Autobiography of Master Sheng-yen
I was born
on a farm in the countryside near Shanghai. At the age of thirteen I left
home to become a Buddhist monk. The local monastery I entered, like most
others in China, was called a Ch'an temple. But, in fact the theory and
practice of Ch'an was almost never discussed there. As young monks, most
of us did not have any clear idea of what Ch'an practice really was. Our
training simply consisted of the rigorous discipline prescribed for monks
everyday activities such as washing clothes, working in the fields,
cooking and performing daily services. We also studied major sutras such
as the Amitabha, the Lotus, and the Diamond sutras. Daily chores, however
were not a problem for me; the worst thing was memorizing sutras. There
were so many to master, and I felt very stupid. My master told me, "Your
karmic obstructions are very heavy. You should make a strong effort to
atone for them. Go prostrate to Kuan Yin Bodhisattva."
little time for practice during the day, so I prostrated to Kuan Yin five
hundred times at night, and again in the morning before the other monks
woke up. After doing this for three months, I was overcome one day with a
very refreshing and comfortable feeling. It seemed as if the whole world
had changed. My mind became very clear and very bright. Memorization was
no longer a problem, and I began to learn very quickly. To this day I
believe Kuan Yin gave me assistance. Most important, there arose in me a
deep sense of responsibility towards the Dharma.
thirteen years old and knew nothing about the history of Buddhism, yet I
felt that Buddhism was on the way to extinction. Most Chinese had little
understanding of the Dharma. Teachers were very rare, and what I knew came
only from memorizing the scriptures. Chinese Buddhism did not provide a
systematic education for monks. A monk's training was usually completed
gradually and imperceptibly through the experience of everyday life. There
simply was no planned education. I felt sympathy for those who had never
heard the Dharma, and realized the importance of reviving Buddhism. I
vowed to learn more about the Buddha Dharma so that one day I might bring
it to others.
Communist opposition in the area, our monks moved to Shanghai. There our
livelihood depended solely on donations from performing services for the
dead. It was depressing to see monks and nuns performing perfunctory
rituals instead of teaching Buddhism. I did this for two years. Through
all this, I felt that my karmic obstructions were severe. About this time,
however, I learned of a seminary in Shanghai where young monks could
acquire a Buddhist education. So I ran away from my monastery to study at
this school. When he later arrived in Shanghai, my master approved of my
school some people had a noble sense of purpose, but others were simply
there to get an education. The seminary was founded by a student of Master
T'ai-Hsu, one of the great revivers of modern Chinese Buddhism. T'ai-Hsu,
was in turn much influenced by Great Master Ou-I, of the Ming dynasty.
Ou-I disapproved of sectarianism and insisted that since Sakyamuni Buddha
there had been just one Buddhist tradition. He placed equal emphasis on
the eight schools: Hua-yen, T'ien-T'ai, Ch'an (Zen), Weishih.
(Consciousness-only), Vinaya, Chung-kuan (Madhyamika, Ching-tu (Pure
Land), and Esoteric Buddhism. At the seminary, most of the teachers were
students of T'ai-Hsu.
Buddhist history and the teachings of Vinaya, Wei-shih, T'ien-t'ai, and
Hua-yen. The seminary also emphasized physical exercise. We learned T'ai
Chi Ch'uan and Shao-lin boxing, this later from a teacher from the
Shao-lin monastery. In our practice there was particular emphasis on
ritual repentance. We meditated, but did not have a very clear idea of the
correct method of practice. Thus it was difficult to gain any real
strength from it. We supposed that it would take years to achieve
benefits. I recalled that even Sakyamuni Buddha practiced for six years. I
also recalled that Master Hsu-Yun, who left home at the age of twenty, was
still practicing at fifty, though the world had not yet heard of him.
had deep meditation experiences, or who had been certified as enlightened,
never explained their experience. When they talked among themselves, their
language was strange, and its meaning elusive. There were a few older
students who had spent several years in meditation halls. When I asked
them about practice they would say, "Oh, it's easy. Just sit there. Once
your legs stop hurting it's fine." Sometimes a monk would be given a
kung-an (koan)on which to meditate, but on the whole, there was no
systematic meditation training.
Once at the
seminary, I participated in a Ch'an retreat. I would just sit in
meditation until I heard the incense board signalling walking meditation.
No one told me what to do or gave me any instruction. We had a saying that
one had to sit until "the bottom falls out of the barrel of pitch." Only
then could he get to see the master.
while sitting, I thought, "What should I be doing? Should I be reciting
Buddha's name? Should I be doing something else? What really is
meditation?" I kept asking myself these questions until I became a big
ball of doubt. However, while at this seminary my doubts never got
I left mainland China for Taiwan, where I was conscripted into army
service. Despite my duties as a soldier, I took time to meditate everyday.
My doubts, still unresolved, caused all kinds of questions to come up.
There were many contradictions in the Buddhist teachings that I could not
resolve. This was very disturbing since I had deep faith in the Buddha's
teachings and believed that the sutras could not be wrong. I was burdened
with such questions as "What is enlightenment?" "What is Buddhahood?"
Questions like these were very numerous in my mind, and I desperately
needed to know the answers.
underlying doubt was always there. When I was working it would disappear,
but when I practiced, this suffocating doubt would often return. This
situation persisted for years, until I was twenty-eight, when I met my
first real master. I was visiting a monastery in southern Taiwan, where I
sometimes lectured. I learned that a famous monk, Ling-Yuan, was also
visiting. That night we happened to share the same sleeping platform.
Seeing that he was meditating instead of sleeping, I sat with him. I was
still burdened by my questions and was desperate to have them resolved. He
seemed to be quite at ease, with no problems in the world, so I decided to
patiently as I spoke of my many doubts and problems. In reply, he would
just ask, "Anymore?" I continued like this for two or three hours. I was
extremely agitated and anxious for answers. Finally he sighed and said,
"Put down !", he slapped suddenly on the bed, and shouted "Put down!".
These words struck me like lightning. My body poured sweat; I felt like I
had been istantly cured of a bad cold. I felt a great weight being
suddenly lifted from me. It was a very comfortable and soothing feeling.
We just sat there, not speaking a word. I was extremely happy. It was one
of the most pleasant nights of my life. The next day I continued to
experience great happiness. The whole world was fresh, as though I was
seeing it for the first time.
At this time
I realized two important points necessary for practice. The first has to
do with cause and conditions. Certain things not entirely under your
control-your own karma, the karma of others, environmental factors-must
come together in a way that favors making progress in this lifetime. To
make great progress in practice you must have this karma affinity-the
proper conditions must exist.
have effective methods of practicing under the guidance of a qualified
master. From the time I left home I spent fifteen years in my practice. I
thought this was much too long. In the past whenever I asked my teachers
for guidance, they would just say, "Work hard. What else is there to talk
about?" But now I realized there were two requirements: working hard on a
good method, and having a good master.
From then on
I searched for techniques of practice, for methods of cultivating dhyana,
especially in the sutras. With some experience a student can usually
produce results with these methods. Even though the texts are not always
clear, persistence and hard work eventually bring success, and the method
becomes clear. In particular, I sought means to settle the mind quickly,
to make it open and unobstructed. The average person's mind is closed and
selfish. When the mind is settled it opens up. With practice it is
possible to control emotions and vexations as they come up in daily life.
I familiarized myself with these numerous methods to help myself as well
the three fundamental principles of Buddhism: precepts, samadhi, and
wisdom. I started to study the Vinaya, which spells out the precepts, or
rules of conduct for monks and nuns. Precepts are guidelines to living
within the teaching of the Buddha. Without a firm basis in the precepts,
practicing samadhi can lead to outer paths, or to perverse views and
behavior. Precepts protect us and keep us on the right path.
I also read
a lot of scriptures. When I didn't have a master, I took the scriptures as
my master, reasoning that if my views did not accord with the sutras, I
would recognize my mistakes. Previously, when I read the sutras, I saw
many contradictions. For example, each sutra was presented as the true
teaching. But how could this be? These contradictions fell away when I saw
that they were different levels of the teaching of the Dharma. The Buddha
taught different things to different people according to their experience
and levels of attainment.
When I went
to Taiwan I was recruited into the army. Now I wished to take on the
monk's robes again. There was a certain master, Tung-Ch'u, whom I sensed
to be an extraordinary individual. He did not lecture, nor did he give
people instruction in practice. Seeking neither fame nor followers, he was
widely known and respected. His speech was unusual and had a startling
effect on people. He was heir to both the Lin-chi and Ts'ao-tung
traditions of Ch'an. Later on, I found out that when we met, he wished to
have me as a student but did not express it. Even so, I became his
My stay with
him turned out to be one of the most difficult periods of my life. He
constantly harassed me. It reminded me of the treatment that Milarepa
received from his guru Marpa. For example, after telling me to move my
things into one room, he would later tell me to move to another room. Then
he would tell me to move back in again. Once, he told me to seal off a
door and to open a new one in another wall. I had to haul the bricks by
foot from a distant kiln up to the monastery. We normally used a gas
stove, but my master often sent me to the mountains to gather a special
kind of firewood that he liked to brew his tea over. I would constantly be
scolded for cutting the wood too small or too large. I had many
experiences of this kind.
practice it was much the same. When I asked him how to practice, he would
tell me to meditate. But after a few days he would quote a famous master,
saying, "You can't make a mirror by polishing a brick, and you can't
become a Buddha by sitting." So he ordered me to do prostrations. Then,
after several days, he would say "This is nothing but a dog eating shit
off the ground. Read the sutras!" After I read for a couple of weeks, he
would scold me again, saying that the patriarchs thought the sutras good
only for cleaning sores. He would say, "You're smart. Write an essay."
When I showed him an essay he would tear it up saying, "These are all
stolen ideas." Then he would challenge me to use my own wisdom and say
When I lived
with him he forbade me to keep a blanket, because monks were supposed to
meditate at night. When tired, we could nap, but were not to rely on the
comfort of a bed or blanket. All these arbitrary things were actually his
way of training me. Whatever I did was wrong even if he had just told me
to do it. Although it was hard to think of this treatment as
compassionate, it really was. If I hadn't been trained with this kind of
discipline, I would not have accomplished much. I also realized from him
that learning the Buddha Dharma was a very vigorous activity, and that one
should be self-reliant in practice.
years with Tung-Ch'u, I went into solitary retreat in the mountains. When
I left I told him that I vowed to practice hard and not fail the Dharma.
He answered, "Wrong! What is Buddhism? What is Dharma? The most important
thing is not to fail yourself!"
Tung-Ch'u told me, "The relationship between a master and disciple is like
that of father and son, like teacher and student, but is also a
friendship. The master may guide, criticize, and correct, but the disciple
must be responsible for his own practice. The master cannot worry over his
disciple like a mother. The master just leads the disciple onto the Path;
the disciple must walk the Path himself."
Tung-Ch'u told me that a practitioner must emphasize both wisdom and
merit. Practicing alone, one can cultivate samadhi and wisdom, but he must
remember that there are sentient beings needing the nourishment of Buddha
Dharma. He said, "Control yourself. When you can control yourself, you can
freely harmonize with the multitudes."
half year of my retreat, I emphasized repentance prostration to undo my
heavy karma. First I prostrated through the Lotus Sutra; later, the
Avatamsaka Sutra. After reading a character, I would recite a mantra and
then prostrate. The mantras were "Na mo fa-hua hui-shang fo pusa" for the
Lotus Sutra, ("Homage to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of the Lotus
Assembly") and "Na mo hua-yen hai-hui fo p'u-sa" for the Avatamsaka Sutra.
("Homage to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of the ocean of wisdom of the
Avatamsaka Sutra.") This I did through the whole sutra. After prostrating
for five hours I would meditate. On other occasions I practiced reciting
Amitabha Buddha's name.
moment I started the retreat my mind was very calm and settled, never
restless. I felt very happy, as though having come home. I ate one meal a
wild potatoes, which I planted myself. I lived in a hut with a yard. There
were walls behind, but the front looked out on a cliff. Even though I
always remained in the courtyard, I never had a feeling of being closed
began to prostrate less, spending more time meditating and reading sutras.
I also wrote a lot. Six years passed very quickly; I had little sense of
time. I hadn't accomplished what I had hoped to, but others persistently
urged me to return, so I left the mountains. Returning to Taipei, I still
felt inadequate. I thought that to teach Buddha Dharma in this age, I
needed a modern education and a degree. So I made plans to study in Japan.
The preparation took close to one year. Meanwhile I continued to lecture
At the age
of thirty-eight I went to Japan and started work towards a doctorate in
Buddhist Literature. This I did in a relatively short time of six years. I
attribute this not to any native intelligence, but to the discipline of
practice, and to the compassion of Kuan Yin Bodhisattva. During this time
I had financial problems, and many times was ready to return to Taiwan. My
advisor, who was also a practitioner, said, "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." After hearing this I made daily prostrations to Kuan
Yin. Oddly enough, after a short while, I started to receive annual
donations from someone in Switzerland, sufficient to cover my tuition and
costs to publish my dissertation. To this day I don't know who the donor
period I visited various masters of Zen and esoteric Buddhism. I received
the greatest influence from Bantetsugu Roshi, a disciple of Harada Roshi.
I attended several winter-long retreats at his temple in Tohoku. Being in
northern Japan, the temple had a very harsh environment. Moreover, the
master seemed inclined to give me an especially hard time and constantly
had his assistants beat me. Of the people there I had by far the most
education, and he would say, "You scholars have a lot of selfish
attachments and vexations. Your obstructions are heavy."
'When I was
leaving him he said, "Go to America and teach there." I replied, "But
master, I don't know English." He said, "Zen doesn't rely on words. Why
worry about words?"
note: Master Sheng-Yen has received Dharma transmission in the two major
branches of Ch'an Buddhism, the Lin-Chi (Japanese Rinzai), and the Ts'ao-
Tung (Japanese Soto). In genealogical terms, Master Sheng-Yen is a
seventy-second generation descendant of Bodhidharma ( ?-ca. 530), the
First patriarch of Ch'an, and the sixty-seventh generation descendant of
Hui-Neng (638-713), the Sixth Patriarch of Ch'an. Within the Lin-Chi
lineage, Master Sheng-yen is a sixty-second generation descendant of
Master Lin-Chi (?-866), and a third-generation descendant of Master
Hsu-Yun (1840-1959). in this line, he is the direct descendant of master
Ling-Yuang (1902- ).
Ts'ao-Tung lineage, Master Sheng- Yen is the fiftieth-generation
descendant of co-founder Master TungShan (807-869), and the direct
descendant of Master TungCh'u (1908-1977).
refers to the transmission of the Dharma within a lineage from a master to
a disciple. This transmission thereby ensures the continuity not only of
the Dharma itself, but also the teaching and the practice of the lineage.
Furthermore, it confers upon the recipient a recognition by the master
that the disciple is now qualified to transmit the Dharma, i.e., has
become a master.
Books in English
teacher is Venerable Sheng-yen, who has taught Buddhism in the West since
1976. He is widely recognized as one of the foremost contemporary Buddhist
teachers. He spends half of his time in the USA and the other half in
Taiwan. To date (2001 A.D.), he has led more than 80 intensive meditation
retreats in the USA. Most of these were seven-day retreats, with a
forty-nine-day Millennium Retreat in the year 2000. his footprints have
spread all across the United States, in various provinces in China, as
well as Hong Kong, Singapore, the Phillippines, Japan, Malaysia, Russia,
The United Kingdom, Poland, Germany, Belgium, Italy, the Czech Republic,
Croatia, Argentina, Costa Rica, Brazil, etc. In 2000 he was one of the
keynote speakers in the Millennium Religious Summit held in the United
written more than seventy books in Chinese and more than a dozen books in
English. Many of his books have been translated into Italian, Japanese,
Portugese, Finnish, German, French, Spanish, Polish, Dutch, Russian,
Vietnamese, and Indonesian, among other languages. in spite of his
accomplishments, Ven. Sheng-yen retains a humble manner, insisting that he
is just an ordinary person living a monastic life.
Update : 01-04-2003