Dharma Drum Lineage

My Commitment and Life’s Mission

◎ Master Sheng Yen

People often criticize Chinese Buddhism for its lack of systemization in doctrine and practice. They further criticize it as contrary to the teachings of the Āgamas and Madhyamaka(*). As a result, many Chinese Buddhists are even reluctant to study Chinese Buddhism in a serious manner.

But such criticism has its origin in a poor and incomplete understanding of Chinese Buddhist history, doctrine, and practice. If Chinese Buddhism really lacked order and coherence, how has it flourished for over two thousand years?

I have devoted my whole life to the study of Chan, Pure Land, vinaya (Buddhist codes of conduct), and even esoteric Buddhism. My studies have not simply been an idle accumulation of facts. Rather, I study buddhadharma for the sake of actualizing it; I study Indian and Chinese forms of Buddhism for the sake of making them relevant to a modern society, so people today will have the opportunity to understand, appreciate, and use the wisdom of buddhadharma. This is my commitment and life’s mission.

All forms of the buddhadharma have a single flavor—the flavor of liberation. Indian and Chinese Buddhist masters have studied, practiced, and actualized buddhadharma and transmitted their wisdom and experience down to us through their writings. Their words nourish us. Because I am Chinese, I value the received treasures of the Chinese Buddhist tradition. I founded the Chung-Hwa Institute of Buddhist Studies for this reason. Our paradigm model is: “To be fully established in the Chinese Buddhist tradition, but to have a global vision for Buddhism as a whole.” If we do not stand by our own received tradition, so that our words resonate with the wisdom and experience of untold generations, to speak of globalizing or modernizing Buddhism is simply unrealistic. How is it possible for others to respect us if we are unable to define our position?

Because the legitimacy and value of Chinese Buddhism has been called into question, some wish to modify it to accord with Indian and Tibetan forms of Buddhism. I have inherited the wisdom from the Indian traditions, and affirm the strength of Tibetan tradition, of course, but my foundation is built on Chinese Buddhism. The strength of Chinese Buddhism lies in its ability to absorb, embrace, adapt, and adjust to the needs of people everywhere. I see the textual traditions of ancient Indian Buddhism and the contemporary practice of Tibetan Buddhism as reference sources for furthering the modernization of Chinese Buddhism. Some people use Indian Buddhism and other Buddhist traditions to judge and correct Chinese Buddhism. This approach can only lead to the death of Chinese Buddhism, which would indeed be a great loss to humanity and for Buddhism as a whole. Human civilization inevitably advances forward. There are definite conditions and logical causes in this process of evolution. If we attempted to somehow return to some “original form of Buddhism,” then would we not have to abandon all the historical development of the various early schools of Buddhism that led to Early Buddhism and Mahāyāna Buddhism?

(Excerpted from the preface to the Chinese volume, A Reading Guide to the Four Treatises of the Tiantai School, written in April, 2006)

(*) In contemporary times the reasons that Chinese Buddhism, and Chan Buddhism in particular, are judged in light of these two forms of Indian Buddhism are undoubtedly complex but can be traced back to the impact of Master Yinshun 印順 (1906-2005), the modern Chinese Buddhist scholar monk. For more information about his thought, see below. Only one of his books are translated into English; see Yin-shun, The Way to Buddhahood (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1998)