Master Yin Guang: Buddhist Epistolary

There are not many great Buddhist writers. This is not an accident; good writing is just not an aspiration for most Buddhist teachers. The Dharma is shared in words, practice, shared experience, and community. Writing carries with it the necessity of saying something new and valuable to as many people as possible, while the domain of a good teacher is to impart what is old and worn and true in the way which speaks to the heart of the individual whom most needs to hear it.

That is why I am fascinated by the curious case of Master Yin Guang (印光), a pre-Civil War Chinese Pure Land master. Master Yin Guang lived most of his life in seclusion on the Buddhistically sacred Mount Putuo off the coast of southern China. He did not perform lavish ceremonies or amass skads of lay and monastic disciples. But he did write.

He wrote letters.

Master Yin Guang’s letters make me nostalgic for the age of letter writing I can so easily convince myself never really existed. The letters are personal and directed, but are organized and clear, obviously meant to be what they are: planned and perfected, more permanent than a conversation, to be read and practice by their recipients.

Thankfully, enough of Master Yin Guang’s correspondents thought the letters had value that they collected and published them, so we can all read them. Moreover, if you are reading this you can read them too: a good selection has been translated and is available online as a free eBook entitled: Pure Land, Pure Zen. [Hosted by Buddhanet]

Master Yin Guang’s Dharma is orthodox Pure Land, a tradition that has never been particularly resonant with me; though I find myself drawn to the writing and the sentiment of the letters themselves. In closing, please enjoy a favorite selection from the letter “A Little Bit of Knowledge is Ignorance:”

Receiving your poetic letter from afair, I cannot but feel embarassed! From an early age, this old monk has lacked education. My knowledge is uncertain and nebulous. Having drifted here and there for many years, far away from my native village, I am now sojourning on [Mount Putuo]. Never did I expect that such a remarkable person as yourself, a scholar versed in the Mind-Dharma of Confucianism and Buddhism, who has studied at the feet of masters far and wide and made their outstanding practices his own, would condescend to seek advice from me. Moreover, you have praised me so excessively that my mind is perplexed and uneasy.

I venture to think that with your broad, well-rounded education and your lofty, far-reaching knowledge, you surely cannot have doubts about such ordinary matters as those raised in your letter. It must be that your intention is to act as an example, to show the Way to those who cultivate alongside you.

However, since you have presented knowledge as ignorance, there is nothing to prevent me from presenting ignorance as knowledge and I will try to answer your questions in the order raised. I certainly would never date imitate the old mandarin who sits as a judge but is in reality an aging student submitting his examination papers. Therefore, if the following explanations contain errors, please revise and amend them.

Although the mind is what matters most in Buddha [name] recitation, oral recitation should not be disparaged. This is because body, speech, and mind reinforce one another. Although the mind may be focused on Amitabha Buddha, if the body does not bow respectfully and the mouth does not recite, it is difficult to receive benefits. For example, even when lifting heavy objects, ordinary people assist themselves by shouting aloud; how can you not do at least as much when trying to concentrate the mind and attain samadhi!

3 Replies to “Master Yin Guang: Buddhist Epistolary”

  1. Thank you for sharing this wonderful letter. Zen teachers sometimes say, “Buddha is mind alone,” but mind expresses itself through mouth and hand, feet and ears. No separation.

    1. @ Barry Briggs

      I’m glad you enjoyed the excerpt– my favorite part is the immediacy of his metaphor: we’ve all grunted a bit in exertion to make things that little bit easier, without sense of obligation or embarassment. How could we do less for our practice?

      Thanks for reading!

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