Charles Luk (1898-1978) Ch’an Buddhist Scholar.

Charles Luk was born when China still had an imperial system and around the time that the wide spread peasant martial art movement – known as the Boxer Uprising – was brewing northern China.  This was a popular uprising against the presence and politics of Western imperialism in China, aimed particularly at the presence of evangelising protestant and catholic Christian movements.  These movements, manned by missionaries from the West sought to undermine traditional Chinese cultural values and religious beliefs and create a climate where Chinese people had to convert to Christianity if they wanted to continue to live in their ancestral areas now under direct Western control or political influence.  The massed peasants, using traditional Chinese qi (energy) cultivation techniques and martial arts believed that the climate of Western imperialist oppression was creating natural disasters such as crop failure, drought, disease, and wide spread famine.  Ch’an master Xu Yun (1840-1959) was in Beijing in 1900-01, and was stopped by a Western soldier and threatened with death.  Xu Yun, already in his early 60’s by this time, responded with a calm mind and careful words, and the soldier relented and let him go.  Due to the devastation the Western forces wreaked in Beijing, master Xu Yun was forced to flee westward with the escaping imperial family.  Although the imperial house had issued a decree declaring war on the Western troops, many provinces not directly caught up with the fighting in the north of China, did not openly respond to the order.  The governor of Guangdong, for instance, did not send troops to the fighting, or openly make war on Westerners in his area – he wanted to see how things would go before committing his troops and province to war.  As matters transpired, the Boxer forces were eventually beaten, and tens of thousands of them were publically beheaded for daring to confront the West.  Ironically is was the imperial house itself that ordered these executions as a means to placate the Western authorities – with the imperial house claiming that its declaration of war was an act of traitorous intent committed by a rogue minister.  Charles Luk was born into this tumultuous time in the southern province Chinese of Guangdong.  With its south facing coast and close proximity to the British island colony of Hong Kong, this area experienced much multicultural interaction and extensive commerce.  Charles Luk was born Lu Kuan Yu (陸寬昱), and in many of his books he uses the term ‘Upasaka Lu Kuan Yu’, with the term ‘upasaka’ referring to a lay-male follower of the Buddha.  陸 (Lu) – According to the book entitled ‘The Origins of Chinese Surnames’ By Chung Yoon-Ngan – Pages 303-304, this surname is around 2,400 years old and is associated with the Zhou Dynasty.  It was linked to an area around Shandong in the early days, but during the Han Dynasty it had become associated with a place in Henan.   It is comprised of the particle ‘阜’ (fu4) which can mean a ‘wall’, and ‘坴’ (lu4) which denotes a tree growing out of the ground.  Many Chinese names are derived from locations or landmarks.  寬 (kuan1) refers to a wide area, free of obstacles, with 昱 (yu4) designating a man holding a light.  Lu Kuan Yu is the Manderin (or Putonghua) pronunciation of his name.  In the Cantonese dialect (guangdonghua) the surname ‘Lu’ is pronounced ‘Luk’ and this is the spelling that he preferred.  The name ‘Charles’, is of course an Anglicised version of ‘Kuan Yu’.  Within the public domain very little biographical information is available either within Chinese or English language sources, but much can be gleamed from his own writings, particularly his Prefaces and Forewords to his books, etc.  It is known that he was married and that he had a daughter name Irene Luk last known to be living in Hong Kong in the 1980’s.  Indeed, following her father’s passing, Irene Luk took over the administration of her father’s work and mediated for a time with the outside world regarding Copyright permission.  Today, despite extensive searching, her whereabouts, or that of her descendents is currently unknown.

In the 1920’s and 1930’s China was experimenting with republicanism, self-strengthening nationalism and even democracy. China was very much looking forward to the future by abandoning the stultifying habit of only seeing worth in the distant past.  The Western presence had introduced the Chinese people to different ways of seeing the world and of developing unique technologies and social strategies.  The battle against the Western presence had been fought and lost in the early 1900’s and now a new era of accommodation was developing whereby the Chinese intelligentsia was undergoing a familiarisation with Western education and as a consequence, developing means of referencing Western ideas through the Chinese cultural filter.  Of course, although direct conflict with the West was at an end, the various factions battling for the political control of China was still locked in warfare.  The warlords, the nationalists and the communists fought bitterly for control ofChina’s future, occasionally making large tracts of countryside uninhabitable, causing streams of starving refugees heading in any direction, as long as it was away from the fighting.  Chinese and Western people were beginning to encounter one another ii situations other than military or political, and as a consequence understanding between the two broad cultural camps began to develop.  Eventually some Westerners would enter China with the deliberate intent of seeking Chinese spiritual knowledge.  In the mean time Charles Luk was training in the Tibetan Buddhist (Vajrayana) lineages of Kagyu and Gelug under one teacher – the Tulku of Xikang – namely the Venerable Hutuktu, who was of Mongolian ethnic origin.  Xikang is of course Xikangsheng (西康省) which is sometimes written as ‘Sikang’, and translates as ‘Western Abundance Province’.   Now no longer in existence, it was once a province of easternTibet(Kham) controlled by the forces of the Republic of China.  Today, part of this former province is in eastern Tibet, whilst the other part is in the western Sichuan province.   This area, although comprised of a Tibetan majority, is known for its small Mongol ethnic grouping.     During this time, Charles Luk was initiated into the secretive technique known as Phowa – or the method of the transference of consciousness at the point of death, to a Buddhafield (i.e. rebirth) of one’s choice.  His other great Buddhist teacher was Ch’an master Xu Yun (1840-1959) – from whom he inherited the dharma of the enlightened lay-person which is believed to go back to Vimalakirti – an enlightened contemporary of the Buddha.  The Ch’an tradition is replete with examples of enlightened lay-people, but this is because authentic Ch’an teaching does not discriminate between male and female, layperson and monastic.  Even in the conservative Pali Canon examples of enlightened members of laity abound, and this is in accordance with the Buddha’s own teachings:

“I proclaim there is absolutely no difference between a layperson with a mind (citta) which liberated and a bhikkhu which has been liberated for a century.”   SN5.410

“The layperson Tapassa, because of hearing the Tathagata, has gone to supreme transcendence…and has his being in the enlightenment of the immortal itself.”  AN3.451’

In reality, enlightenment is neither ‘lay’ nor ‘monastic’, but some times a bias develops favouring one mode of practice over the other.  For those who think that lay-people can not gain enlightenment, then the effectiveness of lay practice is emphasised.  Certainly master Xu Yun taught all equally without discrimination, and this included Charles Luk.  As master Xu Yun met with many Western students of Buddhism – who usually spoke English – he became acutely aware of the need for Chinese Buddhist texts to be translated into reliable English, with good, insightful commentaries.  In this regard he chose Charles Luk to carry out this important and far reaching task.  Although Xu Yun travelled outside ofChina(includingBhutan), he never had the opportunity to visit the West.  However, it is interesting to note that Charles Luk visited Europe in the 1930’s, meeting with the founder of London’s Buddhist Society – Christmas Humphries – as early as 1935, in an attempt to promote Chinese Buddhism abroad.  At this time in his life, Charles was around 37 years old and obviously able to comfortably move around within European cultures outside of the confines ofChina.  This demonstrates a remarkable cosmopolitan streak to his character, and is a testimony to his educational background.  Here was a Chinese man pursuing an ancient Chinese Buddhist (and Tibetan) tradition, but who was fluent in reading and writing English (as well as Chinese) and just as much at home in European society as he was in Chinese society.   Following the fall of the Chinese mainland to the forces of Mao Zedong, Charles Luk spent the last 30 years or so of his life living within the British colony ofHong Kong.  It is from this place that he maintained a world-wide correspondence, instructing people from all kinds of backgrounds about Ch’an and Buddhism through written letters in the days before the instantaneous communication afforded by the internet.  It was through this correspondence that he came into contact with such people as Carl Gustav Jung, Lobzang Jivaka, William Picard, Richard Hunn, Grace Constant Lounsbery, Mr & Mrs Carroll Aikins, and many others.  From around 1956 Charles Luk began to dedicate his life to the translation of key Chinese Buddhist texts into English.  Indeed, within the 1960’s he started to present articles to magazines detailing the life of master Xu Yun, creating the beginnings of an autobiography in English.  His list of English translations and dates of publication are as follows:

Ch’an and Zen Teaching First Series – 1960.

Ch’an and Zen Teaching Second Series – 1961.

Ch’an and Zen Teaching Third Series – 1962.

The Secrets of Chinese Meditation – 1964.

The Surangama Sutra – 1966.

Taoist Yoga – 1970.

Practical Buddhism – 1971.

The Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra – 1972.

The Transmission of the Mind – 1974.

Empty Cloud The Autobiography of a Chinese Zen Master (Kapleau) – 1974.

Empty Cloud The Autobiography of a Chinese Zen Master (Hunn) – 1980.

Empty Cloud The Autobiography of a Chinese Zen Master (Hunn) – 1988.

Of these 12 publications virtually all first appeared in print in theUnited Kingdom.  Luk’s presentation of the English translation of the Chinese autobiography of master Xu Yun first appeared in serialised form in the 1960’s in World Buddhism.  In 1974, the American Zen master Roshi Philip Kapleau of the Rochester Zen Center gathered these articles together and published them in a single book.  In the 1970’s Charles Luk had become the Ch’an teacher of the British Sinologist Richard Hunn.  When Richard visitedHong Kongin the mid 1970’s, Charles Luk asked him to carry-on the Ch’an tradition of Xu Yun and in the process keep the English translations in print, and to arrange for an updated and thoroughly re-edited version of Xu Yun’s biography.  Charles Luk passed away in 1978, but Richard Hunn arranged for an edition of the biography to be published in 1980, and for a re-edited version to be published in 1988.  It is important to note that extracts of Xu Yun’s biography appear throughout the Ch’an and Zen Series, and that through the meritous work of Kapleau and Hunn, this fine work of translation finally saw the light as a single, self-contained publication.  These works contain a wealth of reliable information.  The impression left with the reader is that these works were produced during an extended period of meditation.  That is, as well as being the product of a highly accurate and precise translation of Buddhist Chinese terms, there is also a sense of deep wisdom and stillness throughout.  These translations are far more than the good presentation of a well educated intelligence; they are the presentation of the function of prajna itself.  The enlightened mind of Charles Luk shines through the words.  Many of these books contain extensive and copious footnotes that could form the basis for a separate and distinct Ch’an instructional manual – meaning that each work as presented contains the translated text, together with a parallel text from Charles himself.  Ch’an dialogue and interpretation is just as baffling to the everyday Chinese mind as it is to the Western mind.  Luk understands the text in Chinese, and is then able to translate that understanding into a working English commentary.  The purely distinct Ch’an material – the exclusive product of the Ch’an masters and their students – should be viewed as separate and distinct from the translation of the Buddhist sutras themselves which are steeped in the old conceptual language of China, used over a thousand years ago to translate Indian Sanskrit terms.  Charles Luk chose to translate the sutras that would best serve those engaging in independent Ch’an meditation anywhere in the world.  Such sutras include:

Heart Sutra, Diamond Sutra, Surangama Sutra, Sutra of Complete Enlightenment, The Altar Sutra, Vimalakirti Sutra, Transmission of the Lamp, Yung Chia’s Song of Enlightenment, and the Autobiographies of masters Han Shan and Xu Yun, etc.

The 6th Patriarch’s (Hui Neng) Altar Sutra is of cause the only body of work to be spoken by a non-Indian that is considered a ‘sutra’ in its own right.  This is to say that it is considered a true manifestation of the ‘word’ of the Buddha himself.  In India, of course, there is the sutra of the enlightened layperson – Vimalakirti.  The amount of work involved in the translations of these texts is immense.  Not only this, but a translation without a good guiding commentary renders the translation itself virtually unusable by practitioners from cultures that have little or no knowledge of Buddhism.  Luk’s grasp of the English language in its philosophical usage is quite extraordinary.  His use of the terms ‘nounomena’ and ‘phenomena’ to represent ‘void’ and ‘form’ respectively throughout the translations, appears to be a borrowing from the philosophical thinking of Immanuel Kant.  Luk uses these terms to explain the Ch’an notions of ‘host’ and ‘guest’ to the Western mind.  Although found within a German philosophical system, they are of course Greek terms.  Luk presents the expedient Ch’an teaching as a method that aims the practitioner toward an underlying reality (nounomena) that is obscured from the perception of the Ch’an student by the continuously moving surface content (phenomena) of the mind, further compounded by the mistaken idea that the world of physical objects exists outside of, and independent to, the mind that perceives it.  The moving of the mind and the perception of disparate external objects constitute the world of ‘form’, ‘phenomena’ and the ‘guest’ position – it is the normal perspective of the deluded mind that is always in motion and never still – its behaviour is like that of a guest who visits but does stay.  The Ch’an master skilfully unravels the deluded mind of the student – removing the knots of delusion and pointing the student’s attention firmly in the direction of the Mind Ground (nounomena).  With the right kind of instruction, delivered at the right moment, the delusive surface movement of the mind can be swept aside and the Mind Ground perceived and integrated with in an instant, transcending duality.  The promise of the ‘void’ (Mind Ground), acts as an enticement away from the painful entanglements of the world.  It very much appears as an unchanging essence underlying the changing surface world of phenomena.  However, this is an illusion used to end all illusions, as the Buddha taught that there is no permanent ‘self’ within a living being, and no permanent substance underlying the material of the world.  Once the Mind Ground is attained and all dualism wiped out, then the all-embracing mind will manifest, and the ‘emptiness’ of the void will be perceived as ‘empty’ of ‘emptiness’ – therefore the skilful Ch’an method is an expedient – a medicine to cure the illness.  Yet its presence as a method is absolutely vital if Dharma-students are to make progress along the way.  Charles Luk, through his translations, skilfully engages the Western mind and leads it away from its habit of attachment to myriad externals, cures it of its obsession with intellection, and reveals its true essence to it – an essence that is beyond definition and the reach of words and phrases.  This is a very real and effective manifestation of the use of ‘skilful means’ to liberate all beings – in reality the notions of ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ do not exist, they are only apparently real, and as Charles reminds his readers there is no place within Buddhism for ideas such as racism or nationalism.  Writing in the 1960’s, Luk makes the point that he has heard that some Asian Buddhists believe that Westerners are unsuitable for Dharma practice, and that some Western writers have argued that Buddhism, being Asian, is of no use to the Western mind, and fervently disagrees with both opinions.  This type of reasoning is nothing more than the product of deluded thinking appearing as ‘informed opinion’, and is very much a manifestation of the unenlightened mind.  Charles Luk, following the opinion of his master – Xu Yun – believed that the empty essence of the mind is the empty essence of all things, without exception.  No single being is excluded from the ramifications of this thinking, or unable to benefit from the skilful presentation of Ch’an instruction.  Indeed, Luk shares a number of letters from Western Ch’an practitioners who, through the use of Luk’s translations, had made considerable progress in Ch’an Dharma cultivation, these included Americans, British and other Europeans.  It is interesting to consider that today, members of the Chinese diasporic communities, who have families that have been brought-up in the West for many decades, often speak English as a first language and make extensive use of Charles Luk’s translations, as there appears to be a peculiarly ‘Chinese’ spark of genius that underlies the work.  This serves to demonstrate that Luk’s works are really universal, even if (early) original intention behind it was aimed at Western cultures.  His translations – as a distinct body of work has moved far beyond the remit of the original underlying intention.  Indeed, on this point, many of the re-prints of this work have been produced through Indian publishers.  The turning point was obviously Luk’s ability to transmit Chinese Buddhist thinking across, what was then perceived as two very different cultures.  A conceptual barrier appeared to separate the ancient Chinese Buddhist tradition from that of the curious and enquiring Western mind.  The Western habit of simply noting observations from a distance and then organising these notes into theories, simply did not work when it came to understanding a different subjective mind set of a unique culture.  As a consequence, much misunderstanding abounded.  This has also been seen in some early attempts of Chinese thinkers to understand Western culture.  Invariably, understanding of this nature is necessarily one-sided and therefore incomplete – as it is incomplete, it is also incorrect.  Culture and ethnicity are the products of karmic fruit, relative and subject to change.  The empty Mind Ground underlies all cultures and ethnicities equally, and these may be viewed as the outer expression of the deluded surface movement of the mind.  Whatever the case, following Xu Yun’s exhortation to present Dharma texts to the West, Charles Luk notes in the dedication contained within his book entitled ‘Practical Buddhism’ that he originally hesitated in the undertaking of this great endeavour, but that it was through the encouragement and insistence from Upasika Grace Constant Lounsbery – the Founder and President of ‘Les Amis du Bouddhisme’ –  that this hesitation was finally over-come and the work began in earnest in 1956.  This interaction between East and West elevated Chinese Ch’an Buddhism to that of a world movement free of dogma and political institutions.  Through the work of Charles Luk aimed at the West, Ch’an Buddhism became international and transcended the barriers of cultural prejudice and racialised thinking.

Master Xu Yun’s compassionate insight sustained Charles Luk’s spiritual endeavours.  Xu Yun met John Blofeld, Ananda Jennings and a British diplomat (on a boat), all of whom expressed a deep and respectful enquiry into the Dharma.  In his long life there may have been many others, as there were certainly many Buddhist disciples of Xu Yun hailing from countries situated around China– including the king of Thailand.  Of course, as the world changed and travel became more convenient, Charles Luk, both before and after he moved to Hong Kong had an extensive network of contacts, despite the fact that he explained his private life as being one of seclusion.  Certainly his time in Hong Kong – from 1949 to 1978 – is described as a situation of ‘exile’ from the mainland of China.  The regime change on the Mainland ushered in a period of chaos and destruction.  Religion was a particular target.  Whilst Charles Luk was in Hong Kong, Xu Yun was experiencing the pain and suffering of the new regime first hand.  When Xu Yun passed away in 1959 a bad situation turned far worse, and China closed its doors to the world, leaving Hong Kong and Taiwanas the main contact points between the West and Chinese culture.  These two places seemed to represent the lost culture of the mainland of China, and both, despite their thoroughly modern outlook and culture, nevertheless became bastions of traditional Chinese culture, preserving ancient traditions with a contemporary cultural setting, at a time when Mao Zedong’s regime was looking to modernise by actually destroying the very culture that defined the Chinese people.  For a long time, traditional knowledge, wisdom and physical culture was all but wiped out on the Chinese mainland, leaving the Chinese diaspora as the only functioning example of Chinese tradition.  The 1960’s in the West saw a great liberalisation and expansion of awareness.  The Western mind was undergoing a cultural revolution of its own.  The old was not necessarily destroyed as a consequence of this broadening of awareness, but it did lead to the accepting of other ways of viewing the world.  Asian thinking was not new in the West – Buddhism had been in Englandfor some time prior to this, and the movement known as Theosophy had done much to propagate Asian spiritual ideas in the West.  Of course, it is also true that various members of the German philosophical community were aware of certain aspects of Buddhist and Hindu thinking before the 20th century came to pass.  The 1960’s however, exemplified a certain feeling of ‘togetherness’ and ‘compassion’ that existed independent of the structures of the prevailing religions of Judaism, Protestantism and Catholicism.  It should also be remembered that the Soviet Union and Mao’sChina, misinterpreting the writings of Karl Marx (and Lenin for that matter), advocated an atheistic approach to spirituality.  This effectively excluded around half the world from the new era of spiritual oneness that was pervading Western Europe from the 1960’s onward.  This situation was not to change until 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the re-engagement of Central and Eastern Europe with the rest of the world.  Today, through the internet, the story of Xu Yun and the translations of Charles Luk have spread throughout the entire world, an expansion of spiritual culture that is now even accepted in a much liberalised China, a China that is now rediscovering its ancient spirituality.  When Charles Luk passed away in 1978, he was working on a number of translations which were shown to his British student Richard Hunn – one of these was the completed translation of the Lankavatara Sutra.  Charles Luk’s estate was handled by his daughter – Irene Luk – who was last heard of by Richard Hunn around 1987 when she gave permission for the 1988 edition of Empty Cloud to be published in theUK.  The author of this article has been asked many times recently where Irene Luk or her descendents can be located, as publishers would like to re-print Luk’s work, but unfortunately no one within the Luk family can be located.  It would be a very good idea if Charles Luk’s excellent translations could be kept in print for future generations to benefit from.

The authentic teachings of Charles Luk are preserved at this link:

Richard Hunn Association for Ch’an Study –

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