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Thursday, August 3, 2006

At the Feet of Master Ji Qun

Learning from the Master

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to drink tea with Master Ji Qun, described to me as one of the great Chinese monks of the 21st century.

Given the chance to ask him questions, I began with some queries about his work. This soon led to a discussion of how the dharma is experiencing a new birth in China, a sort of "Buddhist Renaissance." (Picture from his homepage)

Here are some notes on what was said:

Following the opening reforms of some of the great monks of the 20th century (such as Taixu and Hongyi), the Cultural Revolution was a tragic setback to the cause of Buddhism. It resulted not only in the destruction of numerous monasteries, but, perhaps more devastating, it left few monks capable of teaching the Dharma properly. In his efforts to help re-establish the teachings, Master Ji Qun has traveled all over China, as well as to Australia and Singapore.

I asked who his audience was; he replied that he had generally spoken only to Chinese people. When I asked if he would take his mission to America, he thought about it for a moment, then (I think wisely) replied that with just some effort in China, he was able to achieve great results; but that even with much effort in America, the result would be small.

I joked that when he was "finished with China," we would love to have him in America. He "got it," but answered with gracious thanks for the invitation.

In speaking further about the content of his mission, Master Ji Qun pointed out that the so-called "Cultural Revolution" had damaged not just Buddhism, but many aspects of Chinese culture. He felt that part of his calling was to re-establish not just the dharma, but the cultural matrix in which it had flourished. Thus temples would become centers for the revival of many aspects of culture. [master Hsing Yun of Fo Guang Shan had much the same philosophy.]

Furthermore, with a shortage of qualified teaching monks, he saw the advisability of training up lay teachers to carry the dharma into the broader culture.

He was surprised at the nature of my questions; he had expected me to be asking how to improve my life, not how he was going to improve the spread of the dharma. 

At the end of our tea, before most of us went outside for dinner (and Master Ji Qun returned to the temple), he told me that he had an Institute in Suzhou, and invited me to come visit. I promised that I would. [And in later years I was at the temple where it was located, and left again--before realizing that was the place. Dang.]

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That evening, after we had all returned from the Hermitage (where we had tea) to the main temple, the Master was conducting a Question and Answer session with the kids. Following are my notes on Diego's translation of some of the more interesting Q&A:

Q: How can one be happy?
A: Know who you are.

Q: Who are you?
A: There is no me. [lifting his tea cup] "My" cup has no [intrinsic] relationship to me. Just so, my body is not "mine" in any real sense. It came to me as the cup came to me. This is simply the result of Cause and Effect. When we view a photo of ourselves, we may point to it and exclaim, "That's me!" But the photo is not me, and just so the body is not me, because there is no me--only a concept of me.

Q: How can one have a calm heart?
A: 1. Simple life, simple heart.
.....2. Don't care too much about things; move through life like a bird passing through the sky, not clinging to anything.
.....3. Let Dharma teach us wisdom.
.....4. Pray or sit daily.

Q: How can I help other teenagers study Buddhism?
A: First, be a light to those around you. Everyone has Buddha Nature, even if you don't see it. Give sunshine to others. Tell them why you are happy. Recommend books or homepages. Use Dharma to help others.

Q: What is the meaning of the expression, "Put down your knife and become a Buddha"?
A: The Buddha was once approached by a man holding a lotus in each hand. He told the man to put down the lotus in his left hand, then to put down the lotus in his right hand. He then told him to put down the rest [of the lotuses?], but there were no more. The Buddha was referring to the things that we carry in our hearts. [NB: I cannot find this story; any help out there?]

Q: What can we do about the stress of study caused by competition?
A: Take care of your health. [NB: Seems mundane, and yet...?]

Q: I often have nightmares. How can I prevent them?
A: Train yourself by thinking positively in the daytime; your dreams are often a continuation of your daytime thoughts.

[The next was from my young friend Brian]:

Q: What does the Heart Sutra mean when it says "Form is emptiness; emptiness is form"?
A: [After a few other words on the idea that what we call something is just a convention.] For example, what is the significance of a name? You use different names when using email and QQ, but "you" are still "you." The change of name changes nothing.

Q: Did God create man, as other religions teach?
A: The Buddha did not consider this a useful question. When a man is shot by an arrow, he does not need to know who shot it, or what the arrow is made of, or what kind of bow was used; rather, he must attend to the arrow. [A well-known illustration from the Pali Canon, Majjhima Nikaya, Sutta 63, among others]

At the end of the session, I asked permission to put one question to Master Ji Qun. Here it is:

Q: If you could give these young people one piece of advice on how to live a good life, what would it be?
A: Cherish your life; Grasp the present; Learn the Dharma. [I have paraphrased this: "Make the most of your life; Live fully in the present; Seek wisdom."]

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It was a great opportunity to learn from this wise monk, and I hope we will have a chance to meet in the future.

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