On November 19th 2016, Ming Zhen Shakya passed away. She had previously been known as Chuan Yuan Shakya. Ming Zhen was the first American-born woman to receive full Buddhist ordination in China following the Communist Revolution. When I last knew her, she lived with her husband and cat in a small house in Las Vegas, Nevada. Ming Zhen never stopped working to bring the Dharma to as many people as possible.
The first day I met her in 1987, she led me into her sparcely decorated living room: there was a small, two-foot, statue of Guan Yin in the corner and a zafu and zabutan in front of it. I don't think I said much. I was somewhat enthralled by being with a Buddhist priest. I had never encountered a priest of any kind, much less Buddhist. She told me to close my eyes and listen. She then played a movement from Wagner's opera, Tristan and Isolde. She sat with me, eyes closed. I sat uncomfortably, thinking, what? I opened my eyes to peek at her and she had her eyes closed. So I closed mine again. What's going on? I thought to myself. I came here to learn about Zen and I'm listening to opera? I went along with it. I don't recall the details of this meeting, but I do remember feeling a kind of "coming home." It may have been because of her seemignly sincere desire to help (which, it turned out, was real). It may have been because the experience was so far outside of my worldly experience that I was significanly intrigued.
My life at that time was somewhere between "okay" and "dissaray." I was looking for something, but I didn't know what it was. I had attended a few Japanese sessions--intensive meditation retreats--so I had a general idea of what Zen was about. Or thought I did. But when I encountered Ming Zhen, those ideas were quickly shattered.
Ming Zhen seemed tremendously energized by my presence. Perhaps it was because she knew I had driven several hundred miles to see her (it was also to visit a friend). Or maybe she responded to all people interested in Chan with equal enthusiasm (I would learn, that was the case). After listening to the music, she scrambled to assemble a copy of the "Seventh World" for me to take home. It was a book she had written in recent years as a guide for people interested in undersanding and practicing Zen.
I thanked her for her time and hospitality, probably in very clunky and inappropriate ways, and left with her book in hand. I stayed in awkward contact with her for many years. It wasn't until my life was turning upside down that I contacted her for help. And that marked the beggining of the Zen Buddhist Order of Hsu Yun. And my own, personal, "redemption."
I had, by then, read her book several times. The year was 1997. I offered to post it on the World Wide Web where more readers would have access to it. In 1997, when only 36% of people had ever used the Internet or had a computer, when the number of websites available was measured in the hundreds of thousands, and when connection-speeds were measured in kilobytes per second, I launched her book under the hsuyun.org domain. The title page had the name of a new order, The Zen Buddhist Order of Hsu Yun (ZBOHY), assigned by Chan Master Jy Din Shakya (another story). It was one of the first websites to represent Chan Buddhism on the Internet. The launch inspired Ming Zhen to buy her first computer.
Subsequent years would see the site grow as Ming Zhen contributed essays for its visitors. As people wrote in, some were eager to become Buddhists and were given precepts. Of those, some stayed in touch and involved, others disappeared. Undeterred, Ming Zhen never stopped working to spread the teachings of Chan.
Ming Zhen was unusual for a Chan priest, and not just because she was female, American, and ordained in China. She was a lifetime member of the NRA and enjoyed boasting about how she liked to strap on her sidearm when going out; she supported right-wing political and social agendas; and she spent significant time preparing her hair and applying makeup before going out. Most people would not know these things, but having visited her and traveled with her many times, and having had hundreds of phone conversations with her, our lives became well known to each other.
As a Chan priest, Ming Zhen was unwaveringly faithful. It was largely through her guidance that I was able to move past mindfulness practices that I had learned from Japanese Zen instructors, to concentration practices and, eventually, to mediation. It was also through her that I came to be indoctrinated into the Chinese Buddhist religious establishment.
Ming Zhen loved to write, and she loved to turn a phrase. She wrote with a forceful stroke of the pen, not afraid to offer opinions, albeit strategically, and often subtly. She was 100% her own person. The subjects she wrote about were extraordinarily diverse, as she would take on any topic. They included: Chan's ox-herding poems, spiritual androgyny, bull-fighting, fantasy and illusion, the Diamond and Heart sutras, life after death, spiritual alchemy, anger and insult, charity, the dangers of groups, gay marriage, the Guhyasamajatantra, Zen and money, cults, pedophilia, Zen for profit, sex, and the Lex Talionis.
Throughout the two decades that I knew Ming Zhen, I knew her to struggle with anxiety, fear, anger, and occasional panic attacks. Although I never learned why, she once indicated that she endured substantial childhood trauma. If this were the cause, it would make sense, as psychologists attest to the near impossibility of fully healing scars left behind from child abuse.
There's a myth that once we learn to meditate, or have experienced enlightenment, that we are suddenly completely free from suffering, from untoward emotions, from the effects of karma. In samadhi, we are indeed free of any such things because we reside exclusively in the Self--knowledge of the ego-self no longer exists. But once we come out of samadhi, that ego-self reasserts itself once again. After the experience of enlightenment, awareness of the Self remains (if we choose to pay attention to it), simultaneously with awareness of the illusory ego-self. But even though it's illusory, and we may see it for that, it can still provoke.
Due to a series of unfortunate and irreconcilable events in 2004, the ZBOHY bifurcated, with Ming Zhen leading the ZBOHY under the domain, zatma.org (Zen and the Martial Arts), and me continuing it under its original URL, hsuyun.org (we would later move the content to eyeofchan.org). Members of ZBOHY chose to affiliate with one group or the other, or discontinued affiliation altogether. Since that time, I was out of touch with Ming Zhen and her sangha.
In memory of the contributions Ming Zhen made in expressing her understanding of Chan through the online medium, I offer, in its entirety, her first post from 1996, a short story entitled The White Birds:
The White Birds
by Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY, 1996
Kanin, a professional hunter, was a good man. He was brave and reliable; and his skill with bow, net and spear was such that his reputation flourished even in lands he had never visited.
It pleased Kanin, but did not puff him up, to know that whenever an elephant or tiger was threatening a village, or whenever a visiting potentate required a guide to lead a sporting party, Kanin's name - not the name of any younger, stronger man - would always be the first name called.
One day, while tracking a tiger into an unfamiliar part of the forest, high in the mountains, Kanin came upon an uncharted lake, a wondrous place, a hidden sanctuary that teemed with dazzling white birds. Incredulous, he blinked and rubbed his eyes; but they continued to identify waterfowl of every kind - heron and crane, goose, duck, egret and swan - and all in such profusion that he shook his head and giggled for many minutes before accepting his vision as genuine. Not even in legends or rumor was such a place as this mentioned.
"I believe that I see them," Kanin shouted at the sky, "but how can I ever believe my good fortune?"
Proprietary thoughts began to crowd the hunter's mind, for he realized that since it was unlikely that anyone else could know of the lake, all of its riches were his alone to exploit. "Why was I blessed with such a discovery?" he asked as he sat and marveled at the scene.
He could see the future clearly. "I need never work again," he announced to the indifferent birds. "No more trekking through mud and brambles! No more insects and snakes! I have found enough wealth here to keep me prosperous for the rest of my life." He would open a poultry shop, he decided, and every week he would come to the secret lake and take all the birds he could sell. Of course, great care would have to be taken to ensure that no one followed him! No one else could ever be allowed to know the location of his treasure.
His hopes for the future gave way to plans and plots and then to the deceptive schemes of secrecy - for he was a hunter and well understood the requirements of strategy, tactics, and stealth. Then, noticing his hunger, he roused himself and built a cooking fire.
Selecting a plump duck that swam nearby, Kanin drew his bow and took aim; but just as he loosed his arrow, the duck dived and the shaft harmlessly parted a few of its tail feathers. Annoyed, Kanin shot another arrow. This time the duck moved sidewards just enough to let the tip graze its breast. Again Kanin tried, and again he missed. Disgusted with himself, he tried to regain his composure "My excitement has put my aim off the mark," he said, and he chose a larger target, a white swan. But again and again, his arrows struck nothing but water.
Out of arrows and furious with himself, Kanin resorted to his net. Carefully approaching some cranes that were wading at the water's edge, he flung his net at them; but the birds quickly stepped out of range of the encircling net. Repeatedly Kanin retrieved and flung his net, but the birds always managed to elude it.
Trying to assuage his anger and frustration, he told himself that after all, his arrows and net were of a gauge suitable for tigers, not birds. The finest hunter in the world is dependent upon his equipment. He would simply have to return with finer arrows and a much lighter net.
Hungry and defeated and having neither the appetite nor the energy to search for rabbit or other game, he quenched the fire and turned homewards, carefully marking his trail as he went.
The next day at the marketplace he provisioned himself. He obtained new fowler's nets, a tall backpack of wicker cages with a padded tump line, and the finest arrows the fletcher sold. Then he strolled through the marketplace and chose the perfect location to erect his poultry shop.
The following day, rested and equipped, Kanin followed his trail back to the hidden lake. The steep climb and heavy burdens slowed his progress and the sun was near to setting when he finally arrived. Yet the splendid sight renewed him. He could spend a lifetime, he thought, just trying to count the birds. "What good fortune!" he exclaimed. "What incredibly good fortune!"
Noticing the hour, he quickly made camp in a nearby cave, built a fire and then, with a quiver filled with fowler's arrows, he strode to the water's edge and took aim at the nearest birds. To his astonishment, his arrow missed the target. Again and again he tried, selecting other birds; but he could strike nothing but water.
Somehow, he reasoned, he was warning the birds. Some movement of his, imperceptible to him, was signaling them. He needed to observe their reactions more closely, but it was too dark to see clearly. Kanin retreated to his camp convinced that he had failed because he had hunted at a disadvantageous time. "I was exhausted from travel. My movements were clumsy. Tomorrow I will get up very early and then, when I am alert and the birds are still sluggish with sleep, I will kill one and capture many."
He awakened before dawn and crept to the water's edge. As soon as he could clearly discern a target - a sleeping duck - he shot at it; but the duck simply turned out of the arrow's path. Kanin could not believe it. "What can this be?" he raged as he watched his arrow pierce only the still, cold water. "What black magic is this?" But though he seethed and fumed and repeatedly tried to strike a bird, he invariably missed. He also flung his nets, but they, too, entangled nothing but branches and water lilies.
He struggled to control himself, to find a cause for his failure. "I'm angry... furious... and the angrier I get, the worse my aim gets," he reasoned. "Who knows better than I how emotion can confound the hand and eye?" When he regained his confidence and calm, he tried again. Still, he could not strike a single bird.
Dejected, he sat in his camp alternately cursing himself and his quarry until hunger nudged him, sending him into the thicket to hunt for lesser game. "Am I not known for my tenacity?" he asked himself. "Has any quarry ever successfully eluded me?" And he truthfully answered himself, "No. I brought down every elephant, deer or tiger I ever pursued; and I will bring these birds down, too." He snared a rabbit, and as he roasted it, he formed a plan and waited for morning.
At first light he began to jog towards home. Not having to mark his trail or stop to eat, he moved quickly and was able to return to his village by early afternoon. Gruffly he dismissed his friends' greetings and neighborly invitations. Nothing could deflect his concentration from its single- pointed goal.
The following morning, carrying all the equipment he needed to manufacture arrows, repair nets, and establish a permanent camp, he returned to the lake.
Though in the days and weeks that followed he shot hundreds of arrows, none ever struck its mark. Though he flung his nets hundreds of times, none ever settled upon a single bird. But his obsession was complete. Though exhausted and nearly maddened by defeat, Kanin continued to prowl the lake's uncanny precincts, vowing that though he died in the attempt, he would capture the birds.
Several months passed. The hunter began to look and act like a wild man, crazed and brutish. His hair and beard grew long and tangled. He wore animal skins instead of tattered clothes. He snarled and grunted and the only words he spoke aloud were challenges and curses.
It was only when he sat near the entrance to his cave, at a point which overlooked the lake, and stared impotently at the birds that his expression betrayed his wild appearance. Only then did his face show that look of hopeless longing, that bitterness and sorrow which only human creatures know.
One morning as Kanin was beginning to stir, he heard a strange noise. A human voice! Someone not too far away was singing or chanting. Kanin crept out onto his lookout point. There, on the farthest stone of a row of stepping stones that extended into the water, stood an old priest; and all around him, nuzzling his legs, perching upon his shoulders, vying for the caress of his hands, fluttering, cooing, chirping and singing, were the damnable birds! Kanin winced in disbelief. He covered his face and bit his lip, then he crawled back into his cave and cursed himself more violently than he had ever cursed the
birds. But as the beautiful melodies continued to torment him, a scheme formed in his mind. Was he not a hunter?
Surely, he thought, the priest's scent would be in his clothes. If he could only get those robes! He would shave his beard and hair and with pine boughs scrub away his own scent, and then dressed in the priest's garments and singing the priest's song, he would trick the birds.
Kanin returned to his ledge and studied the priest's movements and memorized his song. "I hope you stay long enough to require rest, old man," he whispered to the distant singer, and he added menacingly, "I also hope that you disrobe when you rest," for Kanin had already decided that if necessary, he would kill to get the garments.
But the priest did not stop to rest. Instead, he simply bid the birds good bye, stepped back to shore and ambled into the forest.
Quickly Kanin left his lookout point, grabbed his knife and followed the priest.
The trail was difficult to follow. The priest did not go down in the direction of the villages Kanin knew, but instead moved laterally, over rocky ledges, until he reached the opposite side of the mountain.
For hours Kanin pursued the priest. Then, just before nightfall, he trailed him to his destination, a temple situated in a small and isolated town.
Kanin waited, hidden in shrubbery. He was sure that the priest, fatigued from his journey, would retire quickly. The old man would, of course, sleep soundly. Kanin would simply steal his robes and return to the lake. Fortunately, there was a full moon. It would aid escape just as the obliging night would discourage pursuit.
Unaware that a servant also shared the priest's room, Kanin entered and reached for the robes. The servant, terrified by the intruder's wild appearance, shrieked in alarm. Kanin struck him had across the face and, clutching his prize, ran into the forest.
On and on he ran until the cries of alarm dwindled into silence. Then he stopped; and after wrapping the precious garments in fern fronds to keep his own scent from contaminating them further, he climbed a tree. There, secured in the nook of a stout branch, he waited for morning.
At dawn, as he heard the distant temple bell summon the villagers to prayer, he continued to retrace his path back to the lake. He knew that he was being followed for he could hear dogs barking whenever he stopped to catch his breath or determine his direction.
Kanin moved quickly; but it was not until his pursuers stopped to eat their noon meal that he was able to gain safe distance. All day he travelled without rest until, near sundown, he arrived at his cave.
Quickly he began to sharpen his knife and to hone it finely to a razor's edge. Then he lathered his face and head with the juices of marsh roots and shaved his hair and beard, carefully drawing the blade across his skin to remove the least stubble.
He entered the water and with pine bristles scrubbed his body until all his own scent had been washed away. It was dark as he dragged himself from the water and collapsed in exhaustion on the cold ground.
At the first light of dawn he was ready. He draped himself in the priest's robes and, concealing a fowler's net within the vestment's folds, he followed the stepping stones out to the exact spot that he had seen the priest stand.
Kanin began to chant, his voice floating gently across the still water. Its unfamiliar sound captured his attention. How strange and beautiful, he thought. There was even an echo! Then, as he stopped to listen to the sweet reply, he happened to glance down into the water and was startled by what he saw. A face he did not recognize - a serene and gentle face - looked up at him from beneath the surface! Kanin gasped and the face also gasped. And suddenly Kanin realized that the submerged countenance was his own! "I've startled myself," he confessed nervously.
Then, as he looked up, he saw in the distance a silver- ribboned waterfall which he had never noticed before. "Strange," he said, "that in all this time I never even wondered about the source of the lake." A peculiar feeling came over him. He felt as if he were just regaining consciousness after drugged sleep or a fainting spell. He squinted and rubbed his eyes.
Color began to fill his vision. Darting past him came a hummingbird's iridescent green and the celestial flash of a bluebird. And there were roses by the lake... red and pink and yellow... and he detected their fragrance... and the fragrance, too, of honeysuckle vines that cascaded down the bank and into the water. How could he have missed all this? How beautiful this lake was... how the morning sun streamed down through the trees and glistened on the water... and the birds... how lovely they were... how innocent and peaceful. And suddenly an anguished cry rose up from deep within his chest and he covered his face in shame. "What a blind and ignorant fool I am," he cried. "What a vile and savage brute! Oh, Lord, forgive me!" Tears rolled down his face and he raised his hands in a beggar's gesture. As he extended his arms, the net slid from his shoulder and fell into the water. Then the water birds came to gather at his feet.
That night the villagers returned to the temple. "The thief got away," the servant said. "We thought we had tracked him all the way to the lake, but he wasn't there; and since it was getting dark, we turned back."
"Oh," inquired the priest, "then you saw no one?"
"Only a priest," said the servant, "rather like yourself. He was kneeling in the water chanting the Buddha's name."
No one understood why the priest suddenly laughed.
The death of our body is not the death of the deeds we sew in our life. If those deeds helped elevate the world in which we live, what more could we ask? On that, Ming Zhen was a relentless crusader.
Chuan Zhi, February, 2016