THE SENSE of serenity monks are usually envied for did not come easily to Venerable Sheng Yen, the celebrated Taiwanese abbot who died last Tuesday, aged 80.
As a young monk, he hated memorising sutras. He found it depressing to see monks and nuns perform what he called “perfunctory rituals”.
He questioned incessantly the traditional practices of Buddhism until, he said, “I became a big ball of doubt.”
But you would not have known he had ever doubted his choice if you were lucky enough to meet Venerable Sheng Yen before he died.
Unfortunately I never got to meet him, like many of his devotees, which number over 1 million worldwide, but I was deeply moved by his writings.
Last month, in penning a poem for the Chinese New Year, he wrote only four words: “xin an, ping an”. The phrase means: “A quiet heart will bring peace.”
In his 2004 will, he wrote: “I’ve grown old busying in nothing. I cry, I laugh, so what? From the start, there is no ‘I’, so what of life and death.”
In his lifetime, Venerable Sheng Yen wrote over 90 books, which have been translated into a dozen languages.
Some will see Venerable Sheng Yen’s words as unrelated to modern society because every day precious lives are lost to religious jockeying.
Since the attacks on the United States’ World Trade Centre in 2001, Islam has become a decoy for terrorist activity. Wars in Iraq, Afganistan; and between Hamas and Israel, rage on.
It is what Mr K Kesavapany, director of Singapore’s Institute of South-east Asian Studies, has called an “angry intercourse” between religions.
But I found Venerable Sheng Yen’s words especially relevant, though I may be called naive for thinking so.
I believe that religion misses the point when it is used as a political tool.
Shakespeare made the same point about love, when in King Lear he wrote: “Love’s not love when it is mingled with regards that stands aloof from the entire point.”
So it is with religion.
Venerable Sheng Yen, who had kidney disease, was best-known for promoting Zen, or Ch’an, Buddhism – a branch of the religion that emphasizes the practice of meditation.
Many of his devotees I interviewed spoke of his simple ways.
He requested, among other things, that no monument be erected in his name. His ashes will be buried in a garden next week.
Despite being hailed as one of the world’s most significant leaders in Zen Buddhism – he was a keynote speaker in a United Nations’ Religious Summit in 2000 – he continually referred himself as “an ordinary person living a monastic life.”
He devoted his life to self-reflection, humility and writing – and won over a million fans as a result.
That, to me, is a mark of a true leader – one who leads by example and self-improvement – no matter which god you pray to.