Chan Master Sheng Yen (1930–2009) was a widely respected Taiwanese Chan (Chinese Zen) master who taught extensively in the West during the last thirty-one years of his life. He had numerous teaching centers throughout North America, as well throughout the world. He co-led retreats with the Dalai Lama, and he is the author of numerous books in Chinese and English, including Song of Mind, The Method of No-Method, and his autobiography, Footprints in the Snow.

This reader’s guide offers a brief glimpse into his life, followed by a look at his publications available through Shambhala.

A Vow to Share the Buddha’s Teachings

Master Sheng Yen was born into a farming family that did not own the land they cultivated. The family was humble in origin and though poor, survived by growing crops near the banks of the Yangtze River with its unpredictable moods, which included frequent flooding. As with other Chinese families of that milieu, their beliefs were an amalgam of folk religion, ritual Daoism, Confucian ethics, and a smattering of Buddhism. At age thirteen, through a series of more or less unintended encounters, Master Sheng Yen left home and entered a Chan monastery near Shanghai, where he spent most of his time learning the ritual aspects of monastery life. Much of the livelihood of the monks was performing funeral rites for lay practitioners in return for offerings to the temple. During intervals when he did have exposure to the teachings of the Buddha, his young mind was so impressed that even then, though he had yet little idea how, he vowed to some day share his love of the Buddha’s teachings with sentient beings.

At age eighteen, his Buddhist training and studies were interrupted when he was conscripted into the Nationalist Army during the Communist revolution. Soon after, the Kuomintang withdrew to Taiwan along with the remains of the army, and the young soldier-monk ended up spending ten years of his precious youth as an officer in the Communication Corps. During his years as a soldier, Sheng Yen persevered in his practice, but he also spent as much time as he could reading whatever serious literature he could find, Buddhist and otherwise, and began to write essays.

In his Journey of Learning and Insight, he says: “My greatest gain in the army was to develop my writing skills. . . . Reading and writing helped me dissolve the anguish of reality and open up to inner brightness.”

Becoming a Scholar

For the sake of brevity, we will skip over many details of Master Sheng Yen’s growth as an author of Buddhist literature, but three critical episodes in his life should be mentioned. First, after returning to a monk’s life, he was abruptly told by his teacher, Master Dong Chu that he, Sheng Yen, was to be the new editor of Humanity Magazine, a journal of Chinese Buddhism. This was a task for which he had no prior experience, yet he thrived for two years and transformed the magazine’s mission. Second, beginning in 1961 he spent six years in solitary retreat in a mountainous area in Kaohsiung, Taiwan.

There he dedicated himself to the study of the Buddhist sila (moral discipline) and vinaya (precepts). As part of his study he compiled a plethora of notes, at first not realizing that it would lead to his authoring a future classic, The Essentials of Buddhist Sila and Vinaya, which he completed before ending his retreat. Third, after emerging from retreat, his own sense of need to expand his scholastic horizons led him to enroll in 1969 at Rissho University in Tokyo, where he completed his doctorate in Buddhist literature in 1975. His doctoral thesis was on Chan Master Ouyi of the Ming Dynasty, but above and beyond earning his doctorate, he had proven himself capable of researching and authoring deeply complex Buddhist texts at the highest level of scholarship.

Everywhere and Nowhere Are Home

After earning his degree and returning to Taiwan, Master Sheng Yen was unsure of his prospects for the future. But due to karmic affinity and good fortune, in 1975 he was invited to come to America by Mr. C. T. Shen, to the Temple of Great Enlightenment in Bronx, New York. There he started a Chan meditation class that was composed of a mix of Westerners and ethnic Chinese. From that time on, Master Sheng Yen began a journey of nearly thirty-two years, during which he jetted back and forth between America and Taiwan, while creating two thriving environments for Chan practice, and authoring a stunning array of scholarly and more accessible books. In a chapter in Chan Speaks, expounding on the saying by Master Linji (d. 866), “On the way, yet never having left home,” Master Sheng Yen said of himself: “I also experienced the type of life and attitude of monastics—having left home and now without a home, so that both everywhere and nowhere are home. . . . From birth to death we are on a journey and there is never a real home.”

In 2006, having endured chronic illness for several years, Master Sheng Yen left America forever, returning to Taiwan where he spent the remainder of his mortal life. There, he continued to direct the growth of the huge complex of practice and educational centers at Dharma Drum Mountain, while occasionally conducting retreats. He also engaged in one of his favorite post-retirement activities, producing an astounding series of Chan Buddhist calligraphy.  In 2009, shortly before passing away, Master Sheng Yen bequeathed his final and most touching literary work, his gatha of departing from the mortal realm:


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

Master Sheng Yen’s Legacy

To speak of Master Sheng Yen’s legacy is a worthy endeavor, and it would be difficult to offer a full assessment here. For now we can enumerate some of his more tangible achievements: A body of 120-plus books and a large number of smaller monographs and essays; the founding of Dharma Drum Mountain, a large and thriving monastery and educational complex in Taiwan; the founding of the Chan Meditation Center in New York City, the Dharma Drum Retreat Center in New York State, and over fifty affiliated Chan practice centers in the USA, South America, Europe, and the Pacific Islands. He also tirelessly defined and promoted his programs for achieving “a pure land on Earth,” which he collectively referred to as Protecting the Spiritual and Natural Environment. He also founded the Dharma Drum lineage and transmitted to seventeen Dharma heirs, including eight monks and four nuns, and five Western lay disciples.

As to his spiritual legacy, what he bequeathed to us in terms of Buddhadharma and Chan realization is intimately personal to each individual, while being part of a collective spirituality that we all share, and endeavor to share, with others. To that extent, his legacy can be said to be extensive while still being a work in progress. When we contemplate this, it probably is precisely as he would see it, since Buddhist spiritual practice when properly understood, is forever a work in progress. It would seem then, that this is the way Master Sheng Yen would want it to be, because long before he became a famous Chan master, he said: “The universe may one day perish, yet my vows are eternal.”

Books by Master Sheng Yen


Calligraphy by Master Sheng Yen:

"Through the tangles of vines and tendrils,

and the knots of cords and ropes . . . . .

the thread is not clear."

—from The Poetry of Enlightenment

Master Shen Yeng

Chan Practice

Attaining the Way: A Guide to the Practice of Chan Buddhism

This is an inspiring guide to the practice of Chan in the words of four great masters of the tradition. It includes teachings from contemporary masters Xuyun and Sheng Yen, and from Jiexian and Boshan of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644).

Books on Chan Practice by Master Sheng Yen

Attaining the Way

Taught by: Chan Master Sheng Yen

$22.95 - Paperback

Dharma Drum: The Life and Heart of Chan Practice

Here is a guide to the practice of Chan Buddhism. Part One presents Master Sheng Yen’s lively, anecdotal account of the history and main principles of the Chan tradition, along with his careful instructions for meditation. Part Two consists of 180 aphorisms and sayings that serve as inspirations to spiritual practice.

Dharma Drum

Taught by: Chan Master Sheng Yen

$29.95 - Paperback

The Method of No-Method: The Chan Practice of Silent Illumination

Here is a spiritual practice uncomplicated enough for anyone to learn, yet rich enough to be worked with for a lifetime. The traditional Chan practice called Silent Illumination begins with nothing more than putting aside all thoughts except the awareness of oneself “just sitting.” It’s so simple in execution that it has sometimes been called the “method of no-method.”

The Method of No-Method

Taught by: Chan Master Sheng Yen

$18.95 - Paperback

Shattering the Great Doubt: The Chan Practice of Huatou

Huatou—similar to the better-known Zen discipline of koan practice—is a traditional method for breaking through the trap of our habitual thinking into the spacious mind of enlightenment. In this book, Chan Master Sheng Yen brings the huatou practice to life.

Shattering the Great Doubt

Taught by: Chan Master Sheng Yen

$22.95 - Paperback


Complete Enlightenment: Zen Comments on The Sutra of Complete Enlightenment

This book is the first authoritative translation and commentary on The Sutra of Complete Enlightenment, a central text that shaped the development of East Asian Buddhism and Chan. This new translation with commentary preserves all the liveliness and nuance of the text in the original Chinese.

Commentaries by Master Sheng Yen

Complete Enlightenment

Taught by: Chan Master Sheng Yen

$25.95 - Paperback

Faith in Mind: A Commentary on Seng Ts’an’s Classic

“Faith in Mind”—a sixth-century poem by the third Chan patriarch, Seng Ts’an—is one of the most beloved and commented upon Zen texts. Master Sheng Yen’s commentary reveals the text to be a useful and practical guide to meditation practice.

Faith in Mind

Taught by: Chan Master Sheng Yen

$18.95 - Paperback

The Infinite Mirror: Commentaries on Two Chan Classics

In this book, Master Sheng Yen illuminates the ancient texts of the Chinese Zen tradition by showing their practicality for modern students. The texts, written by two of the founders of the Ts’ao-tung sect of Chan Buddhism, are poems entitled Inquiry into Matching Halves and Song of the Precious Mirror Samadhi. Both emphasize the Chan view that wisdom is not separate from vexation, and both speak of the levels of awareness through which one must pass on the way to realization.

The Infinite Mirror

Taught by: Chan Master Sheng Yen

$17.95 - Paperback

The Poetry of Enlightenment: Poems by Ancient Chan Masters

For the masters of the Chan tradition, poetry was a form of creative expression, but even more than that, it was a primary vehicle for teaching. Here Sheng Yen presents ten teaching poems from the ancient masters, with illuminating commentary. (See our reader's guide to Buddhist Poetry here.)

The Poetry of Enlightenment

Taught by: Chan Master Sheng Yen

$18.95 - Paperback

Song of Mind: Wisdom from the Zen Classic Xin Ming

This book takes the form of a week-long retreat with Master Sheng Yen, with each chapter in the form of an evening talk given on a particular section of the classic “Song of Mind” text.

Song of Mind

Taught by: Chan Master Sheng Yen

$19.95 - Paperback