Meng Yun doesn't want to be famous. "I'd rather that my students become famous," he says. For himself, he prefers to remain "low-key." In fact, he requested not to be called a "master" in this article at all, and to go by the pseudonym Meng Yun: dream clouds.
The Buddhist teacher has not followed the traditional path: He was born in Taiwan in 1951, came to New York at 30, and spent years working in a restaurant kitchen before he became a teacher and founded a meditation center. His Buddhism is mainly self-taught, and his methods are unconventional and direct. He teaches that wisdom is equally attainable for laypeople as for monks. His own life is evidence of this possibility.
I met Meng Yun in a tea parlor in the basement of the Sheraton in Flushing, Queens. He is a quiet man with a sober expression. He wore an ordinary short-sleeved shirt and slacks; if I hadn't known who he was, I'd never have known there was a Buddhist teacher in the room. But throughout our interview, dozens of people came by for a few words, and children hung around him, sometimes on him, curious about our conversation and my audio recorder, and probably curious about me, the only non-Asian in the room. Judy Chen, the Vice President of the Buddhist Council and a student of Meng Yun, arranged the interview for me and meticulously translated, for which I am indebted.
As early as first grade, Meng Yun wondered why he was here, and why he did the same things over and over: go to school, eat, sleep. Every day. He felt like one of the ducks his grandmother fed: every day was the same for them. What was the purpose?
Starting in junior high school he tried Confucianism, Taoism, and then Buddhism. Studying Confucianism, he tells me, left his questions unanswered, and Taoism resolved them "perhaps a little bit". He studied with Mahayana and esoteric Buddhist teachers in Taiwan, but they couldn't answer his questions. Finally he read the Diamond Sutra, a Buddhist text on impermanence and non-attachment, and there he found the answers. He read the sutras by himself, and tested the methods they described. "I practiced them to prove what's written in the sutras by my own experience."
Meng Yun came to the U.S. with his family when he was 30, and worked in a restaurant kitchen. "I met with many people following the path, and trying so hard to learn Buddhism. Even people who had been going to retreats for ten years could not find the answer." He wanted to help these people—they sought the truth but couldn't even touch it. Starting in 1986, he began teaching. For Meng Yun, guiding students is like driving: Once you've learned the method you can't just point the car and go straight to your destination. You must make continuous adjustments in order to stay on the Way. A teacher can't have too many students, because he must constantly check his students one-on-one to adjust their direction.
Meng Yun teaches Chinese and Western students now. In theory, he tells me, there shouldn't be any difference: all human beings are pretty much the same. But some Western students just keep asking questions, without actually practicing. The time comes when he says, "Just do it." The teaching of emptiness must be practiced to realize its meaning. Just talking gets you nowhere.
Meng Yun describes his teaching method simply: first he teaches wisdom, then meditation, then precepts, and then the three together. He tells me that without wisdom, practicing meditation is directionless; it's just sitting. Indeed, if a practitioner builds up meditative power while still holding wrong views, it only reinforces negative seeds. He says, "To meditate without wisdom does more harm than good." Sitting in meditation alone doesn't heal the three-poison nature of human beings. It might seem like it's helping yet, alone, it's not the ultimate solution. Meditative power comes and goes, and when it's gone your old problems come back. Even if a being lives in the highest level of samadhi heaven, when its meditative power disappears it falls immediately and is reincarnated as a bug. What you really need is a teacher who can activate your wisdom. More than a sangha or anything else, you need the right teacher to guide you through the path of absolute truth. The right teacher is the most important thing.
To study the precepts requires a grasp of both wisdom and meditation, because without them, a student will only understand the precepts as a series of don'ts. If you learn the precepts first, they are rules imposed on you—in fact, Meng Yun says, if you know the precepts as rules you are not really upholding the precepts. With wisdom and concentration, however, practicing the precepts is realizing your own self-nature.
Meng Yun doesn't say he teaches Zen, exactly, or Theravada, or Pure land. He teaches appropriately according to each student's need. "My Zen is very different from the Zen people talk about now." Nowadays, he tells me, teachers have changed it to suit their times, but he teaches the simplest, most original form. Besides, it's too lively to be a fixed teaching. "I teach student A Zen, student B Zen, student C Zen—with different methods. Anybody can study Zen. Zen is very simple. It is piercing through whatever has buried your original self."
A Student's Story
Judy Chen came to Meng Yun, and to the practice, not in the usual way: She was ambushed by Buddhism. One night a friend offered to treat Judy to dinner, but with an ulterior motive. Meng Yun was there with two of his students. Judy didn't know when she met him that he was a teacher, but this first meeting launched a transformation that influenced her whole life.
Judy studied with Meng Yun at first out of plain curiosity. Judy was in her early twenties at the time, and had been in the States for nine years. Her family in Taiwan had been active Buddhists, and her grandfather had been the secretary of a temple; she remembers riding to the temple on the back of his motorcycle as a child. She liked the monks and nuns, but she was too young to understand the teachings. Indeed, she tells me, her family's practice hardly included the wisdom teachings of Buddhism. They focused instead on ceremonies and offerings.
With Meng Yun, Judy could see the wisdom of Buddhism in action: his students brought the difficulties of their daily lives, and he showed case by case how the practice could be applied. He explained the reasons for suffering. His students brought others by word of mouth. In time, he taught hundreds of students and led groups in New Jersey, Queens, and Taiwan. The organization he founded in 1986, Saddharma Cakra Buddhist Association, has a freestanding center in Flushing. There have at times been sitting groups for university students at NYU, Columbia, Baruch College, and Rutgers. When these students graduate, Judy tells me, they mostly move to New York to be near Meng Yun.
As we drink our fifth cup of tea, Meng Yun tells me a story: there was a woman who made generous donations to a monk in their village for ten years. One day, the woman decided to test the monk. She told her beautiful daughter to embrace him, and ask him how it felt. When the daughter embraced him, the monk said, "My heart and mind have not moved. Like dead wood, I feel nothing." The girl reported this to her mother who said, "We have been feeding the wrong monk." She went to his hermitage and burned it down.
Meng Yun asked me the meaning of this story, and I said it's about separation: practicing Buddhism is not about removing oneself from the world. Meng Yun tells me that practicing is living and living is practicing. In the story, the monk has been practicing meditation, not Zen. The monk hadn't realized true emptiness. For Zen does not equal meditation: It is something that is "directly pointing into your heart", and meditation alone can't do that.
Practice & Enlightenment
What's striking about Meng Yun's career is that he teaches meditation to lay people, which priests in Taiwan or China do rarely. For ordinary people, he says, it's hard to walk into a temple, but much easier to walk into his meditation center. He's arranged it so he can expose ordinary people to Buddhism. When asked why not all teachers teach meditation to lay people, he simply says, "We each have our own way of connecting to sentient beings."
When I ask Meng Yun if he'd ever considered becoming a monk, he says the practice is not in the hands of the monk, nor of the layperson. The practice is in every situation we confront. A lot of the ways we conduct our lives are wrong, but we can learn through practice to guide ourselves along the right path, so we won't waste our lives in useless habits. Besides, he tells me, there are two ways of being a monk: The external and the internal. If your heart-mind has renounced desire, then you are a monk, regardless of your appearance. He points out that most of the portraits of bodhisattvas are lay people: they have long hair. Only Ksitigharba Bodhisattva, or Jizo, appears as a shaven monk, because he needs this appearance to uphold his vow to save those in Hell.
However you practice, Meng Yun says, you should check the result and reflect on it. "After I spent all of this time, is this the result that I want?" If not, then the method's wrong. But if it does help you, then it's Buddhism. Meng Yun asks me how I feel now that I've practiced for some years. I say I feel a little bit happier and a lot more useful. He says, "Very good." It's not possible to be perfect, he tells me, but once you realize the absolute truth, you can see through whatever happens in everyday life. What's really behind it? Why is this happening? What is the cause and effect? You will understand it all. That's what enlightenment means. You'll be able to see through whatever happens in front of you. In the larger sense, you won't make major mistakes because you'll know how to conduct your everyday life. It's like a room that's been dark for ten thousand years, but in an instant there's a light that fills the whole room.