by Venerable Master Hsuan Hua
In cultivation, we should hold fast to our principles, and not forget them. In studying Buddhism, we should also hold to our principles, for they are our goal. Once we recognize our goal clearly, we must advance with vigor and courage, and not retreat. Speaking of this, I remember when I first left home, I thought, "Left-home people are so numerous. Do they all understand the Buddhadharma? Do they all have a goal? When I investigated into this, I found that a great many left-home people had no wish to cultivate, and no wish to end birth and death; in fact, they didn't have much of a goal at all. They were just passing the time, "eating and waiting for death." Left-home people of this sort do nothing but add to the debts and burdens of Buddhism. They do not benefit Buddhism in any way.
I further discovered that Chinese Buddhists do not even realize what Buddhism is all about. The Buddha expounded the Sutras and proclaimed the Dharma all for the sake of letting future generations understand the Buddha's teaching. How should Buddhist disciples propagate the Buddha's teaching? As I thought about this, I observed that Buddhism never really took root in China. Buddhism in China is actually rootless, and thus it has not stood firm in the face of tests and oppression. Why is it rootless? Because it failed to recognize the foundation.
What is the foundation of Buddhism? The foundation of Buddhism is education! Education must start with the youngest children, instilling them with the knowledge of Buddhism, the wisdom of Buddhism, and the way of thinking of Buddhism. Then, at the very least, a child is raised to be a truly virtuous and fine citizen of the country and world. With a foundation for his thought and goals to guide his conduct, such a person will be able to vastly propagate Buddhism. In this way, the basic teaching of Buddhism will not be forgotten.
"People can propagate the Way; it is not the Way that propagates people." How can we propagate the Way? It is only when we have a goal, an ideal, that we can commit ourselves to do something.
As for the rootless Buddhism of China, it has neither a root nor trunk, and is merely spinning at the branch tips. The Buddhism of China consists of performing ceremonies to save the souls of the deceased. This is the superficial appearance of Chinese Buddhism. They never foresaw that as this went on, it would create a class of jobless vagrants who became Buddhists in order to get food. How pathetic! All they know how to do is to make money by performing ceremonies to liberate the souls of the deceased.
In performing such ceremonies, if you are a Sangha-member with real virtue, you don't need to recite Sutras or mantras. You simply tell the soul, "Go be reborn," and it will be reborn in the Land of Ultimate Bliss.
However, if you have no virtue and you are not careful in your conduct, what power do you have to liberate people? Actually, you are just getting into the donor's debt. Furthermore, the practices established by the Buddha are no longer followed.
For example, in China's Buddhism no one wears the precept sash on a daily basis. Why don't they wear the sash? Ah! If you ask them, they don't know why they don't wear it. Actually, Bhikshus and Bhikshunis should wear their sash at all times, and eat only one meal a day. But they have forgotten all of this. The idea is one hundred and eight thousand miles away from their memory, so they have no idea of the significance of wearing the sash and eating one meal a day.
In Chinese Buddhism, no one understands this. There might be one or two people who still wear their sash or eat one meal a day, but again, there might not even be that many in ten thousand. You could say they're rarer than fur on a phoenix or a horn on a female unicorn. They are as few as can be. If you ask them what appearance a Bhikshu should have, they haven't the slightest idea. Nowadays, in China and other countries, the vast majority of left-home people in Mahayana Buddhism do not wear their sash. Ah! They feel it's very natural, that this is the way it should be. Little do they know that by not wearing the sash, they no longer have the appearance of a Bhikshu.
"Well," they say, "Mahayana Buddhism is about Bodhisattvas, and Bodhisattvas who don't wear the sash are still Bodhisattvas."
Hah! Bodhisattvas also have to wear sashes, for they have to be especially adorned. You can see that Gwan Yin Bodhisattva, Universal Worthy Bodhisattva, Manjushri Bodhisattva, and Earth Treasury Bodhisattva all wear adornments on their bodies. Although these are just false marks, they represent something. Their adornments represent the adorning of Buddha-lands! So left-home cultivators should all abide by the rules. Don't drag your heels, or act in a crazy manner.
You say, "But the Old Monk Ji Gung was really crazy." Ji Gung pretended to be that way because he wanted to influence people to give food to the lunatics. That is, he wanted to teach ordinary laypeople not to look down on insane people, not to scorn them. Among the mentally disturbed, there are also those who manifest expediently, hiding their true identity as they teach and transform living beings.
Why is it that Mahayana Buddhists everywhere do not wear their sashes? It's because when Mahayana Buddhism spread northward, the northern climate was too cold for people to just wear the sash. They couldn't take the cold, so they had to wear clothing underneath the sash, right next to the skin. These undergarments kept out the cold, but when the sash was worn on top of them, it was easy for it to fall off.
When Buddhism had just been transmitted to China, probably those Bhikshus weren't very agile. Being sort of clumsy, they would lose their sash every once in a while. Once they lost it, since they had no money to make a new one, they had to go around soliciting donations, and this frightened the laypeople.
After a while, the left-home people held a meeting and decided, "This won't do. Our sashes frequently fall off, and it's hard to get new ones made. The Chinese people live frugally, and it's quite expensive to sew a new sash. If you lose your sash, it becomes a problem."
Then, in their meeting, a rather unintelligent Patriarch thought of a solution. He said, "I have an idea. We can sew a clasp and a ring onto the sash, and hook them together so that the sash won't fall off."
That's how the Chinese-style sash was invented. With the clasp and ring, the sash could now be worn without falling off. From then on, this became the model for the sash of left-home people. The sash originally had no clasp and ring. These were added on in China. You can see that monks from India wear the sash without a clasp and ring, they way they do in the Theravada tradition. From this, we know that when Buddhism is transmitted to a new place, many reforms are made according to the region and the customs of the people.
But in China, after the reforms were made, people regressed and stopped wearing the sash. This was because at that time, most of the left-home people of China farmed to sustain themselves. When they worked, it was rather inconvenient to wear the sash, so they took it off, and only wore the shirt. They set the sash aside when they worked, but after a while, they didn't wear it even when they were not working. Some people still adhered to tradition and put on the sash when they entered the Buddha Hall or took their meal.
But in the present-day tradition, people don't even wear the sash to take their meal or enter the Buddha-hall, yet they feel qualified to be left-home people. In fact, nowadays, left-home people in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Vietnam and all the areas of Mahayana Buddhism just wear a long robe and consider that to be the uniform and attire of a Buddhist. This is a big mistake! If a left-home person does not wear his sash, it's just as if he's returned to lay-life. He's no different from a layperson. Wearing a robe with an rounded collar doesn't prove that you are a left-home person. And even if you do wear your sash, you still break the precepts everyday, and are always dishonest. How much more so when you don't wear a sash!
So now, there is virtually no Buddhism in China, nor in any of the places to which "Buddhism" spread from China. They have all lost the original appearance of Buddhism. When I contemplated this situation, I wanted to reform the trend in China, but I knew that I was just an insignificant person whose words carried no weight. I didn't have any status, and nobody would listen to what I said. Even if I shouted until my throat was sore, no one would believe me. Therefore, I vowed that I would reconstruct Buddhism in the West, and make it flourish once again, so that people will recognize what Buddhism is all about.
So as soon as I came to America, I independently advocated wearing the sash and eating one meal a day. Since Americans constantly crave comfort and convenience, they didn't like it too much when they were told to wear the sash. Nevertheless, in America there were few left-home people who don't wear their sash, so I was able to advocate wearing the sash.
I also promoted the practice of eating one meal a day, because even before I left home, I ate one meal a day as a layman. And in all these years since I left home, I've always taken only one meal a day. Since I don't have any other virtue or cultivation, all I can do is teach those who leave the home-life under me to imitate my outward behavior. Those who leave home with me, be they men or women, must all eat one meal a day. I will accept a person only if he or she can eat only one meal a day. This is an iron-cast rule for those who leave home with me. It cannot be altered. No matter when, no matter how much pressure there is in a situation, it must not be changed. This is because I have promoted this style of Buddhism of wearing the sash and eating one meal a day for several decades already. I advocated it when I first came to America, and I'm still advocating it now. It's been several decades, and as people gradually get used to it, I believe they will really come to accept it in their hearts. Everyone will come to understand the way I've been teaching people.
Everyone knew about the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas' golden reputation of eating one meal a day. Whether they are walking, standing, sitting, or lying down, the left-home people at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas always wear their precept sash. They all own the requisites of three sashes, an almsbowl, and a sitting cloth, as prescribed by the precepts of Buddhism. It is indicated clearly in the Vinaya that there are ten kinds of merit and virtue that arise from wearing the precept sash.
Even if you are not greedy to get that merit and virtue, you should not be without the appearance of a left-home person . You may say, "I'm not greedy and I don't want that merit and virtue." You may not want merit, but you still have to have blessings. Blessings are accumulated bit by bit. No matter when it is or where you are, you have to foster blessings and wisdom. You have to nurture your own blessings and wisdom. If you don't cultivate blessings and wisdom, you won't be qualified to receive people's offerings.
Nowadays, people have unconsciously allowed a bad habit to turn into a trend, so that those who don't wear their sash are considered authentic, while those who wear it are considered fake. Those who wear their sash are criticized by others as being strange. The Buddha himself owned three sashes, a bowl, and a sitting cloth, and he always wore his sash. The Buddha's disciples were the same. But when Buddhism spread to China, they all stopped wearing the sash! Then in Buddhism people started saying that wearing the sash was wrong.
There is a story about when the students from mainland China first came to Taiwan. Because they were fleeing for their lives, none of the students, except maybe one or two, remembered to bring their diplomas. When they applied for college in Taiwan, they were at a loss when asked for their diplomas. So they searched everywhere to find a sample diploma. When they found a real one, they forged copies. They submitted the counterfeit diplomas to the Department of Education, and were then allowed to take the entrance exams and enroll in college. However, when someone submitted his authentic diploma to the Department of Education, they thought it was false. They said, "Everyone else's diploma is clean and well-kept. Why is yours all creased and torn up? You must have forged it and made it old and dirty-looking on purpose so that people wouldn't be able to tell."
So they refused to accept it. All of you, think about this: the fake ones are considered real, and the real one was thought to be false.
If left-home people do not wear the kashaya sash, it is the same as if they are going back to lay-life. Because Buddhism in China has become corrupt, I came overseas to proclaim that left-home people should eat one meal a day and wear the sash in accord with the Buddha's teaching.
At the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, we observed these rules of eating one meal and wearing the sash. If you recognized the true spirit of the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, you would rather die than change. You would think, "Do you want me to not wear my sash? Tell me to die, but don't tell me to not wear my sash! Tell me to die, but don't tell me to not eat one meal a day"
With that kind of solid samadhi power, that kind of faith, you are a true member of the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. Once I recognize my goal, I won't waver from it even if I have to die. Even if by entering the Chan Hall without my sash, I could get enlightened as soon as I sat down, I wouldn't dare do it!
As for wearing the sash, in mainland China not only did they not wear the sash during Chan Sessions, they didn't wear the sash at any time. There wasn't any monastery where people wore the sash. They had already gotten used to it. If people don't wear the sash, then they lose the appearance of a Bhikshu. The long robe and the robe with big sleeves that they wear are the attire of the Tang dynasty. They weren't originally part of Buddhism.
What proof is there of this? Take a look! The monks of the Theravada, even today, still wear their sash at all times. Why don't they wear the sash in China? It's very easy to understand. It's because Chinese people are very industrious. They do a lot of physical labor. As soon as they go out to work, the sash becomes an inconvenience. So when people go out to work, they take off their sash and work in the robe that is under the sash. Since the sash was very messy and cumbersome and got in the way in their work, they stopped wearing the sash.
After a long time had passed, they got used to it. They started thinking that the inner robe in which they slept was the proper attire for left-home people. Actually, they were just keeping the attire of the Tang dynasty. The clothing of ordinary, worldly people had already changed in style, while the left-home people held onto old ways and didn't alter the Tang dynasty attire. They came to regard it as the special attire of left-home people, but that's a complete mistake. If you don't wear the sash, then you're nothing but a worldly person with a shaved head. You're not a left-home person! Why not? You're too casual. In your every move and gesture, you don't even know that you're a left-home person.
During the Chan Sessions, of course they didn't wear the sash. The precept texts say, "The sash should not leave one's body." The three sashes, almsbowl, and sitting cloth should be taken wherever one goes. If you don't bring these things, then you're violating the precepts.
But if you ask the left-home people of today, which one of them can say that their sash never leaves their body? That is just the external appearance. It's not the case that wearing the sash makes someone a left-home person. If you wear the sash but you don't hold the precepts, then you still can't be considered a left-home person. You're just a Bhikshu who has violated the precepts, and that's even worse than being a layperson. So even when you wear your sash, you often indulge in idle thoughts of lust and wild fantasies. If you didn't wear the sash, well, I don't think any one of you is a Bodhisattva, or a Hearer, or a Condition-Enlightened One.
There's also eating one meal a day. Why do I eat one meal a day? Starting from when I was young, I had this kind of thought: I wanted to stand in for all living beings and take their suffering, while giving all the blessings that I should receive to others. I wanted everyone's sufferings to be given to me to endure. When Japan attacked China, they captured the Chinese and put them in labor camps, where they had to toil and didn't get enough food to eat or enough clothes to wear, and were fed to dogs when they froze or starved to death.
Seeing the people of China going through that kind of misery, I realized there were many people in the world who didn't have anything to eat. So I began to eat only one meal a day. When I was eating three meals, I could eat five bowls of rice in one meal. When I later began eating one meal a day, I only ate three bowls of rice, so I saved twelve bowls for people who didn't have any food to eat. In such a cold place as Manchuria, I was willing to wear only three layers of cloth even when it was raining in the winter. That way the cloth and cotton that I saved could be given to people who didn't have any clothes to wear. That's how I came to eat one meal a day. Later I left the home-life, but since it's not that cold here in America, I haven't set any limitations on clothing. As for food, the people who leave the home-life with me, be they male or female, all have to eat only one meal a day and help me save some food for those who don't have any food to eat.
In China there wasn't any place where they ate one meal a day. When they held a Chan Session in China, it could have been called an Eating Session. They had three tea breaks and four meals, with a snack of dumplings on top of that. They even ate dumplings at night. If you claim you can still work diligently like this, I don't believe it. I already feel it's a lot of trouble to eat just one meal a day. Yet you eat four meals, plus dumplings in the evening! In China's Buddhism, they call the evening meal "taking medicine." That is called "plugging up your ears and stealing a bell." That is cheating yourself and deceiving others. They want to eat at night, so they call it "taking medicine." That's Buddhism in China--a Buddhism which cheats people. I had no way to reform it.
In America, I've established an overseas tradition that's totally different from the Buddhism in Asia. In America, the people enjoy too much luxury. Because their lives are so comfortable, even if the left-home people have steamed dumplings and buns to eat, no matter how good their food is, it still won't be as good as the food enjoyed by laypeople. Oh! The laypeople can feast to their heart's delight on seafood and fancy meat dishes. Therefore, I have promoted the practice of eating one meal a day to counteract this kind of luxury. Americans all like to enjoy luxury.
I didn't come here to speak Dharma for the Chinese. I came here to teach Americans. The target of my teaching is Americans; Chinese people are just incidental. I came from Asia, thousands of miles away, to America, all by myself, utterly alone. Coming right into the heart of this territory dominated by other religions, I advocated the practice of eating one meal a day as an antidote to their comfortable lifestyle. If you can eat one meal a day, then you can leave the home-life. If you cannot eat one meal a day, then you are not qualified to leave the home-life. That's eating one meal a day.
As for wearing the sash, in China, I cannot tell whether or not those "left-home people" have really left the home-life. I simply do not know. Anyone can shave his head and make a few incense burns and call himself a left-home person. There isn't anything distinctive about their appearance. That's why I require every left-home person at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas to wear the sash. Upon coming to America to be a pioneer for Buddhism, I promoted the practices of wearing the sash and eating one meal a day.