Back to the Source

An Interview with the Tripitaka Master Hsuan Hua


Conducted by Karl Ray



[Originally published in Shambala Review, Volume 5, Numbers 1 & 2, Winter 1976, pp. 26-28.]

Tripitaka Master Hsuan Hua (also named An Tz'u and To Lun) was born on the sixteenth day of the third month, lunar calendar, in 1918. His father, Pai Fu-bai, was a farmer the Shuang-ch'eng District of northeastern China. The Master was the youngest of eight children. After the Second World War the Master traveled three thousand miles to Nan Hua Monastery in Canton Province to pay his respects to the Venerable Master Hsu Yun, who was then one hundred and nine years old. When he arrived at Nan Hua, the two masters greeted on another; the Venerable Master Hsu Yun recognized the Master's attainment, and transmitted the wonderful mind seal to him, making him the Ninth Patriarch of the Wei Yang lineage, and asked him to serve as the Director of the Nan Hua Institute for the Study of the Vinaya.

In 1950, he resigned his post at Nan Hua Monastery and journeyed to Hong Kong where he lived in a mountainside cave in the New Territories. He personally established two temples and a lecture hall and helped to bring about the construction of many others. He dwelt in Hong Kong for twelve years, during which time many people were influenced by his arduous cultivation and awesome manner to take refuge with the Triple Jewel and support the propagation of the Buddhadharma.

In 1962, he carried the Buddha's Dharma banner farther west to the shores of America where he took up residence in San Francisco and patiently waited for past causes to ripen and bear their fruit. With tireless vigor the Master has finely planted the roots of Dharma in Western soil so that it can become self-perpetuating The following interview was conducted at Gold Mountain Monastery, San Francisco, Ca., which was founded by the Master.

Karl Ray (KR) : The first question I would like to ask is based on an article in which you suggest that Buddhists forget sectarian lines. Can you suggest practical steps that Buddhist organizations can take to bring this about?

The Venerable Master (VM) : Before the Buddha came into the world, there was no Buddhism. After the Buddha appeared, Buddhism came into being, but there was not as yet any division into sects or schools. Sectarianism is a limited view, a view of small scope, and cannot represent Buddhism in its entirety. The complete substance of Buddhism, the totality, admits no such divisions. When you divide thetotality of Buddhism into sects and schools, you merely split it into fragments. In order to understand Buddhism in its totality, one must eliminate views of sects and schools and return to original Buddhism. One must return to the root and go back to the source.

KR: That brings me to a question about the different teachings taught here at Gold Mountain. I understand that you teach five different schools, including the Ch 'an School, the Teaching School, the Vinaya School, the Secret School, and the Pure Land School. Can they all be taught like this together? Do they all belong to the original corpus of Buddhist teachings?

VM: The Five Schools were created by Buddhist disciples who had nothing to do and wanted to find something with which to occupy their time. The Five Schools all issued from Buddhism. Since they came forth from Buddhism, they can return to Buddhism as well. Although the Five Schools serve different purposes, their ultimate destination is the same. It is said:

There is only one road back to the source,
But there are many expedient ways to reach it.

Although there are five different schools, they are still included within one "Buddhism." If you want to understand the totality of Buddhism, you need not necessarily divide it up into schools or sects. Originally there were no such divisions. Why make trouble when there is none? Why be divisive and cause people to have even more false thoughts than they already have?

People think that the Five Schools are something really special and wonderful. In fact, they have never departed from Buddhism itself. It's just like the government of a country. The government is made up of different departments. There's a Department of Health, a Department of Economics, a State Department, a Department of the Interior, and so forth. People may not realize that all these different departments are under a single government. All they recognize is the department, and they don’t recognize the government as a whole. Their outlook is mistaken.

Now, we wish to move from the branches back to the roots.  In the analogy, the roots are the government, and the branches are the various departments. People should not abandon the roots and cling to the branches. If you only see the individual departments and fail to recognize the goverment, you will never be able to understand the problems faced by the country as a whole. You’ll have no idea what they are all about.

KR: Then one should feel free to pursue any or all of the teachings?

VM: Of course. Religion shouldn’t be allowed to tie one up.

KR: And if one chooses to follow only one certain school, can one reach the goal that all of them aim for?

VM: All roads lead to Rome. All roads come to San Francisco. All roads will take you to New York. You may ask, "Can I get to New York by this road?" but you would do better to ask yourself, "Will I walk that road or not?"

KR: You mentioned that the goal of Buddhism is the same for all schools. What is that goal?

VM: The goal ultimately is to return to a place where there is "nothing to get." You go to a place where there is no more road, and then you stop going. You go no further.

KR: What are bitter  practices?*

[*k’u heng: the twelve beneficial ascetic practices recommended by the Buddha, e.g., sleeping sitting up, taking only one meal a day before noon, wearing only three layers of clothing, drinking only unadulterated water after the noon hour, etc. The more general ones are meditating, practicing the Vinaya, etc.]

VM: Bitter practices are just what people don't like, what they don't want to do. That's why you don't come here and practice them, you'll notice.

KR: Because I don't want to?

VM: Because you are afraid!

KR: But I don't know what they are yet!

VM: Bitter practices, in general, are those which people are not willing to endure. That's why you don't want to practice them, either.

KR: Is it not possible that in ordinary life, in life as we are living it in our everyday world, that there are many things that are bitter practices, that we choose to do even though we don't want to?

VM: If you are involved in them, you won't realize it. The bitter practices we are discussing now are ones which are visible and which everyone can see. No one can see the internal hardships people face, and although they don't want to undergo them, they are forced to do so anyway. The external practices that everyone can see and that are suitable to undertake are those which most people do not wish to endure. I often say,

To endure suffering is to end suffering;
To enjoy blessings is to exhaust one's blessings.

KR: I'm not sure I understand the relationship between an individual's suffering and the suffering of others. Does taking on bitter practices relieve the suffering of others?

VM: There is such a relationship in that circumstance, yes.

KR: Are these practices for everyone or only for monks?

VM: Everybody can practice them.

KR: I’d like to ask something about the Pure land because it seems to me to be one of the most neglected aspects of Buddhism in the West, unlike in the East. The question is, is the heaven in the Pure land—if I am correct in using the term—similar to the Christian heaven?

VM: Fundamentally there is no heaven and there is no Pure Land. People imagine a heaven and a heaven exists. They imagine the existence of a Pure Land and a Pure Land exists. The Pure Land Dharma door was spoken by the Buddha in order to teach you to do away with your false thoughts. It is intended to lead  you to a realization of the pure, inherently wonderful True Suchness nature.

At the ultimate point, when you have no false thoughts or confused ideas, you arrive at the Pure Land. Whoever can do away with their false thoughts can reach the Land of Ultimate Bliss. Whoever cannot do that is still in the Evil World of the Five Turbidities. So, heaven is the same. We imagine how fine and wonderful heaven must be, but only on the basis of what we have heard. We also imagine the Pure Land to be as the Buddha said it was. We haven't yet seen it ourselves, except in our imaginations. As I see it, the Pure  Land Dharma-door is taught only for the sake of causing you to purify your mind. That is the Pure Land. If your mind has no confused ideas, that is heaven. If you look for it elsewhere, you only show your greed.

KR: That’s one of the most beautiful definitions I ‘ve ever heard of the Pure Land.

VM: But it’s the worst explanation ever given!

KR: It seems the most sensible.

VM: The really good explanation is impossible to give. If it were a really good explanation, there'd be no way to convey it to you. Anything that can be said is not ultimate. If it can be explained, it doesn't "have it." I've never heard as good a one either. (Laughter)

KR: In other words, what is eliminated in this definition of the Pure Land is what has so often been ascribed to it as "other worldly power. "

VM: "Other-power" (t'a li) just refers to the power of Amitabha Buddha. "Self-power" (tse li) refers to your own ability to recite the name of Amitabha Buddha. Using "vow-power" you borrow the power of Amitabha Buddha's vows to escort you to the Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss. This comes from relying on the power of Amitabha Buddha's vows, but the vow-power of Amitabha Buddha and the vow-power of every individual is just the same; it is of one kind.

If you can purify your mind, then you will become one with Amitabha Buddha. If you can purify your mind, the Land of Ultimate Bliss appears right in front of you. It is especially important that you cut off all desire. All your desirous thoughts, just cut them off so that you think of nothing whatsoever. If you can stop all thoughts of sexual desire, have no greedy, hateful, or ignorant thoughts, then Amitabha's power is your power as well; they are

two and yet not two;
not two and yet two.

Basically, there is no distinction, but living beings have to find something to do where there is nothing to be done, that's all.

KR: Does not this explanation of the Pure Land conflict with the tantric practices of using sexual powers? Are they two different ways that one must choose between, or can they be practiced simultaneously?

VM: There is no contradiction. As for one who practices tantra, if he has no sexual desire, it is all right. If he has desire, then he is just the same as a common person.

KR: In other words, in the tantric practice one must also be detached from sexual desire?

VM: Most definitely, yes. There must be no thoughts of sexual desire. If you have desire, you are just the same as a common person, and you will have children just the same as everyone else. That's for certain!

KR: Can you have children without desire, without attachment?

VM: You'd have to be a piece of wood! A piece of wood has no attachment.

KR: But a piece of wood doesn't have children, does it?

VM: To do the tantric practices, one must neither be a piece of wood nor have desire. It is really not easy. Because it is so difficult, it is extremely dangerous. But most people like it,  and use it to cover up their own "inner conflicts."

KR: That brings up the question. of the teacher-disciple relationship. Can one practice Buddhism without a teacher or as the Indians say, a "guru?"

VM: It takes a little longer.

KR: But it's not impossible?

VM: That depends on the root-nature of the individual.

KR: What do you think of the prospects for Buddhism in America ?

VM: Buddhism is like a seed. In Asia, it no longer exists. The seed has come to the West. Having come to the West, of course it will take root and grow. After growing large, it will eventually pass away in the West as well. Then it will go on from there to yet another world. This is one of the natural tendencies of the Buddhadharma. It may happen that in five hundred years or perhaps a thousand years--it's not certain how long it will be--Buddhism may go to the moon.

KR: I was just going to ask, you said  "world " and not "another country." That's what you meant?

VM: Yes, yes!

KR: I think I'll let you off now.

VM: You'll liberate me? But I am liberating you! (Laughter)

KR: I thank you. The questions were stupid.

VM: Were the questions stupid or were the answers stupid?

KR: The questions.

VM: Stupidity and wisdom are basically the same. When you reverse stupidity, it becomes wisdom. It's like the palm and the back of one's hand. Turn it over, and then you've got it. If you are interested, feel free to make an appointment at any time to come and discuss things.

KR: Thank you. Maybe you can help me not be afraid of bitter practices?

VM: That's easy!

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