Busy with nothing, growing old.
Within emptiness, weeping, laughing.
Intrinsically, there is no “I.”
Life and death, thus cast aside.

While attending a gathering at a lay practitioner’s home in the southern United States, Master Sheng Yen squatted down and gently pressed a balloon on the water’s surface of a swimming pool in the backyard, creating a tiny rippling effect. As the master’s force increased, the ripples became small waves. People became curious and gathered in the back yard to observe him. The master invited another person to press the balloon on the other side of the swimming pool. With the interaction of waves coming from opposite sides, the original mirror-like water’s surface became roiled with crashing waves. At that moment, the master expounded, “This is an example of xin feng zuo lang” (‘conjuring up wind and making waves’), i.e., stirring up trouble. All of a sudden, party participants realized that the master had preached the dharma to them. Just as in the story of Śākyamuni Buddha twirling a flower and smiling, Master Sheng Yen was good at utilizing occasions and objects in daily life to teach and touch people’s hearts.

Master Sheng Yen was a genuine gentleman who would naturally reveal his care and compassion. In his diary of May 17, 2008, he wrote, “I am already an old man. An old man shedding tears is very commonplace, particularly when facing such calamities of this century. Seeing immeasurable casualties and injuries, my emotions were naturally stirred. In my youth I had witnessed the Great Flood of the Yangtze River and saw innumerable floating corpses, In 1999 year, Taiwan suffered from the 9/21 Earthquake. I also visited the disaster sites to provide comfort to those who were suffering. This time, witnessing the heavy casualties of the Wenchuan [Sichuan] Earthquake, I am deeply saddened. During the interview, I naturally choked up and shed tears. My response probably startled television audiences. Some people therefore expressed concern and asked me, ‘What was going on, Shifu? Why did you shed tears?’ I shed tears because I was saddened.”

Because the original Chan Meditation Center in New York had become too cramped, the organization purchased a new space across the street. The original bodega on that site had left behind lots of junk. Whenever Master Sheng Yen was in New York, he would join the clean-up crew with monastic and lay disciples. Guo Yuan Fashi described the scene: “Shifu wore a simple monk’s robe. Though his two legs were as thin as bamboo sticks, he never stopped working. We couldn’t bear to see him working like that; we were deeply moved. This was our Shifu.” Later, when the Dharma Drum Retreat Center in Pine Bush was first established, Master Sheng Yen had grown old but he still participated in the cleaning and construction.

A solemn and serious Chan master in the Chan Hall, Master Sheng Yen also exhibited amazing, penetrating, perceptive awareness and compassionate care of participants. Once, Guo Jun Fashi wore a pair of socks, one with a tiny hole, to a ten-day Chan retreat. Not long after the retreat began, an attendant of Master Sheng Yen brought a pair of socks to Guo Jun, and said, “This is a gift from Shifu,” and added, “Sorry, these are used. They had been worn by the Master.” When Guo Jun Fashi found that the size fit him perfectly, as if from Master Sheng Yen’s feet to his own, he thought about mind-to-mind transmission. This seemingly minor incident shows how Master Sheng Yen was aware of life’s minute details. His followers wholeheartedly felt his compassionate and wise care, like a parent.

Another time, when Master Sheng Yen was about to go to Malaysia, the original plan had not included Guo Yuan Fashi. A lay follower suggested that Guo Yuan should accompany him. The Master, who could have commanded anything, still asked Guo Yuan’s opinion. Guo Yuan Fashi later commented, “The way Shifu handled situations was not to project his own opinions. Although he knew that I need not go. Out of his respect for the lay follower, he still asked me my own view. I think that, had I said ‘I also want to go’ at the time, Shifu would have agreed. This is the way Shifu smoothly resolved awkward moments.”

When Master Sheng Yen became a monk the second time, his master, Dongchu, exhorted him to become a monastic who would spread Buddha dharma instead of a monastic just engaged in scholarly inquiries of Buddhism. Although Master Sheng Yen published more than one hundred books, he was clear that his primary mission was to preach Buddha dharma to benefit the masses. On September 13, 2005, before he went into surgery, he wrote in his diary, “A day before the surgery, my mind was very calm. I often contemplated how the five skandhas are empty as preached in the Heart Sūtra. There is no self in emptiness. Therefore, my body was very relaxed, and my mood was tranquil. When I was wheeled into the operating room, I felt that the doctors and nurses wearing green hospital gowns were all life-saving bodhisattvas. I prayed that patients being wheeled into operating rooms would be without fear and would recover rapidly. I also prayed that in this world, no one would need surgery.” The master passed away on February 3, 2009. His last wish was: “Although the Universe may one day perish, my vows are eternal.”

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