Monday, May 16, 2011

Patriarch Lu Dongbin (Lu Chunyang)

Patriarch Lu Dongbin aka Lu Chunyang

According to the Taoist tradition, the Birthday of Patriarch Lu Chunyang (呂純陽祖師聖誕 Lu Chunyang Zushi Shengdan) is observed on the 14th day of the 4th Chinese lunar month. Lu Chunyang (呂純陽), whose name means Lu of Pure Yang, is better known by his popular name Lu Dongbin (呂洞賓). He is a well known character in secular Chinese culture and is one of the famous Eight Immortals (八仙 Baxian), a group of Taoist transcendents known to possess magical powers for miracle working and banishing malevolent influences.

Lu Dongbin is also called The Son of Pure Yang (純陽子 Chungyang Zi) but he is popularly known as simply Patriarch Lu (呂祖 Lu Zu). He personally called himself The One Who Returns to the Tao (回道人 Huidao Ren), but he possesses various honorific titles that were bestowed upon him by different emperors throughout history including Perfected Man of Miraculous Supranormal Powers (妙通真人 Miaotong Zhenren), Perfected Lord Pure Yang Who Teaches Orthodoxy and Exhorts to Deliverance (純陽演正警化真君 Chunyang Yanzheng Jinghua Zhenjun), and Imperial Lord Pure Yang Who Teaches Deliverance and Inspires Trust in his Protection (純陽演化孚佑帝君 Chunyang Yanhua Fuyou Dijun). In the Complete Reality (全眞 Quanzhen) school of Taoism, Lu Dongbin is considered one of the Five Northern Patriarchs (北五祖 Bei Wuzu).

Lu Dongbin is always depicted as a gentlemanly scholar with a long wispy beard. He carries a sword on his back which he uses to banish evil forces. He was renown as a slayer of demons and monsters, and his sword when thrown can transform into a dragon. He also carries either a gourd, which symbolizes health and longevity because it contains the elixir of immortality, or a fly whisk which represents the sweeping away of ignorance and negative mental defilements. As a Taoist transcendent, he of course has mastery over the powers of transformations and miracles. He was also known for always wanting to help others acquire wisdom and achieve spiritual enlightenment.

Lu Dongbin carries a demon slaying sword and a fly whisk used for sweeping away ignorance
(Image: Source unknown)

Born on the 14th day of the 4th lunar month in the year 798 CE during the Tang dynasty, his secular name was Lu Yan (呂巖). He aspired to become a government official, but he repeatedly failed the imperial civil service examinations. Once while staying at an inn, he met his future Taoist master, Han Zhongli (漢鐘離), also one of the famed Eight Immortals. He was finally awakened to follow the path of Taoist cultivation after he experienced the Yellow Millet Dream (粱夢 Huangliang Meng). While waiting in the inn for his millet to cook, he fell asleep. He dreamt that he succeeded in passing the civil service examinations with flying colors and was given a distinguished position in the government. He then married the lovely daughter of a wealthy family and had two beautiful children with her. He continued to succeed at his job and won many more promotions. He was very happy, but he attracted the jealousy and contempt of some of his peers. He was then set up and accused of deeds that he did not commit. He finally lost his job and all his wealth. His wife left him and his children were killed by criminals. He ended up an impoverished man dying in the street. Right before he died, he woke up to find that his millet was ready to eat. The events in his dream spanned almost 20 years, but the dream itself happened in the duration of time that it took for his millet to finish cooking. The dream was actually manifested by Han Zhongli to teach him that worldly success and happiness are only impermanent and that they should not become an obstacle to his spiritual advancement. Lu Dongbin then gave up the idea of becoming a government bureaucrat and followed Han Zhongli to practice spiritual cultivation. Later, he attained the Way (i.e. achieved Taoist transcendence) and like the stories of many other Taoist immortals, he “ascended skyward to heaven in broad daylight.”

A wood block print of Lu Dongbin
(Image: Source unknown)

There are many stories and legends about Lu Dongbin, but according to records, he is known for the following ideas and achievements: He reformed the dangerous practice of external Taoist alchemy (i.e. seeking immortality by ingesting herbs, minerals, and elixirs refined from external substances and elements like gold, silver, and mercury) to the practice of internal Taoist alchemy (丹術 Neidan Shu) which is instead a system of meditative techniques to cultivate the body’s inner energies to promote longevity and health; He advocated the integration of both Taoist and Buddhist practice; He advocated the integration of both nourishing the body and cultivating the mind (spirit); He was the founder of the Eight Immortals Swordplay style (八仙劍法 Baxian Jianfa) which is a martial arts treasure of Wudang Mountain.

A wood block diagram from the treatise Secret of the Golden Flower authored by Lu Dongbin’s student,
Wang Chongyang, depicting the birth of the “immortal fetus” in the practice of internal alchemy
(Image: Secret of the Golden Flower 太乙金華宗旨)

There is also an interesting story from the Buddhist tradition called Lu Dongbin Unleashes his Sword to Cut Down Huanglong (呂洞賓飛劍斬黃龍 Lu Dongbin Feijian Zhan Huanglong). It was told by Zen Master Hsu Yun (虛雲 Xuyun), an enlightened master universally recognized by all Chinese Buddhists as being the greatest Zen monk of the 19th and 20th centuries. It was not uncommon for Taoists and Buddhists to run into one another in the vast religious landscape of ancient China, and this was one of those encounters. The legend is about how Zen Master Huanglong enlightened Lu Dongbin who, up until their meeting, still suffered from egoism even though he was already a Taoist transcendent. It is said that out of all the Eight Immortals, Lu Dongbin was one of the wildest ones. At one time, he was flying over a Zen monastery located on Lushan and showing off his powers. He observed a purple cloud over the monastery which indicated that something deeply sacred was occurring beneath it. Lu Dongbin wanted to see what was going on, so he transformed himself into a Buddhist monk and entered the main hall of the monastery. The abbot, Zen Master Huanglong, was about to deliver a teaching, but he stopped and said, “I will not give my discourse today because there is a Dharma thief in our assembly.” Lu Dongbin then changed back into his actual form and stepped forward. He arrogantly asked the master, “Please explain to me what is meant by the Buddhist saying ‘A grain of corn can contain the universe, and mountains and rivers can fit into a small cooking pot.’” Zen Master Huanglong laughed and called him a “corpse guarding demon” (i.e. one who is attached to his physical body which is actually something impermanent). Lu Dongbin did not understand that the actual nature of all phenomena is characterized by emptiness. He still held onto the erroneous view that the self was something real and permanent. Lu Dongbin told Huanglong, “My gourd is filled with the elixir of immortality.” Huanglong then said “Even if you are able to live for eighty thousand (i.e. countless) aeons, you still cannot avoid falling into the void!” This angered Lu Dongbin so he unleashed his magical sword and threw it at Huanglong. The Zen master merely pointed his finger at the sword and it dropped to the ground. Lu Dongbin attempted to retrieve his sword but it wouldn’t move. He was astonished that a Zen master could be so powerful. He dropped to his knees in respect and pleaded with Huanglong to enlighten him. Huanglong then explained that the mind that gives form to what it labels “a grain of corn” is the same mind that gives form to what it labels “the universe.” All things and concepts are actually mind-created. To attain true enlightenment, one must relinquish all mental fabrications which include concepts, judgments, differentiations, opinions, and ego. Lu Dongbin pondered on this profound teaching and became awakened. He was thereafter also made a Dharmapala (guardian of the Buddhist teachings).

Text © 2011 Harry Leong

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Birthday of Shakyamuni Buddha (Vesak)

A statue depicting the Buddha immediately after his immaculate birth
(Image: Fanyun Enterprises Company Ltd)

According to the Chinese Buddhist tradition, the Birthday of Shakyamuni Buddha (釋迦牟尼佛聖誕 Shijia Mouni Fo Shengdan) is observed on the 8th day of the 4th Chinese lunar month. This holy day is formally known as the Vesak Festival (衛塞節 Weise Jie), and it is informally known simply as Buddha’s Birthday (佛誕 Fo Dan). It is also called the Bathing the Buddha Festival (浴佛節 Yufo Jie) because a common practice during this festival is to pour water on a statue of the baby Buddha to symbolize the cleansing of one’s body, speech, and mind.

A common ritual during Vesak is to pour water on a statue of the infant Buddha to symbolize
the cleansing of unwholesome karma arising from one’s body, speech, and mind

The Vesak Festival is actually a commemoration day that encompasses the Buddha’s birth, attainment of Supreme Enlightenment, and death (i.e. Parinirvana), although the focus of the observance seems to be primarily on the Buddha’s birth. According to legend, the day that the Buddha was born, achieved Enlightenment, and passed away all occurred on the full moon day of Taurus (the month of May in common years, or June in leap years).

Scenes from the Buddha’s birth (left), Enlightenment (right), and Parinirvana (death) (center)
(Image: Source unknown)

The Buddha’s birth (left); Enlightenment (center); Parinirvana (death) (right)
(Image: Source unknown)

However, the Chinese Buddhist tradition has not one, but three very different days for observing these three important events. Thus, in Chinese Buddhism, the day of Vesak is celebrated only as the Buddha’s birthday. The Chinese day for observing the Buddha’s birthday does not even fall on a full moon day. It precedes the full moon by about 7 days. That is why the Chinese celebration of Vesak is always different from the day used by other Buddhist traditions in other countries. This difference is most probably due to variations of local calendrical recognition. For the year 2011, the Chinese Buddhist observance of Vesak falls on May 10, while many other Buddhist traditions observe it on May 17 (the day of the full moon).

Notwithstanding any inconsistency between the actual day and the observance day of the Buddha’s birth, Vesak is still the holiest time of the year for all Buddhist followers because it commemorates the appearance of the great teacher who showed humankind the path to complete unsurpassed awakening. The actual day of the Buddha’s birthday is not as important as honoring Lord Buddha and remembering to follow his teachings.

According to legend, the Buddha was immaculately born from his mother’s right side
(Image: Unknown source)

Just after the infant Buddha was born, he walked seven steps, pointed to heaven and earth,
and proclaimed that he was the foremost in the world and that it would be his last rebirth.
(Image: Source unknown)

According to canonical records, on the night of the Buddha’s conception, Queen Mayadevi, his future mother, dreamt of a white elephant entering her womb. She carried the baby Buddha for ten months and close to the time of childbirth, Queen Mayadevi stopped with her entourage at a beautiful grove in the Lumbini Garden (located in present day Nepal near its border with India). She bathed herself in a pond and then walked to a sala tree. Leaning her right hand on a tree branch to support herself while remaining standing, the baby Buddha was miraculously born from her right side. Upon his birth, the infant Buddha took seven steps under which lotus flowers sprang. Then, with one finger pointing up towards heaven and one finger pointing down towards the earth, he proclaimed with the voice of a lion’s roar: I am the highest in the universe. I am the best in the universe. I am the foremost in the universe. This is my last rebirth. I shall be born no more. A great immeasurable light then filled the entire universe and all its world systems trembled and quaked. According to popular biographies about the Buddha’s birth in East Asian Buddhism, the infant Buddha is also said to have proclaimed the famous statement: Above and below the heavens, I alone am the most honored (天上天下 唯我獨尊 Tianshang tianxia weiwo duzun).

The assistants of Queen Mayadevi shielded her body when she was about to give birth.
The infant Buddha was then born from her right side as she grabbed a tree branch for support
(Image: Source unknown)

During Vesak, activities include meditation, chanting sutras and mantras, observing precepts, listening to teachings given by Buddhist teachers, eating vegetarian food, animal release, giving to charity, and bathing the Buddha to symbolically cleanse oneself of negative karma.

Buddhist followers in China engage in Bathing the Buddha rites during the Vesak Festival

Vesak is the formal term used most often today in the English speaking world and comes from Singhalese, the language of the largest ethnic group in Sri Lanka. It is also usually the accepted term used in Singapore and Malaysia. But the festival is known by many other names in different countries including Wesak (variant of the Singhalese Vesak), Vesakha (Indian Pali), Vaisakha (Indian Sanskrit), Buddha Jayanti or Buddha Purnima (modern name used in India and Nepal), Buddho Joyonti or Buddho Purnyima (Bangladesh), Visakha Puja or Visakha Bucha (Thailand), Visak Bochea (Cambodia), Vixakha Bouxa (Laos), Kasone la-pyae Boda nei (literally Full Moon Day of Kason) (Burma), Waisak (Indonesia), Saga Dawa or Saka Dawa (literally Month of Merits) (Tibet), and Buddha’s Birthday (China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Vietnam).

Homage to the Root Teacher, Shakyamuni Buddha (南無本師釋迦牟尼佛 Namo Benshi Shijia Mouni Fo).

Text © 2011 Harry Leong

Friday, May 6, 2011

Bodhisattva Manjushri (Wenshu)

Manjushri, Bodhisattva of Transcendent Wisdom,
holding a ruyi scepter and riding on a green lion
(Image: Painting by Dharma Master Yilin 依林法師繪)

According to the Chinese Buddhist tradition, the Birthday of Bodhisattva Manjushri (文殊菩薩聖誕 Wenshu Pusa Shengdan) is observed on the 4th day of the 4th Chinese lunar month.  

Manjushri (文殊師利 Wenshu Shili, also abbreviated as 文殊 Wenshu) is the Bodhisattva of Transcendent Wisdom in Mahayana Buddhism. In Chinese Buddhist iconography, Manjushri is usually depicted as a male bodhisattva carrying either a ruyi scepter (most often seen) or vertical sword in one hand, and sometimes a scroll or text in the other hand. He is usually shown riding on a lion. The ruyi scepter is a symbol of auspiciousness and the obtaining of all of one's wishes, and the sword represents the power of transcendent wisdom to cut through ignorance and wrong views. The scroll or text represents the Prajna-paramita Sutra (般若波羅蜜多經 Bore Boluomiduo Jing) which is the Buddha’s exposition on transcendent wisdom gained through the realization of emptiness (shunyata). The lion that Manjushri sits on, if it is golden color, represents the noble majesty of transcendent wisdom. And if it is a green or blue lion, it is a symbol of the wild mind that is tamed by wisdom.
Manjushri sitting on a blue lion and holding a scroll representing the Prajna-paramita Sutra
(Image: Source unknown)

In Tibetan Buddhism, Manjushri is always depicted holding a flaming sword in his right hand and a lotus flower in his left hand that supports the Prajna-paramita text. The flaming sword is likewise symbolic of wisdom cutting through ignorance, while its flames represent the radiance of wisdom that lights up the darkness of ignorance.

Tibetan style Manjushri holding the flaming wisdom sword and Prajna-paramita text
(Image: Painting by Dharma Master Yilin 依林法師繪)

Bodhisattva Manjushri is mentioned in several Mahayana sutras including the Prajna-paramita Sutras, Lotus Sutra, Avatamsaka (Flower Adornment) Sutra, and the Vimalakirti Sutra. 

Manjushri is sometimes seen in a trinity with Vairochana Buddha (毘盧遮那佛 Piluzhena Fo) and Bodhisattva Samantabhadra (普賢菩薩 Puxian Pusa). The three together are known as the Avatamsaka Trinity or Three Holy Ones of the Avatamsaka World (華巖三聖 Huayan Sansheng).

Homage to Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Great Wisdom (南無大智文殊師利菩薩 Namo Dazhi Wenshu Shili Pusa).

Text © 2011 Harry Leong