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Archive → August, 2011

Interview with Chan (Zen) Buddhist Master Gu Dao

“Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.” The Buddha

The Puli Temple at Dongshan is undergoing a major AUD$10 million dollar facelift and will become a modern meditation and well being retreat. All that remains of the old temple complex at Dongshan is this 'scripture hall' that dates from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). There are a number of older heritage structures (tombs, bridges, pavillions) scattered throughout the temple land.

In December 2010 I visited the the Chan (Zen) Buddhist Puli Temple (普利庙) in Dongshan (洞山) in Jiangxi Province (江西省), one of the most important temples in the Dongshan sect of Chan Buddhism (known as ‘Soto’ in Japanese). You can read about that visit by following this link. During the visit I took the opportunity to interview Master Gu Dao (古道), the current Abbot and supervisor for the reconstruction project. Master Gu Dao is typical of many adherents who became interested in Buddhism in the 1980s as part of the first post-reform religious revival. A short biographical account is included in the interview below.

Note: The following translation is my own work and any inaccuracies or errors are my own fault and certainly not those of Master Gu Dao! Some of the discussion does tend to get a bit esoteric, as you would expect when dealing with a philosophy and corpus of knowledge as rich as Chan Buddhism (I myself have only scratched the surface and see the deep wells of thought and wisdom before me). I have done my best to simplify the discussion and make it more readable to a novice audience. Any comments from the more well informed are extremely welcome!

GS: Gary Sigley

GD: Gu Dao

GS: Master Gudao thank you very much for the invitation to visit Puli Temple and spend some time with yourself and the others. It is truly a very beautiful location. This morning as we took an early stroll I was struck by the symbolic significance of the construction site. It seemed to me that the piles of rubble are a broader metaphor for Chinese society in general. By which I mean in the process of China’s rapid modernisation we are literally surrounded by constructions sites. And even the Puli Temple is a construction site, not even a remote temple can avoid the reach of so-called ‘modernisation’. But here the metaphor takes on a new meaning, a new twist as it is not a shopping mall or flash apartment complex that is being built. Instead from the rubble a Buddhist flower is emerging. This seems to me to be very timely and significant. For just as in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), modern China is entering a golden age in which we also are witnessing a significant revival in Buddhism [GS: and other religions and belief systems]. It seems to be a very auspicious time to visit the temple what with yesterday’s lunar eclipse taking place just as we arrived and today being the birthday of the former abbot, Master Miaozong, who did so much to restore the temple in the 1980s. As Chinese people are very fond of saying it seems with ‘have yuan and have fen’ (有缘有份) [GS: that is, have a karmic connection and heavenly alignment for a ‘chance’ meeting]. Can you start by telling us something about the similarities and differences between the indigenous Chinese concept of dao (道) and the Buddhist concept of foxing (佛性)?

One of the only worship halls in operation at Puli Temple during the construction. During this time the monks, only a few in number at this stage, follow their own regimen.

GD: In China the term (character) ‘chan’ [禅, zen] came to represent a particular approach to Buddhism, chan is an abbreviated form of ‘chanding’ [禅定] which means tranquility and concentrated meditation, referring to a process of practice and training [gongfu 功夫], which is encapsulated in the concept of si chan ba ding [四禅八定, GS: dhyāna in Pāli being the language of many of the earliest Buddhist scriptures] [GS: that is, the entering of a peaceful and contemplative state in preparation for persuing aesthetic practice or what is know in Chinese as xiuxing 修行]. But when it came to China this particular practice came to represent an entire school of Buddhism [fofa 佛法], namely ‘Chan’. The reason for this is actually intimately connected to indigenous forms of Chinese thought such as those of Laozi [Lao Tse or Lao Tzu] and Zhuangzi [Chuang Tzu] [both of whom created/added to indigenous systems of religious and philosophical thought in China before the arrival of Buddhism]. According to Chinese thought ‘dao’ [道] already exists, it is not something that you bring into existence through cultivation, but rather something you ‘realise’ [wu 悟], that is ‘to be enlightened’ [juewu 觉悟], and to live a life according to the natural flows of the dao. According to Buddhism ‘foxing’ [Buddhata or the buddha nature, 佛性] is something that everyone possesses, it is not something that you develop through cultivation. Everything living thing has its own Buddha nature. So the concept of dao and foxing have, on the surface, much in common. Some say that they are the same thing, that the East has Saints [shengren 圣人] and the West has its Saints, and that they are simply finding different ways to express the same thing. Whatever it is it is intangible and has no form, you can’t see or touch it, you can only experience it [tihuidao 体会到]. When you have experienced it [that is, come to know it] your life will be very natural, free and unrestrained. It doesn’t mean you will become an immortal and live forever. Some Daoists have claimed that this is what they are striving for, but for me this is just an projection of a human desire for immortality. In Buddhism we refer to the notion of ‘transcending the cycle of life and death’ [liao sheng tuo si, 了生脱死]. The Buddha clearly said that ‘that which is born must die’. So how is it then possible to ‘transcend the cycle of life and death’? So when Buddhism came to China the Chinese practictioners interpreted foxing as dao and Chan Buddhism was created. And what’s more Chan professed to have techniques and practices which were not the same as the methods used in China up until then. It forwarded the notion of ‘sudden enlightenment’ [dangxia juewu, 当下觉悟]. Although in fact the there are very few instances of ‘sudden enlightenment’ and most practitioners have to follow a diligent regime of meditation and practice … and then one day it happens. The way to reach this state is through tranquil meditation in which all desires and thoughts are discarded. By the Song Dynasty the koan [chanhuatou禅话头] became a means of raising doubts with the self [GS: a koan, the term is Japanese, is something like a ‘thought bubble’ in the form of a story, question or statement that seeks to challenge ‘commonsense’ and encourage the practitioner to ‘think outside of the box’. A famous koan is ‘the sound of one hand clapping’]. For example a practitioner may focus on the question ‘what is the Buddha?’ not expecting an answer but using this focus on a single question to the extent that all else in the mind is removed until only the question remains … and then one day at a moment of ‘enlightenment’ even that question is removed and all there is left is the void [kong 空]. Only then can one realise the dao.

Note: Click this link to hear the monks chanting at breakfast: Dongshan Breakfast Chant 22-12-2010

GS: Can you please share with us something about your own background and how is that you came to ‘walk this road’ so to speak?

A cd jacket for the film The Shaolin Temple. How many young Chinese boys rushed off to the Shaolin Temple after watching this film? Quite a few I suspect!

GD: When I was young I didn’t know anything about Buddhism. But I did have a great fondness for kungfu [wushu, 武术, martial arts]. I didn’t know exactly what kind of kungfu I was studying, it was just kungfu! But then the movie The Shaolin Temple [1982] came out and everything clicked I knew that I was studying Shaolin kungfu [GS: the moving Shaolin was Jet Li’s great debut and a very popular film at the time, one of the first mainland kungfu films to be produced after the Mao period]. After finishing school I went off to join the army. One of my army comrades came from a village near the Shaolin Temple. Like everyone in his community he could do kungfu. So I studied with him. After I left the army I went to Shaolin to learn more. But I wasn’t so good at kungfu and ended up become a monk! [GS: not all Shaolin monks turn out to be like Bruce Lee!] I started reading and learning about Chan Buddhism and thought this was very interesting and what I wanted to pursue. There is a Buddhist sect in Zhejiang known as Tiantaishan (天台山) (Heavenly Terrace Mountain). It is a very old sect that dates back to the Sui Dynasty [581-618 AD, the short-lived dynasty which preceded the Tang]. The sect observes some of the most ancient meditative practices in Buddhism in which practitioners focus on their breathing as a foundation for self-cultivation. In my opinion out of all the Buddhist sects the Tiantaishan sect offers the clearest instructions in this regard. The thing is that ‘Chan’ can be so abstract, so difficult to comprehend. Where is your starting point for ‘getting into Chan’? The Tiantaishan practices reminded me of what I learnt in kungfu insofar as they incorporated a step by step process starting from the basic kungfu up to higher levels of practice. Its clarity of method appealed to me very much. So even though I was born into the Chan Buddhist sect I have much respect and admiration for the Tiantai Buddhist sect.

GS: I hear that you followed the path of the ancients and became a hermit [yinshi, 隐士] for some time. Can you tell us something about your experiences as a recluse?

Kongdongshan, Gansu Province, home to many temples and many hermits over the centuries.

GD: That’s correct. I closeted myself away in many remote places to practice [修行]. The longest time was for a period of one year. My most memorable moment was a six month period of reading and meditating in 1992 when I was staying on Kongdongshan [崆峒山] in Gansu [甘肃省]. My simple residence was perched atop a massive precipice and gorge. I had to fetch water once a week. Life was very simple indeed. One day about three months into my aesthetic regime, some time in the afternoon, I was medidating on my breathing following the Tiantai sect method, and suddenly I was not aware of my body anymore. For much of the preceding time given the aches and pains of sitting for long periods it was hard not to notice your body, but suddenly it was gone and my breathing was all that existed, as if it became part of heaven and earth itself. This was not ‘enlightenment’ [悟] or anything like that mind you, it was the reaching of a physical state through rigorous practice. I felt extremely peaceful and quiet. It was a very delicate and sublime feeling [微妙]. Time meant nothing and when I came out of meditation ten hours had passed without even knowing it. Then I had a simple meal of rice and beans and practiced taiqi [太极拳] on the terrace with a majestic scene of mountains and gorge in the background. I then went back to meditating and enter the same ‘zone’ again for another ten or so hours. This then became my routine for the next two months. I never felt tired or the need for sleep. It was quite incredible and one of the most cherished experiences in my life thus far. So now I know from my own experience that this state described by the Buddha and other masters that followed can be achieved. I now also hold at some hope, indeed I’m certain, that the state of enlightenment can also be achieved.

GS: Your experience is very interesting and, if I may say, a bit like the experience of spirituality in China since the onset of reform in the late 1970s. Within China it seems to me there is a spiritual awakening taking place, but it is something that is coming from behind the frantic and rapid economic development and social change that has been unfolding. The lives of many people in China have improved very much at the level of the physical. But life is also become more stressful and frantic, especially in the big cities and populous centres. People are searching for something more than materialism to give their lives meaning. And many are turning to religion to find that ‘something’.

Exercises from the Yijinjing (易筋经).

GD: If you examine Chinese history you see that at times of sustained social stability and economic prosperity, such as during the Tang but also other periods, there is also a great deal of cultural and religious activity. I feel that the current period is a bit like that. But in fact this period exceeds the other periods in terms of its scale, in terms of overall wealth and size of the population, and significance, both for China and the rest of the world. And of course at times like this people naturally turn their attention to metaphysical questions of life and existence. People are also becoming more concerned about their health, and rightly so what with all the pollution and food safety issues. You can see in the cities the growth of interest in things like yoga for example. Yoga in some circles has become quite fashionable [GS: there are now a number of good yoga retreats in and around Beijing for example servicing the local Chinese and expatriate communities]. We have a lot of respect for yoga as it is a practice from which some of our meditative exercises derive. But it also retains a great deal that we seem to have lost over time. For example the famous Shaolin practice of yijinjing] [易筋经, the muscle and tendon changing classic, for a video demonstration go to this youtube link] brought to the temple by Bodhidharma [GS: the Indian monk who travelled to China in the 5th/6th Century and is credited with transmitting Chan Buddhism and establishing the training regime for the monks as Shaolin] is based on yoga but over time changed so much that it is only now remotely related to the original core yoga practices. So in 2006 our Master [Nan Huaijin 南怀瑾] invited a famous yoga teacher from India to provide advanced instruction. Afterall the ‘sichan bading’ [四禅八定] taught to us by the Buddha has its origins in ancient Indian practices. But although yoga has become popular many people simply look upon it as a physical exercise to trim fat and get in shape. But that is not why we study yoga. We study yoga so we can soften our bodies and control our breathing, so we can obtain the physical stamina to continue our meditative practice. Yoga provides an excellent foundation for doing just that. So we firmly believe in the intimate connection between mind and body and that the body is the foundation for working on ‘the mind’ so to speak.

Construction worker at Puli Temple.

 GS: This brings us now to the topic of what is happening here at the temple, for I understand that there are plans to turn the temple into a kind of ‘mind and body retreat’. When did you first come here?

GD: I arrived at the temple in February of this year [2010]. I had been here once before in 2006 and stayed for twenty days. At that time the previous abbott, Master Miaozong, had passed away and the temple was very quiet. I couldn’t stay any longer as we had a large project on lake Taihu (Suzhou, Jiangsu Province) that needed my attention. But then I was approached by the local county government and asked if I could return to supervise the reconstruction and expansion of the temple.

Inspecting the Tang Dynasty monk graves on the temple complex. The temple has quite a bit of land for cultivation and Master Gudao hopes to get it active and productive in the years to come as part of the Chan Buddhist tradition of 'back to nature' and 'self sufficiency'.

GS: It is certainly a very large project. What is the total scale?

GD: About 60 million Chinese yuan [approximately $10 million Australian Dollars]. Most of the funds come from funds raised through our association, through the contributions of students and disciples of our Master.

GS: Did the local government contribute anything?

GD: Yes. They contributed to the costs of the design and planning, approximately one million Chinese yuan. They also contributed much ‘in kind’ such as upgrading the electricity network, providing more land and so on.

GS: What is the motivation behind the local government’s involvement in the project?

GD: Firstly it is motivated by cultural concerns. Yifeng County is one of the cradles of Chan Buddhism and therefore historically and culturally significant in terms of heritage value. Many Chan Buddhist masters and sects, such as Caodongzong which comes from this temple, have their origins in and around Yifeng. The second motivation is to promote tourism into the area. The expressway from Nanchang [the capital of Jiangxi] will pass very close by and I believe plans are on the books for a high speed rail as well. The local government has been very generous. In other places where I have resided and practiced, such as in and around Xi’an, to get anything from the local authorities such as land or financial support is extremely difficult.

A ceremonial bell amongst the rubble. We look forward to the day that the sound of the bell replaces the sound of the jackhammer!

GS: So what is the ultimate goal with the project here? How long will it take?

GD: It is all to do with the Caodongzong teachings which place great emphasis on meditational practice and respect for tradition. I hope here in the reconstructed and expanded temple to build two meditation halls in which we will combine Caodong meditation and yoga exercises. We will teach people, of all ages and backgrounds, about the benefits of meditation, yoga and a simple life which will include the growing of our vegetables and food, healthy and green. I want the temple to earn its income in this way and not in the way many temples do these days by offering outrageous ceremonies for contacting the deceased, fortune telling, burning expensive incense, and other forms of, what I regard as, hocus-pocus and superstition, not to mention waste. This is the dream I have brought to the temple. It’s a big project and is giving me a lot of headaches but I’m sure it will be worth it in the end.

GS: I’m sure it will! And I wish you all the best and hope to return when the construction is complete and see what ‘Flower of Buddha’ is blooming here.

An artists rendition of the new Puli Temple.