Master Sheng Yen: A Monk’s Life

“I was born in 1930, the Year of the Horse, on the fourth day of the twelfth lunar month, the youngest of my parents’ six children. My mother was 42 when she gave birth to me, and my father was 41. According to my mother, I was an extremely thin infant, not much bigger than a kitten. She said many people thought I looked like a rat. That is why my parents named me Baokang, (Stay Healthy). I was born near Xiaoniang Harbor, just west of where the Yangzi River empties into the East China Sea. But I have no memory of the place because a few months after I came into the world, a flood washed everything away, not just our home but our fields, too. Everything we owned ended up in the middle of the river.”

With these words, Master Sheng Yen begins his own story that traces his path from rural Shanghai to the noisy streets of the Bronx and Queens of New York, to founding Dharma Drum Mountain. Growing up on a small farm close to the flood-prone Yangzi, Baokang could not have imagined that someday he would be a renowned Buddhist scholar, teacher, and founder of Dharma Drum Mountain Buddhist Association, jetting to the West to teach Buddhism. His family was not even formally Buddhist although his mother prayed often to Guanyin, the bodhisattva of compassion. Starting at age nine, his farming village schooling was intermittent and without a clear direction, while he helped the family scratch out a living. It was a life with little hope for better prospects.

At the age of 13 Baokang’s virtuous karma took a good turn. A neighbor suggested that the youngster might be interested in joining the Buddhist monastery at Wolf Mountain across the Yangzi, as they were “looking for new blood.” Such a move would relieve the family’s burdens as well as give the boy a chance to continue his schooling. Baokong agreed it was a good idea. (Later, he said that his child’s idea of a monastery was a place where heavenly spirits dwelled.) It took six months for the abbot of the Wolf Mountain monastery to accept Baokong, who was given a new name, Changjin. Life in the monastery was filled with work and ritual but little in the way of Buddhist education. However, he did develop a firm belief in the efficacy of repentance prostration, especially to Guanyin (Avalokiteshvara), a belief he still lives by.

At age 19, after being a monk for six years, Changjin emigrated to Taipei where he was conscripted into the army and took the lay name of Caiwei. Army life was dull, at times a brutal grind, though poor eyesight spared him infantry service, and he was sent to the signal corps. Meditating and reading whenever he could, one positive aspect of Army life was that he had time to write for the Buddhist journal, Humanity Magazine, published by the eminent monk, Master Dongchu.

During an official leave, he visited a temple where he met another visitor, Chan Master Lingyuan: two transients — a monk and a soldier —thrown together by chance. In a Chan encounter that night, Caiwei voiced to the master a torrent of questions and doubts. After asking Caiwei if there was anything else, the master shouted: “Put it down!” Upon hearing these words, Caiwei was able to “enter the gate of Chan.” After this transforming experience, Caiwei re-affirmed his goal to become a monk again.

After leaving the Army, he received permission to retake the monk’s vows under Master Dongchu, and was given the name Sheng Yen. After two years with Dongchu, Sheng Yen wanted to deepen his practice by going on solitary retreat. Despite Dongchu’s doubts and his own sense of gratitude, Sheng Yen began six years of solitary practice. In addition to meditating, repentance prostration, studying sutras and the records of Chan, learning Japanese, and writing, Sheng Yen grew his own vegetables.

Of his retreat experience, Master Sheng Yen said: “What really changed for me on retreat was how I thought about people. I started out being critical, both of humanity in general and particularly of how the lineage was weakening in China. By the end of my retreat I stopped criticizing others. I realized that it is not effective to ask other people to change. Changing oneself is the only thing you can rely on. “ (From Footprints in the Snow)

In 1969, at 39, a late age to begin academic study, Sheng Yen enrolled at Rissho University in Japan. Again, this was not his master’s wish, but Sheng Yen persisted. In Japan, he found a new culture, a new language, and new ideas. Buddhism was undergoing a renaissance in Japan, and he thrived on it. He attended several winter retreats under Zen Roshi Bantetsugyu, who thought the Chinese monk was too intellectual and told him so. Yet, when after six years, Sheng Yen completed his doctorate in Buddhist Studies, Bantetsugyu told Sheng Yen: “Go to America!”

In 1976, Master Sheng Yen indeed arrived at the Temple of Great Enlightenment, a Chinese temple in the Bronx section of New York City. He had been invited by a prominent layman, C. T. Shen, who was also president of the temple’s board. Master Sheng Yen began to hold Saturday meditation classes which attracted quite a few young Western students. From this nucleus of mostly Western disciples, Master Sheng Yen eventually established the Chan Meditation Center in Queens.

In 1994 Master Sheng Yen created Dharma Drum Mountain Buddhist Association to foster the teaching of Buddhism in the West. Since then, DDMBA chapters groups have been formed in many states in the US. Today, nearly 40 DDMBA affiliate groups are active in group practice, Dharma study, and meditation.

Although the Chan Meditation Center in Queens was thriving, it was too small for large intensive retreats. In 1997, Master Sheng Yen’s long-cherished goal of a larger retreat center in a rural setting became reality. Several large donations made it possible to acquire an abandoned campsite in upper New York State. The full development of the Dharma Drum Retreat Center has taken several years, but today it serves throughout the year as a retreat center for practitioners from all over the world.

So, although firmly rooted in his native Chinese culture, language, and Chan Buddhism, Master Sheng Yen has played a major role in bringing Buddhism to the West. His career has taken him from a family farm near Shanghai to the Bronx and Queens areas of New York City. In these latter urban settings, bustling with all-day traffic, blaring horns and sirens, panoramas of noises, colors, and odors, Master Sheng Yen, beginning in 1976, has quietly spread a very simple message — that is it indeed possible to find joy and happiness in embracing the Buddha’s teachings.

Although well-known as teacher and founder of several thriving Buddhist centers, Master Sheng Yen still refers to himself as “an ordinary monk.” This modesty is genuine if somewhat misleading, since his disciples and students see him as much more than ordinary. Indeed, Master Sheng Yen’s personal manner is that of an ordinary monk. But his ability to expound Buddhism to modern audiences in an accessible and useful way, places him in the lineage of great teachers of Buddhism.

Not one to rest on his laurels, in his late seventies, Master Sheng Yen continues to present retreats, give Dharma lectures, publish books, and produce stunningly beautiful Chinese calligraphy.

Perhaps Master Sheng Yen sets the best example for us all when he says, “I have Dharma joy; therefore, I am always happy.”