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115: TWO BUDDHIST MASTERS: XU YUN

July 4, 2016

#115:  TWO BUDDHIST MASTERS: XU YUN.  I first ran across Xu Yun in Bill Porter’s book Zen Baggage (Counterpoint, 2010), one of my very favorite travel books, in which Porter goes north to south across China, visiting the six originating monasteries of Ch’an (or, as we know it, Zen), and in the process casting a wary but hopeful eye on the fortunes of Buddhism in contemporary China. Xu Yun was one of the most revered Buddhist masters of the twentieth century, a man of deep meditative practice and profound commitment to the moral teachings; but he was also, at an age when most of us have become comfortable and hobbity, the indefatigable spirit behind the restoration of any number of Buddhist monasteries, both in architecture and practice.  This having been in the twentieth century, Xu Yun’s work took place in the midst of the military, revolutionary and political upheavals of contemporary China, of which he came to bear many a physical scar but also seems to have met with a remarkable mix of rectitude, patience and—not an attribute we always connect with religious leaders—finesse.

       Perhaps inevitably, the long life of Xu Yun (he is said to have lived to a hundred and twenty) became mythologized, and reading about him can begin to beg, particularly insistently, the question of the border lines, not only between history and hagiography, but between traditional religious beliefs and the narrower confines of the Western rationalism most of us grew up with.  In the two-volume Pictorial Biography of the Venerable Master Hsu Yun, by Hsuan Hua (Buddhist Text Translation Society, 2003) we are met with straight-up hagiography, with premonitory dreams, miraculous blooming flowers, various animals who embrace the dharma, spirit possessions (once by the spirit of a camphor tree), marvelous feats of strength, all redacted with reverence and belief, and illustrated in the straightforward style of those oblong little comic books that are the staple of any Chinese flea market.  In contrast, in the intelligent and patient study La Construction de la Saintete dans la Chine Moderne: La Vie du Maitre Bouddhiste Xuyun (Paris, Belles Lettres, 2013), the scholar Daniela Campo examines the printed sources of Xu Yun’s life and tries to sort out the verifiable from the embellished.  She shaves a few decades off of Xu Yun’s proposed age, and moderates a few of the more extravagant tales, but mostly she strives to come at a complex and thought-out examination, as the title suggests, of the construction of sanctity:  whether the life is reimagined and retold in terms of certain familiar hagiographic themes and images, or whether indeed the life comes first and the images are its inevitable and recurring result.

        The effect of reading the two books side by side is almost that of seeing two Xu Yuns, the hagiographic and the scholarly.  One of the shocks of reading the Pictorial Biography is acclimating yourself to the flow of miracles and then seeing a character in the military uniform of the Boxer Rebellion, and being reminded that this story takes place largely in the twentieth century.  Fortunately, in helping to bridge these two almost contradictory figures, the voice of Xu Yun himself survives and is available in English.  In Charles Luk’s Ch'an and Zen Teachings: First Series (Shambhala, 1970) there are a hundred pages of Xu Yun’s Discourses and Dharma Words, in which a profundity of spirit and a lovely steeping in the lore of Ch’an are set out with a wonderfully appealing cloak of modesty.  And there is Empty Cloud: The Autobiography of the Chinese Zen Master Xu Yun, translated by Charles Luk (Element Books, 1988), which must certainly be one of the most valuable and appealing spiritual autobiographies of the twentieth century.  (Neither book is common, but texts of both are available online.)  In the autobiography we find all the remarkable events attributed to Xu Yun, and we can settle with them as each of us will; but we also find the man who navigated the animosities and sectarian madnesses of twentieth century China and rebuilt many of its monasteries, shared their resources and food with the starving, faced the violent with equanimity, and restored the religious practices of an untold number of monks and lay people.  Maybe the virtues, the miracles even, of the twentieth century still resemble those of the past.

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