By Daniel Scharpenburg
A brief history lesson:
Ch’an Master Xu Yun lived to be 120. He lived from the mid 1800s until the mid 1900s and never traveled to the West—but many westerners traveled to the East to learn from him and his influence is felt here.
At the age of 19, he ran away from home to become a monk. This means he spent 100 years studying and practicing the Dharma full time—that’s longer than any teacher I can think of.
His teachings helped Ch’an Buddhism survive into the modern age. He is given credit for keeping Ch’an alive in a time when it could have easily fallen apart. The changes China went through during his lifetime were enormous.
Xu Yun’s philosophy is heavily characterized by four things.
One, he was a strong proponent of the Hua tou—a method of meditation. Two, he was known for giving the same amount of respect to layman as to monks. He said that laymen were as capable of attaining Enlightenment as monks. In some lineages of Buddhism, there are those that disagree, that think that monks are the only ones capable.
Three, he talked about Enlightenment.
In many Buddhist traditions, discussing the actual experience of Enlightenment is frowned upon. Master Xu Yun wanted to guide people to perceiving the Empty Mind ground and he didn’t think there was a problem with talking about it in simple and direct ways.
Four, he gave teachings in a way that few other Masters do. He was a proponent of a letter writing tradition. Many of his students met him only once and some didn’t meet him at all. He gave teachings through extensive correspondence.
So, why am I writing about him?
I hadn’t heard about him until I discovered the International Ch’an Buddhism Institute. This organization exists as an effort to spread traditional Ch’an teachings and to network with other Buddhists through the internet and through other methods of distance communication.
Shi Da Dao is a Ch’an teacher in the lineage of Xu Yun. He runs this organization and he has brought the letter writing tradition that Xu Yun used into the modern age. He gives me teachings through email and correspondence.
It sounded like a bizarre way to give teachings until I understood it in the context of the way that Xu Yun taught.
The way he explained and expressed the dharma really spoke to me.
I had found my teacher.
Editor: Dana Gornall