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Heart of Buddha

In Heart of Buddha, Heart of China: The Life of Tanxu, a Twentieth Century Monk, James Carter traces the life of Tanxu, an unknown but extraordinary Buddhist monk. Defined by a desire for a desire for an activist Chinese nationalism that maintained the nation’s cultural and social traditions Tanxu’s life story portrays twentieth century China from empire to republic, through war, famine, and revolution.

A century ago, Tanxu used his temples to establish physical links between Buddhism and Chinese nationalism. At the same time, though, he was guided by the belief that the physical world was illusory. The title of his memoir, “Recollections of Shadows and Dust,” uses a common Buddhist phrase meant to convey the impermanence and illusion of the material world, hardly the theological emphasis one might expect from a man who transformed cityscapes with his work in brick and mortar. I tried to understand this apparent paradox as I researched Tanxu’s career, but my connection to him remained impersonal, even distant, and strictly academic.

This all changed with the unexpected series of events that led me to the Bronx. My research turned up a commentary that Tanxu had written on the Heart Sutra (a Buddhist sutra is a sacred text, usually purporting to record the spoken teachings of the historical Buddha). This brief and very popular text includes the famous construction “form is emptiness; emptiness is form.” Tanxu’s commentary was translated into English and widely read by Western Buddhists. One morning from my office in Philadelphia I emailed the Young Men’s Buddhist Association (YMBA), in New York, to request a copy. They were happy to comply, but more interesting was this aside in their response: “By the way…[our] Master Lok To is a dharma heir disciple of Master Tanxu.”

Tanxu and Lok To worked together closely during the 1950’s and Lok To came to North America with Tanxu’s encouragement. He settled in the Bronx at the invitation of local Buddhist laity, and established the Buddhist Association of the United States there in 1964. Ten years later, he moved to his current location, on Davidson Avenue and founded the Young Men’s Buddhist Association as a center for his translation work. There he has been for nearly forty years.

Sitting with Lok To, Lu Bin (a young nun), and Hoi Sang Yu (a lay Buddhist who would become one of my most important guides through Tanxu’s world), I share my interest in Tanxu, and what I know about him. I’ve been to Harbin, and Yingkou, and Changchun, places they’ve never visited. Had I been to Qingdao, they wanted to know? Not yet. But that was the Master’s most important temple – I had to visit there: they could arrange it. They could coordinate my travels to most of the important stops on Tanxu’s itinerary, including Ningbo, where Tanxu studied to become a monk, and Tiantai Mountain, where his sect of Buddhism was established 1,100 years ago. Lok To was formally the abbot of Chamshan Temple in Hong Kong, where Tanxu’s remains were interred. I was welcome there anytime.

The moment was exciting, but also unsettling. I am by training and disposition an academic: keen to observe, less eager to participate. Journalists are warned to report, not to become, the story. Was I not risking just this by accepting invitations to temples and posing before Tanxu’s memorial shrine? And there was the question of faith. I make no claims for or against the beliefs that Tanxu, Lok To, and the other monks shared. Did I belong here?

Five months later, I stand in a mountainside clearing overlooking Clearwater Bay in Hong Kong’s New Territories. A white stupa housing Tanxu’s earthly remains gleams in the tropical sun. It is a beautiful scene of green cliffs plunging into the azure waters of the South China Sea. As I contemplate the view, a monkey emerges from the forest and, with barely a glance my way, walks to the plate of offerings on the altar in front of Tanxu’s stupa. Taking an orange form the plate, it saunters casually back into the forest.

My immersion in Tanxu’s world is most complete as I follow the story of his ordination in the city of Ningbo, near Shanghai. Ningbo teems with an easy going affluence. Centuries ago it was one of the largest ports in Asia. Today, less hurried than Shanghai, less uncertain than Hong Kong, and less paranoid than Beijing, it is no longer one of China’s great cities, but seems to have found a comfortable rhythm being past its prime. And, like almost all Chinese coastal cities, Ningbo is in the midst of an explosive construction boom.

The day I arrived, the temple appears shabby and dark, but active. A handful of monks move among the pavilions. The temple’s abbot, Master Yixang, less than five feet tall with a long gray beard, greets us. He did not know Tanxu personally, but he is familiar with one of the temple’s most famous students, and he is happy to meet visitors who know about Tanxu, for it is a rare occurrence. He shows me where Tanxu prayed, studied, and slept. In the gathering twilight, the abbot leads us from these faded buildings to his office, where he brings out the architectural drawings for renovations to Guanzong Temple and the Ningbo Buddhist Association: it will be a grand, brightly colored compound with marble floors replacing the worn wood that creaks under my feet as I look over the plans. It will be an impressive complex, but I feel fortunate that I arrived before the renovations and can tread the very same boards Tanxu walked decades before.

As Tanxu studied in this monastery in the 1910s, approaching his fiftieth birthday, he no doubt reflected on all the brutality and deprivation he had observed in his life. The first of Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths declares, “All existence is suffering”: Tanxu had suffered, and had dedicated much of his life to the path that would enable humans to transcend that suffering. My travels with Tanxu had taken me across the world, several times, but the only way to get to the start of the story was to travel back in time. This story begins neither in New York nor Hong Kong nor Ningbo, but in the poverty and political turmoil that was North China in the late nineteenth century.

James Carter is Professor of History at Saint Joseph’s University, in Philadelphia. He has lived and traveled widely in China, is the editor of the journal Twentieth-Century China and the author of several books and articles on modern China, most recently Heart of Buddha, Heart of China: The Life of Tanxu, a Twentieth Century Monk.

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