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.