Q & A in Warsaw

On the first evening of the stay in Poland during Soen Sa Nim’s trip to Europe this spring, about twenty Zen students gathered in an apartment in Warsaw to hear a Dharma Talk and ask questions of Soen Sa Nim. Dharma Teacher Jacob Perl, returning to his native country for the first time since he was fourteen years old, gave the introductory talk. Then he asked if there were any questions. What follows is the beginning of the question and answer exchange:

Soen Sa Nim: O.K. very good. Any questions are O.K., not only about Buddhism. (Long pause.) You have no questions, so this means you already understand! So I have a question. Long ago in Korea there was a famous Zen Temple on a mountain-top. At the bottom of the mountain there was a Sutra Temple. In the middle there were some very wonderful hot springs. The manager of the hot springs was a woman who was a Zen student. Zen monks and Sutra monks sometimes came to the hot springs. One day a Sutra Master went to the hot springs to bathe. When he was finished bathing, this woman said to him, “Oh Master, now you have cleaned your body, but how do you clean your mind?” If you were this Sutra Master, how would you answer her? What kind of answer is good?

Student: What is this for?

Soen Sa Nim: I hit you, not enough! What kind of answer is good? O.K., somebody ask me, then I will tell you. ”How do you clean your mind?”

Student: Master, how do you clean your mind?

Soen Sa Nim: Don’t smudge mind. (Pause.) Original mind is not tainted, not pure. So — “how do you clean your mind?” is already a mistake. Don’t smudge your mind. Very simple. If you have mind, then cleaning mind is possible, smudging mind is possible. But if you have no mind, cleaning and smudging are not possible. So you must take away your mind. No mind is clear like space. Clear like space is clear like a mirror. Red comes; red. White comes; white.

Zen is not difficult, also not special. If you want special, you have special. But this special cannot help you. When you are eating, just eat; when you are walking, just walk; when you drive, just drive. That is Zen. There are many kinds of Zen — eating Zen, working Zen, television Zen, driving Zen, playing tennis Zen. Sitting Zen is one part. Most important is, moment to moment, how do you keep clear mind? So Nam Cheon Zen Master was asked, “What is Zen?” “Everyday mind is Zen mind.” So don’t make special, don’t hold something, don’t be attached to something, don’t make something; then you are already complete.

Somebody asked Ma Jo Zen Master, “What is Buddha?” He answered, “Mind is Buddha, Buddha is mind.” But the next day somebody asked the same question and he said, “No mind, no Buddha.” How are these answers different? “Mind is Buddha, Buddha is mind.” ”No mind, no Buddha.” If you have your mind, you must practice. If you have no mind, already you are Buddha. Very simple.

So before, Dok Sahn Zen Master was asked, “What is Buddha?” “Three pounds of flax.” His mind was empty mind. Just at that time he was weighing flax. So, what is Buddha? Three pounds of flax. Very simple. O.K. do you have any questions? (Long pause.)

O.K., I will teach you our formal style for questions, O.K.?

(Hits the floor with his stick.) Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.

(Hits the floor with his stick.) No form, no emptiness.

(Hits the floor with his stick.) Form is form, emptiness is emptiness.

Three statements: which one is correct?

Another student: YAAAAH! (pounding the floor.)

Soen Sa Nim: You understand one, don’t understand two. (Laughter.) What do you see now? What do you hear now? So only become one. Buddha and you become one mind. But Buddha is Buddha, you are you. The name for this is “form is form, emptiness is emptiness.” You only hit — this means, “No form, no emptiness.” So more practicing is necessary — one more step, O.K.?

O.K. We have a teaching style we use to understand the correct answer. This is a bell. If you say this is a bell, you have an attachment to name and form. If you say this is not a bell, you have an attachment to emptiness. Is this a bell or not?

(As Soen Sa Nim finishes asking the question, two students make head-first dives for the bell, accompanied by much laughter and clapping.)

Soen Sa Nim: Somebody already understands. O.K. Very good.

In our teaching style, what kinds of answers are there? “Is this a bell or not?” First course, only silence. This is without-like-this. Next, your style — hit! This is become-one-like-this. Then next, “The bell is gold, the wall is white:” only-like-this. Next, ring the bell (Soen Sa Nim rings the bell): just-like-this. Four kinds of answers.

So before I told you: form is emptiness, emptiness is form; no form, no emptiness; form is form, emptiness is emptiness. Which one is correct? (No answer.) Yah, somebody ask me, then I will tell you. (Long pause.) No? Then I have an answer for you, O.K.? If you say “correct,” some word is correct, if you find correct, I will hit you. If you cannot find correct, also I will hit you. Why?


The second student gets up quickly, scrambles to the front, picks up Soen Sa Nim’s water cup, and smashes it to the floor.

Soen Sa Nim: Not good, not bad. You only understand one. Hit, breaking the cup; katz, are all the same realm. Yah, when you are a great Zen Master, then sometimes katz!, hit are not only become-one-like-this; any use is possible — freedom. But also, 3 x 3 = 9. Before, when we talked about the bell, only ring is correct. Just like this. What is the function, O.K.?

Soen Sa Nim picks up Jacob’s water cup. This is a cup. If you say “cup,” you have an attachment to name and form; if you say “not a cup,” you have an attachment to emptiness. Is this a cup or not? Will you break this?

The same student: No, I can drink.

Soen Sa Nim: Correct! Why do you break the cup? This is not correct. (He tosses a cup fragment on the floor.)

Same student: “I?”

Soen Sa Nim: You must make “I” disappear.

Jacob: He said, “The ‘I’ which broke the cup?”

Soen Sa Nim: Who is breaking the cup? You broke. So you only understand one, you don’t understand two.

Student: I don’t understand anything.

Soen Sa Nim: You don’t understand anything means you already understand “don’t understand anything,” so already understand something. Don’t understand anything is already one. Where does “don’t understand” come from?

O.K., next, this cup and this bell, are they the same or different? Then do you break them?

The student again gets up quickly…

Soen Sa Nim: Strong action is not necessary, O.K.? Very strong student! You only (hits the floor with his stick) understand this style, but this cup and this bell, are they the same or different? What can you say? Only this style (hits the floor with his stick) is not enough. You ask me, are they the same or different? You ask me!

Student: Are they the same or different?

Soen Sa Nim rings the bell and drinks from the cup. There is laughter.

Soen Sa Nim: Now you understand. Very simple.

Zen is understanding your correct situation. Correct situation means your correct relationship. You and this bell, what is the correct relationship? You and this cup, what is the correct relationship? You and your parents, girlfriend, husband, wife, your job, your country, the whole universe — what is your correct relationship?

This means, you and something always become one. Don’t make subject-object: no inside, no outside. Subject and object become one action. We say that is the nature of function. That is your correct relationship. So we say, when you are doing something, you must do it. This is Great Love, Great Compassion, the Great Bodhisattva Way. When you are hungry, eat. When someone is hungry, give them food.

Q&A about God at Brown University

On Tuesday nights The Providence Zen Center holds a meditation session at the Dharma Room (Manning Chapel) at Brown University. The following is an account of one of the exchanges which has taken place there.

After one of the Dharma Teachers was finished with his introductory remarks, he asked those congregated to direct their questions to Zen Master Seung Sahn, Soen Sa Nim. One of the visitors asked if there was a God.

Soen Sa answered “If you think God, you have God, if you do not think God, you do not have God.”

“I think that there is no God. Why do I have God if I think God?”

“Do you understand God?”

“No, I don’t know.”

“Do you understand yourself?”

“I don’t know.”

“You do not understand God. You do not understand yourself. How would you even know if there was a God or not?”

“Then, is there a God?”

“God is not God, no God is God.”

“Why is God not God?”

Holding up the Zen stick, Soen Sa said “This is a stick, but it is not a stick. Originally, there is no stick. It is the same with God for originally there is no God. God is only name. The same is true of all things in the universe.”

“Then is there no God?”

“The philosopher Descartes said, ‘I think therefore I am.’ If you do not think, you are not, and so the universe and you are one. This is your substance, the universe’s substance, and God’s substance. It has no name and no form. You are God, God is you. This is the ‘big I,’ this is the path, this is the truth. Do you now understand God?”

“Yes, I think that there is no God, and I have no God.”

“If you say that you have no God, I will hit you thirty times. If you say that you do, I will still hit you thirty times.”

“Why will you hit me? I don’t understand. Please explain.”

“I do not give acupuncture to a dead cow. Today is Tuesday.” replied Soen Sa.

The Purposes of Buddhism

“The purposes of Buddhism” means understanding Buddhism’s direction. What we call Buddhism is the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha. Buddhism is not a revelatory religion; it is based entirely on what the Buddha taught as a result of his great enlightenment. So Buddhism is based not on some idea of divinity but on the enlightenment experience of Shakyamuni Buddha, the central event in Buddhist history. The Buddha himself is not special. He attained his true self, which means he completely understood himself and this world. So we say Buddha is mind, mind is Buddha.

If you completely understand yourself, completely attain your true self, you too become a Buddha. The experience of the Buddha says that it is possible for each one of us to have the same enlightenment experience and to become Buddhas ourselves. This means it is possible for each one of us to completely understand ourselves, attain correct way and correct life.

What is attaining correct way and correct life? When the Buddha attained enlightenment, he was not sure if it was possible to transmit the truth he had received, in the hour of his enlightenment, to others. He thought that mankind, addicted to its delusions and attachment, would find it hard to understand his dharma. According to Buddhist legend, Brahma, the highest god in the pantheon, read the Buddha’s mind. Brahma, fearful that the Buddha’s teaching would be lost to this world, appeared before the Buddha and pleaded with him, “May the Blessed One teach the dharma; may the Well-gone One teach the dharma. There are living beings who have only a little dust in their eyes and who have fallen away through not hearing the dharma. It is they who will be recognizers of the dharma.” Then, out of compassion for all beings, the Buddha looked at the world with his Buddha-eye and saw that indeed there were some beings who had keen faculties and only a little impurity. Realizing that there was a suitable audience for his teaching, he decided to proclaim the dharma.

The decision by the Buddha to share his dharma with others was a critical choice in Buddhist history. If he had decided not to act in this world, his withdrawal would have been insignificant for human history. The stated motive for his choice is compassion for all mankind. At the same time, he must have realized that the truth received by him had a dynamic quality and needed to be converted into a message; otherwise, it would go to waste. So the direction or purpose of Buddhism is the same as the Buddha’s example: if you completely understand yourself and attain your true self, you must teach others.

So every day we recite the four great vows. The first vow is, “Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them all.” This vow is a manifestation of Shakyamuni Buddha’s own compassion for all beings. This means that our practice and our enlightenment is not just for ourselves but for all beings. Once again, the purpose of Buddhism is to attain truth, attain prajna (wisdom); that means attain correct way, correct life. Then you can save all beings. This is human beings’ correct job. Attain your true self means attain universal substance; attain universal substance means attain whole-world situation; attain whole-world situation means attain your correct job. How? It means, moment to moment, keep your correct situation, correct function, correct relationship. That means, moment to moment, how do you help others? Not only human beings, but this whole world. When enlightenment and correct life come together, that means your life becomes truth, the suffering world becomes paradise. Then you can change this suffering world into paradise for others. This is human beings’ correct job; this is the purpose of Buddhism.

Practicing Alone

New York, New York
June 26, 1978

Dear Soen Sa Nim,

Thank you for your letter and for the picture of Kwan Seum Bosal. Thank you so much for your care.

I went to Yong Maeng Jong Jin held at Bob’s house on Long Island last weekend. I found practicing with other people very difficult. It is as if I struggle with some deep barrier; I become very strange with people, so that I cannot really act appropriately and want a lot of special attention. I know that this is not good for other people. I cannot bear to do it, but I can’t seem to control it either.

You say that practicing with others will help my bad karma. But I feel as if I would take much more than I could give — that I would be a burden. I do not want to do that again. That is why I have been living and practicing alone. It is so important for me to work every day and to keep my balance.

George, the Master Dharma Teacher, said none of us is special, especially good or especially bad, but I feel so very different from other people. It is strange. I myself do not understand, and I am sorry. I feel that I must continue my practice alone.

Thank you so much for your concern.

Yours sincerely,


The Power of Practice – A tale of old Korea

Buddhism in Korea has a long oral tradition. These stories, transmitted across the generations, helped preserve Korean Buddhism during periods of invasion and repression. Zen Master Seung Sahn is a noted raconteur, and often relates this tale when asked about geomancy.

About two hundred years ago, a young woman, Mrs. Lee, lived with her husband in the city of Seoul, the capital of Korea. They had three young sons and her husband imported and sold fine, high-quality Chinese silk fabrics. It was a happy, comfortable existence for the family. Mrs. Lee herself was very devout and prayed to Kwan Seum Bosal constantly for the prosperity of her family.

One time the husband had to go to Pusan, a city in the far south, on a business trip. A few weeks later news came to Mrs. Lee that her husband had died in Pusan. Her world was shattered. But she was a courageous woman, and she went to Pusan to collect her husband’s body and take possession of the inventory he was traveling with, the bulk of his capital.

In those days the only way to travel distances was to walk. Since it was not possible to carry her husband’s body all the way to Seoul, Mrs. Lee arranged to have the head cut off and embalmed. She put the head in a box, and wrapped the box with most of the Chinese silks her husband had been traveling with. Mrs. Lee hired a servant to carry the box back to Seoul. During their walk back to Seoul, they would stop overnight at country inns; at these inns, Mrs. Lee always kept the box in her own room.

They reached the city of Chonan, which is a major intersection of roads from the south (Pusan) and west (Seoul). At Chonan, Mrs. Lee stayed in a country inn. It so happened that another man who was staying at the inn at the same time was also a dealer in Chinese silks. With only one glance at the silks Mrs. Lee was carrying with her, this man knew that her silks were of a much higher quality than any he had ever dealt in. He knew he could get very good prices for these silks, so he decided to steal them.

Not wishing to be caught, however, he prepared a box of similar dimensions and wrapped it in a thin layer of inferior silks of exactly the same color. He knew only a connoisseur could tell the difference merely by looking at them. With his box ready, he waited for Mrs. Lee to go to sleep. To his frustration, he found that as the night wore on Mrs. Lee was sitting upright in her room and chanting the “Kwan Seum Bosal” mantra very softly for hours on end.

Finally, in the wee hours of the morning, she lay down to sleep. The businessman-turned-thief quietly entered the room and switched boxes. With the precious box in his hands, he left the inn and ran away as far as he could into the woods. Finding an isolated spot, he started unwrapping the box. To his great surprise, he found a wooden box inside the wraps, rather than the bale of silks he had expected. With equally great curiosity, he opened the box and shrieked in horror at seeing a human head inside. He kicked the box away from himself; the head fell out and rolled down a slope into a lake.

Mrs. Lee woke up in the morning and started her journey back to Seoul. Soon she reached home and, in the presence of her grieving relatives, opened the box. She was dumbfounded to see that the box inside was empty; moreover, it was not even the same box she had packed in Pusan! What had happened to her husband’s head? Completely puzzled, she nonetheless went through the mourning ceremonies and soon started looking after her husband’s business. She took equally good care of her three sons. Her business prospered and she became the leading silk merchant in Seoul. Her business advice was widely sought. She put her three sons through the finest schools with the best tutors, and they became fine scholars. They all passed the civil service examinations and were appointed as magistrates and high administrators by the royal court.

The sons convinced their mother they could support her very comfortably, so she wouldn’t have to work so hard at her business any longer. The business was very prosperous and sure to attract a number of buyers. Mrs. Lee acceded reluctantly to her sons’ pleas, but on one condition: that her sons help her build an inn in the town of Chonan, which she would operate herself! It was a most unorthodox wish, but she would not change her mind and finally the sons helped her build the inn.

Mrs. Lee opened the inn with an unusual offer. Anyone could stay free of charge for one night, provided they tell her an interesting story from their life experience! Many came to stay overnight at the inn, some out of curiosity, some out of gratitude for her generosity. Late each morning, she would hold court in the front parlor, where the guests would gather to tell her their stories.

One day, an old man appeared among the guests. When it was his turn, he told how, many long years earlier, he had once stayed at an inn in Chonan. He had seen a young woman with a box of fine Chinese silks and had switched the boxes. To his surprise, Mrs. Lee became greatly excited. She grabbed him by the collar and started shouting, “So you are the thief who stole my box.” The frightened guest protested that it was many years ago and there was no longer anything that could be done about it. Mrs. Lee calmed down and told him she didn’t want to take any action against him – she only wanted to know what he had done with the box inside the silks. He then told her his whole experience of running into the woods, unwrapping the box only to find a head, and kicking it away in horror.

Mrs. Lee prevailed upon him to take her to the spot where this incident had taken place many years ago. From the top of the slope, she followed the path which her husband’s severed head had taken when the box was kicked away by the horrified thief. She hired divers to try to find the head; she consulted skilled geomancers to find an auspicious place to bury the head if it were recovered.

After much consultation among themselves, the geomancers told Mrs. Lee that the spot in the lake where the head had originally landed was actually the most auspicious place for a burial. They listened to her whole story and told her that the success and prosperity she had been able to achieve in business after her husband’s death could be attributed to the auspicious location of her husband’s head in the lake. Furthermore, a geomancer-monk told her that the rolling down of her husband’s head into that auspicious location was not an accident; it was due to her faith and constant chanting of the name of Kwan Seum. Bosal.

After hearing all these findings, Mrs. Lee was very grateful to the thief who had been an unwitting tool for her good fortune. Even though his action had caused her great pain, it turned out to be a blessing for her. To show her appreciation for this accident of karma, she gave money and gifts to the thief and repeatedly expressed her gratitude.

This story is about the original mind of Korean Buddhism. This mind is very pure, very strong. Just have faith in something, then do your practice. Originally there is nothing; so, originally, there is no Kwan Seum Bosal. There is only the power of your mind. All things that happen to you, good things and bad, come from your own mind. That is karma. So, mind is karma, karma is mind. Both are empty. Then, how do you keep your mind in this moment? Just do it. Then you will get everything. That is the true meaning of geomancy, the true meaning of Buddhism.

Post Card Dharma

In the mid-1980’s Soen Sa Nim was on the road so much that he is answered much of his correspondence with post cards. The following is a sample:

Dear Soen Sa Nim,

I have been asking myself the question, what am I?

Please tell me, what are you?

Thank you very much.


Dear Michael,

Thank you for your letter. How are you?

You asked me, what am I? I say to you, you already understand. Look at the ground. What do you see? What do you hear now? You must open your eyes and ears. Also you must attain your true self. Then you will not have to ask about me.

I hope you only go straight don’t know, which is clear like space, soon believe your eyes and ears, get Enlightenment and save all beings from suffering.

Yours in the Dharma,

Soen Sa Nim

Poem on the Occasion of Thirty Years of Teaching Abroad

Given June 20, 1996
Mountain is mountain, water is water,
Mountain is blue, water is flowing.
East, West, South, North.
Circling around, around and around this globe for thirty years.
Running, running, and running, not resting even for a day,
In order to show correct Way, correct Truth, and correct Life.

This empty world becomes substance world,
Substance world becomes truth world.
Truth world changes into function world.
World after world, life after life, only following the Bodhisattva path.
To attain that, could not even rest one minute, not even one second.

White faces, black faces, yellow faces.
Numberless eyes all become one.
Holding both hands with palms together:
Blue sky, white cloud, universal love and service.
Throughout world after world, life after life, following the Bodhisattva Way.
Kwan Se Um Bosal, Kwan Se Um Bosal. Great Love, Great Compassion, save
those in suffering, in difficulty,
Kwan Se Um Bosal.

What is this?
Don’t know!

The heavens collapse, and the ground caves in.
The great universe is split from side to side.
In the midst of true emptiness, without even one thing.
Where do you come from, and where do you go?

What is this?
Only don’t know!


The frightened rabbit with horns runs to the South,
the stone snake with wings flies to the North.
The Sunrise at dawn brightens the Eastern sky,
a beautiful white cloud passes towards the West.
Thirty years pass by just like a dream.
Shin Myo Jang Gu Dae Da Ra Ni
with palms together:

How may I help you!

Perceive Universal Sound

This interview was first printed in The American Theosophist, May 1985 and was reprinted with permission in Primary Point, volume 5, number 3 (November 1988).

American Theosophist: What is Zen chanting?

Zen Master Seung Sahn: Chanting is very important in our practice. We call it “chanting meditation.” Meditation means keeping a not-moving mind. The important thing in chanting meditation is to perceive the sound of one’s own voice; not hear, but perceive.

AT: Are you using the word “perceive” in a special sense?

ZMSS: Yes. Perceiving your voice means perceiving your true self or true nature. Then you and the sound are never separate, which means that you and the whole universe are never separate. Thus, to perceive our true nature is to perceive universal substance.

With regular chanting, our sense of being centered will get stronger. When we are strongly centered we can control our feelings, and thus our condition and situation.

AT: When you refer to a “center” do you mean any particular point in the body?

ZMSS: No, it is not just one point. To be strongly centered is to be at one with the universal center, which means infinite time and infinite space.

The first time one tries chanting meditation there will be much confused thinking, many likes, dislikes, and so on. This indicates that the whole mind is outwardly-oriented. Therefore, it is necessary first to return to one’s energy source, to return to a single point.

AT: In other words, one must first learn to concentrate?

ZMSS: Yes. Below the navel we have a center that is called an “energy garden” in Korean. We eat, we breathe, and this area becomes a source of power. If the mind becomes still, this saves energy. The mind, however, is constantly restless. There is an endless stream of desires for various kinds of experience: sights, sounds, smells, tastes, feelings. This turning outward of the mind in search of sensory experience dissipates one’s energy until finally there is nothing left in the energy garden. Thereby one becomes subject to control by outside conditions or influences, and so loses control over his or her life.

For this reason, our meditation practice means: do not think anything. In other words, do not use your eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, or mind. By doing this our center gets stronger and stronger, and there is an experience of growing clarity.

AT: How does Zen chanting differ, if at all, from the recitation of mantras?

ZMSS: In mantra practice there is no (audible) sound. It is only internal. One merely concentrates on repeating the mantra to oneself. In chanting, on the other hand, we chant out loud in a group and just perceive the sound of our voice.

When we talk about perceiving sound during chanting we mean having a clear mind. This is different from a mind that can be lost, and also different from a one-pointed mind.

For example, consider two people having a good time together, enjoying each other’s company, laughing, feeling good and so forth. Suddenly a man appears with a gun and demands money. Instantly the good feeling evaporates and there is only fear and distress. “Somebody please help! Don’t shoot!” The mind, the centeredness is completely lost.

But suppose that a person is walking in the street concentrating on a mantra with a one-pointed mind. Then if a man appears with a gun and demands money there will be only om mani padme hum or whatever. “Hey, are you crazy! I said give me your money.” Then there is still only om mani padme hum. This is concentration, one-pointed mind.

Finally, suppose that someone with a clear mind is walking in the street and a robber appears. Then the response is “How much do you want?” This is clear mind. If the man shouts “Give me all of it!” there is no problem. “Okay, here is all of it.” In fact, with a clear mind one can use such a situation to teach others. There are a number of Zen stories in which thieves or robbers have been so surprised and shaken by the calm response of a clear-minded Zen Master that they later returned to learn Zen from him.

So chanting ultimately means clear mind, not concentration. In concentration you want to make something; there is some desire to focus on one point. This is different than simply perceiving the sound of one’s voice, without separation.

AT: In some Buddhist chanting the sound is very low and constricted, as though being produced from below the navel under great pressure. What is the reason for this?

ZMSS: That is the Japanese style. It comes from the hara, the point just below the navel. This is not necessary. If the sound comes from the general area of the stomach it will be correct. One does not have to try to chant from that point below the navel. The sound comes by itself if it is done correctly.

AT: What is the difference between Zen chanting and singing?

ZMSS: Direction is what makes the difference. Love songs, for example, have only what we might call a “love direction.” This is in the realm of opposites, love and hate, liking and disliking. Emotions come in, so most singing is emotional. Chanting however, means that the direction is very clear. Remember the phrase “chanting meditation.” The direction or aim here is to obtain enlightenment in order to save all beings from suffering.

AT: And this is not to try for some type of feelings or emotional quality?

ZMSS: No, I am not trying for any good feeling for me. Chanting is not for oneself. It is for all beings. That is the difference.

AT: In other words, it is an expression of the bodhisattva’s compassion?

ZMSS: Yes.

AT: What is the relation between compassion and wisdom?

ZMSS: Compassion is the function of wisdom; it is the action. Wisdom gives the direction.

AT: By this you mean knowing what to do in order to help someone – and also how to do it correctly?

ZMSS: Right.

AT: So compassion is more than just a warm feeling toward a person.

ZMSS: Yes. If that warm feeling of compassion has no direction, if one’s mind is not clear, there is every chance of doing more harm than good; and that will not really be compassion. Therefore wisdom is crucial.

AT: How long should one chant?

ZMSS: Chanting every day is important in our practice. We do not do it for such a long time. In the morning we chant for about forty-five minutes, and in the evening, perhaps for twenty-five minutes. But regularity is important.

AT: You do not try for any emotional effect in chanting, but does it still have an effect on the emotions?

ZMSS: Just do it! This analysis into emotional mind, intellectual mind, and so on must disappear. There must be no mind. Then there is just clarity and infinite time and space.

AT: In one of the Buddhist sutras it says that enlightenment may be obtained by turning back the faculty of hearing to the original nature, and that this is the most suitable method for human beings. Will you comment on this?

ZMSS: Those are merely different “teaching words.” The idea, however, is the same as we have been discussing. Don’t cling to words. Just do it! (laughter)

AT: How?

ZMSS: Listen. Everything is universal sound; birds singing, thunder, dogs barking – all this is universal sound. If you have no mind, everything will be perceived as such. Therefore when you are chanting with no mind it is also universal sound. If you have “I” then it is “my” sound. But with a mind clear like space, sometimes even the sound of a dog barking or a car horn honking will bring enlightenment. Because at that moment you and the sound become one.

AT: Is this moment of enlightenment related to samadhi?

ZMSS: Samadhi, as we use the term, means one-pointed mind. This is not enlightenment. It is concentration mind. Samadhi, you see, is only a good feeling for me, not for other people. Moreover, it is merely a one-pointed mind, not clear mind.

AT: Will you explain about how someone can attain enlightenment by hearing a loud sound, as we read about in Zen stories?

ZMSS: If you do loud chanting, for example, and if you do it one hundred percent – put your whole energy into it – at that time there will be no “I.” Thus there is no “my” opinion, situation or condition. In this regard, chanting together in a group is very important. Group chanting takes away “my” opinion, situation, condition and so on very easily. One has to blend in and harmonize with the rest of the chanters. The main thing, however, is just to do it totally.

AT: You have said that in practicing a mantra or chanting it is important to keep the “great question,” namely, “Who is practicing this mantra” or “Who is chanting?” Why is this question about “who” important?

ZMSS: I tell students to find out “What am I?” This is a kong-an. Before thinking, what are you? One says “I don’t know.” But even before speaking, prior to any words or thoughts, this “before-thinking mind” is clear mind.

AT: Can music be a form of Zen practice also?

ZMSS: Music is not usually Zen practice but it can be. If the player just plays and becomes one with the playing it can be called Zen. But most of the time the direction is not clear in music. Usually there is some emotional control, some direction given by emotions. And the musician may be trying to control the emotions of the audience through his music. In fact, we speak of good music as having this sort of effect on other people’s emotions. Emotional music means opposites-mind: wanting or not wanting, good feeling, bad feeling. But true Zen music is different. It has been compared to the jumping of a fish up and down in the river.

AT: Spontaneous?

ZMSS: Yes, but not emotional. Listening to it brings a very quiet mind, a very clear mind. That is Zen music. But one should not cling to the opinion “This is music, that is not music.” If we are not attached to anything then everything is Zen music.

AT: In the Heart Sutra it says that the prajna paramita mantra (mantra of transcendental wisdom) is the great mantra. Would you explain this?

ZMSS: Yes. They call it “the transcendental mantra, the great bright mantra, the utmost mantra” and so forth. This means that if one simply tries this mantra, gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha, with one’s whole energy, then it will be the greatest mantra. Actually, of course, any mantra which you try in this way will be “the greatest mantra” for you! That particular mantra is not special, not different from any other. But all sutras which refer to any kind of mantra will say that it is special.

AT: Which means it is special if one believes that it is.

ZMSS: Correct. A student once asked me, “if this is true then even the words ‘Coca Cola’ can be a mantra?” Yes, if you really believe that “Coca Cola” is the greatest mantra and practice it diligently, it will work for you.

AT: Isn’t there a danger of hypnotizing oneself with a mantra, of putting oneself into a sleepy state?

ZMSS: Yes. Again the difference between this and the correct method of practice lies in the direction or aim. Falling into a sleepy or hypnotic state means that the direction is not clear. Practice thus becomes merely habitual or mechanical action. So it is important to ask “Why am I practicing this mantra? Is it for me or for other people?” In self-hypnosis from mechanical repetition there is no such aim; or perhaps the aim is merely to relax or to get some sort of good feeling for oneself. In that case it is easy to fall into a dull, drowsy state, but not so if the direction is clear.

However, sometimes, if very neurotic people come to learn about our practice, mechanical repetition of a mantra can do some good, perhaps helping them to gather more energy and become stabilized.

AT: How does one keep a before-thinking mind during chanting?

ZMSS: Just do it! If you chant with all your energy, thinking has already been cut off.

AT: Because to think while chanting is to divide one’s energy?

ZMSS: Right. Simply chanting with one hundred percent of one’s energy poured into the chant is already empty mind, clear mind, which is not a state of ignorance or delusion. “Your” before-thinking mind and “my” before-thinking mind are the same mind. Then your substance, the substance of this paper in front of us, my substance are all the same, all universal substance.

But someone will say that this universal substance is Buddha, or God, or nature, or the Absolute, and so forth. But actually it has no name, no form, no speech, no thought, because it is before all of this appears.

AT: Would you say something about the relationship between chanting and the breath? What about the link between the breath and the mind?

ZMSS: One should not check the breathing. It is necessary to put all such considerations aside and just do the chant with all of one’s energy. Correct breathing will then naturally be the result. Just sitting will also do the same thing.

AT: Do you mean as in Soto Zen where the main form of practice is called “just sitting” (shikantaza)?

ZMSS: Yes. But it is easy to get attached to sitting in Soto Zen practice. Therefore, one must understand what this “just sitting” is. Any kind of action – chanting, bowing, sitting, lying down, walking – all these can be Zen practice so long as one keeps a still mind. But in Soto Zen practice it is often only “body sitting”: that is, where one’s body is sitting but the mind is moving all over, chasing thoughts. This is not just sitting.

AT: You mentioned that any action can be Zen practice, but is there something about just sitting that makes it especially good? Why do Zen monks spend so much time at it?

ZMSS: For one thing, if one just sits, then all the internal organs of the body benefit. The sitting posture is very helpful because when one just sits with the back straight and the mind still, a great deal of energy is accumulated and all the functions of the body become correct. Sometimes the body is ill because it is out of balance. So one must first control the body. Then breathing and mind will automatically be controlled.

AT: Are there any other sorts of sounds or rhythms that are important in Zen practice?

ZMSS: One famous Zen Master only heard the sound of a rooster crowing and was enlightened. Another Zen Master was just sweeping in the yard when his broom threw a rock against a piece of bamboo with a loud knock and he was enlightened. He and the sound had become one. so this matter of sound in Zen practice is really very simple. Any sound will do.

But regarding particular sounds that we regularly use, there are bells, drums, gongs and so forth. All of these have a meaning. For instance, the drum made out of animal skin reminds us about saving all animals; the sound of the big bell means saving all beings in the different hells. Thus we are reminded about the bodhisattva’s compassion. But this is only the external meaning. The inner meaning is the same as what we have been discussing. It is necessary to perceive the sound, whatever it is – bell, drum, gong, etc. – and to become one with it. There is no thought, no separation, only perceiving sound. This is the crucial point. So just perceive this bell or drum sound, cut off all thinking, and then your wisdom-mind will grow up. You will get enlightenment and thus save all beings.

Outside It is Raining : Zen Master Seung Sahn Visits the 6th Patriarch’s Temple

This article was written by Zen Master Dae Bong.

In 1985, Zen Master Seung Sahn and twenty-one students traveled through China, visiting Buddhist temples and engaging in Zen dialogues and conversations with Chinese Masters and abbots.

In 1992, the Venerable Fou Yuen, abbot of Nam Hwa Sah, the sixth patriarch’s temple in northern Guangdong Province, invited Zen Master Seung Sahn to lead a three day retreat for Chinese and Western students. Organized by the Hong Kong Zen Center, the retreat took place September 5-7, 1992. Fifty Chinese monks from Nam Hwa Sah, thirty-five Zen students from Hong Kong and fifteen monks, nuns and lay people from America, Canada, Poland and Germany participated.

Nam Hwa Sah was built over thirteen hundred years ago. It is most famous because it is the temple of the sixth patriarch, located on Chogye Mountain (Ts’ao Chi). It is one of the few Buddhist temples in China not destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. The temple has three hundred and twenty rooms. There are six big halls and nine small ones. The temple is built in three long rectangles. In the center of the main rectangle, going up the mountain are first, the main Buddha Hall; next, the library where sutras and Buddhist statues and relics are stored; next, an ancient pagoda of stone; and next, the hall in which the sixth patriarch’s body is enshrined. To the right is a rectangle of buildings containing the kitchen and guest quarters. To the left, a rectangle of buildings containing the Zen hall and monks’ quarters. All the buildings and halls are connected by covered walkways, between which are gardens. The temple gives one a feeling of strength, serenity and openness.

There are one hundred and twenty monks and nine lay people living at the temple. The government is more open regarding religion now. There are three to five hundred visitors to the temple every day. Most are tourists from Taiwan, and local people. The government regulates money at the temple but otherwise seldom interferes with temple affairs. The government does want to register the people who regularly practice religion, however.

Teaching at the temple comes mostly from reading the sutras and from the abbot’s life experience. The practice is chanting, every morning and evening. Some monks sit Zen for the length of one incense stick four times a day. The rest of their time is spent maintaining the temple for tourists.

The Yong Maeng Jong Jin (Zen meditation retreat) led by Zen Master Seung Sahn included bowing, chanting and much sitting. Zen kong-an style interviews were given to everyone each day by Do An Sunim, JDPSN, abbot of the Providence Zen Center (now Zen Master Dae Kwang and School abbot). For the Chinese monks, it was the first time actually working with kong-ans and a Zen teacher. Zen Master Seung Sahn gave a dharma speech and answered questions each day. Many monks in addition to those sitting the retreat attended the dharma speeches. Before, they only understood sutra and Pure Land teaching. They were both very surprised and excited by Zen-style teaching. The question and answer times were particularly lively, with both younger and older monks engaged in asking the Zen Master many questions. Lively conversations ensued.

One monk said, “Zen is for very high class people to study and I am very low class. There is no way for me to understand.”

Zen Master Seung Sahn said, “Don’t make high class or low class.” Picking up a fan, he asked, “What is this? You don’t know?”

“A fan.”

“If you say ‘fan,’ you are attached to name and form. If you say ‘not fan,’ you are attached to emptiness. Is this a fan or not?”

The monk couldn’t answer.

Zen Master Seung Sahn said, “You ask me.”

The monk asked, “Is this a fan or not?”

Zen Master Seung Sahn fanned himself. Everyone applauded. Then he said, “Name and form are not important. Name and form are made by thinking. How everything correctly functions is very important. Everybody uses this fan. Chinese people use a fan. Korean people. Japanese people. American people also use this. Moment-to-moment, just do it. That’s Zen mind. That’s the Sixth Patriarch’s teaching.”

Another monk asked, “In the Pure Consciousness school they say that when you reach the eighth level you can take away ignorance. But the Tiendai school says you can’t get rid of ignorance until you become Buddha.”

Zen Master Seung Sahn said, “In the Heart Sutra it says the five skandas are empty. Do you understand that? What is the eighth consciousness?”

“Buddha said when the eighth level is reached that is the Bodhisattva level…”

“Buddha speech is all lies. The sixth patriarch said, ‘Originally nothing.’ Do you have something? Please show me.”

“Two different schools pointing at two different things. How should I apply this teaching to my practice?”

“So, I say to you, when Buddha died he said, ‘My whole life I never spoke one word.’ That is a very important point. All sutra teaching is like children’s cookies and toys. Do you like cookies? Then reading sutras is no problem.”

“There is a monk from Singapore who came here and preached about two schools. This monk said we must use Buddha’s speech to be our guideline.”

“I don’t like Buddha’s speech. I like your true speech.” (laughter)

The monk started to speak, then became confused, turned red and then smiled.

Zen Master Seung Sahn said, “That’s OK. Enough. More questions?”

A monk asked, “Does the Pure Land exist or not?”

Zen Master Seung Sahn said, “Outside, it is raining.”

Everyone was very surprised, then the monk smiled and said, “Thank you very much.”

After the retreat there was a precepts ceremony presided over by Zen Master Seung Sahn and Do An Sunim, JDPSN, held in the sixth patriarch’s hall. Twenty Chinese monks took precepts with Zen Master Seung Sahn. Also, three lay people from Guangzhou and three lay people from Hong Kong took five precepts and one American took novice monk precepts. Everyone was very happy with the retreat and precepts ceremony and pledged to continue efforts to practice together and share our teaching and experiences. Many Chinese monks expressed interest in coming to Korea to sit Winter Kyol Che (the traditional three month retreat).

On September 8th, a big ceremony was held at Un Mun Sah for the opening of the Un Mun Sah Buddhist Sutra School. Zen Master Seung Sahn and his students from Hong Kong and the West were invited, along with the Minister of Religion of the Province and other local officials and senior monks.

Un Mun Sah, also in Guangdong Province, was founded over a thousand years ago by the great Zen Master Un Mun. It has been rebuilt during the last eight years after being destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. The abbot of Nam Hwa Sah has also been abbot of Un Mun Sah for fourteen years.

After chanting in the main Buddha Hall, many speeches were given in honor of the sutra school’s opening. Zen Master Seung Sahn was also asked to speak.

Hitting the table with his stick, he said, “Opening is closed. Closed is opening.”

Hitting the table with his stick again, he said, “Originally nothing. So, no opening, no closing.”

Hitting the table a third time with his stick, he said, “Everything complete, so, opening is opening, closing is closing.”

“Three statements. Which one is correct? If you find correct, this stick will bit you thirty times. If you cannot find correct, this stick will still hit you thirty times. Why?


“Open the door, many Buddhas and bodhisattvas appear.

“Today, the Un Mun Sah Buddhism School is opening. That is very wonderful. The government helps us a lot. Everyone is helping us a lot. Also, the abbot is helping us all a lot. That is very, very wonderful.

“This world is changing, changing, changing, changing. So, everybody said, this is end of this world. But Buddha said, not end of this world. This world is always complete. Already Buddha taught us, first: this world is impermanent. Next, this world is complete. So, today this school opening means save all beings.

“Before, Chinese Buddhism was the best in this world, but it almost died. But now the government is helping Buddhism, helping many temples appear, and helping many monks receive education. That is very, very wonderful. That means, in the midnight, bright light appears.
“So, everybody come here, read sutras, practice strongly, attain Buddha’s way and save all beings.

“Long time ago Un Mun Zen Master said ‘What is Buddha? Dry shit on a stick.’ If you do strong practicing, attain that point, then you attain your true self and everything is no problem. If your center is not strong then the sutras read you. You must read the sutras. That’s very important.

I hope everyone does strong practicing, practicing, gets enlightenment and saves all beings from suffering.

“Thank you very much.”

Everyone was very happy with Zen Master Seung Sahn’s speech. The abbot said it was a very high class Zen speech. The Minister of Religion said that now that relations between China and South Korea are open, more connections, and exchange of Buddhism, and coming and going will be possible. He was very happy.

After the Western monks and nuns and the Hong Kong Zen students had bowed good-bye and thank you to the abbot, the abbot gave us a good-bye speech. He said, “Zen Master Seung Sahn got enlightenment at age twenty-two. I have not yet got enlightenment, so I cannot give a dharma speech. Only I have this robe, eat and work each day. Please take care of your teacher because he has the sixth patriarch’s mind. He has the same transmission as the sixth patriarch. So Buddhism in Korea and China has the same root. Buddhism in Korea and China is the same. That’s all.”

Our Practice

Our world is supported by three columns: time, space, and cause and effect. But, where do time and space come from? Also, who makes cause and effect? Time, space, and cause and effect are made by thinking. Our thinking makes everything. So the three columns that support our world are created by our mind.

But if our mind disappears, then thinking disappears. If thinking disappears then time, space, and cause and effect disappear; then empty world appears. Empty… completely empty. Another name for “empty world” is Substance. This is the Substance of the whole universe: human being’s substance, dog’s substance, everything’s substance.

Ten thousand dharmas return to one. This one comes from where? During interviews everybody hits the floor: BOOM! Everything becomes one point: no name, no form, no space, no cause and effect, no time … nothing at all. The name for this is the Absolute. If you open your mouth about the Absolute then you’ve already made a mistake. Only action.

If you keep that point for a long time, then you see clearly, hear clearly, smell clearly, taste clearly, touch clearly, think clearly, and act clearly. Which means the sky is blue; trees are green; the dog is barking–woof, woof; sugar is sweet. Then, when you see, when you hear, when you smell, everything, just as it is, is the truth. Truth is beyond time and space, cause and effect. There are no opposites. This is the Absolute. If you attain this point, you attain the Truth.

How can this point function correctly? Most important in our practice is a clear direction; then a correct life is possible. This world has a lot of suffering. How can we help all beings? The name for that is bodhisattva action. If you wake up moment to moment and keep a clear mind, then correct direction and truth and correct life are always in front of you. Then your action, your life, and you are never separate.

However, if this moment is not clear, then time and space, cause and effect will control you. That means your mind makes subject/object world. If your mind is clear, then subject and object disappear. This is the Absolute. Then everything is clear in front of you, and helping this world is possible. That is our practice.