Deepened Acquaintance Brought about by Compassion: Visit to Ton, a Zen Master of Compassion and Wisdom

On April 8, 2016, at 9:30 am Zhao Jia, a lay Buddhist, and her two assistants arrived at the Longquan Great Compassion Monastery on time. Together with Ven. Xian’ai and Ven. Xianfu, we set out for Zutphen. Zhao Jia is a film producer. She was considerate and took care of everyone around her. Zhao Jia got along well with her assistants. She was friendly to them, more a family member than a boss to them. All the way she told us about the Netherlands she knew. She had a delicate mind. Accompanied by the beautiful scenery along the way, we arrived at Louis’ home at the appointed time. Ton had been there waiting for us. Zen master Ton Lathouwers is a Professor of Russian literature at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, and Louis is his assistant. Ton was frank and honest. Though in his eighties, he was as innocent as a child. Seeing us, he greeted us in Chinese, “Ni hao (hello). Namo Guanshiyin Pusa (namo Guanyin Bodhisattva). Namo Amituofuo (namo Amitabha Buddha). Xiexie (thank you). Kaixin ma (are you happy)?” Then he showed us the Guanyin Bodhisattva images, which were everywhere in the sitting room. Ton was also very pleased to lead us to the back garden and show us the images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas there. I felt, at that time, the over 80 years old man in front of us was like an elder friend sharing his happiest and proudest achievement.

To record history, Zhao Jia’s assistants set the camera, and Ton was asked to sit on the far left near the sofa. Ton was quite tall, so he tried to make himself take up less space for the convenience of filming. Somehow he saw that I was a little reserved, so he asked me a few questions. I really did not like that camera much, and I said so. He said he did not, either. Then he sat upright, putting his hands downwards slowly and breathing, showing me how to relax. After a few breaths, the smile on his face was so huge that I almost couldn’t see his eyes. As I sat facing him, I saw clearly that when lowering his heads, Ton was thinking with an expressionless face; when looking at us, he wore sunny smile on his face.

Dutch is Ton’s native tongue, but to make him understood, he talked with us in English which he is not used to. He asked us, “Do you only mean to look after the Chinese, or would you also include the Dutch?” “Everyone. My venerable master hopes that there is a site of Buddhist Dharma in every city all over the world…” I answered. He became very happy hearing that, seeming to be immediately inspired.

It was the first time that I saw Professor Ton so happy, which gave me a kind of happiness I had not known before. He believed it most important to be compassionate, and he appreciated the compassion peculiar to women. He liked Guanyin Bodhisattva and Mother Mary very much, and believed that they are needed everywhere. Besides, in his opinion, Chinese Buddhism, the tradition that we share, is very important and exceptionally inclusive. Ton has started a class to train Buddhist teachers who aim not only for their own meditation and practice, but more importantly, for helping others. Now the government is very supportive of the class. The trainees will spread Buddhism in the Netherlands in future. Ton also invited us to his class. He told many stories on practice, one of which was about the wife of a Japanese Zen practitioner. She never did sitting meditation and practiced only bowing to the Buddha, which Ton praised as “giving in” to the Buddha with the whole body and mind. He said that was quite important… I became all the more joyful on hearing this and was infected. I believe that whose who possess unusual wisdom have shared insight and understanding.

Very early on, my venerable master has proposed the ideas of “faith as the root, liberation as the purpose, education as the key and culture as the link.” This gave me a deep impression because I once heard it explained by Ven. Xianqi. It was at the preparation meeting of a charitable visit in winter organized by the Ren Ai Charity Foundation, Ven. Xianqi said, we should help more lost family members return our spiritual home. When I began to share the idea of “faith as the root,” Professor Ton strongly resonated with it…, and in my mind sprang up many expressive words. I felt Ton very happy, perhaps because I, being a foreigner and a junior, was able to directly talk with him about something of common interest. At that moment, I felt a deep gratitude for my venerable master. Right because I had encountered my master, I sowed the seeds of such noble ideas as soon as I joined the community, that’s why they were able to arise and I could share them now. 

I also told Ton my venerable master’s experiences. As a child, he had followed two “Guanyin Bodhisattvas”—his grandmother who was once a nun, and his mother who was a Buddhist from childhood and chanted the name of the Buddha. He chanted the Buddha’s name and recited scriptures with them, and became a vegetarian of his own accord. When studying in the Buddhist Academy, he had the ambition to liberate the living beings from suffering. Then we had Beijing Longquan Monastery because of his aspiration. Now he is devoted to benefiting the whole world with Buddha Dharma… This surprised Ton a little. He was delighted and expressed acclaim.   

I also said that my venerable master and his disciples hoped to invite more people with the same aspiration, like Professor Ton, to discuss how to better serve all people, especially the local people. Ton was responsive to the invitation. He shared many ideas on spreading Buddhism, and he was quite willing to go to the Monastery and do whatever he could. What’s more, Ton talked about Russian literature. He said there were stories in Russian culture which embody the spirit of Guanyin Bodhisattva, only not so expressively. Ton was quite happy about that. He even returned home and fetched the CD that had recorded their chanting of scriptures concerning Guanyin Bodhisattva in simple four tones and the genre of Russian church music. He played the CD for us and gave it to us as a present. Thus our conversation with Ton stopped. Again he went back home and fetched some Dutch books, giving them to Zhao Jia and her assistants. He had no Chinese books at home, so he wrote down the names of the books which he recommended to us and asked Zhao Jia to find them. Later on he bicycled home again when we talked about the business card. At last in our talk over coffee, I mentioned that I could read English books, and Ton returned home once more. It was the fourth time that Ton went back home to get something for us. I was deeply moved by Ton, who was already over 80 years old. Right then I felt him like a living Guanyin Bodhisattva in front of my eyes.

Going out of Louis’ home, we were to leave. Ven. Xianfu was mindful to remember having a group photo taken. Ton went to the door. He and the assistants made very lively poses in front of the car, like models. Then Ton noticed two neighboring children far away. He warmly invited them to join us in taking the group photo. So we took our classic group photo. Ton would observe our way of saying goodbye, which was different from the western manners of shaking hands or hugging. He would follow our etiquette. I could felt that his heart was especially exquisite but quite lively. In a foreign land, the strangeness between us diminished through communication. I had not expected it to be so wonderful.

To spread Buddha Dharma and liberate all living beings is a responsibility for all lifetimes. Our communication with Ton at present is significant, in that ours is not a mission to be undertaken by only a few wise individuals, but by many people who cherish the same ideals and follow the same path. This cause is also the right and obligation for all those who have lofty ambition and live not only for themselves, but wish to share joy and happiness with everyone. I felt I was blessed in the communication, which was indeed not due to my own merits. But I am learning to improve myself. My gratitude for all of these! 

Ven. Xianqing, the Deputy Abbot of the Great Passion Monastery sent me a message, “Each time one associates with a person full of positive energy, one’s life is changed.”

I think it is as Ven. Xianqing says, only compassion can define the great love, and compassion is what everyone has. I’m not good at writing, so I may not have expressed myself properly. However, I would like to share what I saw, heard and felt to everyone who is able and willing to love.

Finally, please remember to chant “Namo Guanyin Bodhisattva of great compassion and loving kindness!”

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