A Whole World Flower Blooms

This talk was given at Nam Hwa Sah Temple, China

The whole world is a single flower. What does that mean? Twenty five hundred years ago, Buddha stayed at Yeong Sahn Mountain. One day, in front of an assembly, he picked up a flower. Nobody understood; only Mahakasyapa smiled. Buddha said, “The all-pervading true dharma I transmit to Mahakasyapa.”

Eight hundred years later, Bodhidharma came to China. The emperor of China, Emperor Yan, asked Bodhidharma, “I havemade almost infinite temples, I have made almost infinite robes and kasas for monks. How much merit have I earned?” Bodhidharma said, “No merit.” Buddha’s flower had infinite merit, but what is the true teaching in this flower of Buddha? Bodhidharma said, “Only don’t know.”

Three hundred years later, the Sixth Patriarch said, “Originally there is nothing, where can you find dust?”

So Buddha’s holding up one flower, Bodhidharma’s don’t know, and the Sixth Patriarch’s originally nothing, where is dust… those three, are they the same or different?

If somebody says that they are the same… this stick will hit them thirty times.

If somebody says that they are different, this stick will also hit them thirty times.

Why is that?

The sky is blue and water is flowing. Today at Nam Hwa Sah, this whole world flower has blossomed.

This world is changing all the time. The last time we came here, three years ago, we noticed that the roads were not so good, and that Shaoguan, the city near here, was not very developed. This time, we cannot help but notice that the roads are very well constructed, and there are many new high buildings in the town. This gives us evidence that China is growing up, developing, and becoming a modern society. I have been traveling all over the world, and I have seen the development of many different countries. No other country has demonstrated the kind of rapid development, and change in people’s minds, that I see today in China. This makes me very happy.

However, this outside environment does not necessarily mean that our minds are becoming pure. Many temples have been reconstructed, many new temples have been built, many congregations are forming and people are attending temples again. I hope that people continue to come to these temples, learn sutras and do chanting, also do meditation, attain their true selves, and become teachers for all human beings. We have gathered here from all over the world to recognize that Nam Hwa Sah has a very important role to play in this matter. I sincerely hope that the people gathered here from many different countries attain the Sixth Patriarch’s “originally nothing” and help this world.

Everyone can see that our world is not clear. There are many, many problems. Why? On this earth, the human population has suddenly exploded. Before the end of World War II, the whole population of this planet was less than two billion people. Today, the population of this earth has increased to five-and-a-half billion people. Over many thousands of years on this planet we only reached a population of two billion people, but in fifty years it has increased by three and a half billion people. In this short span of time, the minds of human beings as a whole have become less human and have become more animal-like. If we cannot fix the animal mind inside ourselves, then how can we expect to achieve world peace, how can we expect to make the whole world a single flower?

Starting from here, we need to fix this world, make this world a better place. The Buddha taught us a special mantra for cleansing our minds and purifying this world. This mantra is “Jong Bop Gye Jin On Om Nam.” Let’s all together try Om Nam. By doing this mantra we cleanse our minds. By cleansing our minds, we can cleanse the whole world. So hold your hands together in hapchang, and together we will do the Om Nam mantra.

Om Nam Om Nam Om Nam Om Nam Om Nam…

Thank you. This world is now becoming a better place. This world is becoming clearer. Attaining world peace has now begun at Nam Hwa Sah temple.

Always the sky is blue, and the water is always flowing down, down to the ocean.

Thank you very much.

e Whole Universe is Plastic

One Sunday, while Seung Sahn Soen-sa was staying at the International Zen Center of New York, there was a big ceremony marking the end of one hundred days of chanting Kwanseum Bosal. Many Korean women came, with shopping bags full of food and presents. One woman brought a large bouquet of plastic flowers, which she presented smilingly to an American student of Soen-sa’s. As soon as he could, the student hid the flowers under a pile of coats. But soon, another woman found them and, with the greatest delight, walked into the Dharma Room and put them in a vase on the altar.

The student was very upset. He went to Soen-sa and said, “Those plastic flowers are awful. Can’t I take them off the altar and dump them somewhere?’

Soen-sa said, “It is your mind that is plastic. The whole universe is plastic.”

The student said, “What do you mean?”

Soen-sa said, “Buddha said, ‘When one mind is pure, the whole universe is pure; when one mind is tainted, the whole universe is tainted.’ Every day we meet people who are unhappy. When their minds are sad, everything that they see, hear, smell, taste, and touch is sad. The whole universe is sad. When the mind is happy, the whole universe is happy. If you desire something, then you are attached to it. If you reject it, you are just as attached to it. Being attached to a thing means that it becomes a hindrance in your mind. So ‘I don’t like plastic’ is the same as ‘I like plastic’ — both are attachments. You don’t like plastic flowers, so your mind has become plastic, and the whole universe is plastic. Put it all down. Then you won’t be hindered by anything. You won’t care whether the flowers are plastic or real, whether they are on the altar or in the garbage pail. This is true freedom. A plastic flower is just a plastic flower. A real flower is just a real flower. You mustn’t be attached to name and form.”

The student said, “But we are trying to make a beautiful Zen center here, for all people. How can I not care? Those flowers spoil the whole room.”

Soen-sa said, “If somebody gives real flowers to Buddha, Buddha is happy. If somebody else likes plastic flowers and gives them to Buddha, Buddha is also happy. Buddha is not attached to name and form, he doesn’t care whether the flowers are real or plastic, he only cares about the person’s mind. These women who are offering plastic flowers have very pure minds, and their action is Bodhisattva action. Your mind rejects plastic flowers, so you have separated the universe into good and bad, beautiful and ugly. So your action is not Bodhisattva action. Only keep Buddha’s mind. Then you will have no hindrance. Real flowers are good; plastic flowers are good. This mind is like the great sea, into which all waters flow — the Hudson River, the Charles River, the Yellow River, Chinese water, American water, clean water, dirty water, salt water, clear water. The sea doesn’t say, ‘Your water is dirty, you can’t flow into me.’ It accepts all waters and mixes them and all become sea. So if you keep the Buddha mind, your mind will be like the great sea. This is the great sea of enlightenment.”

The student bowed and said, “I am very grateful for your teaching.”

The Whole Universe Is Medicine

July 1, 1980

Dear Soen Sa Nim,

It would be wonderful if you please could answer this letter before my letter of about a week ago.

Life has put a task on my way and I am very glad to feel I want and I can be of help. A short time ago I met a man of my age. We liked each other from the very beginning and it was good to be with someone who in his way is clear, open, warm, brave and understanding. Today I got a letter from him telling me that he would like to learn about Zen. He asked how to handle a situation like his and mine, asking what he could do for me, because he is fighting a cancer in his kidneys, lungs, and bones.

He has already done enough for me because he is the way he is. My job in the office is finished in three weeks time and I have no obligations. And I can manage as a temporary for a long time, as it looks now. This gives me the chance to serve and learn from a person I dearly like.

I have reread your letters to me. What can I do, apart from trying to express that we are not our body, when pain is getting hard? My friend wrote that he still often feels well — I had not noticed anything of his illness — but that the pain sometimes is devilish. He seems to hope that I, who have mentioned that I have been sitting for fourteen years now, have some yogi-knowledge. True, I can take away a headache for friends but bone cancer I happen to know is terribly painful. If you can think of anything to tell me for my friend’s sake, I would be very glad.

One hundred and eight bows to you. Thank you so much for your teaching.

Sincerely, yours in the Dharma,


July 21, 1980

Dear Ingrid,

Thank you for your letter. How are you and your friends?

In your letter you said a new task has appeared — helping your friend who has cancer who wants to learn about Zen. That’s a little difficult But a bad situation is a good situation. A good situation is a bad situation. You must understand that. A bad situation forces you to find the correct way. In a good situation it is very easy to get attached to good and begin to make bad karma. So we say a bad situation is a good situation and a good situation is a bad situation.

You and your friend can use this difficult situation to find the correct way, truth, and correct life. But be very careful! Originally there is no life, no death. If you want life, or you want anything, you are already dead. Wanting life will only make more suffering and a living hell.

Put down all your understanding and don’t check your condition and situation; then already you are complete. That, we say, is primary point. Which is no life, no death; no coming, no going; no high, no low; no good no bad; no holy, no unholy. We say that is the absolute. If you attain that, then you must make this primary point function correctly and make your life correct and then help other people. We call that Great Love, Great Compassion and the Great Bodhisattva Way.

You already understand that. But, in looking at your letter, I find you are holding your understanding, also holding your feelings, a little bit. If when you are doing something you completely do it, then the little bit that you are holding your feelings and understanding will completely disappear; then you can see, you can hear, you can smell — all, just like this, is the truth.

Your friend has three kinds of cancer. That is the human route. Suffering is the truth. Also pain is the correct way. Cause and effect are very clear: your friend’s previous karma has already been determined, so by natural process his sickness appears. Only correct practicing can change this natural process. Then maybe his cancer will disappear. Even if it doesn’t disappear, worrying is not necessary; it cannot help. Only go straight, try, try, try, for 10,000 years, nonstop. If you keep this mind, moment to moment, you are perfectly complete, for infinite time. Then everything is no problem.

Here is another kong-an for you: (Blue Cliff Record case #87)

Yun Men, teaching his assembly, said, “Medicine and disease cure each other. The whole universe is medicine; what is your True Self?”

So sickness, medicine, and your True Self — are they the same or different? Tell me, tell me! If you don’t understand, only go straight, don’t know, O.K.?

I hope you only go straight, don’t know, which is clear like space, help your friends and find the correct way, truth, and correct life, get Enlightenment, and save all people from suffering.

Yours in the Dharma,

S. S.

Who is it that Sees these Leaves?

A Student wrote to Zen Master Seung Sahn:

In the Fall, there are leaves on the ground. If they are on a lawn, someone may come out of a house and sweep them into little piles. In the afternoon the wind comes and blows all the leaves away. Many people become mad at the wind. Some may go out again and sweep the scattered leaves into new piles. But again, the wind comes and sweeps them away. Then what work must be done?

As to your kong-an; ‘The tree has no roots,’ I ask you, ‘If the tree has no roots then how can it stand?’

Zen Master Seung Sahn replied:

If a person goes outside and stays with leaves and wind and people, he cannot find his way back home. Why are you attached to leaves, wind and people’s anger? Who is it that sees these leaves? Who?

The Sixth Patriarch, long ago in China, once passed two monks who were arguing about a flag blowing in the wind. One monk said, ‘It is the flag that is moving.’ The second monk said, ‘It is the wind that is moving.’ The Sixth Patriarch said, ‘You are both wrong. It is not the flag, it is not the wind; it is your mind that is moving.’

It is the same with the leaves, wind, and anger. When your mind is moving, then actions appear. But when your mind is not moving, the truth is just like this. The falling of the leaves is truth. The sweeping is truth. The wind blowing them away is truth. The people’s anger also is truth. If your mind is moving you don’t understand the truth. You must first understand that form is emptiness, emptiness is form; next, no form, no emptiness. Then you will understand that form is form, emptiness is emptiness. Then all actions are the truth.

You say, ‘If the tree has no roots, how can it stand?’ I say, ‘The dog runs after the bone.’ You must not be attached to words. First attain true emptiness. If you do not dwell there you will attain freedom and no hindrance. Then you will understand that the tree has no roots. Thinking is no good. Put it all down. Only ‘What am I?’ This don’t know mind is very important. If you keep it for a long time, you will understand this tree with no roots.

Where Does the True Buddha Dwell?

Zen Master Ku San wrote to Ven. Duk Sahn as follows:

Once Zen Master Ang Sang asked Zen Master Wi San Yungwoo, ‘Where does the true Buddha dwell?’

Wi San answered, ‘When origination and matter come together, they become light. This light is emptiness and this ’empty’ is ‘full’. When all phenomena, extinguished, return to the origin, then nature and form become clear. Origination is origination; matter is matter. only like this – this is the true Buddha.”

At this remark, Ang San was suddenly enlightened.

Now, Duk Sahn, what is your view?

Ven. Duk Sahn wrote in reply as follows:

It is said that there is no place of abode of mind. Duk Sahn, the general of the guards keeping the gate of Sambosa on Robin mountain, has also no place of abode and no view.

Regarding the dialogue between Ven. Ang San and Ven. Wi San, I give them both thirty blows and give the bodies to a hungry dog.

Zen Master Ku San wrote again as a reply:

In your letter you mentioned that you are a general of the guards who keeps the gate, and so on – but In True Emptiness, there is no entry and no exit. So what do you guard?

And, you said that you hit Ang San and Wi San thirty times. Please give me an answer that is before words. You give them thirty blows. To whom do you give them?

At this Ven. Duk Sahn wrote to Zen Master Seung Sahn:

Ven. Seung Sahn, how should I answer the questions? I look forward to your kind instructions.

Zen Master Seung Sahn answered Zen Master Ku San:

The sword of the general who keeps the gate at Robin mountain kills Buddhas when it meets them, and kills patriarchs when it meets them, as well. If Ven. Ku San opens his mouth here, he too shall have no way of escape from being killed by the pitiless sword.

Regarding the second question, the thirty blows are given to Ang San and Wi Ran, why do you carry these thirty blows around on your own back?


The sky is blue and the ground is yellow.

What Will You Give?

Question: Recently I travelled in India. Everywhere I went, people were suffering because of a lack of food. I wanted to help them but I had nothing to give them–there were so many people and so much suffering. I realized I could do nothing.

Zen Master Seung Sahn: You have everything. You say “nothing,” but that isn’t correct. You don’t understand “you,” so you say “nothing.”

Q: But I had nothing to give them.

ZMSS: You are only attached to “outside”; you don’t understand “inside.” Outside you have nothing, but inside you have everything. If you have nothing on the outside to give them, then everywhere you go bow and chant Kwan Seum Bosal. Also, in your mind keep “I can!” Then this helps them, and also helps you. You have “that,” yeah?

Everything happens from primary cause, condition and result. Our world has a big problem. So Buddha said this is a suffering world. In the United States, we have a lot of food. And every day we throw a lot of food in the garbage. It’s the same in Korea. But in India, there isn’t enough food. So, our world is unbalanced. Who makes things unbalanced? Human beings make this.

Nowadays there are too many human beings. Also, humans do many bad things. For example, humans kill a lot of animals and eat them–eat their meat. Then cause and effect are very clear. All suffering comes from cause and effect. If two religions are fighting–like Hinduism and Islam–then many people will be killed. Then these people reappear again. The suffering goes around and around. Everything is from primary cause, condition and effect. So, what’s our job?

Our job is to practice hard and perceive this world. Human beings do more bad actions on this planet than any other animal. The outside… how can we help the outside? If we chant Kwan Seum Bosal, then our consciousness and suffering people’s consciousness connects. If you only practice for yourself, that’s not correct practicing. Our practicing means attain your true self. Attain your true self means Great Love, Great Compassion, the Great Bodhisattva Way. In other words, moment to moment keep correct situation, correct relationship and correct function. If we don’t have enough money to help people, then we chant for them. Chant Kwan Seum Bosal many times and say, “Please, may all suffering human beings and all suffering animals be relieved of suffering. Same day, same time! Together become Buddha.” That’s our direction. This direction never ends, life time after life time. That’s our great vow. So, if we see suffering people, then we chant for them. That’s our job. O.K.?

What is that Rock Saying?

One Sunday night at the Providence Zen Center, Seung Sahn Soen-sa told the story of Su Tung-po’s enlightenment. Afterwards he said to his students:

“What do we learn from this story? That Zen teaches us to cut off all discriminating thoughts and to understand that the truth of the universe is ultimately our own true self. All of you should meditate very deeply on this. What is this entity that you call the self? When you understand what it is, you will have returned to an intuitive oneness with Nature and will see that Nature is you and you are Nature, that Nature is the Buddha, who is preaching to us at every moment. It is my wish that all of you will be able to hear what Nature is saying.”

Student A (pointing to a rock in the zendo) — What is that rock saying to you right now?

Soen-sa — Why do you think it’s speaking to me?

Student A — Well, I hear something, but I can’t quite make out. what it is?

Soen-sa — Why don’t you ask the rock?

Student A — I already have, but I can’t understand its language.

Soen-sa — That’s because your mind is exactly like the rock! (Laughter)

Soen-sa — Are there any more questions?


Student A — If there are no questions, can you answer?

Soen-sa — If there are no questions, then you’re all Buddhas. And Buddhas don’t need to be taught.

Student B — But we don’t know we’re Buddhas.

Soen-sa — That’s true, you don’t know…. Fish swim in water, but they don’t know they’re in water. Every moment you breathe in air, but you do it unconsciously. You’d only be conscious of air if you were without it. In the same way, we are always hearing the sounds of cars, voices, waterfalls. All these sounds are sermons, they’re the voice of the Buddha himself preaching to us. We hear many sermons, all the time, but we’re deaf to them. If we were really alive, whenever we heard, saw, smelled, tasted, touched, we’d say, “Ah, this is a fine sermon!” We’d see that there’s no scripture that teaches as well as this experience with Nature.

Student C — Why do some see and others not?

Soen-sa — Your nose sticks out and your eyes are sunken. Do you know why? It would be just as functional to have two holes in the middle of our face, and eyes on a flat plane. So why are our eyes and noses the way they are?

Student C — I don’t know.

Soen-sa — Well, it’s human karma. In the same way, you’ve sown certain seeds in the past that now result in your encountering Buddhism. Not only that: some people come here only once, while others stay and practice very earnestly. When you practice Zen earnestly, you’re burning up the karma that binds you to ignorance. In Japanese the word for “earnest” means “to heat up the heart”. If you heat up your heart, this karma, which is like a block of ice in your mind, melts and becomes liquid. And if you keep heating it, it becomes steam, and evaporates into space. Those people who practice come to melt their hinderances. Why do they Practice? Because it’s their karma to do so, just as it’s others’ not to. Man’s discriminating thoughts build up a great thought-mass in his mind, and this is what he mistakenly regards as his real self. In fact, it’s merely a mental construction based on ignorance. The purpose of Zen meditation is to dissolve this thought-mass. What is finally left is the real self. You enter into the world of the selfless. And if you don’t stop there, if you don’t think about this realm or cling to it, you will continue in your practice until you become one with the Absolute.

What is Happiness? What is Sadness?

Zen Master Seung Sahn gave the following talk in London, England, towards the end of his trip to Europe in the spring of 1978.

Long ago in China there was a famous student of Zen Master Ma Jo named Han Ong. Everyone said to him, “You are lucky, you are happy.” Then he said, “What is luck? What is happiness?” He always spoke like this.

He had a good horse, which he liked to ride every day. One day the horse disappeared, so everyone said, “Oh, are you unhappy? Are you sad?” He said, “What is sadness? What is happiness?” No feeling. His horse ran away, but he only said, “What is sadness? What is happiness?” Everyone said, “This man has no feeling.” Usually, if someone is attached to something and it goes away, then he is very sad. But Han Ong only said, “What is sadness? What is happiness?”

A week later Han Ong got a very good horse; we say, jun me. This means it only has to see the shadow of the whip and it runs. This is a very clever horse. So everyone said, “You are happy. You are lucky.” He said, “What is luck? What is happiness?” Only this. No feeling. Then everybody said, “This man is very lucky.” His son liked the horse and rode it every day. He only had to mount the horse and it would go, so he rode around and around, very happy. Then one day while riding, he fell and broke his leg. So everyone said, “Ah, I am sorry your son broke his leg. Are you sad?” He said, “What is sadness? What is happiness?” No feeling.

Soon after this, there were many wars, with North China and South China fighting each other. All the young people had to go to the army. But Han Ong’s son had a broken leg, so he could not go; he stayed at home and only helped his parents. His leg was not so bad, so he could work in the garden and help them with their chores. Everybody said, “You are lucky. You are happy.” So he said, “What is luck? What is happiness?” This style speech.

This is Han Ong’s famous, “What is happiness? What is sadness?” His whole life he used only this speech to teach other people. Outside, happiness appears, luck appears, sadness appears, but he is not moving. “What is true happiness? What is sadness?” Not moving. This mind is very important. Originally there is nothing. If you attach to something, then you have luck, happiness, sadness, suffering — everything appears. If you don’t attach, this is clear mind. Then there is no sadness, no happiness, no unhappiness — they all disappear. So if you attach to name and form, if you attach to words, then your mind is also moving. Don’t attach to anything. Then your mind is enough. Then appearing, disappearing, whatever happens outside doesn’t matter. Then teaching other people is possible. So Han Ong’s friends and all his students learned from him. Only one word: “What is sadness? What is happiness?” This means your mind moving is no good. If you make happiness, if you make sadness, that’s no good. Don’t make anything; don’t attach to anything; don’t hold anything. Then you are complete. This was his teaching.

So our Europe trip is almost finished. We too have had many kinds of happiness, appearing and disappearing. Put it all down, O.K.? Only go straight: “What is luck? What is happiness? What is sadness?” We have had a lot of luck, a lot of happiness, a lot of suffering, a lot of sadness. But what is happiness? What is sadness? What is luck? Only go straight.

What is Belief?

On the trip to Europe in the spring of 1978, Soen Sa Nim gave kong-an talks every morning to the small group of students who traveled with him. In West Berlin, following the morning talk, Diana Clark had this exchange with Soen Sa Nim.

Diana (D): I wish that you would talk a little more about belief. What is belief?

Soen Sa Nim (SS): How many hands do you have?

D: Two.

SS: How many fingers do you have?

D: Ten.

SS: How do you use them?

Diana claps.

SS: Correct. That is belief. I have fingers, I have hands — no thinking. Only action. Already my hands and me become one; there is no thinking. Can you believe your eyes? How? (Laughter) What color is that?

D: White.

SS: White. That is belief.

D: Okay. I understand that. But you say you must believe in yourself one hundred percent, or if you don’t believe in yourself one hundred percent, then you must believe in Buddha, or a tree, or your teacher, or something. So okay. How do you do that? I mean you can’t just make a decision to believe. I know that’s white because I see that it’s white. I know I should believe in Buddha, but… I’m not sure. How do I go from not being quite sure to belief?

SS: You want to believe something; this is already a mistake. So, put it all down and true belief will appear by itself (laughs). Very simple. The mind that wants something cannot believe in anything. Throw away this wanting mind. Try!

D: Try what? Can you try to believe?

SS: No! No! I didn’t say try to believe. Only try. Only try means only go straight don’t know; don’t know means that your ideas about this world disappear. When your ideas disappear then you and this world become one. So in true belief there is no believing in something or not believing in something because it has already become one. If you and Buddha become one, how do you believe in Buddha?!

This is one mind, try mind, go straight don’t-know mind and put-it-all-down mind. But many people hold their thinking: “What does he think about me? I think this about him.” Holding this creates opposites when originally there was no problem.

D: Thank you. I see that making “believe” and trying to believe is a mistake.

SS: Believe is only a teaching word. Don’t attach to words, okay? (Laughs.)

D: Okay. Thank you very much.

Wearing a Kasa, Carrying the World – Uncovering the mystery of form

This interview took place in August 1989.

Primary Point: What is the significance of the objects on the altar – the rice, water, candles, and incense?

Zen Master Seung Sahn: Our universe is made of four elements – earth, air, fire, and water. The items on the altar are symbolic representations of these elements – the incense represents air; the candle represents fire; the water bowl represents water; the altar and the Buddha are symbolic of the earth; the rice is symbolic of earth and food. The four elements make up the universe and our human body; they also control our consciousness. So when the incense is burning, there is a good smell; the smell goes into your consciousness. At any time, what you see, what you hear, and what you smell all becomes part of your consciousness. So when you see the candles, smell the incense, see the Buddha, and listen to the chanting, it all creates good feeling in your consciousness. When you come to the dharma room, your outside condition and situation disappears and a good feeling appears. Your small mind disappears and for a little while you have Buddha mind. That’s how we use the items on the altar and in the dharma room.

PP: Why do we bow when we enter and leave the dharma room?

ZMSS: In the Orient, when two people meet, they bow to each other according to their status. The person who is high-class bows just a little bit; the person who is lower-class bows much more deeply. This is Oriental hierarchy. But when we enter the dharma room, we leave behind this high-low mind; an emperor bows to the Buddha and a beggar also bows to the Buddha. This is cultivating humility. In that moment, the mind becomes very simple. Also, this is a moment of paying attention and having correct relationship with the situation. The Buddha is our ideal and our inspiration. So the correct relationship is to bow to the altar.

PP: What is the origin of the moktak?

ZMSS: “Mok” means wood; “tak” means hit. But the original word is “mok o.” The Japanese call it “mokugyo.” “Moku” means wood, “gyo” means fish; this instrument is shaped like a fish with its mouth open.

There is a story about the origin of this instrument. A long time ago, in China, there was a monk called Chung San Poep Sa. He lived near a big city and a big lake. One day a high government official came to the lake with his family for a picnic. They had a small baby, only a few months old. By chance, when they were on the boat, the baby fell overboard. The official engaged local fishermen to swim into the waters and find the body of his baby, but they couldn’t find the body. So he went to Chung San Poep Sa and said he would like to do a ceremony for his dead baby, but could not find the body. Chung San Poep Sa went into deep meditation and perceived what had happened. He told the government official they must go to the fish market very early the next morning and buy some fish. So they went to the fish market and Chung San Poep Sa selected a very big fish. They cut open the stomach and found the baby inside. To the surprise of the family, the baby was still alive. They were all very happy. Then the official wanted to help all fish for saving the life of his baby. So this moktak is shaped like a fish, with an open mouth and a hollow stomach. When you hit the moktak, a good sound appears. The meaning of the moktak sound is that the baby is still here; all fish can hear the sound and get enlightenment.

PP: Why wear robes for formal practice?

ZMSS: Originally these robes were monks’ clothes. In India, during the Buddha’s time, the monks wore yellow robes. They chose the yellow, the color of ground, because it got less dirty when the dust was blowing. If the color were white, the robes would get dirty in no time.

When Buddhism came to China, things changed a little bit. The robes that we wear are Taoist style clothes, not Indian style. Only the monk’s big kasa is Indian style. So when Taoism and Buddhism came together, a new style of clothes appeared.

The kasa, both small and large, is a symbol. They have squares and lines – seven lines, twelve lines, eighteen lines. There are five points – east, west, north, south, and a middle. This means the whole world. A monk leads a homeless life, but wearing his kasa he symbolically carries the whole world with him; that means he is not separate from the world and still takes cares of all beings. So the robes and kasa are different; robes are Taoist style clothes; the kasa is a symbol of renunciation, of leaving behind ego and small I.

PP: What is the origin of the four bowl style of eating?

ZMSS: This style is from China. Originally, in Buddha’s lifetime, there was only one bowl. In China, this style changed again. Again, the four bowls are symbolic of the four elements – earth, air, fire, and water – and also of Buddha, dharma, sangha and mind. In Korea, they always use four bowls in the monastery; here we use four bowls during retreats and formal meals, but our American style is a little different from Korean monastery style.

PP: What is the origin of the four great vows?

ZMSS: The tradition of reciting the four great vows started during the T’ang dynasty in ancient China; these vows are taken from the Avatamsaka Sutra. In China and Korea, they recite these vows only at the end of a ceremony and not in the morning, as we do at Kwan Um School of Zen centers. When we first started Providence Zen Center, somebody suggested saying the four great vows in the morning. I thought this was a good idea, because we do one hundred and eight bows, which are the bows of repentance; these four great vows provide our direction. First wake up, then bow to the teacher in gratitude, then recite the four great vows to reaffirm our direction, then bow one hundred and eight times in repentance for all our mistakes.

PP: When you do a solo chant in the morning, before the Heart Sutra, what is the meaning of that?

ZMSS: That means praying for the whole world. The first part says we want all beings to get off the wheel of samsara and allow the wheel of dharma to go around and around and take away all peoples’ suffering. The second part means wishing for harmony in all parts of the world – east, west, south, and north. This part is praying that all beings become one mind, become world peace, become Buddha. The third part means praying that all students in the Kwan Um School of Zen and all of Buddhism get enlightenment. The last part is a recitation of the ten precepts.

PP: Why do people take off their shoes when coming into the temple?

ZMSS: That’s Korean and Japanese style, not Chinese or Indian. Korean and Japanese use ondol or tatami floors inside the house; if you wear street shoes inside the house, the floors get dirty. So the relationship is clear; if you take off your shoes, the house or the temple stays clean.

PP: Korean Buddhist statues are always large and colorful; other traditions use smaller, simpler statues. Why is there this difference?

ZMSS: This is not only Korean style; Chinese use much bigger and more colorful statues. In India, Thailand and Cambodia, they use very big statues, very colorful. But that is not Hinayana style, only Indian or Thai or Cambodian style. In Hinayana, they have Shakyamuni Buddha statues, but no bodhisattvas. Bodhisattvas are part of Mahayana tradition. Chinese style is very colorful, so they have large and colorful statues of the various bodhisattvas. In Korea, they have only middle size statues, not quite as big as Chinese style. Buddhism came from China to Korea and then went to Japan. There, during the period of Nara Buddhism, they built a very large Buddha at Todaiji which was the largest Buddha in the world. Also, during the Kamakura period, they built a huge Buddha outdoors. For many people, when they look at the huge Buddha, a very strong feeling of awe or reverence arises; for a very short time, this feeling takes away their karma, their small I. For some people, when they look at a small Buddha, there is no such feeling. But for some people, looking at a small and simple Buddha, there is a deep feeling. So people have different consciousnesses. In China, Korea and Japan, big and colorful Buddhas and bodhisattvas have a deep impact on the people’s consciousness.

PP: What is the meaning of the morning bell chant? Please explain some of the lines.

ZMSS: The morning bell chant comes from the Avatamsaka Sutra. This sutra talks about the interdependence of all beings. So all animals, birds, human beings, demons, and beings in hell hear the sound of the bell, wake up, get enlightenment, and become Buddha. So, this sound penetrates all six realms of existence – heaven, astral, human beings, animals, hungry ghosts, hell – and takes away your ignorance; wisdom grows up, you get enlightenment, and save all beings. Together, we all become Buddha.

There is a line in the chant that says, “Everywhere everything is equal.” This means in universal nature, everything is equal; there is no form, no name. So at the time when you just hear the sound of the bell, universal nature appears, name and form disappear, and everything becomes equal.

Another line says, “Together you and I simultaneously attain the way of the Buddha.” This means we are all equal – all animals, all birds, and all human beings are all equal – and all attain enlightenment at the same time through hearing the sound of the bell. When you hear the sound of the bell, it means you wake up; wake up means going beyond time and space. Time and space are a hindrance caused by thinking; so hearing the sound of the bell makes this thinking disappear, makes time and space disappear, and all become Buddha at the same time.

At another point, it talks about “great love, great sadness, our great teacher.” Great love is substance, and great sadness is compassion. If other people are suffering, I am sad and compassionate. If everyone is happy, I am happy. “Our great teacher” means we are connected to everything else in the universe, and everything is teaching us the lesson of great compassion and great love.

PP: The Great Dharani, which we chant, is a long mantra and has no translation. What is the origin of this dharani and what is its meaning?

ZMSS: In Buddha’s lifetime, one monk broke the precepts and was very unhappy. So the Buddha taught him that karma comes from your mind; if mind disappears, karma also disappears. If you hold your mistake, your karma will never go away. Then the Buddha gave this monk the Great Dharani mantra in order to take away his holding and thinking mind.

PP: Why do we do one hundred and eight prostrations in the morning? Why one hundred and eight?

ZMSS: In Korean tradition, there are one hundred and eight names for Buddhas and bodhisattvas. So in that style, one hundred and eight bows mean repeating these names. Another tradition says that human beings have one hundred and eight delusions and we bow to cut off these delusions.

PP: When people take precepts, you give them dharma names. How do you pick these names?

ZMSS: First, I pick a family name for the whole group that is taking precepts on that day; then I separate men and women; then I perceive what kind of name fits what kind of person.

PP: When someone takes monk’s or nun’s precepts, as part of the ritual you sprinkle water on his or her head and touch it with a sword. What is the meaning of this ritual?

ZMSS: It is symbolic of cutting the last hair, the last ignorance. Becoming a monk means going from ignorance to light. When you shave you have to use soap and water; otherwise it’s very hard. So we use the water from the altar for this symbolic purpose; the sword is symbolic of the mind sword, the sword of wisdom that cuts through ignorance. So this is cutting the last hair.

PP: What is the meaning of the repentance ceremony?

ZMSS: Everybody makes mistakes; how do we correct our mistakes? In some forms of Hinayana Buddhism, if you make mistakes, then you have to give up your precepts. But in Mahayana and Zen, if you make mistakes, you can do a repentance ceremony. There are big mistakes and small mistakes. Big mistakes cause many problems for other people; small mistakes cause a problem only for ourselves. Doing one hundred and eight bows every morning is a repentance ceremony for our small mistakes. For big mistakes, there is a public ceremony; then our mind becomes clean, and also other people’s minds become clean. If we don’t do this kind of ceremony, then everyone is holding “my mistake” and making more karma. In the Catholic Church, if you make a mistake, you can go to the priest and confess your mistake, then feel relieved and complete. The repentance ceremony is like that. But Catholic ceremonies are secret; in Buddhism there are no secrets, everything is open. If you make a mistake, then have a public ceremony, one can forgive and move on without holding.

PP: You often encourage your students to do forty-nine and one hundred day retreats. Why forty-nine days? Why one hundred days?

ZMSS: We have two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, and one mouth. That’s a total of seven holes in our head. The number seven is considered lucky in the Orient. Also, seven times seven is considered a good number. The 100-day retreat is a little bit not correct. Originally a retreat was done for three months, ninety days. The number 100 comes from Taoism. For Taoists, ten is a lucky number, so their retreat time is ten times ten. In China, Buddhism and Taoism got intertwined, so many Buddhist rituals have come from Taoism.

PP: What is the role of women in Korean monasteries? Should their role be different in American Zen?

ZMSS: In Korea, a nun is the same as a monk, except nuns cannot officiate at a precepts ceremony. Nuns can become teachers and Zen Masters; they can get transmission but cannot give transmission. That’s the tradition from China. But that’s not a problem in America. Buddhism is always adapting itself to the culture of the country where it goes, so Korean style is not absolute in America. We can change it. Changing the transmission rule is no problem, but we cannot change the precepts rule.

PP: How can we make Zen practice more interesting for Americans?

ZMSS: Traditionally, in China and Korea, only monks did Zen practice. But Zen has come to the West and here lay people practice Zen, so this has changed the character of Zen. Now we teach Zen in everyday life. Sitting Zen all the time is not possible for lay people. Everyday life Zen means learning mind sitting. Mind sitting means the mind that is not moving. How do you keep not-moving mind? Put down your opinion, condition, and situation, moment to moment; when you are doing something, just do it. This is everyday Zen.

Under the traditional rules for monks, they cannot go to the theater or restaurants, cannot do this, cannot do that. Their precepts are always telling them this is no good, that is no good. So monks only sit Zen all the time, then get enlightenment and understand truth. That’s old-style Zen. In that style, there is not much teaching about great love, great compassion, the great bodhisattva Way. But for lay people this teaching of great love, great compassion, great bodhisattva way is very necessary. To attain that, it is important to keep a not-moving mind; then correct situation, correct function, and correct relationship appear by themselves in everyday life.

PP: Some people don’t like any kind of form, especially chanting. How should we approach them?

ZMSS: This is Western mind, always strong like and dislike. But there are many people who like chanting very much. Chanting means doing together action with other people; then this together action takes away your opinion, your condition, and your situation very easily. That’s the teaching of chanting meditation. If people don’t like Korean chanting, then maybe some time in the future we will chant everything in English. But remember that our school is not only in America, but also in Poland, Germany, Spain, and other parts of Europe. So if someone from America goes to Poland, it’s the same form, same chanting; then you have the feeling of being part of a large international family. Then your mind becomes bigger and you are at one with the world; you “become world peace.”

PP: Could you talk a bit more about chanting as meditation?

ZMSS: Meditation means not-moving mind. As I said before, old style meditation means body sitting, but mind sitting is more important than body sitting. When you chant you first have one mind, not-moving mind; that’s mind sitting, chanting samadhi. You keep chanting “Kwan Seum Bosal, Kwan Seum Bosal, Kwan Seum Bosal,” then you perceive sound; that’s clear mind. Clear mind is wake-up mind; wake-up mind is enlightenment. So in chanting, samadhi mind is the first step; this is one mind. The next step is perceive sound; this is clear mind, enlightenment. If you attach to samadhi, then you have a problem. That’s a very important point.

PP: How do you see the relationship between Korean Buddhism and American Buddhism changing in the next ten years?

ZMSS: These days I don’t stay so much in the United States; my travels are in Korea, Europe, Australia, and other places. So now most of the teaching in the United States is being done by the Ji Do Poep Sa Nims. Before, everybody was my student, but now the Ji Do Poep Sa Nims have their own students. Now the Ji Do Poep Sa Nims will decide the Kwan Um School of Zen’s direction; they understand American mind better than me. I taught only Korean style Buddhism; now the Ji Do Poep Sa Nims are teaching American style Buddhism, so that’s already changing.

PP: When do you plan to give transmission? We are all waiting.

ZMSS: Spring comes, the grass grows by itself. (laughs)