The lineage I stated practicing Buddhism in was Sheng Yen‘s, Dharma Drum Mountain. My teacher made a point that while one needs to be open to change and possibility, one should not hop this teacher or this lineage to that. Shopping around happens a lot for people who are seeking someone they (imagine) they don’t already have. That said, I still consider that first teacher my teacher, though locally I have one as well who’s working out beautifully, and I certainly consider Sheng Yen the master I look to, primarily. Geography has put me in touch with Thich Nhat Hanh much more than Sheng Yen, and it was with Thay that I took the precepts, in his language the mindfulness trainings. I have nothing but the deepest respect for Thay, but my teacher’s point about sticking with someone still strikes me as sound advice.
So, even though Sheng Yen has passed on, and while I don’t live in an area where I have access to anything institutionally in his lineage, I still look to Sheng Yen. When I recently got the sense I needed to go back to the Heart Sutra, I asked for his translation and commentary on it for my birthday. The book came, and I finished it last night.
I was lucky enough to do a short retreat with Sheng Yen in upstate New York. It was my first retreat, and I’d practiced for about a year or so. I was blown away, because I had never heard talks like the ones he gave that long weekend. I had been through grad school and thought I knew a good lecture when I heard it. I was shrewd enough to know that the three-hour evening talk that Jacques Derrida gave was not good lecturing, nor did the three hours he added the next morning add value to the experience, whatever the merits of his arguments that evening, which, summed up, were that Marx was not invalidated by the collapse of the Soviet Union. I valued clarity, but I also valued complexity. The best lecturer I knew could deliver a crisp, clear expression of very complex ideas, and I was impressed.
I had not known the value of intellectual simplicity before I heard Sheng Yen’s talks. That quality is everywhere in evidence in There is No Suffering. He delivered a series of talks, interspersed between various meditation periods. Each was entirely self-contained. After the first, I remember feeling, hey, this is cool, nothing too special, he’s probably keeping it simple for a general audience. The retreat, a short one, was intended for new practitioners.
The second talk he gave built on the first, and at the same time was equally simple and self-contained. He would reference the earlier talk, but in such a clear way that one did not need to refer back to notes. Talk after talk, the process, entirely simple and clear all the way through, had a snowballing effect. I had never heard anything like it before, and if only in my rhetorical values I was forever a changed man after it. I would note that Thich Nhat Hanh has a similar quality of simplicity in his talks.
I read in one of Sheng Yen’s books that he felt his early training was un-methodical, and that he took it upon himself to try to give clarity and form to the various practices that went on in Chan training as he encountered it. It would be very wrong to suggest that Sheng Yen was merely a systematizer, but he was this among other things. That quality is palpable in There is No Suffering. Where Thich Nhat Hanh, in his commentary on the Heart Sutra, uses the lines as starting points to various discussions, teasing out if you will meanings present but not explicit to your average reader in the text, Sheng Yen draws out threads and, to maybe stretch the obvious metaphor, weaves them into a coherent pattern. This systematization is not an ontological position for Sheng Yen–there is no ultimate truth in the system–but a matter of expedience. A person can be of help much more effectively if there is a coherent system helping that person do so. We have conditions, as human beings, that make it that way.
Lost in the book, which I gather was taken from talks and then edited, is Sheng Yen’s sense of humor. The book doesn’t lack because of it, but I make the point simply to record my own memory of him. He was riotously funny throughout all of his talks, and I had expected someone very serious and studious. He held a couple of doctorates, after all, and the clarity of his thinking conflicted with my notions of humor. Turns out he was very possibly the best practitioner alive at the time of a type of pun, I was told by the Chinese man who drove me to the airport after the retreat, that one makes in Chinese by playing with the inflections of words. In Chinese, the inflection of a word changes the meaning, I am told. You can’t do this in English, he said, and of course you can’t. So Sheng Yen was making wisecracks all the time by using one inflection either in place of or in reference to another, not obfuscating or changing his meaning but adding a level of reference, irony, and humor to what he said. Some of this the translator was able to communicate, if only by explanation. He also made more conventional jokes, but by and large they seem to have been, probably judiciously, edited out of the book.
One remained, though. Writing on different nirvanas, he discusses non-Buddhist nirvana, referencing in this case worshiping God or gods:
The reason why this first kind of nirvana is considered a non-Buddhist path is because being reborn in, or brought to a heaven, is not considered eternal from a Buddhist perspective. Further, it is questionable whether the god has even transcended samsara.
“It is questionable.” Sheng Yen was a very funny and beautiful man.