A monk’s tale of misery leading to freedom.
In straightforward prose, Sheng Yen (Orthodox Chinese Buddhism, 2007, etc.) relates his odyssey from hand-to-mouth childhood in 1930s China to lecturing around the world as a premier Chan (or Zen) Buddhist scholar. Becoming a monk was anything but simple for the author, who lived through a time when Buddhist monasteries in China were frequently destroyed. He weaves his personal story of religious yearning and perseverance into a backdrop of political and social turmoil. He was a 19-year-old monk in training when the communist takeover forced him to flee the idyllic life he’d only begun to cherish. He landed in the nationalist army in Taiwan, an unlikely and ill-fitting job for a man who had pledged to avoid harming sentient beings. Nourished by his early training and the few Buddhist texts he could acquire, Sheng Yen began writing religious essays for an influential, necessarily underground Buddhist periodical called Humanity. He steadily built a reputation under the pen name “World-Awakening General.” After years of postponing his calling because of political circumstances, he finally made it out of the army in 1960 and entered a monastery to study Chan Buddhism under a particularly wily, demanding master. Once he learned to stop questioning the unpredictable and exasperating tasks his master assigned, he began a period of seclusion, finally gaining access to the copious library of Buddhist scholarship for which he had longed. His first-person account of China’s communist revolution focuses on practical details, favoring descriptions of meals, clothing and brief encounters over sweeping theoretical generalizations. Although the account unfolds in a charmingly unsophisticated way, its best audience would be those already knowledgeable about Buddhism and familiar with Sheng Yen’s work, for he spares little time explaining rituals and beliefs.
A moving, simple spiritual autobiography.