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Spreading Chinese Chan Buddhism: mission for a lifetime

Based on his profound experience in Chan practice and extensive studies of Buddhist doctrines, Master Sheng Yen spread the Dharma around the world for over thirty years, and established himself as an international Chan master. However, the Master said of himself “I have no ambition to accomplish a great endeavor at all cost,” but said all he did was “give it my best while adapting to causes and conditions.” He said that if he had achieved anything at all, it was “not because I am more capable, enjoy rich karmic rewards, or have superior karmic roots, but because the people of our time and environment have such a need.”


But amid the ever-changing causes and conditions, his one aspiration remained unwavering: “With all my heart I want to let other people get to know the Dharma that I know and benefit from” and he had only one thing in mind: “Whenever there are people in need of my help, I will go to them; wherever my contribution is needed, that is where I’ll go.” Among the countless Dharma approaches within Buddhism, Chinese Chan Buddhism transcends time and space and adapts to diversified cultures easily, by virtue of its flexibility and inclusive nature. Therefore, Master Sheng Yen made it his lifetime mission to spread Chinese Chan Buddhism far and wide.

Taking root amidst adversity

The year of 1975 was a turning point in the Master’s life. He went from Asia to the West, embarking on a journey during which he developed from a scholar monk to a Chan master. Upon receiving his doctorate degree in Japan, Master Sheng Yen had intended to go back to Taiwan to either promote or run Buddhist education, but the time wasn’t ripe, and so he accepted the invitation extended by the Buddhist Association of the United States, and came to the Temple of Great Enlightenment in New York.


Upon arriving in the United States, Master Sheng Yen discovered that Americans attach great importance to practicality and highly value precision. In practicing Buddhism they especially favor Chan Buddhism. Therefore, he began to teach to Westerners what he had learned in the past, applying the forms of Chan practice he had witnessed in Japan. After setting up basic meditation classes, more and more young Western people came to learn with him, including lots of students, and so he began to give lectures at universities and gave several interviews. His students took the initiative to compile and print Chan Magazine, and this also facilitated the spread of Chinese Chan Buddhism in America.


Early in the morning of December 16, 1977, Ven. Master Dong Chu passed away, and therefore the Master came back to Taiwan to take over the monasterial duties. On his return to New York in April of 1979, causes and conditions had already changed. All he and his disciples could do was make their daily rounds through different quarters in the city, carrying a pack on their backs. In June they finally found a temporary place to stay, the place where the future Chan Meditation Center originated. Soon afterwards he started publishing Chan News Letter.

Serving as a ferryboat

After several moves and refurbishments the Chan Meditation Center was formally established in May of 1981, holding yearly regular Chan practice activities. Master Sheng Yen made headway in teaching the Dharma, and the Chan methods he taught gradually became known. In order to integrate into American culture and meet the needs of the people the Master would often visit other Chan centers to teach the Dharma there, and would absorb the merits of other teachers as a source of reference to teaching Buddhism and Chan.


In 1989 Master Sheng Yen traveled to Wales to lead a seven-day Chan retreat, the very first time he guided people in Chan practice in a Western country outside of the United States. This came about because Dr. John H. Crook, a Professor of Psychology in the United Kingdom, had read one of Master Sheng Yen’s English works entitled Getting the Buddha Mind, whereupon he flew to New York to attend a seven-day Chan retreat led by the Master. Ever since, he hoped the Master might one day visit the United Kingdom to lead Chan retreats.


During that particular seven-day retreat, Dr. Crook obtained the Master’s confirmation allowing him to lead seven-day Chan retreats in the United Kingdom on the Master’s behalf. As a result, Chinese Chan Buddhism spread throughout Europe from there. The Master subsequently visited the Czech Republic in 1992, Warsaw in Poland and Croatia in 1997, Saint Petersburg in Russia in 1998, Berlin in Germany in 1999, Mexico in 2001, and Switzerland in 2004 where he guided people in Chan practice. In this way Chan Buddhism spread throughout the European and American continents.


Over the past thirty years the Master’s status as an international Chan master became increasingly established. He was widely respected and received invitations from many different circles, traveling widely throughout Europe, Asia, America, and Australia, and in his wake practice centers were established in all of those places one after the other.

A Home for Chan Practice

As Master Sheng Yen traveled more and more frequently to many places around the world to give guidance in Chan practice, one by one his Chinese and English works were translated into more than ten languages, and more and more people would think nothing of traveling from all corners of the world to attend his seven-day retreats. Due to a lack of space at the Chan Meditation Center, in July 1997 the Dharma Drum Retreat Center was established as purpose-built international center for Chan practice.


The Dharma Drum Retreat Center, which is mainly used for long-term Chan practice activities, is surrounded by nature. The beautiful scenery, in all its tranquility and seclusion lends itself to practicing Chan meditation. In 1998 Master Sheng Yen led two seven-day Chan retreats there applying the methods of silent illumination and Huatou, this being his first attempt to give intensive guidance in one specific Dharma method. During the period from May 6 to June 24 of 2000, a further “49-day silent illumination retreat” was held at the center, attracting attention far and wide. Due to space limitations, only sixty applicants were accepted, coming from thirteen countries: the United States, United Kingdom, France, Portugal, Israel, Poland, Saudi Arabia, Croatia, Mexico, Australia, Canada, Malaysia, and Singapore. The simple, practical Chan methods that Master Sheng Yen taught have obviously transcended the barriers of race, culture, and religion, and are widely accepted by Chan practitioners around the globe. In order to enable more people to benefit from the Dharma, a pair of additional two-story dormitories was built at the Dharma Drum Retreat Center in 2003, so currently it can accommodate over one hundred people on a seven-day retreat at the same time.


The “49-day silent illumination retreat” was the first of its kind ever in the twenty years since Master Sheng Yen had begun teaching Chan practice. It not only established a template for conducting long-term Chan retreats, but also established a complete framework for spiritual practice, laying the foundations for holding a “49-day Huatou retreat” at the DDM World Center for Buddhist Education in 2007. With his long experience in guiding people in Chan practice, Master Sheng Yen became even more conversant in teaching Chan, employing his skills with great command and ease.

Passing on the light of Chan through mind to mind transmission

Buddhism can only be carried on transmission. During the course of guiding people in practicing Chan, whenever one of his disciples achieved a profound experience or had a realization of seeing the self-nature, Master Sheng Yen would be overcome with joy and sorrow, “just like the mixed feelings of elation and sorrow of a new mother, on seeing her new-born baby after giving birth,” because now Buddhism had gained yet one more “Dharma general” to pass on the Dharma.


Over the course of the thirty years during which the Master spread the Dharma, seven disciples from countries outside Taiwan received his confirmation, among them Venerable Chi-Chern of Malaysia, John Crook and Simon Child of the United Kingdom, Max Kalin of Switzerland, Zarko Andricevic of Croatia, and Gilbert Gutierrez from Los Angeles (USA). Not only have they spread Chan teachings and established Dharma centers in their own countries, but they have also traveled to different parts of the world to carry on the Master’s compassionate vow to spread the Dharma internationally.


Since 1990 the Chan Meditation Center has organized classes, taught by the Master personally and by the Dharma masters of the DDM Sangha, which have nurtured several qualified western teachers. The teachers are all disciples who have followed Master Sheng Yen for many years. They have held classes and given lectures at the Chan Meditation Center, schools, or other groups, besides leading long- or short-term Chan practice activities at the Dharma Drum Retreat Center, and so have become the forerunners in spreading Chinese Chan Buddhism in North America.


In addition, Dharma Drum Mountain, the headquarters governing all its branch monasteries and practice centers overseas, dispatches its Dharma masters frequently to reach out to believers and share the Dharma in different places worldwide, carrying on Master Sheng Yen’s spirit of “Whenever there are people in need of my help, I will go to them; wherever my contribution is needed, that is where I’ll go.”


Good vows light up the world

All his life Master Sheng devoted himself to spreading and teaching Chinese Chan Buddhism. He led numerous Chan retreats around the world, and was invited to famous academic establishments and other different types of organizations to lecture on Chan practice. He put the Buddhadharma into practice in person, inspiring the inner awakening of many people and calling together more people sharing the same aspirations and goals, in the hope of spreading the beneficial message of Chinese Chan Buddhism to every corner on Earth, so that everyone may have easy access to the Dharma, try to learn it, and benefit from it.


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