In Memory of my Master: A Mentor for all Buddhists
Written by Dharma Master Cheng Yen in 2005
Two thousand five hundred years ago, Shakyamuni Buddha, the fundamental teacher for all Buddhists, attained enlightenment and began teaching people about the truth of the universe. After the Buddha entered nirvana, his disciples assembled to compile his teachings into scriptures. They asked Ananda, the Buddha’s attendant noted for his excellent memory, to recite by heart all the lectures that the Buddha had delivered before he passed away. These sacred teachings were originally passed orally from generation to generation, and they were later collected and written down in formalized scriptures called sutras. Eventually, monks brought the sutras from India to China and translated them from the original Sanskrit into Chinese.
Because our language and culture have changed so much since the sutras were written, they have become too esoteric for ordinary people to understand. To help people in modern times comprehend and use these classic texts, we must rely on wise and knowledgeable Buddhist teachers to translate them. Master Yin Shun, widely known as “the Mentor,” was exactly this type of teacher. He possessed the wisdom and ability to translate the original sutras into plain language that all could understand. In this way, he promoted a humanized understanding of Buddhism that could benefit all people.
Master Yin Shun was born in China a century ago. Although he lived in a turbulent and chaotic time, he persistently focused on studying and understanding the true nature of Buddhism. Not only did he make the sutras accessible to all, but he also profoundly incorporated his own wisdom into the interpretation of the Buddha’s teachings and successfully promoted a new understanding of Buddhism. For close to eighty years, the Mentor shed light on the path of Right Thought [a core component of wisdom within the Noble Eightfold Path] and helped lead people suffering from delusion and ignorance onto the correct path of enlightenment. The Mentor was like a spring that nourished our wisdom-life, fed our hearts, and purified our minds. He opened up a clear path for those seeking the Way and kindled the light of wisdom for numerous Buddhists.
The Mentor kindly accepted me as his disciple over forty years ago. At that time, he instructed me to be committed to Buddhism and to all living beings. Ever since, I have endeavored to bring the Buddha’s teachings into people’s everyday lives, to show everyone that they can emulate the Buddha’s compassionate behavior by rolling up their sleeves and helping the needy, and to help them become living bodhisattvas through the daily concrete practice of humanized Buddhism.
The laws of nature will always take their course. Although the Mentor had led a long life of 100 years, his passing was still natural and inevitable. My heart was heavy and I grieved over his death. However, I was also very grateful to my master, who used his life to promote humanized Buddhism and teach us to work for all living beings in a positive and constructive way. Although we bid goodbye to his mortal, physical body with utmost sincerity, we ought to welcome with a joyful heart the eternal spirit and wisdom of the Mentor that continues to guide us. I trust he will be reborn into this world soon.
Encountering my Master
Over forty years ago, a stroke suddenly took away my father’s life. I was so shocked that for several days I couldn’t even cry. Not long after his death, my father was buried. Looking at his coffin being gradually covered by soil, I kept asking myself, “Where did my father go? Is anyone keeping him company? Why is life so fleeting? What is the value of life?” My father’s death raised within me so many questions about life.
This camp students will spend the morning learning about stress, how it affects our bodies, and how to reduce it. We will learn about mindfulness and practice stress reduction strategies including yoga. In the afternoon, students will learn the causes of climate change. They will then apply their understanding to consider how they can make lifestyle changes to fight it.
Hoping to find answers to these questions and learn the meaning of life, I began to study Buddhism. At the age of 25, I decided to leave home and become a nun. Having seen that all Buddhist nuns shave their heads, I shaved my own head. I had no idea that I was making a big mistake because according to Buddhist etiquette, only a nun’s dharma master can shave her head for the first time. After that, she is allowed to keep doing it herself. In 1963, I traveled from Hualien to Taipei to register for the precept-granting ceremony [a kind of one-month novitiate for prospective monks and nuns]. Unfortunately, I was told that I wasn’t qualified to attend the novitiate even if I looked like a nun. The key problem was that I had no Buddhist master.
Just when I was about to leave Taipei, some nuns approached me. They thought it would be a pity for me to miss the precept-granting ceremony just because I had no dharma master. They suggested that I ask any monk or nun present to accept me as a disciple. However, I didn’t feel that such an important decision should be taken so lightly. My master would be a spiritual guide and a beacon for the rest of my life. I told the nuns I would rather take my time to find my master than accept someone hastily just to participate in the ceremony.
Because the only Buddhist text I had at that time was the Lotus Sutra, I considered purchasing The Complete Teachings of Master Tai Hsu to study back in Hualien, since many people told me that I would learn the core essence of the Buddha’s teachings by studying the books. After returning to the Bodhi Lecture Hall where I had stayed the previous night, I bumped into Master Hui Yin. She informed me that the books I was interested in were available at the Huiri Lecture Hall. She was even kind enough to show me the way to the hall.
When we arrived there, Master Hui Yin told me that her dharma master, the Venerable Master Yin Shun, happened to be there, and she asked if I would like to meet him. I was surprised at my good luck. I had read Master Yin Shun’s “Brief Introduction to Buddhism,” and the wonderful book had made a very deep impression on me. “Yes, I would very much like to meet him,” I replied eagerly.
Along with Master Hui Yin, I happily went to the reception room and prostrated myself before the venerable master. Master Hui Yin explained to him, “She was here for the precept-granting ceremony, but she’s going home now.”
“If she hasn’t gone to the ceremony yet, why is she leaving?” Master Yin Shun asked. Hui Yin explained my situation to him. After the short conversation, we left the reception room to purchase the books for which I had originally come.
However, when I went to get the books, we found the room where the books were stacked was locked. Master Chang Jue, the monk responsible for the books, went off to get the key. Eventually, I was able to get the books in which I was interested. After I had bought them, packed them up, and prepared to leave, it suddenly started raining heavily. Master Yin Hai, the rector of the lecture hall, asked us to wait while he called a taxicab for us.
As we were waiting, I happened to see Master Yin Shun walking out of the reception room. “Could I become a disciple of your Mentor?” I asked Master Hui Yin. She said it was unlikely, because he rarely accepted disciples. Nevertheless, I begged her to check it out for me. “If I have a special karmic relationship with him, I’ll be accepted as his disciple. If not, I’ll agree to simply go back home,” I added.
In response to my request, Master Hui Yin caught up with Master Yin Shun. They exchanged a few words. He looked at me and nodded his head with a smile. Master Hui Yin waved at me, and I quickly walked toward them.
The time was almost noon. The Mentor said to me, “The registration for the novitiate will be closing very soon. While there is still time, present yourself before the Buddha.” I hurriedly prostrated myself before the Buddha’s statue and then to my master. Master Yin Shun continued, “The karmic relationship between us is very special. Since you want to become a nun, you should be committed to Buddhism and all living beings. I give you the dharma name ‘Cheng Yen.’ Now please go to the ceremony immediately.”
The moment I received my dharma name, I swore that I would give my whole life to Buddhism and all living beings. Three years later I established the Tzu Chi Foundation in eastern Taiwan. I knew that if I really wanted to do something meaningful in this world, I would most certainly encounter many difficulties. That turned out to be true. But no matter what kind of difficulty I met, the Mentor’s instruction, “Be committed to Buddhism and all living beings,” would pop into my mind and give me the courage to persevere.
A Moment of Eternity
On April 20 this year , we happily celebrated the Mentor’s 100th birthday in Hualien. Sadly, one month later, on May 20, he was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU). He had been ailing and feeble for some time, and he spent most of the time in the ICU asleep.
On the night of May 24, the Mentor’s breathing became irregular, his blood pressure plunged, and his heart rate dropped to 50 beats per minute. The doctors said his condition was unstable, but the next day, his heart rate, blood pressure, and other physiological readings returned to normal.
On June 2, the Mentor was connected to an EEG (brainwave) monitor. The EEG readings indicated that he was in a deep sleep instead of a coma. This meant that there was a chance he might wake up. I was so happy when I heard this news that I said to him, “Master, please try harder. We long to see you smile again!”
At dusk the following day, I was in a meeting at Tzu Chi University. Suddenly, I had a strong impulse to see the Mentor. I excused myself and asked everyone to continue the meeting without me. Although his heart rate and blood pressure were all normal that day, the EEG had become flatter, his pericardial effusion had worsened and he couldn’t urinate.
When I learned of the conditions that the Mentor was enduring, I made up my mind to say out loud what was really in my heart, something which I had never dared to do before: “Master, if your time to go has not yet come, you must remain strong. We will never give up on you. But if your time has come, we will all be with you here.”
As soon as I had finished speaking, the doctor pointed to the EEG. He explained that the Mentor’s brain wave had suddenly fluctuated with my voice. This meant that he was still conscious. “Grandmaster heard you,” the doctor reassured me.
Thinking that the Mentor’s condition was quite stable, I attended the volunteers’ morning gathering on June 4. At a few minutes past nine, doctors from the hospital called to inform me that the Mentor’s condition had drastically deteriorated. I immediately left the Abode and rushed to the hospital. When I arrived, I practically ran into the intensive care unit.
By the time I had arrived, his heartbeat had dropped to 42 beats per minute. I stood beside his bed trying to catch my breath. I bent down and whispered, “Master, please be at peace, we’re all here.” At that very moment, an indescribable facial expression suddenly appeared on his face, as if he were saying goodbye to me. No sooner had I finished my words than the monitor alarm went off, indicating the Mentor’s heart rate had dropped to zero. It had all happened in less than a minute.
When I returned to Hualien from the precept-granting ceremony, I found myself separated from my master by Taiwan’s Central Mountain Range. Many times, since then, I wondered why I couldn’t have stayed closer to him, given our intimate karmic relationship. And it wasn’t just physical distance that separated us, either. Whenever I stood before him, ever mindful of his noble position and erudition, half of me would be filled with respect and half of me filled with awe. I was so eager to ask him questions about the Buddha’s teachings, but I was worried that I might offend him by misunderstanding his words (he spoke with a strong Zhejiang accent that I found difficult to understand.) I didn’t dare talk to him too much about the difficulties that I encountered in my work for fear that I might disturb his serene and peaceful mind with secular affairs.
And yet, every time I traveled to western Taiwan, I always went to visit him, even if the time we spent together was relatively short. In [the years close to his passing], the Mentor stayed in Hualien Tzu Chi Hospital for treatment. During this time, I had the blissful opportunity to take care of him.
I had always thought that the unique karmic relationship between the Mentor and me was merely based on a fleeting chance meeting. But a few seconds before the Mentor entered into nirvana, I suddenly realized that our relationship was so close that I had been with him at each and every second since our first encounter over 40 years ago. For the rest of my life, I will always bear that insight, that moment of eternity, in mind.
Perpetual Peace of Mind
The Mentor always seemed to live in a state of tranquility and joyfulness. He never let his physical discomfort show, and he always wore a smile. He smiled for his doctors, regardless of whether they were speaking to him of his medical condition or the weather outside. He smiled for the nurses as they attended to their duties. Although he slept more and more as time went by, he fell asleep with a smile and woke up with one too. Even though his eyes were closed most of the time in the ICU, he still could sense when people approached him, and he greeted them with a smile. Just picture how joyous, serene, and carefree his mind was.
After a lifetime of diligent and serene spiritual cultivation, the Mentor calmly and peacefully left the world. The Buddha came to this world and entered nirvana at the age of 80; the Mentor passed away at the age of 100. To live so long is truly rare. Although we’re very sad at his passing, we must be very grateful. How blessed we are to have been able to live at the same time as the Mentor.
I escorted his body from Hualien to Hsinchu. It was the first time I had accompanied him from eastern Taiwan to the west, and it would be the last. We often travel far and wide in our lives, but in the end, we always come back to where we begin. The Mentor returned to Fu Yan Abode, the first institute he founded for promoting the Buddha’s teachings in Taiwan. I had mixed feelings in my heart as I accompanied him home for the last time.
I am grateful to the medical team of Hualien Tzu Chi Hospital for taking care of the Mentor respectfully and mindfully, day and night. Because of the team’s hard work, I was able to focus on Tzu Chi missions without worrying about the Mentor’s illness. I am very grateful to the Tzu Chi members in Taiwan who assisted with the funeral. I am also very thankful to all the members of Tzu Chi around the world. With their cooperation, they were able to conduct memorial services to pay their last respects to the Mentor on the same day we paid our respects in Taiwan.
After the Mentor passed away, we changed his clothes. Though I tried to lay his hands across his stomach, one on top of the other, his right hand kept sliding down to his side. Suddenly, I was struck by the significance of this position! It was the same position as that of the Buddha sprinkling the world – with one hand holding a bowl of water and the other cleansing the earth.
This was the last wordless lesson that the Mentor gave me. I know that my master, a Mentor for all Buddhists, will return to this world again. He has vowed to redeem people from the suffering of the world.
I am forever grateful to the Mentor for illuminating the path of Right Thought. He rectified many misleading concepts about the Buddha’s teachings by promoting a humanized understanding of Buddhism. His teachings have truly benefited the world. Humanized Buddhism must be passed on from one generation to the next. Let’s pray with our utmost sincerity that the Mentor’s wisdom can continue to exist in the world forever.