“I have had many names,” he once said, “and all of them are false.” In his youth in Manchuria, he was known as “the Filial Son Bai;” as a young monk he was An Ci (“Peace and Kindness”); later, in Hong Kong, he was Tu Lun (“Wheel of Rescue”); finally, in America, he was Xuan Hua, which might be translated as “one who proclaims the principles of transformation.” To his thousands of disciples across the world, he was always also “Shi Fu” — “Teacher.”
For ten years he devoted himself to study of the Buddhist scriptural tradition and to master the major schools of Mahayana Buddhism, including the Esoteric and Chan Schools. He also read and investigated the scriptures of Christianity, Taoism, and Islam. At the age of thirty, he went to the Fa Yu temple at Pu Tuo mountain and received the ordination of a Buddhist monk. By this time, he had already established through his own experience what he later called the “three great vows” of his ministry in America: the primacy and establishment of the monastic tradition; creating institutions of education; and the translation of the Buddhist sacred texts (Sutras) into English and other languages.
In 1948, Master Hua traveled south to meet the Venerable Xu Yun, who was already 109 years old then and China’s most distinguished spiritual teacher. Master Hua then left China for Hong Kong. He received the patriarchal transmission in the Wei Yang Lineage of the Chan School from the Venerable Xu Yun in 1956. He spent over ten years there, first in seclusion, then later as a teacher at three monasteries that he founded.
Finally, in 1962, several of his Hong Kong disciples invited him to come to San Francisco. By 1968, Master Hua had established the
Buddhist Lecture Hall in a loft in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and there he began giving nightly lectures, in Chinese, to an audience of young Americans. His texts were the major scriptures of the Mahayana. In 1969, five of his early American disciples took full ordination, thereby initiating the Master’s wish to establish an indigenous sangha in the West. Since then, hundreds of monks and nuns have trained, studied, and ordained under his guidance.
In 1984, Master Hua founded the Dharma Realm Buddhist Association (DRBA), which serves as the umbrella organization for the monasteries, schools, temples, and all of the activities conducted as part of his legacy.
As an educator, Master Hua was tireless. From 1968 to the mid 1980’s he gave many lectures every week, and he traveled extensively on speaking tours. He continued to travel and lecture until late in life. He also established the Sangha and Laity Training Program (SLTP), Instilling Goodness Elementary School, Developing Virtue Secondary School, and Dharma Realm Buddhist University (DRBU) at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas (CTTB), and the Institute for World Religions, in Berkeley.
Master Hua manifested “stillness” on June 7, 1995.
The Dharma name of the Elder Venerable Master Hsuan Hua was An Ci (Peace and Compassion), also known as Tu Lun (Liberate [from the] Wheel [of Rebirth]). He was the Ninth Patriarch of the Wei-Yang Chan (Chinese Zen) School of Buddhism and was granted the Dharma Seal of the Wei-Yang lineage from the elder Venerable Master Xu Yun. The Master's Dharma-Transmission name was Xuan Hua (Proclaim and Transform), but he often referred to himself as "a living dead person", or "the Monk in the Grave." Throughout his life, he never wanted fame or profit, and he had no desire to contend with others even more so. Instead, he said that he would rather be "a little bug," or "a small ant" beneath the feet of all living beings, and used his body as a stepping stone for living beings who sought to transcend from commoners straight to the ground of the Buddha.
The Venerable Master, a native of Shuangcheng County of Jilin Province, was born on the sixteenth day of the third lunar month in the year of Wu Wu at the beginning of the century. His family surname was Bai and his name was Yushu. He was also called Yuxi. His father, Bai Fuhai, was diligent and thrifty in managing the household. His mother, whose maiden name was Hu, ate only vegetarian food and recited the Buddha's name every day throughout her life. When she was pregnant with the Master, she prayed to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. The night before his birth, in a dream she saw Amitabha Buddha emitting a light so radiant that it penetrated heaven and shook the earth.
Shortly after, she gave birth to her youngest son. When the Master was born, the room was filled with a rare fragrance. For three days and nights the Master cried continuously, a sign of his deep sympathy for beings suffering birth and death in this Saha (defiled) world.
As a child, the Master followed his mother's example and ate only vegetarian food and recited the Buddha's name. The Master was quiet and untalkative by nature, but he had a righteous and heroic spirit. At the age of eleven, upon seeing a neighbor's infant who had died, he became aware of the great matter of birth and death and the brevity of life and resolved to leave the home-life. At the age of twelve, he heard of how Filial Son Wong of Shuangcheng County (later known as Great Master Chang Ren) had practiced filial piety and attained the Way, and he vowed to follow the Filial Son's example. Repenting for being unfilial to his parents in the past, the Master decided to bow to his parents every morning and evening as a way of acknowledging his faults and repaying his parents' kindness. He gradually became renowned for his filial conduct, and people called him Filial Son Bai.
At fifteen, he took refuge under the Venerable Master Chang Zhi. That same year he began to attend school and mastered the Four Books, the Five Classics, the texts of various Chinese schools of thought, and the fields of medicine, divination, astrology, and physiognomy. During his student years, he also participated in the Moral Society and other charitable societies. He explained the Sixth Patriarch's Sutra, the Vajra Sutra, and other Sutras for those who were illiterate, and started a free school for those who were poor and needy.
When he was nineteen, his mother passed away, and he requested Venerable Master Chang Zhi of Sanyuan (Three Conditions) Monastery to shave his head. He was given the Dharma name An Tse and style name To Lun. Dressed in the left-home robes, he built a simple hut by his mother's grave and observed the practice of filial piety. During that period, he made eighteen great vows, bowed to the Avatamsaka (Flower Adornment) Sutra, performed worship and pure repentance, practiced Chan meditation, studied the teachings, ate only one meal a day, and did not lie down to sleep at night. As his skill grew ever more pure, he won the admiration and respect of the villagers.
His intensely sincere efforts to purify and cultivate himself moved the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas as well as the Dharma-protecting gods and dragons. The miraculous responses were too many to be counted. As news of these supernatural events spread far and wide, the Master came to be regarded as an extraordinary monk.
One day as he was sitting in meditation, he saw the Great Master, the Sixth Patriarch, come to his hut and tell him, "In the future you will go to the West, where you will meet limitless and boundless numbers of people. The living beings you teach and transform will be as countless as the sands of the Ganges River. That will mark the beginning of the Buddhadharma in the West." After the Sixth Patriarch finished speaking, he suddenly vanished. When his observance of filial piety was completed, the Master went to Changbai Mountain and dwelled in seclusion in the Amitabha Cave, where he practiced austerities. Later he returned to Sanyuan Monastery, where he was chosen to be the head of the assembly. During the period that he lived in Manchuria, the Master contemplated people's potentials and bestowed appropriate teachings. He awakened those who were confused and saved many people's lives. Countless dragons, snakes, foxes, ghosts, and spirits requested to take refuge and receive the precepts from him, changing their evil and cultivating goodness.
In 1946, because he esteemed the Elder Master Hsu Yun as a great hero of Buddhism, the Master quickly packed his belongings and set out on his way to pay homage to him.
During his arduous journey, he stayed at many of the renowned monasteries of mainland China. In 1947 he went to Potola Mountain to receive the complete ordination. In 1948 he reached Nanhua Monastery at Caoxi of Guangzhou, where he paid homage to Elder Master Hsu Yun and was assigned to be an instructor in the Nanhua Monastery Vinaya Academy. Later he was appointed as Dean of Academic Affairs. The Elder Master Hsu Yun saw that the Master was an outstanding individual in Buddhism and transmitted the Dharma lineage to him, giving him the Dharma name Hsuan Hua and making him the Ninth Patriarch of the Wei Yang Sect, the forty-fifth generation since the First Patriarch Mahakashyapa.
In 1949, after the completion of the Spring Precept Transmission, the Master bowed and bid farewell to the Venerable Master Hsu Yun and went to Hong Kong to propagate the Dharma. He gave equal importance to the five schools - Chan, Doctrine, Vinaya, Esoteric, and Pure Land-thus putting an end to sectarianism. The Master also renovated old temples, printed Sutras and constructed images. He established Western Bliss Gardens Monastery, Cixing Chan Monastery, and the Buddhist Lecture Hall. He lived in Hong Kong for more than ten years, and at the earnest request of living beings, he created extensive affinities in the Dharma. He delivered a succession of lectures on the Earth Store Sutra, the Vajra Sutra, the Amitabha Sutra, the Shurangama Sutra, the Universal Door Chapter, and others. In addition, he held various Dharma assemblies such as the Great Compassion Repentance, the Medicine Master Repentance, recitation sessions, and meditation sessions. He also published the magazine Hsin Fa (Mind Dharma). Every day he worked and travelled zealously for the sake of propagating the great Dharma, and as a result the Buddhadharma flourished in Hong Kong. During that time he also made several visits to Thailand, Burma, and other countries to investigate the southern (Theravada) tradition of Buddhism. He wished to establish communication between the Mahayana and Theravada traditions and unite the strength of Buddhism.
In 1959, the Master saw that conditions were ripe in the West, and he instructed his disciples to establish the Sino-American Buddhist Association (later renamed the Dharma Realm Buddhist Association) in the United States. He traveled to Australia in 1961 and propagated the Dharma there for one year. Since the conditions were not yet ripe there, he returned to Hong Kong in 1962. That same year, at the invitation of Buddhists in America, the Master traveled alone to the United States.
He raised the banner of proper Dharma at the Buddhist Lecture Hall in San Francisco. Because the Master started out living in a damp and windowless basement that resembled a grave, he called himself 'The Monk in the Grave.'
At that time the Cuban missile crisis occurred between the United States and the Soviet Union, and the Master embarked on a total fast for thirty-five days to pray for an end to the hostilities and for world peace. By the end of his fast, the threat of war had dissolved.
Dr. Ron Epstein, one of his early disciples in the U.S. recalls:
"In 1963, he left Chinatown and moved the Buddhist Lecture Hall to a first-floor flat on the corner of Sutter and Webster Streets on the edge of San Francisco's Fillmore District and Japantown. The Master's move marked the beginning of a period of relative seclusion during which he called himself "a monk in the grave." It lasted until 1968. He later continued to refer to himself in that way and wrote the following poem:
"Each of you now meets a monk in the grave.
Above there is no sun and moon, below there is no lamp.
Affliction and enlightenment--ice is water.
Let go of self-seeking and become apart from all that is false.
When the mad mind ceases, enlightenment pervades all.
Enlightened, attain the bright treasury of your own nature.
Basically, the retribution body is the Dharma body."
It was at that Sutter Street location that the Master first started having regular contact with young Americans who were interested in meditation. Some came to his daily public meditation hour from seven to eight every evening, and a few Americans also attended his Sutra lectures. He lectured there on the Amitabha Sutra, the Diamond Sutra, the Heart Sutra with his own verse commentary, the Song of Enlightenment with his own verse commentary, and also on portions of the Lotus (Dharma Flower) Sutra."
In July 1967 the Master moved the Buddhist Lecture Hall back to Chinatown, locating it in the Tianhou Temple. This marked the end of his "Monk in the Grave" period.
In 1968, the Shurangama Study and Practice Summer Session was held, and over thirty students from the University of Washington in Seattle came to study the Buddhadharma. After the session was concluded, five young Americans [Bhikshus Heng Chyan, Heng Jing, and Heng Shou, and Bhikshunis Heng Yin and Heng Ch'ih] requested permission to shave their heads and leave the home-life, marking the beginning of the Sangha in the history of American Buddhism.
With the founding of a new American Sangha, the Master was then ready to embark on an incredible building program for American Buddhism. The Venerable Master has explained that his life's work lay in three main areas:
1. bringing the true and proper teachings of the Buddha to the West and establishing a proper monastic community of fully ordained monks and nuns (Sangha) here;
2. organizing and supporting the translation of the entire Buddhist canon into English and other Western languages; and
3. promoting wholesome education through the establishment of schools and universities.
The Venerable Master dedicated his entire life to disseminating the Buddha-dharma. Undaunted by adversities, he strived without cease, and traveled to propagate the Buddha-dharma in various Way-place both domestic and overseas. Based on the compassionate vows of a Bodhisattva, he rescued and crossed over living beings until he fell ill due to persistent overwork. Finally he collapsed from illness.
In the afternoon of June 7, 1995, the Venerable Master manifested illness in Los Angeles. His worldly age was seventy-seven. When he was alive, he wanted neither fame nor profit. In his final instructions he said:
"After I depart you can recite the Avatamsaka Sutra and the name of Amitabha Buddha for however many days you would like, perhaps seven days or forty-nine days. After the cremation, scatter my remains in empty space. I do not want you to do anything else at all. Do not build me any pagodas or memorials. I came into the world without anything; when I depart, I still do not want anything, and I do not want to leave any traces in the world."
The Venerable Master said, "From empty space I came, to empty space I return." In fact the life of the Elder Venerable Master itself was a mandala for the great Dharma wheel of the Avatamsaka. Although he manifested Nirvana, yet, he still constantly spins the unending Dharma wheel: "with great kindness and compassion rescue all. Spare neither blood nor sweat, and never pause to rest." We can only offer this deep resolve to the infinite lands of Buddhas, and thus endeavor to repay the teacher's boundless grace.
Throughout his life the Venerable Master was totally selfless. He vowed to take the suffering and hardships of all living beings upon himself, and to dedicate all his own blessings and joy to the living beings of the Dharma Realm. He practiced what was difficult to practice and endured what was difficult to endure, persevering in his heroic and pure resolve. He was a candle that refused to be blown out by the gale, an irreducible lump of pure gold in the hot fire. The Venerable Master composed a verse expressing his principles:
Freezing to death, we do not scheme.
Starving to death, we do not beg.
Dying of poverty, we ask for nothing.
According with conditions, we do not change.
Not changing, we accord with conditions.
We adhere firmly to our three great principles.
We renounce our lives to do the Buddha's work.
We take the responsibility to mold our own destinies.
We rectify our lives as the Sangha's work.
Encountering specific matters,
we understand the principles.
Understanding the principles,
we apply them in specific matters.
We carry on the single pulse of the patriarchs'
From the time he left the home-life, the Venerable Master firmly maintained the six great principles - do not fight, do not be greedy, do not seek, do not be selfish, do not pursue personal advantage, and do not lie - bringing benefit to the multitudes. Teaching with wisdom and compassion, dedicating himself to serving others, and acting as a model for others, he influenced countless people to sincerely change their faults and head towards the pure and exalted Bodhi Way.
Living beings of the present have deep obstructions and scarce blessings indeed, for a Sage of the era has abruptly manifested passing into stillness. The living beings of the Saha world have suddenly lost their harbor of refuge. Yet the life of the Venerable Master is actually an enactment of the great Flower Adornment Sutra of the Dharma Realm. Although he has manifested entry into Nirvana, he constantly turns the infinite wheel - not leaving any traces, he came from empty space, and to empty space he returned. His disciples can only carefully follow their teacher's instructions, hold fast to their principles, honor the Buddha's regulations, and be ever more vigorous in advancing upon the path to Bodhi so that they can repay the Venerable Master's boundless and profound grace.