A Brief Appreciation of the Life of Xu-Yun
by Don Webley
The Ch’an (Zen) Master Xu-yun was bom in Quanzhou Prefecture in Imperial China on August 26, 1840, to live nearly 120 years. The loss of his mother during his own birth was a wound that never healed. This early intrusion of mortality set the stage for the rest of his life, for, from his earliest years, Xu-yun was impressed by the suffering of life and the futility of born existence, and was moved to transcend it. His autobiography is full of almost casual references to what would be for most of us unimaginable trials, yet he seems to have given them less thought than a summer cold.
Xu-yun was raised by his stepmother and other relatives. From the tenderest age, he had a profound aversion to worldly matters, and formed an early desire to take up the monastic life. However, when he was ten years old, he was betrothed to two girls from nearby Fujian. At sixteen he tried to run away to a monastery, but was quickly apprehended by his father’s agents. His fiancees were sent for and he was placed under virtual house arrestsentenced to the householder’s life! However, he lived chastely with the two girls, and at nineteen stole away again to Yung-quan Monastery, where he was ordained.
Xu-yun followed an ascetic regime for three years, hiding himself in a grotto behind the monastery in case his father should come looking for him. Finally, however, he was informed that there was no longer any danger from that source, and that the Master had said that it would be good for him to rejoin the community and become involved in its life of service. For four years he performed various services at the monastery, but he finally decided that such work was hindering his practice, and returned to the grotto. His own words best describe the life he led for the next three years:
“During those years, my food consisted of pine needles and green blades of grass, my drink, the water of the mountain streams. As time went by, my trousers and shoes wore out and I had only my robe to cover my body. My hair and beard grew to over a foot in length and I wore a top-knot on my head. My eyes became bright and piercing so that those who saw me took me for a mountain spirit and ran off ” 1
During this period he had many unusual subtle experiences. Xu-yun paid them no mind. At the end of this time, he was visited by a monk who asked for Dharma instruction. Suddenly struck by his own ignorance, Xu-yun in turn asked the monk to suggest a good teacher.
The teacher was Yang-jing of Long-quan Temple. Xu-yun quickly made his way there and bowed before the Master, who ignored him. Xu-yun begged, “I have come to implore your instruction and hope you will have pity on me.” The Master looked at the dishevelled figure in front of him for a long time and asked, “Are you a monk, a Taoist or a layman?”
Xuyun replied, “A monk.”
“Have you been ordained?”
“I have received the full ordination.”
“How long have you been in this condition?”
After Xu-yun described his austerities, Yang-jing asked, “Who instructed you to pactise this way?”
Xu-yun replied, “I did it because the ancients attained enlightenment by means of such austerities.”
Yang-jing said, “As I see your current practice, you are like a heretic and entirely on the wrong path, having wasted ten years’ training. If, by staying in a grotto and drinking water from mountain streams, you managed to succeed in living ten thousand years . . . you would still be far from away from the Tao . . .
“If your method merely consists of abstaining from cereals and in not even wearing trousers, it is only a quest for the extraordinary. How can you expect such a practice to result in perfect achievement ?” 2
Yang-jing had put his finger on Xu-yun’s strategy. Xu-yun prostrated once more to the Master, who, perhaps in response to Xu-yun’s appearance, gave him the koan, “Who is dragging this corpse?” Xu-yun remained with Yang-jing for two years before leaving, at his Master’s instruction, to receive teachings from other schools. Four years later, at age thirty-five, he took final leave of Yang-jing and began a series of pilgrimages which would last until his Realization at age fifty-six. As in Tapasviji’s case, the record of his travels is awesome: He describes journeys on foot throughout all of Eastern China, Bhutan, Tibet, India and Sri Lanka, and back to China again, much of the time carrying a burning stick of incense. He came near freezing to death on at least two occasions, and survived other perils too numerous to mention.
Xu-yun’s ruthless determination and utter indifference to obstaclesor to the body’s sufferingis nowhere better illustrated than in his description of the trials leading up to the ultimate, and quintessentially Zen-like, event of his sadhana. He was then fifty-six years old. He had been invited by the abbot Yue-lang of Gaomin Monastery at Yangzhou to come and help him supervise a twelve-week meditation retreat. On his way there, he came to a river where the ferryman refused him passage because he did not have the fare. He continued on, hoping to be able to cross elsewhere, but then suddenly slipped and fell into the river, remaining in its floodwaters until he was rescued twenty-four hours later by a fisherman. As he was wearing a robe, the fisherman took him to the nearby Bao-ji Temple, where he was revived.
As might be expected, Xu-yun became extremely ill. Blood flowed from his mouth, anus, and genitals. Nevertheless, after a few days, he continued on to Gaomin monastery, where the director of affairs, noticing that he was rather thin and pale, asked him whether he was unwell, to which he replied, “No.” He then called on the abbot, who assigned him a job for the meditation period. Rather than plead illness, he simply politely declined the job. However, according to the monastery’s rules of order, to refuse to do a task assigned by the abbot was an affront to the whole sangha, or community. Xu-yun was therefore punished by being beaten with a wooden ruler, which aggravated his illness, causing him to bleed continuously. He did not protest, however, nor did he retire to the infirmary. Rather, “Waiting for my end, I sat firmly in the meditation hall day and night with increasing zeal. In the pure single-mindedness of my meditation, I forgot all about my body.” 3 Twenty days later his illness vanished completely.
Shortly thereafter, the abbot of the monastery where he had been taken after his accident came with an offering of garments for the assembly, and was delighted to see how much better Xu-yun looked. He then spoke of what had transpired, and all the monks were astonished and held him in great esteem. He was relieved of all obligations and thus permitted to devote all his time to meditation. He had extraordinary visionary experiences during the next few weeks, but paid them no mind. “Knowing that this experience was only a temporary state I had attained, I did not pay undue heed to its strangeness.” 4
Towards the end of the eighth week, at the close of the evening meditation, the attendant monk came around to fill the monks’ teacups. He accidentally poured boiling water over Xu-yun’s hand. Xu-yun dropped the teacup, which fell to the ground and broke with a crash. “instantaneously,” he relates, “I cut off my last doubt [about my own Self] and rejoiced at the realisation of my cherished aim.” 5 Though now fifty-six, Xu-yun was to live another sixty-four years, abandoning his body in his one hundred twentieth year, in 1959.
[ Master Xu-yun, in 1959, age 120, Mount Yun-ju,
Jiangxi Province. Yun-ju was the site of
Zhen-ru Monastery; the last he helped restore.]
1. This quotation and (except where noted) all biographical information on Xu-yun in this article is from Charles Luk, trans., Empty Cloud: The Autobiography of the Chinese Zen Master Xu-yun; revised and edited by Richard Hunn (Shaftesbury, Dorset, England: Element Books, 1988). The quotation is from p. 5.
2. Ibid., p. 7.
3. Ibid., p. 38.
4. Ibid., p. 39.