An Introduction to A Casual Talk of a Dream

A talk given by Shramanerika Jin Shao on July 20, 2012

Venerable Master, Dharma masters, and friends in the dharma, Amitabha! It is Jin Shao’s turn to practice tying dharma affinity tonight. Please correct me if I say anything inappropriate.

My topic for tonight is about Vinaya Master JianYue’s autobiography titled A Casual Talk of a Dream. Vinaya Master JianYue, also known as Great Master DuTi, is a patriarch of the Vinaya school from the jewel flower mountain in the Ming dynasty. I first learned about the Great Master’s name when reading Vinaya Master ShuYu’s Commentary on the 53 Mantras for Daily Practice, where Great Master DuTi was briefly introduced. It was said that Great Master DuTi was a transformation body of Venerable Mahakatyayana, and that he was well-known for drawing pictures of Bodhisattvas. But A Casual Talk of a Dream was not mentioned in Vinaya Master ShuYu’s introduction.

I first came across these four Chinese characters in the preface of Dharma Master TanXu’s autobiography. At first sight, strangely enough, I was really eager to read the book. After reading it, I was deeply moved and inspired. I believed it can help to solidify my resolve in the Way and help to discard my bad habits. It can serve as a constant reminder and a timely encouragement. So I felt fortunate to have the opportunity to read and learn from this wonderful book, while at the same time felt obliged to recommend it to my fellow cultivators.

A Casual Talk of a Dream was written upon a sincere request from his disciples when Vinaya Master JianYue was 73 years old. In the end of the book, he explained why he named the book A Casual Talk of a Dream, saying: “Although what has been presented here, detailed and specific, did all actually happen in the past, it is just like a dream to me now as I look back on it, since all appearances eventually become illusionary. Thus the book is titled A Casual Talk of a Dream.” He also wrote a verse to express the same meaning.

Having read the book and pondering on the verse, I thought to myself: The lives of ordinary beings, muddled and confused, are certainly like dreams; but the life of the Great Master, spectacular and inspiring, is also said to be like a dream; it is so called in the sense that one vigorously does all Buddhas’ activities yet is detached from them, as if one is in a dream.

A Casual Talk of a Dream is relatively short in length and has two major parts. The first part focuses on the ascetic practices related to Vinaya Master JianYue’s walking journey; and the second part focuses on how he established, maintained, and reformed the monastery, and protected, upheld, and propagated the dharma, especially Vinaya teachings, over a few decades. For the rest of the time, I am going to talk about the causes and conditions for the Master to leave home and to receive the precepts, and also provide some examples of the hardships he experienced on his journey to request for the precepts, which are basically from the first part.

Actually the second part is equally, if not more, important, as it clearly shows us the words and conducts, the spirits, and the lofty qualities, of the Great Master as a patriarch in the Vinaya school. Nonetheless, I chose to focus on the first part, for two reasons: first, some of us may not know anything at all about this Master, so a bit of general introduction seems appropriate; second, because I am pretty much new to the Vinaya teachings, I don’t think I have enough knowledge to fully recognize, appreciate, or understand his contributions to the Vinaya school. It is also, obviously, due to time constraint. So I will leave the second part for some other time when the condition is right.

Vinaya Master JianYue was born in YunNan of China in the end of the Ming dynasty. His parents both passed away when he was 14 years old, and he was brought up by his father’s elder brother. He liked to travel everywhere. When he was 27 years old, being far away from home for some period of time, one day he was drinking and enjoying himself, together with many friends. Unexpectedly he received a letter from home, and learned that his uncle had passed away. Upon reading the letter, he was suddenly awakened and shed bitter tears, and he immediately brought forth the mind to leave home and to practice the way.

He told his friends that he decided to leave home so as to repent his offences and to repay the kindness given to him. He was very decisive and resolute, without any hesitation. He then became a Taoist priest, and he practiced vigorously and courageously, leaving all his worldly habits behind. Thus he set a good example for people to follow. Inspired by his practice, many people gained confidence in the Way. Meanwhile, he also extensively did all kinds of good deeds, made offering to the Sangha members, and practiced giving to the poor, spontaneously walking the Bodhisattva path.

Two dreams marked Vinaya Master JianYue’s transformation from a Taoist priest to a Buddhist monk. Shortly after he became a Taoist priest, he had a special dream, and that dream later actually came true. To put it simply, in his dream, Vinaya Master JianYue appeared not as a Taoist priest, but as a Buddhist monk. He was seated in high seat and lectured sutra for many Sangha members, who all knelt to listen to his lecture. From this dream, Vinaya Master JianYue believed he would eventually become a Buddhist monk. Some time after that dream, condition ripened and he obtained a set of the Flower Garland Sutra. He lit the incense, knelt down, and respectfully recited the sutra. When he finished reciting the first chapter, he recalled his earlier dream, and got really anxious to get shaved and to become a monk.

With some efforts, he finally was shaved under Dharma Master LiangRu. Interestingly, the night right before Vinaya Master JianYue requested to leave home, Dharma Master LiangRu also had a dream. He dreamt that a monastic on sash and robe, followed by a big crowd of people, requested to be shaved because his hair had grown too long. From that dream, Dharma Master LiangRu knew that Vinaya Master JianYue was not an ordinary person, but one coming with vows, so he regarded Master JianYue highly. He was given the dharma name DuTi, which means “by reading sutras or teachings, one recognizes one’s self-nature and inherent substance”; and the external name ShaoRu, which means “to continue his teacher’s work in propagating the dharma and benefiting all beings”.

After Vinaya Master JianYue had left home, once he heard Dharma Master LiangRu was admonishing some novices, saying: “A left-home person must first receive the ten precepts, next receive the complete Bhikshu precepts, be adorned with all deportments, then he is entitled to be called a monastic. By contrast, if one does not receive the complete precepts, nor does he show any proper deportment, he is not considered a monastic, instead, he brings disgrace to the Sangha.” Upon hearing what Dharma Master LiangRu said, Vinaya Master JianYue bowed to him, and requested for the transmission of the complete precepts, so as to become a true monastic. But he was told that the complete precepts can only be transmitted by a Vinaya Master, rather than by a Dharma Master.

After requesting it for many times, eventually, he was allowed to leave for the south to seek the precepts from Great Master SanMei. So that is why Vinaya Master JianYue started his journey on foot. On his way seeking for the precepts, he encountered a lot of sufferings and obstructions. Once he even thought he would not be able to receive the precepts, nor to fulfill the wish of his teacher, thus he changed his name to JianYue, which literally means “seeing the moon”. This new name was derived from or related to his dharma name Du Ti. It was also taken from an expression in the Shurangama Sutra, which says “one sees the moon by someone’s pointing a finger toward the moon”.

After receiving the complete precepts, he didn’t request for a new dharma name from Great Master SanMei as other preceptees did. Instead, he requested to keep his original dharma name so that he would always remember the kindness of the teacher who shaved him, and his request was granted.

Vinaya Master JianYue’s walking journey, started from YunNan province in the south, to the north, and then from the north, to the south of the Yangtze River, covered a walking distance of over 20 thousand kilometers, and lasted for several years. The hardships and difficulties he experienced are too many to be enumerated, including all kinds of natural disasters, thirst and hunger, fatigue and bad conditions with people, and so on and so forth. It was the end of the Ming Dynasty: there were confusion and disorder brought about by war, and there was a great extent of famine – all these added extra difficulties to his walking journey.

Now we are going to look at a few examples. The first example is as follows: “The mountain road was winding, precipitous, and dangerous to tread on. All of a sudden, it was raining in torrents. The hillside creek became waterfalls with thundering sounds. The winding roads became streams. Fierce wind blew from all directions, and became a whirlpool. Caught in such a whirlpool, one could not even stand still. The downpour was so heavy that we were entirely soaked. With so much water inside our clothes, we were like riding on the airbag used for crossing the sea. When we untied our belts, it was like opening the gate to let go of water. That happened quite a few times, and it was chilled to the bone.”

The second example is as follows: “The mountain road was covered with gravel, full of bumps and holes, steep, and tortuous. Without our noticing, the soles of our shoes were completely worn out. We threw our shoes away and walked barefoot, and kept walking till that evening. By then, our feet had swollen so badly that the ankles could not be identified. The pain was so severe, like being burned in the fire, or being pierced by an awl. That night, I thought to myself, we were penniless, and being in the middle of nowhere, we simply could not get help from anyone, so we had to move on the next day. The next morning, we grit our teeth and forced our way forward. At first, the heels were in such a pain that they could not even bear to touch the ground. Anyway, we managed to walk slowly with a cane. After covering five or six Chinese li, we did not feel that we had any feet at all, nor could we sense any pain. There was no rest area on the way, and by the end of the day, we had already walked for more than 50 li without any rest.”

In the book, there are detailed descriptions of the hardships such as these two examples, there are also very brief ones, such as the one that follows, with just one sentence: “Without a tiny drop of water to drink, without a single grain of rice to eat, we walked for more than 100 li, from morning to night.” This simple, straightforward style of writing is actually quite powerful in conveying a moving picture of the hardship that was undergone.

Despite all the terrible conditions he encountered, Vinaya Master JianYue was always vigorously applying efforts in his cultivation. Quite a few examples regarding his courageous vigor were given in the book. Here is an example about reading sutra under the light from the Lapis Lazuli lamp in the QieLan hall, described as follows: “It is already pretty cold in the WuTai Mountain in Spring and Autumn, let alone in winter! In October, wearing just single-layered clothes, with the sutra in our hands, we stood and read under the lamp. When we concentrated our minds on the sutra, we didn’t feel any cold. But when we closed the sutra book to take a brief break, we found we were not able to stretch or bend our fingers, and our legs were numb and were not able to move for even a single step. Besides, we were trembling all over, and the cold penetrated to the bottom of our hearts. Nonetheless, we were even more determined, more steadfast in our vows and aspirations.”

Another example is about his writing out a sutra by the name of Fa Hua Zhi Yin, as described below. “During this winter, everyday it snowed heavily, and the room was very spacious, so the north wind kept gusting in. I sat on the bed prepared for visiting monks, wore just a single robe, huddled my head up with cold, and wrote out the sutra. I did not rest for a moment, even though my fingers were stiff and chapped by the cold, and the brush and ink were stagnated.” It is worth mentioning that in ancient times, it is not easy for people to obtain sutras. Usually they have to write out the sutra themselves in order to have a copy to read. It is far more convenient nowadays; so convenient that people do not show enough respect toward the sutras.

Okay, time is up, so we end here tonight. Amitabha!


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