Dialogue With Master Heng Chih And Doug Powers

Posted by Thao Phi on Nov 13, 2015
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[Last month, we had many friends from the ServiceSpace community joined us at City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. We ate together, we chanted together, we shared thoughts and learned from each other, brainstormed new ideas, and lot of possibilities emerged in a very effortless way. At one point during the dialogue, Master Heng Chih (a nun for 44 years!) spontaneously dropped into our dialogue with Doug Powers, and we all shared a powerful space.  Below is an excerpt.  Many thanks to Jason Tseng, for the bootleg recording.]

Doug Powers: Welcome. Is this just serendipity or? Welcome. Master Heng Chih was the first nun under Master Hua. She has been a nun for a pretty long time. The reason we know each other from way back is because we were at Gold Mountain. She was there before I was but in 1973. We're very fortunate to have her here right now.

Doug (to Heng Chih): We've always had an affinity with ServiceSpace, to work together. We really balance each other out. They're lead with service and we lead with cultivation. This balance of inner transformation and external service is key.

Audience: Can you share a bit about Master Hua? I think people have heard stories. Some know more than the others, but coming from you, as the first nun and among the first five disciples, it would be great. How would you describe the life of Master Hua and how are we going to apply these principles in today's times?

Heng Chih: You ask very small questions. :)

You have to think about who he was. He was from Manchuria. When China was liberated he came down south, basically missing each city that got liberated just by a few miles, all the way down the province where he hooked up with the Master Xuyun and studied under him and also helped him. He chose to leave China, while Master Xuyun chose not to leave China. He did a lot of things in Hong Kong for those monks and nuns that came out of China. Hong Kong didn't have Buddhism. Probably even to this day there is a bit of looking down on monks and nuns in the Hong Kong system as I have experienced it. He found he could make Buddha images. He helped them with money and materials and so forth so that they could get started there properly. Then he chose to come to the United States.

If you think about that, he had many options. He could have stayed in Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and built a big monastery and had tons of tons of disciples and probably lots of money. He chose to come here to a barren field of Buddhism in the 60s to teach us. Probably the most amazing thing I've found about him was he stayed with us. Day after day after day. Who were we? A bunch of ex-hippies. He stayed with us.

The other thing amazing about him was he always saw the best in anybody who came. He really did look at people as if they were Buddhas. It was only when we fell apart that he had to help get us better. He never looked at us in the beginning for any of our faults. He looked at us as whole human beings that were equal to an enlightened Buddha and took it from there. Any decline came from us. He would try to pick up the pieces and get us to go on.

Those are probably the things that moved me most. When I met him I didn't know Chinese. I was from Ohio and had never met a Chinese person. I didn't know Buddhism at all. I was moved to become a nun within a year because of his virtue. How can you describe virtue? Master Hua said you can see it even in the person's back. If he's walking away from you, you can see he's a virtuous person. How do you describe him? That's what I sensed. His integrity. Those things were things that moved me. I could have done a lot of things in my life, but I chose to do this. It was really a barren field. It was, oh my goodness. There weren't any of us in the United States until the 5 of us became monastics.

Master Hua wanted to put Buddhism vision in America by having native Americans, people born in America, be monastics. He wasn't particular if you were an Asian born, if you were an A B C, or if you were a Caucasian or if you were a Native American, or if you were black or you were white. He didn't care. He wanted to put the roots in here and it was not an easy task.

Audience: Yeah. Do you think I can ask another questions?

Doug: Is this all right?

Heng Chih: Yeah. Everything's all good. I'm not in charge. Go ahead.

Audience: One of the things that I think this relates to helping create systems and change in the world where these values can be applied. For instance, Master Hua's was committed to not asking and just persevering until resources arise. These days, if we had to say "Let's rebuild Nalanda", we would say first a business plan and how much could you fund raise and find people who can get it from. Master Hua seem to be explicitly opposed to that kind of commercialization of dharma. Can you reflect a little bit on that principle, especially from your personal interactions with him ... this idea that I'm just going to take a hit myself and keep sacrificing until resources arise, as opposed to let me grab on to whatever I can.

Heng Chih: We don't fund raise, and it's been 20 years since Master Hua left us, and we're still afloat. So I think it worked.

Doug: We're all sitting here. It's a beautiful afternoon, we're full of food, and we're going to the bathroom so it's okay. We're sleeping and it's good. We're good. I think we could say more about that since that's a real focus of what they're doing. I really think that's a major think that I took from master wah was not climbing on conditions. The way we put it in our terminology. Not climbing on conditions.

Audience: What does that mean -- not climbing on conditions?

Doug: Climbing on conditions means don't try to create conditions for your own self interest by calculating outcomes because every moment of that calculation is a moment not spent cultivating. The problem is that Master Hua was not interested in having institutions per say. He would never sacrifice one moment of somebody's cultivation for an entire institution. It's more important for someone to cultivate moment to moment, actually cultivating, than any institution you'll ever create. It's more important that you actually give something in the moment than all the institutions of giving.

Audience: One moment of transformation versus an institution, he would take that moment?

Doug: Absolutely. Absolutely. Every time. For sure. It makes it difficult for institutions because people are used to having institutions for their own sake and getting identity. He would kick you out any time you started getting identity and an institution and you got kicked out of your role and you were sweeping streets for a couple days.

Heng Chih: Yeah, I got sent to Canada once.

Doug: I learned, I think we all learned, that for something to really happen in the world of good, it has to actually be manifested in your own life and in the lives of the people around you. You can create any community with any amount of money and if the people themselves don't manifest the values with each other, there's no value to the institution at all. It's just another institution amongst other institutions. Unless you can do something fundamentally different in the way that we both experience ourselves and experience each other, and actually live that life in some kind of a way as a manifestation, what is there for us to institute to do of any value? Just become another institution? I'd rather hang out in a hammock. I'm not interested in creating an institution that's battling other institutions for funding.

Heng Chih: He happens to be the vice president of finance for the University. :)

Audience: Is that recorded? :)

Doug: It is. Everything is always recorded. You can't be afraid of recording, right? It both works on a personal level and a collective level. What was really difficult about Master Hua was that he said you have to do everything really, really well -- but with no attachment. If you didn't do it really well, he blasted you really badly. If you get attached at all, he blasted you. So there's this very thin line between putting your whole heart into something with no identity from doing it.

Heng Chih: I spent a long time with Master Hua. What he did for the last probably, 10-15 years of his life was train us in finance at the grass roots level. I was involved in financial things. Keeping books and so forth. Whenever it came to check signing, if he didn't agree, then that didn't happen. We learned a tremendous amount about what the best ways to use the money we had were. How to save money. It was only because he didn't want us to make any mistakes in cause and effect. That can happen so quickly with money. He wanted us to be aware that the money came from donors, that it was voluntarily given, that it was the blood sweat and tears of the people who gave it. Master Hua was an incredible person, and he could have been doing many, many things, and I said he stayed with us every day. Not only did he stay with us every day, but he taught us down to the penny what we should do with money.

By the time he left, many things fall apart, as the teaching goes. We didn't. We knew. We already knew exactly how to not make mistakes in cause and effect when it came to money. Because of his honesty and his integrity we never had to ask for money even after he left. All these years, 20 years now.

Audience: What is it to make a mistake in cause and effect with relation to money?

Heng Chih: He would ask a great many questions about a check before he would allow it to be sent. It included whether the thing it was paying for was necessary. Whether it was extravagant or not. Whether it could have been done in a simpler way. Whether it could have been done not at all. Maybe it wasn't needed. The monks in China all were very pure. People bring in money they'd just say put it outside the door of their hut. The disciples would go and use the money. The master witnessed that in various situations and he was very determined, especially because we were mostly American and didn't know anything. He was very determined that we would not make those mistakes. It was almost absurd how much effort he put in training us, but by the time he left, I think we understood. A mistake in cause and effect would be if the money came in from the donor and you didn't use it to the very best source.

Doug: Even now, all money used goes through a collective process. No one can use money individually. There's no one in the entire association at any place that could use money without going through a collective transparent process. Every dollar that we spend goes through the democratic process of a large board, a very big cross section of people. Every way that anybody wants to use money has to go through a transparent process where you have to make the case for that with a bunch of different people.

Heng Chih: That came from him. That came from the hard work of doing. Here he is an enlightened, well I would say, an enlightened master who could have been working at so many levels. One of the levels he chose was to be right down there with us and look at every check.

Doug: One of the things you learn from this process is not to be using money in a personal way with people, because promising somebody something that you haven't worked out through this entire process gets you into a lot of trouble ... because you go around with special deals and promises that you can't keep. It's not an easy process. Getting anything, to use any money, is not an easy process.

Heng Chih: I think because of that invisibility, the donors are generous. Times are hard. It's not easy for somebody to give unconditionally like they do. I think they watch us, they see what we're up to. So far our decisions have been such that they feel confident. That's how it works. I take it back to those years he spent training us.

Audience: Underneath that, the principle is, that you don't climb on conditions. That's a principle we can all learn from, because we're all sort of cashing out on different levels with different kinds of currencies. Master Hua's principle was that if you indulge in your blessings, you will exhaust them. If you endure suffering, you will build merit. That's a radical idea in today's culture.

Doug: Does everybody understand that quote, what was just said? That's a good principle. A couple weeks ago we were just talking about that here. What he stated was very clear. I just wonder whether everybody understood. Do you (Heng Chih) want to say something about that?

Heng Chih: You're the director of finance. :)

Doug: It's a principle not just about money, as you say. It's important that money is only one element of exchange. He was basically saying the same thing about everything. Every moment you're willing to wait, be patient, and give -- not to try to get something or calculate to get something -- you gain a freedom. If you want to call what it is, I'd say you gain a freedom of mind from that which you give. The more you're actually free of having these calculations about that, the more free you are. The more free the mind is, the more it can actually see what's going on. Then the less it needs. The idea is to simplify and simplify. In the end, you're not simplifying because you're giving something up. You're simplifying because you're much more contented and happy with less. It's a process that opens up freedom of mind, and then freedom of mind creates a kind of ground. The ground becomes something that you become used to and then you don't need much. As you don't need much, you're very comfortable in that play. That's at least on the psychological level of it.

The key is that every time you decide you don't need something you gain that amount of freedom of mind. Every dollar you don't need, you gain freedom of mind. I was taught that money is really a problem because you get habituated in it and you get attached to it and you get bound by it. Money is a bondage. The freer you can be from the money the less of a bondage you have in that way.

Audience: Pardon my limited understanding, but some people say, "Okay, if you're not after anything that means you're just drifting aimlessly." But yet, we do set goals. There's always something that I can't quite understand there. It's that you want to attain something in life and yet there's not attainment. How does this idea of wanting to do good but not being too attached to it come into a practice?

Doug: The thing was, being with Master Hua, you couldn't just hang out, even if you wanted to. I have to say that I think a lot of people came thinking they were going to hang out. They were going to come to the monastery, meditate, recite, and they were going to hang out and be Buddha bums or something. The thing that Master Hua would never let you do is let your cultivation become a narcissistic self reflection. You couldn't do it. If you tried to do that, he would mess with you and give you a project to do that was beyond your capacity. He would give you something beyond your capacity usually that was totally ridiculously outrageous.

I remember he gave me the refugee assignment, when I hung out with George Bush with my big old hippie beard and this beat up old suit. He sent us out into the world to do these ridiculous things. The key to your question is, there is a multitude of things to do in the world that are really important to do, but you do all those things with a full-out effort to be as good at it as you can, but you don't identify in your own personality with the outcome. What I mean by non-attachment is that you don't create an identity. That's really hard to do because if you look at why do you do a good job on something, it has elements of identity in it every minute. To do something really well, without getting your identity caught up in it, gives you freedom. From Master Hua I learned that you can do amazing things and have the freedom to do even more amazing things as long as you don't attach. As soon as you attach, you're limiting the scope of your capacity.

If your identity trails along, you're dragging your potential down by getting into the identity of it which then drags down and gets you attached and gets you emotional about the reactions. It gets you involved in all these other elements with it. I saw that as the main focus of Master Hua's practice. You're always engaged, full-blast attentive. Doing a great job with the newest and latest project, but not getting attached to the outcome and not getting attached to the identity of it. Then you're able to just move from project to project, whatever project needs to be done. Life is totally meaningful but you're not identifying with any of it.

Audience: How would you advise to cultivate out of the self-reflecting narcissism?

Heng Chih: There's so many answers to that and they are complex, of course, because there are different systems in Buddhism that look at the ego. We were exposed to various systems. For one person something might click where for another it didn't work. Master Hua's basic culling or question in meditation was -- Who. If you followed that practice, it became not a chanting of who, but a kind of an inquiry. A little bit of skepticism about all the moves you've made during your day. Who's hungry? Who just had an argument? Who just gave something away? You begin to have to unravel it in your own meditation. That's the short answer. You can delve in deeper from an academic and philosophical perspective, where there's a whole system of the study of taking apart the mind and seeing where this elusive ego was and how it was totally fallacious. Or you can take something as simple as Who? and just apply it to your meditation.

Doug: I do think that it can only be approached with a discipline, though. I think you can only attack that with a discipline that makes you uncomfortable. The problem is that the narcissistic self reflection is always working whenever you're comfortable, by definition. You've got to make yourself, in one way or another, uncomfortable, to see the issue. There are ways in which people are involved in a day, in a constant day in a Buddha hall or whatever they're doing, that kind of forces the issue to then make peace with themselves in that day of whatever they're in the process of doing. I think there's a discipline to really deal with that. You have to make yourself uncomfortable enough to see what the issue behind your narcissism. It tends to just reform anywhere, any time, around anything. Very quickly, like immediately. These days we don't even have another reference. The world that we live in, that narcissistic reflection, is the marker that most people are using. We have to find another anchor.

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Comments (3)

  • Guri Mehta wrote ...

    Thanks for sharing this Thao!

  • Harsh wrote ...

    Thank you for sharing. It is deep.

  • chris johnnidis wrote ...

    Wow, powerful dialogue. Thanks so much for sharing.