellow River, when a huge snow-storm blew up, dropping powdery snow for three days and nights without cease. The Master stayed in a tiny hut and suffered from hunger and cold. Finally he lost consciousness and fainted. When he revived, he saw a beggar sitting nearby, fixing him food. After eating the meal, he recovered his strength and continued to bow towards Five Peaks Mountain. Upon his arrival, he discovered that the beggar had been none other than a transformation body of Manjushri Bodhisattva.
While the Elder Master Hsu Yun was living as a hermit on Jiuhua ("Nine Flowers") Mountain, news came to him that Gaomin Monastery in Yang Zhou Province was preparing to host an eight-week Chan meditation retreat, and he decided to participate. He walked down from Jiuhua Mountain, steering his course by the river-bank. It was the rainy season, and at that time the river was flooded and had overflowed its banks on the road ahead of him. Suddenly the Master lost his footing on the treacherous path and fell into the river, where he bobbed and floated for twenty-four hours. The current carried him downstream near Cai Jetty, where he was caught by a fisherman's net. By that time the Venerable Master was nearly drowned. The fisherman pulled him up, then informed the nearby temple. Monks from Baoji ("Jewel Cluster") Monastery carried the Master back to the temple, where they revived him. The Venerable Master was bleeding from seven orifices, and was in critical condition, but he would not give up his original intent. After resting for a few days, the Master set aside his personal welfare for the sake of the Dharma, and, putting life and death out of his mind, he went on to Gaomin Monastery to join the Chan retreat.
According to Gaomin Monastery's extremely strict regulations and their high standards of practice, anybody who broke the rules earned a beating with the incense-board (discipline-rod); there was no recourse to courtesy at all. The acting abbot, Chan Master Yue Lang ("Moon Radiance"), had requested the Venerable Hsu Yun to substitute for him in his position as official administrator. The Venerable Master declined the request, and thereby, according to the rules of the monastery, deserved a beating. He took his punishment without complaint. But after the beating, his illness grew worse; he bled non-stop from every orifice and his condition grew nearly fatal.
Someone may be wondering, "Since Venerable Hsu Yun was a sincere and diligent cultivator, why did the Dharma-protecting spirits fail to protect him, and let him fall into the river like that?" In fact, the spirits were still protecting him. If not, then how could he have been saved in the fisherman's net? Thus, we can know that he was protected invisibly at all times by the Dharma-protecting spirits.
The entire episode was a life and death test to reveal his thoughts and feelings upon meeting such a disaster. The test determined whether or not he would retreat from his resolve for the Way. Would he entertain thoughts such as these: "Ha! I've been cultivating for so many years, reading Sutras, bowing repentances, burning a finger, living as a hermit, practicing all kinds of austerities, and my cultivation has been earnest, so why haven't I had the least response? Forget it! I'm giving up! I'm not going to cultivate any longer! I'm going to return to lay-life and indulge the five desires!" If he'd allowed such thoughts to occur, then he could never have become the Patriarch of the Five Sects of the Chan School.
The Venerable Hsu Yun obeyed the rules closely in the meditation hall, especially since Gaomin Monastery was noted for the extreme severity of its regulations. Nobody was allowed to hold conversations, and often it was the case that cultivators living side by side in the monastery would not even know each other's name. Venerable Hsu Yun was seriously ill, but did not mention the fact to anyone, nor did he tell the story about falling into the river. He only investigated Chan with a single-minded concentration. Twenty days passed, and his sickness abated, thanks to the aid bestowed upon him by the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.
One day, the Venerable Master De An ("Virtue Shore"), the Abbot of Baoji Monastery at Cai Jetty, happened by the retreat at Gaomin, and he encountered the Venerable Hsu Yun, who was sitting upright and properly on the meditation bench, his face radiant and beaming. The Abbot De An was startled, and told the entire assembly about the incident of Venerable Master Hsu Yun's fall into the river and his rescue. After hearing the story the meditators expressed their unceasing admiration, and in order to allow Venerable Master Hsu Yun to cultivate successfully, they excused him from the rotation of administrative duties. Thus he was able to concentrate on his meditation single-mindedly, until he penetrated to a state of "no further thoughts arising."
On the third night of the eighth week, at the end of an hour of meditation, an attendant brought hot water around to serve to the sitters. As he poured a cup of water for the Venerable Master, he carelessly spilled some of the boiling water on the Master's hand. The teacup fell to the floor and shattered, and the Venerable Master Hsu Yun became enlightened upon hearing the sound of the cup shattering. (A similar event happened to Venerable Master Zibuo, "Purple Cedar," a Chan Master of the Ming Dynasty, who became enlightened at the sound of a shattering bowl). Venerable Master Hsu Yun spoke a verse on the spot:
Smashing with a clear, echoing sound,
The teacup fell and hit the ground.
Shattering empty space,
The mad mind finally stops right there.
And then he said another verse:
My hand was scalded, the cup shattered.
The family's broken and relatives are gone－
Words are hard to find.
Spring's come now; buds are in bloom,
Full and sweet in every place.
Mountains, rivers, and the earth itself
Are just the Thus Come One.
After his enlightenment, he left Gaomin Monastery and cultivated even more vigorously than before, travelling extensively to look for and pay his respects to good and wise teachers. His travels carried him finally to Yunnan Province, where he rebuilt the monasteries on Jizu ("Chicken Foot") Mountain. Because his resources were insufficient, he journeyed on to Southeast Asia to solicit donations. The Venerable Master fell ill on the boat to Singapore, and, once ashore, the English inspectors interrogated him because he did not have a passport. They suspected that his illness was contagious and confined him in an isolation ward, where he was virtually left to die. However, later on he was sent to Jile ("Utmost Happiness") Monastery, where he went into seclusion, and, before long, regained his health. Travelling on to Thailand to make his almsrounds, he stayed at a certain monastery and entered samadhi for nine days. His external appearance was lifeless, but in fact he was not dead. All Buddhists in Bangkok, the national capital, were startled by the news of his meditation skill; and the populace, from the King and his courtiers on down to the ordinary citizens, flocked to take refuge with the Venerable Hsu Yun. The offerings made by these faithful disciples were gathered into a lump sum and sent back to Yunnan, China, to finance the reconstruction of the monasteries.
In the spring of 1947, when Nanhua ("Southern China") Monastery held a precept ordination, I personally met the Venerable Master for the first time. I still remember the occasion: After the precepts had been transmitted, the Venerable Master Hsu Yun was stricken with a throat infection and lost his voice, so it was an inopportune time to hold a conversation. He was treated by the doctor and recovered slowly.
The troubles and miseries endured by the Venerable Master during his entire life were such that they could never be fully described in just a few sentences. I know beyond a doubt that few persons could have withstood the hardships and pressures that he endured. As he took both himself and others across, he benefitted both himself and others. The many miracles and spiritual marvels that he experienced throughout the century of his life span are too many to relate. I've given you only a brief sketch of his life, and I hope that in the future you will imitate the elder monk's untiring forbearance.
Left-home people of this day and age sit and meditate for a brief time and expect a response, or hope to get enlightened, and gain great wisdom. This is simply unrestrained greed. It took the Venerable Master Hsu Yun a lifetime of work to "see his original face," up to the point of forgetting all concern with life and death. What suffering have we undergone? What merit and virtue have we created? Yet we can still fantasize about getting enlightened! This is simply too childish!
Cultivators of the Way must never retreat from their resolve, from their vows, and from their practice. They must advance with single-minded vigor, so that "at the top of the hundred-foot pole, they take one more step." It does not matter what accomplishment you have. What counts is that you bring forth a great resolve for Bodhi, and work hard at your cultivation. Don't hanker after the Five Spiritual Eyes and Six Spiritual Penetrations, or the wonderful functioning of spiritual powers. They are not the ultimate reward of cultivation. Remember this well! Don't be thinking about gaining psychic powers and enlightenment from morning to night. Such thoughts are truly the stumbling block of cultivation!
A talk given during a Chan Session from July 16-23, 1981 The Hall of Ten Thousand Buddhas, The City of Ten Thousand Buddhas