Road to Heaven

‘One of the nuns at Lungwang Temple told us that Yuan-chao was living in an adobe hut on a small plateau that had been leveled off for Kuan-yin Temple’s future shrine hall. We followed the nun up the slope to Yuan-chao’s hut. She was sitting cross-legged on her k’ang, an adobe bed with a built-in oven common throughout northern China.
As I walked in, she said, “You’re back. Good. Now we can talk. Last time I wasn’t sure. Now I know you’ve come for the Dharma.” I was glad I had made the effort to visit her again. She was eighty-eight, but I’ve seldom talked with anyone as alert. She was born in Chilin Province in northeast China into a family of six generations of doctors. Her grandfather was a Buddhist monk, and her father also became a monk. She became a novice at sixteen and graduated from the Buddhist academy in Peking. Afterward, she returned to the northeast, where she established four Buddhist academies. I asked her why she left northeast China and came to the Chungnan Mountains.
Yuan-chao: I was tricked. It was Chih-chen, the abbot of Wolung Temple in Sian, the one who chants the Diamond Sutra thirty times every day. He came to visit me in 1953, and when I went to see him off at the train station, he shoved a ticket in my hand and put me on the train with him. I arrived in Sian with nothing, not even a change of clothes. He wanted me to stop working and to practice instead.
Later I took over as abbess of Tsaotang Temple. When the Red Guards came, I told them to go away. I didn’t let them in. If I had, they would have destroyed Kumarajiva’s stupa. I was ready to die. That was a long time ago. Finally, temple life got to be too much for me, and I moved to Kuanyinshan. That was ten years ago. I thought it would be a good place to die. Last year, I decided the front side of Kuanyinshan wasn’t quiet enough, too many people hiking to the peak, so I moved to the back side. People still visit me, though. Two weeks ago, several university students came up and spent a week with me studying the Avatamsaka Sutra.
Q: I understand you practice Tantric Buddhism?
Yuan-chao: Yes, but there aren’t many of us left. Very few people practice Tantra anymore. I first studied in Peking with the sixtieth incarnation of Gung-ga Buddha, the head of the Red sect. It’s not the same as the Yellow sect of the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama. The Tantric path is shorter and faster. I was in a hurry to die, so I studied the Tantric path. I’m still waiting to die, just waiting for the fire.
Q: Is Tantric practice similar to Pure Land practice?
Yuan-chao: Tantric practice is closer to Zen. It’s the pinnacle of Zen. But it’s not for ordinary people. It’s like flying an airplane. It’s dangerous. Pure Land practice is like driving an ox cat. It’s safe. Anybody can do it. But it takes longer.
Yuan-chao had taught Buddhism to so many students for so many years, I think she had her lectures memorized, or at least her quotes, which she chanted. From my bag, I took out a sheet of calligraphy paper and asked if she would write down for me the essence of Buddhist practice. She put the paper aside, and I didn’t raise the subject again. Two months later, back in Taiwan, I received the sheet of paper in the mail with four words: goodwill, compassion, joy, detachment. Her calligraphy was as strong and clear as her mind.’

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