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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Book Review, "Footprints in the Snow: The Autobiography of a Chinese Buddhist Monk."

Publicist Adrienne Biggs was kind enough to send me an advanced copy of the book, "Footprints in the Snow: The Autobiography of a Chinese Buddhist Monk." That monk being Ch'an Master Sheng Yen. The first thing that I was struck with in reading this book was how thoughtful and sensitive Master Sheng Yen is. He comes across in this book as a very kind person whom you'd enjoy listening to for hours and he has led a very eventful life being born to a poor farming family, joining the military, living in Taiwan and finally his monastic life. With a wonderful part on visiting Japan.

It was very fascinating for me to read his journey as a monk because I have always been curious about that life. I must say though that I was disturbed by some of the training techniques. His Master would make him do, undo and the redo things over and over, day after day. He made him stack, re-stack and then unstack a pile of bricks for days on end. He also berated him with (what seems to my unenlightened mind) unproductive criticism such as calling him stupid and other insults that I would not expect from a Buddhist master.

Sheng Yen said that it taught him patience and that he needed to go through that to purify his karma but what of the karma of the Master? Is not that kind of violent speech accumulating negative karma for himself? I think there are better ways to teach patience but I'm not a monastic, nor a Master monk and I come from a western mind frame so perhaps I'm missing something. Perhaps Sheng Yen needed to go through that to pay off a karmic debt to his master from a past life? I don't know.

And yet he says in the book, "Religious experience is not enlightenment" so he does understand that no matter what the religious training we must ultimately realize enlightenment on our own.

Just one of the profound parts of the book occurs while Sheng Yen is in the military in Taiwan. He writes to one of his teachers, Master Nanting complaining that he has little freedom in the military and the Master relpies, "Who has freedom in this world? As long as there is the body, there is no freedom."

All in all though this book was a great read. It was neat to see the inner details of the monastic life in the Ch'an tradition. Sheng Yen writes with such beauty in his vivid descriptions and his attention to detail is amazing. He writes in a way that makes you feel as though you are reliving every bit of his life with him. The last few words of the book were perhaps the most profound for me, "Now it is time to let go."

~Peace to all beings~

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Dhamma81 said...

Your review of this book has got me interested. I agree with you that some of the training techniques that you describe his master as using on him seems pretty rough, but then again Chan or Zen has it's own methods I suppose.

They call him James Ure said...


It's a great read. I will enjoy reading it over and over. So many nuggets of wisdom, insight and beauty.

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