Sheng Yen's "Footprints in the Snow"

Sheng Yen's "Footprints in the Snow"

Postby Frank » Sun May 13, 2012 7:36 am

So I recently have been reading about Ch'an master Sheng Yen and came across his book "Footprints in the Snow" it is his autobiography that possibly was mainly written by someone else. Then I came across an article that seems to be claiming, in so many words more or less, that most of the hardships master Yen claims to have endured, such as living on the streets and eating from dumpsters, were fabrications, "Modern Day Zen Hagiography" is what the author (who says he was involved with Sheng Yen's organization for seventeen years) calls it.

Here is the article: http://www.hsuyun.org/chan/docs/ENGLISH/pdf/WhenTheSaintsGoMarching.pdf

Thoughts?
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Re: Sheng Yen's "Footprints in the Snow"

Postby Astus » Sun May 13, 2012 6:04 pm

Stuart Lachs is well known for criticising modern Zen and its teachers. He usually has some good points, but as always, one should be careful about the sources. Religious biographies are famous for exaggerating and creating an otherworldly picture of whoever is the subject of the writing, but that's not necessarily intentional, just the way the writer conceives it. What to make of all this? Not much, I think. Let the teaching and the precepts be one's guide, not superstitions, personal cults, historical claims, angry criticism, or anything else.
"There is no such thing as the real mind. Ridding yourself of delusion: that's the real mind."
(Sheng-yen: Getting the Buddha Mind, p 73)

"Neither cultivation nor seated meditation — this is the pure Chan of Tathagata."
(Mazu Daoyi, X1321p3b23; tr. Jinhua Jia)

“Don’t rashly seek the true Buddha;
True Buddha can’t be found.
Does marvelous nature and spirit
Need tempering or refinement?
Mind is this mind carefree;
This face, the face at birth."

(Nanyue Mingzan: Enjoying the Way, tr. Jeff Shore; T2076p461b24-26)
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Re: Sheng Yen's "Footprints in the Snow"

Postby Frank » Sun May 13, 2012 7:05 pm

Astus wrote:Stuart Lachs is well known for criticising modern Zen and its teachers. He usually has some good points, but as always, one should be careful about the sources. Religious biographies are famous for exaggerating and creating an otherworldly picture of whoever is the subject of the writing, but that's not necessarily intentional, just the way the writer conceives it. What to make of all this? Not much, I think. Let the teaching and the precepts be one's guide, not superstitions, personal cults, historical claims, angry criticism, or anything else.



Well you are right in everything you say. But what about learning from the writings of specifically Master Yen? If he lied in his autobiography, what does that say about him as a "Master" and does this mean his teachings could be just as fabricated? It's kind of a downer to catch a so called "Master" in a lie, especially one that they printed in a book. His story does sound fabricated, I don't imagine any scenario where a Ch'an monk would be forced to live on the streets, nor can I imagine him surviving so easily the harsh cold winter there! I could call temples and ask if they would allow a Ch'an monk to stay with them and I guarantee most, if not all, would say yes. Even if he had to rotate what temples he was staying at, he could still manage to never spend a single night out on the street! And he says his students let him stay with them some? And then what? "Sorry Master, you're an outside Monk now, hope you don't die of cold and starvation!". Heck, he said he was eating garbage from dumpsters so what expense would be be in a students home? Why couldn't he stay indefinitely if he wasn't costing them any money? At the very least, it wouldn't cost a dime to simply let him in to sleep each night and kick him out in the morning. Don't get me wrong, this is just humor based on the unlikely hood of that ever happening, I think most students would simply let their master stay with them. So how did this happen and how did he survive? It's not like he was sleeping outside in California or some other warm state, that would be more believable.

I suppose it's possible that he could still be a great teacher and make up stories to make himself sound like a legend. But it certainly begs the question: Is this really, truly something a "Master" would do?

The only way his story could be believed is in the fact that he says at one point that he enjoyed living on the street. So maybe it was optional? Still makes you wonder how he survived... but it is plausible if looked at from that perspective.

And to be clear, I do believe he has many good teachings and I personally will still read his works. I'm just curious what everyone thinks about this.
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Re: Sheng Yen's "Footprints in the Snow"

Postby Astus » Sun May 13, 2012 7:31 pm

I did not read the whole article, but Lachs says at the beginning that the book was not written by Ven. Shengyan but an American reporter who does not even speak Chinese. That's one thing. Another is that no biography contains every details. If someone would actually want to investigate the life of Ven. Shengyan and the truth of and biographical detail, it would take lot more effort than simply going through one book written by a person without actual connection to the events. To conclude from this that Ven. Shengyan lied, that is quite a big leap.
"There is no such thing as the real mind. Ridding yourself of delusion: that's the real mind."
(Sheng-yen: Getting the Buddha Mind, p 73)

"Neither cultivation nor seated meditation — this is the pure Chan of Tathagata."
(Mazu Daoyi, X1321p3b23; tr. Jinhua Jia)

“Don’t rashly seek the true Buddha;
True Buddha can’t be found.
Does marvelous nature and spirit
Need tempering or refinement?
Mind is this mind carefree;
This face, the face at birth."

(Nanyue Mingzan: Enjoying the Way, tr. Jeff Shore; T2076p461b24-26)
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Re: Sheng Yen's "Footprints in the Snow"

Postby Frank » Mon May 14, 2012 6:43 am

Astus wrote:I did not read the whole article, but Lachs says at the beginning that the book was not written by Ven. Shengyan but an American reporter who does not even speak Chinese. That's one thing. Another is that no biography contains every details. If someone would actually want to investigate the life of Ven. Shengyan and the truth of and biographical detail, it would take lot more effort than simply going through one book written by a person without actual connection to the events. To conclude from this that Ven. Shengyan lied, that is quite a big leap.

I think you make some great points. Probably this article and autobiography are not enough to decide he is not a master or that he actually lied considering he didn't literally write the thing in the first place .
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Re: Sheng Yen's "Footprints in the Snow"

Postby Huifeng » Mon May 14, 2012 12:19 pm

I have neither read the book, nor the critical article - however, the amount of time I've spent in Taiwanese Buddhism, maybe a few thoughts are relevant:

The time in which people like Ven. Sheng Yen - including Ven. Master Hsing Yun, Ven. Chen Hua, and others - came from China to Taiwan, was a particularly harsh time. Before they came on over, the whole nation had been ravished by invasion, revolution, further invasion, and then a particularly bloody civil war. When they arrived in Taiwan, they were of course absolutely broke and had nothing. Because they came with the Nationalists, who then set up martial law over the island, they were often particularly despised by the Taiwanese locals. Some of them were suspected as "Communist spies", and imprisoned for some time at the whim of the Nationalists. Buddhism was not then what it is now in Taiwan. Monasteries would usually shut their doors to these monks. Thus, as young monks with little or no monastic cred on the island, broke and rejected "from other provinces" (外省人), they had a really, really hard time. I've heard enough of these stories from the older monks here in Taiwan, they are real, not fabricated for any reasons.

And, as already noted, the book was not written by Ven. himself, in Chinese, let alone in English I believe. It only came out in Chinese after his passing away a couple of years ago, IIRC.

While I'm here: These older generation Chinese / Taiwanese teachers are the real deal. Please keep a good thought for them in your heart, as part of the Jewel of the Sangha. :smile:

~~ Huifeng
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.

Postby Frank » Mon May 14, 2012 4:10 pm

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Last edited by Frank on Mon May 14, 2012 4:38 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Sheng Yen's "Footprints in the Snow"

Postby Frank » Mon May 14, 2012 4:20 pm

Huineng, I agree that Master Sheng Yen is a jewel for the Sangha and that it's pointless to doubt his authenticity since he was far removed from the writing of his own autobiography. Just so you know though, his story about living on the streets takes place in the US in the 70's and at that time things were not rough or dangerous for monks and temples and helpful and willing lay practitioners were common. the 70's were a time when Zen and Ch'an were very popular and people were very interested in them. This is a time when many other well known masters were flourishing. That's why it's questionable. But as I just said, probably without much definitive basis for arguement or doubt since he did not write it.
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