Banes of saintliness

The universal banes to the reputation of the solitary and the holy cross cultural and historical times. What dogged the Christian saints also pursued the holy figures of India, China, and Japan. These conflations of virtue and power also affect hermits East and West. The popular manifestations are favored by the masses of religious believers who cannot grasp the mechanics of wisdom, seeing it as a supernatural phenomenon and therefore not applicable to their lives, at least not beyond minimal ritual. So these signs and miracles become a bane to the saintly in throwing up a wall or veil to a true path.

Here one unusual example will be cited. The life of Chinese Zen master Xu-Yun, who died in 1959 and may therefore be considered modern, at least in chronology and time, unintentionally reveals these conundrums in his autobiography, titled Empty Cloud, and translated in 1988. Three characteristic “banes” may be cited.

1. Hagiography.
Biographies or Lives of the Western Christian saints and hermits are filled, sometimes painfully so, with standard devices signifying that the person is holy. Such events and signs often outweigh historical data or replace unavailable data. Nor often do biographies find mere praise sufficient, not even the modest contemporary requirement of a couple of posthumous miracles. The Lives are a literary genre, not a historical or documentary one. To the discerning, they are childlike, full of awe and wonder, rather than deliberately malicious or mischievous. The biographies often cite the very acts of nature as approbations of saintliness.

The autobiography of Xu-Yun, who lived to 120 years and died in 1959, is sprinkled with nature confirmations, of the type familiar in Western hagiography: receptivity to the dharma eliciting reform in wayward or ignorant animals (a cow, geese, a raven); brilliant lights in the sky upon the death of holy persons; sweet fragrances exuded upon the death of holy persons; successful exorcisms; weather phenomena such as rainfall when sought by prayers; and the lifting of an enormous heavy boulder with the mere hands at a dangerous moment when scaring off bandits was necessary. (The veneration of relics was also related but is universal and not necessarily hagiographic.)

2. Family.
The problem of family relations ofter dogs children who want to follow a religious path against the will of their parents. This phenomenon is common to East and West. If the saintly figure’s parents are cruel and abusive, the child’s option is naturally easier, but not always. The twin poles are regret and resentment on the parent or guardian’s part, and guilt on the child’s part. This theme fits a larger psychological paradigm, but even the simplest interpersonal factors reflect tension, often exacerbated by differences in personality.

In the example of Xu-Yun, his mother died in childbirth, and he was raised the only son of his father and a stepmother. He was educated in Taoism, but Xu-Yun preferred Buddhism, saying nothing of his preference, however. Once, at 15, he ran off with a cousin to enter a Buddhist monastery, but was retrieved. His father then put him in the charge of an uncle, and, at 17, married Xu-Yun to two girls of local families. They remained, however, “pure-minded companions,” as Xu-Yun describes it. He then made a second and successful flight to a Buddhist monastery and was never found.

Twenty years later, however, he was clearly still assailed by guilt, in part because he was still an itinerant monk (thus “unsuccessful”). “I felt very ashamed,” he writes plainly. He undertook a pilgrimage to pay his debt of gratitude to his mother for giving him birth, prostrating himself every third step, holding incense-offerings. Later, against the advice of others, he was to burn off one finger in his effort to propitiate his mother’s salvation. Once he dreamed of his mother on a dragon’s back flying westward (Ahmida’s paradise is in the west vis-a-vis China), and he was content but still wondered

He learned of his father’s death, then that of his stepmother. His stepmother and two wives had entered Buddhist nunneries. Xu Yun received a set of gathas or poems from his stepmother chiding him for his abandonment of the women, and a letter from one of his wives similarly ruing his callow treatment but commending his virtue. Naturally Xu-Yun received the documents with “mixed feelings,” as he puts it. His former wife states:

The more I think of your inability to pay back your debt of gratitude to your parents and of your casting aside all feelings towards your wives, the more I am at a loss trying to understand how you have been able to bear all this.

3. Politics.
Hermits, priests, and sages East and West have often dealt with kings, princes, and the powerful. These confrontations have often been depicted as symbolic duels of black and white, good and evil. But because such powerful people arise from within the culture, no realistic resolution is presented by hagiography, nor can one expect to find resolutions in that genre. On the other hand, reclusion and solitude have been the usual and necessary recourse, although these are considered blameworthy by authorities, and received skeptically in the West, though not so in the East. Xu-Yun was not a hermit or recluse (exception in early retreats and during his itinerant days) and did not shirk these encounters because he felt obliged to his followers.

From Xu-Yun’s narrative, it is clear that China’s hegemony over historical Tibet is assumed. This is not a popular conclusion in the West nor among China’s historical rivals or foes. The editor of the autobiography goes so far as to excise a sentence from Xu Yun as being “insensitive.” In context, however, when Xu-Yun undertook a walking pilgrimage to India that included stops in Bhutan, Nepal, and Tibet, he reveals his own disappointment if not disapproval of the Tibetan sangha, criticizing its disregard for monastic code and flagrant eating of meat. The monastic code in China forbade meat-eating, linking the Vinaya Code with the “Brahmmayala Sutra” and the “Lankavatara Sutra.” Seeing this fact and witnessing a sea of strange yellow and red hats, which he took as a proliferation of sectarianism, Xu-Yun lamented:

I thought of the days of the Jetavana Assembly [the Buddha’s original disciples in their simplicity of the dharma] and could not refrain from tears.

There is also a story, linked with hagiography but plausible, wherein a raven was brought to China by a tradesman. The raven was accustomed to eating meat, but through his instruction Xu-Yun got the raven and it gave up meat-eating. Is this a critique, suggesting that the raven it was “Tibetan”? It is only today, in fact, that the Dalai Lama recommends vegetarianism, but only as a health option, not an ethical expression.

Sectarianism has historically oscillated between rivalry for power, insistence on orthodoxy, and genuine conviction about ethics and right behavior. In the case of Chinese versus Tibetan Buddhism, the ethics of vegetarianism is acknowledged by Xu-Yun editor. He apologizes for the historical argument that Tibet could not grow adequate vegetables and greens while at the same time favorably noting the abstemiousness of the Chan monks.

Later in life, as a Buddhist elder widely respected for his efforts in rebuilding historic shrines, temples, and monasteries of China into the modern era, Xu-Yun deftly faced literal political threats. He faced hostility from secular anti-clericals of the Republic, bandits who suspected him of hoarding gold and riches, rapacious Japanese soldiers and occupiers, then destructive Communist locals. Political contentiousness from these external sources in each case threatened his years of nurturing what he realized were impermanent structures, though they meant a great deal to common people on the brink of grasping anything spiritual.

Whenever he began a project, it was said, Xu Yun arrived with only a staff in his possession, managed to raise money and volunteer labor to refurbish an ancient site, and left again with only a staff in his possession. Xu-Yun died in a cowshed, preferring it to the comfort of one of the sites he refurbished, leaving within himself the banes of holiness, which are the banes of life itself.