Venerable Master Hsu Yun (Traditional Chinese: 虛雲大師, Simplified Chinese: 虚云, Pinyin: Xū Yún Da Shi, “empty cloud”) (1840-1959) was a renowned Ch’an master and one of the most influential Buddhist teachers of the 19th and 20th centuries. Although many aspects of his life (particularly his great longevity) are disputed by historians and Zen scholars, this article attempts to give an accurate biography, based largely on his own writings and those of his colleagues and successors in Dharma.
Hsu Yun was born on April 26th in Fukien, in Imperial China. His mother died during childbirth. He was adopted and made heir to his childless uncle. Ultimately, his grandmother decided he should take two wives, to continue both lines of the family.
His first experience with Buddhism was during the funeral of his grandmother. Soon afterward he began reading the Sutras, and later made a pilgrimage to Nanyo. When he was fourteen years old, he announced that he wished to renounce the material world in favour of a monastic life. His father did not approve of Buddhism and had him instructed in Taoism instead. He found two girls to be his wives. Hsu Yun lived with them, but did not consummate either marriage. From the start, Hsu Yun was dissatisfied with Taoism, which he felt could not reach the deeper truths of existence. He secretly studied the sutras and taught Dharma to his wives.
When he was nineteen, Hsu Yun fled with his cousin Fu Kuo to Kushan monastery at Fuchow. Here, his head was shaved and he received ordination as a monk. When his father sent agents to find him, Hsu Yun concealed himself in a grotto behind the monastery, where he lived in austere solitude for three years. At the age of twenty-five, Hsu Yun learned that his father had died, and his step-mother and two wives had entered a nunnery.
During his years as a hermit, Hsu Yun made some of his most profound discoveries. He visited the old master Yung Ching, who encouraged him to abandon his extreme asceticism in favor of temperance. He instructed the young monk in the sutras and told him to be mindful of the koan, “Who is dragging this corpse of mine?” In his thirty-sixth year, at the encouragement of Yung Ching, Hsu Yun went on a seven-year pilgrimage to P’u T’o Island off the coast of Ningpo, a place regarded by Buddhists as the bodhimandala of Avalokiteshvara. He went on to visit the monastery of King Asoka, and various other Ch’an holy places.
At age forty-three, Hsu Yun reflected on his achievements. He regretted his abandonment of his family, and went on a pilgrimage to the Five-Peaked Mountain of the northwest, the bodhimandala of Manjushri. Here, he prayed for the rebirth of his family members in the Pure Land. Along the way, Hsu Yun is said to have met a beggar called Wen Chi, who twice saved his life. After talking with the monks at the Five-Peaked Mountain, Hsu Yun came to believe that the beggar had been an incarnation of Manjushri.
Having achieved singleness of mind, Hsu Yun traveled west and south, making his way through Tibet. He visited many monasteries and holy places, including the Potala, the seat of the Dalai Lama, and Tashi Lunpo, the monastery of the Panchen Lama. He traveled through India and Ceylon, and then across the sea to Burma. During this time of wandering, Hsu Yun felt his mind clearing and his health growing stronger.
Hsu Yun composed a large number of poems during this period.
Old Age and Enlightenment
After returning to China, the fifty-five year-old Hsu Yun stayed at the monastery of Gao Ming (now Gaoming temple) at Yangzhou, where he studied the sutras. One day he slipped and fell in a river, and was caught in a fisherman’s net. He was carried to a nearby temple, where he was revived and treated for his injuries. Feeling ill, he nevertheless returned to Yangehow. When asked by Gao Ming whether he would participate in the upcoming weeks of meditation, he politely declined, without revealing his illness. Gao Ming regarded this as a great insult, and had Hsu Yun beaten with a wooden ruler. He willingly accepted this punishment, although it worsened his condition.
For the next several days, Hsu Yun sat in continuous meditation. In his autobiography, he wrote: ” the purity of my singleness of mind, I forgot all about my body. Twenty days later my illness vanished completely. From that moment, with all my thoughts entirely wiped out, my practice took effect throughout the day and night. My steps were as swift as if I was flying in the air. One evening, after meditation, I opened my eyes and suddenly saw I was in brightness similar to broad daylight in which I could see everything within and without the monastery..” Soon, Hsu Yun claimed to have achieved Enlightenment, which he described as being like “waking from a dream”.
From that time until his death, Hsu Yun worked as a bodhisattva, teaching the precepts, explaining sutras, and restoring old temples. He worked throughout Asia and did not confine himself to one country. His large following was spread across Burma, Thailand, Malaya, and Vietnam, as well as Tibet and China. Hsu Yun remained in China during World War II and following the rise of the People’s Republic of China, rather than retreat to the safety of Hong Kong or Taiwan.
Shortly before his death, Hsu Yun requested of his attendant: “After my death and cremation, please mix my ashes with sugar, flour and oil, knead all this into nine balls and throw them into the river as an offering to living beings in the water. If you help me to fulfil my vow, I shall thank you for ever.” He died the following day on October 13th, 1959, reputedly at the age of one hundred and twenty.
Hsu Yun was one of the most influential Ch’an masters of the past two centuries, and arguably the most important in modern Chinese history. Though Ch’an Buddhism’s global importance would later decline dramatically, to be almost totally eclipsed by Japanese Zen, the teachings of Hsu Yun have persisted within Asia, and he is still a major figure of Pure Land Buddhism in East Asia. Outside of China, the influence of his teachings is strongest in Southeast Asia, particularly in Vietnam and Myanmar, as well as the Americas, where his teachings were transmitted through Venerable Master Hsuan Hua.