Master Sheng Yen’s Aspirations (2)

Promoting World Purification through the Study of Sheng Yen


Closing remarks by Master Sheng Yen at the Second International Conference on Sheng Yen's Thoughts, GIS National Taiwan University Convention Hall, May 25, 2008


Sheng Yen was a name originally unbeknown to most. Due to the interest of my fellow scholars and through their research and published theses, I started to receive some recognition. I feel this academic conference was very successful. It is common for scholars to leave soon after they presented their papers. However, today, I see many of them stayed until the end. This is rare.


A total of twelve papers were presented today, nine of which were discussions about my thinking. This is also rare, and I am most grateful. The fact is, “Sheng Yen” is a difficult subject because Sheng Yen is not famous. Many of you probably have never read Sheng Yen's works, so it can be challenging to analyze him. By attending this seminar and listening to the various topics about Sheng Yen, perhaps some of you will become more acquainted with "Sheng Yen's Thought".


Also, earlier outside the hall, I heard people asked questions such as, "What contribution has Sheng Yen made to modern society", "How are the thoughts of Master Yinshun and Sheng Yen related", etc. These questions are not apt for the presenters to answer, so I will clarify them myself in a short while.


Study traditional Buddhism for modern day practice

Some people see me as a pedantic academician. A pedant by definition is a scholar who researches for the purpose of research. He can spend decades studying a particular subject. Certainly there is nothing wrong with that. Master Yinshun can be considered such type of person, and he had made significant contribution to Buddhism ideas and doctrines. As for me, I started without a solid foundation in academia, yet ended up embarking on a path towards academia. After receiving my doctorate degree, I was viewed by many as someone who was ignorant in various topics and who failed to properly apply his specialty. Of course, there was no issue with my advisor, who is internationally renowned. My research topic also had no problem, and my dissertation was exemplary. So what was the problem? It was simply that after completing my PhD, I did not pursue a career in academic teaching, nor did I focus solely on research.


I may have only possessed two specialties. The first one is Vinaya, which apparently no one discussed today. Only the bodhisattva precepts which I propounded were mentioned. The truth is, I have placed great emphasis on Vinaya my entire life, and have made it my core study. My other specialty is late Ming Buddhism.


During the late Ming Dynasty, Chinese Buddhism witnessed many great thinkers, and the most notable four were Master Lianchi, whom Professor Yu Jun Fang studied; Master Ouyi, whom I studied; and Masters Hanshan and Zibo. In addition to these prominent masters, a myriad of exceptional laypeople also flourished in that era. We were further blessed with numerous talented practitioners in the early Qing period. Therefore, I tried to study all of the Consciousness-Only, Pure Land, and Chan thought from the late Ming. I am also prepared to study Tiantai and Huayan in the late Ming Dynasty, for there were many such distinguished thinkers and their works have been passed down through generations.


I hope the above details can provide the audience with a better understanding of the scope and breadth of my research. In addition to Vinaya and late Ming Buddhism, I have also given discourses on Madhyamaka, Consciousness-Only, Tiantai, and Huayan doctrines, and published works relating to those subjects. For Tiantai, I wrote a book named "Tiantai Keys to the Mind - A Vernacular Translation of and Commentary on the 'Jiaoguan gangzong'", which analyzed Master Ouyi Zhixu's "Jiaoguan gangzong". It offers insight into my Tiantai thinking. Regarding Huayan, I published "Mind Interpretation of Huayan: the Evidential Explanation of ’On the Origin of Men'", which examined Guifeng Zongmi's "On the Origin of Men". Through that book, one can also grasp my thinking on Huayan.



In general, my thinking belongs to Chinese Buddhism; therefore, no matter what kind of doctrine, I merge them with Chinese Buddhist doctrines. For example, conscious construction and Mādhyamaka-kārikā belong to the Indian Buddhist doctrine. After my interpretation, they are then incorporated as part of Chinese Buddhism. Chan is part of Chinese Buddhism, yet I have connected it with conscious construction and Mādhyamaka-kārikā, originally part of the Indian Buddhist doctrine. Having said that, I do not just study some thought or doctrine. In particular, I am no pedant, so I did not do research just for the sake of research; my main purpose of doing research is to connect traditional Buddhism with the modern society. If Buddhism is just placed in the library, while useful for a few scholars, it will have little use for the entire society. In order for people in the modern society to understand and apply the literature left behind by exemplary practitioners from ancient India or China, I study them, and then bring them back to our modern society. Therefore, the Chung-Hwa Institute of Buddhist Studies has hosted many international conferences on "Traditional Buddhism and Modern Society" to achieve the goal of applying traditional Buddhist thought, theories and methods to the modern society.

A student of mine, who is also a scholar, told me: "Master, your speech often attracted audiences of thousands; you are charismatic.” I said: "Not really, I only explain the Dharma in such a way that the majority of the people can understand and apply to their lives. The Dharma can then fulfill its function to purify society. "I also lecture to smaller audiences (as opposed to the public), for example, the conference we have today is primarily hosted for a minority. I would like to ask you, then, how much can you understand the papers presented here today? Do you understand every paper? Or do you just catch the highlights of the presented papers? Each paper is lengthy, and has to be read within the range of 15- 20 minutes. I listened to the presented papers very attentively. Some scholars read their papers too quickly, when I tried to catch what s/he was talking about, the presentation was over and I missed out. However, if I explained Buddhism the same way the scholars read their papers to hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands of people, all the people would have "nodded" frequently. Why? They all would fall asleep! I have had many opportunities to lecture Buddhism to the public, so I have practiced teaching Buddhism to make Buddhism accessible for the public.


I also pay attention to application of Buddhism to life. The motto of the Chung-Hwa Institute of Buddhist Studies includes these two lines: "Specializing in Buddhism, Prioritizing its Practice". To specialize in Buddhism is the first step, which should be followed by its practice. However, rarely did the conference hosted by the Institute achieve this goal. Even though we hope to connect the traditional Buddhism with modern society, a majority of the papers presented here still focus on traditional Buddhism. And yet, we still focus the theme of the conference on "Traditional Buddhism and Modern Society". If someone noticed the theme and is able to address it, that's fine; if not, you can still help us understand traditional Buddhism by reviewing it and then slowly connect it with modern society.



Integration of specialized Buddhism with Buddhism for the broader public


I put great emphasis on practical applications, particularly on the integration of Buddhism into modern society. Therefore, albeit as a scholar and a Buddhist master with a doctorate degree, I did not teach at colleges when I was in the United States. I taught Chan meditation practice instead. This is a rather interesting identity. As a scholar, I appeared as a Chan master, and have done pretty well. I have also written more than ten books about Chan practice.  


I was neither a researcher nor a scholar in the United States; however, I have received some recognition in Western society. In Taiwan, I also have several identities: I teach at graduate schools and colleges, as well as supervise doctoral and master thesis. In addition, I have also established Dharma Drum Mountain Buddhist Association. Later on, as the number of people who studied with me increases, the association grows. Buddhism for the broader public, or the Dharma teachings, has begun to spread to ordinary people who are also able to practice Chan meditation intensively. 


Yet, it does not mean that I disregard specialized Buddhism. After all, Buddhism still needs scholars to conduct research and to spread benefits of the Dharma to future generations. Without such effort, Buddhism would become an outdated and less prestigious religion in which no intellectuals are interested in studying. Many devotees of Dharma Drum Mountain are intellectuals. Hence, there is a need to provide a place for them to study Buddhism. After I came back to Taiwan, I first established the Chung-Hwa Institute of Buddhist Studies. So far, the school has celebrated the 26th graduation since its inception. Though the school no longer recruits students, it continues to offer teachers and researchers a place to conduct research. In order to encourage international scholars to study Chinese Buddhism, the Chung-Hwa Institute of Buddhist Studies has funded many projects about Chinese Buddhism. Meanwhile, through the collaboration with Columbia University, we established a Sheng Yen professorship in Chinese Buddhism. Moreover, we have also founded the Dharma Drum Institute of Liberal Arts, a single-religion school that includes masters and doctoral programs. It might appear that I only focus on the spread of the Dharma to ordinary people in Taiwan. In fact, not only do I put great emphasis on purification of individuals through Buddhism in the society, I also nurture top talents for Buddhist academics. However, if I were to focus only on the academic side, all the other businesses might not exist at all. As a result, there would not be any graduate schools and institutions.


Now I am in the process of setting up Dharma Drum University. Taiwan currently has more than 150 universities. With dropping birth rates, the student population is decreasing. Do we really need another university? As a matter of fact, the university we would like to establish is very different from others. In addition to different school management and curriculum, the talent we aim to nurture also differs. Our curriculum is designed based on the movement of protecting the spiritual environment and the core values of Chinese Buddhism.


Therefore, it would not be sufficient to study my thinking simply based on a few books that I wrote. It would be better to analyze my other articles and public talks, including those I gave at international academic conferences and interfaith conferences. Without them, it would be difficult to understand me as an individual.


What are my contributions to society then? Jimmy Yu mentioned in his article that I was nominated by Common Wealth Magazine, as one of the fifty most influential people in the past four hundred years in Taiwan. This is not easy. Why did I receive such a prestigious award? It is not because I have a doctoral degree, but because of my contributions to Taiwanese society.



China was not open to foreign assistance when the Sichuan earthquake occurred in 2008.  However, they only authorized two religious groups from Taiwan, Tzu-Chi and Dharma Drum Mountain, as well as a rescue team from Japan to enter into the disaster areas.  By that you could tell the influence Dharma Drum Mountain has had.


To this day, we are still sending teams of people to Sichuan to serve the people in the disaster areas, and we will continue to provide capital and manpower for reconstruction.  Therefore, scholars, you may want to more carefully read news reports about us in order to understand Dharma Drum Mountain’s influence in Taiwan, China, as well as internationally.


I, Sheng Yen, the individual, am not a specialized scholar but can still make some contributions.  Would I be useful had I become a specialized scholar instead? Still useful!


The difference between “Humanistic Buddhism” and “Pure land on Earth"


I would like to answer one question here: Where do I and Master Yinshun differ?


Master Yinshun advocated “Humanistic Buddhism” and I advocate for “Pure land on Earth”.  They sound similar but differ in connotations.  Master Yinshun believed that Shakyamuni Buddha’s teachings are for humans – that Buddhism’s core is in people, and that it aims to enlighten living people, not the dead, nor ghosts, nor gods--thus the term “Humanistic Buddhism”.  Consequently, he spoke of the Buddha, not ghosts or gods, and by “the Buddha” he meant Shakyamuni Buddha.


He was not willing to say that there are Buddhas in the ten directions and three times.  Because he thought Amitabha Buddha was probably not taught by Shakyamuni Buddha, he did not recite Amitabha Buddha’s name and certainly had no wish to go to the Western World of Bliss.


This view can be found in his book "The Method and Attitude in Learning Buddhism”.  If his disciples passed away, Master Yinshun showed his care by praying silently to Shakyamuni Buddha, not by reciting Amitabha Buddha’s name.


One time, I spoke of “ten directions”, he asked me “Sheng Yen Fashi, can you elaborate on the locations of the ten directions?”  I said “Up, down and four-dimensional, that is, east, west, south, north, southeast, northeast, southwest, northwest, up, down, collectively as “ten directions”.


He then asked, “On what ground do you speak of up and down?  The earth is moving, which direction is up? Which direction is down?  If there are Buddhas in ten directions, then do you have Buddhas under your feet? Above your head?” He did not believe in “ten directions” but in the “eight directions”; and his view of “eight directions” from the earth’s perspective is very scientific.


He and I are different.  I recite Amitabha Buddha’s name and acknowledge that there are Buddhas in the ten directions.  Why? Because Mahayana Buddhism and Chinese Buddhism taught us that.  Did Master Yinshun affirm Chinese Buddhism? No.  His research, teaching, belief and faith are in Madhyamika (中觀), he criticized Yogacara and Consciousness-Only and only affirmed Madhyamika throughout his life.  Simply put, Master Yinshun did not affirm Chinese Buddhism whereas I value Chinese Buddhism.


Nevertheless, I am quite deeply influenced by Master Shunyin.  He pulled me out of the superstitious Chinese Buddhism to see the wise, orthodox Chinese Buddhism.  Consequently, my teachings on Chinese Buddhism, Chan, and Pure Land are different from historical Chinese Buddhism.  Scholars, you would be able to tell if you research diligently.



One Taste in Buddhism --- “Bringing sentient beings spiritual maturity, and glorifying the Buddha land”


I think all schools and sects of Buddhism share one taste.  The primary reason there has been division into schools is that school and sect masters hold different standpoints of thought.  I hope that, through me and with fresh eyes, we can understand and introduce Buddhism to the world.  In fact, all sutras and treatises share the same goal --- liberation and benefitting sentient beings, just as it is stressed repeatedly in Prajnaparamita Sutra: “to bring sentient beings spiritual maturity, and to glorify the Buddha land”.  The goal of any sect, I can sum up, is to glorify the Buddha land, or equivalently, the pure land.  That is to say, to make this Buddha land glorious.  Therefore, it provides a footing for my idea of a “pure land on Earth”.

Besides, to train our minds, we  need to first train the minds of sentient beings, for not only my mind must be kept pure, sentient beings' mind must also be kept pure, to ensure a pure Buddha land.  In other words, it is impossible to keep the Buddha land pure without keeping sentient beings' mind pure.   Therefore, to build a pure land on Earth, we must first promote spiritual environmental protection, which is nothing but “bringing sentient beings spiritual maturity, and glorifying the Buddha land”, two utmost goals of Buddhism that cannot be broken apart.  This is my view, and it explains why I view all schools and sects as the same. 

By studying Sheng Yen to promote a pure society and a pure mind

A Chinese literatus once said, “When encountering a swordsman on the street, one must present one’s sword; unless encountering a poet, one must not present one’s poem”.  That is, when you see a great swordsman or warrior, present to him your favorite sword; unless you meet a great poet, don’t present your poem. Today I have the chance to meet you experts, so I introduce to you things nobody knows. You may say that my telling is because I am moved by the facts that so many people want to study me, to understand me, and to collect abundant data about me, and some understand me deeply.

Perhaps you did or did not hear before what I have just said, which is rather limited in my speech anyway.   So in the next Conference, please study deliberately the following: What is the difference between Sheng Yen and Yinshun? What does Sheng Yen contribute to modern society? What is Sheng Yen’s core thinking?


Today your papers are centered on one topic.  Next time you may want to study several different topics.  You may write on viewpoints that appeared in my books and papers.  Whatever you write, you should be able to link it to the life of Sheng Yen.  Some do not want to write about me.  In fact, it is the easiest thing to do, because I do not have any deep thoughts and I am still alive.  Some may feel it is hard to write about a live person, for too many compliments may mean flattery and too much criticism may appear awkward.  Actually, you do not need to criticize or compliment me all the time.  You should criticize or compliment me only when I deserve it.  Only by doing so can knowledge grow and I can I improve myself.  Among the papers, I am embarrassed by the many compliments and little criticism, and I appreciate for your forbearance.  As a matter of fact, the goal of the conference is to introduce my accomplishments and thinking to society and academia, and this helps me to promote purifying society and purifying mind.  Many of today’s attendees are scholars or scholars-to-be, and you have made tremendous merits.  This does not help me personally.  Instead it benefits the world and society significantly.  Finally, I appreciate greatly your taking the time to attend and participate in the conference.