A Brief Account of the Life of the Venerable Master Hsüan Hua
By David Rounds and Ron Epstein
Śūraṇgama Sutra: A New Translation with Excerpts from the
Commentary by the Venerable Master Hsüan Hua.
One of the most eminent Chinese Buddhist masters of the twentieth century, the Venerable Master Hsüan Hua (Xuanhua) was a monastic reformer and the first Chinese master to teach Buddhism to large numbers of Westerners. During his long career he emphasized the primacy of the monastic tradition, the essential role of moral education, the need for Buddhists to ground themselves in traditional spiritual practice and authentic scripture, and the importance of respect and understanding among religions. He focused on clarifying the essential principles of the Buddha’s original teachings, on establishing a properly ordained monastic community, on organizing and supporting the translation of the Buddhist Canon into English and other languages, and on the establishment of schools, religious training programs, and programs of academic research and teaching.
Born in 1918 into a peasant family in a small village south of
When the Venerable Master was a child, he followed his mother’s example, eating only vegetarian food and reciting the Buddha’s name. When he was eleven years old, upon seeing a dead baby lying on the ground, he awakened to the fundamental significance of death and rebirth and the impermanence of all phenomena. He then resolved to become a monk and practice on the Buddhist Path, but he acquiesced to his mother’s request that he not do so until after her death. When he was twelve, he obtained his parents’ permission to travel extensively in search of a true spiritual teacher.
At the age of fifteen, the Venerable Master went to school for the first time, and when he was sixteen, he started lecturing on the Buddhist sutras to help his fellow villagers who were illiterate but who wanted to learn about the Buddha’s teachings. He was not only diligent and focused but possessed a photographic memory, and so he was able to memorize the Four Books and the Five Classics of the Confucian tradition. He had also studied traditional Chinese medicine, astrology, divination, physiognomy, and the scriptures of the great religions. When he was seventeen, he established a free school in which, as the lone teacher, he taught some thirty impoverished children and adults.
At the age of eighteen, after only two and a half years of schooling, he left school to care for his terminally ill mother. He was nineteen when she died, and for three years he honored her memory by sitting in meditation beside her grave in a hut made of sorghum stalks. During this time, while reading the Avataṃaska Sūtra, he experienced a deep awakening. Subsequently, while seated in deep meditation, he had a vision of the Sixth Chan Buddhist Patriarch Huineng (638–713 C.E.). In his vision Master Huineng came to visit him and to give him the mission of bringing Buddhism to the Western world.
At the end of his period of mourning, the Venerable Master took as his teacher Chan Buddhist Master Changzhi, and he entered Three Conditions Monastery as a novice monk. Chan Master Changzhi subsequently transmitted to him the Dharma of the Pilu Chan lineage. During this time, the Master devoted himself not only to meditation but also to the study of the Buddhist scriptural tradition and to the mastery of all the major schools of Chinese Buddhism.
In 1946 the Master began the long journey to the south of
In 1949 the Master left
In 1962, he traveled to the
In the summer of 1968, the Master began the intensive training of a group of Americans, most of them university students. In 1969, he astonished the monastic community of
The Venerable Master was
determined to transmit to the West the original and correct teachings of
Buddhism, and he categorically rejected what he considered to be corrupt
practices that had become widespread in
Among the many reforms in monastic practice that he instituted was his insistence that his monastic disciples accord with the ancient practice of wearing the monastic robe or precept-sash (kaṣāya) as a sign of membership in the monastic Sangha. He himself followed, and he required that his monastic disciples follow, the prohibition against eating after noon. He considered a vegetarian diet to be of paramount importance. He encouraged his disciples among the Sangha to join him in following the Buddha’s beneficial ascetic practices of eating only one meal a day and of never lying down. Of his monastic disciples he required strict purity, and he encouraged his lay disciples to adhere to the five precepts of the Buddhist laity.
Although he understood English well and spoke it when necessary, the Master almost always lectured in Chinese. His aim was to encourage his Western disciples to learn Chinese so that they could help fulfill his wish that the Buddhist Canon be translated into other languages. So far, the Buddhist Text Translation Society, which he founded, has published well over a hundred volumes of translations, including several of the major Mahāyāna sutras with the Master’s commentaries.
As an educator, the Venerable Master was tireless. At the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, he established formal training programs for monastics and laity, elementary and secondary schools for boys and girls, and
The Venerable Master was a pioneer in building bridges between different Buddhist communities. Wishing to heal the ancient schism between Mahāyāna Buddhism and Theravada Buddhism, he brought distinguished Theravada monks to the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas to share the duties of full ordination and transmission of the monastic precepts, which the two traditions hold in common.
He also insisted on interreligious respect and actively promoted
interfaith dialogue. He stressed commonalities in religious traditions, above
all their emphasis on proper and compassionate conduct. Together with his
friend Paul Cardinal Yubin, who had been archbishop of
In 1990, at the invitation of Buddhists in several European countries, the Venerable Master led a large delegation on a European Dharma tour, knowing full well that, because of his ill health at the time, the rigors of the trip would shorten his life. However, as always, he considered the Dharma more important than his very life. After his return, his health gradually deteriorated, yet while quite ill, he made another major tour, this time to