Buddhism

Interview with the venerable Chaofan – Buddhistdoor Global


Venerable Chaofan (超 煩) is the founder of the American Association of Buddhist Education (美國 佛教 教育 協會) at Fuhui Temple (福慧 寺), which is located in the village of Rancocas, Westampton, New Jersey. Originally from Inner Mongolia, Ven. Chaofan was ordained a priest in 1981 at Mount Wutai and became one of the first graduates of the Chinese Buddhist Academy in 1986. After working for Buddhist organizations in China and continuing his education in Sri Lanka, he moved to the States United in 1996. In this interview, Ven. Chaofan shares his experience and opinions on Chinese Buddhism in the United States.

Fri. Chaofan speaking at the Fifth World Buddhist Forum.
Image courtesy of Ven. Chaofan

Buddhistedoor Global: Since your arrival in the United States in 1996, you have witnessed the development of Chinese Buddhism there. In your opinion, what have been the achievements of Chinese Buddhism and what difficulties has it encountered?

Venerable Chaofan:The first generation of Chinese sangha in the United States arrived in the 1960s. Among them, the Venerable Master Hsuan Hua (宣化) built with his own hands the city of ten thousand Buddhas on the west coast. He installed Buddha images and taught to a large audience including local American disciples, which symbolizes the advent of Chinese Buddhism in America. On the East Coast, there were Venerable Shouye (壽 冶), Venerable Ledu (樂 渡), Venerable Minzhi (敏 智), Venerable Haolin (皓 霖) and Venerable Fayun (法 雲). Likewise, they established Dharma centers with little support except for the Buddhist traditions they inherited and their virtue of great compassion. The first generation of Chinese sangha united overseas Chinese and helped them gain social respect. They also succeeded in translating the Chinese Buddhist classics into English, which was fundamental for Americans to deepen the Buddhadharma. The trials encountered by the first generation were very similar to those encountered by the old masters at the beginning of the development of Buddhism in China.

The second generation arrived in the eastern United States in the 1990s. Likewise, they had little political or financial support; nor did they have existing subscribers. Some of them inherited the Dharma centers from the first generation; some have relied completely on themselves to create a community. They have fostered cultural exchanges and mutual learning between East and West, thus promoting the advancement and development of human civilization. Through cultivation practice, they spread Buddhist beliefs and ideas, contributing to world harmony and peace. Among the first and second generations, the custom of a monastery-a monk persisted. Some monasteries have two or three monks, in which case they come and go. This was particularly the case in the United States where freedom is emphasized.

The monks and laity who arrived after 2000 belong to the third generation. They built monasteries and various types of Buddhist organizations around Chinatown in New York City. Some are genuine, while the motives of some are questionable. In some cases, they even undermine the tradition of Buddhist culture and faith.

Sangha and laity at Fuhui temple.  Image courtesy of Ven.  Chaofan
Sangha and laity at Fuhui temple. Image courtesy of Ven. Chaofan

BDG: So-called American Buddhism was inspired by Theravada, Tibetan and East Asian traditions. What do you think of such a synthesis? When it comes to promoting Buddhadharma, do you think every school should stick to its traditions, or should we take the initiative to reform and innovate?

VCF: Although the three canonical collections developed separately, respectively in Chinese, Tibetan and Pali, they all derive from the teachings of Buddha Shakyamuni. All three traditions have been passed down through different languages, scripts, costumes, and ethnicities, but in truth such differentiation only betrays our illusory conceptualization. When the Buddha attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, the first words he spoke were: “All sentient beings have the wisdom and excellent characteristics of the Tathagata, the stupid and the ordinary are not able to understand the truth.” conceptualization. While integrating different schools, the development of American Buddhism should be based on traditional thinking and innovative forms. My reasons are as follows:

First, the mind, Buddha, and all sentient beings are intrinsically one, without any difference. It is a truth independent of time and space. The basic concept of Buddhism, like the rules of precepts, must be respected. The essence of the precepts of past, present and future Buddhas is immutable vajra. On the other hand, the impressive manners, such as almsgiving, monastic robes, Chan practice of agriculture, school studies, location, are all responses to the needs of the time.

Second, American Buddhism should advance the strengths and overcome the weaknesses of each of the three schools. For example, in terms of Chinese Buddhism, we should put more emphasis on the preservation and development of the five sciences (whine, 五 明), especially the science of medicine. Because medicine can eliminate the pains of sentient beings, including sangha limbs, the science of medicine can therefore guide sentient beings to Buddhism.

Finally, we must defend the principle of the separation of religion and politics. Buddhism is for self-cultivation. It should not be associated with politics, and governments should not over-favor or honor monasteries. Even today, Why do monks not bow to kings by Ven. Huiyuan (334-416) is worth mentioning. In addition, monasteries should restore public property for the benefit of society and all sentient beings.

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Buddha stories in pictures, edited by Ven. Chaofan.
Image courtesy of Ven. Chaofan

BDG: Could you please introduce the origin and mission of the American Buddhist Educational Association? So far, the student body is only made up of bhikshuni, how do you see the current situation of bhikshuni education? How can it be improved?

VCF: Originally the Buddha taught moral standards and causes and effects to his five disciples and later sangha with the three seals of dharma, the four noble truths, the six reverent points of harmony, the noble eightfold path and the twelve Nidanas. The Buddha’s principle of “teaching without differentiating between social classes” and “the world is in great harmony” represents the pursuit of peace, compassion and wisdom.

Therefore, on December 3, 1997, the second year after moving to the United States, I registered the American Buddhist Education Association, Inc. with the federal government. To make it more accessible, we promote Dharma through the affiliated Fuhui Temple (福慧 寺). For example, we regularly visit nursing homes every week, guiding the elderly to recite the names of Buddhas and providing hospice care.

As the organization grew stronger, we established the Academy of Buddhist Education (美國 佛教 教育 學院) on December 31, 2016, with two colleges respectively for bhikshu and bhikshuni. Each academic year consists of two semesters, a summer retreat and a winter retreat. The program focuses on the three great classics of the Nanshan Vinaya school and the English language.

The academy’s mission is to perpetuate the compassion of the Buddha for all sentient beings, to promote traditional Buddhist culture, to improve the quality of monks, to foster international leaders within the Buddhist sangha, and to advance the peace in the world. So far, the conditions are only met for the college for bhikshuni, so we started its operations. The Buddha elucidated the differences between men and women and noted that women are more sensitive. Therefore, the strengthening and regulation of the teaching of Vinaya for bhikshuni is conducive to the stability of the bhikshuni community. Nonetheless, we should have no notion of man, woman, being or lifespan, for the pure Buddha nature is the same. There was only one sangha. The separation of places of learning and practice for bhikshu and bhikshuni is intended to safeguard the peace and purity of Dharma. It is also an essential precept in Buddhism.

Fri.  Chaofan with students from the Academy of Buddhist Education.  Image courtesy of Ven.  Chaofan
Fri. Chaofan with students from the Academy of Buddhist Education. Image courtesy of Ven. Chaofan

BDG: You are familiar with the Buddhist classics and have traveled to many parts of the world. Thinking back on your various experiences, Who or what motivated you the most, especially in your career promoting Dharma in the United States?

VCF: Shakyamuni Buddha abandoned his country and his kingship. In order to seek peace, compassion and wisdom, he went to the mountains to practice asceticism. It was a reminder of the kind of thoughts that should crop up in my mind – I shouldn’t be indulging myself or following the crowd blindly.

Monastics in the old text Biographies of eminent monks to the biographies of modern masters, they all focus on masters who have given up fame and profit in the realm of the world. These masters regarded precepts and suffering as their masters and followed in the footsteps of the Buddha towards the gate of Nirvana. All of them are my Dharma friends (kalya??amitta) that I emulate. For example, 1,600 years ago, Master Faxian walked the desert at the age of 60, in search of the Vinaya scriptures, and translated these texts at the age of 80. If this spirit is maintained, there is no dream that cannot be realized. .

Some lay Buddhists in the United States are not that wealthy, but they spare no effort to support the Three Jewels, and in such a generous way. When men and women respectfully offer their savings on their knees, my heart of repentance, transcendence, and compassion is strengthened, and my heart bodhi the vows to repay the four graces (of the Three Jewels, of the parents, of the fatherland and of all sentient beings) and to relieve three kinds of suffering (external circumstances, impermanence and the consequences of the action) are reinforced.

Patriarchs of all generations have spread the Buddhadharma where it had never been heard before. I aspire to follow in their footsteps, despite all the difficulties. I vow to imitate the righteous of ancient times and establish monastic systems in countries where Buddhism is foreign, and guide those who are suffering and truly benefit them with Buddhism.

In the end, I wish you all the fulfillment of Dharma joy and the auspiciousness of six periods!