Who is the Zen
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