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: A Monk’s Inner Journey in ‘Wandering… But Not Lost’

Film Review: A Monk’s Inner Journey in ‘Wandering… But Not Lost’

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: ‘Wandering… But Not Lost’ is a documentary about Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche’s solitary journey in India and Nepal as he explored different terrains and places while centred on his awareness. 

Last year, I bought a book by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche titled In Love With the World. The book chronicles his experience wandering through India and Nepal as a way to practice mindfulness. Mingyur Rinpoche had for a long time intended to go away quietly for a personal three-year retreat in the world and finally realized it in 2011. This book on his journey is now translated into a visual form in the documentary Wandering… But Not Lost.

The book is not so much a travelogue into the different Indian and Nepali provinces but about the monk’s inner journey. Although his body is moving from place to place, there is the reminder for us to keep recollecting our awareness, like he did, no matter where we are and what we are doing.

As a tulku, Mingyur Rinpoche was born into privilege in the monastic aristocracy of Tibetan Buddhism. A tulku is a reincarnated lineage holder in Tibetan Buddhism, who as a child is raised and taught by students of his predecessor to be groomed into a teacher of Buddhist scriptures and meditation to continue the tradition and practice. With all these identities and expectations put upon him, Mingyur Rinpoche wanted to discover his true mind by letting go of all of his privileges and identities. He sought to do so by living as a wandering yogi.  

Mingyur Rinpoche has been teaching internationally to both the monastic and lay community before he brought his plan for solitary retreat into fruition.

Heeding his late father’s advice, Mingyur Rinpoche slipped away in the middle of the night out of his home monastery – Tegar Monastery in Bodh Gaya to take a train to Varanasi, without anyone’s notice.

All Buddhist traditions practice mindfulness retreats but each may do it differently due to various cultures and environments. In Tibetan Buddhism, monks usually retreat to a remote cave to practice solitary meditation for a few years. He is tended to by an attendant who will help him with his basic necessities such as food. As a tulku, Mingyur Rinpoche had his taste of a solitary retreat in a cave, but not out in the world on his own. He had been inspired by the likes of Shakyamuni Buddha and Milarepa

At the start of the adventure, the young abbot faced challenges immediately at the train station. He had not been used to handling money as his attendant was always the one buying tickets for him. He bought a ticket to the lowest class cabin, which he was also unaccustomed to. He sat amongst the crowd and meditated to the sound of the train and was mindful of his aversion towards the body odours found in every corner.

The real test came when Mingyur Rinpoche ran out of the few thousand rupees he brought along with him when he was at Kushinagar.

Kushinagar was the place where the Buddha entered parinibbana. It was also the place Mingyur Rinpoche nearly died. He fell ill from food poisoning, having begged for his first meal at a stall he once frequented. Debating whether to call for help or to allow things to be, Mingyur Rinpoche chose the latter and sat weakly against a wall to meditate on awareness.

The documentary features majestic views of the Himalayan mountains and valleys, as well as Indian and Nepali holy sites as Mingyur Rinpoche travelled and ate by depending on the kindness of others. The film included interviews with him about how he faced challenges by reminding himself to pay attention to awareness. Mingyur Rinpoche added that most people meditate to gain the feelings of peace. But the true purpose of meditation is to see awareness itself. He described awareness as a diamond sitting within us waiting to be discovered. But all we see are the coloured backgrounds that the diamond is placed against.

Mingyur Rinpoche’s journey took a turn for the better after his near-death experience in Kushinagar.

His body became weak, but his awareness brightened and expanded. He felt he was everywhere but yet nowhere. Saved by a retreatant on a pilgrimage in India at Kushinagar, Mingyur Rinpoche recovered from the food poisoning episode and emerged with joy and freedom as he wandered the streets and the mountains, feeling at home everywhere he went.

The documentary is a reminder for us to pay attention to the diamond within us. We can be in the city and our hearts are in the mountains. Or we can be in the mountains and our hearts in the city. But wherever our bodies may go, it is our awareness that is the real beauty against the backdrops of our own lives. 

Watch the Trailer before you book your tickets!


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