Mr. Li Bingnan was born in Jinan, Shandong Province, China, on December 7, 1890. His parents named him Li Yen, but he is best known as Li Bingnan. He was later given the courtesy name Xuelu and the Dharma name Deming. Mr. Li’s father, Li Shoucun, was well-mannered and just, and good in guiding his children.
As a child, Mr. Li Bingnan was clever and diligent in learning. He studied and memorized Confucian classics, Chinese history, and philosophy. He also studied Chinese medicine, swordsmanship, and poetry. Poetry particularly met his interests. Later, he practiced Buddhism and learned the Teaching, Zen, Esoteric, and Pure Land schools. In time, he settled on the Pure Land school.
In 1920, Mr. Li was appointed warden of the jail in Ju County. He then studied at the Shandong Law School and it was at this time that Mr. Mei Guangxi, was appointed as a General Director of Justice in Shandong Province. Mr. Mei was knowledgeable in Buddhism, particularly in the Consciousness-only school. Mr. Li became interested in Mr. Mei’s lectures, attended every one, and learned from him.
After several years, Mr. Li learned of the Sutra Distribution Society, which had been organized by the thirteenth patriarch of the Pure Land school, Great Master Yinguang. The society printed and distributed Buddhist texts and related materials. These books were distributed without charge and mailed on request. Mr. Li received two such books from the society: Elementary Introduction for Learning Buddhism and Guidance for Buddhism.
Mr. Li was told that Master Yinguang was accomplished in Confucianism and Buddhism. He had wanted to ask the master to be his Witness Teacher in taking the Three Refuges. But Mr. Li was not able to go to the master because of the great distance.
A few years later, he met a Buddhist student of Master Yinguang. The student was willing to write a recommendation letter for Mr. Li. After Master Yinguang received the letter, he mailed the Three Refuges certificate to Mr. Li and gave him the Dharma name Deming. The master also wrote a letter to Mr. Li encouraging him to live harmoniously with all people and fulfill his responsibilities, refrain from evil and be sincere, cultivate diligently and awaken others, and specialize in Pure Land practice.
Afterwards, Mr. Li often wrote letters to Master Yinguang to consult him on Buddhism. Three years later, Mr. Li had an opportunity to visit the master at Baoguo Monastery, Suzhou. At that time, the master was in retreat. When Mr. Li saw the master, he felt he had just met Amitabha Buddha. Usually the master only allocated ten minutes to visitors, but with Mr. Li he spent an entire day. When Mr. Li left the room, it was at midnight, and the moon was high above in the sky.
In 1934, Mr. Zhuang Shinru, the county historian, was the chief editor for the re-editing of the annals of Ju County. Mr. Li was one of the assistant editors for the work. After three years, upon completing the editing work and on Mr. Zhuang’s recommendation, Mr. Li was appointed a government official by the Office of Sacrifices to the Greatly Accomplished Supreme Prior Teacher. [Greatly Accomplished Supreme Prior Teacher referred solely to Confucius.] Soon after this, Mr. Li was promoted to Chief Secretary.
During World War II, Mr. Li had a chance to meet Master Taixu at Changan Temple. As a result of their meeting, Mr. Li was appointed to give lectures in jails. He received good results. Master Taixu was very happy and awarded Mr. Li some of his calligraphy.
In 1946, Mr. Li followed Mr. Kong, the Sacrificial Officer, to Nanjing. Mr. Li lived there for three years. During that time, he lectured on Buddhism at Nanjing Puzhau Temple and Zhengyin Lotus Society. After the Battle of Xubeng, Mr. Li followed Mr. Kong to Taiwan by boat in February 1949. He was sixty at the time.
When Mr. Li arrived in Taiwan, he went to live in Taichung. It was his great aspiration to awaken and benefit all beings. When arrangements for his residence and job were completed, he began to look for a place to teach Buddhism. He began to lecture on the Heart Sutra, the Sutra of Forty Two Chapters, and Consciousness-only Buddhism at Fahua Temple.
Mr. Li also set up a Chinese medical clinic and opened a library to meet people. As increasing numbers of people learned of his lectures, the audience grew, resulting in more people learning about Buddhism. Mr. Li began to lecture at many temples, but Lingshan Temple remained his main lecture venue. Gradually, many people became Buddhists. Eventually, Mr. Li gave lectures all over Taichung, Taipei, and Tainan but he still felt it was not enough. He began to propagate Buddhism through writing. First he gave Buddhist teachings through the mail. Then, he had a question and answer column, which was published in several journals. Near or far, regardless of the level of understanding, everyone benefited from his teachings.
In 1950, Mr. Li took the lead in establishing the Taichung Buddhist Lotus Society [or Taichung Lotus Society]. After the society was established, associate organizations were set up. The Ciguang Library was set up in 1958. In that same year, Master Chin Kung went to Taichung. He learned Buddhism from Mr. Li and remained under his guidance for ten years. During those years, Master learned to lecture on thirteen different Buddhist sutras. Mr. Li taught him that “Ultimate sincerity touches all.”
Later, the Ciguang Childcare Association, the Bodhi Charity Home (subsequently renamed the Home of Benevolence), the Bodhi Hospital, and the Minglun Society were established. Then, many other Buddhist Propagation Societies were established, including the Wufeng, Fengyuan, Taiping, and Yuanlin societies. Additionally, many Amitabha Buddhist Societies and Pure Land Centers were founded by Mr. Li’s students in Hong Kong, South Asia, the United States, and many other places.
Mr. Li chose to remain living in his small and well-organized apartment on Chengqi Street. He studied sutras, wrote articles, edited lists, and chanted sutras and recited poetry at ease in his apartment. His meals were vegetarian, modest in portions, and eaten at specific times. As long as he could still mend his clothing, he would not discard them. Whenever the students offered him a fee for tutoring them, he would always donate it to a charity in the student’s name.
During the day, he worked at the Office of Sacrifices to the Greatly Accomplished Supreme Prior Teacher. At night, he lectured on Confucianism and Buddhism at different Buddhist centers. He also taught Interior Chinese Medicine at the Chinese Medical College, and Analects, Poetry Florilegium, Book of Rites, and Buddhism at Chung Shin University and Dong Hai University. He was busy every day. Due to the increase in time spent lecturing at the Buddhist centers, he was as busy after retirement as he had been before it. He constantly told his students: “As long as I am still alive, I cannot be idle.”
When Mr. Li lectured on the sutras, his explanations of the texts were based on commentaries of the patriarchs and accomplished masters. His lectures accorded with the truth and met people’s needs. He often encouraged practitioners to deeply believe in causality and sincerely chant “Amituofo.”
If people asked about Zen or Esoteric practice, Mr. Li would tell them of his experiences. During World War II, before he moved to Chongqin, he learned intensive meditation from Zen Master Zhenkung from Beijing. For eight years, he practiced Zen mediation with Master Keguan, the Abbot of Jingju Monastery.
After he arrived in Chongqin, he spent eight years learning esoteric teachings from Gongge Hutuktu of the White Sect and mantra chanting from Nuona Hutuktu of the Red Sect.
Of these studies, Mr. Li said, “I felt ashamed that I achieved nothing in either school. I came to believe in what Master Yinguang advised me to do: concentrate on the Pure Land school, on the Buddha-name chanting method.” Mr. Li often said, “In the Dharma-ending period, it is very difficult to cut off one’s delusion. It would be safer and more proper to practice the Pure Land method: to seek rebirth, with residual karma, in the Pure Land. Some people ask if it is good to practice both Pure Land and Esoteric schools. The answer is to practice both schools is like trying to take two boats at the same times. It is not advisable.”
Mr. Li continued to lecture. Even at the age of ninety, his voice was still rich and resonant. At the age of ninety-seven, before dawn on April 13, 1986, he chanted “Amituofo” and said to the students by his side, “One-mind Undisturbed.” Then he laid down in an auspicious pose and at 5:45 am, he passed away.
How can we sum up Mr. Li’s life? He was well-accomplished in Confucianism and Buddhism. He was erudite and mastered poetic prose, jurisprudence, and medicine. For several decades, he propagated Confucianism and Buddhism day and night. Even in chaotic situations, he never stopped helping and guiding others. He knew where he came from and when he would leave. If Mr. Li is not a great bodhisattva, who is?
Reference from “Profile of the Elder Xue Lu” by Professor Li's Funeral Committee