Nothing to Cling To

Narayan Liebenson Grady went to Taiwan just before Master Sheng Yen died, hoping to see him one last time. She reports on his final days.

By Narayan Helen Liebenson

Provided by Dharma Drum Mountain Cultural and Educational Foundation, all rights reserved.

My husband, Michael, and I first met Master Sheng Yen about ten years ago at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies. We felt an immediate connection with him and were drawn to his humility and deep wisdom. In the years that followed, we sat many Silent Illumination retreats with him and always came away with deep gratitude for the opportunity to practice with someone whose understanding of the dharma was so profound.

Over the years, Shifu’s health (Shifu means “teacher”) began to decline, but he continued to lead retreats in New York, and he gave seemingly countless other teachings and interviews in the United States and Taiwan until a couple of years ago.

This past January, Michael and I decided to go to Taiwan because it had become increasingly clear that Shifu would not be able to travel to the U.S. anymore. When we arrived in Taiwan, rumor had it that Shifu was unconscious and in a hospital in Taipei. After some detective work, we guessed which hospital he was staying in, and when we arrived at the ward we were greeted by one of his doctors. He told us that Shifu was too sick and weak to see anyone, but offered to give him a letter of gratitude that we had written to him. We were so thankful that we had the opportunity to communicate to Shifu our great love and appreciation.

Five days later, Shifu passed away as he was being taken back to Dharma Drum Mountain, his beautiful meditation community in the mountains just north of Taipei. DDM is a vast complex that includes housing for monastics and lay volunteers, a Chan Hall, a huge meeting hall, and a library. A university is currently being constructed there as well. It’s a truly magnificent and inspiring place.

We were staying at DDM when Shifu’s body arrived from the hospital. It was a great grace to be there with others who loved him as much as we did, and to share this experience with practitioners who understood the nature of loss.

Shifu had planned his funeral service impeccably, including teaching his students how to relate to his death. During the two weeks following his death, a video of Shifu played repeatedly in a room beneath the Grand Buddha Hall. In it, Shifu spoke about the time when his teacher died, and recalled being very sad and crying a lot. But he emphasized that everything changes, encouraging us to remember that death is natural and not to lose clarity of view.

He also spoke about the importance of taking vows, dedicating oneself to wisdom and compassion. In speaking about his own relationship to his vows, Shifu said, “Although this universe may someday perish, my vows are eternal.”

The ceremonies that followed his death were a skillful way of giving us the space to grieve as well as an opportunity to learn how to let go. After he died, his body was placed in an open casket in the Grand Buddha Hall. For two days it seemed that the whole of Taiwan came to bow and pay respects: older people, little kids, teenagers with pink hair, executives, and those who obviously owned very little—literally thousands of people from all walks of life came by. The president of Taiwan and movie star Jet Li came to pay their respects, along with all the major Taiwanese TV stations and accompanying photographers. And, of course, many different Buddhist lineages were represented; there were old venerable Chinese masters, Zen nuns, Theravada and Tibetan monks. Everyone knew that this was the passing of a true and authentic master.

On the third day, the casket was closed and remained in the Grand Buddha Hall for several more days while many more people came to pay respects. Chanting continued day and night, helped by Shifu’s recorded voice chanting over a loudspeaker along with us.

Then, the cremation occurred. More than 10,000 people were transported by bus to attend the cremation ceremony. As Michael and I walked down the hill to board the buses we looked back, and along the sides of the road, as far back as we could see, were thousands of people standing and kneeling in the rain, many of them crying inconsolably. After the cremation, his ashes were brought back to the Grand Buddha Hall and put in a box that was placed on his chair in the hall, along with his glasses and water cup. They remained there for a week.

At the end of the week, there was a ceremony in the Grand Buddha Hall, during which we all wrote on paper bodhi leaves our intention to carry on Shifu’s work. With this and other moments that week, there was a powerful sense of being one dharma family.

Finally, Shifu’s ashes were buried. More than 30,000 people walked single file to the burial grounds. As we walked back from the site, the Abbot was there to greet and console as many of us as possible by taking our hands and meeting our eyes; it seemed to me an immensely generous act in the midst of his own personal grief and daunting responsibilities.

Because of Shifu’s wishes, there is no sign marking the place where his ashes were buried. They will mingle with the earth and with the ashes of others who are buried in this same plot of land. He also instructed that his ashes be completely ground so that there would be no relics remaining. He told his disciples that with no relics to cling to, there would be nothing to fight over in the coming years.

Then, it was over. Within hours of the last participants filing by the burial grounds, the Grand Buddha Hall was back the way it had been prior to Shifu’s passing. And yet, something immense and wonderful had happened. I am truly grateful for what Shifu has taught us, with his life and his death.

Narayan Helen Liebenson

Narayan Helen Liebenson

Narayan Helen Liebenson is a guiding teacher at Cambridge Insight Meditation Center.