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Book: Footprints in the Snow, by Chan Master Sheng Yen

Book: Footprints in the Snow
By Chan Master Sheng Yen
Reviewed by Brian Schell
Doubleday, 210 Pages, ISBN 978-0-385-51330-2
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Have you ever dreamed about becoming a Buddhist monk? I have. I’ve visited some of those temples, and can imagine living there, doing the daily work, chanting, meditation, and so forth. After reading this book, I see that my mental picture of it all may have been a bit rosy.

Footprints in the Snow is the autobiography of Sheng Yen, a Chan (“Chinese Zen”) Master. There are several biographies of the man in Chinese, but this is the first edition in English. Sheng Yen was born in an extremely poor farming family in the Chinese countryside. With few other options, he was taken by a family friend to the Wolf Mountain monastery, where he learned the basics of becoming a monk. He later moved on to Shanghai, but the war between the Communists and the Nationalists drove him to become a soldier-for-life in Taiwan. Eventually securing his freedom from the soldier’s life, he once again became a monk. After travels to Canada, the USA, and back to China, he finally became a Chan Master and one of those most influential Buddhists alive today. He combines his personal story with historical events, and we can see how political changes in China and Taiwan altered not only his life, but Buddhism in general.

I found this book hard to put down. I’m not usually a fan of biographies, but his easygoing writing style and obvious love of what he does makes every page enjoyable. Along with the story, the author explains a bit of Buddhist philosophy in a comfortable, jargon-free style that DailyBuddhism readers will appreciate. My favorite parts of the book, however, are his interactions with the monks and abbots of the various monasteries. Far from being the altruistic teachers and devoted worshippers we usually envision, he shows us the real picture. Many of the Chinese monks sell their services for money, they get into trouble with alcohol and women, there is “office politics” in the hierarchies, and so forth. The pettiness of some of the monks and abbots are shocking. One thing is clear though, in the monk’s world, everything revolves around money. Given that we stereotypically assume monks to be poor and penniless, above such financial concerns, the reality or monastery life is quite different.

He goes from poor farm boy to a monk, to a soldier, to an abbott, to a monk again, eventually becoming homeless and rising back to the top. All the way, he refines his teaching style and is attached to nothing. It’s a dramatic story, and there are some good educational bits on Buddhism scattered throughout. If you ever wanted to know about Monastery life, this is a must-read.

This one is going into my “Read it Again someday” pile.

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