1989 / 8月
Lin Ching-hsuan /photos courtesy of Lilian Lee /tr. by Hwang Ying-tsih
Staying in a Buddhist temple, I wake up at four in order to observe the master's early morning ceremony. Walking outside, I see the moon is still in the sky, but some of the early sun's rays are perceptible behind the clouds beyond the mountains, turning the gray clouds into a kind of transparent delight. It's almost as if golden linings had already been woven within the gray, and as soon as they are turned over, a myriad of golden rays will shoot forth.
The birds haven't fully awakened yet; only an occasional few short hoarse chirps are heard as they awaken from a night of dreaming in the treetops before they turn over and go back to sleep. What is most eye-catching are the clusters of flowers on the flame-in-the-forest trees which blossom all over the mountains of southern Taiwan in May. It's as if the owner of a dye shop has dyed the whole mountain red. In the misty morning silence the flame-in-the-forest trees proclaim their presence with brilliant blooms. They are not pure red but even brighter, nor are they orange but more radiant. Compared with the silent bodhi tree, the flame-in-the-forest trees create quite a stir, as if a flowershop had opened in the mountains.
The bodhi tree isn't completely silent. During the cold winter season it lost all its leaves, and only barren branches are left to wait for the spring. As I watch them, the withered branches seem especially strong and unyielding in the dark. Some of the branches bud early and are soon covered with tender green leaves, transparent, smooth and clean. The veins on each heart-shaped leaf are clear to the scrutiny of night. Realizing that it was under this simple common tree that Buddha obtained enlightenment, I am deeply touched by its silence and its developing buds.
At this time the sound of clappers can be heard from a corner of the temple. It is the waking clappers, the heavy, solemn sounds calling the masters to rise. The sound of the waking clappers is actually very low, which the ordinary people generally cannot hear as they sleep. The monks are tranquil and quiet in body and mind; to them, even a falling twig can be heard, not to mention the clappers.
Then the bell tolls.
The tolling of the temple bell reverberates endlessly over a great distance, crossing mountain after mountain, permeating human hearts bringing forth vigilance and serene strength. I don't know how many times the bell tolls; I count for a while, then lose track. I only know that the bell rings slowly and heavily at first and then grows more rapid. It ends by returning us to the original clear, gentle sounds that linger in the air. As I listen to the temple bell, I think of the text of "The Bell-Ringing Gatha" chanted by Master View-suchness that a friend sent to me. The rhythms of the bell are pure and slow, and it was on a quiet night that I first heard the chant. I felt like I was listening to heavenly music; I was so moved. I wondered how often in a life time one can hear such beautiful sounds.
The morning bell is certainly different from "The Bell-Ringing Gatha." A master later told me that the bell tolls 108 times every morning and another 108 times every evening, because 108 is symbolic of a whole year. There are twelve months, twenty-four fortnightly periods and seventy-two subperiods in a year which, when added together, equal 108, suggesting that we must be alert at all times. But another master said that 108 represents the cutting through the 108 kinds of affliction. The bell has powers beyond comprehension. I have no idea who is right. The only thing I know is that when I listen to the bells I am stirred. It is as if a moun tain path were swept clean of fallen leaves and dust by the tolling bell. It cheers people up and encourages them to climb higher and farther to get a better view.
While the sound of the bell still vibrates in the air, the drumming begins. Passing in front of the Hall of Supreme Mercy, I see a bikshuni in the drumtower which is now more clearly visible. She is not tall and seems small compared to the drum in front of her. But the drum she beats entirely enwraps my thought and all space itself. Full of confidence, she holds the drumstick tightly in her hands. Her gestures are beautiful, making the drumstick dance on the drum, sometimes slowly, sometimes rapidly, producing sounds like a sudden peal of thunder or a hurricane.
Standing on the stairway to the Hall of Supreme Mercy, looking at that small figure beating the drum, I am entirely prepossessed. The drumming when dense is like constant rain, fingers cannot even pass through it. When subsiding it comes like an endless rolling wave, and when violent it is like an immense tidal wave. When soft it is gentle as a breeze tenderly caressing one's face, and when anxious it sounds like the plaintive cries of a mother seeking her lost child. When elegant it is carefree as the thin clouds floating in the sky able to fly to the farthest places. The sound of the drum seems to come from another world, from heaven, from the heart of the earth, or from a faraway place.
The drum stops for a while and I awaken from my reveries. At that moment, a paragraph from the "Vimalakirtinirdesa Sutra" suddenly flashes in my mind. Manjusri Bodhisattva asked Vimalakirti, "What is Bodhisattva's one and only way of entering the gate of enlightenment?" There were five thousand Bodhisattvas at the assembly silently awaiting his answer. What was Vimalakirti's answer? He remained silent and did not utter a word. After a while, Manjusri said in praise of him, "Excellent! Excellent! This is really the true man's one and only way to enter the gate of enlightenment which no written words nor speech can explain." Later on, a master, full of admiration, compared Vimalakirti's silence to piercing thunder. Indeed my momentary speechlessness after listening to the drums was, I imagined, similar to Vimalakirti's silence which the master compared to piercing thunder.
A long time ago, I saw the Divine Drummer Boys perform in Taipei. I thought no drumming in the human world could equal theirs until hearing the Buddha Drum, then I realized there are still loftier states in the world. The Divine Drummer Boys are good, but their drumming has a panting noisy quality to it, totally unlike the calm ease with which the Buddha Drum is played. The Divine Drummer Boys went through the hardship of rigorous training, and as a result displayed great strength. The bikshuni who played the Buddha Drum is far more natural. The bikshuni is not a star, but a Buddhist disciple simply performing her duty. The Divine Drummer Boys' performance is a work of art. The Buddha Drum vanquishes demons, releases souls from the bitter sea of birth and death, lessens the sufferings from iniquities; it is beaten to fulfill vows of mercy and wisdom, therefore it is filled with wonders beyond compare.
What's most important is that the artistic effects achieved by the Divine Drummer Boys are limited. Whereas the Buddha doesn't strive to create an artistic effect as such, the Buddha Drum is limitless; it not only awakens people from ignorance but even touches the ghosts and spirits as well.
After the Buddha Drum ha ceased, the early service formally begins. I sit on the stairway, listening to the chanting of scriptures from the Hall of Supreme Mercy. Ever so silently I just sit staring at the big drum and again I hear that drum which had just thundered come again like surging waves. The swallows of the Hall also fly twittering back and forth coming in waves in time with the drum.
The Swallows at the Hall of Supreme Mercy
The swallows of the Hall also fly twittering back and forth coming in waves in time with the drum.
I say like waves meaning that their shadows and twitterings are unceasing. There are swallow nests thickly dotting the way all along the Hall of Supreme Mercy down to the courtyard and classrooms of the Girls' Buddhist College. At every step I see one or two swallow nests. They cover the hanging lamps, sometimes so completely that no light can be seen coming from the lamps. But the monks and nuns care for kindness and mercy; they love the swallows. Compared to a sentient being, who cares about a lamp?
I carefully observe the swallows' nests and discover that they are rectangular lodges made out of bits of mud. The nests are shaped like the long underground tunnels of moles I used to see out in the country. They look very sturdy. Several swallows live in each nest. You see a head poking out of the nest, then a pair of scissor wings as a swallow flies off, then immediately another pokes its head out. Six or seven swallows live in each nest; these are fairly large families.
Just as the Buddha drum is about to start, the swallows all fly out of their nests en masse. For a short while one or two hundred swallows fly in the sky, shuttling back and forth. The swallows have deep dark backs, milky white bellies and scissor-shaped wings and tails. In the morning sky, the swallows possess a kind of unusual beauty. Some swallows fly playfully in and out of the windows of the Hall of Supreme Mercy. A couple of twitters can be heard with the solemn chanting, apparently to liven it up a bit.
Seeing the swallows returning to their nests is also a marvellous sight. They dive and rush under the eaves without slowing down, slamming on the brakes at the last minute, and then shoot into the nest. It is very fascinating to watch.
None of the masters really knows how many swallows there are at the Hall of Supreme Mercy nor how old they are. One master explained, "If you hadn't asked I would have assumed that the swallows were here all year round. They seem more like neighbors than swallows. You can't look down on them, they all listen to us when we chant scriptures. Every day when it's time for morning and evening services, they all leave their nests and fill the sky, otherwise they are few and thinly scattered."
As to why so many swallows gather there, all the masters say that Buddhist temples are places of solemnity, tranquility, kindness and charity, which all sentient beings can sense. This is the safest place in the world. Sometimes dogs come from out of nowhere to sit in front of the Hall of Supreme Mercy. Beside the Hall is a large pond filled with red and white flowering waterlilies and countless fish. It is said that when sutras are going to be chanted the fish all rise to the surface to listen.
In the past, temples located deep in forests or mountains were often visited by tigers and foxes which came to listen to scriptures being chanted. There is a very touching tale about one of seven or eight tigers listening to a master's chanting. It is said one tiger fell asleep halfway through and the master walked up to him, patting his face, and said, "Don't fall asleep when listening to scripture chanting."
Unfortunately we don't see tigers listening to the truth but we do see swallows paying their respect to the Buddha as well as fish coming up to listen to the chanting. Aren't these also touching stories?
Since all living creatures are this way, why are not human beings more watchful?
The Eyes of the Wooden Fish
Since all living creatures are this way, why are not human beings more watchful?
Talking about being watchful, there are giant wooden fish in the Great and Mighty Hall, the Hall of Great Wisdom and the Hall of Supreme Mercy, sitting on the left side of the Buddhist table. The wooden fish is too big and heavy for one man to move. The rhythmic beat of the wooden fish runs off and on throughout the chanting of sutras. Of all the instruments used by Buddhists, I think the wooden fish is relatively calm and monotonous, not like Buddhist drums which are so clear and beautifully touching. The keynote of the wooden fish's significance is in its eyes.
There are two kinds of wooden fish in the temple. One is long like an ordinary fish, and is hung in the dining hall to call people at mealtimes. The other kind is round--even its scales are round--and is placed on the Buddhist table to use when scriptures are chanted. Both kinds of wooden fish have the same unusual big eyes which are out of proportion to the rest of their bodies. Some of the wooden fish have eyes as big as a fist. I don't understand why they have such big eyes or for that matter why they have to be wooden fish, and not wooden tigers, wooden dogs or wooden birds. To find out I ask a master in the temple.
"The fish never close their eyes day or night. To use wooden fish as a Buddhist percussion instrument is to admonish those who are confused and lazy, especially to teach those who are Buddhist practitioners that they have to exert themselves whole-heartedly in following the Buddhist Way, which requires constant watch-fulness," he said.
At last I understood the reason why the wooden fish have big eyes. But why do they have to keep their eyes open for such a long time? They are not like fish which constantly swim here and there!
Knowing my doubts, the master laughed, "To be wakeful day and night, that is to say, waking or sleeping, walking or sitting one must constantly practice the Rules of Deportment. These are no more than the Six Paramitas: Charity, Discipline, Patience, Diligence, Meditation, Wisdom. There is never enough time day and night to carry out all of them; there would probably not be enough time in five hundred generations."
The wooden fish is there to admonish. If one were always watchful, there would be no need for the wooden fish. I often think that the Buddhist scriptures, which are as voluminous as the open sea, record all the defilements of the human mind and all the ways of cleansing and polishing it. The only purpose is to recover man's natural state of complete enlightenment and to temper it into a mirror, so that one can understand the truth of the universe and life.
To clean and polish requires more than just methods; tools are also needed. The Buddhist images, relics, bells, drums, wooden fish, and banners used in temples, which are considered objects of superstition by ignorant people, are actually the tools used to polish and clean the human mind. If the human mind is inherently pure and bright, why is there a need for Buddha images much less wooden fish? To use wooden fish to temper one's mind has a very symbolic meaning. The never-sleeping eyes tell us that Buddhist cultivation is limitless and that the cleansing process is endless. The masters living in the tranquil temple purify their inner selves day and night. What about we who remain in the material world? Mustn't we polish and cleanse our minds even more?
Therefore, we cannot forget the wooden fish and its big eyes.
With the wooden fish as an example, in the temple, lay people too can attain enlightenment.
Bow One's Head and See Through
In the temple, lay people too can attain enlightenment.
When I was in the temple, I couldn't help being puzzled by the shoes that the monks and nuns wear. The shoes really are not very practical.
There are six holes in the shoes of every monk. They are not for making the shoes look good nor are they for coolness. Because if they were for coolness why then do most of the monks and nuns wear thick socks and what's more how can they keep their feet warm in the winter? And that they are for good looks makes no sense because those people who become monks do so seeking purity and not good looks, and the plain brown black and gray of the monks' shoes are not especially beautiful anyway.
Yes, perhaps not being wasteful, being frugal and saving are the duties of a monk or a nun.
Yet this is not the reason for the holes either, because making a monk's shoes with six holes in them would require the same amount of material but more work.
What then is the real reason for the six holes in a monk's shoes?
A master I meet takes a whole afternoon to explain the reason. He says that the six holes in the shoes of those who become monks mean "Bowing to see through." To bow is to be modest and polite; to see through is to see through the six sense organs: the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind; to see through the six objects of perceptions: sights, sounds, smells, tastes, objects of touch and dharmas; to see through the six conditions of sentient existence; to see through the six fundamental afflictions: desire, resentment, delusion, pride, doubt and false ideas; and even to see through the ideas that life is short and the body small.
The six holes represent the six precepts, which are not to commit adultery, not to steal, not to kill, not to speak falsely, not to drink wine nor eat after the midday meal; the six right actions, which are reading, reciting, studying, worshiping, invoking, praising and making offerings; and the six means of doing so: charity, discipline, patience, diligence, meditation and wisdom.
So the small shoes of monks and nuns are as vast as heaven and earth. For this we cannot help but respect them. They do not wear leather shoes because they do not believe in killing animals for their skins, nor do they wear silk products because the making of silk requires taking the lives of thousands of silk worms. They only wear cotton shoes following numerous rules and thereby gaining tremendous wisdom.
Lastly, I asked to buy a pair of cotton shoes to take home. As I wear them, I think of bowing to see through. . . .