When the Master set out for America, he had a 10-day stop-over in Japan. He visited a temple where Chinese Dharma Masters were staying and upon entry detected their acute jealousy. Although it was his practice to take one meal a day at noon, when tea and refreshments were served, the Master decided to take a bite of food so as not to appear to be too different from the others and risk arousing their jealousy even more. He accepted six or seven fried soy beans and ate them.

Immediately he knew that the beans were loaded with deadly poison. Although he knew, he chose not to give any indication at the time, and did not dispel the poison from his body at once as the First Patriarch of China, Bodhidharma, had done when he spit it out on a tray one time, and on a rock another time, when he was poisoned by jealous people. Although the poison did not kill the Master, it lodged in a single place in his body and a painful sore formed on his lower leg.

Having been unsuccessful in poisoning the Master to death, one of the jealous monks went on ahead to San Francisco, the Master's destination, to campaign against him. After the founding of the Buddhist Lecture Hall in San Francisco in l958, word of the Master's virtue, compassion, and cultivation had spread and many people sought to take refuge with him, sight unseen.

The jealous monk did his best to dissuade people: "He claims he never eats after noon, but I watched him with my own eyes while he ate one afternoon in Japan," he reported, failing to mention that he and the other monks had put poison in the food. But his skilled persuasion caused many who had planned to welcome the Master at the airport upon his arrival to change their minds and decide not to go.

Jealousy comes in many forms. One kind was this intense jealousy his contemporaries felt toward the Master--they wanted the rewards that came to the Master. Another kind of jealousy was harbored by some of his disciples--they didn't want to share the Master with anyone. One such disciple was a young, unmarried man in his early thirties who came to the Master because he wanted to learn gung fu, for he could see at a glance that the Master possessed skill. The Master always tried to save whoever drew near and so he used expedients to try to help this disciple, allowing him to accompany him and attend to some of the matters involved in doing the Buddha's work.

That's how it happened that this disciple accompanied the Master when he took a trip to the Southwestern States and visited the Hopi Indians. The Master felt deep concern about the pitiful conditions under which the Hopis were forced to live--their dwellings being no better than crude sheds fit for animals. It appeared that in the Hopi religious tradition was something about a prediction that eventually a savior would come to help their tribe--one who could be recognized by his red robe, black hat, and a symbol resembling a swastika on his chest.

Needless to say, when the Master, who had been invited to speak to them, appeared before them in his red precept sash and black cap, bare skinned to the waist, due to the desert heat, so that the wan character burned on his chest was clearly visible--the Hopis were filled with a mixture of awe, joy, and hope. Transcending language barriers, the Master recited the Shurangama Mantra for them. The whole tribe was deeply moved. Wishing to draw nearer, they approached the disciple who was accompanying the Master, leaving their names and addresses and asking if there were any chance to see the Master again.

But that disciple's jealousy obstructed the situation and he not only failed to give them the opportunity to take refuge with the Master, he also did not keep their names and addresses and refused to arrange interviews for them. [Note: That disciple died within few years after that incident, without ever being able to open his heart and do the good deeds that might have saved him from his untimely death.]

That was also the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis--a tense moment in history when the Soviet Union began a missile base installation on Cuba. President Kennedy gave Russia and Cuba an ultimatum: The US was prepared to go to war if the installation preparation continued.

The Master during his early 35-day fast for world peace

For those three reasons--the Cuban Crisis, the Hopi plight, and the poison in his system--the Master began a fast dedicated to world peace. The method of fasting, one of Guanyin Bodhisattva's Greatly Compassionate Dharmas, normally stipulates no food or water whatsoever for the first few days of fasting, and then only one-half cup of water per day for the duration of the fast.

Near the end of the 35-day fast, to the surprise and relief of everyone, the Soviet Union unexpectedly, voluntarily withdrew the missiles and the Crisis abated. During that time, civil rights movements began bringing the nation's attention to the plight of the Native Americans. And by the end of the fast, the poison had been dispelled, leaving just a permanent scar on the Master's leg.

The Master with young disciples in San Francisco

Jimmy Wong discovered the Buddhist Lecture Hall in San Francisco's Chinatown even before the Master came to America. While studying Taijiiquan there, he heard about the Master's virtue and decided to write the Master. "I wrote him a letter to say hello and asked him when he was going to come to America," says Jimmy. "I was about thirteen at the time." Kim Lee, who was fourteen at the time, had been a Buddhist all his life and as soon as he saw the Master, he begged to be allowed to become a disciple. He and Jimmy were among those who received the first transmission of the Three Refuges given by the Master in America. Kim's Dharma name became Guo Qian "Fruit of the Yang Energy" and Jimmy's name became Guo Ren "Fruit of Humaneness."

The two boys devoted much of their time and energy to helping the Master and the Buddhist Lecture Hall. Kim learned printing and Jimmy joined him in helping print many materials for the Buddhist Lecture Hall in those early days. Kim made a vow to help print Buddhist texts and even now, in l996, Kim is still the Association's printer.

Among all the experiences he gained in drawing near to the Master during those early years, Jimmy vividly remembers one event which made a deep impression on him. It was the Master's 35-day fast. During that time, the Buddhist Lecture Hall was virtually Jimmy's "second home." And so during that fast, Jimmy stayed close to the Master and was filled with wonder at the Master's incredible skill. Jimmy personally witnessed that during the entire thirty-five day fast, the Master took no more than one cup of water each day, and during the last two weeks, he did not even take the water. Nothing at all passed through his lips. Yet, Jimmy noted, whereas most people would have been debilitated after the first week or so, the Master continued his regular full day of monastic duties throughout the entire time.

Dr. Ron Epstein, who introduced many, many Americans to the Master (the majority of those in that early group of left-home and lay disciples)

Dr. Ron Epstein, who is now a Professor in the College of Humanities at San Francisco State University, comments:

During the Cuban missile crisis, the Master fasted for 35 days. There are newspaper articles in the archives about the Master fasting to help to resolve the Cuban missile crisis. I think Shr Fu was in a couple of locations in Chinatown, starting out in a basement location.

This is a translation of the caption at right of photo:

Dharma Master To Lun, who recently arrived from Hong Kong and is lecturing Sutras at the Buddhist Lecture Hall here in San Francisco, is now in the twelfth day of a total fast for the sake of world peace and harmony among humankind. This is the fifth fast the monk, who is in his fifties, has undertaken.

The Chinese Times article titled "Seeking World Peace," dated September 27, 1962 read:

Dharma Master To Lun has been fasting for twelve days at the Buddhist Lecture Hall, 731 Sacramento Street, in order to seek for world peace, for the abolishment of cruelty, and for good health for all humankind. It's said that this is the fifth fast the monk, now in his fifties, has conducted. He arrived in San Francisco from Hong Kong six months ago. During this fast, he rises at 4 am, dons his precept sash, sits upright in meditation, and fasts. When his fast will terminate is not known.

The Monk in the Grave

Each of you now meets a monk in the grave.
Above, no sun and moon; below, no lamp.
Affliction and Enlightenment--ice is water.
Birth, death, and Nirvana; form is just emptiness.
Let go of self-seeking, be apart from the false.
When the mad mind ceases, enlightenment interpenetrates.
Awakened, attain to the bright store of your own nature.
Basically the retribution body is the Dharma body.

In the summer of l969, at a guest lecture given at the University of California at Berkeley in an "Introduction to Buddhism" class, the Master explained this verse he composed during his years of semi-seclusion in the early sixties.

Each of you now meets a monk in the grave. You young capable people who are endowed with wisdom will no doubt ask this monk in the grave, "How did you get there?" I don't know either. You should not ask me that question. It is not important. How this monk in the grave got in there and how he got out does not pose a problem. However, I will tell you what the grave is like.

Above, no sun and moon; below, no lamp. What does this describe? Ignorance. It is ignorance that has no name. Although it has no name, it is still necessary to destroy it. Not only do I have to destroy ignorance, you also have to destroy ignorance. You say, "I haven't entered the grave, how can you call me ignorant?" Well, you haven't entered the grave yet, but in the future you certainly will. You can't avoid it. You definitely have to go in the future, because of the ignorance you have now. Having ignorance means not having any brightness. Even the highest Bodhisattvas still have a bit of "ignorance that creates appearances" which has not yet been destroyed.

Therefore, all the way from Bodhisattvas down through the Nine Dharma Realms--including us ordinary people--all beings have ignorance. That's why the Buddha said that ignorance is afflictions; afflictions are Bodhi. But in order to turn afflictions into Bodhi we have to have some gung fu--spiritual skill. And so the third line of the verse says:

Affliction and Bodhi--ice is water. Because everyone has afflictions, everyone also has Bodhi. Everyone knows how to get afflicted; but we've all forgotten about Bodhi! If we forget about Bodhi then we cannot make use of it. It's like ice which originally was water but, because of a cold atmosphere, turned to ice. If there's a warm spell, it can melt the ice back into water. This is an analogy for afflictions and Bodhi. The cold atmosphere is afflictions; and the opposite, the warm sunshine, is Bodhi.

What creates the cold atmosphere? Greed, hatred, and stupidity do it. What is the warm sunshine? Precepts, samadhi, and wisdom. We should diligently cultivate precepts, samadhi, and wisdom and put to rest greed, hatred, and stupidity. That is turning afflictions into Bodhi. It's also melting the ice into water. But this is only an analogy.

Don't get attached and say, "Ice is water; afflictions are Bodhi," for fear you might then go on to say, "Well, I'll just hang onto my afflictions. After all, they're Bodhi! And since ice itself is water, I'll just keep the piece of ice and see if it turns into water." That's not the right attitude. Although everyone can become a Buddha, we have to cultivate before that can happen. How do we cultivate? We must rely in the Buddhadharma to cultivate and find a Bright-eyed Good and Wise Advisor who will teach us the methods of cultivation.

Birth, death, and Nirvana; form is just emptiness. Everyone is afraid of birth and death. However, if there weren't any birth and death, there wouldn't be any Nirvana. Nirvana must be found within birth and death. Once you find Nirvana it is not necessary to seek any more. Don't "ride a donkey trying to find a donkey." We don't have Nirvana at present because we are still caught up in birth and death. If you end birth and death, then Nirvana is yours--there will be no need to search for it. And so it's said that form is just emptiness. Nirvana, too, is just emptiness.

Let go of self-seeking, be apart from the false. If you want to certify to the emptiness of people, the emptiness of dharmas--the emptiness of birth, death, and Nirvana--you must let go and see through it all. Don't keep holding on, unable to let go. If you can let go, then that's called being apart from the false. If you cannot leave the false, you are involved in climbing on conditions and you cannot get rid of your obstructions. If you are able not to know either birth or death, then you won't have any attachments at all.

When the mad mind ceases, enlightenment interpenetrates. You must stop your mad mind and your ambitious tendencies. "How do I stop?" you ask. Just stop! Is there still a "how"? Just stop! When the mad mind ceases, then you enlighten to the perfect unobstructed interpenetration of the Buddhadharma. The Buddha said, "All living beings have the wisdom and virtuous characteristics of the Buddhas. It is only because of false thinking and attachments that they are unable to certify to the attainment." He also said, "When the mad mind ceases, that ceasing is Bodhi."

Awakened, attain to the bright store of your own nature. Your own nature is a bright storehouse of light. If you can awaken to that bright treasury of light inherent in your own nature, then you can certify to the fact that basically the reward body is the Dharma body. The bright light treasury of your own nature is the Treasury of the Thus Come One. The reward body, prior to undergoing karmic retribution, is the Dharma body.

And so we are now undergoing the rewards or retributions for whatever karma we created in the past. If we created good, then we receive a good reward. If we created evil, then we receive an evil retribution. But you must actually become enlightened--see your original face--before you can be certified as having perceived the light of your own nature.

What's it like when that happens? Students become professors and professors become students. Everyone is the same. Buddhas are living beings; living beings are Buddhas. If you understand this principle, you have genuine understanding. If you have not yet understood, then you still have ignorance.

Dr. Epstein comments:

What I remember, which may not be clear, about why the Master moved out of Chinatown was that, when he lectured on the Dharma, many of those in the assembly would not pay attention. They would talk and gossip, and even though he told them that their behavior was not proper, they continued not to take the Dharma seriously. And so he decided to move out of Chinatown. He found a flat at the corner of Sutter Street and Webster Street, near the present-day Japantown (which had not yet been built) and on the edge of the Fillmore District. A lot of the Buddhists in Chinatown were very unhappy with him for moving out of Chinatown; very few people came to see him.

...As I had the opportunity to be around the Master more, I became more and more interested in meditation. Slowly, through sitting with the Master and meditating, I began to get more of an idea who he was, and because of some special experiences I had with him when I was meditating, I came to see him not merely as a very kind, older Chinese monk, but as a truly extraordinary person; somebody, who, as far as I could see, had no self and was both very powerful and very compassionate. That realization radically transformed my whole attitude towards him and Buddhism, and I became more seriously interested in studying Buddhadharma, although I still didn't understand very much about it or know anything about taking refuge.

In July of l967 the Master moved back to Chinatown and opened the Buddhist Lecture Hall, which occupied the oldest Chinese temple in America. The Master himself made a several-foot high white plaster Buddha image, which he placed in front of the old Taoist altar. Later, the images of Shakyamuni Buddha, Medicine Master Buddha, and Amitabha Buddha arrived from Hong Kong.

Dr. Epstein comments:

At the end of that summer, which was the summer of 1967, the Master had decided to move back to Chinatown. Just before I left to go to graduate school at the University of Washington in Seattle, I remember helping to move to the Tien Hou Temple on the fourth floor of a building on Waverly Place in Chinatown. Later that fall I wrote to the Master and asked him whether I could come and meditate over the Christmas break at the temple. He wrote me back a letter saying, "You are welcome to my place. There is no heat and cold. Hope will see you soon."

At that time I had met a number of people in Seattle who were interested in Buddhism. They had heard about the Master from me, and so out of curiosity some of them dropped in for brief periods during the two weeks I was meditating at the temple. While I was there, I decided to take refuge, and Jon Babcock, who later was one of the translators during the Shurangama Sutra Session, took refuge as well.

We went back to Seattle and set up some places where people could get together and meditate. Then we got together the people who were interested in Buddhism and we wrote a letter to the Master to invite him to come to Seattle to have a meditation session over our Spring Break.

When the Master received our letter inviting him to go to Seattle to conduct a meditation session, he dictated a letter saying that he could not come to Seattle to hold the meditation session there, because if he did, there would be an earthquake in San Francisco. And as long as he stayed in San Francisco, there would not be an earthquake. And so he suggested that we come to San Francisco instead and have the meditation session there.

A number of people who were interested in Buddhism went to San Francisco to participate in the meditation session, along with some people living in San Francisco. At the end of that session, a summer study and meditation session was planned during which the Master would lecture on the Shurangama Sutra. That l968 summer session was 96 days long.

The Master's deep affinities with young Americans coupled with his lofty virtue and astute wisdom were obvious during that first summer.

Dr. Epstein comments:

All through this time the Master was very, very patient. I think that's important to stress. Even though at that time Americans didn't know anything about Buddhism, and didn't know the proper etiquette, the Master was very, very patient in trying to teach people. He never got upset with anyone and did what amounted to a lot of baby-sitting and entertaining. He taught us how to cook. He sat with us during almost all the meditation sits. He told Buddhist stories to entertain everyone, and tried to help people sort out their personal problems. It was truly miraculous that he was able to bring this first summer session to a successful completion.

Terri Nicholson, Dr. Epstein's sister, comments:

Actually the first time I visited the Buddhist Lecture Hall was only briefly in January of l969. I was fifteen at the time. I remember the Master saying, "Oh, so you're here."

My lasting impression of that first meeting with the Master is how surprised I was that he was so humble. I'd heard about the Master from my brother, and my impression was that he would be awesome and perhaps unapproachable. And yet when I arrived, the Master was dressed in a white T-shirt and gray pants; he was helping to move furniture. He was totally unaffected. I think that was my strongest impression--his total lack of any airs of being a great master or of having disciples. He just worked right along with everyone else and didn't at all put himself up as being special. I didn't come back again until January 1973.

[Note: Mrs. Nicholson later resided at the International Institute for the Translation of Buddhist Texts and became the Principal of Instilling Goodness School when it was founded there in l973. When the school moved to the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, she also moved with the school and continues to guide its development.]


return to top