Tucked in the Billowing Sleeve of a Sage
I met Master Nan in 1989 when destiny brought me to live on the same on the same street as he in Hong Kong. A Buddhist nun, Ven. Hong Ren, whom I had met at the Buddhist Library arranged for me to meet him. As a Westerner seeking the wisdom of the East, little did I know that I did not just find a teacher, but rather, an immeasurable treasure trove!
At that time my Chinese was very poor, but somehow he was able to communicate much to me. In my first conversation with Master Nan, he asked me if I was having any difficulty in my meditation practice. I told him that thoughts would often disturb my mental quiet. Master Nan then asked me where the thoughts came from and I looked and saw that thoughts come out of nowhere. I told this to Master Nan and he asked me where the thoughts went after they left. Again I looked inside and saw that they simply disappeared back into nowhere. After reporting this finding, Master Nan looked me straight in the eye and said, “Right, so don’t worry about them.”
Being just a short walk away, Master Nan bidded me to come for dinner every night. I had the great fortune of being able to sit at the dinner table night after night and listen as Master Nan imparted his wisdom to guests from all walks of life. The other students did their best to help me understand his teachings as my Chinese slowly improved. Over the weeks and months, Master Nan gently poked holes into my ideas of what Buddhism, spiritual cultivation and enlightenment were all about, and pushed open my mental walls of limitations. He taught me to stop grasping at thoughts and observe what is beyond them.
Master Nan can be described as a distinguished looking gentleman with a petite frame and strong features. He usually wore a dark blue, traditional long Chinese long gown or “chang pao" for men, and on his feet were a pair of cloth kung fu slippers. There was always a cup of hot Oolong tea, bowl of salted peanuts and a tiny folded wet towel for finger wiping on the table next to his chair – the chair in which only Master Nan sat! As to the quality of Master Nan’s voice, it was something very special. It had many moods - sometimes calm and smooth like a lake, sometimes like a babbling stream and sometimes like the roaring ocean. In any case, the sound of his voice was always deep and sonorous.
It is difficult to put into words all that I have learned from Master Nan. The wisdom of his teachings continually unfolds within my life. For example, he taught me to see things for what they are - to unwrap things from their cultural packaging or from my preconceived notions and prejudices and most importantly, to distinguish the appearance of something [相] from its function [用] and its essence [体].
In relation to everyday life, Master Nan stressed the importance of being clear about the role that one is playing and the responsibilities that come with it. Many problems occur because people are not clear about the role that they ought to be playing. For example, if one wants to be a lay practitioner, then one must balance one's responsibility to work and family with one’s commitment to practice. One must learn how to include one’s work and family in one’s spiritual practice. On the other hand, if one has a calling to live a monastic life, then one should put all their effort into living the true spirit of a monastic. Since I have played many roles, this teaching has been important and helpful in aligning my energy in relation to the priorities each role demands.
As my Chinese improved, I was able to help with the translation for the western guests and in 1997, I did the oral translation for the week long retreat in Pacific Place for Peter Senge and other foreign participants. In the year leading up to the retreat, I had been working on the translation of the book, The Diamond Sutra Explained, and would consult with Master Nan regularly to make sure that I understood the meaning of certain passages correctly. Eventually the translation was published in 2005.
Recently, having been working the translation of the commentary on the Confucian Analects, I have gained a deep appreciation of who Confucius was and what he was trying to do for the society of his time. The lives of Confucius and Master Nan, in many ways, parallel each other. Both lived through tumultuous times, both had to leave their home state and wander only to return in old age to their homeplace. They were teachers, learned in many fields and arts and life itself, but not scholars in the traditional sense, nor did either have too high an opinion of bookish, ivory tower scholars. They both wove together the worldly and the spiritual. They had students from all walks of life, were advisors of statesmen of all ranks, were flanked by loyal followers, or so it seemed, as many were there for the social connections. And both were most concerned about the deterioration of people’s virtue, of the culture, and of the general order of society.
I believe this is why Master Nan could go beyond the words of the ancient texts to see the men who spoke them, the events of those ancient times, and the significance of their lives’ work. Master Nan stretched his reach across 2500 years to grasp the hands of Confucius, Laozi, Mencius who in turn were reaching further back into antiquity to hold the hands of King Wen and so forth. A chain of sages, each one stretching their arms as wide as possible, sleeves aflutter in the winds of change, holding tight to the treasures of the culture during chaotic times in order to pass them forward so they would be available to later generations and not disappear.
In this age of virtual experience, hyper-connectivity and information overload, the younger generation’s understanding of and connection to their cultural heritage is diminishing rapidly. We are in the midst of making a break from the history of humanity as old world culture, custom and societal structure crumbles. Family and emotional connections suffer, as does knowledge through personal experience, in the computer age. Master Nan lamented that mental illness will be the next greatest health challenge the world will face.
As the external “reality” created by humans becomes an ever more complex game of smoke and mirrors, these ancient teachings provide us with standards for personal and societal assessment, and the means to gain powerful clarity and wisdom, without which it would be extremely difficult for the caring compassionate person to effectively take action in the world. Within Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism are the wisdom, the tools, the blueprints, the guidance and so forth which we need to navigate the times to come. These great sages are no longer with us, and so it falls upon us to carry forth the torch. Let us now make it our mission to continue in Master Nan’s footsteps, planting new sagely seeds and nurturing those which have started to grow.