Master Xu Yun Did Not Teach or Advocate Japanese Zen

Xu Yun Sun-01

Master Xu Yun (1840-1959) was a Chinese Ch’an Buddhist monk who witnessed first-hand the barbarity of the Imperial Japanese armed forces as they swept through China and committed rape and pillage on a breath-taking scale.  Within Xu Yun’s biography Empty Cloud for the years 1953-54 – it says that in the fourth month of 1953 (when Xu Yun was in his 114th year of age) he attended the inaugural meeting of the newly formed Chinese Buddhist Association in Beijing (where he stayed at Guangji Temple).  The text states that a number of degenerate monks attended the meeting and demanded that the Government of China abolish the requirement of Chinese Buddhist monks and nuns to follow the Vinaya Discipline.  Master Xu Yun was very diplomatic in his criticism.  For instance he does not mention that the monks in question had lived in Japan and abandoned Chinese Buddhism altogether – adopting the modern practices of Japanese Zen.  This change of habit is significant as Japanese Zen monastics do not have to follow the discipline of the Vinaya, but can have sexual relations, drink alcohol and eat meat, etc.  From a Chinese Ch’an perspective, this means that these so-called ‘monastics’ are in fact lay-people in robes.  The Head Monk of the Shaolin Temple – the Venerable Yong Xin – gave an interview with Global People Magazine in 2011, where he explained the background to the situation that Master Xu Yun faced at this meeting 1953:

‘Venerable Yong Xin: It is simple; ordained Buddhist monastics in China are not permitted to enter into any amorous relationship whatsoever. Strict celibacy is part of the great (or ‘full’) ordination ceremony, and anyone who breaks this moral requirement will have to leave the ordained Sangha and return to lay-life. Such behaviour is part of the world of burning desire, and so we are protected from it by our precepts. After the founding of the New China (in 1949), there was a great gathering of Buddhists from every corner of the country, representing every type of school. At that time there were a group of so-called ‘Buddhist monks’ in China who had trained in Japan and had subsequently got married and had children. They could do this because this is considered normal behaviour in Japan. They attended this great meeting of Buddhists in China and requested that the government of China abolish the requirement of the Chinese Buddhist Sangha to follow the Vinaya Discipline, and bring China in-line with Japanese practice. The venerable Xu Yun (who lived to 120 years old) was in attendance of this meeting when these monks arrived and made their case. He listened quietly to these monks and then hit his palm on the table in an angry manner. He stated that a Buddhist monk and his robe cannot be separated, and that in China, a Buddhist robe signifies the practice of both strict celibacy and vegetarianism – without the Vinaya Discipline – Chinese Buddhism simply would not make sense. Li Ji Shen referred this dispute to Zhou Enlai (who discussed it with Mao Zedong), and it was agreed that Xu Yun was correct. This decision was taken because at the time certain members of the international community were attacking China with regards to human rights issues. From that day onwards, traditional Chinese religion has been protected under law.’


Master Xu Yun not only demanded that the Vinaya Discipline be protected under secular law (making it a criminal offense for monks and nuns to break their vows), but he also wrote the following text (which can be found in the original Chinese language version of his biography, but is not included in the English translation of ‘Empty Cloud’) entitled ‘Degeneration of the Sangha in the Dharma-ending Age.’  I have translated this important text as follows:

Degeneration of the Sangha in the Dharma-ending Age

By the Great Ch’an Master Xu Yun (1840-1959)

Many people believe that today Confucian scholars betray the teachings of Confucius, and that Buddhist monastics betray the teachings of the Buddha; despite the fact that in antiquity the teachings of both these schools were correctly followed and respected.  However, it is well known that for Buddhism this is the Dharma-ending Age (末法時 – Mo Fa Shi), and that as a consequence, the correct practice of the Buddha’s teachings are in danger of dying-out amongst the peoples of China (and the peoples of the world).  This is because those who follow a corrupt Dharmic-path are directly responsible for the destruction of the true and authentic Dharma.  The Buddha’s teachings are on the brink of extinction, and I have been asked today by Buddhist monastics to answer their questions and clearly distinguish the true-Dharma from false-Dharma.

Question:  In this modern day why not abandon the Buddhist calendar, and cease to celebrate the Buddha’s birthday which occurs on the 8th day of the 4th lunar month – also known as ‘bathing the Buddha Festival’ (浴佛節 – Yu Fu Jie)?

Answer:  Shakyamuni Buddha transmitted the true-Dharma, and in so doing distinguished three distinct time periods.  Each of the three time periods represents one thousand years of Dharma transmission.  With each passing of a thousand years of time, the Dharma diminishes in strength and clarity and loses a part of its transformative power.  In this Dharma-ending Age (1953) it is already true that nine hundred and eighty two years have already passed in this final stage of one thousand years.  During this time ordinary beings are losing their way. They do not know how to acquire the true-Dharma, and yet more and more people are turning to the Buddha-dharma for guidance and support.  The ancient Buddha-Dharma has been venerated for a long time, and even within this Dharma-ending Age, there still exists positive aspects, but these are under threat from the general degeneration of the Buddhist practice.  People misunderstand the true-Dharma and apply the Buddha’s teaching incorrectly.  The round of birth and death (and rebirth) will continue due to the degeneration of the Dharma, and a lack of genuine understanding of the sutras. At this time some ordained Buddhist monastics (both monks and nuns) get married, and change their robes for the white clothing of a lay-person.  This is true even of monastics holding seats of high authority – who, through their white clothing, are indistinguishable from the laity – whilst monks who follow the Dharma (and wear the proper robe and live by the Vinaya Discipline), are relegated to low seats of authority.

This behaviour exists in the world today because we have entered the Dharma-ending Age.  In the last thirty years (of the Dharma-ending Age) the Mahayana teachings will disappear.  In the last twenty years the Hinayana teachings will disappear – whilst in the last ten years, the only practice will be the chanting of the six syllables of the mantra of Amitabha Buddha – ‘Na Mo E Mi Tuo Fo’ (南無阿彌陀佛).  In the Dharma-ending Age, the Buddha’s true teaching will be despised and the first Dharma-text that will disappear will be the Surangama Sutra (楞嚴經 – Leng Yan Jing), followed by the Pratyutpanna Samadhi Sutra (般舟三昧經 – Ban Zhou San Mei Jing).  The lay-scholar named Ouyang Jing Wu (歐陽竟無) has mistakenly taught that the Surangama Sutra is false, and a Dharma-master in Hong Kong has said that the enlightenment of the Hua Yan (華嚴) School is flawed.  These examples are the product of the delusion of the Dharma-ending Age.  In the past – the Kasyapa Buddha (迦葉佛 – Jia Ye Fu) – before he entered into Nirvana, never ceased to teach and emphasis the Tripitaka teaching.  He was the teacher of Shakyamuni Buddha and was responsible for formulating the Dharma so that the teachings could be gathered together and stored in a pagoda.  In the time of the Tang Dynasty, the Master of Law (律師 – Lu Shi) stated that Divine Beings (天人 – Tian Ren) – also known as ‘Devas’ – had declared this to be true.  In Weinan (渭南) there are four high altars, whilst in Zhongnan (終南) there is a library for the Tripitaka and a shrine for holy relics.  This is where the Tripitaka of the Kasyapa Buddha has been hidden to keep it from destruction in the Dharma-ending Age.  Furthermore, there are thirteen fully enlightened Bodhisattvas whose task it is to protect the Dharma.  They gather together every year during the 12th lunar month, and the beat of the divine drum can be heard throughout the empty sky.

Two years ago I attended the inaugural meeting of the Chinese Buddhist Association, where everyone present discussed the Dharma.  The main issues concerned included the corrupt Dharma practices of certain Buddhists that were destroying the Buddha’s teachings from within, and the attitude of the government towards Buddhism in the light of this distorted practice – this is why the government sent representatives to attend.  At this conference many devout followers of the Buddha attended and were encouraged to give their views and opinions.  It was suggested that the Bodhisattva Precepts as taught in the Brahmajala Sutra (梵網經 – Fan Wang Jing), the Vows contained in the Vinaya Discipline in Four Parts (四分律 – Si Fen Lu), the Pure Regulations of Ch’an Master Baizhang (百丈清規 – Bai Zhang Qing Gui) and all such established Buddhist laws should be abolished, because they cause harm to young people, and are detrimental to the wellbeing of men and women.  Furthermore, it was also suggested that the ordained Sangha should be reformed and no longer wear the traditional robes associated with monks and nuns.  The justification for these suggestions was premised upon the belief that traditional Buddhist practice was merely a form of backward feudalistic conservativism, and that the issue was actually about religious freedom.  It was proposed that monks and nuns should be allowed to get married, drink alcohol and eat meat, and be free of any disciplinary requirements.  As soon as I heard these words, I instantly had a strong reaction against them, and thoroughly disagreed with their content.  I treated these suggestions with contempt.  The idea of abandoning the celebration of the Buddha’s birthday stemmed from the observation that different Buddhist traditions celebrate this event at different times.  As far as I am concerned, this tradition is a legitimate Dharma-practice in China that is based upon the teachings of Indian Dharma-teacher Kasyapa-Matanga (摩騰法師 – Mo Teng Fa Shi) who travelled to China during the 1st century CE, met with, and instructed Emperor Ming (明帝 – Ming Di) of the Latter Han (r. 58-75 CE).  Matanga taught that the Buddha was born during the 51st year (of the 60 year cyclical sequence found within the traditional Chinese lunar calendar) in the year of tiger, which is represented by the Chinese astrological symbols of the heavenly stem ‘Jin’ (甲) and the earthly branch ‘Yin’ (寅).  Matanga further stated that the Buddha’s birth correlates to the 8th day of the 4th lunar month.

(Translator’s Note:  In the Western year 2015 CE – the traditional Chinese Buddhist Calendar stood at 3042/43 years since the birth of the Buddha – this means that according to Chinese Buddhist tradition, the Buddha was born around the year 1028/29 BCE.  If it is agreed that he lived around 80 years – then the Buddha entered nirvana in the year 948/49 BCE.)

The exact date of the Buddha’s birth occurred in the 24th year of the rule of the Zhou Dynasty monarch – King Zhao (昭王) – who reigned 1052-1002 BCE.  Therefore the Buddha’s birth occurred in the year 1028/29 BCE according to Matanga.  The shramana (沙門 – Sha Men) – or Buddhist monk known as Tan Mo Zui (曇謨最) – is recorded in the Wei Dynasty (386-557 CE) Book of History (魏書 – Wei Shu) as stating that the Buddha was born on the 8th day of the 4th lunar month, which was during the 24th year of the reign of the Zhou Dynasty monarch – King Zhao.  The Buddha entered nirvana on the 15th day of the 2nd lunar month, which occurred in the 52nd year of the rule of the Zhou Dynasty monarch – Mu Wang (穆王) – who reigned 1001-947 BCE).  This means that the Buddha died around 948/49 BCE.  Throughout all of the subsequent Chinese dynasties, this tradition has been preserved and upheld.  From the time of the Zhou Dynasty’s King Wang until now (1952/53) – it is agreed that 2981/82 years have passed since the time of the Buddha’s birth.  However, there are now people who want to alter this date to just 2502 years since the birth of the Buddha – reducing the traditional years by around 480 years.  As it stands, the Buddha was born before both Confucius (孔子 – Kong Zi) and Laozi (老子), but if this alteration is accepted, then the Buddha would be born after Confucius and Laozi.  This Han Dynasty tradition should not be allowed to be destroyed, because it was brought to China from India by the Venerable Kasyapa Matanga and the Venerable Dharmaratna (竺法蘭 – Zhu Fa Lan).  Today, the Dharma-ending Age is upon us, but when Matanga built the White Horse Temple (白馬寺 – Bai Ma Si) thousands of year ago in China, the times were brighter and nearer to the original light of the Buddha’s teachings.  Matanga brought a relic of the Buddha from the time of Ashoka’s rule in India, and the Emperor Ming ordered that a pagoda be built in China to house it.  Matanga also explained clearly the Buddha’s Way (佛道 – Fu Dao), and what is allowed and not allowed within genuine Buddhist practice.  Matanga’s enlightenment was such that he leaped over the duality of form and non-form, and fully penetrated the profound emptiness (虛空 – Xu Kong), and his understanding of the Dharma was vast and great.  In fact both these venerable Indian monks possessed the correct Buddha-dharma method, and later, the eminent Chinese monks such as Luo Shen (羅什), Fa Xian (法顯), Xuan Zang (玄奘), and Dao Xuan (道宣), as well as many well respected monks, did not dare to alter the Buddha’s teachings or the Buddhist calendar.

In fact it was not until the 2nd year of the Republic of China (民國 – Ming Guo) [around 1912] that this tradition was questioned by Zhang Tai Yan (章太炎) and other lay practitioners, when a general assembly was convened in Beijing at the Dharma Source Temple (法源寺 – Fa Yuan Si).  This matter was resolved with the confirmation that the Buddha’s birthday fell on the traditional 8th day of the 4th lunar month – despite the fact that the Christian calendar had been adopted by the Republican government due to its prevalence throughout the world.  The Republican government wanted the Buddhist calendar to be replaced by the Christian calendar – but as an upholder of the Buddha-dharma I thoroughly opposed this change, and rejected the suggested alternative dates (expressed in the Western ‘solar’ calendar) for the Buddha’s birthday such as the 8th day of February, the 8th day of April, the 15th day of February, and the 8th day of December, etc.  This thinking wanted to abolish the traditional Chinese Buddhist calendar, and to reject and destroy the Bodhisattva Discipline as contained within the Brahmajala Sutra, the Monastic rules as contained within the Vinaya Disciple, and the rules and regulations devised by Ch’an Master Baizhang in the Tang Dynasty.  It also contradicted the teachings as found in the Agama Sutras (阿含經 – A Han Jing) and the philosophical guidance as contained within the Hua Yan (華嚴) School.   In this way they wanted the monks to dress and behave like lay-people living within ordinary society, and in so doing, end the Chinese Buddhist tradition that had started during the Han Dynasty.  I stated that this thinking was wrong, and the product of the Dharma-ending age.  After I said this, those present further debated this matter with me, but I firmly stood my ground.  I said that by reforming Buddhism in this destructive manner, Buddhism in China would lose its original ‘Indian’ nature.  India has a single year which is distinguished by 3 seasons – with each season comprised of 4 months each.  In China, we operate through a calendar that has the repetition of a 60 year cycle, distinguished by imperial reigns, whilst on the other hand, ancient India did not distinguish one era from another by imperial reign, and so sometimes events are not always easy to discern.  Xuan Zang spent 18 years in India, but could not distinguish the era within Indian history.  It is said that over the last 12,000 years in India there has been 48 different Buddhas born into the world.  Shakyamuni Buddha attained enlightenment on the 8th day of the 12th lunar month and the first meal he ate after this event is termed ’12 Month 8th Day Gruel’ or ‘La Ba Zhou’ (臘八粥).  It was my expressed opinion that to change facts about the Buddha (and Buddhist history) in India was both unnecessary and unacceptable, why should we change these traditions in China?  I discussed these matters with Li Ren Chao (李任潮), and explained to him that Christians viewed Chinese culture and Chinese Buddhism as ‘evil’ and that this is why we should not accept the Western (i.e. ‘Christian’) calendar as a replacement for our own Buddhist calendar which has its origins in India.  The government did not want to take full responsibility for such a change at this point, and were concerned how such a change might be viewed in the international Buddhist community, and this is why I was invited to Beijing for talks.  What would Buddhists from other countries think if China abolished the traditional Buddhist calendar and disciplined practices?  I told Li Ren Chao that if such a change occurred that I could not bear the shame.  Li Ren Chao asked what was so bad about monks not wearing the proper design (or coloured) robes, but I said that the ancient Indian design was correct because it stemmed from the time of the Buddha, whilst Chinese dress did not.  Upon hearing my statement, everyone present agreed with me and the government representatives dropped the matter of changing Buddhist robes.  I explained that monks in China possess 5 or 7 under-robes and 3 outer robes, as well as an over-coat and under-skirt, etc.  In India, Buddhist monks possessed just 3 robes and did not make use of specific under-garments when they sat on the bare earth.  They lived and died in these simple robes and did not abandon this style of dress.  In China, we preserve the style and colour of the Indian robes, but as Indian is a hot country, and given the fact that China is a cold country, Chinese monks are allowed the expedient of possessing more clothing – but despite this difference in quantity – there is no allowable difference in colour or design.  When there is a matter of official Buddhist ritual or ceremony – the outer robe should be worn as a matter of honour and respect.  During the Song (宋), Jin (金), and Yin (元) Dynasties, the style of secular Chinese dress changed – but at no time has the style of Chinese Buddhist monastic robes changed.  This is why it is wrong to suggest that Buddhist monks should abandon the traditional robes and start to wear lay-clothing which is not appropriate for the Dharmic lifestyle they pursue.  I recommend that it is this idea that should be abandoned, and not the traditional monastic clothing of Buddhist monks and nuns.  If monks and nuns do not wear distinctive clothing, then there will be no way of telling a layperson from a monastic who follows the vows.  The government listened to my words and agreed with my assessment of all these matters.  They further agreed that the Buddhist Dharma-teachings would not be altered, and that the Vinaya Disciple (and other regulations) would be left as they are for all Buddhist monastics to follow.  This agreement between myself and the government prevented Buddhism (and the ordained Buddhist Sangha) in China from falling into a state of self-destruction.  Although I – Xu Yun – am an old monk with little ability, I managed through speaking the truth to uphold the Buddha-dharma and prevent its destruction through unnecessary political reform.


©opyright: Adrian Chan-Wyles (ShiDaDao) 2015.


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