Posted on Sun, Aug. 15, 2004

Who is the Zen Master?

Star-Telegram Staff Writer

At the Quang Chieu Zen Monastery, the image of Zen Master Thich Thanh Tu is everywhere -- in the large bust in a parlor, in the multiple photographs on the walls and in the videotaped teachings that the nuns gather to watch each afternoon.

The kindly-looking man in his 80s, who entered monastic life in his mid-20s, is also a poet and writer. Tu is said to have attained enlightenment, or "realized the true self nature," after a long period of meditation in 1968. He founded his first Zen school in Vietnam three years later.

Today, the master is internationally known among Zen Buddhist scholars and is the spiritual leader of 26 monasteries around the world, including establishments in California, Oregon, Massachusetts and Virginia. At each place, nuns and monks view the master as the embodiment of the Dharma, or Buddhist wisdom.

It is the sort of veneration that seems strange, even threatening, to some Westerners who are long wary of the cult of personality. But in Buddhism, it is typical of a tradition going back 80 generations to the Buddha himself. Since that time, Buddhist teachings have been handed down, generation to generation, by a relative handful of individuals like Tu who are acknowledged to have attained high levels of spiritual mastery through meditation.

"It's a very rare position based on the clarity and insight gained from years of practice," said Chong Hae Sunim, abbot of the Providence Zen Center in Rhode Island. "There's not a Vatican. It's not the sort of thing where you study for years and get a college degree or accumulate a stack of paper."

But Zen masters, of which there are only a handful in Vietnam, are not worshipped as "gods on earth," Hae Sunim says. And in his book Buddhism for Beginners, Tu himself cautions against superstition and idol worship.

"When we prostrate in front of the Buddha statue, it does not mean we do it to the golden statue itself," Tu writes. "We do it in remembrance of the Buddha; because we respect . . . his love and compassion to all sentient beings."

2004 Star-Telegram and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.