LAYING THE FOUNDATION
1. The Origins of the Master's Mission to the West
The Venerable Master's vision was as vast as the Dharma Realm,
and he taught and transformed all beings without regard to path of
rebirth, country, ethnic origin, religion, and so forth. There are
two countries, however, where he had special affinities in this
life: China and the United States. Although the majority of his
disciples are Chinese, history will probably remember him primarily
for his work in bringing the teachings of the Buddha to the people
of the West.
The story begins in rural Manchuria at his mother's grave site.
The Master, then in his late teens or early twenties, was observing
the Chinese filial practice of three year's mourning. As a novice
Buddhist monk, he did it in a uniquely Buddhist way by building a
meditation hut of sorghum thatch and sitting in continuous
meditation there. One day he saw the Venerable Master Huineng, the
Sixth Patriarch in China of the Chan (Zen) Lineage, walk into his
hut. The Patriarch spoke with him for a long time. The Master
remembered him saying:
The five schools will divide into ten to teach and transform
living beings: a hundred and then a thousand, until they are
endless, . . . countless like the sands of the Ganges . . . the
genuine beginning [of Buddhism] in the West.
That was part of
the Patriarch's instruction to the Master in which he told him that
he should leave China and spread the Dharma in the West. Afterwards
the Master got up to accompany the Patriarch out of the hut. Only
after the Patriarch had disappeared did the Master remember that the
Patriarch had entered Nirvana long ago (A.D. 713).
knowing from this initial vision of the Sixth Patriarch that he
would eventually go to the West to propagate the Dharma, the Master
had little contact with Westerners until he moved to Hong Kong in
1949. There he had his first substantial experiences with Western
After his Dharma-lineage predecessor the Venerable Chan Master
Xuyun (1840-1959) entered Nirvana and the Master completed the
proper ceremonies in his memory, he felt that conditions had ripened
for pursuing his Dharma mission in the West. Several of his lay
disciples from Hong Kong had already gone to the United States to
In November 1960 the Master went to Australia to investigate the
conditions for the growth of Buddhism there. He spent a difficult
year there and then returned to Hong Kong briefly. In 1958 a branch
of the Buddhist Lecture Hall had already been established in Sa
Francisco by his disciples there. In response to their invitation,
the Master decided to go to San Francisco and arrived there early in
1962. At the small Chinatown temple, he lectured on the Amitabha
Sutra. During that period various Americans who were interested in
Zen, such as Richard Baker, former Abbot of the San Francisco Zen
Center, visited the Master.
In the fall of 1962 the Cuban missile crisis broke out. Wishing
in some measure to repay the benefit that he had received from
living in the United States, and seeing clearly the catastrophic
threat imposed by the missiles in Cuba, the Venerable Master
embarked on a total fast for thirty-five days, during which he took
only water. He dedicated the merit of his sacrifice to end the
2. The Monk in the Grave Period
In 1963, because some of the disciples there were not respectful
of the Dharma, he left Chinatown and moved the Buddhist Lecture Hall
to a first-floor flat on the corner of Sutter and Webster Streets on
the edge of San Francisco's Fillmore District and Japantown. The
Master's move marked the beginning of a period of relative seclusion
during which he called himself 'a monk in the grave'. It lasted
until 1968. He later continued to refer to himself in that way and
wrote the following poem:
Each of you now meets a monk in the grave.
Above there is no
sun and moon, below there is no lamp.
enlightenment--ice is water.
Let go of self-seeking and become
apart from all that is false.
When the mad mind ceases,
enlightenment pervades all.
Enlightened, attain the bright
treasury of your own nature.
Basically, the retribution body is
the Dharma body.
It was at that Sutter Street location that the
Master first started having regular contact with young Americans who
were interested in meditation. Some came to his daily, public
meditation hour from seven to eight every evening, and a few
Americans also attended his Sutra lectures. He lectured there on the
Amitabha Sutra, the Diamond Sutra, the Heart Sutra with his own
verse commentary, on his own commentary to the Song of
Enlightenment, and also on portions of the Lotus (Dharma Flower)
In July of 1967 the Master moved back to Chinatown,
locating the San Francisco Buddhist Lecture Hall in the Tianhou
Temple, the oldest Chinese temple in America. There he lectured on
the Verses of the Seven Buddhas of Antiquity and the "Universal
Door" Chapter of the Lotus (Dharma Flower)Sutra.
On Chinese New Year's Day in 1968, the Master made two important
pronouncements to a small gathering. First he predicted that in the
course of the year the lotus of American Buddhism would bloom. At
that time there was still little outward sign of the influx of young
Americans which would begin that spring.
Secondly, noting the great fear among large segments of the
community that there would be an earthquake in the spring of that
year, he declared that as long as he was in San Francisco, he would
not permit earthquakes large enough to do damage or cause injury or
death to occur. Every subsequent Chinese New Year he would renew his
vow. When the San Francisco earthquake of 1989 occurred, the Master
was out of the country in Taiwan.
In the spring of 1968 a group of university students at the
University of Washington in Seattle wrote to the Master and
requested that the Master come to Seattle to lead a week-long
meditation session. The Master had Nancy Dana Lovett, a disciple,
write for him to Ron Epstein, another disciple who was a member of
the Seattle group, to tell the group that he could not come to
Seattle, because if he left San Francisco, there would be an
earthquake. He suggested that they come to the Buddhist Lecture Hall
in San Francisco instead. The group went and that spring both a
Buddha-recitation session and a Chan (Zen) meditation session, each
a week long, were held. About thirty people attended.
3. The 1968 Shurangama Sutra Summer Lecture and Cultivation
At the conclusion of the spring sessions, the Master suggested to
several of the participants that a three month lecture and
cultivation session be held during the summer months. About thirty
people decided to attend. During that 98 day session, the Master
lectured on the Shurangama Sutra twice a day, and near the end of
the session three and even four times a day, to explain the entire
Sutra. The lectures were also open to the general public. The
session itself started at six every morning and officially ended at
nine in the evening. In addition to the Sutra lectures, the schedule
consisted of alternate hours of meditation, study, and discussion,
so there was very little free time.
Although those who attended were of varied age and background,
the majority were young Americans of college age or in their middle
or late twenties. Most had had little or no previous training in
Buddhism; however, several had studied Buddhism at the undergraduate
level and some at the graduate level. A few had also had a little
previous experience with meditation. The handful who had some
competency in Chinese provided translations, which started out on a
rather rudimentary level and became quite competent during the
course of the summer.
Events of special note that took place during the session
included two refuge ceremonies, at which most of the regular
participants became formal disciples of the Master, and a precept
ceremony late in the summer in which almost all the disciples took
vows to follow moral precepts of varying numbers, including some or
all of the Five Moral Precepts up to the Ten Major and Forty-Eight
Minor Bodhisattva Precepts. One participant took the vows of a
novice monk. The Master's teachings that summer specially emphasized
the moral precepts as a foundation for the spiritual life. In this
way he used them as an effective antidote against the proclivities
of the popular culture for drug experience and sexual promiscuity.
4. Five Americans Leave the Home-Life
Soon afterwards four other Americans, three of whom had also
participated in the summer session, left the home life. In December
of 1969 the five, three men and two women, received full ordination
at Haihui Monastery near Keelung, Taiwan, and became the first
Americans to do so. They were Bhikshus (monks) Heng Chyan, Heng
Jing, and Heng Shou, and Bhikshunis (nuns) Heng Yin and Heng Chih.
5. The Master's Plan for American Buddhism
With the founding of a new American Sangha, the Master was then
ready to embark on an incredible building program for American
Buddhism. The Venerable Master has explained that his life's work
lay in three main areas: 1) bringing the true and orthodox teachings
of the Buddha to the West and establishing a proper monastic
community of fully ordained monks and nuns (Sangha) here; 2)
organizing and supporting the translation of the entire Buddhist
canon into English and other Western languages; and 3) promoting
wholesome education through the establishment of schools and
ESTABLISHING A BUDDHIST SANGHA IN THE WEST
1. The First Ordination Ceremonies in the West
Because of the increasing numbers of people who wished to leave
the home-life to become monks and nuns under the Master's guidance,
in 1972 the Master decided to hold at Gold Mountain Dhyana Monastery
the first formal, full ordination ceremonies for Buddhist monks and
nuns to be held in the West. He invited virtuous elder masters to
preside with him over the ordination platform. Five monks and one
nun received ordination. Subsequent ordination platforms have been
held at the Sagely City of Ten Thousand Buddhas in 1976, 1979, 1982,
1989, and 1992, and progressively larger numbers of people have
received full ordination. Over two hundred people from countries all
over the world were ordained under him.
2. The Master as Reformer
The Master was determined to transmit the original and correct
teachings of the Buddha to the West and was outspoken about not
infecting Western Buddhism with corrupt practices that were
widespread in Chinese Buddhism. While encouraging his disciples to
learn the ancient traditions, he cautioned them against mistaking
cultural overlay and ignorant superstition for the true Dharma. He
encouraged them to understand the logical reasons behind the ancient
Among the reform that he instituted were the following: he
reestablished the wearing of the precept sash (kashaya) as a sign of
a member of the Sangha; he emphasized that the Buddha instructed
that monks and nuns not eat after noon and encouraged his Sangha to
follow the Buddha's practice, which he followed, of eating only one
meal a day at noon; he also encouraged them to follow his example in
the practice of not lying down at night, which was also recommended
by the Buddha. In the early days at Tianhou Temple in San
Francisco's Chinatown, some of the disciples, in order to train
themselves in this practice, found appropriate-sized packing crates
abandoned in the streets and modified them so that they could sit in
them at night and keep themselves from stretching out their legs.
The Master also criticized the current Chinese practice among many
Buddhist lay people of taking refuge with many different teachers,
and he himself would not accept disciples who had previously taken
refuge with another monk.
Some of the Master's American disciples were initially attracted
to the Master and Buddhism because of their interest in
extraordinary spiritual experiences and psychic powers. Many of them
were trying to understand remarkable experiences of their own, and
many with special psychic abilities were naturally drawn to the
Master. Clearly recognizing the danger of the popularity of the
quest for special experiences in American culture, the Master
emphasized that special mental states can be a sign of progress in
cultivation but can also be very dangerous if misunderstood. He
taught about the Buddha's monastic prohibitions against advertising
one's spiritual abilities and made clear that spiritual abilities in
themselves are not an indication of wisdom and do not insure
Generally speaking, the Master was concerned with the pure
motivation of those who left-home under him and did not want the
American Sangha to be polluted by those who had ulterior, worldly
reasons for leaving the home-life. To that end he established these
fundamental guidelines for monastic practice:
Freezing to death, we do not scheme.
Starving to death, we do
Dying of poverty, we ask for nothing.
with conditions, we do not change.
Not changing, we accord with
We adhere firmly to our three great principles.
We renounce our lives to do the Buddha's work.
We take the
responsibility to mould our own destinies.
We rectify our lives
as the Sangha's work.
Encountering specific matters, we
understand the principles.
Understanding the principles, we
apply them in specific matters.
We carry on the single pulse of
the patriarchs' mind-transmission.
In addition he summarized the standards of conduct that he upheld
throughout his life for all his disciples, both Sangha members and
lay people, in Six Great Guidelines: not contending, not being
greedy, not seeking, not being selfish, not pursuing personal
profit, and not lying.
One of the Master's more remarkable
endeavors in the area of monastic reform was his attempt to heal the
two thousand year old rift between Mahayana and Theravada monastic
communities. He encouraged cordial relations between the Sanghas,
invited distinguished Theravada monks to preside with him in
monastic ordination ceremonies, and initiated talks aimed at
resolving areas of difference.
4. Founding of the Sino-American Buddhist Association and the
Dharma Realm Buddhist Association
The Master felt that one of the marks of decay of proper monastic
practice in China had been the gradual shift of emphasis from large
monastic training monasteries to small individual temples, each with
one or two monks or nuns free to do more or less whatever they
pleased. In order to insure that tendency for laxity of practice did
not take hold in the West, the Master wished to unite all his Sangha
members and lay people under a single organization, that could both
help to maintain uniform pure standards of conduct for members of
the Sangha and discourage the making of offerings to individuals
instead of to the Sangha as a whole. In order to strengthen central
organization and in recognition of his growing number of American
disciples, in December, 1968 the Buddhist Lecture Hall was expanded
into the newly incorporated Sino-American Buddhist Association. As
that organization became more international in scope, in 1984, the
name of the organization was officially changed to the Dharma Realm
5. Monasteries and Temples Founded by the Master in the West
With the large influx of Americans wishing to study the Dharma
the small Tianhou Temple was quickly outgrown, and in 1970 the
Association moved to a large three-story brick building, which was
remodelled to become Gold Mountain Dhyana Monastery. In 1976 the
Master established the Sagely City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, which
now encompasses almost five hundred acres of land at Wonderful
Enlightenment Mountain in northern California. Among the many other
temples, monasteries, and retreat centers established by the Master
are Gold Wheel Monastery in Los Angeles, Long Beach Monastery in
Long Beach, California, Gold Buddha Monastery in Vancouver, Gold
Summit Monastery in Seattle, Avatamsaka Monastery in Calgary, the
Berkeley Buddhist Monastery and Institute of World Religions, and
the Administrative Headquarters and International Translation
Institute, both in Burlingame, California.
TEACHING THE DHARMA AND TRANSLATING THE BUDDHIST CANON
1. What the Master Taught
In retrospect, the vigor, depth and breadth of the Master's
efforts in teaching in the West are nothing short of incredible. In
his early days of teaching Westerners, he often had little or no
help. He cooked, taught them to cook, sat with them in meditation
and taught them to sit, entertained them with Buddhist stories, and
taught them the rudiments of Buddhadharma and Buddhist courtesy and
ceremony. He gave lessons in Chinese and in Chinese calligraphy
lessons, and taught the fundamentals of the pure Buddhist lifestyle.
As his Western students progressed in their understanding and
practice, he did not slack off in the least. He continued not only
to lecture daily on the Sutras, but to give various other classes.
He lectured on the four major Mahayana Sutras, completing the
Shurangama Sutra, the Lotus (Dharma Flower) Sutra, and the
Avatamsaka Sutra, and finishing a substantial portion of the Nirvana
Sutra. He also lectured on the Heart Sutra, the Diamond (Vajra)
Sutra, the Sixth Patriarch's Platform Sutra, the Earth Store Sutra,
the Song of Enlightenment and a host of other Buddhist works.
He also trained a whole staff of translators and taught many
disciples how to lecture on the Sutras themselves. In almost every
formal teaching situation, in order to train his disciples, he would
first ask them to speak and only speak himself after they had had
The Master's teaching methods included yearly Sutra lecture and
cultivation sessions modeled on the first Shurangama Sutra Session.
He laid down vigorous standards for meditation and recitation
sessions, giving frequent instructional talks during the sessions.
He explained the importance of the Buddhist Dharmas of repentance
and encouraged the bowing of the Great Compassion Repentance, the
Great Repentance Before the Ten Thousand Buddhas, and other
Much of the Master's most important teaching took place outside
of his formal Dharma lectures. For the Master, every situation was
an opportunity for teaching, and he paid little attention to whether
the recipients of instruction were formal disciples. For him every
worldly encounter, whether with disciples or politicians or
realtors, was an opportunity to help people become aware of their
faults, change them and to develop their inherent wisdom. The Master
was always open, direct, and totally honest with everyone in every
situation. He treated everyone equally, from the President of the
United States to little children. Everything he did was to benefit
others and never for himself.
2. Travelling to Spread the Dharma in the West
Whenever and wherever he was respectfully invited to speak the
Dharma, the Master always tried his best to oblige, even if it was
at the cost of his own physical well-being. In addition to his
almost continual travelling in the United States and Canada to
lecture and several major trips to Asian countries, the Master also
visited South America and Europe.
In 1973 the Master travelled to Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and
other countries in South America. His main purpose was to establish
affinities with the people, and so he spent much time while there
reciting mantras of great compassion and transferring the merit to
the local people.
In 1990 at the invitation of Buddhists in many countries of
Europe the Master took a large delegation there on a Dharma tour,
knowing full well that, because of his ill health at the time, the
rigors of the trip would shorten his lifespan. However, as always
the Master considered the Dharma more important than his very life.
Among the countries visited were England, France, Belgium, Germany,
3. The Buddhist Text Translation Society and Vajra Bodhi Sea
In 1970 the Master founded the Buddhist Text Translation Society
with the eventual goal of translating the entire Buddhist Canon into
English and other languages of the West. The Master saw clearly that
reliable translations into English with readable and understandable
commentaries were essential to the understanding and practice of the
Buddhadharma by Westerners. To date the Buddhist Text Translation
Society has published over a hundred volumes, and the work of
translating Buddhist scriptures, many with the Master's own
commentaries, is ongoing.
Also in 1970 the Master founded Vajra Bodhi Sea, a monthly
journal of orthodox Buddhism. It has been published continuously
ever since. Initially in English, it now appears in a bilingual
The Master felt that one of the weaknesses of Buddhism in China
was that it did not give high priority to education and failed to
develop a widespread network of Buddhist schools and universities.
In order to begin to remedy that situation in the West, the
Venerable Master founded Dharma Realm Buddhist University, primary
and secondary schools, and developed financial aid programs for
needy and deserving students.
The Master taught that education is the best national defense. He
counseled that in elementary school children should be taught filial
respect, in secondary school love of country and loyalty to it, and
at the university level students should learn not only professional
skills but a sense of personal responsibility for improving the
world they live in.
The Master balanced tradition with educational innovation. He
pioneered what he called the development of each individual's
inherent wisdom, and he was always ready to employ new ways of
teaching. For example, he wrote several songs in English himself and
encouraged his disciples to use that medium for teaching the Dharma.
1. Dharma Realm Buddhist University
In 1976 the Master established Dharma Realm Buddhist University
with its main campus at the Sagely City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. Its
main goals are to provide education to all the peoples of the world
by explaining and propagating the Buddha's teachings, developing
straightforward minds, benefitting society, and enlightening all
beings. The University currently offers undergraduate and/or
graduate degrees in Buddhist Study and Practice, Translation of
Buddhist Texts, Buddhist Education, and Chinese Studies. In his
final instructions, the Master indicated that special attention
should be paid to the fulfillment of his vision for the University.
Over the years many well-known professors from American
universities, including Edward Conze, P. Jaini, David Ruegg, Henry
Rosemont, Jr. and Jacob Needleman to name just a few, came to pay
their respects to the Master and to listen to his teachings. He was
also invited to lecture at various universities, including Stanford,
Berkeley, University of Washington, University of Oregon, UCLA,
University of California at Davis, University of Hawaii Davis, and
San Francisco State University.
2. Sangha and Laity Training Programs
In 1982 the Master established the Sangha and Laity Training
Programs. The Laity Training Program emphasizes Buddhist Studies and
Practice for lay people in a monastic setting with an emphasis on
moral discipline. The Sangha Training Program emphasizes religious
practice, monastic discipline and temple management. Through these
programs the Master has been able to train fully qqualified and
committed staff for the various programs and activities of the
Dharma Realm Buddhist Association.
3. Developing Goodness and Instilling Virtue Schools
At the suggestion of Carol Ruth Silver, who was then a San
Francisco Supervisor, the Master founded Developing Goodness School
in 1976. In addition to nurturing the roots of goodness and virtue
in the young children, the school was devoted to quality education.
It promoted a bilingual Chinese-English curriculum and taught the
fundamentals of both Western and Chinese cultural heritages.
Principal Terri Nicholson and her staff taught the first classes in
the furnished basement of the International Institute for the
Translation of Buddhist Texts on Washington Street in San Francisco.
The school moved to the Sagely City of Ten Thousand Buddhas in 1978.
Instilling Virtue Secondary School opened its doors in 1980, and a
separation into boys' and girls' schools occurred in 1981.
4. The Master's Ecumenical Teachings
In consonance with his Dharma Realm vision, the Master often said
that Buddhism was too limiting a label for the Buddha's teaching and
often referred to it as the teaching of living beings. Just as he
was critical of sectarian divisions within Buddhism as not being in
the true spirit of the Dharma, he felt that people should not be
attached to interreligious distinctions either, that it is important
for people of all religions to learn from the strengths of each
religious tradition. To make that vision a reality, he invited his
good friend Paul Cardinal Yu Bin, the Catholic cardinal of Taiwan,
to join him in establishing a World Religions Center at the Sagely
City of Ten Thousand Buddhas and to be its first director. He
suggested that the cardinal be a "Buddhist among the Catholics" and
that he himself would be a "Catholic among the Buddhists."
Unfortunately the cardinal's untimely death delayed the plans for
the Center, which in 1994 opened in Berkeley as the Institute of
The Master also directed Dharma Realm Buddhist University to host
a World Religions Conference in 1987 at the Sagely City of Ten
Thousand Buddhas. Also in 1987 the Master gave a major address at
the Third International Buddhist-Christian Dialogue Conference in
Berkeley. Once the Master was invited to give a eulogy at Grace
Cathedral in San Francisco. In 1989 the Master was invited to the
Quaker Retreat Center at Pendle Hill, Pennsylvania to give a series
of talks, and in 1992 he was the guest speaker at the yearly Vedanta
Society gathering at Olema, California. Also worthy of mention is
the ongoing friendship that the Master had with Father John Rogers,
Catholic Chaplain of Humboldt State University.
THE MASTER'S ENDURING LEGACY FOR THE WEST
Throughout his life the Venerable Master was widely known for his
selfless humility and his compassion for all living beings. He
worked tirelessly and without regard for his own health and welfare
to dissolve the boundaries of ignorance that obstruct true
self-understanding. He constantly worked for peace and harmony
throughout the world on all levels, between people, between species,
between religions, and between nations. Although his mission has
been to the Dharma Realm, in this brief account we have tried to
focus on his contributions to Buddhism in the West. In this light,
we conclude with a brief overview.
When the first Chan (Zen) Patriarch Bodhidharma came to China,
although Buddhism had arrived several centuries earlier, most people
in China were still confused about the central meaning of the
Buddha's teaching and could not distinguish what was true from what
was false, what was superficial from what was essential. Patriarch
Bodhidharma cut through that confusion and taught people to
illuminate their own minds, see their true natures, and become
Buddhas. The Venerable Master Hsuan Hua came to the West about a
hundred years after Buddhism's first introduction here. When he
arrived there was much genuine interest but also tremendous
confusion and misunderstanding. Teaching that Buddhism flourishes
only in countries where the Sangha is strong and pure, the Master
established a reformed monastic community and emphasized the
importance of moral precepts both for Sangha and laity.
Understanding the practical and pragmatic nature of the American
character, he emphasized vigorous and proper meditation practice in
the spirit and lineage of Patriarch Bodhidharma, so that the eternal
truths of the Buddha's teachings could be directly and personally
experienced. Seeing clearly the dangers of widely prevalent wrong
notions about the Buddha's teachings, he explained the major
scriptures in a clear and simple manner while bringing out their
contemporary, practical relevance. Then he worked to make those
teachings available in English so that they would be accessible to
Westerners. And finally, he chose to live and teach in the West so
that every day he provided a living, breathing manifestation of the
true meaning of the Buddha's teachings. In that way he touched and
profoundly transformed the lives of countless Westerners and planted
the seeds of Bodhi (enlightenment) in their hearts.