(Dharma Lecture, Full Moon of the 11th Lunar Month, 1981, Haein-sa)
If you ask what Buddha is, Buddha is young Mr. Ma’s wife at the Stream of the Golden Sand.
This quotation is from a Dharma talk by Master Feng-hsueh1 of the Lin-chi school of Ch’an. Another monk had asked him what the Buddha was, and that was his reply. But you can only fully understand the true meaning of this koan through meditation, and you would really have to apply yourself to make such a breakthrough. But I would like to talk today about the background of this koan.
In what is now Shaanhsi-sheng in China, there is a famous river named Chin-sha T’an-t’ou, or “Stream of the Golden Sand.” During the reign of Chen-yuan in the Tang dynasty, there was a stunningly beautiful girl who lived by the river. Rich men, high government officials, men from all over the place came to propose to her. The girl had only one thing to say to all these imploring men:
“There are lots of men who propose to me, and I have only one life, so I will marry the man who meets my conditions. I will marry the man who memorizes “The supernatural powers of Avalokitesvara,2 from the Lotus Sutra.”
Overnight some twenty men memorized the section from the Lotus Sutra. So the girl said that she would have to make another qualification: she would marry the man who could memorize the Diamond Sutra. The next morning at dawn, some ten men showed up. She was then torced to make yet another qualification to reduce the competition. She said that she would marry the man who could memorize the entire Lotus Sutra. The Lotus Sutra was long, but many of the ten remained steadfast in their determination to win the ladys hand. Two days later, the young son of a certain Mr. Ma showed up and recited the entire Sutra for the girl. Greatly impressed, the girl said, “I could take anyone I wanted for a husband, but I have found you now, and have no regrets. I will marry you.”
On the day of the wedding they had a grand ceremony, and after the rites the girl returned to her room. But even before all the guests had left, cries of pain came streaming from her quarters. The bride rolled about in agony, and then died.
Young Mr. Ma was stunned. He had stayed up two nights memorizing the entire Lotus Sutra so that he could marry this girl, and she died on the day of the wedding!
Immediately after she died, the body began to rot and puss oozed out all over the room. How could this be? Just a short time ago she had been the most beautiful girl in the world. But every corpse must rot, whether it belongs to a king or a pauper. So the family hurriedly put this rotting corpse into a coffin and buried what was once the most beautiful girl in all of Tang.
The groom could not forget her though. He wondered about this terrible fate, and sat around sighing for days. Then one day a monk suddenly appeared looking for him. The monk wanted to know if this was the place where the bride had died, and if he could be taken to the grave.
When they got to the grave, the monk took his staff and struck it. The grave split open, and it was filled with bones made of gold. In only a matter of days, the joints had all become golden ringlets, so when they lifted the head, the entire body rose up. The monk asked the man if he understood what this meant, but the man had no idea.
“This woman was Avalokitesvara. The people in this area have such a lack of faith that she decided to appear here as a beautiful girl. Look at this gold!”
The man who had memorized the entire Lotus Sutra in just two days stood there gazing at the incredible sight. “Now I have really seen Avalokitesvara!” he exclaimed.
The monk went on: “She has taught you the Dharma in such a marvelous way. You should all now fervently believe in Buddhism.” And then the monk suddenly flew away high into the sky.
So this is the background story behind the koan which I mentioned. Those of you who know a bit about Buddhism should be able to understand the symbolism involved in the story. But your reaction probably is one of doubt, and you wonder if such a thing is possible, if Avalokitesvara could really appear in this world in such a way. But you should not reject this as a falsehood, a tale, a fantasy just because you can’t understand it fully.
Avalokitesvara appears to humans much more frequently than you would think, and one place where she has appeared frequently is the sacred island of Baoto, off the coast of Ningpo in China. The name is derived from the Indian word for “white flower.” The entire island is dedicated to Avalokitesvara, and it has long been the main Chinese center of worship to her.
Although I’ve never been there, I’ve seen pictures of Chaoyin-dong, or “Grotto of the Tidal Sound.” It is there that she has appeared most frequently to those who pray to her. There are many sacred spots dedicated to Avalokitesvara in China, but for centuries and centuries, millions and millions have made pilgrimages to this place. Avalokitesvara appeared frequently to the tens of thousands who gathered at one time to light incense and to pray. She has delivered Dharma talks, performed numerous miracles, and done many other things there. Convinced in faith by her appearance, pilgrims would leave huge offerings of money.
Up until the communization of China, more than 4,000 monks were living at one time in a monastery on the island. But a great problem arose. While most of the pilgrims, in thanks for having seen Avalokitesvara, would make monetary donations, some were so moved by the apparitions that they would offer themselves by diving off the cliff there in a personal sacrifice to Avalokitesvara. Consequently, the local authorities had to erect numerous barricades in dangerous areas to prevent people from doing this. But still, some people foundways of getting through the barricades to dive from the cliffs.
Avalokitesvara has appeared not only on Baoto Island. she also appeared at the stream of the Golden sand. And the story of young Mr. Ma’s wife is not just tolklore; it is from Feng-hsueh, third to receive transmission in the Lin-chi sect, the largest Ch’an sect at the time.
The phrase “Young Mr. Ma’s wife at the stream of the Golden sand” also has a much deeper meaning, one that most people don’t understand. It has been passed down through the Wen-yen Ch’an school since it was spoken by Feng-hsueh. As I said before, however, you cannot understand the true meaning of this until you make the great breakthrough. I just talked about the background to the sentence. Let me now tell you more about a deeper meaning.
In the Ch’an tradition, there is a much more famous and astounding phrase: “Three-by-three in the front, three-by-three in the back.” This phrase can be found in The Blue Cliff Records among the one hundred case studies of koans, and it is ascribed to the Bodhisattva Manjusri3 in a conversation with the master Wu-chuo Wen-hsi.4 Wu-chuo had gone to Mt. Wu-t’ai in hopes of seeing an apparition of Manjusri, and in front of the Diamond Cave he met an old man. He followed the old man to a very fine temple, sat down with the old man, and they chatted. The old man asked,
“How are the Teachings going in the south?”
The people of this corrupt age keep a precept or two and are pretending to be monks.”
“Well, how many people come to the temples?”
“Oh, sometimes three hundred, sometimes five hundred,” replied Wu-chuo. Wu-chuo also wanted to ask something.
“How are the Teachings going around here?”
“Criminals live with the saints, and the dragons and snakes all mix together,” said the man.
“Well then, how many followers are there?” asked Wu-chuo.
“Three-by-three in the front, three-by-three in the back,” replied the old man.
We would take something like the statements about the criminals and saints living together and the dragons and the snakes all mixing together for their obvious figurative meaning. But the real meaning of the “three-by-three” is much, much deeper. Wu-chuo did not catch the meaning at the time, and he departed. As he was leaving the area, he tumed around to take another look, but the temple was gone. Wuchuo then composed his own verse:
Everything was a beautiful temple. I saw and chatted with Manjusri, but at the time I didn’t understand him. Turning around again, I saw nothing but green mountains and cliffs. Sometime later, he again met manjusri and listened to his Dharma talk. This is quite well known in the Zen School:
Someone who sits quietly for a while is better off than someone who builds as many jeweled pagodas as there are grains of sand along a river. Sooner or later the pagodas will collapse; but a single though from a pure heart is Buddha.
Many people know this quote, but not many know where it came from. It was spoken by Manjusri to Wu-chuo at Mt. Wu-t’ai.
The forms of Avalokitesvara, Manjusri and the other Great Bodhisattvas are not, however, just limited to thirty-two forms. All of the Bodhisattvas can appear in 300 forms, in 3,000 forms, in limitlees forms. someone who reaches the stage of enlightenment can freely move about and take any form he desires, and he can appear anywhere.
According to records, there is a place at Mt. Wu-t’ai in China where Manjusri has appeared frequently. In order to teach Dharma in various ways, he has appeared riding a lion, as an old man, as an emperor, and in numerous other forms. So someone with great faith who goes to Mt. Wu-t’ai and prays fervently may meet Manjusri.
But we don’t have to go to Baoto Island to meet Avalokitesvara, and we don’t have to go to Mt. Wu-t’ai to meet Manjusri. The Buddha said over and over that he would enter nirvana as an expedient to guide sentient beings, and that he was not really dying-he would always be everywhere in the universe to teach the Dharma.
Where is Baoto Island? Your faith is Baoto Island. If your faith is strong, every place you go is Baoto Island. And you don’t have to go to Mt. Wu-t’ai to meet Manjusri. Mt. Wu-t’ai exists in the heart of those with faith. Faith! All you have to do is to meditate and to pray with this deep faith. Then you can see Avalokitesvara, you can meet Manjusri, and you can see Buddha.