Venerable Master Hsuan Hua was one of the most eminent Chinese Buddhist masters of the twentieth century, a monastic reformer, and the first Chinese master to teach Buddhism to a large number of Westerners in the United States. Throughout his life, he regarded the following as forefront: 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. To realize these, he focused on clarifying the essential principles of the Buddha’s original teachings, establishing a properly ordained monastic community, organizing and supporting the translation of the Buddhist canon into English and other languages, and founding schools, religious training programs, and programs of academic research and teaching.
Venerable Master Hsuan Hua was born in 1918 into a peasant family as the youngest of eight in a small village south of Harbin in northeast China. His father's surname was Bai, and his mother's surname was Hu. When the Venerable Master formally became a Buddhist in his mid-teens, he was given the Dharma name Anci (Peace and Compassion). After becoming a monk, he was also known as Dulun (Liberator from the Wheel of Rebirth). Upon granting him the Dharma-seal of the Weiyang (Guiyang) Chan lineage, the Elder Chan Master Xuyun (1840-1959) bestowed upon him the Dharma-transmission name Hsuan Hua (Xuanhua - Proclaim and Transform).
His mother was a vegetarian and held to the practice of reciting the name of Amitabha Buddha throughout her life. As a child, the Venerable Master followed his mother’s example. At eleven, he awakened to impermanence and the fundamental significance of birth and death after seeing a dead baby on the ground. He then resolved to become a monk and practice the Buddhist path but acquiesced to his mother’s request that he not do so until after her death. He obtained his parents’ permission to travel extensively in search of a true spiritual teacher at twelve. At fifteen, the Venerable Master attended school for the first time and, at sixteen, started lecturing on the Buddhist sutras to fellow villagers who were illiterate yet wanted to learn about them. Diligent, focused, and with a photographic memory, he memorized key texts of the Confucian tradition. He also studied traditional Chinese medicine, astrology, divination, physiognomy, and the scriptures of the great religions. At seventeen, he established a free school where he was the sole teacher, teaching thirty impoverished children and adults.
Three Years of Filial Mourning
After only two and a half years of schooling, he left school to care for his terminally ill mother at age eighteen. He was nineteen when she died. He honored her by sitting in meditation beside her grave in a hut made of sorghum stalks for three years. During this period, he experienced a deep awakening while reading the Lotus Sutra. Subsequently, while seated in meditation, he had a vision of the Sixth Chan Buddhist Patriarch Huineng (638–713 CE), who gave him the mission of bringing Buddhism to the Western world. He later brought forth his Eighteen Great Vows, among them: “I vow that all living beings who see my face or even hear my name will fix their thoughts on bodhi and quickly accomplish the Buddha Way.”
At the end of his period of mourning, he entered Three Conditions Monastery (San Yuan Si) as a novice monk under Chan Master Changzhi, who transmitted the Dharma of the Gold Crowned Vairocana (Jinding Pilu) Chan lineage to the Venerable Master. The Venerable Master devoted himself to meditation, the study of the Buddhist scriptures, and the mastery of all the major schools of Chinese Buddhism. In 1947, he received full monastic ordination at Mount Putuo, a sacred Buddhist mountain in Zhejiang, China. After over 2,000 miles of travel, the Master arrived at Nanhua Monastery in 1948 and bowed to Chan Master Xuyun, China’s most widely revered enlightened master. The Venerable Master received the mind-seal transmission from Master Xuyun, verifying his awakening, and a more formal transmission of the Dharma of the Weiyang lineage of the Chan School.
In 1949, the Master left China for Hong Kong, where he taught meditation, lectured on the Buddhist sutras, and sponsored their printing. He commissioned the creation of images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and aided monastic refugees from mainland China. He built Western Bliss Garden Monastery (Xi Le Yuan), established the Buddhist Lecture Hall (Fo Jiao Jiang Tang), and rebuilt and renovated Flourishing Compassion Monastery (Ci Xing Si).
Arrival to the United States
In 1962, the Venerable Master traveled to the United States after being invited by a few Hong Kong disciples who lived in the San Francisco Bay area. He began lecturing at the San Francisco Buddhist Lecture Hall (Sanfanshi Fojiao Jiangtang), which was previously established as a branch of the Hong Kong Buddhist Lecture Hall (Xianggang Fojiao Jiangtang). As the community at the San Francisco Buddhist Lecture Hall grew in size and diversity, the institution’s name was changed to the Sino-American Buddhist Association and was later renamed in 1984 to the Dharma Realm Buddhist Association (DRBA). In 1970, the Venerable Master moved from Chinatown to Mission District of San Francisco, where he established Gold Mountain Monastery (Jinshan Si). In 1975, the Venerable Master established the first branch monastery of Sino-American Buddhist Association, Gold Wheel Temple (Jinlun Si), in Los Angeles, and the following year, he established a new headquarters in Ukiah, California, the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas (Wan Fo Sheng Cheng).
Establishing an American Monastic Community
In the summer of 1968, Master Hsuan Hua began intensively training a group of Americans, most of them university students. In 1969, he sent three American men and two American women he had ordained as novices to Taiwan for their complete ordination, astonishing the monastic community of Taiwan. They were the first Americans of that period to become fully ordained Buddhist monks and nuns. Subsequently, the Venerable Master trained and oversaw the ordination of hundreds of people, Asians and Westerners alike, who came from all over the world to study with him. These monastic disciples currently teach in the twenty-three temples, monasteries, and convents founded by the Venerable Master and his disciples in the United States, Canada, Australia, and several Asian countries.
Propagating the True Dharma
The Venerable Master was determined to transmit the authentic teachings of Buddhism to the West and categorically rejected what he considered as corrupt practices, which had become widespread in China. He guided his disciples in recognizing the True Dharma: genuine, scripture-based practices that are useful and in accordance with common sense, as opposed to cultural, ritualistic superstitions that are unwholesome.
Among the many reforms he instituted in monastic practice was his insistence that his monastic disciples adhere to the ancient practice of wearing monastic robes and precept-sashes (kashaya) as a sign of membership in the Sangha, the Buddhist monastic community. He himself followed, and required his monastic disciples to follow the prohibition of eating after noon. He considered a vegetarian diet to be of paramount importance and encouraged his disciples in the Sangha to join him in following the Buddha's beneficial ascetic practices of never lying down and eating only one meal a day. He expected strict purity from his monastic disciples and encouraged his lay disciples to adhere to the five precepts for Buddhist laity.
Although he understood English well and spoke it when necessary, Master Hua almost always lectured in Mandarin Chinese. His aim was to encourage his Western disciples to learn Chinese and to encourage his Chinese disciples to learn English so they could work together to help fulfill his wish that the Buddhist canon be translated into other languages. In 1970, he founded the Buddhist Text Translation Society, which has since published over a hundred volumes of translations, including several of the major Mahayana sutras that include the Master’s commentary.
As an educator, the Venerable Master was tireless. At the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, he established formal training programs for monastics and laity, as well as schools: elementary and secondary schools for boys and girls, and Dharma Realm Buddhist University.
Global Delegations and Interfaith Efforts
From the year 1968 to the early 1990s, the Master lectured on sutras at least once a day and traveled extensively on speaking tours. Accepting requests from Buddhists around the world, Master Hsuan Hua led delegations to Hong Kong, Taiwan, India, Southeast Asia, and Europe to propagate the Dharma. He also traveled to Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Australia, and South America. His presence drew a multitude of the faithful everywhere he went. He was also often invited to lecture at universities and academic conferences.
The Venerable Master was a pioneer in building bridges between different Buddhist communities. Wishing to heal the ancient divide between Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism, he invited 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 inter-religious respect and actively promoted interfaith dialogue. He stressed the commonalities of religious traditions, particularly their emphasis on proper and compassionate conduct. Together with his friend Paul Cardinal Yubin, who had been archbishop of Nanjing and was the Chancellor of the Catholic Furen University in Taiwan, Master Hua made plans for an Institute for World Religions in 1976, which came to fruition in Berkeley in 1994.
In 1990, at the invitation of Buddhists in several European countries, the Venerable Master led a large delegation on a European Dharma tour, knowing well that because of his ill health at the time, the rigors of the trip would shorten his life. He had always considered the Dharma more important than his own life. After he returned from the tour, his health gradually deteriorated, yet he continued on another major tour to Taiwan despite being quite ill in 1993.
The Venerable Master’s Final Wishes
In Los Angeles, on June 7, 1995, the Venerable Master left this world at the age of seventy-seven. When he was alive, he sought nothing—neither fame, wealth, nor power. He dedicated his every thought and action towards bringing true happiness to all sentient beings. In his final instructions he said:
After I depart, you can recite the Avatamsaka Sutra and the name of Amitabha Buddha for however many days you would like, perhaps seven days or forty-nine days. After cremating my body, scatter all my remains in the air. I do not want you to do anything else at all. Do not build me any pagodas or memorials. I came into the world without anything; when I depart, I still do not want anything, and I do not want to leave any traces in the world…From emptiness I came; to emptiness I am returning.