Saturday, January 12, 2008

A Bright Moon: The Buddhist Path of Venerable Hung-I

The extension in the title would have alerted readers to the fact that this is not a blog about the moon that is hung way up there in the nightscape, though its physical presence there has spawned many folklores and poems. Rather, it's about the legendary life of a man, a real one, who switched from living in one world to another world, albeit physically occupying the same space, seemingly just by flipping the mind. But as we shall see, the switch is driven by the same positive emotion that we all have, but a very much extended version: universal love.

I first heard of Venerable Hung-I from a Chinese Buddhist book that wify brought with her from Malaysia. It's a collection of Buddhist wisdom compiled by Venerable Hung-I from all the sutras that he had read but explained by Venerable Chin Kung.

Then I was told of the widely circulated account of his ordainment as a Buddhist monk at the rather mature age of 39. By then he already had a family and had earned rave reviews and established himself as a consummate artist and musician. In this respect, he much mirrored the way Shakyamuni Buddha had left his earthly wealth and beloved ones to seek the universal truth of our existence.

Then I found out that one of the songs in a Chinese Buddhist Song CD that we listen daily is by him, the lyrics that is. We listen to it so much so that we can even recite the verses of the song, Bidding Farewell, from memory. The elegance, the fluidity, and the profundity of the arrangement of the words conjure up the extreme gloom typically associated with saying goodbye, accentuating the impermanence of human interaction.

More recently, I chanced upon the news of a Chinese movie depicting his life, A Bright Moon, one that draws a sharp contrast between his earlier life of a wealthy prodigy of arts, covering nearly every major fields in artistic creativity: calligraphy, paintings, music, sculpture, and drama, and his later life as a highly venerated itinerant monk steeped in the school of precepts and morality. The transition from ebullience, fame, and accolades to solitude and serenity is phenomenal to say the least.

(Image taken from here.)

Since then I have been searching for the movie since it is a rarity indeed to find a movie made in the rarefied genre of Buddhism, especially a biography of a contemporary (we were born about sixty years apart) Chinese Buddhist monk that happened to share the same last name as me. And the prayer was answered today, when I watched the 99-minute movie with wify.

The movie started with a kid striking a spinning top with some kind of flexible stick (rattan?) ostensibly to keep it spinning (we have our own version of spinning top back home, one that's much more streamlined in shape released from a thin rope coiled round the top which is then left to spin on its own accord). That's Lee Shu-Tung, before he became Venerable Hung-I. And the next scene showed him reciting some verses from the Diamond Sutra, at the young tender age of four.

The top of the spinning top.

The first half of the movie is about his life in the mundane world, dabbling and excelling in various forms of arts, and his frequent clashes with the feudalistic way of his family (his biological mother was a concubine and he was fatherless at a young age). As an avant-garde in the realm of music and arts, he was credited with introducing music and the uninhibited art-form (using models in the nude) of the West into China, facing tremendous hurdles in the latter effort as one would image.

The transition occurred at the mid-point of the movie, when Lee related his wish to embrace monkhood to his best friend, Shia, who was understandably shell-shocked that a man of such good fortunes could just give them all up to escape into a world of pessimistic retreat as judged through the lens of one ensconced in the conventional world.

In the next scene, he relayed the same news to his wife, who was heart-broken. When she entreated him to go to Japan as Japanese monks could still have families, he proudly declared that he was a Chinese, that he had mastered his arts while in Japan notwithstanding. This patriotic leaning in him was weaved through the movie, especially toward the end when he admonished the sangha community that Buddhism was about loving and saving the country.

I must admit that I was waiting for some kind of life changing event that precipitated his transition to emerge, but to no avail. I guess the threshold was reached incrementally, that he was basically still an unhappy man despite all the niceties in life. There was a scene when he and his erstwhile wife met in the middle of a lake, in two different boats. She pleaded him, addressing him as Venerable Hung-I at his insistence, what love was. His reply: love is compassion.

I recalled an earlier scene when they were happily married and were boating in the same lake, on one boat. She had said then, “Paradise up there, and Su and Hang down here” (Su Chou and Hang Chou with their unparalleled scenic beauty were the two heavens on earth then). What a diametrically opposite contrast of life's mutability.

Apart from been a vegan, Venerable Hung-I actualized the edicts of precepts, of morality. One scene showed him removing a bug from under his head while planning to sleep and letting it go next to the bed. He had penned verses on pictures of releasing life (one of the scenes in the movie displayed juvenile fish being released into a lake), drawn and compiled by his students into a book collection.

The drawing entitled Sentient Beings and verses are from here. Chinese translation: All sentient beings share our body form, and we should be compassionte toward them because of their ignorance. Releasing life and refraining from killing are my advice to all, as to love them is to not consume their meat.

He spent his remaining years delivering Dharma lectures and composing Buddhist songs, educating the next generation of the Buddhist flag carriers to propagate the Buddhist teachings. The last scene showed him refusing his physician's prescription while seriously ill so that the needy could benefit from the medicine, accepting the inevitability of death totally.

From the halcyon days of artistic achievements, the pioneer in invigorating the arts scene in China, a beaming icon of unparalleled talents, to the stillness of a monastery, a full devotion to emptiness, and a complete abstinence from all worldly pleasures, that's the path that Venerable Hung-I had traversed, one that would forever illuminate the path for generations to come, like a bright moon.

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