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IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF XUANZANG: TAN YUN-SHAN AND INDIA

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FOND MEMORIES

7

My Acquaintance with Professor Tan Yun-Shan 

 

 Yang Yunyuan 

I was born in the same province, Hunan, as Tan Yun-shan was. But, his birth place was Chaling, a county at the eastern edge of the province while my County ,Xiangyin, was in the middle section. Our home village, though a part of the Xiangyin Country, was only some 30 miles away from Changsha, the capital city of Hunan Province. (Today, it is a part of the now much enlarged Changsha City). Tan Yun-shan who was senior to me by sixteen years was married to my first cousin sister, Chen Nai-wei. Sister Chen was a very brave woman. She belonged to almost the first generation of the Chinese women who broke the age-old tradition of keeping unmarried girls away from career-seeking ventures. She started studying at a very young age in a modern-type of school in Changsha as a hosteller. After graduation from the school but still in her teenage, she went to teach the primary school kids in Xiangxing more than a hundred miles away from home. Then, she went out of the countrytoteachthe children of the overseas Chinese in the “South Ocean”(Nanyang) which was what Singapore, Malaya, Indonesia and other parts of the mainland and islands of southeast Asia were called by the Chinese at the time. In 1931, she returned to her home village with her bridegroom -- Prof. Tan Yun-shan (already so designated  by the famous Indian poet and Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore, after the young Tan had had a stint at Tagore’s university called Visva-Bharati). It was first visit to our native place.

                That time, I was still in my teenage  --  a country lad who had seen very little of the outside world, nor met any outsider from afar. I developed a great fascination towards my new realative from Chaling. My father was a Confucian scholar and middle school teacher. He, too, was quite cut off from the modern world. But my father had a hobby -- playing Chinese chess. Prof. Tan was also good at it. Thus before they could get along in common conversation they had quite an encounter at a Chinese chess table. (This turned out to be the first and also the last time I saw Prof. Tan playing Chiness chess.) Then, my father and the guest who was not much younger than him became endeared to each other. He took Tan around in the countryside, showed him the hilly charm, lectured to him about the traditional Chinese geomancy. For, to my father’s generation, the landscape inherited by men had a decisive influence on their fortunes. As a lad, I was keenly watching the reactions from Prof. Tan who listened attentively to my father without any comment.

                My maternal grandfather, I. e. Tan’s father-in law’s father, and his two sons lived in the Eastern Hills while my parents lived in the plain by the side of many rice fields.It was comparatively quiet and cooler in summer on the small hill top, and I took great delight to go there. Much of my childhood I spent in my maternal uncle’s house. The arrival of Prof. and Mrs. Tan with their first and second sons to spend some time was an exciting event among all of us. The lifestyle of a traditional Chinese scholar he carried with him, Prof. Tan set up his own study room in the cottage. When he inaugurated the study, he wrote a poetic couplet on two sheets with his beautiful cllligraphy and displayed them. Hunan was a province quite strong in classical Chinese culture, and kids of my generation had a good exposure to good and simple poetic compliments. I could comprehend the couplet that he had pasted on both sides of the entrance to his study and immediately liked it. Since this never entered into the curricula of my long academic career, I never had the compulsion to memorize it. yet, even after nearly 70 years, after a lot of memory has escaped my head, I can still vividly recall what he had composed. The couplet reads:

                Dongshan Zhanji er san yue

                Shushi changliu qianwan chun

(Left)

                Just a brief sojourn

                of two three moons

                At these East Hills.

(Right)

                Forever to endure,

                A thousand springs or more,

                My study will grow.

 

                Though already an  accomplished “Mandarin”, Tan did not give up his innate  peasant nature. Every day he carried home  from a well outside the house, with a pole on his shoulders, buckets of water for the large family. This he did to share the burden of household chore, and also to faithfully carry out the duty of a devout Buddhist according to the age-old Chinese Chan (Zen) Buddhist tradition (enjoying daily life by fetching water and cutting firewood).

                One day, suddenly, he decided to proceed on pilgrimage to the Southern Holy Mountain (one of the five holy mountain shrines of China), Heng Shan, which is situated within Hunan, south of Changsha. I was glad that he took me in the trip. During the pilgrimage he observed that according to the Chinese saying, “Wuyue guilai bu kan shan”. (After ascending on the five holy moutains one finds no intereset in looking at any other hill.) But, he had already climbed the Himalayas, the loftiest mountains in the world. And this never diminished his interest in ascending mountains and hills again and again. In fact, he made another trip to Heng Shan soon after. I notices that pilgrimage to the Buddhist shrines to him was perhaps not as important as availing of the opportunity to distribute alms to the poor all along the way.

                All this I still recall  with vivd pictures in my mind. After my first round of acquaintance with Prof. Tan in my grandfather’s house, he left for India and returned to his endeavour in developing Sino-Indian studies and the promotion of cultural relations between India and China. I remained in my home provine to pursue my future career. Though I continued to obtain tidings of Prof. Tan and his family through the source of my maternal relatives, I missed him for quite a long duration.

                Like my cousin sister Chen, I,too went to Changsha as a hosteller, first of the Changjun School, then of the First Normal School where Prof. Tan and many famous modern leaders of China, like Mao Zedongm,had studied. I then, got admission in the Central Political University in Nanjing which was essentially the cradle for government officers. No sooner had I joined this prestigeous institution than did Japan invade China in the fall of 1937, and the Sino-Japanese War broke out. Then the university moved to Chongqing, the war capital. After gradution from the university, I got a teaching assignment in Guiyang which was situated in southwest China. There I started correspondence with Prof. Tan in India. In August, 1945 the Japanese surrendered and World War II came to an end. Prof. Tan was awarded the victory medal by the National Government of China for his contribution in mobilizing international support to China’s war efforts. He went from Indiato Chongqing to receive the medal.

                I was thrilled to know the news, and took a trip from Guiyang to Chongqing to meet him. Apart from sharing his pride and jou, I was keen to meet him for some personal resons. When I told him that I would like to pursue research in India he showed great delight. He went out of his way to help me to obtain  permission from Chinese authorities, and also a scholarship from the Ministry of Education (which was meagre in sum though). Of course, the invitation to me to go to India came from himself as the Director of Cheena-Bhavana of Visva-Bharati. 

                I should like to record an improtant thing whichProf. Tan towards the end of 1945 in Chongqing which, probably , has escaped notice by the chroniclers. He took initiative to convene a conference on the Development of Sino-India Cultural Relations which was attended. Dr.Tai Chi-tao, one of the the top leadersof the Kuomintang government, addressed the conference, and dwelt on Sino-Indian cultural affinity. Dr. Tai was not only a devout Buddhist but also lent a powerful support to Prof. Tan to help Rabindranath Tagore establih a permanent institution on Sino-Indian studies in his university. He had travelled to India a few years earlierand had pleasant meeting with Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharal al Nehru.

                While in Chongqing, Tan gave me opportunities to share some of his itinerary. One evening he took me to see Rev. Taixu (or Tai Hsu), an eminent Buddhist sage of modern China who had also led a Chinese Buddhist delegation to India. One thing I vivdly remermber was to watch how Prof. Tan knelt down before the patriarch to pay his respect. Tan was a man always humble, never rest on his own laurels. It also reflected his unbounded devotion to the high ideas and ideals of Lord Buddha of which the Reverend was a symbol.

                With the invitation from Prof. Tan behalf of a renowned Indian university, the Visva-Bharati (a Sanskrit name meaning “International University”), and with the blessings of my eminent relative who was quite influential in the national government, I did not have much difficulty in getting the green signal from the Chinese Ministryof Education. I left Chongqing by a military plane available at the time, flying over the Himalayas, and landed at Calcutta. Then, I took atrain to Santiniketan (a very poetic Sanskrit name meaning “the abode of peace”) which was a tiny village of serene atmosphere true to its name, with many eminent sholars pursuing high academic activities quietly. I was happy for many reasons. First, I had my reunion  with not onlyProf. Tan, but also my first cousin, Mrs. Tan who now had many more children. admired the manner in which she had set up a happy home far away from her homeland. The idea that I was in what the Chinese literature used to describe as “Foguo” (the Buddha’s country) and “Tianzhu” (Heavely India) made me very excited. India was a country that I had been longing to see, a country with powerful spiritual values and sophisticated philosophies. I was even more excited when I discovered the presence of many famous and learned scholars of Indology and Buddhism around the quarter I lived, and so easily accessible.

                I arrived in India to become a visiting scholar of Visva-Bharati Cheena-Bhavana, an insititution that was created jointly by the founder of the university, Chancellor Tagore and Prof. Tan in 1937. I joined it in early 1946, five years after the great poet had passed away. As soon as I joined the Cheena-Bhavana, I became a part of the international fraternity in which Chinese scholars met Indian scholars and assisted each other likebrothers. The mutual feeling of brotherhood was spontaneous, this was not to be compare with the slogan, “Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai” (Indians and Chinese are brothers), coined by an Indian poet and much trumpeted by the Chinese government in the 1950s.

                I can never forget my associations with some Indian pundits at Santiniketan, many of whom were outstanding scholars trained both in India and abroad. Dr. P. C. Bagchi was then giving a series of lectures on the cultural relations between India and China.I was happy to attend his lectures. He was latter to be visitng professor of Indian Studies at Beijing University, China. His most important publications was India and China: A Thousand Years of Sino-Indian Cultural Contacts.

                Another professor of Sanskrit was Dr. P. V. Bapat who, like Bagchi, also had a good command of Chinese language. He was always intimate and homorous especially towards Chinese scholars. To Chinese beginners Sanskrit it a very hard language to learn. But Bapat had enormous patience with us. Later, during the year of Buddha Jayanti (celebrating the 2, 500th Anniversary of Lord) in 1956, Prime Minister Nehru appointed him as the founder-head of the Department of Buddhist Studies in Delhi University. I was, then , working in Delhim and had more interactions with him. My wife was asked by Prof. Bapat to teach Chinese language to the students of the Department.  Dr. Bapat’s personal friends with Prof. Tan had, thus, extended to me and my wife who were related to the Tans.

                Among the Chinese scholars there were two professors from China. One was XuHu (or Hsu Hu), who had studied in Germany. He was well versed in Chinese classics and preferred to write Chinese in its old literary style. He had also learned much Sanskrit. Another Professor from China, Chang Renxia (or Jen-hsia) specialized in archaeology and ancient Chinese art Prof.Xu was very close to me. In a way I respected him even as my teacher. After leaving Cheena-Bhavana later, I met Prof. Chang in New Delhi once, but never Prof. Xu. He went to the ashram of Sri Aurobindo at Pondicherry and translated a large number of the modern Indian sage’s writing into Chinese. In late 1970s he returned to China and joined the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences as an India expert. With regret I came to know that both of them had passed away.

                Two disciples of Reverend Taixu also joined Cheen-Bhavan, both having returned, to the mundane world form priesthood. Ond of them, Pachow, has become the renowed authority on Chinese Buddhism (now settled down in USA), after a fruitful teaching career in the universities of Allahabad. Candi (in Sri Lanka), and lowa. He was a favourite disciple of Prof. Tan, and had been very attached to the Tan family ever since. Another ex-Taixu disciple, Xulu, taught Chinese in Cheena-Bhavana for many decades, leading a simple and singular life, and passed away in Uttar Pradesh.

                We also had a lady scholar from China living in Cheena-Bhavana who was a painter. Her name, then, was You Yun-shan, sharing personal name with Prof. Tan. She is a leading Buddhist priest and educationist is Taiwan now -- the renowned Rev. Hsiao-yun (Xiaoyun). Not far away from Taipei, Rev Hsiao-yun has carved out a hill into a campus resembling Santiniketan. She named her higher educational institiution “Hua-fan”, meaning “China -India”. We see the spirit of Sino-Indian fraternity of Gurudeva Tagore first extended to Prof. Tan, and then to Rev. Hsiao-yun.

                Prof. Tan lived wholesomely in his idealism of universalism, and his path was shone upon by the noble ideas of both China and India. This was enshrined in the “Sino-India Motto” composed by him. The Motto has 32 Chinese characters, beginning with “li de li yan”. All Chinese scholars of Confucian tradition in the past had a task set for themselves to achieve three things: “li de” (to attain a moral character), “li gong” (to achieve a meritorious feat), and “liYan” (to perfect a speech which can propagate truth and noble ideas). Prof. Tan dropped the second as if to say: “I must cultivate my character and perfect my speech to set an example for posterity.”

                Then, the next four characters to follow in the Motto are “Jiu ren Jiu shi”
-- to save other and save the mankind. Here, he exponded the noble spirit of a Budhisattva, viz. sacrifising oneself to rescue all beingsof the universe from misery. This Bodhisattva spirit was brought alive by Mahatma Gandhi who said: “who would go to the Hell if I don’t take the lead.” Mahatama Gandhi  was the human being Prof. Tan admired the most -- even surpassing his admiration for Gurudeva Tagore.

                The next eight characters of Prof. Tan’s Sino-Indian Motto are:

                “Zhi gamg zhi da” -- To be extremely strong and grand;

                “You shou you wei” -- To contribute but adhere to Principle.

                The second part of the Motto is in keeping with the Confucian norm the there are things which a gentleman will do, and things which a gentleman will not do. Judging from this light, the concept of “Zhida” (extremely grand) should be understood as “Zhi gong da yi” i.e., extremely selfless and grand righteousness.

                The last half of Tan’s Motto is more transparently a Buddhist spirit:

                “Nan xing neng xing”-- To be able to do what is diffecult to do;

                “Nan ren reng ren” -- To be able to tolerate what is difficult to tolerate;

                “Sui yuan bu bian” -- Adaptable to circumstances yet remanining unchangeable;

                “Bu bian sui yuan” -- Remaining unchangeable while adapting to circumstances.

                In later prof. Tan self-styled himself as “Renxian”which is the Chinese rendering of the Sanskrit term “Ksantirishi”--  the saint who suffers insult patiently. Prof. Tan was the last human  being on earth on whom anyone might like to hurl insult, perhaps. His self-styled title of “Renxian” was just in keeping with his Sino-Indian Motto to set an example of noble and magnanimous behaviour.

                Knowing that I, too, had a smattering of classical  Chinese poetry which I had inherited from my family background, Prof. Tan, time and again, presented me with verses which he had made it a point to pen with his calligraphy. I particularly remember the four pieces he sent to me in September, 1958, in reply to my offer of poetry to him, after he had made a brief visit to New Delhi and been entertained by my wife and me in my house. Let me quote what he has composed:

          Verse One

I visited  the ancestral house

Eight and twenty yearsfrom now.

You were just a bud, and

I, not much older a man.

Memories of the Eastern Hills

As if gathered only yesterday,

A happy though that thrills

Of new achievements already made.

          Verse Two

I have from the inception

Adopted the world as home.

What a rare fortune to share here

My years with the near and dear!

I owe you and family many thanks

For delicious eats and amrita drinds,

And momentarily excited and happy

To become guest while in a great country.

          Verse Three

Riding on the white horse I head

Towards the path trodden by old sages.

My great ambition yet to manifest.

Gone are the Tripitakas into antiquity,

Supplemementaries necessary for posterity.

Who’s ready to execute such task

To see moderns exceed men of the past?

                Verse Four

Exciting moments atop holy mountains,

Long ago event now I reckon.

How many times have I stood on High

All surrounding scenes before the prying eyes?

Ler our Ssha-lokadhatu metamorphosize

Into the Pure-land sukavati paradise.

where the Western Wind may succumb

There the Eastern Wind blows strong.

                When I go through these verses once again, memories of half a century emerges beginning from the beginning of the 1930s when I first met him in the Eastern Hills, When I accompanied him to the holy mountain of HengShen That time, I was just a “bus”, beginning to see the contours of the brave new world. The prying  eyes of this marvellous young man had already visualized the Pureland sukavati. That was the kind of man Prof. Tan was. He was the rider of the “white horse” -- a metaphor that can trace its genesis to the stories about Buddha’s life with a white horse carring Prince Siddhartha into the womb of Mayadevi, and once again carring him out of the palace in quest of enlightenment. It was by no accident that the two first eminent Indian monks arrived in the Han imperial capital, Luoyang, by white horse during the reign of Han Emperor Ming in the first century. By identifying himself with this white horse image Tan Yun-shan had unmistakably placed himself among the ranks of idealists. It was his quest for sukavati that had build up his life and career in India where he also brethed his last -- a great fortune and honour cherished by many among his and my generations. Unfortunately, his ambition about adding supplementaries to make the Tripitaka relevant to the modern age has remained unfulfilled.

                A man of modest experior cherishing great ambitions, Prof. Tan Yun-shan was not only a close relative of mine, but quite an inspiration to me. It was he who was instrumental to my departure from my motherland -- China. While my steed, once set in motion, seemed never tired of galloping -- from China to India, from India to Mexico, and then to USA -- his white horse never carried him beyond the “guest country”. According to Chinese tradition he must have been some one who had reincarnated in China, and has reincarnations alternately in India and China eternally. He is truly the symbol of Sino-Indian amity and fraternity.

 

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