In his old age, Master Sheng Yen once identified himself as “Buddhist thought leader”. He considered himself not an academic nor a scholar but a religious thinker. Since Master Sheng Yen identified himself as a Buddhist thinker, the unique features of his interpretation and understanding of Buddhism are worth exploring. In this paper I try to analyze and discuss Master Sheng Yen’s exposition and integration of “emptiness” (śūnyatā) and “Buddha-nature” (Buddhatā).
The relationship between emptiness and Buddha-nature has been discussed extensively in the ancient Indian, Chinese, and Tibetan history of Buddhist thought, and there have been some reflections, and even debates, in modern academic circles. Here I focus on the views of Master Sheng Yen to see how he responds to this issue. In the beginning I introduce three positions in modern Chinese circle: firstly I take Master Tai Xu as an example to illustrate the viewpoint that the teaching on Buddha-nature is superior to the teaching on emptiness; secondly I take Master Yin Shun to illustrate the view that the teaching on emptiness is superior to the teaching on Buddha-nature; thirdly I introduce Mou Zong San’s viewpoint to present the view that the teachings on Buddha-nature and emptiness are distinct but complementary. Compared to the aforementioned views, Master Sheng Yen obviously has a different understanding. He suggests that Buddha-nature and emptiness are simply different ways of expressing the same idea.
Comparing the differences and similarities of his views with these contemporary thinkers, I wish to introduce Master Sheng Yen’s syncretic interpretation of emptiness and Buddha-nature to the Buddhist academic circle. I further analyze and comment on his viewpoints on Buddhist scriptures and arguments, not only illustrating the standpoints of a contemporary advocate of Chinese Buddhism, but also representing his unique form of syncretic thought.
Buddha-nature; Emptiness; Tai Xu; Yin Shun; Mou Zong San; Sheng Yen