Episode 107: The Mad Monk

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Today we will talk about one of my favorite people in the Chinese folklore, a crazy monk, who always got drunk and ate meat that violate Buddhist monastic rules in Chinese Buddhism. It seems like he was even hardly qualified as a Buddhist monk, however, he was a real master. In folklore, people call him Ji Gong 济公, and also known as “Zen Master DaoJi 道济 禅师”.


His stories in folklore started getting popular since the end of the Southern Song dynasty and have been retold and developed especially during the Ming dynasty 明朝 and Qing dynasty 清朝. There were a few books about his stories from the Qing dynasty 清朝. He is mentioned in many Buddhist koans 公案. Koan is a story, dialogue, question, or statement used in Zen practice to provoke the “great doubt” and test a principle’s progress in Zen practice. They are really interesting and we will definitely talk about them in the future.


Ji Gong lived from the year 1130 ~ 1209 during the Southern Song dynasty 南宋 and was born in the province of ZheJiang 浙江. His original name was Li XiuYuan 李修缘. His grandfather married the daughter of the Emperor TaiZhong of Song 宋太宗 and had a high position in the government. His father Li MaoChun 李茂春 was a military adviser. So he was born with a silver spoon. But the image of Ji Gong looks like a homeless person wearing shabby monastic clothes and shoes.


His family believed in Buddhism for generations and he was greatly influenced by Buddhism and Taoism when growing up. After the death of his parents, he went to the Temple GuoQing 国清寺 and was mentored by the famous Zen Master HuiYuan 慧远禅师. Later in his life, he stayed at the Temple LinYin 灵隐 寺 in the place HangZhou, where you can still visit today. Beautiful place.


When I mentioned earlier about the monastic rules that consuming alcohol and meat is forbidden in Buddhism, I was only talking about the Chinese Buddhism. Because like Christianity, Buddhism has different branches as well. For example, in Japanese Buddhism, monks can drink and get married which are against the rules in Chinese Buddhism.


Ji Gong unlike other Buddhist monks, he ate meat and drank wine. He seemed never paying attention to what he was wearing since his robes were worn out and dirty. Sometimes he talked nonsense. He seldom meditate like other monks. When other monks were studying, he would hang outside probably watching cricket fighting or drinking alcohol. Some monks caught him and told Master HuiYuan, Ji Gong’s mentor, who never criticized him but said, “considering how massive the ways towards Buddhism, how can it not tolerant a mad monk”. So people sometimes call Ji Gong the “mad monk”.


According to some myths and folklore, Ji Gong had supernatural powers and was believed as the incarnate of the Taming Dragon Arhat 降龙罗汉, one of the Eighteen Arhats in Buddhism. Because it says the moment he was born, the statue of the Taming Dragon Arhat fell down in the Temple GuoQing and he was the incarnate of the Arhat. He traveled from place to place to help the poor and treat the sick since he knew Chinese medicine. He also fought against injustice. He is knowledgeable and a great poet even though most people don’t really know about.


Ji Gong wrote a lot of marvelous poems about his understanding of the world and Buddhism. There is a famous poem well-known from a book about Ji Gong although I don’t think it was really said by Ji Gong. It says, “ 酒肉穿肠过 , 佛祖心中留” meaning alcohol and meat only goes through my intestine while the Buddha stays in my heart. People sometimes use it as an excuse when they are not following the rules. However, most people don’t know the whole poem. The next sentence after that one is “世人若学我,如同 进 魔道”, meaning if normal people follow what I do, they can easily fall into the dark side.


The Zen Master YinGuang 印光法师from the 19th century explained this poem and said, Ji Gong was truly a master that he did a lot of unbelievable things. He tried to hide his virtues by consuming alcohol and meat to make stupid people think he was crazy and violate the rules. Otherwise, he might hardly live in this world. When the real Buddha shows up in the world, supernatural power can never be used but principles and morals to act as a normal person. If supernatural power is used, the Buddha can never show up in the world. Only acting like a crazy person in this world, supernatural power can be used. Although consuming the meat, the Buddha can spit out the alive. If normal people like us eat meat, we can’t even spit out the same meat. Why are we learning from Ji Gong to eat meat? The Buddha drinks alcohol and can deliver woods from the well. If normal people like us drink alcohol, we can’t even deliver water from the well. Why are we learning from Ji Gong to drink alcohol?


These two cases are both stories about Ji Gong. We will talk about in our future episodes.


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