Born into Tribulation, Raised in Adversity, yet Experienced a Lifetime of Joy

Highlights from the book I Am Not a Monk “Sponging Off” Buddhism, by Venerable Master Hsing Yun

Born into Tribulation, Raised in Adversity, yet Experienced a Lifetime of Joy

People often ask me, “What ad­versity have you experienced in your life?” And for a moment, I can­not come up with an answer. I have always maintained the attitude of taking things as they come, as in the sayings “When the soldiers come, de­ploy the generals to fight back; when there is a flood, use earth to stop it” and “When encountering a mountain, cut a path through; when encounter­ing water, build a bridge.” Therefore, what adversity could there be? Today, at the age of ninety [2016], my life can be expressed by twelve words: “Born into tribulation, raised in adversity, yet experienced a lifetime of joy.”

I was born in the impoverished Northern Jiangsu Province region of China in 1927. Being impoverished was actually not a serious matter. It was the unending afflictions saddled onto the poor by the country and society that were really the most strenuous. Take, for example, the Northern Expedition [1926–1928]: the warlords were conscripting soldiers and la­borers everywhere, while bandits would appear at any time to rob and loot. Even if one had no possessions whatsoever, the bandits would still try to extort something of value.

Moreover, exorbitant taxes harassed the people even more; even if one possessed an acre of land, all of the harvest would be paid in its entirety to the various levels of the government…. On top of this, my father was honest, loyal, and down to earth, so his business went bankrupt. It did not matter how hard he worked at farming, it was still not enough to pay the taxes.

In addition, we had to cope with the roaming bands of refugees that came one after the other every day. They had dispersed from their hometowns in order to fill their stomachs and were called “famine dodgers.”

Next came the Sino-Japanese War that went on for eight years. Every day, the two armies would clash. By day, planes would drop bombs as machine guns strafed the skies, while artillery shells would come screaming in from all directions.

  • Accustomed to Mental and Physical Suffering, Not Feeling Bothered

The “Tangong Chapter” of the Book of Rites says it best: “A tyrannical government is fiercer than a tiger.” Even though the imperial system of the Qing dynasty had already perished, the repercussions of the chaotic wars from the Taiping Rebellion [1850–1864] onward had not yet settled. Under these condi­tions of turmoil and upheaval, the people fled for their lives in droves, and I too joined the ranks of the “famine dodgers,” fol­lowing along as they fled in all directions to make their escape.

Life seemed like a silkworm’s thread, so fragile; one could still be enmeshed even if no cocoon was spun.

The Venerable Master at age twenty.

It was also because I was poor that I was subjected to discrimination by people in society. There was never a day when I did not experience depreciating looks and abrasive lan­guage. My experiences and understanding, as well as what I heard and saw, were entirely the sufferings brought about by poverty. Although I was young, I already had a thorough grasp of how difficult it was to survive during troubled times.

As a child who had never worn a set of new clothes and never even seen a school, all I heard was ridicule, mockery, or vituperation. Looking around me, there were no legal pro­tections whatsoever in the entire society. 

Tell me, what dignity could possibly exist? How could this not be considered being born in tribula­tion? However, regarding these mental and physical sufferings, I had already grown accustomed to them for some time, and I did not mind them too much.

  • Suffering as an Advancing Condition, Realizing the Power for Survival

Gradually, I wished to propagate the Dharma as well as purify and transform society and human hearts, but I continually had to play hide-and-seek with the police. According to a member of the police from the Garrison Command, the documents written by those who secretly reported me were stacked more than one or two feet high; I did not know what crime I had com­mitted nor whose wrath I had incurred. But Buddhism explains such an impoverished and destitute life as, “If the karma were not grievous, then one would not have been reborn into this Saha world.” I could not help but sigh with regret, for it really meant that my karmic obstacles were deeply grievous, as I was reborn into a world such as this. Thus, I had to temper myself so as to build a Pure Land of joy in this human world.

Therefore, I often say that suffering is an advancing condition for human life.

In speaking of this, I want to express my gratitude for those many months and years of tribulation, which fostered my fear­lessness toward the impermanence of life and death. As I lived in poverty and suffered hardships in life, I did not have much desire or hope for material fame and fortune. It is owing to suffering that my strength for survival was realized. This enabled me to not feel pain in the midst of dif­ficulties, and I did not feel that I lacked anything when I was poor and destitute.

  • Devotees Protecting the Dharma Is Fo Guang Shan’s Support

May 16th, 2016 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Fo Guang Shan’s founding, and I published this article in the United Daily News and The Merit Times. At the same time, I also published it as a series in the bimonthly Humanistic Buddhism Journal, Arts, and Culture. With this opportunity, I wanted to speak to the millions of devotees: “Thank you all for following such an old and disabled monk, and for giving me so many good causes and good conditions. It is my hope that you can all share in this happiness along with me. Tribulation can nur­ture us mentally and physically, and adversity can increase our strength, but joy alone constitutes the most important treasure in human life. 

Fifty years have passed in the blink of an eye, but the facts have proven that aid to Fo Guang Shan was not provided by Indian Buddhism, the Communist Party, or the Nationalist Party, but rather by Fo Guang Shan’s many donors who have quietly made their contributions. Since devotees do not care about fame and rank, they have at times gathered together small amounts of money to create broad, good affinities. 

On the 50th Anniversary of Fo Guang Shan, the Venerable Master was awarded with the Honorary Doctorate of Social Sciences from the Chinese University of Hong Kong at the Book Launch Ceremony for the 365 volume Complete Works of Venerable Master Hsing Yun. Pictured on top: The Venerable Master gave Complete Works Collection certificates to (on stage, from the left) Chen Roger C. Y., President of National Kaohsiung First University of Science and Technology; Guu Mike Y.K., President of National Pingtung University; Lin Tsong-ming, President of Nanhua University; Yung Chaur-shin, President of Fo Guang University; Jenny Su Huey-jen, President of National Cheng Kung University; Joseph Sung Jao-Yiu, President of Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lou Yulie, professor of philosophy and religious studies in Beijing University; Lai Yonghai, Dean of Research Institute of Chinese Culture, Nanjing University; Li Lian, Dean of Xuanzang Research Institute of Northwest University; Liu Changle, Chairman of the board and CEO of Phoenix Television; Koitsu Yokoyama, Professor Emeritus, Department of Literature, Rikkyo University.
Photos by Venerable Hui Yan and Su Shaoyang, May 16, 2017

At times, they have employed their strength to give alms to the Triple Gem in defense of the Dharma and the monastic community; other times, they have used their wisdom to make offerings to the masses, popularize spiritual transformation, and make joint efforts in accomplishing various kinds of work to benefit sentient beings. I can truly say that the many devotees who protect the Dharma are the most formidable support that Fo Guang Shan has.

Even if it is foreigners, friends of Buddhism, or members of political parties, their ability to provide some measure of assistance is also a good thing; it is worthy of joyous feelings. Only when everyone puts forth their joint efforts will this world become a more wonderful place.

The development of Humanistic Buddhism means pro­moting a human life of Dharma joy and meditative bliss. Over the past fifty years, not only has Fo Guang Shan held the Triple Gem Refuge and Five Precepts Ceremony more than a hundred times, but we have also had short-term mo­nastic retreats and large-scale conferences of various kinds more than a hundred times. We have even had hundreds or thousands of sutra teachings, classroom lessons, street-side sermons, symposia, and forums. Is everyone not immersed in the joy of the Dharma’s truth? Although I do not collect any fees, in no way do I lack anything for having done so. On the contrary, the more I contribute, the hap­pier I have become.

Chapter subheadings:

    • Accustomed to Mental and Physical Suffering, Not Feeling Bothered
    • Suffering as an Advancing Condition, Realizing the Power for Survival
    • The Human Mind Is Difficult to Fathom
    • Giving Rise to Moral Courage for Buddhism’s Enduring Existence
    • The Greatest Vow: Dharma and Happiness Filling the World
    • The Achievement of Sheer Enthusiasm: Founding The Merit Times on April Fools’ Day
    • Devotees Protecting the Dharma Is Fo Guang Shan’s Support
    • A Million Devotees, the Joy of Wonderful Affinities
    • The Power of Faith: Developing Happiness in the Source of the Mind
    • One of the Assembly: Monastics and Devotees Forming a Pure Land Together

The Author’s Preface, Forewords, Afterword, and Chinese Editor’s Remarks are available to read online.

Chapter Previews from I Am Not a Monk “Sponging Off” Buddhism:

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