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Sheng Yen  

Jimmy Yu

Narratives about important religious figures exist in a context, which often determines the portrayal of life events and activities in indirect and sometimes complex ways. These forms of persuasion come to us already theorized and theologized. It is important to read them carefully, contextualizing when they were written, paying particular attention to the purpose of how events and activities are presented with what primary sources and secondary studies. In describing the life and thought of the late Buddhist cleric Venerable Sheng Yen (1931–2009), arguably one of the most respected Chinese Buddhist masters of the 20th century, I use two autobiographies and a selection of secondary scholarship on modern Chinese history to counter his autobiographical narratives, highlighting the actual historical contingencies that might have shaped him and his vision for creating a modern form of Chan Buddhism. These contingencies include the trauma of natural disasters that displaced his family when he was born; the political instability of a war-torn China that shaped his boyhood; the tribulations of Japanese colonization that he witnessed; the volatile sociopolitical realities of the Communist takeover of China from which he was forced to escape; the industrial boom that impacted Taiwanese society and the mushrooming of local popular cultic traditions to which he responded with his creation of an orthodox Han Chinese Buddhism; and the socioreligious trajectories of different expressions of Buddhism that Sheng Yen was experiencing in China, Japan, Taiwan, and the United States. These events created in Sheng Yen a perpetual sense of crisis mentality; they also inspired his doctrinal and practice innovations and the establishment of a new lineage of Chan (Zen) Buddhism.