Review of Sheng Yen's Footprints in the Snow
I just finished reading, “Footprints in the Snow: The Autobiography of a Chinese Buddhist Monk” By Sheng Yen. I’d been wanting to read this since it came out and all the more since his death following the release of the book. (I note that Amazon has the book for the “bargain price” of just under $8 right now.)
Sheng Yen is a key figure in the revival or reinvigoration of Chan in Taiwan. He is the founder of Dharma Drum Mountain there. He also happens to be one of two Chan teachers who have played a key role in introducing Chan to non-Chinese in the United States. Not counting this biography, he is also the author of twenty Buddhist books in English, no small feat. I’d first encountered his books on meditation and, more recently, his book on the Chan form of koan practice. I’d been very impressed by what he wrote and the more I’ve learned of him, the more impressed I’ve been. He’s the kind of Buddhist figure of which I wish we had more on the world stage. While I’m sure he was as human as the rest of us (and he freely admits to failings), he seemed to embody the virtues that we would expect to see in a monastic and a teacher.
Reading this autobiography only reinforced my impressions of him. While there is a truism that all autobiographies present a particular view of the author (usually flattering), I think Sheng Yen’s personality came through very well and his inherent humbleness and equanimity in the face of adversity. I hadn’t realized that he’d literally spent his childhood as a peasant living in a hut near the Yangtze without, usually, money in his family for luxuries like salt. He came to be a monk as the youngest child through happenstance (or, as many would say, karma) but, due to the Japanese invasion and occupation of China and then the communist revolution, did not have the smooth and quiet monastic path that many would expect. As a young monk, he saw first hand the debasement of Buddhism to market forces in the rough and tumble Shanghai of the war where he witnessed monks (and defrocked ex-monks) fighting for funeral business (usually at the expense of any actual practice). He saw junkie monks doing heroin and monks patronizing prostitutes. He also, and he freely talks about this, found the joys of faith, of the draw of the liturgy, and how the practice of prostration literally changed his mental makeup. Later, when the communists were winning the revolution, he wound up in Taiwan by volunteering (for life!) to join the army as that was the only way to get there if one had no money. Sheng Yen spent nine years in the army and even though he kept his vows as best as he could, he struggled in that life. It was again through happenstance, the Buddhist wife of his commanding general and other patrons, that he was able to be released from army service.
After this, he returned to the monastic world. I found the early part of his life interesting but most interesting was his description of his struggle to both be a monk and to figure out his role. I especially appreciated his description of his interactions with his master, who took great pride in playing “jokes” on him to train him in equanimity and unattachment. For example, there were two rooms (a large and small) where they were staying. His master would, almost daily, tell him, “Oh, for reason X, you should be sleeping in the other room. Please move your things over there now” and then do the opposite, for different reasons, the next day. Back and forth, back and forth until Sheng Yen, first, lost his temper on constantly moving his things and, later, learned to not be attached to any of it. There was an amusing story of the endless and pointless task for three (!) matching tiles to patch a spot in the kitchen that had Sheng Yen traveling all over city and countryside looking for the exact match (only to find that there were spares left over and set aside). Later in his life, in New York City, Sheng Yen voluntarily found himself homeless and living on the street. He mentioned how these lessons earlier in life taught him to not care about trivialities of having a place to sleep, good food, or other luxuries. As long as he had the Dharma and his students, what more did he need?
There is a reoccurring message through the book on the power and role of faith in Buddhism. This isn’t something we hear about as much in the West, at least in the convert community. I found it thought provoking as the faith aspect of Buddhism is something that I have struggled a lot with over the years. I tend to be much more atheistic in outlook whereas Sheng Yen freely admitted to his faith in Guanyin and his practice towards her during the entirety of his life from childhood. We could do well to reflect on the strengths and virtues of faith without abandoning ourselves to it unthinkingly.
The autobiography covers the last decades of his life much more briefly and I had hoped to read much more of this. His first thirty years take up most of the book and the period after he founded his American organization, while discussed, move very quickly. What comes across is his inherent lack of self cherishing and his dedication to the Dharma and teaching others. For my own part, I can only hope that I’m a tenth of the practitioner he was and I found his story to be very inspiring. I very much recommend this book (and all of his other books) to people.