After our final sitting of the evening, Ch’an Master Sheng-Yen was fond of telling students on retreat in Taiwan about the monk who put the Chinese character for “death” (si) on the dormitory ceiling.
“His disciples were forced to confront the fact of their own future deaths,” Master Sheng-Yen told us. “It is a great spur to practice. Use your time here well. Practice hard!”
When Master Sheng-Yen died at age 79 in Taiwan last February, that memory immediately came to my mind. Death was not to be feared. It was the great teacher.
I hadn’t seem him for more than 15 years. But no one who has ever seriously studied with Master Sheng-Yen – regarded by many Chinese as the greatest Buddhist teacher of his generation – ever forgets his teachings.
Master Sheng-Yen’s own life undoubtedly informed his attitudes toward death. Frail and troubled by a weak heart, he was frequently ill when I studied with him 25 years ago.
He nevertheless pushed himself as hard as he pushed his students. He famously meditated alone in the Taiwan countryside for ten years. He earned a PhD in Buddhist studies from Rissho University in Japan. He founded the Dharma Drum Order of Ch’an Buddhism and established temples around the world. As a teacher, he maintained a grueling schedule for decades until shortly before his death: three months in Taiwan, three months in Queens, N.Y.
On retreats, he taught with a sense of urgency. One felt that urgency in the whack of his hsiang-ban (awakening stick) on the shoulder blades and in the exhortations to meditate longer and more diligently – often long into the night. Life is short. Who knows how long you will live? Awakening is possible now. Grab the opportunity!
And many students did. In that tinder-box of intense effort and exhortation, students had dramatic awakenings that changed their lives.
For all that, he had an infectious sense of humor, a way of cocking his head and raising his eyebrows at life’s absurdities. “Si-tu ru (my Chinese name), where in the world did you pop out of?” were his first words when I walked unannounced into his Taiwan temple after years away.
Since returning to the U.S., I have studied vipassana, or Insight meditation. It is kinder, gentler Buddhism: a gradual approach to waking up that stresses deepening mindfulness and an open heart. Both approaches are valid, perhaps even necessary. Sometimes we need a demanding father, other times an understanding mother.
Death is the common thread. We all die, including our teachers. Time is short.
Master Sheng-Yen, who like any good Zen master reveled in paradox, would probably add that death isn’t such a big deal, anyway.