A Conversation with Fred Klarer
Fred Klarer (Dharma name, Gwo Hu, 果護) first met the Venerable Master Hsuan Hua at the age of twenty-one in the spring of 1969 at the Buddhist Lecture Hall on Waverly Place. Fred later went on to take refuge and also received the novice precepts at the conclusion of the Summer Session of 1969 where he received the monastic name Heng Shou (恒守), which he kept for his seven years as a monastic. Since then, Fred has gone on to receive a Bachelor of Arts in East Asian Languages and Literature from Harvard University and a Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School. Fred currently lives in Yaphank, New York and continues his Dharma practice.
Q: Can you tell us about your background, how you encountered Buddhism, and how you came to know the Master?
A: I grew up overseas in Germany and England. When I was a child, my father was in the military. We lived in England and every year we would move to a new house. When I was a child, I had this terrible feeling that something was missing, like some part of me wasn’t there. When I was probably nine or ten years old, I picked up a book by Christmas Humphreys, I think, that was a translation of a text originally from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and I thought, “Ah, this is what’s missing!” It was like a piece of a puzzle that fit right in. That was it for me. I really had not been a deep spiritual seeker or anything like that, but that was all I wanted right off the bat.
I kept studying Buddhism on my own. When I was living in San Francisco in the mid sixties. My older brother was in Seattle studying Chinese and Buddhism at the University of Washington. He and Ron Epstein and a group of people came down to San Francisco.
Ron had found Shifu, so a group of people came down to San Francisco; that must have been in 1967 or 1968. They spent the summer doing the Shurangama summer session, that was the first session. My older brother told me about the abbot a little bit. I never went down there because I had the terrible feeling that if I went down there, I’d never leave. So when we got back to San Francisco a few weeks or months later, probably in the late spring, about six or eight weeks later, I went to the second summer session and I never left there.
That’s what happened.
Q: Can you talk to us about what your experience of meeting the Master was like?
A: I was sitting at the Buddhist Lecture Hall, which was a long time ago, and probably no one now has ever even seen it. It was on a fourth floor walk up on Waverly Place in Chinatown. It was a Taoist temple and the Master had rented it and put Buddhist images in front of the Taoist images. I don’t remember what was exactly there, but there was a Hsu Yun image he had made.
There was a big library table in the front part of the one room that was there. I was sitting with my brother, who had just been a novice monk for a few months then. As I was sitting there, I just felt this presence and then the door opened and this huge ball of golden light appeared with this Chinese guy in the middle of it. He walked in. That’s how I met the abbot.
Q: I’m curious what inspired you to join the Sangha and how that process happened for you.
A: It was obvious for me from the beginning. I knew that if I went down there I would end up becoming a monk. I didn’t think about it in that sense—it wasn’t like, “Should I? Shouldn’t I?” It wasn’t a choice; it was just the next thing to do in my life. If I’d only known what I was getting into. It was wonderful. I’m not one of these people who’s a spiritual seeker, if that makes sense. He was my first teacher, but I’ve studied with a couple of other people since then. You find your teacher, and that’s your teacher, so you don’t need to run around meeting lots of other people.
Q: Would you talk to us about what it was like cultivating in those early years?
A: It was really hard. We didn’t know what we were doing. We were a bunch of American middle class hippies; we jumped from a wild and crazy life to an even wilder and crazier life. None of us knew how to do anything, and the Master had to teach us even how to tie our shoelaces. He was really willing to help us. We were not like other Chinese monks and a couple of lay people who had known him for many years who would come and show us how to beat the fish and things (play the Dharma instruments)—we kind of had to figure the whole thing out. I didn’t know any Chinese, and the way I learned to read it was from a copy of the Shurangama Sutra.
After the summer sessions, I went to work during the day. I figured that if I was going to join up as a monk, I wanted to have credit (make merit) beforehand. I worked and contributed to the community. At night, whatever we did, I’d come to listen to the abbot’s lectures and participated in the recitations and stuff, then I would kneel at the altar there with a copy of the Shurangama Sutra.
Q: Are there some experiences you had with Master Hua that stood out that you could share with us?
A: Being around him was a notable experience. He was a great teacher and a greatly awakened one. He would say to me, “Are you awaken now?” He was always disappointed when I said, “No.” That was very much what he was like, he had such faith in people and such belief that it was just that easy, just like that. And he’d be disappointed when you didn’t do it. You’re supposed to be a Buddha, what’s wrong with you? So that’s what it was like interacting with him.
Once or twice he’d say don’t get attached to that, which was probably the biggest lesson. These are just events in practice, events in contemplative practice, and they arise as circumstances due to and your past associations and karmic structure coming together. He was always very clear about them. If I had some progress about something, but he would never proactively bring things up. It was always a reaction to something that happened. For me, I think he was always disappointed that I was always so deeply selfish. I just wanted to practice for myself. He didn’t try to stop me either.
He said something about me once in a public gathering. He said wistfully, “Guo Hu could become an arhat, but what a shame, to be so selfish.” He was always interacting with people, he wanted you to become a Buddha right now. He had the insight and the tools to help you do it. When you would fail, he said, “Oh well, we’ll give it another try another time.” That’s what it was like. you probably never saw this place. The Buddhist Lecture Hall was a like a railroad apartment, it was a tiny place. I think you can still go there now and see it.
Once, for several days, he had been announcing in lectures that “Guo Hu has a good connection with the dragons.” He told me, “You better make sure it doesn’t rain.” So I was really worried about the weather. We went to Mount Tamalpais and the clouds were getting thicker and thicker, it looked like we were going to have a major rainstorm. We got up there on the top of the hillside. Everyone was spread out and as we got started, he went to me and said, “You know it better not rain.” I said, “Ok.” What was I going to say? We started the ceremony. I forget how long it was too but there was a point where you release the birds.
My older brother was officiating, and when he opened the first of the cages, some of the birds popped out, and the clouds parted letting in this tremendous beam of sunlight right down where we were. We were surrounded by these heavy dark clouds and this beam of sunlight just came. It was illuminating, and it was an amazing sight when the birds all took off. It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. So we finished up and toward the end everybody put things away and wrapped up their robes up. The abbot walked by me and said, “Boy, you lucky.” That’s him in a nutshell.
He just had this tremendous belief in people. If you are the worst person in the world, but you’ve made one good root, that’s what he paid attention to. And that was absolutely his characteristic. You ask the question, what was it like to cultivate with him? That’s what it was like: when you’re with a fully awakened person and you are under his compassion and bodhichitta.
And all he wanted you to do was become like him. That was his utter focus, twenty-four hours a day, every single moment. And he took different manifestations with different people, different people needed different things. And so one person would get scolded and one person will be praised. But the point was exactly the same in both instances. If that makes any sense.
To be continued
- Buddhist Text