I came across Master Sheng Yen’s book “Chinese Orthodox Buddhism” quite by chance. I picked it up from a monastery in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. As is common in many Asian countries, books on Buddhism can be found free of charge, donated for distribution by kind hearted individuals who wish to share the joys of the Buddha’s teachings with others. I was 7 years old.
Being of ethnic Chinese origin, the book captivated me because from it, I learnt that many of the traditional Chinese practices that I witnessed around me, performed in the name of Buddhism (for example, burning paper “money” for the dead), in fact had nothing to do with what the Buddha taught.
It would be twenty years later when I finally got to meet the author of the book that had served as a guide for me on my spiritual path. And boy, was I blown away!
Master Sheng Yen’s teachings can be described as simple and profound. We call him Shi Fu (“master” in Chinese). Shi Fu is able to explain very deep teachings in very simple everyday language, and in a manner that can be applied to our daily living, which Shi Fu says is the hallmark of the Chinese Chan (translated later in Japan as “Zen”) tradition of Buddhism.
Shi Fu has always been searching for ways to express the Buddha’s teachings in modern, relevant and practical terms so that the modern man could readily apply the wisdom of the Buddha in their lives. Close to Shi Fu’s heart is the revival of Chinese Buddhism – because there are many unique gems that can be found within this thousand-year-old tradition, and it would be a great loss to the world should we fail to open up this treasure trove and at least look in to see what can be useful to us. As a people, the Chinese are extremely practical, and the Chan methodologies that developed and blossomed in China are very relevant for the modern man.
Master Sheng Yen, in setting up Dharma Drum Mountain, laid out its mission as, “To Uplift the Character of Humanity; to Build a Pureland on Earth”. We are constantly reminded that the person whose character needs to be uplifted is our own, not someone else’s. Only through the cultivation of wisdom and compassion, and purification of the self, can we experience the world as a balanced, orderly and kind place. And in so doing, we develop a heartfelt sense that the “Pureland” that we seek to build is not something that is outside of us, but within us.
Case in point. When we are in a good mood, our other halves look more attractive, their strange habits are “cute”, and their argumentative traits are signs of their independent thoughts. When we are in a foul mood, suddenly our other halves look like the devil incarnate, they have intolerably bad habits, and they always have to have the last word! Same facts, but a wildly different world is experienced depending on our state of mind.
When I learnt that our states of mind can be transformed through Chan meditation techniques, I felt greatly empowered because I realized that I can determine my own happiness level. Shi Fu taught that “vexations can be resolved within the self”, meaning that there is a spiritual solution to all problems! All problems start from the self, and end with the self.
What is crucial in Shi Fu’s teaching is that we must balance between Practice & Theory. That is to say, theory must be backed up by practicing techniques that calm and focus the mind and body. And practice must be supplemented by right understanding (theory) of the true Nature of things. Last year, I was devastated when I lost my dog in an accident and totally overwhelmed by sadness and grief. At that time, I used the calming techniques of deep breathing to centre myself so that I could handle the situation. I also needed healthy dose of understanding of the impermanence of life, and in Shi Fu’s words, to “face it, accept it, deal with it, and let it go”. Practice and Theory are like the two wings of a bird, and we are unable to fly very far in our spiritual path if we ignore either one of these two aspects of cultivation.
Dharma Drum Mountain, under the guidance of Shi Fu, has become a world renowned centre for Chan teachings. Shi Fu’s tireless efforts in training his disciples have resulted in a coming-together of some great minds, both monastic and lay practitioners, who are teaching, experimenting and refining methods of Chan meditation, with an aim of making them even more relevant to the modern way of life. We are taught to apply the Chan methods into the way we sit at our office chair, whilst we are driving a car, washing our dishes, and even when we are having an argument! Formal meditation, such as retreats and group classes, is also crucial and the physical environment at DDM Taiwan in Jin Shan is what I would call “6- star” facilities.
I am nourished and energized each time I visit DDM. The energy of the place is magical and the teachers there (which may take the form of a friendly monastic member, a volunteer, the sounds of the water fall, or even a bird soaring through the sky and not leaving a trace behind it!). But mostly, I learn my greatest lessons from myself. When I catch myself creating vexations within myself due to something said or done to me, I am reminded that I have a choice to choose the path of greater happiness simply by resolving the vexation within myself.
The Buddha told me that, like everyone else, I too possess Buddha nature, or the potential of becoming enlightened. He told me that I have the ability within myself to create a life that is filled with richness and joy.
Master Sheng Yen, on the other hand, has shown me HOW to become more enlightened, and how to be more Buddha-like in the way that I live. My master has shown me that, in the final analysis, we are all our own Shi Fu.
(contributed by T P Lim, former President of DDM Malaysia Branch)