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°Xeveryday 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."
There was 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.
I was 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.
Because of 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 decision.
At the 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.
I studied 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.
People who 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.
Sometimes, 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 resolved.
Eventually, 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.
This 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 approach him.
He listened 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 °ßcause 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.
Second, one 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°Xworking 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 as others.
I recognized the three fundamental principles of Buddhism°Xprecepts, 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 disciple.
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.
In my 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 original things.
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.
After two 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!"
Once Master 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."
Finally 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."
The first 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 p°¶u-'sa" 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.
From the 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 day of
leaves from 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 in.
Eventually I 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 and write.
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 was.
During this 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?"
Editor's 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- ).
In the 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).
'Generation' 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.