An Ordinary Monk, An Extraordinary Life
His mild expression and spare figure reflect an untroubled character.
His amusing and cordial talks make audiences feel wholly accepted and understood. His unconventional insights bring clarity, like a ray of light penetrating the darkness. Those who go to him seeking mystical experiences will be disappointed. But those who observe him closely will glimpse the unhindered and unbounded wisdom of this man.
In these tumultuous times of ours, Master Sheng Yen, taking the Bodhisattva Guanyin of myriad manifestations as his model, has been seizing every chance to lead people to inner liberation, guiding them through life’s turning points and towards a meaningful life of transcendence and giving.
Born into poverty, Master Sheng Yen lived through floods, droughts and years of war in his childhood. But in spite of these trying circumstances, he revealed his unique character at an early age.
Once, as a child, Master Sheng Yen was fortunate enough to be given a whole banana for himself. When he sank his teeth into the banana, the first he had ever tasted, he was so overwhelmed by its delicious flavor that he could not bring himself to take a second bite. Instead, he carefully saved the remainder, which was already beginning to darken, so he could take it to school the next day to let his classmates taste for themselves its wondrous flavor.
Tonsure at Wolf Hills
In 1943, the not-yet-thirteen-year-old Master Sheng Yen voluntarily followed a neighbor to a monastery in the Wolf Hills to become a monk.
As a young novice, Master Sheng Yen was known as Changjin, and carried out the many miscellaneous duties traditionally required of monks in China’s Buddhist monasteries. Although his work was exhausting, he arose before the sun every morning to prostrate himself before Guanyin five hundred times, praying to and visualizing Guanyin, a poplar twig in hand, sprinkling the cool, ambrosian dew on his head.
And how Guanyin answered his prayer. Master Sheng Yen, who at that time had only a fourth-grade education, was soon able to memorize the thick Daily Recitations for Chan Monastics and understand his masters’ lectures. This brought him great surprise and joy, and he discovered that the Dharma, profound and subtle, could actually transform and liberate people. Thus he made a grand commitment: he would try his best to understand and spread the Dharma, using the Dharma to help people come out of suffering and attain happiness. To this day, in spite of the many frustrations and obstacles he has encountered over the years, this commitment has never waned. Instead, it has spurred him to develop the wisdom and will to overcome difficulties and trials.
Moving to Taiwan as a Soldier
In 1949, China was in chaos. After much deliberation, Master Sheng Yen changed his name to Zhang Caiwei and took refuge in the army. His decision was not unlike that of Hui-neng, the Sixth Patriarch of Chan Buddhism, who once joined a group of hunters to flee from danger.
Yet as a soldier, Master Sheng Yen never for a day forgot that he had been a monk; he never wavered in his conviction that he would once again take up his monastic robes and return to the path to enlightenment.
In the army, the young Zhang Caiwei closely observed life in the lay world and wondered about the origins of life. Eventually, his mind was totally immersed in a great ball of doubt. Then chance brought Zhang to meet Master Lingyuan, a lineage disciple of the legendary Master Xuyun. That night, under Master Lingyuan’s guidance, Zhang Caiwei experienced a powerful epiphany. A strong feeling of release swept over his whole being. Describing the experience, Master Sheng Yen says: “It was as if my life suddenly exploded out of the tin can in which I had imprisoned it.”
Returning to Monastic Life
In 1960, after ten years in the service, Zhang Caiwei left the army and received tonsure again under Master Dongchu, taking the Dharma-name Sheng Yen. Not long afterwards, Master Sheng Yen went to southern Taiwan and took up a six-year solitary retreat in the mountains.
During his retreat, Master Sheng Yen placed equal emphasis on meditative practice and doctrinal learning. First he studied the precepts, then the Agama sutras. Based on this study, he wrote Essentials of the Precepts and Orthodox Chinese Buddhism, the latter of which has been translated into Vietnamese and sold more than three million copies. With regard to practice, Master Sheng Yen used the method of “no-thought” during seated meditation, and he blended martial arts and yoga to create “Chan in Motion,” which later became an important element of the seven-day retreats he leads.
Having long reflected on the development of Chinese Buddhism and looking for a means to reinvigorate Chinese Buddhist culture and education, Master Sheng Yen made a firm resolve to go to Japan to study when his retreat ended. The Master’s objective in becoming a scholar was to raise the status of Buddhism within Taiwanese society, and to make people understand that Buddhism, placing equal emphasis on learning and practice, is a repository of human wisdom.
The Pursue of Advanced Studies in Japan
In 1969, the forty-year-old Master Sheng Yen, though having only a fourth-grade education, was admitted to the master’s program in Buddhist Studies at Japan’s Rissho University on the strength of his published works on Buddhism.
While studying in Japan, Master Sheng Yen led the life of a traditional Chinese monk. He stringently adhered to the precepts, and with natural dignity demonstrated through his actions the proper behavior for a monk in the lay world. In spite of his straitened economic circumstances, Master Sheng Yen never wavered in his resolve to study. He was guided instead by his professor’s words of encouragement: “In clothing and food there is no mind for the Path, but with a mind for the Path there will always be food and clothing.”
Fortunately, with the timely anonymous financial support from Dr. CT Shen, Master Sheng Yen was eventually able to finish his Ph.D., becoming the first Chinese monk to do so.
Master Sheng Yen’s master’s thesis was entitled Research on the Mahayana Approach to Calming and Contemplation, and he wrote his doctoral dissertation on the Venerable Zhixu, a Ming dynasty master. Even today, the dissertation remains unmatched for its thoroughness, detail and precision, and continues to be one of the world’s few important works on Ming dynasty Buddhism.
In addition to his university studies, while in Japan Master Sheng Yen also took part in a number of retreats at Japanese monasteries. These retreats made him aware of the differences between Japanese Zen and Chinese Chan, and enabled him to incorporate the best elements of both traditions into a Chan teaching appropriate to the modern world.
Causes and conditions are impossible to fathom. Master Sheng Yen arrived at the most significant turning point in his life after he completed his degree-he went to the United States to teach Chan.
Speaking of those days, Master Sheng Yen says he felt like an itinerant monk pressing ahead through the wind and snow.
Propagation of Buddhardharma in the West
For the purpose of spreading the Dharma and teaching meditation, Master Sheng Yen and his students once wandered the unfamiliar streets of New York City for as long as six months.
Life was difficult, yet back then the master never felt that he was suffering. On the contrary, he says: “Those were happy times. People often say: “In spreading the Dharma, the body is forgotten.” I finally had a taste of what it’s like to sleep on the earth with the sky as my ceiling.” Even today, those who see what the master eats and drinks are still shocked by the simplicity of his life.
And so, with this acetic spirit, Master Sheng Yen has traveled to the four corners of the Earth. These journeys have taken him to the United Kingdom, Germany, Central and South America, Eastern Europe and Russia, even to places like Czechoslovakia and Croatia, where the Dharma has rarely been heard.
These extensive travels led to adjustments to his teachings, originally rich in Chinese flavor, in light of his perceptive observations and teaching experience gained along the way. Gradually, Master Sheng Yen developed a Chan teaching that transcended ethnic and cultural boundaries, one that integrated the traditional and the modern into a form that both East and West could accept.
The Core of Master Sheng Yen’s Chan Teaching
As a religious teacher, Master Sheng Yen stresses both the understanding and practice of Buddhist doctrine.
Always, Master Sheng Yen guides practitioners into the world of Chan by presenting Chan in terms that modern people can easily grasp. His teachings also encourage practitioners to apply what they have learned to their workaday lives-after all, Chan is about living in the moment. Because his system of thought and methods of practice make people aware of how close Chan is to their lives, they can therefore provide the people of the modern world with an effective means to bring tranquility to their spirits.
Master Sheng Yen’s system of thought has two major components. On the one hand, it follows the traditions of the major schools of Chinese Buddhism-Tiantai, Huayan, Consciousness-only and the Chan school that forms the core of his thought. On the other, it looks back to the essence of original Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism, and is also concerned with adapting the Dharma to the modern time and different places and cultures. Therefore, Master Sheng Yen’s teachings are universal. At a time when the world is marching along the path towards globalization, Master Sheng Yen is building the foundations of an integrated, global Buddhism.
The focus of the Master’s Chan teaching is on developing wisdom. It emphasizes personal practice, supplemented with guidance from the Dharma. Along the process of “gradual practice, sudden enlightenment,” a practitioner starts by training the scattered mind until it gradually settles down and clears to a state of one-pointed concentration, or “unified mind.” Afterwards, as the practitioner’s Chan practice reaches an advanced level, the emphasis would shift to “letting go”-letting go of all grasping, letting go of method and even the thought of letting go itself-so that emptiness may be experienced after the train of language and thought is stilled.
As people differ from one another, each cultivates the Way in his or her own fashion. Therefore, during a Chan retreat, initially the master teaches several methods-counting the breath, following the breath, reciting the Buddha’s name, etc.-from which retreatants may pick one to their liking and use it to settle the body and mind. When they reach the doorstep of experiencing the insight of “no-self,” Master Sheng Yen, an heir to both the Linji and Caodong lineages of Chan, primarily guides them with Linji’s huatou technique and Caodong’s silent illumination, occasionally resorting to the methods of calming and contemplation according to their karmic capacities. By alternating the tense with the relaxed approaches, Master Sheng Yen has created a dynamic, vital style of Chan practice.
The Master’s teachings emphasize that practitioners should in their daily lives be constantly aware of the thoughts circulating in their minds. This awareness would allow them to simplify their minds and to clearly perceive the changes in themselves and their environment. Wisdom is developed so that people may apply it in their workaday lives to face themselves and grow, to dissolve their attachments and enter into a state of “no-self.” With this wisdom, they will be able to remain relaxed and unhindered, enjoying every day and helping others despite the huge pressures of life.
At the heart of Master Sheng Yen’s Chan thought is the elucidation and experience of “emptiness” and “no-self.” His Chan research is based not only on his years of training in Chan, but also on his extensive reading of the Chan classics, even drawing on the views of original Buddhism’s graduated approach and the Tiantai school. Out of this research, Master Sheng Yen has produced numerous significant works examining Chan theory, history and thought. In addition, he has written many papers and treatises on the precepts and the Tiantai and Consciousness-only thought, all of which are worthy references to those researching or seeking an understanding of modern Chinese Buddhism.
In May 1998, in talks on Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism, the 14th Dalai Lama praised Master Sheng Yen as “an extremely humble and learned follower of the Way.”
Advocating and Facilitaing Education
Master Sheng Yen is a forward-looking religious leader who believes: “If we don’t educate today, Buddhism in Taiwan will have no tomorrow.” He has therefore established the Chung-Hwa Institute of Buddhist Studies, encouraged Buddhist research, and transcended sectarian boundaries through academic exchanges with Tibetan and Theravada Buddhism. Moreover, he has introduced into Taiwan an international academic perspective on Buddhism, seeking to bring greater depth and breadth to Taiwan’s Buddhist studies and education. And now he has founded the Buddhist Seminary of Dharma Drum Sangha University, which provides a complete and practical training environment for the cultivation of monastic talent.
With Master Sheng Yen’s support, the Taisho Tripitaka and the Manji-zokuzokyo have been made available in electronic format, and a Buddhist studies database and digital museum established. These convenient tools not only will facilitate Buddhist studies, but have opened up new avenues for future research. At last, the myriad sutras in numerous tomes are no longer difficult to access.
Pure Land on Earth
In 1989, Dharma Drum Mountain, which advocates the realization of a pure land on Earth, was established in Taiwan.
This effort to build a pure land on Earth pivots on “protecting the spiritual environment.” Through the Fivefold Spiritual Renaissance Campaign, this goal may be gradually realized in every aspect of life, bring about the purification of one’s body and mind. Once the people’s minds are purified, the nation will be pure, as explained by Master Sheng Yen in a keynote speech delivered at the first Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders convened by the United Nations in its fifty-five-year history: “[When] individuals start by purifying their mind, filling it with gratitude for life as well as kindness and compassion. . . . they will devote the fruit of their efforts to others.”
This concept along with its methods of implementation, originated by combining the liberation and bodhisattva paths, is exactly Master Sheng Yen’s proposition for being involved with the world to influence the world and benefiting all sentient beings. It allows modern people to engage in the world to transform it, completely altering the quality of their lives and relieving the spiritual poverty that afflicts most people today.
As his insight penetrates the predicament of all humanity, in recent years Master Sheng Yen frequently receives invitations from around the world to share his incisive observations to awaken the slumberous spirits of the world’s people.
Sparked by this boyhood thought: The Dharma is such a wondrous thing, yet few people understand it, Master Sheng Yen’s desire to spread the Dharma has been burning ablaze ever since.
Now to date, Master Sheng Yen has led more than two hundred international seven-day Chan retreats, and has been invited to speak at more than seventy major Western universities. The master’s untiring travels to spread the Dharma have taken him not only around Asia and to North America, but also to South and Central America, and much of Europe, including the United Kingdom, Germany, Russia, Poland and Croatia.
In May and June of 2000, Master Sheng Yen arranged the first forty-nine-day intensive retreat-the Forty-Nine-Day Silent Illumination Retreat-and transmitted the bodhisattva precepts at the Dharma Drum Retreat Center in the United States. The retreat, which included participants from thirteen nations, marked the start of a new era for Chinese Chan in the Western world.
These days, in many meditation halls all over the world, you can hear Master Sheng Yen’s slightly reedy voice speaking to the hearts of students of Chan. Or, you can hear him give one of his humorous yet powerful talks in the world’s lecture halls, his words pounding on the hearts of audiences. Master Sheng Yen is like a wise patriarch who provides people with guidance on their journey through life and helps them find its fundamental meaning.
Yet all this time, Master Sheng Yen remains an ordinary monk, holding onto the commitment of his youth. Though his face bears the marks of time, he has never stopped giving. . .
There is no suffering,
no cause of suffering,
no cessation of suffering,
and no path.
There is no wisdom and no attainment.