A Bad Situation is a Good Situation: Traveling in Eastern Europe

This article was written by Mu Sang Sunim.

Traveling with Zen Master Seung Sahn in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union last spring, I was repeatedly struck by his teaching: “a good situation is a bad situation; a bad situation is a good situation.” The whole region is in upheaval. For ordinary people, getting even the simplest things can be an arduous task. And yet over and over I found people who, far from concentrating on their possessions, had a strong desire to practice and find the true way. In many ways I was reminded of America in the sixties: young people struggling to find the truth in a world that made no sense.

Scenes from a journey:

One woman and five men take novice monk/nun precepts at the Warsaw Zen Center in Poland. They are all in their early twenties. Not wasting any time, with complete faith in his students’ potential, Zen Master Seung Sahn tells them, “Each Bodhisattva has a special job. So you must each pick out some kind of practicing, only go straight, then completely understand your mind, become Ji Do Poep Sa Nims, then become Zen Masters.”

Again at the Warsaw Zen Center, a group of young students come up and ask me to teach them Soen Yu, Zen Master Seung Sahn’s breathing-energy exercises. I haven’t taught Soen Yu for years – I haven’t practiced it for years (I’ve been in a funk). But what can I do? They asked, so I teach. Slowly I remember the exercises, They feel just right. The students love them. By the end of the class we’re all very happy. People are asking me all kinds of questions – their sincerity, openness, and lack of checking amaze me, give me energy. “Now you are again Soen Yu Master,” says Zen Master Seung Sahn, half serious, half joking as usual. I’ve been practicing Soen Yu regularly ever since.

Zen Master Seung Sahn is giving a Dharma talk in a Tibetan center in Leningrad. The center is just a musty room in an abandoned building maintained by squatters, with a few Tibetan-style pictures on the wall. The room is full, about 50 people. The students are all young, with long hair and beatific smiles, just like our flower children in the sixties. Zen Master Seung Sahn says, “In this world, very few people understand their minds. Most people nowadays are totally controlled by the animal mind inside them. They only have desire. So this world is getting worse and worse – Christians say, ‘End of this world.’ But I say it is the beginning of a new world. Any fruit first has a very good form, very good color, but not such a good taste. Then later, when it becomes ripe, the form and color are not so good, but the taste is very good. Then finally, the fruit becomes rotten – then inside, the seeds are completely ripe. A new tree can be born. So you must all find your don’tknow seeds, Then no matter what occurs, for you it will be no problem.” The students gaze at Zen Master Seung Sahn intently, still smiling.

At another Dharma talk, this time in Moscow, we encounter a different kind of energy, and it requires stronger teaching. Two older men obviously believers in Communism – dominate the question period. One wants to know what Zen has to do with social responsibility. Zen Master Seung Sahn asks him, “What are you? If you understand your true self, there are no opposites. Then you and the universe become one. Then helping other people is very easy, automatic.” The man starts to argue. Zen Master Seung Sahn waves his hand -“‘Sit down please!”

Another starts to argue in the same vein. Zen Master Seung Sahn asks in the middle of the old man’s harangue, “You have a son? If you’re holding your opinion, then you and your son cannot communicate, cannot become one. But if you put down your opinion, your condition, your situation, then your son and you will have a very good relationship.” A chord has been struck – for the rest of the talk the man sits, head down, holding his face in his hands.

In Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, we have a Yong Maeng Jong Jin. Everyone is anxious about the dangers facing the country, about provocations by the Red Army. About 80 people come for the retreat from all over the Soviet Union. Do Am Sunim, Ji Do Poep Sa Nim and head of the Polish Sangha, has been coming here to teach for several months now, stirring up interest in Zen practice. In January he stood outside the Parliament building with his students, joining a large group of Lithuanians defying the Russian soldiers. A student with whom he had been talking one evening was killed by attacking Soviet soldiers the next day. The Lithuanian students admire Do Am Sunim very much for standing with them, and they are ready to meet the Zen Master.

Zen Master Seung Sahn tells them, “I understand your mind. Long ago when I was young, Korea was controlled by Japan. At that time we only wanted to drive out the Japanese. Win or lose didn’t matter – we only wanted to fight. We just did it. But if you understand your mind, then fighting is not necessary. You can keep your correct situation, condition, and opinion. “You come here to practice. That is wonderful. In this world how many people want to understand their minds? Not so many. So I say to you, you are special.”

Afterwards we have a Precepts Ceremony: thirty-three people take the five precepts, among them several youths, one of whom looks like he cannot be older than thirteen; five people become Dharma Teachers. I think about our Zen centers in America, where nowadays so few young people are involved, and wonder why it is that here people find it so easy to believe in Zen Master Seung Sahn.

The economies in this area are in disarray. In the Soviet Union we find there is a two-tiered economic system: one tier for those with dollars, another one for those with rubles. In many places, if you want to stay in a good hotel or go to a restaurant with good service, you must pay in dollars – pay a lot. And Soviet citizens are often not allowed in unless accompanied by Westerners. On the other hand, where goods and services are offered for rubles, the prices, by Western standards, are very low. A deluxe buffet breakfast in our hotel in Leningrad cost the equivalent of 30. But this is no solace for Soviet citizens, who make an average of $10 a month! The result is that ordinary Soviets feel shut out of their system. They are looking for a change – and their openness to Zen is one aspect of their search.

In the newly-capitalistic Eastern European countries there are many new millionaires – former Communists who stole from the state, and now, ironically, are set for life. Now they are becoming the prime capitalists. But there are many opportunities for ordinary people too. In Poland, sixteen and seventeen year old boys get together and pool their money. One of them gets a truck, takes it to Western Europe, buys a load of bananas, and brings it back. They divide the load, each taking some of the bananas and selling them on the street. Then they pool their profits and do it again. Everywhere you see people selling even tiny quantities of goods in little stalls on the street. So nowadays, unlike before, you can find all kinds of Western goods in Poland, Hungary, or Czechoslovakia. Most people don’t yet have the money to buy them. But the people are free, and happy to be so. And everywhere they are trying.

Riding through Leningrad in a large bus we have rented for the day, Zen Master Seung Sahn is talking to our Russian students. He finds out that now people can own their own homes. Houses are very cheap by American standards. “You buy an old building, fix it up, make a Zen center. We will help you,” Zen Master Seung Sahn says, ever alert to possibilities for encouraging his students.

People talk a lot about new business possibilities. The government is also beginning to give land to the farmers. “Soon everything will change,” says Zen Master Seung Sahn. “There will be lots of cars, the roads will be widened, everything will open up, politically and economically.” The Russian students look dubious. “You must understand,” says Dorota, a senior Zen student from Poland who is traveling with us, “ten years ago when the Solidarity leaders were in jail, Zen Master Seung Sahn told us that Solidarity would win. We all thought he was crazy. But it’s happened, now Poland’s politics have changed completely. Soon it will happen here too.”

We ride on, admiring the broad streets, the stately rows of old buildings on the River Neva – some of us seeing ghosts from the past, some of us looking deeply into a future that is ours alone to make together.

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

Baby, no baby — no problem

From a talk at Providence Zen Center, April 29,1992.

Question: Sometimes a woman gets pregnant and she’s unsure if she wants to keep the pregnancy or have an abortion. She’s facing her karma; she needs to make a decision. Could you explain about controlling our karma in that situation?

Zen Master Seung Sahn: Having a baby or not having a baby doesn’t matter. What matters is, “How much do I believe in my true self? How much do I control my true self?” That is a very important point. If you have no babies but still cannot control your true self, then much suffering appears. If you have many babies but can control your true self, then it’s no problem.

Having a husband or not doesn’t matter. In Korea, a woman had twelve children, then her husband died. She worked, worked, worked to help her children. They all grew up and went to school, and many became professors or doctors. So, suffering when young meant being happy as she got old. Being happy when young means much suffering when getting old. Hard training when young is good.

Q: So having children was what she should have been doing. That was her karma, and that was good for her. But what if a woman has a baby, but it isn’t good for her? She doesn’t enjoy it, and she is unhappy her whole life.

ZMSS: Again, having a baby or not having a baby doesn’t matter. What matters is how much you believe in your true self. If I believe in my true self one hundred percent, then having many babies is no problem. If I cannot believe in my true self, even if I have no babies I’ll still have many problems.

Sometimes a baby helps a woman, so she becomes dependent on the baby. If you are dependent on anything, then you have a problem. Only believe in your true self one hundred percent. Try to keep your center strong.

This world already has problems. Next year there will be more problems. Then the next year there will be still more problems. Americans don’t see or understand this. In Africa, more people can see that this is a suffering world. America has too good a situation; if you have too good a situation, then suffering appears. So be careful. A good situation is a bad situation. A bad situation is a good situation. But if you are practicing, a good situation is OK and a bad situation is OK. Neither is a hindrance. That is Zen.

Attain Zero Mind, Use Zero Mind

Soen Sa Nim gave this kong-an talk on May 12, 1978, shortly after returning from his first visit to Europe.

Boring is a very important word. If you attain boring, then everything is boring. Then this is no desire, no anger, no ignorance. Desire is boring; anger is boring; ignorance is boring; everything is boring. Then, you will get Enlightenment. So boring is very important. Everything is equal. But people don’t like boring. They want something, and boring is not interesting. It’s like clear water. Clear water has no taste, but no taste is great taste. Everybody likes ice cream, but eating ice cream all day is not possible. However, if you’re thirsty, clear water is wonderful any time — better than honey, better than ice cream, better than anything. The truth is like this.

In Zen no meaning is great meaning, and great meaning is no meaning. We call this zero mind. I go around and ask, “Is zero a number?” One time in London I asked this, and somebody said, “Yes, it’s a number.”

So I said, “Yes, if you say zero is a number, you can do everything. Let’s look at this. 9 x 0 = 0. Then, 9 = 0/0. O.K.? Then, if you say it’s a number, then 0/0 = 1. So 9 = 0/0 = 1, and 9 = 1.

Then he said, “Ah, zero is not a number; that’s not possible. 0/0 = 1 is not possible.”

“O.K.; not possible is O.K. Then, 9 x 0 = 0. That means 9 = 0/0. 10,000 x 0 = 0. Then 10,000 = 0/0. 0/0 means 0/0 = 10,000 and 0/0 = 9. So 9 = 10,000.

“Zero mind can do anything. If you say zero is a number, that’s O.K. If you say zero is not a number, that’s O.K.; it doesn’t matter. Zero is everything; everything is zero. This is Zen mathematics, O.K.? So zero mind is very interesting. If you keep zero mind, then you can do everything.”

Then someone asked, “Soen Sa Nim, you talked about a child’s mind as Buddha’s mind, very simple, before memory. Before memory, all children’s minds are correct mind, Buddha’s mind, Enlightenment mind. Is this correct? Sleep time, sleep; eat time, eat. But a child only thinks of itself. Is this correct Buddha’s mind?”

I said, “Before memory, a child’s mind is no-Buddha, no-God mind. Someone once asked Ma Jo Zen Master, ‘What is Buddha?’ ‘Mind is Buddha; Buddha is mind.’ The next day someone asked, ‘What is Buddha?’ ‘No mind, no Buddha.’ Correct Buddha’s mind is no Buddha, no mind. So a child’s mind is correct Buddha’s mind.”

“Are they different, Buddha’s mind and child’s mind?”

“A child’s mind is nothing at all; it is zero mind. It’s like a clear mirror. Red comes, red; white comes, white. Only reflected action: when a child is hungry, it eats; when it is tired, it only sleeps.

I “Enlightenment-mind means using this child’s mind. A child only keeps Buddha’s mind. Using this mind is called Bodhisattva’s mind. So, child’s mind is correct Buddha’s mind; Bodhisattva’s mind correctly uses Buddha’s mind. How is it used? A child has enough mind — he only eats. But if somebody is very hungry, a child doesn’t understand. If you have Bodhisattva-mind, then if hungry people appear, you give them food; if thirsty people appear, you give them something to drink. Keeping Buddha’s mind and using Buddha’s mind are different. Keeping Buddha’s mind is correct Buddha’s mind. Using Buddha’s mind is Great Bodhisattva mind.

“Great Bodhisattva mind has a Great Vow. What is a Great Vow? That is only-go-straight don’t-know mind. Only go straight — don’t check me; don’t check my feelings; don’t check anything — only reflect everything and help all people. This Great Vow is infinite because space and time are limitless and beings are numberless. Numberless beings means numberless suffering, so my vow is a numberless vow. Its name is Great Vow. Its name is only go straight – don’t know — try, try, try vow. So I hope you will take this Great Vow, get zero mind, attain Enlightenment, and save all beings from suffering.”

As Big as the Whole Universe

From a talk at Cambridge Zen Center on July 29, 1993.

Question: How does Zen practicing take away karma?

Zen Master Seung Sahn: Zen practice does not take away karma. If you practice Zen, your karma becomes clear. If you are not practicing, your karma controls you. But if you are practicing, you control your karma. So your karma becomes clear. Good karma, bad karma, whatever karma you have becomes clear; then only help other people. That’s the point. Sometimes when a person first starts practicing Zen we talk about “taking away karma,” but those are only teaching words. Bodhisattvas have bodhisattva karma. Karma means mind action. So, karma controls me, or I control my karma and help other people. These two are different, but same karma.

Q: Bodhisattva karma is helping people?

ZMSS: Of course.

Q: But first we have to help ourselves, right?

ZMSS: Myself?

Q: To get a center.

ZMSS: Where is your center?

Q: Talking to you.

ZMSS: That is not your center. If you make “my center,” then you will have a problem. Our minds are always going around and around … seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, thinking. We see something and think, “I like that. I don’t like that.” If your mind is moving then you are not clear, because you have “my” opinion.

So, take this “around and around mind” and put it inside. At first keep your center here (points to lower belly). If you have a strong center, then your mind is not moving and your opinion disappears. If your mind is not moving, then you see clearly, hear clearly, smell clearly, taste clearly, touch clearly, and think clearly. Then everything becomes clear.

If you keep your center here at first (points to lower belly) then your center will become bigger, bigger, bigger … as big as the whole universe. The name of this is Buddha. So if you want to understand the name of the Buddha, keep a mind which is clear like space. Clear like space has no center. The universe and you are already one. So there is no life and death. But if you only keep your center here (points to lower belly), then one day your body will disappear and your center will also disappear. Then you have a problem (laughs).

Ananda Knocks Down the Flag Pole

Talk by Zen Master Seung Sahn on January 17, 1996, at the beginning of the intensive week during Kyol Che at Shin Won Sah Temple in Korea.

Winter is the traditional season for doing intensive meditation practice. This tradition comes down to us from the time of the Buddha, when monks and nuns would congregate during the three month rainy season in India to practice together.

In our school, too, serious students will take this time to do a long retreat or increase their daily practice commitment. In the middle of this three month period one week is set aside for even more intensive practice. In Korea, this is what we call Yoeng Maeng Jong Jin, which is translated as “to leap like a tiger while sitting.”

The origin of this special week of practice is very interesting. After the Buddha’s death a large convention of his enlightened followers was called to collect and formalize his teaching–to make what we now call the sutras. The head of this group was Mahakashyapa, the first patriarch. However Ananda, Buddha’s attendant, however was excluded from this group because he did not have enlightenment. This is ironic because Ananda was renowned for his phenomenal memory. It is said that he remembered everything that the Buddha said.

When he was barred from entering the assembly, Ananda became angry. He asked Mahakashyapa, “Buddha transmitted to you the Golden Brocade Robe. What else did he transmit to you?” Mahakashyapa called out, “Ananda!” “Yes, sir.” “Knock down the flag pole in front of the gate.” Ananda did not understand this, so he went to the mountains to do a seven day retreat. Seven days of very hard practicing; no sleep. Then at the end of the seven days, “Boom!” He got enlightenment.

Upon Ananda’s return to the convention, Mahakashyapa said, “If you can come in without opening the door, then OK. If not, then you cannot come in.” Immediately Ananda opened the door and went in. Then Mahakashyapa said, “OK, OK. Come in; now we can make the sutras.”

Already Appeared

On October 9 and 10, 1999, over three hundred students from fifteen countries gathered at Providence Zen Center for the Fifth Triennial Whole World is a Single Flower Conference.

Thank you very much everyone for coming to this “Whole World Is A Single Flower” conference. Already five times!

How do we get world peace? If one mind appears, then the whole world appears.

A long time ago, Buddha picked up a flower… only Mahakasyapa smiled. One thousand two hundred other people didn’t understand. That is Buddha’s teaching.

After the Second World War Zen Master Man Gong wrote, “The whole world is a single flower.”

So Buddha’s teaching, Zen Master Man Gong’s teaching, and us having the “Whole World Is A Single Flower” conference five times — are they the same or are they different? If you are thinking, you have already gone to hell. If you are not thinking, you have a problem. What can you do? All of you have been practicing for a long time; is there any less suffering in the world? So, we’ll try chanting the mantra of the world’s original sublimity together three times.

Om nam

Om nam

Om nam

Thank you very much. Already “the whole world is a single flower” appears.

Absolutes Thinking

From the 1985 Sumner Kyol Che Opening, Ceremony

Linc just said, “Zen is very simple. Dishwashing time, just wash dishes; sitting time, just sit; driving time, just drive; talking time, just talk; walking time, just walk.” That’s all. Not special. But that is very difficult. That is absolutes thinking. When you’re doing something, just do it. No opposites. No subject, no object. No inside, no outside. Outside and inside become one. That’s called absolutes.

It’s easy to talk about “When you’re doing something, just do it,” but action is very difficult. Sitting: thinking, thinking, thinking. Chanting: also thinking, thinking. Bowing time: not so much, but some thinking, thinking, checking, checking mind appear. Then you have a problem.

But don’t hold. Thinking is OK. Checking is OK. Only holding is a problem. Don’t hold. Feeling coming, going, OK. Don’t hold. If your mind is not holding anything, it is clear like space. Clear like space means that sometimes clouds come, sometimes rain or lightning or airplane comes, or even a missile blows up, BOOM! World explodes, but the air is never broken. This space is never broken. Yeah, other things are broken but this space is never changing. Even if a nuclear bomb explodes, it doesn’t matter. Space is space. That mind is very important. If something in your mind explodes, then don’t hold it. Then it will disappear. Sometimes anger mind appears but soon disappears. But if you hold it, you have a problem. Appear, disappear, that’s OK. Don’t hold. Then it becomes wisdom. My anger mind becomes wisdom. My desire mind becomes wisdom. Everything becomes wisdom. That’s interesting, yeah? So don’t hold. That’s very important point.

36,000 Mornings

Dear Soen Sa Nim,

Tried to register for the Berkeley Yong Maeng Jong Jin, but it was already full. Hope to make the chanting retreat in October.

One evening, I was eating dinner in the cafeteria at Prudhoe Bay. Everything was quite normal, and I was conversing pleasantly with a friend. I looked around the hall, and it suddenly seemed to me that everyone was dead; death seemed absolutely palpable. I do not mean that I saw corpses all over; no, everyone was just sitting and eating, but they all, everyone, seemed dead. The atmosphere was saturated with death. Interestingly, this was not a frightening experience, but seemed quite objective, almost scientific in tone. It lasted for about forty minutes. It has happened on two subsequent occasions, though not so long.

I do not know what to make of this experience. Anything? Should I “put it down,” use it?

You asked if I was the same as a tree or different. My answer — if a wall is blocking your path, walk around it.

I am very glad that you are feeling better and are out of the hospital. The last Newsletter was especially interesting to me, since I had practiced another form of meditation for about four years before eventually becoming dissatisfied with it. Your explanation of the difference between other forms of meditation and Zen was very revealing to me.

Yours in the Dharma,


September 16, 1977

Dear James,

How are you? Thank you for your letter. You could not come to the Berkeley Yong Maeng Jong Jin, so I could not see you. That’s O.K. You said maybe you will come to the chanting retreat. That is wonderful.

You said, “Suddenly, it seemed to me that everyone was dead, not corpses, but they just seemed dead.” How about you? Were you dead or alive? What is death? What is life? I think maybe you like life. If you make death, you have death. If you make life, you have life. Death and life are originally nothing; they are made by your thinking. Your body has life and death, but your true self always remains clear, not dependent on life and death.

So, I ask you, what are you? If you don’t know, only go straight. Put it all down. Don’t check inside, don’t check outside. Outside and inside become one. What are you doing now? If you are doing something, you must do it! Don’t make anything. Only go straight.

Long ago in China, there was a famous Zen Master, Ko Bong. Before he became a Zen Master, he always kept the kong-an, “Where are you coming from; where are you going?” He only kept don’t-know mind, always, everywhere. One day, he was sweeping the yard in front of the Dharma Room. At that time, the great Zen Master Ang Sahn appeared and asked him, “What are you doing?”

He said, “I am working on my kong-an.”

“What is your kong-an?”

”My kong-an is, ‘Where are you coming from; where are you going?”’

“Oh? Then, I ask you, who is coming; who is going?”

He could not answer. Then, the Zen Master became very angry, grabbed his shirt at the neck, and shouted, “Why are you pulling around a corpse!?” Then, he pushed him very hard; Ko Bong fell back on the ground, and the Zen Master went away.

Ko Bong’s whole world was dark. There was only a big question, and he was very angry. “Why don’t I know myself? What am I?” Don’t know. He couldn’t see anything; he couldn’t hear anything; he couldn’t taste anything; he couldn’t feel anything; he couldn’t smell anything. For seven days this went on. After seven days, he saw the Fifth Patriarch’s picture. Beneath the picture, it said,

One hundred years,
36,000 mornings.
Before, I am you.
Now, you are me.

He saw this, and his don’t-know mind exploded. Inside and outside became one. Subject and object, all opposites worlds disappeared. Complete absolute. He could see the sky – only blue. He could hear a sound – only a bird’s song. All, just like this, is the truth. After that, he got Transmission from Zen Master Ang Sahn and became a great Zen Master.

So, I ask you, why are you pulling around a corpse? Tell me! Tell me!

Yours in the Dharma,


100% Crazy

A talk after a kong-an reading, by Seung Sahn Soen Sa Nim

Sometimes a student will decide to fast during Yong Maeng Jong Jin or a seven-day retreat. He begins strong. First day, second day, only water. Third day, “…maybe I’ll have a little orange juice…” Fourth day, “…just a half slice of bread…” Fifth day, the student gets a headache; “…think I’ll take a little nap…” Seventh day, starving, he stuffs himself. This is what is called “head is a dragon, tail is a snake.”

I decide, then I don’t do. This means I don’t believe in myself. Ask a child, “What is one plus two?” “Three.” “Is that correct?” “Sure, it’s correct.” He believes in himself, so he doesn’t think about it. “One plus two doesn’t equal three…” “It does too! My teacher said so!” A child’s mind doesn’t shake so easily. But Zen students! They cling to words and thinking.

Your mind is always one of these three: lost mind, empty mind, or clear mind. On the street, a thief comes up. “Give me your money!” How is your mind then? Somebody says sex mind is Zen mind, but if you suddenly found a gun in your face while you’re making love, would your mind move? If you’re afraid you’ll lose your life, you have lost your mind.

Empty mind won’t move. “This is a hold up!” “Om mani padme hum. Om mani padme hum. Om mani padme hum.” “You want some lead in your head?” “Om mani padme hum. Om mani padme hum…” “Are you crazy?” “Om mani padme hum…” Crazy/sane, alive/dead. It is all one to empty mind.

And clear mind? “Give me money!” “How much do you want?” “Shut up, you… give me all of it!” No fear. Just check the mind behind the gun.

Ma Jo one day took his student Pae Chang riding on the river. They had a good time. A flock of birds flew overhead, going south. Ma Jo asked, “What is that?” “Birds.” “Where are they going?” “South.” “Is that right?” “Yes.” Ma Jo grabbed his nose and twisted it hard. “Aaaggghh!” Very painful! “Where did the birds go?” Pae Chang couldn’t answer. They came back to the temple. Later Pae Chang’s friends came upon him holding his nose and crying, “Oh my nose!” His friends asked him, “Why are you crying?” He just kept right on. They kept asking, “What’s wrong?” Finally Pae Chang said, “Ask the master.” So they went to Ma Jo. “Why is he crying?” “Ask him!” So they went back. “The master said to ask you.” Pae Chang suddenly stopped crying and began laughing just as hard. His friends were very surprised. “Are you crazy?” “Ma Jo is the crazy one!” They all went back to Ma Jo. “Now he’s laughing and says you’re crazy!” Ma Jo understood Pae Chang’s mind then. So what does it mean? Crying mind and laughing mind: are they the same or different? Crazy mind, sane mind. Completely crazy, 100% crazy, believe-in-myself crazy – that’s completely clear mind.

At Jong Hae Sah Temple in Korea they had three months of sitting, three months vacation. During vacation, everybody had to collect money or food and bring it back for the sitting period. At that time Zen Master Mang Gong was just beginning the temple and had no money. So the students would go around to the homes of lay people, recite the Heart Sutra, get rice or money and bring it back to the monastery. But when my teacher Ko Bong got rice, he’d sell it at the end of the day and go out drinking – laughing and singing. Everybody else came back at the end of vacation with sacks of rice. All he ever brought back was alcohol. Then he’d be drinking and shouting all night, “This temple’s no good! Buddhism is full of shit! Mang Gong doesn’t understand Dharma! He’s a low class master!”

Once Mang Gong showed up during one of Ko Bong’s rampages and screamed at him, “What do you understand?” Everybody was waiting to see what would happen. “KO BONG!” “Yes!” “Why are you always insulting me behind my back?” Ko Bong looked completely surprised and offended. “Zen Master, I never said anything about you! I was talking about this good-for-nothing Mang Gong!” “Mang Gong? What do you mean, Mang Gong? I’M MANG GONG! What’s the difference between me and Mang Gong?” “KAAAATZ!” Ko Bong yelled, loud enough to split your ears. “Go sleep it off,” Mang Gong said, and left the room.

My teacher’s actions were very bad, but he always kept clear mind. Drink and sex did not hinder it. He always kept just-now mind. ”Mang Gong? What’s the difference between me and Mang Gong?” “KAAAATZ!” That katz is very important. Better than money or bags of rice. Mang Gong never bothered Ko Bong for anything after that. Dragon head, dragon tail; Ko Bong believed completely in himself.

Zen Master Seung Sahn

The Story of Seung Sahn

Seung Sahn Soen-sa was born in 1927 in Seun Choen, North Korea. His parents were Protestant Christians.

Korea at this time was under severe Japanese military rule, and all political and cultural freedom was brutally suppressed. In 1944, Soen-sa joined the underground Korean independence movement. Within a few months he was caught by the Japanese police and narrowly escaped a death sentence. After his release from prison, he and two friends stole several thousand dollars from their parents and crossed the heavily-patrolled Manchurian border in an unsuccessful attempt to join the Free Korean Army.

In the years following World War II, while he was studying Western philosophy at Dong Guk University, the political situation in South Korea grew more and more chaotic. One day Soen-sa decided that he wouldn’t be able to help people through his political activities or his academic studies. So he shaved his head and went into the mountains, vowing never to return until he had attained the absolute truth.

For three months he studied the Confucian scriptures, but he was unsatisfied by them. Then a friend of his, who was a monk in a small mountain temple, gave him the Diamond Sutra, and he first encountered Buddhism. “All things that appear in this world are transient. If you view all things that appear as never having appeared, then you will realize your true self.” When he read these words, his mind became clear. For the next few weeks he read many sutras. Finally, he decided to become a Buddhist monk and was ordained in October, 1948.

Soen-sa had already understood the sutras. He realized that the only important thing now was practice. So ten days after his ordination, he went further up into the mountains and began a one-hundred-day retreat on Won Gak Mountain (the Mountain of Perfect Enlightenment). He ate only pine needles, dried and beaten into a powder. For twenty hours every day he chanted the Great Dharani of Original Mind Energy. Several times a day he took ice-cold baths. It was a very rigorous practice.

Soon he was assailed by doubts. Why was this retreat necessary? Why did he have to go to extremes? Couldn’t he go down to a small temple in a quiet valley, get married like a Japanese monk, and attain enlightenment gradually, in the midst of a happy family? One night these thoughts became so powerful that he decided to leave and packed his belongings. But the next morning his mind was clearer, and he unpacked. A few days later the same thing happened. And in the following weeks, he packed and unpacked nine times.

By now fifty days had passed, and Soen-sa’s body was very exhausted. Every night he had terrifying visions. Demons would appear out of the dark and make obscene gestures at him. Ghouls would sneak up behind him and wrap their cold fingers around his neck. Enormous beetles would gnaw his legs. Tigers and dragons would stand in front of him, bellowing. He was in constant terror.

After a month of this, the visions turned into visions of delight. Sometimes Buddha would come and teach him a sutra. Sometimes Bodhisattvas would appear in gorgeous clothing and tell him that he would go to heaven. Sometimes he would keel over from exhaustion and Kwan Se Um Bosal would gently wake him up. By the end of eighty days, his body was strong. His flesh had turned green from the pine needles.

One day, a week before the retreat was to finish, Soen-sa was walking outside, chanting and keeping rhythm with his moktak. Suddenly, two boys, eleven or twelve years old, appeared on either side of him and bowed. They were wearing many-colored robes, and their faces were of an unearthly beauty. Soen-sa was very surprised. His mind felt powerful and perfectly clear, so how could these demons have materialized? He walked ahead on the narrow mountain path, and the two boys followed him, walking right through the boulders on either side of the path. They walked together in silence for a half-hour, then, back at the altar, when Soen-sa got up from his bow, they were gone. This happened every day for a week.

Finally it was the hundredth day. Soen-sa was outside chanting and hitting the moktak. All at once his body disappeared, and he was in infinite space. From far away he could hear the moktak beating, and the sound of his own voice. He remained in this state for some time. When he returned to his body, he understood. The rocks, the river, everything he could see, everything he could hear, all this was his true self. All things are exactly as they are. The truth is just like this.

Soen-sa slept very well that night. When he woke up the next morning, he saw a man walking up the mountain, then some crows flying out of a tree. He wrote the following poem:

The road at the bottom of Won Gak Mountain
is not the present road.
The man climbing with his backpack
is not a man of the past.
‘fok, tok, tok – his footsteps
transfix past and present.
Crows out of a tree.
Caw, caw, caw.

Soon after he came down from the mountain, he met Zen Master Ko Bong, whose teacher had been Zen Master Mang Gong. Ko Bong was reputed to be the most brilliant Zen Master in Korea, and one of the most severe. At this time he was teaching only laymen; monks, he said, were not ardent enough to be good Zen students. Soen-sa wanted to test his enlightenment with Ko Bong, so he went to him with a moktak and said, “What is this?” Ko Bong took the moktak and hit it. This was just what Soen-sa had expected him to do.

Soen-sa then said, “How should I practice Zen?”

Ko Bong said, “A monk once asked Zen Master Jo-ju, ‘Why did Bodhidharma come to China?’ Jo-ju answered, ‘The pine tree in the front garden.’ What does this mean?”

Soen-sa understood, but he didn’t know how to answer. He said, “I don’t know.”

Ko Bong said, “Only keep this don’t-know mind. That is true Zen practice.”

That spring and summer, Soen-sa did mostly working Zen. In the fall, he sat for a hundred-day meditation session at Su Dok Sa monastery, where he learned Zen language and Dharma-combat. By the winter, he began to feel that the monks weren’t practicing hard enough, so he decided to give them some help. One night, as he was on guard-duty (there had been some burglaries), he took all the pots and pans out of the kitchen and arranged them in a circle in the front yard. The next night, he turned the Buddha on the main altar toward the wall and took the incense-burner, which was a national treasure, and hung it on a persimmon tree in the garden. By the second morning the whole monastery was in an uproar. Rumors were flying around about lunatic burglars, or gods coming from the mountain to warn the monks to practice harder.

The third night, Soen-sa went to the nuns’ quarters, took seventy pairs of nuns’ shoes and put them in front of Zen Master Dok Sahn’s room, displayed as in a shoe store. But this time, a nun woke up to go to the outhouse and, missing her shoes, she woke up everyone in the nuns’ quarters. Soen-sa was caught. The next day he was brought to trial. Since most of the monks voted to give him another chance (the nuns were unanimously against him), he wasn’t expelled from the monastery. But he had to offer formal apologies to all the high monks.

First he went to Dok Sahn and bowed. Dok Sahn said, “Keep up the good work.”

Then he went to the head nun. She said, “You’ve made a great deal too much commotion in this monastery, young man.” Soen-sa laughed and said, “The whole world is already full of commotion. What can you do?” She couldn’t answer.

Next was Zen Master Chun Song, who was famous for his wild actions and obscene language. Soen-sa bowed to him and said, “I killed all the Buddhas of past, present, and future. What can you do?”

Chun Song said, “Aha!” and looked deeply into Soen-sa’s eyes. Then he said, “What did you see?”

Soen-sa said, “You already understand.”

Chun Song said, “Is that all?”

Soen-sa said, “There’s a cuckoo singing in the tree out- side the window.”

Chun Song laughed and said, “Aha!” He asked several more questions, which Soen-sa answered without difficulty. Finally, Chun Song leaped up and danced around Soen-sa, shouting, “You are enlightened! You are enlightened!” The news spread quickly, and people began to understand the events of the preceding days.

On January 15, the session was over, and Soen-sa left to see Ko Bong. On the way to Seoul, he had interviews with Zen Master Keum Bong and Zen Master Keum Oh. Both gave him inga, the seal of validation of a Zen student’s great awakening.

Soen-sa arrived at Ko Bong’s temple dressed in his old patched retreat clothes and carrying a knapsack. He bowed to Ko Bong and said, “All the Buddhas turned out to be a bunch of corpses. How about a funeral service?”

Ko Bong said, “Prove it!”

Soen-sa reached into his knapsack and took out a dried cuttlefish and a bottle of wine. “Here are the leftovers from the funeral party.”

Ko Bong said, “Then pour me some wine.”

Soen-sa said, “Okay. Give me your glass.”

Ko Bong held out his palm.

Soen-sa slapped it with the bottle and said, “That’s not a glass, it’s your hand!” Then he put the bottle on the floor.

Ko Bong laughed and said, “Not bad. You’re almost done. But I have a few questions for you.” He proceeded to ask Soen-sa the most difficult of the seventeen-hundred traditional Zen kong-ans. Soen-sa answered without hindrance.

Then Ko Bong said, “All right, one last question. The mouse eats cat-food, but the cat-bowl is broken. What does this mean?”

Soen-sa said, “The sky is blue, the grass is green.”

Ko Bong shook his head and said, “No.”

Soen-sa was taken aback. He had never missed a Zen question before. His face began to grow red as he gave one “like this” answer after another. Ko Bong kept shaking his head. Finally Soen-sa exploded with anger and frustration. “Three Zen Masters have given me inga! Why do you say I’m wrong?!”

Ko Bong said, “What does it mean? Tell me.”

For the next fifty minutes, Ko Bong and Soen-sa sat facing each other, hunched like two tomcats. The silence was electric. Then, all of a sudden, Soen-sa had the answer. It was “just like this.”

When Ko Bong heard it, his eyes grew moist and his face filled with joy. He embraced Soen-sa and said, “You are the flower; I am the bee.”

On January 25, 1949, Soen-sa received from Ko Bong the Transmission of Dharma, thus becoming the Seventy-Eighth Patriarch in this line of succession. It was the only Transmission that Ko Bong ever gave.

After the ceremony, Ko Bong said to Soen-sa, “For the next three years you must keep silent. You are a free man. We will meet again in five hundred years.”

Soen-sa was now a Zen Master. He was twenty-two years old.

From Dropping Ashes On The Buddha: The Teaching of Zen Master Seung Sahn
edited by Stephen Mitchell (Grove Press, New York, NY, 1976)

Story of the Dead Bones

In 1957, Ko Bong Sunim became seriously ill and so Soen Sa Nim was appointed as the abbot of Hwa Gae Sah temple.

In the course of his duties as abbot, Soen Sa Nim heard of a Japanese temple in Seoul which contained the bones of 500 dead Japanese people. The temple was troubled with finances and fell under the control of lay people. The lay people were not interested in Japanese bones. They wanted to throw the bones out of the temple. When Soen Sa Nim heard about this, he went to the temple. He told the officials, “Whether these bones were once Korean or Japanese, dead people’s bones are all the same. Dead bones are dead bones!”

Then he brought the bones back to Hwa Gae Sah. For days and days, he only chanted Namu Ami Ta Bul over the bones; the chanting was for the dead spirits.

A few years later, Korea and Japan resumed diplomatic relationship. Then some Japanese came to Korea to Hwa Gae Sah to claim the bones of their dead ancestors and carry them back to their homeland.

Out of great appreciation and deep respect for Soen Sa Nim’s action the Japanese invited him to go to Japan. This invitation became an opportunity for him to live abroad which became a turning point in his life.

It has been said by some Koreans, “We lost a great master to Japan and to America because of some dead bones.”

— Do Gong (formerly John Barrouzzol from Canada)
Seoul International Zen Center, Korea

When Soen Sa Nim First Arrived in the U.S.A.

In September, 1970, 1 received a phone call from my sister, Mrs. Kimura, who lives in Japan. She told me my mother was very ill. So I decided to go see her. I prepared to leave and was on an airplane within 24 hours. When I arrived in Japan I was met at the airport by my sister and Soen Sa Nim. My sister introduced us and my first impression of Soen Sa Nim was that he was a happy, hyper person. That was it. That’s all I thought. At that time I knew nothing about Buddhism. He drove us to his temple where we spent the night.

He asked me what American life is all about. I told him about America and invited him to come and see it for himself.

In May, 1972, 1 received a phone call from my sister. She told me Soen Sa Nim would be arriving at the Los Angeles International Airport in a couple of hours. Luckily I was home. I went to meet him at the airport and brought him to my home. I gave him my son’s room. He made a small altar on which sat a statue of Kwan Seum Bosal. That evening he started chanting and told me to follow along if I would like to. I felt drawn by the sounds of Soen Sa Nim’s chanting and tears started to flow from my eyes for no apparent reason. From that day forward a new life began for me. I remember being amazed at Soen Sa Nim’s humbleness. He helped with the house cleaning, shopping, cooking, etc… Needless to say I loved his company and his help.

My children and their friends accepted him into the family without hesitation. They seemed to get a kick out of it. My oldest daughter who was thirteen at the time bought some English books to teach Soen Sa Nim English. He in turn was teaching her Buddhism. That was the start of a great teaching for all Americans.

I would like to end in saying that the happiness and contentment he brought into my life and to my children is immeasurable. I cannot think of a word that describes Soen Sa Nim – only that he is vaster than the ocean and boundless as the sky and can probably best be described by the feeling, that there is no word for, that a person attains through meditation. We love him and wish he could live forever. Thank you, Soen Sa Nim.

— Judy Barrie
Santa Monica, California

Doyle Avenue

Soen Sa Nim’s first attempt at establishing an American Zen Center was in a small apartment in Providence, Rhode Island. The apartment was located on a street named Doyle Avenue. Soen Sa Nim probably didn’t care about the fairly violent and unhappy mood of the street, which would at times stage drunken brawls and knife fights. What he saw was a house with two relatively large bedrooms and a very low rent of $150.00 a month.

At that time Soen Sa Nim was totally self-financed and, of course, totally independent. Only the spiders and a stray cat (later named Abigale) know what the apartment looked like when Soen Sa Nim first moved in, and how he spent his time. It was not long before an Eastern Religions professor from Brown University became interested in him, and with him came some of his curious students.

One or two of those brave souls decided to move in with Soen Sa Nim, surely having no idea what they were getting themselves into. There was literally no furniture in the apartment except a small kitchen table and a few assorted wooden chairs. Soen Sa Nim had brought a small electric rice cooker and a few bowls and spoons. There was an old aluminum pot in which he would create the most incredibly delicious soups.

One day a Buddha from Korea arrived in a large wooden box. It was broken into about 15 pieces. Undaunted, Soen Sa Nim asked one of his newly arrived disciples to fetch some glue and then he proceeded to meticulously and patiently convert emptiness back into form.

And that was how he did his best teaching in those days. English was awkward and difficult for him. He was a master at pantomime and example. His enthusiasm was delightful. And his examples were sometimes quite surprising. Once, objects began to be missing in the Zen Center and it soon became obvious that the thief was one of the small boys that lived in the neighborhood. The reason it was obvious was that he would be found blatantly crawling through one of the windows. He was also fond of throwing rocks at Abigale (the cat) and hanging around the driveway, making fun of Soen Sa Nim’s strange clothes. One morning the little n’er-do-well was enthusiastically teasing Soen Sa Nim while he was working in the garden and Soen Sa Nim suddenly charged towards him, screaming wildly and swinging his arms. Then he began to advance toward the then trembling youth and act out karate kicks. The boy charged out of the yard, never to be seen at close range again. One of his students questioned his methods and Soen Sa Nim simply said, “Most demons only understand demons.”

Everyone that came to the apartment in those first six months only needed to be there a half an hour before they understood his purpose and direction. Soen Sa Nim wanted to make a Zen Center out of the apartment. He wanted the altar to be the heart, the Dharma Room to be wide and clean so many people could gather and practice together and find their own hearts. He made his students feel comfortable and warm by laughing and joking with them in the kitchen. He’d suddenly decide to make a huge batch of kimchee, containing every vegetable imaginable. Or he’d be sitting at the kitchen table for hours, diligently writing letters to unknown people in Korea and suddenly look up and ask everyone if they liked noodles. Often he’d have to look the word he was searching for up in his Korean-English dictionary, that never left his side. “Noodles! You like noodles?” Of course everyone would smile inside and out, loving his accent and his enthusiasm and give him a big nod. Then he’d proceed to convert the entire kitchen into a flour-filled noodle factory, producing in less than an hour a soup that surpassed even his last, filled with delicious homemade noodles. And he’d be so unabashedly pleased that everyone liked it, telling them repeatedly, “In Korea, anytime this style soup. This style is #1. Eat this, become strong – much energy, yah?” Then he’d laugh.

He slowly introduced his brand of Zen, his tradition. First it was putting bright red and yellow cloth around the altar, which held the newly assembled Buddha. Then he insisted on the meditation mats being bright and multi-colored. Once in a while another wooden box would arrive from Korea with objects for the altar, or gray robes and incense, or a big bag of expensive black mushrooms for the famous soups.

One day Soen Sa Nim sat his students down. At that time there were about seven regular “customers” (that was one of Soen Sa Nim’s jokes, calling anyone who ate his soup or came to his Sunday night talks a “customer”). He explained that it was time for the Zen Center to have a practicing schedule. This was the end of an era. The practice began to shift from the kitchen into the Dharma Room. He even asked them to wear those gray robes. The chants were transliterated and bows were counted. Cushions were even assigned and Sunday night Dharma talks got better and better. At first they were always translated from Japanese to English by the Brown University Eastern Religions professor, but in time Soen Sa Nim became more confident with his vocabulary and he began to create talks as warm and nurturing as his soups. As a matter of fact, he got so busy with his English lessons and growing “customers” volume, that the kitchen became the newly-appointed and titled Housemaster’s domain and he came there only to write, study, and offer spontaneous talks on the Dharma. He was almost always willing to answer any questions and if nothing else seemed helpful, he would tap the student’s head with a chop stick and say, “Too much thinking! Put it down, OK?”

In the two year span of Doyle Avenue, the tone and rhythm of the future Zen Center was created. Soen Sa Nim started it all with his warmth, then introduced the practice – always stressing how important it is to practice every day, no vacations. And then he began giving Precepts, as he taught why it was so important for the mind to be able to openly take the Precepts.

So it always appeared that he was sometimes obviously making up a lot of the form as he went along, closely watching the young American mind and finding the right remedies for the sometimes powerful imbalances. The other thing that appeared like grass in spring was his ageless knowledge of practice and Dharma and how to pass that on to others … the knowledge that was way beyond following a particular form …the knowledge that would give each of his students a warm and powerful boost toward understanding themselves and understanding their original jobs.

Zen Master Seong Hyang (Barbara Rhodes)
— one of Soen Sa Nim’s very first “customers.”

These three stories are from Only DOing it for Sitxy Years
Compiled and edited by Diana Clark; published by Primary Point Press, Cumberland, RI, 1987