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This essay intends to discuss the various themes that have been developed in the book of Chen-hua, ‘Memoirs of a Modern Chinese Buddhist Pilgrim.’ In order to achieve this objective I will identify various themes outlined in the essay and give supporting evidence from the book.


(i)  Criticism of Monastic Life

Chen-hua frantically expresses his criticisms about the monastic life which he witnessed throughout his life as a monk. In his book, “In Search of the Dharma: Memoirs of a Modern Chinese Buddhist Pilgrim” he provides his personal history as well as his reflections on the condition of Buddhism as he witnessed them. It entails his experiences as a young monk. Being a monk, he is able to observe happenings in their own setting. Notably, majority of Chinese monks have been reluctant to speak about their personal life. Some have suffered in silence from the harsh traditions and experiences which they went through as a result of following some Buddha’s teachings (Chen-hua, 1992, p. 99). While Chen-hua expresses his criticisms over monastic life, he states that he has a strong commitment and love for the religion.

Through this memoir, Chua-hua depicts the monastic life. Notably, monks are supposed to leave their secular names before they enter the monastic order. Indeed, they abandon most of the normal life in order to abide to the order of Buddhism. During writing of this book, most Chinese Buddhists believed that they were living when Buddhist masters were at the verge of decline (Harvey, 1990, p. 27). Chen-hua begins from his movement from Honan to Chiang-nan in chapter one. He explains his encounters and obstacles he faced. During this period, Japanese and Communists were fighting in frantic for power. Moreover, transportation is not convenient due to the fact that there were bandits who infested the hills posing an obstacle to their movement. Due to the rivalry at the time, people are being stripped naked, beaten half to death while some were buried alive (Chen-hua, 1992, p. 92). Chen-hua calls it a tearful journey due to what they encountered in the way. Due to reduced influence of Buddhism, monks believed that most followers lacked monastic discipline in their life practices. According to Chen-hua, there were open abuses that were connected with the deviation from the monastic life. Leaving monastic discourses meant that the person needed some discipline to be instilled in him or her (Heinz, 1991, p. 21). Thus, Chua-hua is compelled to read widely in order to gain insights of what was required of him as a young monk.

Chua-hua went through the Chinese monastic life and Buddhist practices that have been changed as a result of Communist Revolution. He establishes the accounts from a point of view where he is able to witness all the happenings. Chen Hua departs from his home in China to study Buddhism in Kiansu. He also studies in Chekiang in the south. He later joins the monastic life in Taiwan after spending a good part of his life as a draftee in the National army (Harvey, 1990, p. 120). Thus, he explores perceptively the pilgrimages of the monasteries and holy sites.

Chen-hua reiterates throughout the book that he had great love for Buddhism. However, he had to point a mistake where it was necessary. Thus, his criticisms were not out of hatred but for intense love. He knew that his writing was likely to be taken as if he had a personal grudge towards the religion (Rupert, 1998, p. 18). However, he was a committed monk who took part in the reform of monastic life. Chen-hua decided not to “hide the family scandals from the eyes of outsiders” (Chen-hua, 1992, p. 23). He resolved to show his sincere conscience and witness to the generation openly. Although his memoir may be seen as a ruthless attack to the religion, he argues that his main aim was to ensure that reforms were carried out in order to make the religion better especially the status of the monks. For instance, he notes some of the abuses at the Pao-hua mountain stating that, “it is true that blemishes on family’s name should not be held up for all to see, but to give examples of the monastic system from which people of the future can select some of the things and reject others, it behooves me to reveal the dark side as well as publicizing the commendable side of things. Pao-hua Mountain is the establishment at which I was ordained. It would seem wrong for me to write about these somewhat unsavory matters, and thus, needlessly incur ill feelings of outsiders but, the truth being more important than my personal likes and dislikes, I feel it would be better to make it known to monks, nuns and devotees around the world rather that to bury it in my own heart” (Chen-hua, 1992, p. 37). Chen-hua went for an ordination at Pao-hua Mountain. Notably, Lung-van was a very important town in the county of Chu-jung. Chua-hua was tedious due to the long journey and the ruggedness of Mountain of Pao-hua where the subsidiary temple was located. However, he was discouraged by the monastic practices that were being done, especially, the abuses. Thus, he castigates these actions boldly.

(ii)   Injustice of Life

The author discusses the issue of injustice in the society where he lived. His grandfather had accumulated a lot of property before his sixties. He had about 75 acres of land composed for land, houses and about ten shops. He divided his wealth for his sons leaving himself with only about a fifth of the total land. As fate would have it, he did not enjoy his property as it was seized when he was sued for a mistake he did not commit. Problems continued to face his life as the remaining properties were destroyed by fire (Rupert, 1998, p. 19). At this time, Chen-hua was only three years old. Throughout the analysis of his infancy, he tells the reader about the death of his father and how it occurred. That morning he sat in the library with a portrait of his father that was reminding him several things. He introduces another character in this chapter, Mr. Crow where they are engaged in a direct conversation. The man seems to know his father and tells him of how he was a librarian of his grandfather (Chen-hua, 1992, p. 37). Although they had never met, they exchange important conversation in regard to the library and events that had happened. Mr. Crow gives the historical development of the library such as the invention of printing and the fact that at the time, they wee using manuscripts. The library serves as an indication of how Buddhism had faded as a result of entry of other religions. For instance, the librarian argues that the library had grown ding with age. The library did not have a source of light. It relied on sun for illumination. However, the sun rays could not last for long. Chua uses this to show an imagery of how Buddhism did not last for long before its light was overcome by other factors (Heine & Charles, 2003, 20). The writer expresses various dimensions in this essay about the dimensions in Buddhism. These were concerned with the powers which were bestowed to the monks. Unfortunately, they were unable to understand what was required from them. They knew absolutely nothing. Thus, it is evident that Buddhism was discriminating people and suing people for mistakes they did not make such as it was the case with his father.

(iii)  Importance of Charity Work

To Chen-hua, he had another mission for becoming a monk. He wanted to contribute in making a living for the poor children especially those who had no families. In contrast, Chen-hua went through the tonsure without the normal ceremonies. His master was not even concerned. His head was shaved clean. However, he was not asked to take the three refuges nor being given the precepts which were mandatory to any novice. Chen-hua refers to the temple where he received the tonsure small temple. This temple was not like other public monasteries which he referred to as “forests for the ten directions”. Thus, one would only become an heir when his hair was shaved and the general terms applied. Some of these terms included the secular lineage usages (Harvey, 1990, p. 160). Throughout his training, Chen-hua testifies that he was transformed by the monastic training. This made him become a passionate speaker defending and castigating the Buddhist tradition.

(iv) Forgiveness

Surprisingly, Chen-hua reconciled with his father who had shown him no sympathy. For example, he had caused his mother to commit suicide as well as tried to kill him on several occasions. His father was abusive and violent who made his youth hood very hard forcing him to live with the grandparents and eventually ran away. However, the two had serious differences. His father did not appreciate his vocation. He was against the Buddhist monks. Thus, he became a drunkard and a gambler (Chen-hua, 1992, p. 317). He argued that he was ashamed of a son who decided to become a monk thus unable to produce an heir. Chen-hua tried to convert his father to Buddhism. Miraculously, his father accepted Buddhism. The main drive to his conversion was because he saw the Buddhist compassion that his son had hence decided to be him. This sudden conversion was a relief to Chen-hua.

(iv) Fate in Life

Chen-hua describes his fateful birth. As the last born in the family of six, he was saved by his grandparents as his father wanted to leave him at the mountain to feed to the wild dogs. This was simply because during the night of his birth, owls cried all night. This was interpreted as a bad omen to the family. Another bad news emanated from a fortune teller who said that the child would die of hunger (Rupert, 1998, p. 302). As a result, his grandparents took him to the Mountain Tai on a pilgrimage. The main aim was to offer incense and intercede for his safety. As he grew, his family went from one tragedy to another although he did not die of hunger as it had been foretold. Indeed, his mother hanged herself as she could not withstand the tragedies while his father tried to kill him for the second time in vain. As a result, Chen-hua explains his life in Honan. Notably, Buddhism in Honan had been wiped out by the spread of Christianity. Chua-hua depicts images of dilapidated and vacant temples. He writes, “The old temple, lamp less, is lit only by moonlight; its triple gate is gaping, sealed only by mist” (Chen-hua, 1992, p. 78). He expressed his fear people had abandoned Buddhism. In fact most temples had been turned into schools and army camps. The scriptures and images had been vandalized and their lands divided by individuals. They had posed the life of monks who dearly depended on the temples for livelihood in danger. Pilgrims were no longer practiced in the area. As a monk, Chua-hua reflects on the days when he became a monk and took his vows in Yung-Cheng temple. He felt so humiliated (Rupert, 1998, p. 96). He no longer observed monastic precepts among other rules. On his stop by the roadside, Chua-hua meets compassionate monks who were going through the same hardships.

Chua-hua reports of the examinations at Pi-Lu Monastery. This occurred soon after he had left the ordination at Poa-hua Mountain. These events were happenings as this Buddhist seminary. Chen-hua had a dream of staying at Tung-Yueh temple in a Buddhist seminary. At this place, he lived with some ordination brothers who treated him well. Despite their welcoming nature, he had to leave with his belongings (Rupert, 1998, p. 121). Throughout this chapter, Chen-hua is undergoing his ordination studies to become monk together with other brothers. However, something unpleasant happened and they had to part. There was no hope of continuing with their studies at Pi-lu Monastery. They had only stayed together for two months something that had made them create bonds. Time had come for each to go his way (Chen-hua, 1992, p. 231). Chua-hua had to go to Tung-Yueh Temple. In his study at Tien-ning seminary, Chen-hua learned several methods about survival in the monastic society. Although he stayed in this place for one year, he gained a lot of experience something that gave him more insight in the monastery life. He argues that one had to understand the nature of life of the monks in order to be in a position to practice them hence surviving in such an environment (Peter, 2001, p. 21). He states that, “if you did not understand them or understood them but could not apply them, then your life in that environment would be like a journey in a desert with no oases ahead and no villages behind” (Chen,

Chen-hua found himself collecting rents on the bank of Lake Tai for two months. He did not drive himself into this action but he was forced. Initially, he had a mission of going to visiting the Lin-yen monastery and enters the Buddha recitation hall. Unfortunately, his mission was thwarted as he was drawn out of the hall. This was after his three day stay and practicing Amitabha Buddha recitations. These events conflicted with his aim of serving at the temple (Harvey, 1990, p. 86). Through the combination of these unexpected events in his life, he is able to tell a story from his point of view as well as his involvement. For instance, after collecting the rent at the Lake Tai a place called Heng-chin; he was later treated as a guest in a special department. He least expected this series of events that affected his stay at the temple.

Buddha recitation week at Ling-yen Mountain is another happening that Chen-hua uses to describe Buddha pilgrims. He states that in Taiwan, most temples and monasteries observed the pilgrim of the recitation weeks in every year. This recitation was done before the birth of Amitabha in order to facilitate the celebration. It acted as a major influence to the believers of Buddha and enabled them to withhold the goodness. Thus, reciting the Amitabha Buddha’s name was an act of planting the root of goodness in his people and ensures that people were following his teachings as well as expression allegiance in his worship. However, Chen-hua argues that the recitations at the mountain were not purely Buddha’s for the reason that the gatherings were not worth mentioning (Rupert, 1998, p. 128). Moreover, those who were conducting them were neither worthy of being motioned. They failed to get their hands on the same yet they were the leaders of the recitations. He argues the recitations at the Ling-yen mountain were conducted in a unique way something that made them. At the Pu-to Island, Chen-hua expresses his distress about the Asoka monastery. The monarchy was being faced by several challenges. For instance, people were coveting, trading people such as the sale of Sariras as well as the burning of a man’s finger up to death. These are some of the things that made Chen-hua very bitter and fearful of the fateful events that were contributing to the demise of Asoka monastery (Heinz, 1991, p. 91). As a result of these happenings, he decided to speak to Hua-ti before he could departure for Pu-to island about his monarchy. His main aim was to stress the essence his monastery has due to its fame and recognition by a large number of people who considered him as a good leader of that monastery. Indeed, people were coming from far distance to look and pay their respect to the monk. This made the monks who lived in that placed to be honored by people and gain recognition. Chen-hua defines them as virtuous monks and argues that they ought to cherish the honor that was accorded to them by people.

(v) Corruption

However, Chua-hua had seen something of concern in the monastery. In a few days time when he had been there, he had observed that the monastery was merely used for drawing pilgrims as well as making money (Damian, 1996, p. 75). Sadly, no one paid attention to the Sarira. Notably, the Verger of Sarira always told people of the benefits that would be gained by an individual by the fact that he observed Sarira. Surprisingly, the Verger did not seek the same benefits himself. He seemed to have different paths of seeking benefits apart from adherence to Sarira. Chen-hua had a deep concern on the future of Sarira (Chen-hua, 1992, p. 192). He argued that people, who were following his way, would be disappointed in future if they were unable to achieve the promised benefits. The possible outcome to the monastery would be the damaging of its name and honor. Chua-hua recognizes Hua-ti as a person with capacity and perceptive as a young monk. He saw him as a potential leader of the monastery who would take it to higher levels. In order to maintain the honor of the monastery, the practices that were against Sarira were to be removed. This was to enable the future pilgrims in the monastery enjoyable and fruitful for those involved.

(vi)Effects of Unfriendly Environment to an Individual and Society

Chen-hua exposes the harsh treatment at the Pao-hua monastery. This monastery was famous for carrying out ordination sessions and enforcing discipline to the new monks. Ordination masters were very harsh something that resulted in animosity between the new monks and their masters. Chua-hua observed that these masters behaved like high-handed and arrogant teachers who could not control their anger. Thus, he tried to compare the way ordination sessions were carried out in other monasteries such as in Tien-tung and Taiwan and felt that he had to do something to end the animosity between the teachers and their students in this monastery. As a teacher who had taught in Taiwan as an ordination teacher, he felt that this should not be the case. According to him, the purpose of holding ordination ceremonies was to train the monks in liturgy and deportment. Moreover, masters were expected to instill knowledge about the monastic precepts. In his own understanding, the teaching entailed the following, “During the first two weeks, monks and nuns trainees studied how to eat, dress, how to lie when sleeping, how to make their bed, how to park their belongings for journey, how to stand and talk, how to enter the great shrine-hall, how to make prostration to the Buddha image, how to receive guests, how to hand over the duty” (Chen-hua, 1992, p. 102). Upon completion of these studies, one was ready to proceed to another level. Thus, there was no need to create animosity among the brothers. Chen-hua was often invited Taiwan during the “Buddha Recitation Week” and “Chan Meditation Week”. He was to lead the community as he had gained enough experiences at Ling-yea. At this place, he was hearted by the people’s great interest in Buddhism. He emphasized that ordination sessions should be conducted with the same mindedness and discipline in all monasteries.

(vi) Appreciating Others

Chen-hua writes of a fatal illness in chapter (XIV). He became unconscious for seven days and nights, and he had no hope of living. Indeed, a coffin had been made for his burial. Miraculously, he recovered. Chen-hua recalls of teachings and teachers who made profound impression in his life. For instance, he gives an example of his teacher Tz'u-hang Bodhisattva who he also refers to as pious (Heinz, 1991, p. 87). He describes him as one of the most famous grand- master Tzu-hang in the entire world. Through doing this, he deflects the reader’s attention from his personal life to concentrate on the work that has been done by the Buddhist masters. He mentions about three teachers whom he had the highest regard for and whose ideas greatly impressed his life to become a committed monk.


Essentially, Chen-hua’s main aim of writing this book was to learn Buddhism as well as help others to have a deeper understanding of Buddhism especially the monastic life. Virtually, the book touches on four main areas as depicted by the four characters engaged in different activities such as the meditation, study, task performance and as a monk in course of his duty. These are the major areas that Chen-hua deals with throughout his book. Although he explains the events in the first person narrative, he makes the book more diverse such that it does not only deal with his life but also the monastic life in general. Chen-hua was driven by the virtue of commitment to write about his life with honesty depicting the reality that most monks were unable to declare openly. 

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