Most of us imagine the life of Buddhist monks to be peaceful, serene, and much the same from one day to the next. Master Sheng Yen’s autobiography, Footprints in the Snow, is an eye-opening experience for us, as much as for the man who lived it.
Born a weak and sickly child, Baokang (later Sheng Yen) didn’t talk until he was five years old. This and his apparent inability to learn or reason convinced his family that he was simply slow, so their hopes for his future were not high ones. Expecting to spend his life on the family’s small farm, Baokang nevertheless answered “Yes!” to a neighbor’s query about his interest in becoming a monk. Clearly he’d not considered this option previously and took no time to think about it or discuss it with his parents when the opportunity arose. It would seem that he was destined to become a monk, but from this point on every imaginable obstacle was placed in his path.
Communist and nationalist forces created constant upheaval and danger in China, causing families and even whole villages to be uprooted and destroyed. Monasteries were not spared, either. In time, Baokang was forced to join the army for what he thought would be a relatively short time. Instead, he spent more than 10 years serving in the military and trying to maintain his Buddhist practice within the confines of that structure.
Finally able to return to monastic life, he found that it consisted largely of working long hours in return for cash, with very little time for practice. A majority of the monks with whom he lived showed no particular interest in Buddhism but rather were seeking a way to make a living. Master Sheng Yen’s ideals drove him to explore every path that opened for him, eventually marking him as a wandering monk – attached to no particular monastery and, for most of his life, attached to no particular practice. This open-minded seeking is likely the foundation for Master Sheng Yen’s great compassion and the respect shown him by those who know him best.
The history of China in the 20th century unfolds along with Sheng Yen’s life, adding color and texture to the story he shares. Along the way, this remarkable Chan Master has written and published well over 100 books on Chan Buddhism and shared the Dharma with hundreds of thousands of people. One need not be Buddhist to appreciate his clean and evocative writing style or his honest appraisal of the world and himself. Sheng Yen does not preach, yet his words give guidance to monks and laypeople alike.