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#1622 - Thursday, November 20, 2003 - Editor: Jerry


Empty Cloud: The Teachings of Xu Yun

A Remembrance of the Great Chinese Zen Master

As compiled from the notes and recollections of Jy Din Shakya and related to Chuan Yuan Shakya and Upasaka Richard Cheung

Copyright 1996 by Nan Hua Chan Buddhist Society.  All rights reserved

 I will tell you about this remarkable man, this Empty Cloud whose presence so defined my life.  I will tell you things that I remember and I will do my best to transmit to you his Dharma teachings.  Perhaps if you learn from him you will be able to experience some of the joy I knew from knowing him.

 To be in Xu Yun's presence was to be in the morning mist of a sunny day, or in one of those clouds that linger at the top of a mountain.  A person can reach out and try to grab the mist, but no matter how hard he tries to snatch it, his hand always remains empty.  Yet, no matter how desiccated his spirit is, the Empty Cloud will envelop it with life-giving moisture; or no matter how his spirit burns with anger or disappointment, a soothing coolness will settle over him, like gentle dew.

 This is the Empty Cloud of Xu Yun that still lingers with us.  Time and the sun cannot destroy it, for it is the sun, itself; just as it is also eternal.

 Now I will tell you some of the history he and I share.

 During the 1920's, when I was still a boy, Xu Yun had not yet come to Nan Hua Monastery, the monastery which Hui Neng, the Sixth Patriarch of Chan, had founded near the town of Shao Guan, where I lived.  Shao Guan lies about one hundred miles north of Guang Zhou (Canton) in Guang Dong Province, which is in the south of China.

 In all the centuries since its founding in 675 AD, Nan Hua Monastery had gone through cycles of neglect and restoration; but when I was a boy, it was definitely in one of its neglected phases.  As I can clearly remember, it was much more like a playground than the shrine it is today.

 In those days, Shao Guan was a sleepy, little river-town, a place with not much for kids to do.  Going out to Nan Hua monastery was our equivalent of a trip to Disneyland.

 What made this Monastery playground even more exciting to visit was that no one seemed to be in charge of it.  About a hundred monks and a few dozen nuns lived there, but mostly they busied themselves with bickering.  Nuns argued with nuns.  Monks argued with monks.  Nuns argued with monks.  And the buildings of this great religious center were merely the places in which all these arguments took place.  It didn't seem to matter that the wood was rotting and the stonework was crumbling and the ironwork of the old red and white pagoda was rusting.  The decay had merely kept pace with the decline in monastic discipline.  Devout Buddhists, like my parents, would visit and put money in the donation boxes; and if the unruly boys they brought with them, like my older brother and me, climbed on ancient structures, or played hide and seek behind the sacred statuary, or ran through hallowed hallways, well, nobody objected.  To have restrained us from enjoying ourselves might have restrained the donations.  I suppose the monks figured that they already had to suffer with dilapidated buildings, so why should they risk worsening their problems with financial shortages.

 So we always had a good time whenever we went to Nan Hua.  We'd run across the Caoxi (Ts'ao Xi) River bridge and climb one of the nearby mountains in which there was a natural stone niche.  The Sixth Patriarch was said to have meditated in this niche.  We'd sit in it and laugh, imitating his pious posture.

 No wonder that the Sixth Patriarch appeared to Xu Yun in a vision and begged him to go to Nan Hua Monastery to straighten out the mess it had become!

 I didn't meet Xu Yun until 1934 when I was seventeen years old and he was in his sixties.  He looked then just like the photograph I have reproduced at the beginning of the text.  I'll tell you about this meeting.  But in order to appreciate it, you'll need to know a little more of my background.

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Contributed by Ben Hassine to NDS

Vicki Woodyard

Hershey Satsang

Most days I go around in bits and pieces.  Part of me thinks and part of me feels.  Even bigger parts fail to get up in the morning.  What can I do about living such a divided existence but admit it?

There is a really dumb part of me that tries to administer chocolate to the system.  It believes in the sugar solution to almost anything that life dishes out.  It is particularly fond of "good deals at the drugstore."  I hurriedly clutch a fifty-five cents off coupon for a bag of Holiday M & M peanuts.  I have paired it with a one dollar off coupon from CVS and so I cop a bag for a mere forty-five cents.  What the hips don't know won't hurt them.

Since I am on the spiritual path and give myself over to it for much of the day, why am I so easily conned into buying candy?  It goes hand-in-hand with the idea that I can make myself happy.  I have never been able to do that, but  try to convince the part of me that loves chocolate.  To her, bliss is a Kiss.  Ammachi, the saint from India, doles out Hershey Kisses to her devotees that come to her for darshan.  That makes me love her even more.  It is not enough that she hugs and heals us all; she throws in a sweet to boot.  I don't think God will mind.

The disjointed parts of my persona sometimes meet in the hallway of my central self and it gets dazed and confused.  "Hi, Vicki, want a Hershey Kiss?"  Self Number Two replies sleepily..."I just got up."  Self Number Three, the anal-retentive one, wants me to get back to a more nutritious eating plan.  What does she know?

You are wondering how I am going to square up kissticism and mysticism.  It's not hard when you are as mixed up as I am.  Think of me as a box of bridge mix and that will help you see how deeply confused I am.  I am one part nuts and three parts sweet (an optimistic ratio, I admit). 

Some of you reading this are saying, "Tsk, tsk, she needs to go cold turkey on her chocolate-eating compulsions.  That happens next week, when I will eat a cold turkey sandwich, followed by Kisses and pumpkin pie, etc.  And I will be having darshan with a chocolate santa before you can say Reese's Pieces.

Vicki Woodyard

David Bozzi

Bricks and Mortar

I have descended from the virtual
into a house built
of bricks and mortar.

A home away from home I built.

To reside far
from the

And were I to cast a stone
into this river of time,
my time well-spent

   may well have never mattered.

As such
this is the case
with my concerns and matters...

God willing
I could speak
the truth I know

but more important
the truth
I know not

and leave this house
my prison
to return

beyond these
bricks and mortar


there is nothing that I can say to let you know this !
there is a silence though, it holds no voices or thoughts
a clear open silence to just listen to the memories
there is no chanting, nor the sound of puja, nor the purana read
it is the silent communion of soul and lord
it is a listening silence that captures the mind
to listen so intently to silence that is this Mouni
a Mouni silence that listens only, so all else extinguishes
this is a yoga of a far away land and a black room
behind my eyes there is more light than is black
so black is the silence, I am as a loud light illuminating
Mouni Yog is what this silence is, it is so speechless
this yogi's kuti is the guru this evening, this black evening

Poetry from Shankara's Siva Recollections.

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from NDS News

The Syncretism of Tai Chi and Bach. "Moon Water" is not about meditation but is a meditation in itself. Mr. Lin has accomplished what creative artists rarely succeed in doing today: challenging the audience with a work unlike any other. Exquisitely and subtly, the entire spectacle on Tuesday night evoked water and moonlight as symbols of illusion. Outwardly all was slow: the extraordinary fluidity of the 18 magnificent dancers, reflected in the mirrored panels behind or above them, and the even more amazing slow tempos of the accompanying recordings by Mischa Maisky as he plays nine selections from Bach's cello suites. -more-

"Men who come to us are dead men walking," said Bobbett, 39. "Addiction has sucked the very life out of them and their families."... Deep in the woods five miles north of Bloomington, a dozen men, their lives in shambles, are trying to walk out of the darkness of addiction. ... Hebron bills itself as a "spiritual boot camp," where the hard daily work of digging trenches, hauling logs and making wood products is often easier than the spiritual transformation required of the men. -more-

PEAPACK, N.J.--(BUSINESS WIRE)--Nov. 20, 2003--Award-winning writer and noted marketing executive Donna Baier Stein announced today that TIFERET: A JOURNAL OF SPIRITUAL LITERATURE will launch its inaugural issue in January 2004, with international distribution. Featuring the work of celebrated writers, poets, and philosophers, this bi-annual publication will focus on the formerly underserved community of readers whose interests encompass the manifestations of spirit across a wide variety of literary forms. "We are providing a unique resource that will fill the gaps other publications and journals have not addressed," said Stein. "By articulating the connection between spirituality and literature we hope to create a magazine meeting place where the relationship between the physical and spiritual worlds can be explored by some of the best writers and thinkers of our time." -more-

Celebrating the virtues of wine. In ancient society, wine was considered a spiritual beverage. It made people feel the existence of God, and at the same time its red color symbolized blood and life. When men got drunk, it was not shameful. Naturally, a festival for Dionysus, the god of wine, was wild and lascivious. On the other hand, Romans perceived drinking by women as indicating infidelity and banned the practice. Wine was also a sacred offering to God. The ancients dedicated wine on altars, and every festival began with a glass of wine. -more-

Live Journal

An entry in a friend's journal got me thinking about the place where I am right now. She was writing about a lost sense of purpose, and I responded with the following comment:

"I like the
Zen concept of "Don't Know Mind." Clearing out all the junk of one's ideas of purpose or how things are supposed to be lets one experience things nakedly, without the interpretive framework. I've found that this entire year has helped me move further from an idea of "knowing my purpose." It's been a really freeing thing, though it can be difficult and scary at times. I think ideas of purpose or meaning can be useful constructs in helping one follow through a certain linear narrative in life, but in the end they're only tools. I see it such that if life is the water, "purpose" is like a serious of dams and constructions that control the direction of the flow. Useful when there's a certain place the flow needs to end up, but restrictive. I like grappling with the mystery, but it's hard to do that if and when I construct the understanding of my life such that there is a purpose or ultimate meaning and hence no mystery."

To elaborate on the comment I left: A hammer is good for driving in a nail; but if you use it too much and too agressively, you'll just hammer a hole right through the board. It's the same with an idea of purpose; it can drive one's life to a certain place it needs to be, but it can also drain life of its very essence, leaving it brittle and rigid. Another metaphor I think of is that an idea of purpose or direction can be like a life preserver for one who can't swim. It is terrifying to let go of it, but if one does, one finds that one was in a shallow part of the water where one's feet could have touched the sea floor the whole time. The life preserver seemed necessary, a matter of preserving one's life, but discarded, one sees that it was unnecessary and even a hindrance, leaving one grasping to it so tightly one was closing out the rest of experience.

I feel that when life brings us to one of these walls of purposelessness, it's giving us a chance to either set out on the path of carefully controlled flow toward concrete goals or set out on the path of Mystery. It seems that most people in our culture opt to force their lives into a certain construction instead of following the pull of the inner compass when the direction it points in is confusing, challenging, or scary. People hold fast to certain ideas of themselves and what their lives are supposed to be instead of letting life strip them of these ideas and letting themselves be naked, letting the courses of their lives flow freely. Focusing only on following the current of the present, without obsessing about the river's end.

As I told the same friend I left the comment for, sometimes I look at people hurrying everywhere and wonder, "What are they rushing to get to?" In truth, to rush forward in time means to rush toward one's death. As long as we are fixated in the future, rushing here and there, worrying about what we need to get done by a certain time and where we want to be in a number of years, we are hastening ourselves toward the inevitable: death. I don't want to live this way, in a career where I'm constantly busy and stressed about some future goal. Life is precious and I want to stop living it as if I'm hurrying its conclusion. I feel like the truest success in life is to be able to live fully in its flow, awake, aware, and awed by its nuances, with that deep, painful joy of conscious immersion in Itness. Letting one be a joyful witness to life's endless surprises, following it where it leads, instead of being a joyless, stressed out person in need of controlling it.

After making the decision to go on leave, I've been confronted with so many trembling fears of the ego. What will it mean to just be working for a paycheck at some job requiring minimal qualification, where no one knows me? What will it be like to function without the shell of the identity that has been draped around me for so many years: "Stephanie, the Academic Over-Achiever"? It means that I'm going to have to let go of all these ideas about who I am and the direction of my life that have accrued over so many years. I can see why so many people resist these times in their lives. What is left when you step out of the costume you've worn for so long? When you no longer are the object of the bragging of proud parents, or an intellect recognized by professors? When you're no longer a "future doctor," "future psychologist," "future lawyer," "future writer," or "future" anything? When you're just a working grunt scraping by for a living? By experiencing a life in which I am supporting myself day by day, I will be confronted with the naked, austere reality of "This is it." Those moments, those "this is it" moments--when one realizes that this is all life will ever be. There's no Hollywood ending with fireworks. Birth and death make life seem a linear progression, but it is not--it is a nuanced, cyclical experience that is but a tiny grain of sand in Time's hourglass.

I've become useless to the construct of living supported by academia. My heart has given herself over to a different mode of living. I am incredibly blessed and grateful that the Mystery has seeped into my life and seduced me away from the idea of living toward practical ends. I don't know where my life is headed. I don't know how I'll support myself or where I'll end up. I don't know what obstacles life will throw in my way. I don't know anymore who I am or who I'm supposed to be. But I'm only beginning... I want the Mystery to howl through my soul and destroy every last shred of perfectionistic goal-striving. I want to be utterly humbled. I don't want to live in perceived control over my life. I want to step down off the merry-go-round and let me be led by the mystery. Ever since God, Itness, or whatever you choose to call it first crept into my heart, nothing else has been able to compare. I may have quoted this poem from Rumi before, and I apologize if I have, but it's so apt:

"Heart, since you embraced the mysteries,
you have become useless for anything else.
Go mad, don't stay sane...

Go back to the desert;
leave this shabby town...

Go into the thicket of Reality like a lion."

-Rumi, excerpts from "This Useless Heart"
translated by Kabir Helminski

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Nonduality: The Varieties of Expression Home

Jerry Katz
photography & writings

Search over 5000 pages on Nonduality: