Passing on the lamp of wisdom: 2015

Passing on the lamp of wisdom: 2015                      Ken Zhang

It is hard to believe it has already been six years since master Sheng Yen’s passing on February 3, 2009. I remember it was in my sophomore year of college when I first heard the news of the passing of a great figure in modern Buddhism. At that time, I knew little of Master Sheng Yen and Dharma Drum Mountain, but had occasionally heard the name from Professor Jimmy Yu, who taught the “Zen Buddhism” class. That Tuesday, Professor Yu told us that he would be returning to Taiwan for his Shifu, Master Sheng Yen’s funeral preparations.  It was at this time that I started reading about Master Sheng Yen.

Every year around this time in February, we would gather to commemorate Shifu’s life and teachings. This year we gather on the 15th of February for the Passing on the Lamp of Wisdom ceremony and a one-day retreat. Although Shifu has passed, the embodiments of his wisdom and compassion live on. I have never met Shifu personally, but having benefited so much from his teachings and having heard so many stories about him, I am thankful to him. In that way, I think he still lives on in all of us. Every time we practice and use his teaching we are each commemorating him and celebrating his life, and so to be able to participate in this one-day retreat, I am grateful.

The one-day retreat was broken into four segments: Morning practice, lunch-practice, afternoon practice, and then the ceremony for passing the lamp of wisdom. Each practice segment consisted of an introduction to the methods and principles of meditation, the practice of 8-form moving mediation (yoga), and sitting mediation. The segments were broken up with a break and then mindful yoga to relax the body.  At the start of each segment, a video was played of Shifu giving a Dharma talk. Two videos were played, the first about “How to practice,” and the second “When and where to practice.”

The main question of the first video was “How to practice,” and Shifu’s answer was to be “relaxed, natural, and clear.” What that meant was before we apply methods of practice we should have a relaxed body, a natural breathing, and a clear mind. Only then should we apply our method of practice.  To reinforce this further, Venerable Chang Hui, in the Q&A session afterwards mentioned that even for experienced practitioners one has to go through this progression.  Venerable Chang Hui gave an example of this from her experience in a 49-day retreat, where the first 7 day were just focused on relaxing the body.

In the second video, Shifu explained “When and Where to practice.” My main take away from this Dharma talk was to not confine practice to just a narrow area of our life. The idea was to extend the mindset of “practice” to all avenues of daily life beyond sitting meditation and the Chan center.  To help do that, Shifu mentioned that it would be useful to pick five things that you do everyday and practice while doing those five things. Be it brushing your teeth, opening your car door, walking to your office, the first bite of a meal, or the first sip of tea everything can be considered “practice” if done with awareness and clarity of mind.

The day’s last event was the Passing of the lamp of wisdom. Each person would transmit a candle-lamp to the person next to them until all the participants in the room had a lamp. One lamp lights another and at the end, we all shared in the light of the flames. We then each made a vow, raised our lamps, and offered it back. In my mind, I think this was meant to signify how each of us had a role to play in propagating and keeping the lamp of wisdom alive. Our flame was received from someone else, likewise we share our flame with others, and as a result, we light the whole world with these flames of wisdom.  We receive and we give, our vows are then communal, achieved, shared, bettering the self and thereby bettering the whole.

The event was concluded with every participant receiving a copy of Shifu’s new book volume two of Zen & Inner peace. In all, this great event would not have been possible without the help of all the volunteers, the participants, and Venerable Chang Hui.