An interview with Venerable Master Sheng-yen
by Carter Phipps
When it comes to the topic of ego in the spiritual life, few people have staked out the territory like the Zen masters. To read their stories is to enter another world, one where commitment, humility, devotion and insight take on larger-than-life significance and one thing matters above all else: to slay the ego once and for all, and in doing so to achieve enlightenment, to deeply realize one’s Buddha-nature in this life.
Indeed, few people could honestly claim the fortitude of spirit required to withstand the ego-destroying tactics of the Zen teachers of yore who, in stories that have become legends, resorted to often outrageous acts of enlightened wisdom in order to shock, jolt and awaken their students from the nightmare of ego-centered existence. Zen Buddhism, it would seem, has never been a path for the faint of heart, a testament, perhaps, to the First Zen Patriarch, Bodhidharma, who sat facing a wall for nine years to demonstrate his commitment to the path of enlightenment.
Even in the modern era, we find echoes of Bodhidharma’s resolve in the stories of contemporary practitioners, like the now-classic My Struggle to Become a Zen Monk by Morinaga Soko. In his efforts to gain admittance into the monastic life, Soko spent three days crouched beneath the wooden steps at the entrance to one Japanese Zen monastery enduring what is called “niwazume,” a test of character designed to ensure that only the most determined make it through the outer gates.
Exposed to the cold wind and snow, he withstood verbal assaults, psychological pressure and even physical beatings before he was finally able, with numb legs and a bloody face as evidence, to convince the monks inside that he had the humility and resolve to take up the austere life of a Zen monk. Those who aren’t willing to pay the high price of slaying the ego, in other words, need not even apply.
So from the moment we decided to present an investigation of the nature of ego in this issue, we began a search for a Zen master who could speak from his own experience of the trials of this rigorous path beyond the ego—a search that eventually led us to the venerable master of Ch’an Buddhism Sheng-yen. The word “ch’an” is the Chinese translation of the Indian term “dhyana,” a Sanskrit word meaning meditation, and as Buddhism eventually spread from China to Japan, it was translated there as the term much more familiar to our Western ears:
Zen. Sheng-yen, according to his most recent book, Subtle Wisdom, was initiated into Ch’an Buddhism at the age of thirteen when he left behind home and family to take up the robes of a novice in a Shanghai monastery, an austere and traditional temple that would be his home for the next six years. In 1949, however, a wind of revolution and change swept through China, and the Communist takeover of the mainland cut short his career as a young monk.
Conscripted into the Nationalist army, Sheng-yen soon headed for Taiwan, and it was there, almost ten years later, that he experienced a powerful spiritual awakening at the age of twenty-eight. It was, he says, “the most important experience in my life up to that point.”
In a story that could have been taken from the pages of classic Zen literature, the young Sheng-yen was on a brief sabbatical from the military, visiting local Ch’an teachers when, while up late one night meditating, he found himself sitting near an older man, also a guest of the monastery, who impressed Sheng-yen with his steady and peaceful demeanor. Asking the elderly monk if he would answer a question or two, Sheng-yen proceeded to pour out his heart for two hours, giving voice to all of the questions that no one had been able to help him with during his many years of spiritual practice.
And at the end of each question, the monk, whom Sheng-yen would later find out was actually a revered Ch’an master, would simply ask, “Is that all?” Finally, Sheng-yen had exhausted his litany of questions and, in a moment of confusion, hesitated, not knowing what to do. Bang! The monk struck the platform they were sitting on and roared, “Take all of your questions and put them down! Who has all of these questions?”
The effect on Sheng-yen was immediate and profound. “In that instant all of my questions were gone,” he writes. “The whole world had changed. My body ran with perspiration but felt extraordinarily light. The person I had been was laughable. I felt like I had dropped a thousand-pound burden.” The words of the Buddhist sutras [scriptures], which once seemed foreign and impenetrable, now came alive as Sheng-yen’s own experience. “I understood them immediately, without explanation,” he writes. “I felt as if they were my own words.”
As fascinating and inspiring as this story is, what was most intriguing to us, from the perspective of our investigation of ego, was not the experience itself but the way Sheng-yen responded to it. In a time when it seems that so many, after similar experiences of profound awakening, have quickly assumed that the dangers of the ego have been forever left behind, Sheng-yen came to a very different conclusion.
While knowing that his perspective on life had radically changed, he also recognized that his “vexations,” or the character deficiencies arising from his own ego, had not disappeared and could, under the right circumstances, still cause him trouble. It was not time to rest or to teach, he decided—far from it. It was time to practice—to rededicate himself to spiritual purification with all of the resolve, inspiration and determination that this deep glimpse into his true nature had given him.
So with deepened faith in the reality of a life beyond the attachments of ego, Sheng-yen once again took up the robes of a bhiksu [monk], obtaining early release from his military duties. He began to study with a well-known Ch’an master named Tung-chu, who had earned a reputation as a very demanding teacher, even by the high standards of Ch’an. Tung-chu pushed Sheng-yen hard, one day challenging him to perform prostrations, and then days later reprimanding him for the same; telling him to write, and then tearing up his essays when they were completed; even going so far as instructing him to close up the door to his room just so he could create a new one in the opposite wall.
Grateful to have returned to his interrupted monkhood and discipleship, and for the freedom to devote himself full time to spiritual life, Sheng-yen pursued his spiritual practice with great intensity. On his own initiative, he eventually decided to begin a three-year solitary retreat high in the mountains of Taiwan.
Living in a small cliff-top hut with no running water or electricity and subsisting on wild potato leaves that he grew himself in his backyard, he worked to uproot the deep vexations of his own mind, to bring the full power of the Buddhist dharma to bear upon his attachment to the ego.
Beginning with a half-year of prostrations (doing one for each of the almost 80,000 characters in the Lotus Sutra) he then concentrated on sitting meditation and, in his spare time, wrote and completed two books on the Buddhist teachings. Three years later, feeling at home in the quiet calm of solitary practice but convinced that his efforts to cultivate freedom from “greed, anger, arrogance and ignorance” were still incomplete, he decided to double the time of his retreat, extending to a total of six years this period of seclusion, contemplation, practice and study.
It was after he emerged from this second retreat that Sheng-yen began to feel that the time was right for him to take up the mantle of a Ch’an teacher in his own right and spread the Buddhist dharma. But having long been troubled by the extreme lack of education he had often seen among the monks and nuns of Taiwan, he first set out to obtain the formal schooling that he himself had never received during his years of retreat and practice.
He headed for Japan and attended a university there, immersing himself in the subtle intricacies of the Buddhist dharma, earning a doctorate in Buddhist philosophy and, in the process, studying with well-known teachers from almost all the major schools of Japanese Zen. Later, accepting an invitation from a Buddhist association in the United States, he headed for the unfamiliar territory of America, where he launched a teaching career that would grow rapidly until it eventually encompassed communities of students from both the West and the Far East.
Currently Master Sheng-yen resides primarily in Taiwan but spends several months each year visiting his centers in the United States. As the founder of a liberal arts college near Taipei as well as several monasteries and meditation centers, the author of more than ninety books in ten different languages, a lineage holder in the two major schools of Ch’an Buddhism and personal spiritual guide to thousands of devoted students, Sheng-yen is a master who wears the threads of a great many responsibilities in the fabric of his simple monk’s robe.
He is credited by some for sparking a revival of Chinese Buddhism, a tradition that is today in exile from its home country—a place where Sheng-yen may visit but cannot teach and where an illicit underground network is the only way to distribute Buddhist literature to the population. In a role that has some similarities to that of H.H. the Dalai Lama, Sheng-yen has spent much of his life working hard to help save and invigorate what was once an extraordinarily rich tradition, despite its continuing oppression in the very homeland where it first blossomed more than a thousand years ago.
Morinaga Soko, in writing about the lessons learned during his ordeal outside the Zen monastery where he became a monk, states, “Until you have subjected yourself to some discipline, you should not put too much faith in your own willpower. When I saw my own will crumbling at the monastery entrance, I suddenly felt I understood the reason for niwazume. As one crouches by the bench on the dirt floor, one’s resolve is put to the test time and time again. . . . At the entrance to the monastery, I had learned the meaning of the courage which has its roots in faith and which remains undaunted whenever resistance is encountered.”
It doesn’t take more than a cursory look at the spiritual life to recognize that to truly free oneself from the fetters of the ego takes courage, determination and resolve in no small measure. Sheng-yen, it seemed, was someone who had spent much of his life attempting to cultivate these very qualities. Indeed, he was a man who had been tested in the fire of the Zen path, who had given his heart and soul to a tradition that demands much of the spiritual aspirant and has a reputation for offering little if any quarter to the needs and concerns of the ego.
So what would he, as a person who had truly lived and breathed the experiences most people only read about, have to say about this ancient enemy of the spiritual life? Would he be filled with the fire, intensity and passion for ego death that so many in his lineage have expressed down through the ages?
Or would he, in his current role as a teacher and the public face of Buddhism to thousands of people around the world, be more palliative in his relationship to the ego, more accepting of those for whom the idea of ego death is going just a little too far and more accommodating to a Western spiritual culture in which the ego seems to have fallen from its preeminent position as the one and only obstacle between us and the gates of nirvana?
WIE: What is the ego according to Ch’an Buddhism?
Master Sheng-yen: In Ch’an Buddhism the idea of ego revolves around the idea of attachment or clinging. The ego originally does not exist. It is created as a result of attachment to the body and attachment to one’s ideas or one’s own viewpoint. But because both the body and the mind are impermanent and constantly changing over time, our attachments to them are always changing as well. And as these attachments change, the ego also changes. So from the perspective of Ch’an, the ego does not exist in the sense of being a permanent, unchanging entity. The ego does not exist independent of one’s changing attachments to one’s body and one’s ideas.
WIE: What does it mean to go beyond the ego?
SY: There are two different ways to accomplish this transcendence of the ego. One is experiential, through experiencing the transcendence of the self. And this can be done through practice, the practice of sitting meditation and the investigation of a koan [paradoxical question]. It is possible to attain this experience without a practice, but that’s very rare; most people need to do the practice. The point of this kind of practice is to essentially push the ego into a corner so that it has nowhere else to go. It cannot escape anywhere.
So the ego and the method that you are using to transcend the ego are in direct opposition to each other. As I said, the ego is based on attachment—our attachment to the body and to ideas. Therefore, the method of transcending the ego is to deal with this attachment, to put down this attachment. When the ego is cornered and has nowhere to go, the only thing one can do is to put it down. And when one puts down the ego, then that is enlightenment.
WIE: Could you explain further how facing into a koan helps to “corner the ego”?
SY: In this method, you’re actually not trying to solve the koan. Rather, the method involves asking the koan to give you the answer. A koan may be like, “What is wu [nothingness]?” So you keep asking and asking the koan to give you the answer to that question. But actually, it’s impossible to answer. Of course, in the process of asking, your mind will give you answers, but whatever answer you get you have to reject. And you just stay with this method—keep asking and keep rejecting whatever answer comes up in your mind.
In the end you will develop a sense of doubt. You will not be able to ask the koan anymore. In fact, it’ll be meaningless to ask anymore. Then there is nothing to do except to finally put down the self and that is when enlightenment appears in front of you. But if you ask the koan and you simply get tired, if you can’t get an answer and so you just stop, that’s not enlightenment. That’s just laziness.
The second way to transcend the ego is the conceptual way. It happens when there’s a sudden and complete change in one’s viewpoint. It can happen, for example, when one’s reading a sutra [Buddhist scripture] or listening to a dharma talk. In an instant, one can become enlightened. But for this to really work, a person has to already want to know the answer to the question, “What is ego, what is the self?” They have to already be engaged with this question in their own mind. And then, when they come across a particular sentence, they can suddenly recognize the answer and instantaneously realize enlightenment. One very good example is the Sixth Patriarch, Hui Neng.
He heard one sentence from the Diamond Sutra and got enlightened. However, for people who never think about these issues and questions in their daily life, who don’t care about what the ego is and have no desire to know what the self is, this won’t work. Listening to a dharma lecture or reading the sutras isn’t going to help them.
WIE: What is the role of the teacher in liberating the student from his or her ego?
SY: First of all, the most important thing is that the student has to really want to know what the nature of the ego is. They need to have this burning desire to know. Then, what the teacher can do is to give the students a method or a tool to investigate and show them how to go about practicing the method. Many students may have a method and not be able to use it well.
So the teacher can show a student how to use their method properly and can also show the right attitude and conceptual understanding they need in going about their practice. And if the student has a strong desire to understand the nature of their real self, then the method will be helpful. They will be able to see that this self that’s based on attachment is illusory. It’s not real. And when they realize this, they will also see that there’s no such thing as the ego.
WIE: In your recent book Subtle Wisdom, you write, “Sometimes the mind experiences something that it takes to be enlightenment, but it is actually just the ego in a very happy state.” Could you explain the difference between these two experiences—between genuine enlightenment and a condition where the ego is simply, as you said, “in a very happy state”?
SY: The experience of happiness can also be a part of enlightenment; a person can feel happy whether they are enlightened or not. But usually when one is in this blissful, happy state, it is because, in that moment, one is no longer feeling burdened by one’s body or by one’s mind and emotions, and so one feels very at ease. However, this is not the same as liberation. One may feel very light; it doesn’t mean anything. A very peaceful, blissful, happy feeling is not the same as enlightenment.
Enlightenment is not being attached to any viewpoint or having any attachment to the body. There’s no burden at all, and that’s why one would feel happy. For example, Shakyamuni Buddha, after his enlightenment, sat under the bodhi tree for seven days to enjoy this happiness, this dharma joy from his liberation. But one can feel happiness whether one is enlightened or is not enlightened. So we need to be able to distinguish.
WIE: In your book you go on to say that this experience of the ego being in a very happy state could occur because “the ego may even be identified with the universe as a whole or with divinity.” Could you explain what you mean by that?
SY: That feeling of unification with the universe is actually one kind of samadhi [meditative absorption], a result of a deep state of concentration, and when a person is at this stage, they recognize that the entire universe is the same as themselves. What happens is that one expands one’s small ego outward, to include all viewpoints, to include all of the universe and everything in it. So at this point, one would no longer have individual selfish ideas or individual selfish thoughts that normally arise from the narrow, selfish ego.
In fact, one may experience a tremendous power that would result from this samadhi, a power that would come from the idea that “the universe is the same as me.” People who have had this kind of realization can often become very great religious leaders.
But the Buddha, after his enlightenment, did not say, “I’m the center of the universe.” Neither did he say that he represented the entire universe. What he said is that the Buddha is here to encourage all sentient beings to see that ego comes from attachment, and if we can all put down this attachment, then we will be liberated. And so the Buddha sees himself as a friend, a wise friend to all sentient beings, encouraging them to understand that ego comes from attachment and encouraging everybody to practice, to put down this attachment.
So in the Buddha’s nirvana, there’s no more arising and no more extinguishing. There’s no self—no big Self, no small self—and that is the true enlightenment. That’s the enlightenment of the Buddha.
WIE: So if an individual is identified with the universe as a whole, is there still, in that case, an ego attachment that the individual hasn’t given up?
WIE: Some of the great Ch’an and Zen patriarchs were reputed to have been very fierce teachers who would go to great lengths and use very extreme measures to liberate their students from their egos. In your books, you have written about how some of your own teachers were very tough with you as well. Is it because our attachment to the ego is so deep and so strong that these revered masters needed to employ such extreme measures to get their students to go beyond the ego?
SY: Actually, not everybody needs these harsh methods. The kind of method that is used has to match the needs of the individual student and the condition of the moment. Timing is very important. For example, when I teach my students, I only use harsh methods when it is necessary.
Most of the time I use a lot of encouragement, especially for beginner students. It is for those who have been practicing for a while, who have a lot of confidence in their practice already but who still have this attachment to the ego, that I will use some harsher methods to help them to move forward. But it takes a very experienced, very good master to know when the time is right to use such methods.
WIE: Another passage from your book reads, “If your sense of self is strong, solid, and formidable, then there is no way you can experience enlightenment.” What do you mean by this? Why is it difficult for a person with a strong sense of self or what Westerners would call “a strong ego” to experience enlightenment?
SY: It’s not necessarily true that people who have a very strong ego cannot be enlightened. In fact, those who know that they have a strong ego may, in some cases, actually be very good candidates to practice the Buddha-dharma. You see, there is a type of person who is very egocentric yet at the same time has a strong desire for enlightenment.
Because of this strong desire, they are naturally going to be very unhappy and dissatisfied with having a big ego, and that attitude will be good for their practice. When you have such a strong ego, you have to be willing to do something about it. So someone like this could be a good candidate for practicing and studying Ch’an.
Then there are also individuals who have what we would call a weaker or softer ego. This can help them, but only if they still have a real desire to deal with their ego. If they don’t, they are not going to be any closer to enlightenment because they won’t have any confidence in the practice. They won’t have diligence in the practice. But if an individual has a weaker, softer ego and still understands that they need to practice diligently to deal with it, then we could say that these individuals, because they have both a strong desire for liberation and a smaller ego, are closer to enlightenment.
WIE: Today many Western spiritual teachers believe that traditional spiritual paths, including Buddhism, do not properly address all the needs of the modern seeker. In particular, they feel that people may need psychotherapy to supplement their spiritual practice in order to work out many of their emotional attachments and problems with their ego.
Do you feel that the Ch’an path is incomplete when it comes to addressing the suffering of the modern seeker and that a person would be well advised to consider this dual approach—psychotherapy and spiritual practice—in their pursuit of enlightenment? Or is spiritual practice alone, if it’s sincere and diligent, sufficient to free us from the ego?
SY: There are two different issues here. First, individuals who have very severe psychological problems should not use the Ch’an method. It’s not good for them. If they just want to learn the beginner’s sitting meditation, we will teach them and they will reap benefits from that, such as improved health. However, a person with severe problems should get a doctor to help them recover before they begin the practice of Ch’an.
But generally, for individuals who do not have severe psychiatric problems, Ch’an practice is sufficient. There’s no need to get help from a psychiatrist or a therapist. In fact, sometimes psychiatrists or therapists come and seek help from me.
WIE: In the last thirty years, there have been many powerful teachers who have had profound spiritual understanding and experience and have attracted large numbers of students, but who eventually fell from grace due to corruption and scandal, sometimes in very shocking ways. Is it possible that spiritual experience and understanding could, in some cases, actually empower the ego?
SY: It’s hard to say. I don’t really want to comment on this. It is a problem. There are some individuals who think that they are enlightened, that they are liberated, and they also have the idea that after they’re liberated, they do not need any morality; they do not need to uphold the precepts [basic obligations undertaken by Buddhists] anymore.
And according to my own understanding of Buddhism—I can only speak for myself here—we follow Shakyamuni Buddha and if we look at the Buddha after he was enlightened, he didn’t go and drink. He didn’t go and hang out with women, sleep around and cheat people out of their money. And so that is what we follow. The Chinese Ch’an masters emphasize the importance of upholding the precepts.
WIE: For everyone, teachers and students?
SY: In the sutras, the Buddhist scriptures, they say that if you are really genuinely enlightened, you will naturally uphold the precepts.
WIE: You are a revered teacher with students in Taiwan and also Western students here in America. Some of the Western spiritual teachers and psychologists we have spoken to for this issue have said that the ego of Westerners is different from the ego of Easterners—that Westerners are more attached to an individual self and personal identity. If that’s true, then theoretically, it should generally be easier for Easterners to get enlightened than it is for Westerners. Do you agree with that? Is that your experience?
SY: This is not necessarily the case. It all depends on whether you have the desire for enlightenment—whether, as I was saying, you really want to understand the nature of the ego.
WIE: You’re saying that’s the key to success?
SY: Yes, that’s the key. You may have a weak or small ego, but if you don’t care about these things and you don’t have a strong desire, then you’re not closer to enlightenment.