THE SAGELY CITY OF TEN THOUSAND BUDDHAS
In Memory of the
Venerable Master Hsuan Hua

What Did the Venerable Master Teach Us?

By Dr.Snjezana Akpinar, Chancellor of the Dharma Realm Buddhist University

In asking "What did the Venerable Master Hua teach?" one seems to step into shoes which are more than several sizes too large. It is not easy to answer that question, no matter which way we try to address it. That is probably why I decided to start from a beginning which is very personal. I see it as part of my attempt to understand Buddhism and explain it when the need arises. The most obvious part of the Master's teaching, in my view, is the attitude of East towards West and vice versa. The Venerable Master showed us how to cultivate an ability to spot well ingrained stereotypes which our own cultures and civilizations carry within them and impose on us from a very early age. When speaking within the sphere of education, particularly when children are involved, that should not be so hard to achieve. For Westerners one of the cures could be stories from distant lands, be they India, China, or Japan, as well as stories written by those who went to such distant places and wrote about them when they returned. For Easterners the cure, I presume, would lie in the opposite approach, stories about the West. One must never lose track, however, no matter how nice distant tales may be, that there are also those who see it all here and now, and are capable of illustrating the obvious by telling children and grown-ups stories about our immediate surroundings. But, it is still up to each one of us to continue in the same vein and find the inner courage to go beyond a particular point of view.

At first I thought that I should not write anything on such complicated subjects, that what the Venerable Master has taught is beyond words, so why keep on talking and telling others what to do? It is not my place. There are enough eloquent people around, and it is always the same. I do not wish and cannot be a judge in instances like these. The Venerable Master's influence changed a whole generation of Westerners and Easterners, both here in the New World and in the Old one. I always felt somewhat awkward when asked to speak, anyway. Whenever invited to sit next to the Venerable Master I was sure that hidden within the invitation there was a sincere wish to help me, and that the university and all other educational endeavors were only secondary. Actually I never seriously discussed all this, it was easier to go along to the best of my capacities, and it is impossible to resist such sincere wishes.

So after all of this I would like to explain that here I do not intend to analyze the Venerable Master's intentions, nor my own, since I am very incapable to do that, I never approached such sublime heights. Nevertheless, even without trying very hard it is not that impossible to spot the different points of view among all of his disciples. It is out of such ambiguities that I decided to write a few words and in this manner return to some of my own feelings and thoughts about the whole issue of education. I may be able to draw some conclusions not only about the Master's vision of a university, but also about the current activities in the fields of Buddhist studies in particular and religious studies in general, things I somehow stumble upon in spite of myself.

All of us who have been around Buddhism and the Venerable Master long enough learned to approach cliches and pre-packaged ideas with great caution. This goes for the whole spectrum, from the simplest to the most complex of thoughts. I believe that most of us have learned to steer away from prejudices, to spot them. This attitude in itself should be enough of a guide through anyone's life. It gives a general and freeing direction, an open door. But, as in anything that concerns our world, the next step is also very important. One could approach it in the following manner: Fine, we are now free, the door is open, but now what? What are we to do with our knowledge, and will we have enough strength to withstand? how far away from the open door do we dare to go? Some of us have natures that are more energetic and temperamental and are steadily pushed into battle for the sake of righteousness in an immediate manner full of indignation. Such people do not allow themselves to skirt political issues and "engagement" with the world and its struggles. Actually the word "engaged" is probably not well chosen here, but I cannot think of a better way to word this whole aspect of our nature. It is my private attempt to explain something complex in an easy way.

This country is full of such vigorous and "engaged" attitudes. I also am often attracted to such thoughts, mostly because of a sense of indignation felt by most of those who want the world to be a better place. But, if viewed from the point of view of the Venerable Master, at least as I perceive it, it is exactly these feelings which create the stumbling stones that we should avoid. Or, to word it in a better way, we should be aware of the existence of such stumbling stones and behave more cautiously exactly because they happen to be on our path. These obstacles should be viewed, if possible, from a healthy distance in order to grasp their totality through very broad perspective and at any given moment. That seems to be the only way a human being may be able to untangle himself from the "thicket of views" and the "jungle of views" as the Blessed Buddha had said, with a minimum of bruises and consequences to ourselves and our surroundings. Only then may we hope to reach a somewhat higher, clearer plateau. I am not a psychologist and I cannot explain all of this. Even this much is already too much, I fear. I can only quote, off the top of my head, as a further illustration of the same point, a letter which my father once long ago wrote to his brother and the rest of his family explaining why he decided to become a monk (my uncle at the time was horrified):

There are some very refined and subtle reasons, very hard to perceive and even harder to understand unless you live a certain kind of life and have some sort of talent for the contemplative life. By this I mean a capacity to slow your thoughts down so that the sheer strength of the stream does not carry you away and throw you against some rock.

In these last years, since having lived at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, I began to glimpse the contours of that answer. What helped me most, was the steady onslaught of the "engaged" Buddhists, Islamists and others who very energetically mill around Berkeley and occasionally visit the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. Many of the inhabitants of the City in the face of such attitudes patiently carried on with their cultivation. I tried to protect and criticize both, and somehow convinced myself that the Venerable Master put up with me in the hopes that I will derive some better degree of clarity from the whole issue.

The life of the Venerable Master remains a true example of how we can live in the truth, as Gandhi once had said. It is a way of life which helps us let go of our tight grips and our wishes to hold on to the our various "views" and points of view. It is Buddhism itself, and it can also be defined as a religious approach in the true sense of that word--an approach which stems from a certain foreknowledge, an awareness, based (for want of better words) on a co-feeling, an empathy, toward all living beings, a sort of filter built into, hopefully, the majority of living beings. I often imagine it as a primordial sieve, all of us should try and clean every once in a while. The action of cleansing is exactly that superhuman effort which demands that we be constantly aware, awake, and watchful. All religions are, in their essence, systems and methods which teach us how to do this more effectively. The effort and insight gained by such efforts should help us surpass all the "isms" and biases and multitudes of words. There are simply no words, they do not exist, which could describe all of these things.

As good Buddhists we also need to cultivate an awareness of the process of disintegration: from the withering of leaves falling around us to the greater and more striking phenomena. It is a process which at first strikes us as being frightening, but after a while we may also get the feeling that the death of a human being is one last educational tool, usually employed by parents to teach their children how to grow up. None of us, no matter how hard we may try to avoid such a lesson, is ever capable of escaping it.

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