Film Review: Master Sheng Yen – A Life Story

Film Review: Master Sheng Yen – A Life Story

Buddhist Film Reviews is a partnership series between HOL & THIS Buddhist Film Festival 2021 (25 Sept – 8 Oct’21). Themed “Open your mind”, THISBFF 2021 features 15 thought-provoking documentaries and feature films from 12 countries. 


TLDR: Paying homage to Master Sheng Yen and his movement to revive  Ch’an (禅) Buddhist practice in Taiwan, the United States and around the world, the documentary paints a beautiful portrait of Master’s selfless life a decade after his passing in 2009.

If you had heard of Master Sheng Yen and his teachings, do you know how he came to be?

A saying goes, ‘still water runs deep’. Master Sheng Yen’s life story unfolds into many onerous chapters unknown to most. 

A posthumous biographic documentary, Master Sheng Yen (Chinese title: 本来面目) details his early years of ordination, the peak of his monastic life, its challenges, and his final efforts of serving Buddha’s dispensation. 

The title of the documentary alludes to the quote from The Sixth Patriarch Venerable Hui Neng in The Sixth Patriarch Sutra, 「不思善不思恶,正与么时,那个是明上座本来面目?」 This question was posed to Venerable Hui Ming, who realised enlightenment thereafter. It roughly translates to “without considering the good nor the bad, what is your original face?” Master Sheng Yen has used this ko-an to discuss the true nature of one’s heart in his teaching

To make up for the lack of intimate interviews with Master, the producer reconstructs Master’s personality and demeanour through animation, archival photographs, audio and video recordings, as well as extracts from letters and publications. Interviews of Master Sheng Yen’s disciples and acquaintances help us see Master as a humble teacher and striving monastic from their eyes.

Against the backdrop of socio-political turmoil and modernisation, the documentary tells an impeccable narrative of Master Sheng Yen’s life through the suitable use of black-white historical archives and re-enactments. 

Through the documentary, the audience traces the historical forces that shaped Master’s compassionate outlook and disenchantment towards the world. Notwithstanding the school of life, Master Sheng Yen was apprenticed under a lineage of Ch’an and Zen teachers, who were formidable in their practice. 

The nuggets of wisdom crystallised from Master Sheng Yen’s life experiences were offered together with pastel motifs of impermanence – albeit their screen times as fleeting as snowflakes. The scenes and delivery of content are ever-changing as with life – no one moment can be repeated like a running stream. Aptly, the cinematography takes on a sense of detachment – observing, looking on to the emptiness beneath.

How did the documentary make me feel? 

I felt encouraged about Master Sheng Yen’s tireless efforts to revive Ch’an Buddhism after the purging of religion from the Cultural Revolution. Watching the documentary helped me reflect that I have taken his compassionate teachings for granted.

I was never once bored because of the different types of sources and media used in delivering Master Sheng Yen’s story. At any point in time, I feel immersed in that particular decade with Master Sheng Yen when he was making difficult choices to practice in line with the Dhamma and to benefit sentient beings.

What was the most memorable scene? 

It was an interview snippet when Master Sheng Yen reminisced with the founding president of the Buddhist Society of the United States, Mr Shen. The latter drew an analogy where the Master was a field of merits and Mr Shen merely sowed in that field.

Hearing this, Master Sheng Yen broke down into sobs.

It was then that I realised the extent to which Master Sheng Yen had experienced life’s bitterness was one which no one could fathom, yet he remained such a hopeful pillar of support to his disciples.

What did I like about the documentary? 

It pieces together a Master Sheng Yen I did not know and it helps me to appreciate what he stood for and the contribution he has made for Ch’an Buddhism. 

I grew up learning about Master Sheng Yen’s teachings but I never understood who exactly was the monk who taught them — he was a man of calibre and honourable virtues; and definitely, a man of perseverance.

He was there in front of me throughout the documentary – his presence alive and piercing into my consciousness with light and wisdom.

What did I not like so much about the movie? 

There were a few quotes that flew by quite quickly. At the end, there were some text describing the development of Dharma Drum Mountain but the words may have been small and quick to pass over. Perhaps, I am a slow myopic reader and it is time for me to change my spectacles.

Who would I recommend this for? 

Anyone who knows Master Sheng Yen and who wants to learn from his life and his life’s works. This is a well-researched documentary – both educating and contemplative.


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Film Review:  Saffron Heart – A Little Monk Finding Home (PG)

Film Review: Saffron Heart – A Little Monk Finding Home (PG)

Buddhist Film Reviews is a partnership series between HOL & THIS Buddhist Film Festival 2021 (25 Sept – 8 Oct’21). Themed “Open your mind”, THISBFF 2021 features 15 thought-provoking documentaries and feature films from 12 countries. 


TLDR: A young monk is tasked to solve a series of puzzles in order to return home, but discovers something else in the process. 

The definition of ‘home’ changes throughout one’s life. Whether we consider it synonymous to the place, people, or just a sense of safety and security, ‘home’ may be where the heart is – but even the most permanent residences are inevitably transitory in nature.

It is a lesson young Lobsang learns as he is sent to a Buddhist monastery at the tender age of ten. Uprooted from home and thrust into an unfamiliar environment, he quickly finds himself missing his home and his parents, and that yearning turns into several failed attempts at escaping the monastery.

In response, his compassionate teacher draws him a map-quest consisting of a series of eight puzzles that upon solving would allow Lobsang to return home.

“Why do deers need an umbrella?”

“How do you hide a lion’s roar in a pot?”

“What is the difference between two identical fishes?”

Crafted in relation to the Eight Auspicious Signs in Tibetan Buddhism, each puzzle guides Lobsang towards a piece of Buddhist wisdom, with the young monk’s curiosity soon taking him around the monastery and out. Experimenting with meditation. Scouring dense forests and packed libraries. Even having a brush with the supernatural. Lobsang’s adventure is laced with philosophical questions on suffering and attachment, yet because of its colourful analogies, the lessons he takes away are accessible and creative takes on the Buddha’s teachings. 

Filled with inquisitive questions on every encounter, Lobsang ensures that the audience tags closely along when it comes to learning and growth.

The film takes place in Drepung Gomang Monastery in Mundgod, India, where 2000 monks currently reside. Giving us a glimpse into the everyday lives of Tibetan monks living in India, from hours of chanting and reading, to the unorthodox practice of Buddhist debate in Tibetan Buddhism, life as a monk centred heavily on education for these young men, covering not just academic texts but also philosophical discourses on logic and conceptualisation. 

Yet, practice for them also extends into laborious tasks like washing robes and kneading dough, dispelling any myths about how easy monkhood might be for Lobsang and any unknowing viewer. 

After all, renunciation for them was not meant to be an escape from the monotony of life, but to study life itself so they can share their knowledge and wisdom with others.

Beyond the Buddhist lessons, Saffron Heart is at heart also a story of friendship. 

Throughout the 90-minute film, we see a blossoming relationship between Lobsang and his senior novice monk Tashi, who was assigned to guide him along. Though the exposition in dialogue was at times lengthy, Lobsang and Tashi’s natural chemistry made them an endearing pair to watch and root for on their individual journeys of growth.

While the song choices for some scenes felt out of place at times, the cinematography was stellar throughout the film. Capturing Mundgod’s scenic mountainous landscapes and Drepung Gomang’s intricate architecture, any frame in Saffron Heart would not be out of place as a still. 

Despite Lobsang’s initial feelings of entrapment and longing for home, the mise-en-scene of scenes in the movie conveys a sense of spaciousness throughout the film. Living a completely different life in our concrete jungle here in Singapore, it made me wonder about the parallels between freedom, our environment and the states of mind.  

The debut feature film of filmmaker and music composer Paul McLay, Saffron Heart comes from simple motivations: a desire to help and to inspire. Channelling all proceeds from the film towards Tibetan refugees living in a conservation area in South India, the effort to raise funds for the displaced parallels the film’s central narrative of finding wisdom amidst adversity and change. 

Framed in a way that is suitable for all ages – from kids curious about Buddhism, to adults looking for a heart-warming tale – Saffron Heart serves as a reminder that as we go about our personal journeys, it’s not the destination but the process that serves as our biggest takeaway.


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Film Review: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (M18: Mature Theme)

Film Review: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (M18: Mature Theme)

Buddhist Film Reviews is a partnership series between HOL & THIS Buddhist Film Festival 2021 (25 Sept – 8 Oct’21). Themed “Open your mind”, THISBFF 2021 features 15 thought-provoking documentaries and feature films from 12 countries. 


TLDR: Comparing the lives of an old monk and his young apprentice, this film reflects on simplicity, love, and a life’s journey

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring is a beautiful Korean movie that reflects on our life’s journey, the choices we make, and subsequent consequences.  The movie is set in a temple floating upon a tranquil lake in the middle of an untouched forest. It revolves around two main characters: an old monk and his young apprentice.  They sustain themselves by gathering herbs from nature, engaging in simple chores, and recitation of suttas or Buddhist scriptures. 

Watching the young apprentice living his youth in such peaceful surroundings in comparison to our bustling days, I thought surely, he would be much happier than us?  

After all, we are constantly seeking that “peaceful” place, somewhere where we can be one with ourselves, and achieve the happiness that can be so elusive. 

The Four Seasons

Through this movie, director Kim Ki-duk leads us through a comparison between the lives of the old monk and his young apprentice.  As the season changes into years, both individuals are transformed.  The young apprentice experienced various emotions as he grew from a child to a man.  As Kim Ki-duk says, “I think that a human being’s life is very similar to the four seasons. The four seasons all have very different characters”.  

What we see in this film is that in each phase of our lives, or as our mind changes, we also begin to form certain views, emotions, and actions.  An example is a young apprentice who began to develop a physical attraction to a young girl.  As he drew away from monkhood and entered the lay life in pursuit of his “love” subject which he believes would bring him happiness, his desires eventually drove him to commit a crime.  With the police hot on his heels and his heart like burning coal, he decided to return to the temple of his youth.

The World Of Men

Here, we are shown a comparison of the old monk who has lived in simplicity all those years, unperturbed by external distractions.  Despite physical struggles with his ageing body and a solitary life with nothing more than a cat as a company since the young apprentice left, the old monk remains calm throughout the film.  He also dispenses short teachings of wisdom, to cool his apprentice’s feverish heart. 

“Didn’t you know beforehand how the world of men is? Sometimes we have to let go of the things we like. What you like, others will also like.”

Letting go of desires is a key teaching in Buddhism.  And though this film mainly depicts two monks, I doubt the director is sending us a message to leave all our loved ones behind, shave our heads and live in a secluded temple. 

Instead, my understanding of the movie and its simple similes through the scenes is that peace and happiness are not found outside, but are simply a state of mind.  

Stone In Your Heart

If we let our lust and anger dictate our minds, we may make regrettable choices.  These choices do not just affect those around us, but they can become a heavy burden in our hearts. 

“You will carry the stone in your heart for the rest of your life”.  This was one of the old monk’s first wise teachings at the beginning of the film.  As the story nears its closing,  we see that the young apprentice who is now in his middle age has begun to understand an important thing; although he may not be able to undo the wrong he has committed in the past, forgiveness and patience are the key factors to finding peace in his heart again.  This was shown as he hauled a heavy rock up a hill, and when it finally came to a rest, his face was both clear and serene.

With this film, do not expect much drama.  In fact, there are barely any lengthy dialogues.  There are no special effects or tear-jerking moments.

 I expected to be bored, but as the film progressed,  I found to my surprise a spiritual depth to the movie reminding me to let go, forgive and be patient as I find happiness through the four seasons of my life. 


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