Born near Shanghai, he became a Buddhist monk at the age of 13. He went to Taiwan in 1949, and from 1961 to 1968 he trained in solitary retreat. He studied for a master's degree (1971) and doctorate (1975) in Buddhist literature in Japan.
He became abbott of Nung Ch'an Monastery in Taiwan in 1979 and founded of the Institute of Chung-Hwa Buddhist Culture in New York City in 1980. In 1985, he founded the Institute of Chung-Hwa Buddhist Culture in Taipei and the International Cultural and Educational Foundation of Dharma Drum Mountain in 1989.
He has been teaching in the United States since 1980, and has established Dharma Drum Center at Queens, New York, and its retreat center outside New York. He also has visited many countries in Europe, as well as continuing his teaching in several Asian countries, in particular Taiwan. In this way his work has helped to bridge East and West and convey the Dharma to the West. He is known as a skillful teacher who has helped many of his students to reach enlightenment mostly through HuaTo meditation. Master Sheng-yen has given dharma transmission to several of his lay Western students, such as John Crook. His health has been quite poor since the past couple of years, although he still gave lectures at several retreats at Taiwan. He has declined kidney transplant, stating that he does not expect to live for long, and he would rather save the chance for others who need it.