by Karl Ray
An Interview with the Venerable 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
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: 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 Master: 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
return to the root and go back to the source.
Karl Ray: 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?
The Master: 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
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 no 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 theya re all about.
Karl Ray: Then one should feel free to pursue any or all of the teachings?
The Master: Of course. Religion shouldn't be allowed to tie one up.
Karl Ray: And if one chooses to follow only one certain school, can one reach the goal that all of them aim for?
The Master: 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?"
Karl Ray: You mentioned that the goal of Buddhism is the same for all schools. What is that goal?
The Master: 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.
Karl Ray: 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.]
The Master: 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.
Karl Ray: Because I don't want to?
The Master: Because you are afraid!
Karl Ray: But I don't know what they are yet!
The Master: Bitter practices, in general, are those which people are not willing to endure. That's why you don't want to practice them, either.
Karl Ray: 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?
The Master: 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
To enjoy blessings is to exhaust one's blessings.
Karl Ray: 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?
The Master: There is such a relationship in that circumstance, yes.
Karl Ray: Are these practices for everyone or only for monks?
The Master: Everybody can practice them.
Karl Ray: 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?
The Master: 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.
Karl Ray: That's one of the most beautiful definitions I 've ever heard of the Pure Land.
The Master: But it's the worst explanation ever given!
Karl Ray: It seems the most sensible.
The Master: 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)
Karl Ray: In other words, what is eliminated in this definition of the Pure Land is what has so often been ascribed to it as "otherworldly power. "
The Master: "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;
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.
Karl Ray: 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?
The Master: 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.
Karl Ray: In other words, in the tantric practice one must also be detached from sexual desire?
The Master: 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!
Karl Ray: Can you have children
without desire, without attachment?
The Master: You'd have to be a piece of wood! A piece of wood has no attachment.
Karl Ray: But a piece of wood
doesn't have children, does it?
The Master: 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."
Karl Ray: That brings up the
question. of the teacher-disciple relationship. Can one practice Buddhism
without a teacher or as the Indians say, a "guru?"
The Master: It takes a little
Karl Ray: But it's not
The Master: That depends on the
root-nature of the individual.
Karl Ray: What do you think of
the prospects for Buddhism in America ?
The Master: 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.
Karl Ray: I was just going to
ask, you said "world " and not "another country." That's what you meant?
The Master: Yes, yes!
Karl Ray: I think I'll let you
The Master: You'll liberate me?
But I am liberating you! (Laughter)
Karl Ray: I thank you. The
questions were stupid.
The Master: Were the questions
stupid or were the answers stupid?
Karl Ray: The questions.
The Master: 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.
Karl Ray: Thank you. Maybe you
can help me not be afraid of bitter practices?
The Master: That's easy!
* * *
the Buddhist Text Translation Society
Primary translation: Bhikshu Heng Sure
Revised by: Bhikshuni Heng Yin
Edited by: Bhikshuni Heng Chen