Returning to the mountain
I was rushing to leave for the airport with my students but kept getting delayed because I’d get called to greet visitors.
I was in the Mabuhay Temple, which housed the first campus of Guang Ming College, a school that I’ve been directing for more than two years now. Despite its name, the college has no ethnic Chinese and although it was first housed in a temple, none of the students are Buddhist. All of them are going through college without having to pay tuition and with full support for board and lodging and other expenses.
The visitors had come in to express condolences, following the death a few days earlier of Ven. Master Hsing Yin, the founder of Fo Guang Shan (FGS). Hsing Yin is his monastic name, which means star and cloud. At his funeral, they showed a video of his life where he explains that the term refers to a nebula, and he compared himself to a tiny star floating on a cloud.
“Da Shi” or “Great Teacher” was the more common way people referred to him, a term reflecting respect for his many accomplishments: more than 300 temples on different continents that are hubs for all kinds of community activities and philanthropies, from homes for the elderly to orphanages.
I hesitate to use the term “charities” for his many endeavors because Da Shi was a firm believer in empowering people to help themselves, in line with humanist Buddhism which emerged in the 20th century in reaction to the stagnation of traditional Buddhism, instead calling for more attention to the lives and needs of people.
Not surprisingly, for Da Shi and FGS, the focus has been education, from preschools to universities. There is an FGS consortium composed of five universities: three in Taiwan and one each in Australia, the United States, and the Philippines. Guang Ming was established in 2014 in Manila, moving into a new seven-hectare flagship campus in Tagaytay just last year.
Over the years, Da Shi built a corps of women monastics, even daring to defy convention by ordaining women and encouraging them to do graduate degrees. In addition, he organized a Buddha’s Light International Association (BLIA) for lay people, who have been indispensable in raising support for philanthropies.
I was never surprised when I’d hear of a new Da Shi project. His projects sometimes raised eyebrows for straying away from traditional concerns, a “Buddhist choir” for example in the 1950s.
My first connection to him was in basketball, which got him into trouble when he was still studying to be a monk. Years later, he organized a BLIA international basketball competition for colleges from around the world. That included a basketball team known mainly for its many losses. That was UP’s Fighting Maroons, whose long journey to the championship included BLIA. I’ve described this in earlier columns.
Da Shi drew up a statement, “An Honest Revelation,” some eight years ago which included a request for simple death rituals … and for music. His close associates were one in deciding that it had to be Guang Ming singers to represent the FGS family in paying homage.
I received my “orders” from the women monastics to “hui shan,” and return to the mountain, meaning Fo Guang Shan itself, which translates as Buddha Light Mountain.
The whole week, thousands of people had come to the mountain as well: rich and poor, politicians (including the president of Taiwan, who came at the start of the funeral ceremonies), farmers, Buddhists, and representatives of different faiths.
On Sunday, Guangming’s singers rendered a mix of Mandarin, English, and Filipino songs that so moved the audience that the monastics asked for an encore the next day, at the funeral itself. Clearly, the favorite in the repertoire was a song that first asks Buddha, then the late Dashi, “where are you?” The reply is in accordance with Buddhist teachings: “There is a Buddha nature in all of us.”
So to the question addressed to Dashi and the answer: The Dashi lives in us. It was at once a song that grieved over the great loss of a beloved teacher, as well as an expression of self-confidence, “We will carry on what you started.”