Elderly Master Di lived at Gold Mountain Monastery for many years. While there he served as a receptionist. One day, a fellow from his native village, a childhood playmate, came to visit him. This person was a handicraftsman, commonly known as a kitchenware mender. He patched up broken plates, dishes, bowls and chinaware, a craft that is lost today.
Master Di was a former trader who learned medicine from his uncle. During his tenure as receptionist at Gold Mountain Monastery, his fellow villager the artisan came to him and said he wanted to become a monk, with Master Di as his chosen teacher. “No way!” replied Master Di. “You are too old for that! You’re over 40, and you haven’t gone to school. Naturally you won’t be able to learn the scriptures, nor is ascetic practice something you can bear. Aren’t you asking for trouble by becoming a monk?”
Master Di admonished him repeatedly, but the man insisted on taking vows. Since they were from the same village and had known each other since childhood, Master Di was hard put to deny him. “If you do want to take ordination and become my disciple,” said the monk, “you must do as I say.” The artisan replied, “Yes, of course! I want you to be my teacher. I’ll do anything you say.” Master Di told him, “If you do as I say, you should just practice directly. There is no time for you to learn the scriptures, in view of your advanced years.” The craftsman responded, “I’ll do anything you say! Just let me be a monk.”
“Not long ago,” Master Di told him, “there was a handicraftsman who took vows, practiced and gained enlightenment. You should learn from him.” Replied his visitor, “As long as I can be your disciple, I’ll do anything you say.” Master Di then said, “After ordination, you don’t need to undertake the Vinaya (monastic discipline). I’ll find you a small temple. Don’t step beyond its doors and just recite the name of Amitabha Buddha conscientiously. I’ll get a few sponsors to provide food for you.”
Master Di went on, “There are many Buddhists in Ningbo to the south. Almost every village has a small temple where believers go to venerate the Buddha. I’ve been there and stayed three full years. I’ll find a small temple for you. You need not do anything except recite ‘Namo Amitabha Buddha.’ When you get tired, rest. Then continue reciting. Day and night, you must recite – consistently. Do not concern yourself with anything else. When the time comes, eat your two meals. I will get you a good sponsor.”
Master Di was well-known at the time and had many followers. He had someone make the arrangements. The practice and method he taught his new disciple was seclusion, also known as expedient retreat. A small temple was found for the artisan-turned-monk. Every day an old woman would come and cook two meals for him, so he no longer had to ply his craft. Since Master Di had taught him this practice, he thought, it must be a good one, certain to bring benefits. He did not know what those benefits might be. Master Di returned to Gold Mountain Monastery.
The monk performed Amitabha-recitation for three or four years, never leaving the temple. In the first flush of enthusiasm, he practiced diligently and intensively. As the saying goes, “The first year after taking vows, the Buddha is right before you. But after three years he has moved to Vulture’s Peak – a long way off.” When a person is first motivated and taught a method of practice, he displays great sincerity and is determined to see it through. In time, however, he slackens and makes light of it.
The monk, following Master Di’s advice, recited Amitabha’s name as soon as he awoke each morning. As he used to lift things as a handicraftsman, he had strong legs. He would do Amitabha-recitation while circumambulating a statue of the Buddha. When he grew tired, he sat down to recite. Master Di did not know what progress his disciple was making.
This went on for three or four years. One day, the monk told the old woman who cooked the meals, “You don’t have to cook for me tomorrow. I won’t be having lunch.” The woman thought someone must be treating him to lunch the next day. As the monk had not been seen leaving the temple the past few years, she thought his request strange and asked him the reason for it. He replied that he had a couple of relatives and friends in the neighborhood. Then he went out to visit them. On his return, he told the old woman, “You don’t need to come make me breakfast tomorrow morning.” The visit, she thought, must have resulted in another treat for him.
Next day, the monk remained in the old woman’s thoughts. She went to the temple around mealtime to see if he had returned. Its door was unlocked, as the place was poor and in no danger of being burgled. The woman called out at the entrance, “Master, are you back from lunch?” There was no response.
She went inside and saw him standing at the foot of his bed, facing the window and holding a string of beads. She asked him a question but got no reply. She took a closer look – and found that he was dead! He had passed away in a standing position, reciting the name of Amitabha Buddha. Stunned, she told the neighborhood residents, “The master has died standing up!”
Many flocked in to take a look. In one hand the monk held the string of beads, while ash was found in the other. People pried open his hand to discover eight or nine large silver coins inside. During those times, people in southern China did not use enameled spittoons with water inside. They used square boxes, filled with ash. They spit into the ash, which would be replaced every other day.
The onlookers in the temple saw that its spitting box had ash inside and outside. They noted that there was ash as well on the monk’s hand, which clutched eight or nine big silver coins. It dawned on them: Those coins were earnings from his former handicraft work. At the time, they were valuable indeed. As there was no cabinet in which to lock them, he had buried them in the ash of the spitting box. No thief could have imagined there might be anything worth stealing there.
Fearing that no one would find the coins, the monk took them in his hand and passed away standing up, reciting Amitabha Buddha’s name. His intention was to let people see that the money could be used to give him a proper funeral. That ought to be the explanation, according to Master Di. The monk’s sponsors then wrote to Master Di and told him, “Your disciple has died in a standing position.”
Master Di came by boat the next day. The deceased monk remained standing for two to three days, before his teacher held a funeral for him. Master Di had fulsome praise for his disciple. “Not bad at all!” he said. “You did not waste your time as a monk. You did much better than those prominent monks and even abbots. Few can match your achievement!”
Master Di had two disciples. One practiced Chan meditation and the other, Amitabha-recitation. We can compare the two. The Chan practitioner became a local deity after several years of hard work. And this handicraftsman, a mender of kitchenware, passed away in a standing position after having recited Amitabha’s name for three to four years. It was quite an accomplishment.
I have heard Master Di tell this story twice. It is true and most instructive. What I said today is to let you know that Amitabha-recitation is far superior to Chan or other forms of meditation, as well as esoteric Buddhism, and much easier to accomplish! It is a practice anyone can do, nor do you have to understand the principles behind it. So long as you recite the name of Amitabha Buddha without doubt, mixed practices or deviation, you will assuredly be reborn in his realm.
All of you, monastics and laypeople, whoever you are, ordained or living in the household, must know the real benefits of Amitabha-recitation. Do it whenever time allows. Don’t bother to see if it works or not. In the end, the benefits and positive results will come.
I don’t have time or ability to explain it all. I myself have seen several examples and heard about a few more. They did not occur in ancient times or many years ago. They are all contemporary cases.
All right. Better to act than to talk! Let me detain you no longer from reciting the name of Amitabha Buddha.
(From a discourse by Ven. Master Tanxu,
during a seven-day Amitabha-recitation retreat)
Ignorant, poor and lowly of status
A kitchenware mender may appear to be.
He has no skills except eating meals
And reciting Amitabha’s name.
For three years he did as he was taught
By a wise and learned mentor.
At ease and standing straight,
He was reborn in the Western Pure Land.
– English translation by Householder Dingxie