Sign Up for Our Bi-Weekly Email

Expand your perspective with thought-provoking insights, quotes, and videos hand-picked by our editors—along with the occasional update about the world of EnlightenNext.

Privacy statement

Your email address is kept confidential, and will never be published, sold or given away without your explicit consent. Thank you for joining our mailing list!


No Escape for the Ego

An interview with Venerable Master Sheng-yen
by Carter Phipps



When it comes to the topic of ego in the spiritual life, few people have staked out the territory like the Zen masters. To read their stories is to enter another world, one where commitment, humility, devotion and insight take on larger-than-life significance and one thing matters above all else: to slay the ego once and for all, and in doing so to achieve enlightenment, to deeply realize one's Buddha-nature in this life. Indeed, few people could honestly claim the fortitude of spirit required to withstand the ego-destroying tactics of the Zen teachers of yore who, in stories that have become legends, resorted to often outrageous acts of enlightened wisdom in order to shock, jolt and awaken their students from the nightmare of ego-centered existence. Zen Buddhism, it would seem, has never been a path for the faint of heart, a testament, perhaps, to the First Zen Patriarch, Bodhidharma, who sat facing a wall for nine years to demonstrate his commitment to the path of enlightenment. Even in the modern era, we find echoes of Bodhidharma's resolve in the stories of contemporary practitioners, like the now-classic My Struggle to Become a Zen Monk by Morinaga Soko. In his efforts to gain admittance into the monastic life, Soko spent three days crouched beneath the wooden steps at the entrance to one Japanese Zen monastery enduring what is called "niwazume," a test of character designed to ensure that only the most determined make it through the outer gates. Exposed to the cold wind and snow, he withstood verbal assaults, psychological pressure and even physical beatings before he was finally able, with numb legs and a bloody face as evidence, to convince the monks inside that he had the humility and resolve to take up the austere life of a Zen monk. Those who aren't willing to pay the high price of slaying the ego, in other words, need not even apply.

So from the moment we decided to present an investigation of the nature of ego in this issue, we began a search for a Zen master who could speak from his own experience of the trials of this rigorous path beyond the ego—a search that eventually led us to the venerable master of Ch'an Buddhism Sheng-yen. The word "ch'an" is the Chinese translation of the Indian term "dhyana," a Sanskrit word meaning meditation, and as Buddhism eventually spread from China to Japan, it was translated there as the term much more familiar to our Western ears: Zen. Sheng-yen, according to his most recent book, Subtle Wisdom, was initiated into Ch'an Buddhism at the age of thirteen when he left behind home and family to take up the robes of a novice in a Shanghai monastery, an austere and traditional temple that would be his home for the next six years. In 1949, however, a wind of revolution and change swept through China, and the Communist takeover of the mainland cut short his career as a young monk. Conscripted into the Nationalist army, Sheng-yen soon headed for Taiwan, and it was there, almost ten years later, that he experienced a powerful spiritual awakening at the age of twenty-eight. It was, he says, "the most important experience in my life up to that point." In a story that could have been taken from the pages of classic Zen literature, the young Sheng-yen was on a brief sabbatical from the military, visiting local Ch'an teachers when, while up late one night meditating, he found himself sitting near an older man, also a guest of the monastery, who impressed Sheng-yen with his steady and peaceful demeanor. Asking the elderly monk if he would answer a question or two, Sheng-yen proceeded to pour out his heart for two hours, giving voice to all of the questions that no one had been able to help him with during his many years of spiritual practice. And at the end of each question, the monk, whom Sheng-yen would later find out was actually a revered Ch'an master, would simply ask, "Is that all?" Finally, Sheng-yen had exhausted his litany of questions and, in a moment of confusion, hesitated, not knowing what to do. Bang! The monk struck the platform they were sitting on and roared, "Take all of your questions and put them down! Who has all of these questions?" The effect on Sheng-yen was immediate and profound. "In that instant all of my questions were gone," he writes. "The whole world had changed. My body ran with perspiration but felt extraordinarily light. The person I had been was laughable. I felt like I had dropped a thousand-pound burden." The words of the Buddhist sutras [scriptures], which once seemed foreign and impenetrable, now came alive as Sheng-yen's own experience. "I understood them immediately, without explanation," he writes. "I felt as if they were my own words."

As fascinating and inspiring as this story is, what was most intriguing to us, from the perspective of our investigation of ego, was not the experience itself but the way Sheng-yen responded to it. In a time when it seems that so many, after similar experiences of profound awakening, have quickly assumed that the dangers of the ego have been forever left behind, Sheng-yen came to a very different conclusion. While knowing that his perspective on life had radically changed, he also recognized that his "vexations," or the character deficiencies arising from his own ego, had not disappeared and could, under the right circumstances, still cause him trouble. It was not time to rest or to teach, he decided—far from it. It was time to practice—to rededicate himself to spiritual purification with all of the resolve, inspiration and determination that this deep glimpse into his true nature had given him.

So with deepened faith in the reality of a life beyond the attachments of ego, Sheng-yen once again took up the robes of a bhiksu [monk], obtaining early release from his military duties. He began to study with a well-known Ch'an master named Tung-chu, who had earned a reputation as a very demanding teacher, even by the high standards of Ch'an. Tung-chu pushed Sheng-yen hard, one day challenging him to perform prostrations, and then days later reprimanding him for the same; telling him to write, and then tearing up his essays when they were completed; even going so far as instructing him to close up the door to his room just so he could create a new one in the opposite wall.

Grateful to have returned to his interrupted monkhood and discipleship, and for the freedom to devote himself full time to spiritual life, Sheng-yen pursued his spiritual practice with great intensity. On his own initiative, he eventually decided to begin a three-year solitary retreat high in the mountains of Taiwan. Living in a small cliff-top hut with no running water or electricity and subsisting on wild potato leaves that he grew himself in his backyard, he worked to uproot the deep vexations of his own mind, to bring the full power of the Buddhist dharma to bear upon his attachment to the ego. Beginning with a half-year of prostrations (doing one for each of the almost 80,000 characters in the Lotus Sutra) he then concentrated on sitting meditation and, in his spare time, wrote and completed two books on the Buddhist teachings. Three years later, feeling at home in the quiet calm of solitary practice but convinced that his efforts to cultivate freedom from "greed, anger, arrogance and ignorance" were still incomplete, he decided to double the time of his retreat, extending to a total of six years this period of seclusion, contemplation, practice and study.

It was after he emerged from this second retreat that Sheng-yen began to feel that the time was right for him to take up the mantle of a Ch'an teacher in his own right and spread the Buddhist dharma. But having long been troubled by the extreme lack of education he had often seen among the monks and nuns of Taiwan, he first set out to obtain the formal schooling that he himself had never received during his years of retreat and practice. He headed for Japan and attended a university there, immersing himself in the subtle intricacies of the Buddhist dharma, earning a doctorate in Buddhist philosophy and, in the process, studying with well-known teachers from almost all the major schools of Japanese Zen. Later, accepting an invitation from a Buddhist association in the United States, he headed for the unfamiliar territory of America, where he launched a teaching career that would grow rapidly until it eventually encompassed communities of students from both the West and the Far East.

Currently Master Sheng-yen resides primarily in Taiwan but spends several months each year visiting his centers in the United States. As the founder of a liberal arts college near Taipei as well as several monasteries and meditation centers, the author of more than ninety books in ten different languages, a lineage holder in the two major schools of Ch'an Buddhism and personal spiritual guide to thousands of devoted students, Sheng-yen is a master who wears the threads of a great many responsibilities in the fabric of his simple monk's robe. He is credited by some for sparking a revival of Chinese Buddhism, a tradition that is today in exile from its home country—a place where Sheng-yen may visit but cannot teach and where an illicit underground network is the only way to distribute Buddhist literature to the population. In a role that has some similarities to that of H.H. the Dalai Lama, Sheng-yen has spent much of his life working hard to help save and invigorate what was once an extraordinarily rich tradition, despite its continuing oppression in the very homeland where it first blossomed more than a thousand years ago.

Morinaga Soko, in writing about the lessons learned during his ordeal outside the Zen monastery where he became a monk, states, "Until you have subjected yourself to some discipline, you should not put too much faith in your own willpower. When I saw my own will crumbling at the monastery entrance, I suddenly felt I understood the reason for niwazume. As one crouches by the bench on the dirt floor, one's resolve is put to the test time and time again. . . . At the entrance to the monastery, I had learned the meaning of the courage which has its roots in faith and which remains undaunted whenever resistance is encountered." It doesn't take more than a cursory look at the spiritual life to recognize that to truly free oneself from the fetters of the ego takes courage, determination and resolve in no small measure. Sheng-yen, it seemed, was someone who had spent much of his life attempting to cultivate these very qualities. Indeed, he was a man who had been tested in the fire of the Zen path, who had given his heart and soul to a tradition that demands much of the spiritual aspirant and has a reputation for offering little if any quarter to the needs and concerns of the ego. So what would he, as a person who had truly lived and breathed the experiences most people only read about, have to say about this ancient enemy of the spiritual life? Would he be filled with the fire, intensity and passion for ego death that so many in his lineage have expressed down through the ages? Or would he, in his current role as a teacher and the public face of Buddhism to thousands of people around the world, be more palliative in his relationship to the ego, more accepting of those for whom the idea of ego death is going just a little too far and more accommodating to a Western spiritual culture in which the ego seems to have fallen from its preeminent position as the one and only obstacle between us and the gates of nirvana?

Sheng-yen talked with me one November afternoon on the second floor of his Queens, New York, meditation center. As the soft chanting of the Buddhist
sutras drifted up through the wooden floorboards from the room below us, we sat together and spoke through a translator for an hour.


Subscribe to What Is Enlightenment? magazine today and get 40% off the cover price.

Subscribe Give a gift Renew

This article is from
Our Ego Issue