Strong Taste of Nothing

This talk was given at the close of the first Kwan Um School of Zen Congress in July, 1983. 

Thank you very much, everyone, for coming here to do this special training and to help us with the birth of the new School. We have been meeting here for three days and the new School has appeared. What is the correct function of this School? To help other people.

This world is always changing, but the process is sometimes slow, sometimes fast. Old people experience this sense of slow or fast time, but young people never do. They don’t understand what time and space are, and that’s their right. Old people have a right to the past.

When you climb a mountain, you walk up the side for a long time, then you arrive at the top. Going up, we don’t understand what is happening. What are human beings? What is the world? But when you get to the top, you can see everywhere. You can understand what human beings are, as well as. time, space, and this world. But understanding and attaining are different.

Several years ago, I became very sick. Zen Master Seong Hyang (Barbara Rhodes) checked my heart and said, “Soen Sa Nim, you have an irregular heartbeat. If you don’t go to the hospital, you might die soon.” So I went to the hospital. The doctor told me I must meditate. “Yes, sir! What kind of meditation?” He didn’t know I was a Zen Master, so he said, “You are moving around too much, so you have this heart problem. Don’t move at all. Correct meditation is necessary.” “Yes sir!” So I did correct meditation, only one mind, lying in my bed, not moving.

(Zen Master Seong Hyang: Except that he did 108 bows every morning!)

That’s right (laughter). They checked me. They put a monitor on my chest so that my heartbeat appeared on their office monitor. So I stayed in bed, but I did bows. I could see my heart action on the monitor, and when I would turn this way and that way, my heartbeat wasn’t so good. But when I did bows, my heartbeat was very good. I checked this by watching the monitor signal. The doctor didn’t like this, but I did “correct meditation” for ten days.

Then I was almost well. The doctor was very surprised. “You are a good meditator! Most of the people with this ailment stay in a hospital for three or four months. You are almost well after only ten days.” It was only after this that he discovered I was a Zen Master. Then he asked, “What is Zen meditation?” So I lectured in the hospital.

When I was in the hospital I experienced strong questions: What is death? What is life? What is this body? I understood these things before, but I had not experienced them. I never used to think about my body. I just pushed it very hard, not checking it. As long as my body was OK, there wasn’t a problem. Dying was OK, too. But then my heart developed a problem. I wasn’t caring for my body correctly, pushing it too fast, not getting proper food or enough sleep. You must make everything correct, moment to moment. If you don’t consider your body, then your body will tell you, “You’re not taking care of me. Sometime soon, you and I will be separated (laughter)!” So I said, “Yes, I’m a little late. We have a job to do together and it’s not finished, OK?”

In the hospital, there was a very old man in the bed next to me. He was wealthy, successful, and an intellectual. He had studied philosophy, so he had some understanding. Sometimes his wife, who was also very old, came to visit him. He didn’t know when he would die, perhaps soon, but he had a very clear mind. I asked him, “When you were young, you were very strong. You made a lot of money and studied a great deal. You have a clever mind. Now your body is very sick. Maybe you will die tomorrow or the day after.”

“Yes, I don’t know when.”

“So, in your whole life, what did you get?


“That’s primary point,” I told him. “You found it. You studied philosophy but you couldn’t attain this nothing. Just now, you attained nothing. But if you hold nothing, then you will have a problem.”

“What do you mean by ‘holding nothing?…”

“It’s very sad if you are holding nothing. All your lingering attachments will press on you. If you are not attached to nothing, you will attain nothing, and there is no life or death. If you are nothing, then life and death are nothing. You are already beyond them.”

“Oh, that’s wonderful!” he said. “I didn’t understand that until now.”

It was an interesting conversation. He was old, rich, and very well-known, but he said he had gotten nothing. As you get old, this nothing gets bigger. Before you come into this world, there is nothing. When you are young, you don’t understand “nothing,” just the words. But by the time you are forty or fifty and a good friend has died or your mother and father have died, then you have experienced nothing. You have tasted nothing. If you practice hard, the taste is very strong, and you are free to help other people. But if you are holding something in your mind, you can’t taste “nothing.” If you want freedom, you must taste nothing very intensely. What is the taste of nothing?

A long time ago in China, many great scholars used a special meditation which a great Zen Master developed called “corpse practice.” Turn yourself into a corpse: “I am a corpse.” Try doing that. “What do you want, corpse?” “Cemetery!” “When?” “Right now!” If you are not a corpse, you have problems, but if you turn yourself into a corpse, all problems disappear. You can help other people without difficulty. Complete bodhisattva action is possible.

If you can become like a corpse, you can take away all your desires, even your deep lingering attachments. Sometimes a condition will appear, out of the blue, and bang! You can’t understand what’s happening. You can’t control yourself. Where did this come from? This is a lingering attachment. Some of them come from a previous life. You can continue for many years, even many lives, holding something. We also call it “deep karma.” Most people don’t understand it. A good Zen student may do hard practice and everyone thinks, “Wonderful!” Then one day a condition appears, and bang! The good student falls apart.

You must find your lingering attachments and remove them. But if your attitude is that “everything’s no problem,” then your lingering attachments are hidden. You won’t see them, even if you do hard training. It’s fine to do daily Zen practice and work, but you also need special practice: perhaps bowing 500, 700 or 1000 times every day, or sitting two extra hours each day, or doing a special mantra practice, maybe 3000 or 10,000 Kwan Seum Bosals. Every day, do regular practice with everyone together, and special practice. It’s very important. If you try this, you will see your lingering attachments. If you do special practice every day, your center will get stronger, and when lingering attachments appear, you can control them.

Everyone has their own karma. Some people’s karma is anger, or checking, or holding. Holding karma causes body problems. You might have trouble with your back or your legs, but it’s your holding mind that is the problem. Desire is OK; anger is OK. Let them be. But also make an effort to do this special practice. It will not help you to only perceive desire, anger, and ignorance. Make your practice stronger every day, and then these things will become weaker and you can control them. When desire appears, you can say, “Maybe tomorrow,” and tomorrow doesn’t have to appear. That’s what we call “dharma energy.”

We have almost finished this School Congress. I hope we will make a strong organization. We have made the outside Kwan Um School of Zen appear, but everyone already had the inside Kwan Um School of Zen a long time ago, even before Shakyamuni Buddha appeared. How can we connect these two, the inside and outside Schools? If you practice in your usual way, plus special practice, then it’s possible to connect the two. The outside School then will bring everyone into harmony. In Buddhism we call that “amita,” meaning infinite time, infinite space ocean. This world is a suffering ocean. It must change into a dharma ocean.

If you put on a light, it’s bright and you can see sick people, happy people, everything. Without light you can’t see anything. The world is the same either way; it’s only whether we have light or not that makes a difference. If it’s dark, everyone is fighting each other and suffering. Everyone cries, “Where is the door? I want to go outside!” But with the light on, why would people fight? “Oh, there’s a door here, a road there; one person can go here, another person can go out there.”

How do we get out of this suffering ocean? With mind light. When it appears, you can go out the door and down the road. Mind light changes the suffering ocean into the dharma ocean. Everyone becomes harmonious, like happy children. Everyone gets true, unchanging happiness. Some people call this “pure light’ or “nirvana.” If you attach to nirvana, you will have a problem. But if you attain the correct function of nirvana, you can save all beings in this suffering ocean.

So it’s very important that this new School has appeared. Each person’s light by itself is very small. The stronger your practice, the brighter your light becomes. Putting everyone’s light together means there will never be any hindrance. Together we multiply our light, and this dharma light is better than the sun. If a cloud appears, the sun cannot shine through it. Mind light has no such hindrance. If you see smoke, you know there’s fire. If you see horns beyond the stone wall, you know there’s an ox. That means your mind light can already see without hindrance.

Suppose somebody telephones you and their voice is sad. You will quickly understand the sadness. If they call you from Japan, you can hear them and understand their mind. The sun cannot do that; the sun isn’t shining there. Suppose your son has died and you are very sad. But he has not died; only his body has died. Everything is by natural process. You will also die someday. That’s no problem. If you love your son, you must just chant Ji Jang Bosal for him so he will get a good place in the next life. If you try that, you will soon stop crying. That is mind light. Any place you go, there will be no problem.

A long time ago, somebody wanting to kill the sixth patriarch came up behind him with a knife. The sixth patriarch saw the intruder without looking and grabbed him. That is mind light. Another Zen Master once was sleeping when someone came in the night to kill him, but he woke up and stopped him. His body was asleep, but not his mind. Anytime someone appeared with energy, it woke up the Zen Master.

You decide you want to wake up at four o’clock, then you go to sleep. Somebody bangs on the door. “Wake up!” You sit up. No one is there, but it’s 4:00 am. That’s mind light waking you up. I often experience that. Sometimes I am up late, after midnight, but even though I am tired, I still wake up at 3 am and bow every morning. At three o’clock somebody hits me or bangs on the door. That’s mind light.

Mind light is your original light. It is also try-mind. It’s not special, everybody has it, but many people don’t want it. Everyone wants something outside. If you go inside, deeply inside, then you will lose everything.

If you go outside you only get things: this cup, this money. Someday the cup and the money will disappear. What can you do? Nothing. So go inside, to primary point. Then the whole universe is yours. Your inside school will then connect with the new outside School, and saving all people is possible. Thank you.

The Spring Geese are Flying North

A Dharma Speech given by the Zen Master Seung Sahn at the opening ceremony of the International Zen Center of New York on April 20, 1975

(Holding up his Zen stick and hitting the table, slowly, three times)

Is this closed? Is this open?

If you say “closed”, you fall into the hell without doors. If you say “open”, you are dancing with all demons.


(Holding up the Zen stick and tracing a circle in the air; then holding the stick perpendicular on the table)

One two three four; five six seven eight.

(After a few moments) Thank you very much for coming to our ceremony even though you must be very busy. It is not an accident that we are gathered here today. It is the result of our past karma. It is very good karma that has brought us to meet here in front of the Buddha’s altar.

This karma means finding our true self and attaining the Absolute. It means leaving behind the world of corruption and journeying to the pure land of true freedom and peace.

That is why we founded Won Gak Sa one year ago and are opening the International Zen Center of New York today.

But the sutra says, “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” So all names and all forms are emptiness. Won Gak Sa, the International Zen Center of New York, this opening ceremony – these also are emptiness.

The sutra says, “All beings are already Buddha.” So why is Yom Bul or reading sutras or sitting Zen necessary?

But we don’t know ourselves. Desire, anger and ignorance cover up our clear mind. If we cut off all thinking and return to empty mind, then your mind, my mind, and all people’s minds are the same. We become one with the whole universe.

Therefore an eminent teacher said, “All things in the universe return to the One.”

True empty mind is before thinking. So thinking does not appear and does not disappear. This is the realm where nothing appears or disappears.

In the realm where nothing appears or disappears, there is no life and no death, no suffering and no happiness, no good and no bad, no you and no I. So it is said that all things in the universe return to the One.

But where does this One return?

Once somebody came up to the great Zen Master Mang Gong and asked him, “If all things return to the One, where does this One return?” Mang Gong said, “The spring geese are flying north.”

What do you think this means – “the spring geese are flying north?”

Even though you may understand enough to smash Mount Sumeru into a million pieces and swallow the ocean in one gulp, you will not understand this.

Even though you may understand enough to kill or give life to all the Buddhas of the three time-worlds and all eminent teachers and all people, you will not begin to understand this.

Then how can you understand the true meaning of “The spring geese are flying north?” Only keep don’t-know mind. This don’t-know mind is the mind that is stuck and cannot budge. It is like trying to break through a steel wall or trying to climb a silver mountain. All thinking is cut off. But as soon as you penetrate this condition, your mind will explode. Then you can see the stone lion run across the waves and devour the sun.

But you will still be bewildered. Go one more step. Then you will arrive at your true home, where spring comes and the flowers are blossoming everywhere. If you arrive here, not only will sutras and bibles be true, but also the sound of water and wind, the color of the mountain, the barking of a dog in the street everything that you see or sense, everything as it is will be the truth.

Therefore Zen Master Mang Gong said, “The spring geese are flying north.” The truth is just like this.

All things in the universe return to the One; where does the One return? Throw away Small I and enter Empty I. Then, when you open your eyes, everything that you can see and hear will be like this.

A little while ago I hit the table three times. Mang Gong said, “The spring geese are flying north.” The meaning of my action and the meaning of Mang Gong’s words – are these the same or different?

If you say ”the same”, I will hit you thirty times. If you say “different”, I will still hit you thirty times.



Open the front door to Broadway.

Spiritual Growth

Student: The aim of Zen practice is awakening. As a doctor who treats cancer patients and gives them advice about Zen meditation, I wonder what can we do for patients who are just beginning to practice in our hospital? They start using Zen as a “meditation technique,” which is OK, but what happens on the “spiritual level”? What does this beginning mean?

Zen Master Seung Sahn: Most important is that these cancer patients who are beginning to practice meditation have a vow that even if they cannot get enlightenment and practice the bodhisattva way in this life, they will continue to practice in their next life. If this vow is strong, then they will be reborn as a human being in a country where the dharma is taught and practiced. They will encounter great teachers and have the chance to get enlightenment and save all beings from suffering.

Also, if they attain their original nature, then there is no life and no death. Their original nature is clear like space, clear like a mirror. At that point they can die peacefully and their great vow will naturally lead them to a bodhisattva rebirth. Even if they are born in a non-human body, or under difficult circumstances amidst people who are not sympathetic to the dharma, their strong vow can change that birth and situation into a bodhisattva birth and situation. So, most important is a strong decision to get enlightenment and a great vow to save all beings from suffering. This vow comes from looking deeply into the great question “What am I?” and keeping a don’t know mind always and everywhere. That is correct Zen practice and correct spiritual growth.

A Special Energy Spot

January 13, 1977

Dear Soen Sa Nim,

I have heard you say that the house we will buy in the mountains near Woodstock, New York is in a very good location, a place of special energy. Why is it a special energy place? And why, in the practice of Zen as everyday mind is special energy important?

Would you explain the mountain and water configuration around the house as you described it to us: the mountain to the right as the white tiger, the mountain to the left as the blue dragon, the mountain behind as the turtle, etc.?

Several of us will go visit the house next weekend to look at the inside more closely. Then we can start planning how and when to use it.

It’s very cold here, lots of snow and ice. I hope you are taking it easy in Los Angeles.



January 20, 1977

Dear Louise,

How are you? Thank you for your letter. You ask me why the house near Woodstock is in a good location and why it’s a place of special energy. In Korea there is a metaphysics of wind-water geography. This was brought to Korea from China by a monk about fifteen hundred years ago, and since that time all temples have been built with this in mind.

A good location is necessary for the temple to grow, to save all people, and to prosper for a long time in the future. The wind-water geography determines a place as a special energy spot, where a temple can be built.

In Korea, all temples and cemeteries are placed with these ideas strongly adhered to. It is felt that the temple will grow and produce great teachers, and that the cemetery will help the descendents of those who are buried there to become prominent in society.

Why do these special places exist? This is very important. Mountains and rivers are like the earth’s physical body. On our bodies the most important part is the head. On the head the most important parts are the eyes, the nose, and the mouth. They are also among the most sensitive parts on our bodies. If you touch them then you have a strong feeling. Strong feeling means that they use strong energy. In the same way, mountains are like our bodies, and these special places are like our eyes, nose, or mouth -they are very sensitive. As in our bodies, the energy circulates in the mountain and is very sensitive in these special places. These places enable us to become one with this universal energy.

So, we check a mountain in five ways: first we check the form of the mountain; then where the mountain begins and ends; next we check it in terms of the composition of the five elements — wood, water, earth, fire, and metal; next we check the high and low points; and finally the Yin-Yang balance, the direction the mountain faces — north, south, east or west.

The basic form of the wind-water geography is a tall mountain, original turtle, which has two mountains extending in front of it like two protecting arms, white tiger to the right and blue dragon to the left. The house or temple is located at the very base of the tall mountain. In front of the house is a body of water, and just beyond that is a smaller mountain, which is called the red bird.

We check this basic form with the five characteristics that I’ve already explained. Which of the extending arms goes out further? This makes a difference, as does the direction of the flow of the water in front of the house. If the white tiger extends out further, then this place will be stronger for men. If the blue dragon extends out further, then this place will be stronger for women. Our place is very good because the two streams come together at the base of the tall mountain in front of the house.

In Korea there are professionals who also check the flow of the water in and around the temple area. They also check the mountain in terms of its importance in the whole mountain range. They check the ground for the elemental composition, that is, whether the ground has been used or moved in the past, to see if the temple will be located on land that has not been touched. They check to see whether the individual characteristics of the location will help or hinder the others, for example, if the blue dragon balances with the white tiger. Also very important is the direction that the front of the house will be facing. The balance of the characteristics is the single most important factor, just like a big nose would look funny on a small face.

So, I think that our place is wonderful.

Now there is a white house, but in the future we must build a new house. This is very necessary.

You ask why special energy is important. All people have different karma. Karma appears, and people lose their true selves. Karma appears — this means that our minds are easily moved. At a special energy place, your energy and the universal energy come together, and it is very easy to make our bad karma disappear. Sometimes people cannot control themselves, so we need this place very much.

An eminent teacher said, “Our minds change from moment to moment, but the blue mountain is always high and the clear river is always low.”

I hope that our family will use this place, get special energy, finish the Great Work of life and death, save all people from suffering, and attain world peace.

Yours in the Dharma,

S. S.

Song of Dharma Nature

The nature of the Dharmas is perfect. It does not have two different aspects.
All the various Dharmas are unmoving and fundamentally still.
They are without name and form, cut off from all things.
This is understood by enlightened wisdom, and not by any other sphere.
The One is in the many, the many are within the One.
The One is many the many are One.
Numberless kalpas are the same as one moment.
One moment is the same as numberless kalpas.

This is an excerpt from a long teaching-poem based on the Avatamsaka-sutra. It was written by a very famous master, Ui-Sang, during the golden age of the Shilla Dynasty in Korea. These verses are chanted every day in most temples in Korea. They point directly to the nature of Dharma. Many people say, “Dharma is this. Dharma is that.” But what is Dharma exactly? Originally, true Dharma has no name. Dharma has no form. Even calling it “Dharma” is already a big mistake. Dharma is not Dharma, OK? You must understand that. So, Dharma or Dharma-nature are just names for your universal substance. This substance, of which everything in the universe is composed, does not have two different aspects. It does not even have two different forms. It also does not have one aspect or form. It is not one and not two. It is also not a “thing.” It takes every form of every thing in the universe, and yet it takes no form, because form is completely empty. It is like electricity. Sometimes electricity appears to us by making fans move and radios emit sound. It produces air-conditioning. It can freeze water and heat a room. It can move a long, heavy train, and yet you walk around with it in your body. It can completely disappear into space. So if you say that electricity is just one thing, you are wrong. If you say that it is all these things that it does, all these actions that it performs, you are also completely wrong. Electricity is none of these things, and yet it is all of them. Similarly, rain, snow, fog, vapor, river, sea, sleet, and ice are all different forms of the same substance. They are different thing. But H2 0 is unchanging, and composes all of them according to their situation. They are all water. The same is true of Dharma-nature. It is not one and not two. That is a very important point.

So Dharma-nature is universal nature, and it takes many, many different forms. Sometimes it is a mountain, or the rivers, or the sun, the moon, the stars, this cup, this sound, and your mind. They are all the same, because they are all the same universal substance. When any kind of condition appears, Dharma-nature follows that condition, and then some form appears. But when condition disappears, then name and form disappear. That is the meaning of “everything is complete” in these lines. “Complete” is this Dharma-nature, this universal substance that goes around and around and around with no hindrance. It never lacks anything, anywhere. Sometimes it is a mountain, and sometimes it is a river, or trees, or rocks, clouds, humans, air, animals. But originally it is complete stillness. Even while taking form as everything in this universe, it is completely not moving. It takes these forms, but it is none of these forms and is not touched by these forms. Dharma-nature is the same as your true self. It cannot be understood with conceptual thinking. Books and learning cannot give you this point. One hundred Ph.D.’s will not help you attain it.

The One is in the many, the many are within the One.
The One is many, the many are One.
Numberless kalpas are the same as one moment.
One moment is the same as numberless kalpas.

Everyone believes that time and space exist. Ha ha ha ha! That’s very funny! Your thinking makes time, and your thinking makes space. But no one really understands this. So these lines state that time and space are the same, and they are one. They are also not one. This One is completely empty. “The One is in the many, the many are within the One. The One is many, the many are One.” That is talking about space. Everything is one point, and that one point is everything. There are not two separate things. We can think of it this way: Empty space is only one, indivisible, but in space there are many individual things-mountains, rivers, human beings, trees, dogs, cats, the sun, the moon, the stars. All of these “things” comprise space. Everything is part of space, but that space is not two, because everything is contained within it. There is nothing “outside” space.

This poem has very interesting teaching about the true nature of time, too. “Numberless kalpas are the same as one moment. One moment is the same as numberless kalpas.” Time is not long or short. As we saw earlier, since our thinking minds make time, we also make it either long or short. If you practice meditation, however, you can actually perceive that in one moment, there is infinite time. In one moment, there is infinite space. In one moment there is everything! One moment is endless time and space. To most people such a statement must be describing some special realm or experience. So how big is one moment? If we want to imagine this, we can illustrate one moment as being one second divided by infinite time. That is a very short time! A camera can teach you this. There are some special cameras with very high shutter speeds. This kind of camera can photograph a speeding bullet. A moving bullet is invisible to the naked eye. When this camera shutter opens, very quickly, it “catches” the bullet on film. You can see the bullet stopped in midair, not moving. But if you look closely at the photograph, you can tell that this bullet is still moving, though it seems stopped in space. The same is true of our minds, just as they are. If you take your don’t-know camera – your mind before thinking arises – and perceive just one moment, very deeply, very clearly, you see this bullet not moving. You see everything not moving. This whole world is not moving. That’s very interesting! Your mind and this whole universe have the same nature. Originally everything is completely still and not moving. This sutra says, “All the various Dharmas are unmoving and fundamentally still.” This is the same point. Stillness simply means our moment mind: one second divided by infinite time. We sometimes call that moment world. It is infinite in time and space, which actually means that it has no time or space.

So this gatha has very interesting poetic speech about Dharma-nature and universal substance. But this is only beautiful speech, and even the Buddha’s speech cannot help your life if it does not completely become yours. Then where does universal substance come from? Where does universal energy appear? It comes from complete stillness. “The One is in the many, the many are within the One. The One is many, the many are One.” So everything has it. [Hits the table.] Everything comes from complete stillness.[Hits the table.] Everything comes from this one point. Sometimes this point is called universal substance or energy, or Buddha, or God, or consciousness, or holiness, or mind, or the Absolute. [Hits the table.] These are all names, and names come from thinking. But originally, this complete stillness point has no name and no form whatsoever, because it is before thinking. Yet it is present in all things, and all things have it. In Zen there is a famous kong-an, “The ten thousand things return to One. Where does the One return?” If you attain that point [hits the table], you attain One, and you attain everything. That means you attain moment. You attain complete stillness and extinction. But mere intellectual understanding of this cannot help you. Only meditation practice can give you this experience directly. [Hits the table.] When this experience completely becomes yours, you attain your wisdom. That is the teaching of the Song of Dharma Nature.

Sim Gum Do – Mind Sword Path

Dharma speech given by Zen Master Seung Sahn at the opening of the Cambridge Zen Center Sim Gum Do Institute.

(Hitting the table with the Zen stick three times)

Everybody has been very busy, but you have all come to the opening ceremony of the Cambridge Zen Center Institute of Sim Gum Do. Thank you very much.

What is Sim Gum Do? It is the Mind Sword Path. Then what is Mind? If we had no mind, there would be no action. Matter is important. But without mind, we cannot understand matter. So mind is more important than matter. But mind and matter are not two. Where does mind come from? Where does matter come from? Who made mind and matter? Mind, matter, mountain, river, good, bad, Buddha, God – all these are made by our thinking. If we cut off all thinking, then we become empty mind. Here there are no opposites; there is only the absolute. This is before thinking. Everything in the universe becomes one. This is true mind.

What is Sword? An eminent teacher said, “Sometimes the sword kills, sometimes the sword gives life.” It cuts through wrong and helps the right. So if you have a mind of great compassion, you have the true sword. If you have the true sword, you have true freedom and peace over the whole world. Inside, you cut away all attachments and desires and attain the life of no hindrance. Outside, the bad disappears, the good appears. This is the great Dharma sword. Sometimes it is a steel sword, sometimes a hand sword, sometimes a mind sword. And so you will save all people.

What is Path? The path does not change color. It does not waver. It has no hindrance at all. This is the true path. You cut off all desires and leave behind the Small I. You attain emptiness and become the Nothing I. And when you leave even emptiness behind and find the Big I, you will attain the true path. We hope to save all people. So when all people are happy, we are happy; when all people are sad, we are sad. The same action, the same mind – this is the great Bodhisattva path.

So the Mind Sword Path is understanding your true self and attaining the true Dharma, for the sake of all people. But the Mind Sword Path is not the Mind Sword Path. The true mind sword is before thinking, so there are no words for it. When the Mind Sword Path and the whole universe become one, this is the true Mind Sword Path.

Here is a poem for you:

You sharpen it for ten thousand years, then are able to thrust it through the bone of space.
All Buddhas and eminent teachers stick up their hands in surrender.
A cool breeze comes from the East and all clouds are blown away.
The moon with its circle of light shines over the whole universe.

Then what is the true Mind Sword Path?

(Hitting the table with the Zen stick) KATZ!!!

Watch your step.

Shoot the Buddha!


After a talk at the Cambridge Zen Center, a young woman said to Zen Master Seung Sahn, “Tomorrow is my son’s birthday, and he told me he wants either a toy gun or money. But I have a problem: as a Zen student, I want to teach him not to hurt or crave things. So I don’t want to give him a toy gun or money.”

Zen Master Seung Sahn replied, “A toy gun is necessary! [Laughter] If you give him money, he will only go out and buy a toy gun. [Laughter]

“Your son wants a toy gun. This gun means: ‘How do you use it correctly?’ That’s very important–more important than just having a gun or not. If you use this gun correctly, you can help many people, but if it is not used correctly, then maybe you will kill yourself, kill your country, kill other people. So the gun itself is originally not good, not bad. More importantly, what is the correct function of this gun? So you can buy this gun, and give it to your son. Then you talk to him and tell him, ‘You must use this gun correctly. If Buddha appears, kill him! If the eminent teachers appear, kill! If a Zen Master appears, you must kill! If anything appears, you must kill it, OK? [Laughter] Then you will become Buddha!’ [Much laughter] So you must teach your son in this way. The gun itself is not good or bad. These are only names. Most importantly, why do you do something?”

Same Day, Same Time Together Become Buddha

Question: Recently I traveled 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 too 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 results. Our world has a 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.

Q: Right now there is a lot of fighting going on in Bosnia. In a situation like that, is merely practice enough or should we do something more?

ZMSS: A cat and a dog are fighting in front of you. What can you do?

Q: [Action of pulling them apart.]

ZMSS: Correct! But, in Bosnia you don’t have any power so you can’t do that there. If you don’t have any power, what can you do? Buddha teaches us that if you don’t have power you should borrow Buddha’s power. So, every day you should do special chanting — Kwan Seum Bosal — for this country. If you do that every day for one hour then your power appears. That is very important because your Kwan Seum Bosal energy is absolute energy. Their fighting energy is opposites energy. Absolute energy shines in your consciousness. O.K.? That helps this world. So, what’s our job?

Our job is to practice hard and perceive this world. Humans do more bad actions on this planet than any other living thing. How can we help? Our consciousness and suffering people’s consciousness must connect. Then we can help. 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, lifetime after lifetime. That’s our great vow. So, if we see suffering people, then we chant for them. That’s our job. O.K.?

Samadhi and Zen – Zen Master Seung Sahn’s teaching in Western Europe

This article was written by Mu Sang Sunim

Zen Master Seung Sahn is like a wandering mechanic — everywhere he goes he finds some engine, so to speak, which needs its valves adjusted, its screws tightened, old oil removed and fresh oil put in. On our recent teaching trip to western Europe he found that many people were confused about the relation between “samadhi” and Zen practice. So he taught over and over that while samadhi — “one-mind,” “not moving mind” may appear “on the way,” it is not the goal of Zen. The aim of our practice is truth or “clear mind,” and the correct functioning of truth moment to moment.

Zen Master Seung Sahn at the Oslo Fjord, Norway. Behind him is a traditional grass-roofed house.

“It is possible,” Zen Master Seung Sahn taught, “for people with a lot of thinking to use samadhi to cut off their thinking, cut off their desire, and get a lot of energy. The universe and you become one point. But enlightenment does not depend on energy. In enlightenment there is no concern with energy.

“Enlightenment and non-enlightenment are the same point. A long time ago, a Zen Master said, ‘Before I got enlightenment, when I saw the sky, blue; after I got enlightenment, when I see the sky, also blue.’ That’s enlightenment-the same point-the sky is blue. Getting enlightenment or not getting enlightenment doesn’t matter.

“Samadhi has no cause, no effect, no karma, no enlightenment, no I, nothing at all-only energy. No sky, no color. But it’s very easy to attach to samadhi energy and lose one’s way. ‘I am wonderful, I have lots of energy, I can do anything!’ — this kind of mind can appear: much desire, much attachment to power. Then you return — BOOM! — to small I. I-my-me again appears. So this is very dangerous.”

A second major theme addressed the students’ concern about the relationship between teacher and student. Zen Master Seung Sahn stressed that “Zen means not depending on God, or Buddha, or a teacher, or religion, but completely becoming independent. You must believe in your true self 100%. If you cannot believe in your true self, then you must believe in your teacher 100%. If you have no teacher, then you must believe in Buddha 100% — only keeping your own opinion is no good.

“Believing in your teacher and depending on your teacher are different. If you believe in your teacher, there is no subject, no object, no inside, no outside-inside and outside become one. Then you can believe in your true self, also you can believe any teacher, also you can believe your eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind. But if you only depend on your teacher, that is making two, I am here, something is there. That is not correct. When we are children, we depend on our parents. Then if our parents go away, we cry, cry, cry. But after we grow up we no longer depend on our parents; we can take care of ourselves. So don’t be like a child-you must become independent. And don’t depend on your teacher, only believe in your teacher 100%.”

After one of the retreats in Europe, Zen Master Seung Sahn told two stories that further illuminate the dangers of attaching to samadhi:

“A long time ago in China, during the time of Zen Master Lin Chi, there was a monk who was very famous for his samadhi practicing. ‘Ibis monk never wore any clothes and was known as the ‘naked monk.’ He had mastered many kinds of samadhi, had lots of energy, and didn’t need to wear clothes even in winter.

“One day Lin Chi decided to test this monk. He called a student of his, gave him a set of beautiful clothes, and asked him to present them to the monk. The student went to the monk and said, ‘Ah, you are wonderful. Your practicing is very strong. So my teacher wants to give you these beautiful clothes as a present.’ The monk kicked away the clothes and said, ‘I don’t need these clothes. I have original clothes, from my parents! Your clothes can only be kept a short time, then they will wear out. But my original clothes are never broken. Also, if they become dirty, I just take a shower and they are clean again. I don’t need your clothes!’

“The student went to Lin Chi and told him what happened. Lin Chi said, ‘You must go to this monk once more and ask him a certain question.’ So the student went to the monk and said, ‘Great monk! I have one question for you. You said you got your original clothes from your parents.’ ‘Of course!’ said the monk. ‘Then I ask you, before you got these original clothes from your parents, what kind of clothes did you have?’ Upon hearing this, the naked monk went deep into samadhi, then into nirvana (he died).

“Everyone was very surprised and sad. But when the monk’s body was cremated, many sarira  appeared, so everyone thought, ‘Ah, this was a great monk.’ Sitting on the high rostrum, Lin Chi hit the stand with his Zen stick and said, ‘Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.’ He hit it again, ‘No form, no emptiness.’ He hit it a third time, ‘Form is form, emptiness is emptiness. Which one is correct?’ Nobody understood. Then the Zen Master shouted ‘KATZ!’ and said, ‘The sky is blue, the tree is green.’ If you cannot answer in one word the question about your original clothes, then, although you can get samadhi and nirvana, you cannot get freedom from life and death.

“Then the Zen Master stared at the sarira — poof! — they turned to water. This is magic! They all turned to water and disappeared. Everyone was surprised. The meaning of this is: if you do samadhi practice deeply, then when you die many sarira will appear. But, these sarira will not last long because they represent ,one mind,’ not ‘clear mind’ which is our original nature. Our original nature has no life, no death, no coming or going. When the true dharma appears, which means form is form, emptiness is emptiness or sky is blue, tree is green- that energy -BOOM! – will appear, all the sarira will turn to water and disappear. Our teaching is substance, truth, and correct life. Our Zen practicing means attain your true self, find the correct way, truth, and life. Any style of practice is OK — even using a mantra. But, don’t be attached to samadhi — you must ‘pass’ samadhi. Zen means ‘everyday mind,’ not special states of mind. Moment to moment keeping a clear mind is what’s important.

“Here is another example. Once one of my students decided to practice with an Indian guru. This guru taught samadhi practice. So my student got a mantra, tried it all the time when he wasn’t working, and went deeply into samadhi. All the time he was having a very good feeling. Then one day while doing this mantra, he was crossing the street. The next thing he knew, a car screeched to a halt, almost hitting him, and loudly sounded its horn. The driver shouted at him, ‘Keep clear mind!’ Then my student was very afraid. The next day he came to me and said, ‘Dae Soen Sa Nim, I have a problem. Last night I almost died. I was practicing samadhi, didn’t pay attention and was almost hit by a car. Please teach me my mistake.’

“So I explained to him, samadhi practicing takes away your consciousness. But Zen means moment to moment keeping clear mind. What are you doing now? When you are doing something, just do it. Then this kind of accident cannot happen. So don’t make samadhi. Don’t make anything! Just do it, O.K.?”

Mu Sang Sunim is director of Dharma Zen Center in Los Angeles. 

Roots of American Buddhism

This talk was given at the end of the second annual congress of the Kwan Um School of Zen, in July 1984. 

Thank you very much for coming here to the school congress. This is the second year of our new school. We are planting seeds in the ground, the seeds of American Buddhism. It has taken twelve years to make this particular form of American Buddhism, so it’s important for people to understand the significance of this new school.

The Kwan Um School of Zen represents the correct roots of Bodhidharma’s teaching. As the school grows up, and as American Buddhism grows up, many other forms will appear: one, two, one hundred flowers. But these different forms will be no problem as long as we keep the original roots.

Twelve years ago Korean Buddhism came to the United States and our new school appeared, a type of Zen school that does not exist in China or Korea or Thailand. In Korea, celibate monks control Buddhism, and lay people follow their ideas. The Kwan Um School of Zen, which has created many different positions within it (Ji Do Poep Sa Nim, senior dharma teacher, dharma teacher bodhisattva teacher, traditional monk) is not just a monk’s idea, but a human idea. This is the American style, but it has the original roots.

Our school has branches in many different countries: Poland, Spain, Brazil, Canada. If we just brought an American idea to them, they wouldn’t necessarily like it or accept it. Our school is not just an American idea. The correct American idea is that when you go to another country, you must understand: that country has its own idea of what is correct for it. American Buddhism is like Buddhism anywhere; it is universal.

Many people have fixed ideas about what is American, but in fact there are countless ideas. Some of these ideas lead to difficulty, and some help many people. If we cling to one idea of what is American, we become narrow-minded and the world of opposites will appear, just as communism and capitalism appear in the political realm. The true American idea is no idea. The true American situation is no situation. The true American condition is no condition.

When any religion is brought into the United States, it’s digested, and a new style appears. For example, Hare Krishnas do not exist in India. Indian Hinduism came here and an American style of Hinduism developed. This is true of any religion, philosophy, or business that comes to the United States: it mixes with what’s here and a new style appears. The correct idea, situation, or condition in any country doesn’t matter; it’s all the same.

The direction and meaning of our school is to let go of your opinion, your condition, your situation. Practice together, become harmonious with each other, and find our true human nature. Find our correct direction, truth, and correct life. So these are our new seeds, just planted. In the second year some growth has appeared, and next year the plant will grow even more. But everything has roots, whether it is a religion, story, house, family, or any kind of group. If a plant has no roots, it will fall over.

So what kind of roots does our school have? A long time ago in India one man appeared and got enlightenment: Shakyamuni Buddha. That’s our root. Then the twenty-eighth patriarch, Bodhidharma, came to China. At that time there were already many kinds of Buddhism being taught, including the sutras, but Bodhidharma brought something new: the teaching of how to correctly perceive mind, or Zen meditation. When he came to China he didn’t bring anything. He only taught “don’t know.”

So the transmission of this “don’t know” teaching came from China and Korea and then here to the United States. The teachings of Bodhidharma are the roots of American Zen. If you have strong roots, a great tree will appear with many branches, leaves, flowers, and eventually many fruits. So it is important to examine our roots, and understand how we are supported by them.

Nowadays in China there is communism, where there used to be many kinds of Buddhism. Bodhidharma’s roots have already disappeared in China; there are no longer any Zen centers. There used to be great Zen centers in the mountains of China, and great meditation masters too, but they have not reappeared.

Japanese Zen has a different story. About a hundred years ago in the Meije dynasty, there was a great general who liked Western culture, any kind of Western education or clothing or forms of society. So he invited many Westerners to Japan, and over the next forty years, everything started changing to a new style. Instead of samurai style with a topknot and kimono, men began to wear their hair short, Western style, and to wear neckties and shoes and suits. Then the general said all the monks could get married. The monks were delighted. After all, monks have desires too. If marriage was the new style, why not get married? It was irresistible. Many monks got married and now you can hardly find celibate monks in Japan. That’s Japanese style Zen.

What is Korean style Zen? It’s an important issue for our new school, which has Korean roots. Back in the Li dynasty (starting in 1392 CE), and for a period of five hundred years, there was intense persecution of Buddhists by the ruling Confucians. It was so great at one time that no monks were allowed to enter the capital city of Seoul. There were four gates to the city, each guarded by the army. If you were a monk you were not allowed in. Even a dog could come and go, but the Li dynasty considered monks less than human beings. At that time there was an old Confucian tradition of wearing special mourning clothes for a period of three years following the death of your parents. Part of the clothing was a hat which completely covered the head, so it was impossible to tell if someone was a monk or not. Only in this manner, wearing mourning clothes, could monks pass through the gates of Seoul.

But persecution is a strong force, and it pushed great people to appear. Many great monks and Zen Masters appeared in Korea during that time. Korean monks also got the reputation of being strong fighters. In one famous series of battles in the 1600’s during the Hideyoshi invasion, Korean warrior monks helped repel a Japanese force so decisively that the Japanese had to retreat As a result, the Japanese were still afraid of Korean monks even in 1910 when the Japanese became colonial rulers of Korea. When the Japanese occupation began, the Soto school of Japanese Zen wanted to control Korean Buddhism, so they proclaimed that all Korean monks could get married. They allowed monks to travel freely, to cut or not cut their hair, and to wear any kind of clothes. They told the monks, you control the minds of your countrymen, so anything you do is no problem. You can make money, come and go in Seoul without hindrance, and do any kind of business. These proclamations made the monks very happy.

In a very famous story about Korean Buddhism, the Japanese governor Minami Chun Dok was in control of Korea at the time. He invited all the abbots of the thirty-one large temples of Korea to a great assembly at the government house in Seoul. Zen Master Man Gong, my grand-teacher, was abbot of the head temple of the Chogye order then, so he and the other abbots came to this meeting. The Japanese governor told them that Japan wanted to help Korea and asked how it could help Korean Buddhism. He spoke to the abbots, telling them they were great monks and leaders of their people. They were very flattered by this, and told him about the severe persecution during the Li dynasty. Because they had had so much suffering before, and now felt free, the monks had only good things to say about the Japanese government. Perhaps their personal feelings for the Japanese were not so good, but at least their words were complimentary.

At this important meeting, Man Gong was the last to speak. He pointed at the Japanese governor, Minami Chun Dok, and said, “Mister Minami, you have already gone to hell! The Amita Sutra says, if someone breaks the precepts of even one monk, he will go to hell. You have broken the precepts of three thousand monks, so you will go to hell!” There was a murmur of horror in the assembly. Why had this crazy monk made a speech like that? The Japanese governor grew angry. Man Gong continued. “Originally this world is pure and clear. Why then do the mountains, the river, the sun, and the moon appear? KATZ!” Now the translator had a terrible problem. If he translated correctly, perhaps the governor would become even more furious and have all the monks killed. They too were afraid of the effect of Man Gong’s speech. The governor ordered his translator to make an accurate translation. “Yes, sir!” The poor man did his job, translating correctly. Then there was a great hush in the assembly. At last Minami, who was a Buddhist, bowed deeply to Man Gong and said, “In Korea, there is still one great Zen Master.!” He wanted to give Man Gong many gifts and do many things for him, but the Zen Master would accept nothing and soon departed. After that meeting there were no further difficulties with the Japanese government. This is a famous story about our lineage, the Chogye order.

After the Second World War, there were 7,600 married monks but only 600 celibate monks. The Chogye order, which consisted of celibate monks, fought the family monk order for control, and after much fighting won control of Korean Buddhism. The family monks went off to start different schools, some going to Taiwan. In Korea now, the whole Chogye order is only celibate monks. That is our lineage, and the roots of the Kwan Um School of Zen.

In America now we are making traditional monks, bodhisattva teachers who can marry, as well as dharma teachers and five precept students all living together. That is Korean Buddhism coming here and changing its form. But roots never move. So yesterday we had an opening ceremony for our first monastery, which will be the home for traditional monks. These roots, which are the correct roots from Bodhidharma, almost died in Korea. Although they were almost lost, in Korea these roots have been kept, and now they have come to the United States.

In building a monastery, the Kwan Um School of Zen now has correct roots, from which will come correct seeds. This is very important. Some people have asked me why must we support this monastery. But this is not correct thinking, not the original style of Buddhism. For example, if you go to Thailand and you become a monk, all the people will help you. Every morning some people make food, take it into the city and give it to the monks. Perhaps our style of support will be different, but that’s original Buddhism. In Buddha’s time, there was no cooking in the monastery. All the monks went begging for food, and then they would eat. Other Buddhists would help the monks.

So we have a new form appearing, and it’s not a good attitude to think “I like this style” or “I don’t like this style” of having monks. Also, don’t judge the monks. Whether a monk is good or bad or even crazy, it doesn’t matter. A monk is a monk. Support is necessary. If you say, “I only want the fruit, but I don’t like the root,” you will have a problem. If you support these roots, the tree of American Buddhism will be strong. Leaves, flowers, fruits will appear. But if you do not support these roots, the tree will fall or soon rot and die.

In the future, American Buddhism means supporting each other; we must help them. We must help each other. After all, what is the root? The tree? The branch? The flower? What is the fruit? This is a very important question. If flower and fruit fight each other, if trunk and root fight, the tree will soon die.

As our Zen centers grow up, many opinions, many likes and dislikes will appear. This is not so good. If someone disagrees with you, follow them without hindrance. This style of mind will be necessary. “No, I won’t change until I die!” This style of mind is a big problem. Please let go of your opinions and help each other. If you say, “I am a senior dharma teacher, so you listen to me!” you are creating difficulties. Just ordering people around won’t work. So don’t hold anything. Our school’s direction is putting down our opinions, conditions, and situations and only helping other people. If you don’t help each other, you make problems. Monks are the original root for our whole school. If we support them, we support the whole tree. So how can we help each other? We must understand our job correctly and do it. That’s the correct job, no matter what your position is.

We have been meeting here for two days, doing hard training. Our sangha is already thirteen years old, so it has problems. Becoming a teenager means even more problems. These future years until we are twenty-one are very dangerous years. Be careful! The correct American idea is no idea. The correct American condition is no condition. The correct American situation is no situation. No idea, no condition, no situation means great idea, great condition, great situation. Everyday mind is Zen mind. The American idea is also the Zen idea. So please everyone, put it all down. Moment to moment, what is your correct idea, correct condition, correct situation? Find that and do it; then you will have no hindrance.

I often use these basic kong-ans: Why do you eat every day? Why is the sky blue? When does sugar become sweet? These are simple, but they have great meaning. Zen Master Joju often said “Go drink tea.” But why drink tea? That’s very important. Just one action. What is Buddha? Zen Master Guji held up one finger. That one finger is primary point. “One finger” mind is the whole universe, all Buddhas and bodhisattvas. But one finger is just one finger. Dry shit on a stick is just dry shit on a stick. Three pounds of flax is three pounds of flax. My hand is my hand. That is what we call correct view. When you see east, don’t make west. East is east, west is west. Don’t add your idea. If you do, west changes to east, and then you have problems. West is west. Don’t change it into east. This is a very important mind to keep. If you add your idea, everything changes.

So put down your ideas. Just sit, just hear, just smell, just taste, just touch, just think. An eminent teacher once said, “Without thinking, just like this is Buddha.” That means, without thinking, when you see, everything is correct, everything is truth. Then use this truth to make your life correct. That is our correct direction. So the American idea and the Zen idea are never different. I hope everyone will put down their ideas of whatever sort, help each other, find human nature, get enlightenment, and save all people from suffering. Thank you.