Recently I got a call from my Dharma sister: my preceptor is bedridden in hospital after suffering a stroke. His health had been deteriorating rapidly for the past half a year thanks to having suffered several physical accidents. The Venerable is also 93 years old, about a decade older than Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, who also had a stroke in November 2014. While he was able to speak and even crack a gentle joke with the nurse, the overall picture looks pretty grim.
To be honest, in all the times I have been in my preceptor’s presence, I have sometimes struggled to understand what he said. He doesn’t speak English and his Cantonese is heavily accented with his home province’s dialect. Fortunately for us it was never actually necessary to talk much. Like all experienced and compassionate masters, he has this spiritual presence about him which in itself is pedagogical. The way he carries himself, the way he listens to disciples’ everyday concerns like family, work, and love… even the way he once made the thumbs-up gesture and said quietly in a very Confucian manner, “Parents are number one,” demonstrated how his every action is a lesson, if only you would pay attention to observe.
I still remember the first time I visited him at his temple, with the hope of becoming a formal Buddhist in the Chinese tradition despite being trained in the theological discipline of Western Christianity. He asked me a question that I think every teacher should ask prospective disciples: “Why do you want to become a Buddhist?” I was lucky enough to have a coherent answer: that I had read Thomas Cleary’s translation of the Avatamsaka Sutra and that this scripture had answered all my spiritual and theological questions about Buddhism. It had convinced me that the Mahayana worldview was the one to believe in.
Proving the Buddhist (and Quranic) idea that there is no compulsion in religion, he asked me to spend the afternoon having a walk in the temple grounds, to gather my thoughts and decide if my resolve to take refuge was really strong enough. We met later, before evening, and he trusted my commitment enough to induct me into the Triple Gem and bestow the Five Precepts on me. His appraisal – and trust – of my intellectual and spiritual commitment to the Dharma has always been something I felt immeasurably indebted to.
My master believes that the logical conclusion of believing in the Mahayana worldview leads to faith in the Pure Land of Amitabha. He always said that conditioned existence has many questions, but the best answer is always “Namo Amituofo” (or “Namo Amitabha”). In times of trial as well as gratitude, the name of the Buddha of Infinite Light is the holiest and most appropriate response. It should be invoked for all the struggles and travails of human life.
A spiritual journey has no absolute end, even when one becomes a Buddha. Liberating all beings is an indefinite task in the cosmic Mahayana vision. My religious journey does not end simply because my preceptor enters Nirvana. But a part of my spiritual life will soon be left behind, even if the memories and wisdom that he has imparted to me remain.
I believe that it will not be a tragedy if my master passes away sooner rather than later. He has done so much for the Dharma. He has transformed many monastic disciples’ lives and those of many more lay disciples, including mine. His body, being a conditioned thing, must disintegrate sometime, and we should actually be thankful it has lasted this long. When he leaves samsara, I won’t grieve or mourn in the deluded, attached way that Buddhists should (but often fail to) avoid.
I will, however, miss him dearly.