Master Xu Yun: Bringing the Dharma into Modern Times


Richard Hunn (1949-2006) often commented how interesting it would have been, if Master Xu Yun had visited the West.  In fact, Master Xu Yun visited many places outside of China, including India, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand and Malaysia, as well as Bhutan and Tibet, but circumstances never permitted his further travel Westward, even though on many of those travels in Asia (and China), he did have opportunities to meet a number of Westerners – primarily British and American – as photographic and biographical evidence records.  Charles Luk (1898-1978) came to London in 1935, and had a visit with Christmas Humphreys – founder of the Buddhist Society headquartered there.  Charles Luk requested that the Buddhist Society assist with the preservation of Chinese Buddhism, and perhaps invite Master Xu Yun to the West, but Christmas Humphreys refused on the grounds that the Buddhist Society was committed to supporting Japanese Zen Buddhism.  This is a remarkable position to take by this learned Westerner, when it was well-known in the West that modern Zen (ever since the Meiji Restoration of 1868) had become entwined with militarism and a racist nationalism.  Not only this, but this distorted ’Zen’ was being used throughout the Japanese military as a means to create highly aggressive and amoral soldiers who were encouraged to associate mindless killing, with the state of Zen enlightenment.  Just two years after this meeting, the Japanese formally unleashed an attack on China that has become known as the Second Sino-Japanese War of 1937-1945, which led to the death of millions of Chinese people, and which spread into the Japanese involvement in WWII.  Of course, once the Japanese engaged the West in open warfare, this amoral Zen was used by its soldiers to kill Westerners in their thousands, and to brutalise prisoners of war, etc.  Incredibly, the stance of the Buddhist Society did not change either during WWII, or in the decades following it, where it remained firmly committed to the dissemination of post-Meiji Japanese Zen ideology in the West (a position it still adheres to).

Richard Hunn was of the opinion that the presence of Master Xu Yun in London’s Eccleston Square, might well have altered the opinion of Christmas Humphreys, and ushered in a whole new generation of interest in Chinese Ch’an Buddhism.  However, this was not to be, and Master Xu Yun had other matters to deal with.  Not only did he have to protect the Chinese people against military forces of imperial Japan, he also had to negotiate with the crumbling Nationalist regime in the 1940’s, whilst keeping cordial relations with the ever more efficient and successful forces of Mao Zedong.  Following the establishment of New China in 1949, Master Xu Yun, at a meeting with government officials in Beijing, was asked his opinion about a group of Chinese monks who had lived in Japan for a time.  These monks had taken the Vinaya Discipline Vows, and had left China on a good will mission as celibate monastics.  However, whilst in Japan they had succumbed to the Japanese habit of abandoning the upholding of the Dharma-vows as specified by the Vinaya Discipline, and had taken to eating meat, drinking wine, and participating in amorous relationships (as all were now married and one or two actually had children!).  The view of these monks was that not to follow the Vinaya Discipline was ‘modern’, and they petitioned the government to pass a law ‘lifting’ the requirement for Chinese Buddhist monastics to have to follow the Vinaya Discipline.  This would have meant that Chinese Buddhism would be reduced to the state of post-Meiji Japanese Buddhism, requiring no moral discipline for its incumbents.  A Buddhist ‘monk’ or ‘nun’ under this Japanese system, would be nothing more than a special type of ‘lay’ person, but one that egotistically took on the airs of a Buddhist monastic (that would normally be adhering to a strict psychological and physical discipline).  In effect, a lay person who wears the Buddhist monastic robes, but who does not follow the Vinaya Discipline, is just a lay person wearing robes, and definitely is not a ‘Buddhist monastic’.  Master Xu Yun patiently listened to the argument of these monks (that he viewed as ‘heretical’), and then banged his hand on the table and firmly stated that without the following of the Vinaya Discipline of Indian Buddhism, there can be no authentic ‘Chinese’ Buddhism.  Master Xu Yun then specified that the new Chinese government should in fact make it a requirement under secular law, that every ordained monk or nun in China must properly follow and uphold the Vinaya Discipline.  The government officials weighed-up both sides of the argument, and decided that Master Xu Yun was right.  This is how Master Xu Yun preserved Chinese Buddhism and brought it into the modern age.


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