Born in Malaysia, Venerable Chi Chern was ordained as a Buddhist monk by elderly Master Zhu Mo in Penang. Two years after his ordination, he traveled to Taiwan to further his studies of Buddhadharma in the Fo Guang Buddhist College.
In 1980, at the age of 25, he participated in four consecutive seven-day retreats with Master Sheng Yen (Shifu), twice as a retreatant and twice as a volunteer. After the retreats, he stayed behind to fast in Wen Hua Guan (the Buddhist institute where the retreats were held). During his stay, Shifu took good care of him in a subtle manner, showing no overt concern to avoid fostering a sense of dependency.
"There were only about 20 to 30 practitioners at the retreats. Shifu devoted himself completely to taking care of us, who were to an extent just ignorant, over-aged kids." He said, "At that time, Shifu was at his peak physically and mentally. I could sense his strong energy which generated a very tight atmosphere in the Chan Hall."
"During the retreats, in addition to his constant prodding with huatou, Shifu used inciting words to provoke our emotions and pressed us to tears during prostrations.
"While fast walking, we were asked to investigate into the huatou 'Who is dragging a corpse around?' Shifu raised his voice like a lion roar and used the incense stick to demand that we answer the huatou. The phrase 'dragging a corpse around' is such a nasty description. It was very hard to withstand the intensity generated by it. Shifu was forcing us to enter into the mass of doubt."
Under close guidance from Shifu and with the maturity of conditions, Venerable Chi Chern opened up the mind's eye. It happened in an instant and he was in tears of joy.
"This sensation was like seeking in a dark and cloudy night with no stars and moon. All of a sudden a stroke of lightning appeared. In that instant, one has a glimpse of the path and destination. Though not completely lucid, the impression was there." Venerable Chi Chern vividly recollected those moments.
Shifu wanted him to go out of the hall and look at the world again. "There is no difference but I could see that the trees and grasses were more lovely. I no longer just stepped recklessly in the grasslands."
"Shifu helped me to gain a genuine experience of Buddhadharma. I had a heart-felt understanding of the verse: Devoting one's body and mind to serve in worlds as numerous as dust, that, is truly repaying the kindness and benevolence of the Buddha."
After receiving Shifu's confirmation, Venerable Chi Chern returned to Malaysia and taught intensive mediation classes. As of the experience of 'seeing the nature,' he said "It was a very powerful energy. As a result of that, my understandings and experiences of Buddhadharma flow forth directly from my heart. I told my students that this kind of experience is real."
In order to spread the teachings to more people, Venerable Chi Chern returned to Taiwan to visit Shifu in 1986. Shifu bestowed transmission to him in the meditation room, giving him the lineage Dharma name "Chuan Xian Jian Mi" (Seeing the esoteric, transmitting the exoteric). Shifu advised him to continue his practice with a huatou, warning him that although he had experienced a deeper taste of the practice, it was not firm enough. Shifu emphasized that there is a need for practitioners who have genuine practice and genuine understanding to teach the Chan Dharma. One must also have a firm and pure faith, as well as vows. Shifu encouraged Venerable Chi Chern to continue his own cultivation of the body and mind in addition to teaching the Dharma.
Heeding the advise of Shifu, Venerable Chi Chern returned to Malaysia to conduct seven-day retreats. In the 90s, he returned to the Nong Chan Monastery in Taiwan for a seven-day retreat to deepen his own practice. He felt profoundly that the deeper one gets into the practice of Chan, the simpler and more placid it becomes. A tea lover, Venerable Chi Chern called himself a "tea monk." Making a connection between tea drinking and the understanding of Buddhadharma, he described that particular retreat as a well brewed pot of tea. He commented, "If the tea is truly good, one doesn't have to worry that it is plain and light in flavour." A good tea will always leave an endless and timeless taste.