Master Sheng Yen’s Aspirations (1)

How to study the path I have taken?

Closing Remarks by Master Sheng Yen, Conference on Sheng Yen’s Thought and Contemporary Society, Taipei Yuanshan Hotel, October 18, 2006


When we study the thought of a person from differing angles, we will arrive at different views about that person; when we try to read and understand the thought of a person with our differing identities and standpoints, we will also arrive at different conclusions. Therefore, as far as the positioning of “Sheng Yen’s thought” is concerned, we may only be able to offer a rough sketch. It is not easy to give a precise and unequivocal focus.


My path: integrating Indian Buddhism and Chinese Buddhism


In my formative years, the works of Master Taixu and Master Yinshun were the main stream in  Chinese Buddhist circles. In particular, Master Yinshun’s school of thought dominated Taiwanese Buddhism for three to four decades. As with many other people, I also followed the footsteps of Master Yinshun and was quite deeply influenced by his thoughts.


While I have always been very grateful to Master Yinshun for his inspirations, I have treaded a path different from his from the very beginning. The path I have taken was blazed by Master Taixu and my own shifu, Master Dongchu. I have done so having recognized that Chinese Buddhism, characterized by inclusiveness, ecumenical tendencies and adaptability, can be easily adapted to the needs of our time. Its popularizing, social-engaging and humane outlook enables it to exert its functions easily. In contrast, although Indian Buddhist schools such as the vijnana-vada and the madhyamika have very strong philosophical groundings, they are not easy to popularize and practice in the daily life.


In fact, the very purpose of the manifestation of Shakyamuni Buddha in our world was to transmit his teachings so that people would make use of them in their daily living, making them an integral part of their lives. Shakyamuni Buddha’s Dharma was meant to be taught to the multitudes, not merely for the academic pursuits of thinkers, philosophers and scholars. It is based on this understanding that I have chosen the path of Chinese Buddhism.


Offering the Buddhadharma to the multitudes has always been a major concern of Chinese Buddhism. This is especially so for Chan Buddhism. However, the doctrinal foundation of Chan Buddhism is intimately connected to early Indian Buddhism and was formed through a nexus of mutual influence with other schools in Chinese Buddhism. It is in this spirit that I have tried to integrate the salient features of Indian Buddhism and Chinese Buddhism. 


My job: Sharing Buddhadharma with people from all strata of the society


Although I have a doctorate in Buddhist studies, I am neither an academician nor a specialized scholar. Getting a doctorate was not the original purpose of my sojourn abroad. My original purpose of studying abroad was to find a way to make the Dharma as taught in Chinese Buddhism relevant to our times, and to share it with people from all strata of society.


Nevertheless, my doctorate was useful for me both in the East and the West, in that it opened up the possibility for me to share the Dharma. It had played a significant role in enabling me to give talks in universities in the USA. That was how Prof. Yu Chun Fang and Prof. Dan Stevenson, who were students at Columbia University, got to know me and started to practice with me, a monk with a doctorate.


I have to emphasize again that I do not see myself as an academician or a scholar specializing in a particular field. Having said that, it is also true that I have authored more than a hundred books, some written by me and others compiled from my lectures. That’s quite a large quantity and you may wonder what is it that I have written?


Some scholars have commented that I have dabbled into too many things and it is difficult for them to study what I have written. Prof. Yang Pei, the chief organizer of this conference had asked me, “Shifu, you have published more than a hundred books, where should we start in studying your works? How do we classify them? What is the appropriate methodology? And with so many materials, how do we go about doing it?” Prof. Lin Qixian, the editor of “the 70-year chronology of Master Sheng Yen,” has probably read all of my works. However, even he may not be very clear withbout the many facets, structures and evolutions of my thoughts. To be honest, I may not be able to provide an answer for these sorts of things myself.


When I was young, my only concern is to share the Buddhadharma with others. In the past, many people have written articles on Buddhism that only highly educated intellectuals are able to understand. In contrast, my wish is to share the Buddhadharma with everybody. I wanted to make it so even primary and secondary students are able to understand what I write. In my Dharma talks for TV broadcasts, I seldom touched on Buddhist terminologies. That’s because if I pepper my talks with Buddhist terminology, their appeal will be limited.


I remember that during a trip to the UK, my first western Dharma heir, John Crook, told me, “Shifu, you have a natural talent to turn abstruse terminology and concepts of Buddhism into easily understandable modern language so they appeal to ordinary people.” John has truly known me well, as that was precisely what I have been doing. 


My own assessment of my role: a guiding thinker


Although I do not see myself as an academician or scholar, I do see myself as a religious thinker. The job of a thinker is to ponder on things yet to be thought about by others, on unresolved matters, or on new explanations of things.


For example, we may ask,  “what does Taiwanesesociety really need”?“ and   “what are the problems it may face in the future”? Having seen problems in  Taiwanese society, I will offer my thoughts from the perspective of the Buddhadharma. My concepts and thoughts often resonate with others, and are thus able to serve as a guiding force in the social atmosphere and trends of thoughts, thus transforming social norms. That’s how I have been able to exert some influence on society.


Since 2000, I have participated in many international conferences and have had many dialogues, forums, interactions, and discussions with leaders from across the religious spectrum and from many fields. Before attending these meetings, I will always think about questions such as:  “What are the objectives of this meeting?“  “Who are the participants?“ and  “What are we trying to achieve?”


Because I have thought hard about these questions, my speech has often surprised people and helped to consolidate conflicting views. My viewpoints have often been adopted as part of the conclusions of the meetings.


In assessing my role in Taiwanese Buddhism, Chinese Buddhism, or contemporary world Buddhism, I see myself as a guiding thinker, someone who provides guidance for our way forward.


There is no question that we should examine the past. But merely examining the past is not enough, as what’s gone is bygone. The important thing is to look forward to the future and blaze a new path – a broad way forward that others can’t yet think of. How can we open a new path for Chinese Buddhism? I have observed that Chinese Buddhism does not have much exposure internationally, and Chinese monks and nuns are even less exposed. That’s why in recent years, we have put in a lot of effort into nurturing young monastics and lay people, in the hope that Chinese Buddhism may receive more international exposure. This is the hope of Chinese Buddhism.


In this regard, Dharma Drum Mountain has proactively interacted with people from all over the world, from different fields, and from different strata. We have also been participating in and organizing all sorts of interfaith and international conferences. All these are part of the means to expose Chinese Buddhism to the international community.


My concerns: transmitting the lamps of Buddhism


Dharma Drum Mountain and the DDM world center of Buddhism were founded when I was 60 years old. Back then, the construction of Dharma Drum Mountain was being rapidly carried out as I was simultaneously conducting all sorts of Dharma activities. In spite of my packed schedule, I published two to three books each year.


The purpose to publish so many books is to share the Dharma, so that it can be used to deal with issues in our society. Another purpose is to leave a record of contemporary Buddhist civilization and the development of Buddhism. The thing that concerns me the most has always been the transmission of Buddhism. Therefore, whenever I traveled to give lectures or hold meditation retreats, be it in mainland China, the USA, or other western countries, I have always paid close attention to the local development of Buddhism and tried to understand the traces of Buddhism in that particular time and space.


For example, during my six-year stay in Japan, I tried to travel around even though I was very busy. Doing so enabled me to produce quite a lot of articles about Buddhism in Japan. My writing was published into a book titled From Japan to the West. It became a sort of preparatory guide for monks and nuns from Taiwan and mainland China who went to Japan to further their studies.


I persisted on writing about Japanese Buddhism and eventually published a book despite my busy schedule because back then, few people in the Taiwanese Buddhist circles paid much attention to the development of Buddhism in Japan. The book talks about Buddhist education, and cultural and religious phenomena of the time in Japan. It provided food for thought for Taiwanese society and prompted more people to study contemporary Japanese Buddhist issues. By studying the issues and cultures of Japanese Buddhism, people realized that there was still much to be done in Taiwanese Buddhist circles.


Thereafter, I have been writing about places that I visited. It is not that I am passionate about writing; rather, I feel duty-bound to share the Buddhadharma through my writings and to record the traces of contemporary Buddhism.


My only purpose: introducing Buddhadharma to modern society


As to the approach in studying what I have done, it is actually quite simple. Since I do not see myself as an academician, it is best not to view me as a scholar monk. Although I have written more than ten academic books, it is not necessary to focus only on my scholastic accomplishments. My suggestion is to look at the ultimate mission or purpose of my life from multiple, pragmatic, and need-driven perspectives.


There is an underlying purpose that unifies every single thing that I have done and advocated. For example, although the over hundred books that I have authored touch on different subject matters and times, examine things from different perspectives, and differ in depth and breadth, they all serve one purpose – introducing Buddhadharma to modern society through various facets and channels.


Another example is my earlier works on the vinaya. They were motivated by the observations that most monastics in Taiwan and mainland China did not know much about the precepts and rules of Buddhism. Moreover, those who lectured on the vinaya often approached it in a pedantic manner, dwelling on the wordings and minor issues without emphasizing the pragmatic applications of the vinaya in daily life. That’s why I started studying the vinaya and published A Guideline to the Vinaya my first book on the subject. My subsequent writings were compiled and published as A Vinaya Regulated Life and Essentials of the Bodhisattva Precepts. Later on, as the situation had improved, I stopped focusing on the vinaya.


Some three to four decades ago, Buddhism came under severe criticism and attacks from some Christians in Taiwan, who claimed that the end of Buddhism was nigh. In defense of Buddhism, I wrote a few books on religions, including A Study on Christianity and Comparative Religions. As in the case with vinaya, I stopped writing on that subject after the situation changed. Nowadays, I am particularly concerned with interactions and cooperation among the different faiths. I have been involved in interfaith dialogues and conversations with leaders from other religions. We have become friends who work together to address various issues.


Years ago, I have also spent time writing a series of books on the history of Buddhism. This was motivated by my observation that many Chinese Buddhists did not know much about the history of Buddhism and its rise and fall. As for books on mediation practice, I have to say that I did not specialize in meditation and I did not think of becoming a Chan master. After I went to the USA, I encountered people who were interested in meditation. I told them, “No problem, I know a thing or two about meditation.” These people ended up learning meditation from me and I ended up becoming a Chan master, publishing one English book after another on Chan meditation. After I started teaching meditation in the West, by and by, there were people in Taiwan who also asked me to provide guidance in meditation. That’s why I ended up traveling between the USA and Taiwan, holding retreats in both countries.


Fundamental standpoint: Chan Buddhism in the Chinese Buddhist tradition


To study my thought, one can approach it from the theories and methods of Chan meditation, vinaya, religious studies, history, etc. One can also examine my thought from the perspectives of schools such as the Pure Land, Tiantai, and Huayan. It is also possible to do it from my discourses, expositions, and textual studies on Buddhist scriptures and writings of ancestral masters. Another approach is to look at my involvements in charity work, social care, cross-strait relationships, world peace, and Buddhist revival and renaissance campaigns. One can also look at my teachings such as the four aspects of environmental protection, the three types of education, and the fivefold spiritual renaissance campaign. Whatever facet it is regarding my works, Chinese Chan Buddhism is my fundamental standpoint. It is through Chinese Chan Buddhism that I seek to integrate the doctrines of different schools and traditions of Buddhism, as well as secular teachings, with the objective that the universal functions of Buddhadharma is to benefit, embrace, and transform sentient beings being exercised to transcend all limits and boundaries.


In founding the Dharma Drum Lineage of Chan Buddhism, I was not trying to reject others and venerate only my own sect. On the contrary, it is an effort to integrate everything, to build a bridge between the world Buddhism of today and that of the future. The only mission or purpose is to realize the vision of Dharma Drum Mountain – uplifting the character of human beings and building a pure land on earth. All my efforts to nurture a monastic community and to establish and develop supporting groups are guided by this vision or principle. References in this regard can be found in my speeches. It is for this very reason that I do not see myself as an academician but as a religious thinker. I encourage people to study me from various facets and to find relevant information regarding each facet from the my collected works, the Complete Collection of Dharma Drum.


Overall, my studies on Buddhism in the late Ming Dynasty have received some recognition in international Buddhist academic circles; my writings in Chan practices are also quite well received internationally; I have written introductory books on Buddhism, critical works on religions, forewords, eulogies, short critical articles, essays, and talks or speeches on Chan practices in daily living; more than ten newspapers, magazines, television and radio stations have interviewed me or appointed me as a columnist. Through all these writings, one can get a good idea of my efforts to promote Buddhist practices in daily life and to engage modern society. 


My presence: not focusing on any particular field of study


The essential vision of Buddhism encompasses the following aspects: live in the present moment and live well; lessen our vexations and reduce actions with negative karmic consequences; let wisdom and compassion grow. It is with this essential vision in mind that I have talked about “emptiness” and “being” alike in my books. For example, I have given discourses on the mainstream traditions of Chinese Buddhism, including Tiantai, Huayan, Chan and Pure Land. All of these schools talk about Buddha nature and tathagatagarbha (thus on “being” or“existence”). The various scriptural sources from which I quoted, for example, the Surangama Sutra, the Sutra of Complete Enlightenment, the Lotus Sutra, the Nirvana Sutra, the Avatamska Sutra, the Virmalakirti Sutra, etc., all talk about “being as emptiness.” While I have dabbled into Master Taixu’s “three major Mahayana traditions” as well as Master YinshunYinshun’s different take on the three major traditions, I did not go in depth studying them. This is because I am not inclined to specializing in academic studies. I only borrow the ideas that I need and do not study what I don’t need.


Through my life, I have never specialized in any particular field of academic studies. I would not be who I am today if I were to hold on to a lifelong sectarian stance or a standpoint according to a particular sutra or treatise. On the contrary, we can say that Sheng Yen is who he is because he doesn’t focus on any particular field of study in Buddhism.