Ven. Dr. Yifa's Story -- Being a Religious Nun with Secular Ambitions
Becoming a Buddhist Nun
When I was about 12 or 13 years old, I had a strong desire to explore questions such as what the meaning of life is, and where humans come from and where they ultimately go. While my fellow students in junior high were working hard on preparing for the college entrance examination, I was so devoted to discovering the meaning of life that I saw the three words, meaning of life, printed in the sky when I wandered down the paths lined with coconut trees on campus. At parties, my friends discussed movies, food and boyfriends. I entered, asking them what the meaning of life was. They all said I was no fun. I was born and raised in a town named the North Port (Beigang) in Taiwan, where traditional worship of MaTsu was passed down from generation to generation. However, I did not identify with any religious beliefs.
Determined to become a judge and strive for social justice and fairness since I was little, I enrolled in the law school of National Taiwan University in 1979. A classmate named ShiGu Deng, originally from Malaysia and a Buddhist himself, introduced me to the Buddhist summer camp for college students organized by Fo Guang Shan. The camp was on a hill. After the two-week camp, I shaved my head and became a Buddhist nun because I learned about Buddhism and the Zen meditation. I realized that Buddhism was the vehicle for me to find the meaning of life and to solve problems of human existence - birth, aging, sickness and death.
Different from the philosophies of Confucianism and Taoism which I studied when I was young, Buddhism provides a well-balanced explanation on how to combine the earthly and the religious lives. More importantly is the idea of “Humanistic Buddhism” proposed by the Fo Guang Shan order – combining the earthly and the religious lives harmoniously, and conducting earthly affairs with a religious mentality. However, it is not required to become a monk or nun. For me, I could have become a judge or officer devoted to the Buddhist faith. Yet, Master Hsing Yun from Fo Guang Shan said that to improve the monastic community we need more young and well-educated people to become monks and nuns. As a 20-year-old student at the National Taiwan University, I thought I was exactly who they need. “A man is capable of propagating the principles which he follows instead of those principles propagating him/her.” Buddhism needed me, so I shaved my head and became a nun.
My decision shocked both my family and my university. My parents could not understand why a positive youth who had a smooth life made such a sudden decision. My university indicated that they never encountered a student who became a monk or a nun while he/she was studying. My father, who was heavily influenced by Confucianism at the time, was deeply sad, although he did not blame me, rather, he asked me three questions-- how I was going to repay my nation, my teachers and mentors, and my parents in the future. My mother could not understand either. She believed I was somehow enchanted, and thus took me home, and put me under surveillance for two months. During these two months, I had to communicate with Professors and faculty at my university to find out whether I could continue studying as a nun. I asked the instructors whether there was a rule in the University law against a student becoming a nun. Of course, there was so such rule. Hence, they had to let me be. Then, I told the department head that I was 20, an adult, hence, I could make decisions for myself. If I could not achieve both, I was going to give up the law school and stay as a nun. The Dean thought I was irresponsible. I asked him to help me to convince my parents because parents often expected their children to have marriage and offspring. But that was not enough for me. I thought I needed answers about birth, aging, sickness and death. Eventually, my family and university gave in. I returned to school as a nun, the only nun walking on campus.
Studying at University of Hawaii and Yale University
Ever since then, I have been wearing the kasaya, the Buddhist monastic robe, no matter where I travel, on or off campus, nationally or internationally. This was what I achieved for myself at that time, to be able to complete college as a nun. After graduation, I mainly assisted in the establishment of the Women’s Buddhism School at Taipei and served as a residential and ritual mentor at Cong Lin Buddhist School. With the encouragement from Master Hsing Yun, I later focused on learning English and Buddhism, and enrolled in the master program at the University of Hawaii in comparative studies of eastern and western philosophies. My professor at the University of Hawaii, David Kalupahana, then introduced me to Stanley Weinstein, a well-known specialist in Buddhism at Yale University. I focused my research on Chanyuan Qinggui of the Song Dynasty, how the original Indian precepts spread, changed, and eventually became the Buddhist Monastic Codes in China. This work was published in America. In 1996, I graduated from Yale University with a Ph.D. in Buddhist Studies. My parents attended my graduation ceremony. They were both very proud of me. Therefore, I am so grateful for the guidance of Master Hsing Yun, as well as the support from the Fo Guang Shan Buddhist society. I believe that all my achievements originate from the society and other people, and therefore, I want to give back to them.
Helping Establish the University of the West
After I obtained my Ph.D., I was assigned by Fo Guang Shan to help establish the University of the West in America. At the beginning, there was only one department of religious studies in the University of the West. I helped to establish the Department of Business Administration. There were two considerations in establishing the MBA program. One consideration was the necessity for non-profit management. All the temples, churches, foundations and museums are non-profit organizations, and Buddhism especially needed proper management. The second consideration was the trend of “doing business in China.” It was 1996, and we thought there would be more Americans doing business in China in the future. In the program, we taught Chinese language, culture and philosophy besides management knowledge. From this, I thought that in the future, we could establish another department, the department of East Asian Studies.
We also held a program for the University of the West, the management of Humanistic Buddhism, which allowed the monks, nuns and Buddhist lay people from mainland China to come to Hsi Lai Temple to study Humanistic Buddhism, and to learn management at the University of the West. I also helped to set up the certificate program of Buddhist Chaplaincy at the University of the West while I served as the Dean of the Department of Religious Studies. A certified Chaplaincy is required in America for one to give teachings on religions at places like prisons, hospitals and military institutions, or to get paid. At first, only Christians knew to obtain such certificates. But with the rapid development of Buddhism in the West, more and more Buddhism chaplains are needed. Currently, these two departments are among the most popular in the University of the West.
Developing The Humanistic Buddhist Monastic Life Program, and Other Buddhist Programs
Buddhism has a huge impact on world peace, hence, its globalization is necessary. I have participated frequently in international events for interfaith dialogues since 1996. I was invited to attend the international dialogue about universal ethics held by UNESCO in Barcelona, Spain. I also participated in the action against sexism organized by the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) in Nepal. In 1997, I attended the international dialogue about universal ethics at the UNESCO headquarters in France. In 2011, invited by my friend, the founder of the “Negotiation Project” at Harvard University, William Ury, I went to the Middle East for the first time trying to gain an in-depth understanding about the conflicts between Israel and the Palestine. In the coming October, I will go to Lebanon to attend another intercultural dialogue. It was not long ago that a chemical warfare occurred in Syria, causing millions of refugees fleeing to Lebanon. Many friends tried to convince me to cancel the trip. However, nothing ventured, nothing gained. Also, life and death are decreed by causality. Most of all, the Middle East needs the Buddhist philosophy of co-existence right now!
Since 2002, I started to focus on some practical work instead of just having conversations. So I started a Humanistic Buddhist Monastic Life Program (HBMLP), which allows college students from Europe, America and the rest of the world to experience one-month of intensive monastic life in Asia, and to learn Buddhism and meditation through first-hand experience. In the first two weeks of the camp, participants systematically learn the origination of Buddhism, and the theories of Mahayana Buddhism and Chinese Buddhism. The third week consists of seven days of a silent meditation retreat, and a three-step-one-bow pilgrimage culminating in a cultural trip. In the past 12 years, there have been about 800 participants in this program, we call them Woodenfish Alumni. It also helped to cultivate young Buddhist scholars in western academia. Some alumni have assisted me with the translation of Buddhist Sutras, such as the Heart Sutra, the Diamond Sutura, the Shorter Sukhavativyuha Sutra, the Ksitigarbha Sutra and the Sutra of Filial Piety. The translated sutras have all been uploaded online for free download. In America, my friend Paul Kjellberg, who teaches philosophy at Whittier College, the alma mater of President Nixon, brings his students to the Hsi Lai Temple for a one-week meditation every year. He said this training has influenced his students profoundly. In 2016, we brought HBMLP to mainland China. We had 66 students from Britain, United States, Canada and in total 18 countries in America, Europe and Asia. Students visited Heng Shan, Xian Yan Temple in Wenzhou, and Tian Tai Shan. In the culminating cultural trip, everyone was warmly received by people in Nan Chang and Chang Sha cities, and was deeply moved by their generous hospitality.
Another mission of Woodenfish is to internationalize the regional Buddhist Studies in mainland China. In the winter of 2012, a group of 30-40 scholars from Europe and America, led by the Zen expert Peter Gregory studied “The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch” in the Nanhua Temple, with support from the Zen center in Guangzhou. In the summer of 2013, we invited Prof. Junfang Yu from Columbia University to study “Guanyin” at Pu Tuo Shan. I hope to combine the expertise from these scholars with the Chinese Buddhist origins. The whole of Buddhism Studies in mainland China would thrive if they could all become globalized.
Walking Into the Future
I converted to Buddhism on a "whim”, studied abroad in America “without knowing how it happened”, and “strangely” obtained certain awards, all of which are not what I seek. My goal is to obtain enlightenment. But I possess so many resources given to me from the Buddhist arena. I am like a fully charged battery, so I must give back to society and Buddhism. I am trying my best to cultivate young monks, nuns and Buddhist followers from mainland China for them to become international Buddhist advocates. The next ten years will be a critical time for Buddhism in China. When it becomes the most rapidly spreading faith in the world, and when Buddhists from all around the world come to study Buddhism in China, are we ready? It has been many centuries since Buddhism first came to China from India. Combined with Confucianism and Taoism from Chinese culture, Buddhism became broader and deeper, gained the balance between social engagement and religious reclusiveness.
Buddha means enlightenment. Any thought and belief that obtains enlightenment, liberation and truth is Buddhism. In Chinese Buddhism, there are three branches, the Han, Tibetan and Theravada branches, encompassing both Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism. Therefore, China will become the center of Buddhist studies and pilgrimage. It is been more than a hundred years when Buddhism was brought to the west in the late 19th century. It first started with the spread of Zen from Japan. Most Buddhist chaplains in America and Europe follow the Japanese Zen tradition. In the last 20-30 years, more westerners follow masters from Tibetan Buddhism, and this is the second surge of Buddhism. With the rise of China, Han Buddhism has become international and known by the west, and thus the third may be with Han Buddhism. We are very glad to see interesting ideas come into bing when Han Buddhism encounters the Western culture.
When faced with Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and encountered with modern science and art, Buddhism will surely become wiser, more encompassing and broadminded. From the perspective of secular truth, there are differences in nationalities and ethnicities. However, from the perspective of the ultimate truth, the key is to share the truths about human civilization. Buddhist wisdom will make great contributions to the peace of the world. I believe China has the potential to become the center of Buddhist pilgrimage. It is my mission to build up a modern version of the Indian Nalanda, top Buddhist research centers and the best Sutra translation institutes. It is this mission that brings me back to mainland China.