When the renowned Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh made his first visit to China in 1999, he brought with him a newly published Chinese translation of his book Old Path White Clouds: Walking in the Footsteps of the Buddha as gifts for his followers and friends there. Drawing from ancient sources in Pali, Sanskrit, and Chinese, this book presents the life stories and teachings of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama. The Chinese translation of the book, 故道白雲 by Dorothy Ho Wai Yee (何蕙儀), recognized for its truthfulness to the original in both meaning and style, has been reprinted widely in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.
Wai Yee herself did not expect any of the praise and recognition her translation earned. Before working on this book, she had spent most of her adult life as a housewife, devoting herself to family and parenting. Now, looking back, it seems rather serendipitous how a vocation in Buddhism unfolded for her. Wai Yee was born in Hong Kong in 1950, to a time and culture where women were not expected to have a career beyond the household. However, she was a very bright student and earned a place at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Wai Yee’s father, the late industrialist, philanthropist, and art collector Ho Iu-Kwong (何耀光; 1907–2006), was very supportive and funded her studies in economics.
After obtaining her degree, Wai Yee returned to Hong Kong and began working at a bank. While she had all the favorable conditions to develop a successful career, Wai Yee quit after a year as she did not find it to be a meaningful profession. The only option left for her, it seemed, was to marry, just as her sisters had done. And so Wai Yee married and moved back to London.
Growing up in Hong Kong, Buddhism was not unfamiliar to Wai Yee. Her father had helped the renowned monk Venerable Dingxi (定西) (1895–1962) to renovate his monastery, Tung Lum Nieh Fah Tong (東林念佛堂), supported the construction of another Buddhist temple, Wang Fat Ching She (弘法精舍), founded by the family of his business partner Wong Kit-wan (黃杰雲; 1875–1952),* and had served as a director on the board of the Hong Kong Buddhist Association.
However, Wai Yee herself had never engaged in any Buddhist activities or practices until the passing of her mother in 1987. A 49-day Buddhist memorial rite was convened at the family residence by Ven. Yongxing (永惺; 1925–2016), a disciple of Ven. Dingxi and founder of the Western Monastery (西方寺). While her husband and son could not leave London, and her siblings had to attend to work and family affairs in Hong Kong, Wai Yee immersed herself in day-long rituals, uninterrupted for five weeks, in a sanctuary that suspended all other worldly concerns.
Indeed, temporarily disconnected from her roles as daughter, wife, and mother, Wai Yee had an opportunity to reconnect with Buddhism and her own sense of being. She felt a particular spiritual resonance with the Diamond Sutra, and requested a copy from Ven. Yongxing, who would later become her refuge master. After Wai Yee returned to London, she entered a new phase of life. She began volunteering once a week at the London Fo Guang Shan Temple, helping at reception and translating various materials. Gradually, she also became acquainted with the Chinese Buddhist community in London, meeting people who would become her colleagues and collaborators.
Ven. Jing Yin (淨因), who was pursuing his doctoral studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London) at that time, introduced Wai Yee to Thich Nhat Hanh’s works and encouraged her to choose one to translate. When Thich Nhat Hanh himself read the first few chapters of Wai Yee’s translation of the Old Path White Clouds, he was very pleased. Coincidentally, his visit to China had just been confirmed, and people wondered whether Wai Yee would be able to complete her translation before his trip. This meant she had just four months at her disposal, including time taken to learn how to type in Chinese on a computer.
Wai Yee also met Mr. and Mrs. T. T. Wong from Malaysia, who founded the Buddhist Education Foundation (UK). In response to the need for a religious education curriculum in the UK, the foundation published the textbooks Buddhism Key Stage I for pupils aged 5–7, and Buddhism Key Stage II for those aged 7–11. Wai Yee co-authored Key Stage II with Jing Yin and compiled the Teacher’s Guide while serving as the secretary of the foundation.
After Ven. Jing Yin and the Wong family left London soon after the turn of the century, Wai Yee assumed the responsibility for distributing the textbooks—50,000 copies in total. It would be challenging for anyone, because the new charity established by expatriates had almost no connections within the UK education system. Starting from scratch, Wai Yee reached out to the education authorities across the country. Her garage, in which the textbooks were stored, was her office. It was there that she wrote emails, made telephone calls, and packed textbooks into boxes or brown paper, with the help of her son, posting single sets to schools and passing the bulk request lists on to her colleague Chris, who took care of the delivery logistics. Eventually, they managed to distribute all of the textbooks to 4,163 schools across the UK through the local education authorities and at the request of individual schools.
In 2005, Wai Yee decided to move back to Hong Kong to be with her aging father and siblings. Yet her career in Buddhist education continued. She served as manager at the Centre of Buddhist Studies of The University of Hong Kong until her retirement in 2010. Nevertheless, Wai Yee has always kept a very low profile, and even members of Hong Kong’s Buddhist community know little of her past contributions and family background. Like a traditional Chinese lady, Wai Yee is modest and devotes much of her life to her family. Moreover, she has also inherited other Chinese values from her parents that have guided her throughout life: to be honest, fair, and upright, and to be willing to give more than one takes. Whenever she is needed she does her best, without thinking of her own gain.
As a Buddhist, Wai Yee’s daily practice has expanded from reciting the Diamond Sutra to reciting other scriptures and meditating. While it is common to employ domestic helpers in Hong Kong, Wai Yee continues to do her own household chores and to live a simple lifestyle, which she and I have jokingly termed “domestic monasticism.” In Chinese Buddhism, each person has their own path of spiritual progress, depending on one’s capacity and circumstances. Some only recite the name of Amitabha Buddha, while others may renounce secular life completely, and some apply the bodhisattva ideal of benefiting others in different professions. You can talk to as many masters as you wish, but no one pushes you or supervises you. We must rely on our own willingness, awareness, and effort in our respective journeys toward enlightenment.
I ask Wai Yee, as a mother and as an educator now in her 70s, what advice she would like to give to young people today. She observes that young people today have higher IQs, but focus very much on external competition instead of returning inward to themselves and reflecting on the meaning of life. The more life experiences she has, the more truth she finds in the Buddhist concept of impermanence. She encourages young people to contemplate how to spend their time, energy, and talent, and also recommends practicing “Living Chan” (生活禪), with the motto “life of awakening; life of dedication (覺悟人生 奉獻人生).”** This is composed of a set of teachings by Chan Master Jinghui (净慧; 1933–2013) further developed from Humanistic Buddhism. In Wai Yee’s view, “Living Chan,” being relevant and applicable to everyday life, provides practical guidance for those who aspire to see true reality and to live a life of service and contribution.
* Wang Fat Ching She was donated to Tung Lin Kok Yuen (東蓮覺苑) in 1960, and now houses the offices of Buddhistdoor.
** To learn more about Master Jinghui and “Living Chan,” please visit Bailin Monastery’s (柏林禪寺) official website: http://bailinsi.net