Master Xu Yun: The Importance of Being a Lay-Buddhist


Master Xu Yun (1840-1959) exercised a subtle blend of iron-like Dharma discipline, coupled with a gentle and soft loving kindness and compassion.  He never engaged in personal friendships, or fostered links of inappropriate familiarity, and he certainly never engaged in nepotism. The latter characteristic is particularly interesting, considering that he was born into a Chinese culture that had, for thousands of years, extolled the family unit as the basis of a civilised society.  He practised ‘neidan’ Daoism in his youth under a Master Wang in the family home, but when he reached 18 years of age (around 1858/59) he left home to pursue the Buddha-Dharma.  Within traditional Chinese thinking, when a person is born, they are already ‘one’ years old (as they have been in the womb for about a year), and when they die, another year is added out of a sense of Confucian respect for the elderly (and the deceased).  Generally speaking, (even in Chinese discourse), Xu Yun’s age is calculated from a strict chronological progression, very much following the Western dating system, but from a traditional viewpoint, Master Xu Yun could well have been in his 121st year of life when he passed away.  The convention of recording his life from a strict chronological perspective, appears to have been initiated by Xu Yun himself, whilst dictating his autobiography to his disciples.  When reading the original Chinese language version of this text, I cannot see any evidence of alteration or censor regarding this matter.  That being the case, it is interesting to observe Master Xu Yun pursuing this ‘modern’ system of dating, and not adhering to the ‘old’ dating system of adding two theoretical years to a person’s actual age.  He was ‘modern’ in other ways, such as advocating equality between men and women, monastics and the laity, nobility and peasant, as well as the politician and the ordinary person.  However, at the sametime he never ‘sullied’ these categories, or denied that these ‘differences’ existed and were relevant for contextual definition.  A monastic, for instance, must follow the entirety of the Vinaya Discipline, whilst the laity must follow the basic Vinaya rules as specified by the Buddha.  Although monastics and lay-people were ‘equal’ in essence (as both were ‘equal’ manifestations of the empty mind ground), each category represented a different and specific aspect of the empty mind ground and its functionality in the world.  A monastic is not a lay person, and a lay person is not a monastic, as these are two different categories (or ‘frequencies’) of Buddhist practice.  A monastic sets a thoroughly ‘pure’ example of following every single Vinaya rule, whilst a lay-person does not need to do this.  A lay-person, whilst inhabiting deluded society, must apply the Dharma to that set of circumstances in any relevant manner that relieves suffering, and encourages others to pursue their own enlightenment.  A monastic exists very much on a ‘fast track’ toward enlightenment, with virtually every barrier of delusion removed by the Vinaya Discipline, but a lay-person certainly does not live in such an exalted state, and is confronted by many deluded barriers that often seem insurmountable at times.  However, despite the odds being stacked against the lay-person, (and very much in favour of the monastic), it is recorded that in the Buddha’s lifetime, both lay-men and women realised enlightenment.  This is a tradition very much preserved within the Chinese Ch’an School, that has seen many ordinary men and women attain enlightenment through a committed practice, or by encountering a sublime master.  For a lay-person to mistakenly assume that they are a ‘monastic’, devalues the importance of practising Buddhism (and attaining enlightenment) as a ‘lay’ person.  Of course, a monastic must never consider themselves a ‘lay’ person as this devalues the practice of the full Vinaya Discipline.  In reality, people within society are either ‘monastic’ or ‘lay’ with regard to social function, but the enlightenment they realise is exactly the same in essence, with only the social roles differing.  Having established these facts, it is important to understand that a realised monastic is not limited to his or her social role, and that realised members of lay society are equally not limited to their role.  There exists enlightened freedom that functions through specific social roles, but which remains completely ‘free’ of any limitations as defined by those roles.

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