Born in a modest family and revealed his unique character at an early age
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."
Resuming 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
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."
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.
Engaged in higher Buddhist education to nurture talent
In 1978, Master Sheng Yen became professor of the College of Chinese Culture (now Chinese Culture University) Graduate School of Philosophy. The China Academy Graduate School of Buddhist Studies, which started recruiting post-graduate students in 1981, was the first higher education institute to nurture Buddhist talent in Buddhist research Taiwan’s history of Chinese Buddhist education. He 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.
Build a Pure Land on Earth
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.
Renovating the Bodhisattva Precepts after 30 years of preparation
In 1991, Sheng Yen held the first Bodhisattva Precepts Ceremony at Chan Meditation Center in New York; in 1993, he held the Ceremony in Taiwan for the first time.
During the time when writing the Essentials of Buddhist Sila and Vinaya, Sheng Yen already had the idea of promoting the spirit while renovating the content of the Bodhisattva Precepts Ceremony. As he pointed out, the purpose of the Bodhisattva Precepts is to inspire practitioners to raise the great bodhi mind reflecting the vows of a bodhisattva, rather than feeling restricted by the rules.
After 30 years of preparation, studying the theory and relevant Buddhist texts, he renovated the Bodhisattva Precepts ceremony, reflecting both the original ideas of the Buddha’s time and social changes along the course of time to this day.
Based on the Four Great vows and the Three Sets of Pure Precepts, and with the Ten Virtuous Actions as the guiding principle that helps us purify our body, speech and mind, he hoped to universally introduce the Bodhisattva Precepts, thereby helping people develop compassion and wisdom, and thus making society a better place.
Founding the Dharma Drum Retreat Center
In 1997, Sheng Yen founded the Dharma Drum Retreat Center in upper New York State, to accommodate the growing number of practitioners at Chan Meditation Center, in Queens, NY.
The newly acquired Retreat Center, though not yet renovated, soon became a major venue of Chan meditation retreats and annual meetings for practitioners in North America.
In 1998, retreats featuring methods of practice of “huatou” and “silent illumination” were respectively held for the first time, for practitioners to delve into a specific method of their choice and develop further insight.
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.
Dialogue with the 14th Dalai Lama
In May, 1998, Master Sheng Yen and His Holiness the Dalai Lama had a dialogue titled “In the Spirit of Manjushri: the Wisdom Teachings of Buddhism,” a three-day event co-organized by Dharma Drum Mountain Buddhist Association and Tibetan House.
On the first two days the Dalai Lama talked about Buddhist wisdom as represented in Manjushri Bodhisattva’s actions; while on the third day Master Sheng Yen shared the wisdom of living inspired by the Chan tradition of Chinese Buddhism. They also delivered a discussion on Buddhist practices, marking a significant exchange between Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism. Earlier, Master Sheng Yen had been engaged in interactions with other Buddhist traditions, including Philip Kapleau, a teacher of Zen Buddhism, and Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, a global spiritual leader.
This well known dialogue between Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism signified the introduction of Chinese Buddhism and Chan teachings to the west, where Tibetan and Japanese Zen Buddhism are dominant, thereby promoting its presence on the global stage.
Delivering a speech at the UN to advocate world peace
In 2000, Master Sheng Yen attended the Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders, held in August, 2000, at the UN, in which he delivered a speech advocating compassionate care among ethnic groups and elimination of religious conflicts and racial discriminations. His insights were well received by the audience of varying ethnic and religious backgrounds.
In 2003, on invitation of the Israeli and Palestinian governments, he made a trip to the two countries to promote mutual peace.
Master Sheng Yen repeatedly emphasized the importance of “protecting the spiritual environment” and pointed to religious issues as being the root cause for international disharmony. Therefore, he initiated world peace movements to foster the achievement of world peace through religious efforts.
Inauguration of Dharma Drum Mountain with the rising great compassion
On October 21, 2005, Dharma Drum Mountain World Center for Buddhist Education was inaugurated, marking a new page in the history of Dharma Drum Mountain.
In the opening speech Master Sheng Yen stated, “Back in 16 years ago Dharma Drum Mountain didn't even exist, and now we have many new buildings. We must use these buildings for the benefit of society and the world to make them meaningful and fulfill their functions. There are things that may not have been considered necessary but are what society and the world need, and that is precisely what we should strive to do, as a conviction of Dharma Drum Mountain.”
With “the Rising Great Compassion” as the theme, the inauguration ceremony hoped to inspire people to develop the mind of compassion from within, and love their families, friends, and people of varying groups and backgrounds equally, praying that all mankind can raise the mind of great compassion, thereby bringing lasting peace to the world.
Embracing death at ease, with eternal vows of compassionMaster Sheng Ten died on Fev. 3, 2009, at the age of 79. His ashes were buried in the Jinshan Eco-friendly Memorial Garden. He had his death poem serving as his last teaching to people,
Busy with nothing, growing old.
Within emptiness, weeping and laughing.
Intrinsically, there is no "I."
Life and death, thus cast aside.