From exchanges in Cambridge & Providence in April 1999:
Question: I am trying to decide whether the path I am on is right for me.
Zen Master Seung Sahn: You cannot find your job? So I ask you, who are you? Who is speaking now?
Q: I’m sorry?
ZMSS: Who is speaking?
Q: Who am I?
ZMSS: Only go straight is your true job. Only go straight “don’t know” — then everything becomes clear. If you are thinking, thinking, thinking, then this is not yours. Then everything is just talk talk talk! Sky never said, “I am blue.” Tree never said, “I am a tree.” American dogs say, “Bow wow.” Korean dogs say, “Wong wong.” Polish dogs say, “How how.” Which is correct dog barking? [laughter] You don’t understand? These are just human ideas of a dog barking, not a true dog barking. Your ideas control you, so most important is to take away your idea. That means, don’t keep your mind here [indicates his head]. If you keep your mind here, your understanding will control you. Other people’s ideas will control you. If you keep your mind here [indicates tantien], then your original mind will appear, your love and compassion mind. This is the tantien point, one inch below your navel. Always keep your attention here, breathing slowly. Five seconds breathing in with your stomach becoming bigger, and then ten seconds breathing out. Slow, slow, breathing out. Try, try, try, okay? Then your center will become stronger and stronger. Then you can see clearly, hear clearly and smell clearly — everything becomes clear! “Clear” means you attain truth. And then, how does truth function to help all beings? If you attain the answer to that question then the direction of your life will become clear.
Q: What are the benefits of breathing in for five and counting out for ten, as opposed to just being attentive to the breath as it happens?
ZMSS: If your mind is moving then do that. If your mind is not moving, then watching or counting is not necessary. Is your mind moving?
Q: It’s moving.
ZMSS: So if your mind is moving, then breathing in slowly, slowly, and slowly, slowly breathing out, are very important. If you try this way, soon “breathing in for five” and “breathing out for ten” is no problem. Then keeping a clear mind becomes very easy.
Q: I heard that love is not a word that is used in Zen. It seems that if we have compassion for all sentient beings, that is love, isn’t it?
ZMSS: Of course! Love and compassion, and bodhisattva action. That’s unconditional love, okay? A mother loves her child very much, but when the child is always breaking windows, breaking toys — always being bad — then the mother might spank the child, but this is compassion. It is the same with human beings: A lot of bad action! A lot of suffering! The great bodhisattva of compassion, Kwan Seum Bosal, is always trying to help all beings. This is our true compassion mind at work. Bodhisattva mind means not only for this life, but doing this life after life after life. So love and compassion mind is very important.
Q: It seems that many times people don’t know how to relate to each other. But we need to always keep our correct relationship. How do we do this? I understood this to mean that there is a specific, set relationship between people and things: student/teacher, mother/daughter, etc. But why should there be a specific correct relationship? Why doesn’t it depend on the individual?
ZMSS: Correct relationship means that you don’t hold on to “my” opinion, “my” condition, and “my” situation. If you completely put down your opinion, your condition, and your situation, then moment to moment, your correct situation, correct function, and correct relationship will appear naturally. So putting down “my” opinion, “my” condition, “my” situation is very important… but also very difficult! So practicing is very important. Please come to a Zen Center, practice, then there will be no problem. Put it all down, then there’s no problem. Then you attain great love, great compassion, and the great bodhisattva way.
Q: If my knee hurts, I know what to do: I go to the doctor, and he looks at the problem rationally, and we decide in a clear-cut way what we have to do. If you don’t feel good in your head, it’s the same principle: I go to someone, I ask them to look at this and give me a clear-cut answer about how to make it better. But there is no one on this planet who can tell you how to feel better. You can’t even hold a good feeling if you have it. Where do these feelings come from? I still instinctively treat this like my knee. When I don’t feel good at certain times, I always look for that rational answer, like running around in a cage.
ZMSS: Do you have mind?
ZMSS: Where is your mind? How big is it?
Q: I don’t know.
ZMSS: You don’t understand your mind! You are holding your mind, and checking, checking, checking! When you were born — BOOM! — you came out. Did you check then? You weren’t checking. You had baby mind. If you want something in this life and you cannot get it then whaaaaah! — crying. Checking, checking, checking! Then you have a problem. Don’t check anything — just do it — then your feelings can’t control you.
Q: So I was fine in the beginning, and now I’ve lost my way?
ZMSS: Yes. We say, “put it down — put down everything.” Then your center will become stronger, stronger, stronger. You have too much understanding; that is a problem. So put it down, okay? Who are you?
ZMSS: [laughs] Only don’t know!
Q: I would imagine, as a Buddhist monk, you are very in tune with energy. I remember you saying how you enjoyed the sixties, and enjoyed the feeling back then. I’m curious what you have to say about the energy thirty years ago — the feelings, connections, and the way human beings are to each other — and how it compares to now. People seem so uptight now! What would you say about the energy then as compared to now?
ZMSS: Sky already blue. Tree already green. That’s all.
Q: So you don’t notice a difference? [laughter]
ZMSS: If you think it’s different now, you have a problem. Not different, also have problem. Don’t make problem. The sky is already blue. The tree is already green. Do you understand?
Q: I understand.
ZMSS: Then no problem! [laughs]
Q: What is “small I” and “big I”?
ZMSS: That’s a big question. Not long ago, about ten years ago, I knew a man who studied at a university in Seoul. In the day, he went to the university and at night he worked for money to go to school. At that time, there was a lot of suffering in Korea–not much money, not much food. So he would study all day and work at night. One evening he bought some bread and sat under a tree by the road to eat. Suddenly a child appeared in front of him who was very hungry and wanted food. He started to check the situation but the poor child was right in front of him. If he didn’t eat the bread himself, he would go hungry and maybe not be able to study or work properly; but if he didn’t share the bread with this poor child, then what? The child was hungry! That thought wouldn’t leave him alone. Finally he gave the bread to the child and said, “You eat!” And the child took the bread and said, “Oh, wonderful, thank you very much!” Then, the man got a very good feeling: “Oh, wonderful!” So his stomach was hungry but his mind was full: he had a good feeling.
Nowadays in America, people are very rich. Outside they are rich; but inside, they are very poor. We must attain love, compassion, and bodhisattva action. “Bodhisattva” means to not hold my desires, to put down desire and help all beings. The name for that is bodhisattva action. That’s very important. Look at this world: a lot of nuclear weapons. America, Russia, many other countries too. If all these weapons explode, what will happen to our world? There are too many human beings! In 1945, there were two billion people — that’s after many thousands of years! Now there are six billion people. Too many human beings have appeared!
In this world cause and effect are very clear. What was the primary cause of this? What condition led to it? What was the result? Whenever something happens, you have to look at these three things. Western people eat meat every day. In the past, Asian people only ate meat on holidays or their birthday. But nowadays, in Korea or Japan or China: three meals a day, eat meat, eat meat, eat meat! We kill many animals, then this animal consciousness becomes a human being. So many of our faces look like human beings’, but inside our minds are animal. First this appeared in America and Russia, then it appeared in smaller countries. Russia controlled many countries for a long time. If you correctly control, it’s not a problem. But this was not correct, so there was a revolution in Russia. Then the smaller countries separated and started yelling, “My country! My country! My country!” Then there were many problems. Now all over Europe, there are many small countries fighting each other. Where does that come from? Dog doesn’t like cat; cat doesn’t like dog. Dog doesn’t understand cat mind, and cat doesn’t understand dog mind. No animal understands the other beings’ minds. Only human beings can understand other beings’ minds. Human beings originally have a love and compassion mind. But when “only me” mind appears, then this bodhisattva mind disappears, and we become the same as a dog or a cat. So practicing is very important. Finding your true self is very important. Then love, compassion, and a bodhisattva mind appear.
Q: If my substance and your substance are the same, then aren’t our true selves the same?
ZMSS: If it appears to be the same, you have a problem. [laughter] [hits the floor]
Q: [claps hands]
ZMSS: Do you understand that? Good. No problem! [laughs] Are our minds the same or different? Either way, this is opposites thinking. Zen means no opposites thinking: moment to moment, just do it! Then your center becomes stronger, and you can see clearly, hear and smell clearly, then everything is clear, even your thinking! The name for this is truth. The sky is blue, the tree is green; everything is the truth. What is not the truth? Then how does truth function correctly to help all beings? The name for that is bodhisattva action. Try that.
Q: In the Tibetan tradition, they have stories where one Dalai Lama dies, and before he dies he says, “I’m going to be reborn in two years in such-and-such a place.” They go and check out this baby, and the baby seems to be the Dalai Lama. Is this true, and if it is, how do they do that?
ZMSS: Go to Tibet and ask a baby! [laughter] I am a Zen Master, not a baby! That is the Tibetan tradition. They practice and practice and perceive their next life. So a master says, “When I die, I will go to this place and reappear,” and the baby appears. But nowadays, sometimes two or three babies appear, saying, “I am the old master!” “I am also the old master!” “No, I am the old master!” So now they have a problem in Tibetan Buddhism. Zen Buddhism, no problem, okay? [laughter]
Q: I’ve been very reckless in my past, and very unaware for a long time. Presently, I am becoming more aware, but my past is a bit of a hindrance to me. It clouds my ability at times to have clear thought. Is there any advantage to asking myself why I may have done these things, and how do I come back to primary point?
ZMSS: Go to a Zen Center and practice. Then, there will be no problem. Your center will get stronger and stronger. You will perceive your karma, and your karma will function correctly to help other people. That’s very important, okay? So come to the Zen Center and try that for three years. The calligraphy hanging on the wall here is very interesting. The first line says, “The great way has no gate.” “Great way” means any human being’s correct way, and it has no gate. The next line says, “Our tongue has no bone” — correct speech saves all beings, but bad speech kills many people. If you use your tongue well, you help people; if you don’t use it correctly, then you make many problems! Next line: “Spring comes everywhere.” If you look outside, small buds are in the trees. Soon, this tree will show leaves and flowers — very wonderful! Spring is coming! Then, “The willow is green; the flower is red.” When spring completely comes, the willow is green, the flower is red. This is truth — but you must attain the truth. What is not the truth? Everything in this world is the truth, but people are attached to things, so they don’t understand the truth. So put it all down. Keep your mind in your tantien, then you will see clearly, hear clearly, smell clearly, taste clearly, touch clearly, everything will be clear. Then your mind also will become clear. Then what you see, what you hear, what you smell — everything is the truth! Then, how does truth function correctly to help all beings? That is a very important point.
Our practice is “What am I?”, “Only don’t know.” When you are thinking, your mind and my mind are different. When you cut all thinking, then your mind and my mind are the same. If you only go straight, don’t know, one hundred percent, then your don’t know mind, my don’t know mind, or someone else’s don’t know mind is the same don’t know mind, because this don’t know mind already cuts off all your thinking. Cutting our thinking means our mind before thinking. This before thinking is your substance. Then, universal substance, your substance, and everything’s substance are the same substance. Sky is blue, tree is green — everything is substance. So substance is truth. Truth and you become one. That is very important. Then, everything becomes one. Thinking disappears, and then everything becomes one. When you see, when you hear, when you smell — everything becomes one. That is what we call primary point. Don’t know mind is primary point. Primary point’s name means don’t know! If you attain primary point, then when you see, when you hear, when you smell, everything is clear. Some people call it mind, Buddha, God, substance, the absolute, or consciousness, or anything! But true primary point is before thinking. Before thinking there is no speech and no words. That has no name. “Mind,” “Buddha,” “God” are names that humans make. A dog never says “mind” or “Buddha” or “true nature.”
If you practice, practice, practice, then your mind will become clear, clear, clear. Then everything’s nature — your nature, universal nature, and everything’s nature — becomes one. That one is what we call primary point. Then this stick, this sound [hits the table], and your mind–all the same, yeah? But I ask you, if you only go straight don’t know, then universal substance and your substance become one. So at that time, this stick, this sound [hits table], and your mind: are they the same or different? [audience claps hands] Very slow! [laughs] I ask again. If you keep don’t know mind one hundred percent, then this stick, this sound [hits table], and your mind: are they the same or different? [audience claps hands] Not bad! Keeping this mind is very important. If you keep this primary point in your tantien center, then your center becomes stronger, stronger, stronger. Then you can see clear, hear clear, smell clear, everything is clear. Sky is blue, tree is green. Salt is salty, sugar is sweet. Everything is truth. What is not the truth? Inside and outside become one. Then, how does truth function correctly to help all beings? That’s our practice. Hungry people come, give them food. Thirsty people come, give them something to drink. Suffering people come, help them. We call that bodhisattva action.
Q: What is your belief about the afterlife?
ZMSS: I hit you with this stick. What do you say?
ZMSS: Correct! Already a good answer. [long silence; laughter] You don’t understand! What is life and what is death? You don’t understand. This body has life and death, but your true self has no life or death. Attain your true self, then no life or death. If you are attached to this body, then you have life and death. That’s my head. That’s my hand. That’s my body. My body is not “I,” okay? Your true “I” has no life or death. So I hit you and you say, “Ouch!” That’s your true self. That has no life or death. Okay? Good!
Q: What is the purpose of evil and hatred?
ZMSS: A long time ago, in Korea, there was a famous man who was a lot like Robin Hood — the same story. When the government did bad things and took from the people, he stole the money from bad tax collectors and gave it to needy people. His actions were bad, but they were also very good — so what is good and what is bad? If it’s only for me, then even good action is bad action. But, if it’s only for other people, then even a bad action is a good action. Very simple, yah? [laughs]
Q: How does this practice help others?
ZMSS: Where is your mind? Most people have their minds up here [indicating head]. When we see something, then we are thinking, thinking, thinking up here — not so good. The name for this is checking. Just to perceive is very important. Just to perceive this world and perceive other people and then, just do it! Don’t check, don’t judge! That’s a very important point. It is a very difficult action, but if it is difficult then go to a Zen Center and practice. Then you will perceive your mind — that is correct practicing. Attain human nature, then attain your correct situation, correct function, and correct relationship. Then you attain great love, great compassion, and the great bodhisattva way.
Q: Does Zen say that suffering is caused by thinking?
ZMSS: Thinking “for me” is suffering mind; thinking for other people is a bodhisattva love mind. This thinking is for what? What kind of thinking is this? The direction of your thinking is very important. Is it for other people or for me? If that is clear, then your direction is clear. If it is not clear then your direction is not clear. Your thinking must become clear. “Clear” means help all beings and help this world. If that is clear then your life is clear — everything is clear.
Q: You are a famous Zen Master. Do you have a self?
ZMSS: What do you want? If you want me to have a self then I will have one. If you don’t want me to have a self then I won’t. Only for you.
So, I hope you all come to a Zen Center and practice–or, if you have no time to do that, practice on your own and sit every day (or, if sitting is too difficult, walking meditation is no problem, and also driving meditation is no problem.) Keep your attention in your tantien and keep this great question, “What am I?” With a big question, your thinking goes away. Don’t know mind’s name is clear mind. If you keep clear mind, then your center gets stronger and stronger and you can perceive your condition and your situation. Then, when you see, when you hear, when you smell, everything is clear. Truth and you become one. Then, how does this truth function correctly to help all beings? The name for this is bodhisattva action. Hungry people come, give them food. Thirsty people come, give them drink. Suffering people come, help them. I hope you attain your true self, see clear, hear clear, smell clear, everything become clear, get enlightenment, and save all beings from suffering. Thank you.