Passionate Zen

It is not uncommon for people to question whether there is any room for passionate feelings in Zen practice. After all, the second of the Four Great Vows clearly asks us to do away with any kind of passion. Each morning at the beginning of practice we recite: Passions are endless, we vow to extinguish them all. [Note: The vow has since been changed to “delusions are endless” to clarify this point.]

While the word “passion” has several meanings, they all revolve around an intense emotion which compels some kind of action. Usually, this intense emotion is associated with sexual feelings, with feelings of love, or with anger and hate. Although usually we see clearly the suffering that comes from such investments, it is very difficult to give them up. In fact, it almost seems inhuman to be completely dispassionate. Would the great works of art, or some of the greatest achievements of human science have appeared without “passion” playing a role in the creative process?

In Dropping Ashes on the Buddha we find the story of Won Hyo, the most famous monk of his time in Korea. Won Hyo Sunim one day went to visit the great Zen Master Dae An. Before arriving at the Zen Master’s mountain cave, Won Hyo already heard his beautiful chanting. Upon arriving at the cave he was chagrined to find the old man crying bitterly over the corpse of a dead baby deer. Since the Buddha taught dispassion, as expressed in the Four Great Vows, how could this highly enlightened man be so upset over the death of a deer? Won Hyo asked the Zen Master to explain what had happened. The old monk said that the mother deer had been killed by some hunters, and he had tried to save the baby deer by feeding it milk which he obtained by begging from the nearby village. Because people would not give milk for an animal, he lied that it was needed for his son. “A dirty monk,” they would say, but some would give milk. After a time, however, the nearby villagers refused to give him more milk. He had to go further, and further, and finally after obtaining a little milk, he returned three days later to his cave to find the baby deer already dead from hunger. “You don’t understand,” said the master. “My mind and the fawn’s mind are the same. It was very hungry. It wants milk, I want milk. Now it is dead. Its mind is my mind. That’s why I am weeping. I want milk.” Won Hyo began to understand this man’s great compassion and became his student.

This story very wonderfully points out that to experience one’s true self, if anything, makes us more human. It allows our natural love and compassion to function freely. The passions that we must extinguish are those born out of our anger, desire, and ignorance, but to vow to extinguish all passions, or to save all sentient beings, is in itself a kind of passion. The difference is that of direction. The motivation behind such passion is not for “me,” but for “others.” The name we give to such passion is Great Love, Great Compassion, and Great Bodhisattva Way.

On the Five Precepts

The Five Precepts

I vow to abstain from taking life.

I vow to abstain from taking things not given.

I vow to abstain from misconduct done in lust.

I vow to abstain from lying.

I vow to abstain from intoxicants, taken to induce heedlessness.


The following is a talk given by Dharma Teacher Jacob Perl (now Zen Master Wu Bong) at the Five Precepts Ceremony at the Providence Zen Center in September 1973.

The Five Precepts are a formal initiation into the Buddhist life. They are a declaration of one’s faith in Buddhist practice, and in a deeper sense, faith in oneself. The vows are not meant as absolute ethical standards of what is right and what is wrong; rather, they are meant to help us in our Zen practice.

The actions that we have vowed to avoid can be the cause of many problems and a lot of suffering for those of us who have not attained the realm of no attachment. As Zen students we are taught that sitting Zen means “mind-sitting” in whatever we do. Yet in formal sitting, with all parts of the body in their prescribed position, we usually find ourselves more able to control our mind. Our body influences our mind. Likewise, we have a breathing practice that Soen Sa Nim teaches us to use in times of stress. Our breathing influences our mind, and thinking subsides. Keeping the precepts is meant to have the same kind of influence on our mind as our formal sitting or breathing practice does.

The precepts have a deeper meaning than this, though. They are guides to us, for they constantly point at what Soen Sa Nim calls our “before thinking mind.” We can see this by going beyond the literal meaning of each precept.

The first precept — no killing — is much more than just abstention from physically killing another living thing. In fact, we are in essence inseparable from all beings, and all things in the universe. To cause harm to another is to deny our true nature. The true “no-killing I” is itself the “Big I” whose attainment is the supreme awakening of a Buddha. For us this precept includes not just killing, but all injury to others, whether through body, speech, or mind. In relation to this precept, I’ll tell a short story. Long ago, in China, a bird hunter visited a famous Zen Master and said, “I live in a nearby village with my wife and three children. We are very poor. I don’t know how to farm, and I have no trade. Recently I heard the Buddha’s teaching, and a great desire arose in me to practice it. But I can’t let my family starve. What can I do?” The Zen Master replied, “There is no need for you to change your profession. Just do this: every time you kill a bird, kill your own mind too. Practice this way and all will be well.”

The second precept deals with taking things that are not given. This is more that just not stealing. It means not coveting things in the material, psychological, or in the spiritual realms. Desire stems from a feeling of incompleteness. This precept teaches us to accept ourselves wholly and to make this total acceptance is to become complete, to attain the Buddha state.

The third precept deals with lust, and causes more consternation to many people than any of the others. Traditionally, it meant abstinence from unlawful sexual relations such as adultery. But it also forbids any act done in lust, whether it be eating, sex, or even teaching the Dharma. As such, it points to the desireless, complete Buddha realm. Just as we are taught to respect food, and not let eating become a sensual trip, we simply need to respect sex. What that means to me, and I guess it’s rather simplistic, is that sex should be based on mutual understanding and love. Mindless body groping only obscures our true nature.

The fourth precept — no lying — means honesty with oneself. Honesty is extremely important in our practice. To deceive others is to deceive oneself; to deceive oneself is to lose sight of the Truth. Long ago Zen Master Seong-Am used to open the window that had a view of the mountains, and looking up, he would shout, “Master!” Looking down, he said, “Yes?” “Always keep clear.” “Yes!” “Do not be tricked by people!” “Yes, yes!” So to be honest with ourselves is to see ourselves as we truly are, to see everything just as it is. Like all the other precepts, this one asks us to abandon all imaginings, all attachments, and to become like a clear mirror reflecting all things without distortion.

The last precept deals with intoxicants. An intoxicant is anything that intoxicates. For us this is especially Zen and our great understanding of it, our great practice and dedication to it, and our great compassion to all sentient beings.

How do we practice the precepts? Suzuki Roshi, speaking of the precepts, once said that our way is to keep the precepts without being bound by them. A visitor once asked Soen Sa Nim about breaking the precepts. In answer, Soen Sa Nim said, “If you are in the woods and a rabbit runs by with a hunter chasing it, and the hunter asks you to point the direction the rabbit ran, what will you do? If you tell the truth, the rabbit will die.   Sometimes lying is the action of a Bodhisattva. Specific actions are neither good or bad. The important point is – why? Is this action done to help others or only for some selfish motive?” I think Suzuki Roshi’s and Soen Sa Nim’s words are an injunction to keep the precepts effortlessly, in other words, to keep a clear mind.

According to Buddhism, good and bad are just thinking, enlightened and unenlightened are empty names. Why keep the precepts? This morning, Soen Sa Nim told us a story about Zen Master Mang Gong. Mang Gong lived in Korea during that country’s occupation by the Japanese. At that time, many Japanese priests and monks went to Korea to establish their style of Buddhism. At a conference to which thirty-one of the foremost leaders in Korean Buddhism were called, Mang Gong among them, the Japanese announced that from then on, Korean monks could marry, drink alcohol, and eat meat, as is done in Japan. Thirty of the Korean leaders were willing to obey their overlords, but Mang Gong rejected the Japanese suggestion. Quoting the Amithaba Sutra, he said, “If one person encourages a monk to break his vows, this person will go to hell.” Then he continued, “There are 7,000 monks in Korea. Where will all of you go? The original is clear and empty. Why did the mountains and rivers appear? If you understand this, breaking the vows is no hindrance, if you do not understand, and break vows, you will go to hell like an arrow. What can you do?”

In practicing the precepts, we will break them many times. It is important not to give up. Breaking the precepts is like falling down when you’re walking. The thing to do is to get up and start walking again, and if you fall again, get up again, keep on trying.

The precepts are to help us cut off our attachments, and when that is done, then all the precepts are kept naturally. And so I will ask you a question. Once upon a time, Zen Master Nam Cheon cut a cat in two with his knife. Was this a good or bad action? If you sit in silence, you are no better than rocks, but all speech is wrong. What can you do?

KATZ!

Your mind now is the mind that keeps all the precepts.

Thank you.

Only Keep “Don’t Know” Mind

Excerpted from a talk at the Foundations of Zen Retreat on May 2 0, 1990.

One of the most famous kong-ans refers to an incident from the Buddha’s own lifetime. Once the Buddha was staying on Vulture Peak mountain. It was time for him to give his usual discourse to the disciples, but the Buddha only sat silently. Everyone started to wonder what was going on. As the assembly was beginning to get restless, the Buddha held up a flower. The entire assembly was baffled; only Mahakashyapa, one of the senior disciples, smiled. Seeing his smile, the Buddha said, ‘My true Dharma is transmitted to Mahakashyapa.”

There are three questions that come out of this kong-an:

1. Buddha picked up a flower. What does this mean?

2. Mahakashyapa. smiled. Why did he smile?

3. Buddha’s statement, “my true dharma is transmitted to Mahakashyapa,” is a big mistake. What could the Buddha have done when Mahakashyapa smiled?

If you don’t understand, or if you have an answer but don’t know how to respond, only keep a “don’t know” mind. That’s kong-an practice. Don’t hold the kong-an in your thinking mind. The value of kong-an practice is that a kong-an is impervious to intellectual analysis. You can’t attain a kong-an intellectually.

Keeping a “don’t know” mind means cutting off all thinking. Cutting off all discursive thoughts takes us to the wellspring of our true nature, and brings us to the present moment. What are you doing just now? Paying attention to this moment is what Zen practice is all about. In a kong-an interview situation, the teacher uses kong-ans to understand the student’s practice, and to give them “don’t know” mind. Kong-ans let the student experience any hindrances they are having.

Any kind of formal practice is a simple situation in which it is easier to cut off thinking. As we do formal practice, it will start to affect our everyday life. Any moment in our life can be understood as a kong-an. As we are able to penetrate the simple situations of kong-ans without being confused by our discursive minds, our intuition starts to grow. Eventually our intuition can grow so that when confronted with complex situations in our lives, the correct response will automatically appear.

Not Difficult, Not Easy – Stories from the lay lineage

Adapted from a talk at Providence Zen Center in February, 1987.

Although we usually associate the transmission of Buddha’s teachings with a lineage of monks, it is very interesting that in China, India, and Korea, we can always find someone who, while not a monk, shined brilliantly and inspires us still today, This is especially interesting in the West, where most of the dharma students are laypeople.

Historically, the Zen patriarchal tradition has been one of celibate monks. Our school is no exception. Culminating in Zen Master Seung Sahn, every teacher in this lineage has been a monk. Yet here, today, while we are certainly preserving that tradition, something else is emerging, a widening of what traditionally was the province of the celibate monk, of the hermit. It’s not that this teaching was hidden from lay people in any way, but that in the past people who practiced really hard were expected, and willing, to give up any external ties and become monks.

In the India of Buddha’s time, there was a very great teacher who was not a monk. His name was Vimalakirti. One of the great scriptures of Buddhism, the Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra, is devoted entirely to his teaching. He was considered so brilliant and so sharp, and his dharma dialogues with others were so deep, that his contemporaries were afraid to engage him in dharma combat. Even Buddha’s greatest disciples, such as Manjushri and Mandalayana, were in awe of him.

Tradition has it that Vimalakirti was very sick one day, and the Buddha asked his disciples to visit him. Led by Manjushri, who was foremost among the disciples, they came to Vimalakirti’s house. The discussion went somewhat like this:

Vimalakirti: “Ah, welcome. I see that you have come, but you are not showing a sign of coming.”

Manjushri: “Yes, indeed.”

It was a kind of a metaphysical talk which was very popular in, those days. After this discussion went on for some time, Vimalakirti changed the tempo by asking all the guests, “What is the law of entering the gate of Not Two?” In turn each gave a short discourse.

Manjushri spoke last, saying “This entering of the gate of Not Two is something that cannot be said. There, there is no name, no form. It cannot be expressed in any way.” He asked, “Now, you, Vimalakirti, please give us your understanding of entering the gate of Not Two.” Vimalakirti only sat in silence. Manjushri recognized this silence and said, “Wonderful! That indeed is the true gate of Not Two!”

Most of the stories that we have from those days are about great monks. It’s very instructive to hear a story about a person who used a different way of life to teach others.

In China, there were several great laypeople. Perhaps the most notable was Layman P’ang and his family. It is said that each of them was enlightened. His daughter was said to be especially brilliant. Although she was the youngest member of the family, she was very sharp and had a way of having the last word.

One day, the Layman, musing on life and practice, uttered these words of wisdom: “Oh, difficult, difficult, difficult! It’s like trying to scatter ten thousand sesame seeds over a tree.” The wife right away retorted, “Oh, easy, easy, easy! It’s like touching your feet to the ground when you get off the bed.” The daughter was not to be outdone. Immediately she commented, “Not difficult, not easy! On the tips of ten thousand grasses, the patriarchs’ meaning,” What kind of patriarchs’ meaning can we find on the tips of grass? If you find that, you will get the true dharma eye. That this wonderful family managed to keep the vitality of the dharma in their busy lives is very important. Such examples are priceless.

In Korea, the story of Sul is very famous. She was born to a devout family of Buddhists. Her father was a very strong practitioner and the little daughter loved to chant with him. She would often accompany him on visits to great Zen Masters, including her father’s teacher. One day, this teacher said to her, “I have heard that you are practicing very hard, so I want to give you a present. This present is the words ‘Kwan Seum Bosal.’ Repeat these words all the time, then you will get great happiness.”

All the time that she could, she recited the mantra “Kwan Seum Bosal.” One day, as she was chanting

Kwan Seum Bosal in her room, she heard the sound of a temple bell and her mind opened up. She understood that she and Kwan Seum Bosal are the same. Everything is Kwan Seum Bosal.

She became very happy, but also a little bit wild. She no longer chanted “Kwan Seum Bosal” and was seen talking to trees and plants. One day, as her father came into her room, he noticed that a sutra book he had given her was not on the altar, but underneath Sul, who used it to prop up her meditation cushion. ‘Me father became furious, and said, “How dare you sit on this scripture! How dare you defile the truth?” The little girl turned to him and said, “Father, do you think the truth is contained in words?” Seeing his confusion, Sul said, “Please ask your teacher.”

The father told his teacher about Sul. “Is my daughter going crazy?” he asked. The teacher replied, “Your daughter’s not crazy. You’re crazy!” ‘Men the Zen Master said, “Don’t worry!” He wrote a poem for Sul:

When you hear a wooden chicken crow in the evening,

You will understand the country where your mind is born.

Outside the door of my house,

The willow is green, the flower is red.

When Sul read the poem she said “Ahah. So the Zen Master is also just like this.” Then she took the scripture from the floor, dusted it off, put it on the altar, and behaved quite normally from then on.

In time Sul became a wife and mother, and eventually had many grandchildren. She became known as a great Zen Master. Although she didn’t wear special robes, she was so clear and practiced so hard that her daily life, her everyday speech, helped many people. After one of her granddaughters died, Sul was very, very sad; she cried and cried. The people around her were shocked because of her reputation as a great Zen Master. Someone asked, “You already understand that there is no life or death. Why are you crying for your granddaughter?” Then Sul cried even harder, and said “You don’t understand! Because I cry, my granddaughter can enter into nirvana.” She was quite extraordinary.

What do these stories mean for us? Sometimes we tend to check ourselves, our practice, our life. We try to make one practice better, more high class, another practice low class. Or we check ourselves in the sense, “Am I good, or am I bad? Am I as committed as I should be, or should I do something different?” Sometimes we attach to the outer form of practice. The reason these kinds of out

standing people are important is that they show us very clearly that this practice is not dependent on our appearance. It’s not dependent on our way of life. This practice simply means clarity. Our everyday clarity. What are you doing right now, this moment? If you are monk, you have monk’s job; if a lay person, you have lay person’s job. Keep your correct situation, whatever it is. Moment after moment, keep the great question, “What is this?”

Question: Do you have any famous layperson stories from the present day?

ZMWB: Yes! Nowadays there is a very great story, and it is taking place even as we talk. It is the most important story of all. Everyone must attain this story, become a true Vimalakirti, or Layman Fang, or Sul. This very moment is that story. So, everyone here is a famous lay person!

This moment is your teacher

Excerpted from a talk on March 26, 1989

As I said at the beginning of the talk, wherever we are, whatever we are doing, that is our teacher. Most important is our “don’t know” mind. When we approach a teacher for help, it is the same. More than just her or his sharp and penetrating words, our own sincerity and openness is most important.

There is a wonderful story about a Korean monk who was very stupid. He was so stupid that he couldn’t understand any dharma talks, so he eventually stopped going to them. He couldn’t understand kong-ans, so he stopped going to interviews. He had a hard time even sitting Zen, so he felt he was too stupid and didn’t sit. So all he did in the temple was working practice, because he could not do anything else.

One day, he went to his teacher and said, “Master, I’m too stupid for anything. Can you help me in some way, tell me something that will help my practice?” So his teacher gave him a phrase as a hwadu, a kong-an, to work with: “mind is Buddha.” But because this monk was so dull, he misheard it. What he heard was, “grass shoe is Buddha,” which sounds very similar in Korean.

The monk was very confused when he left the Zen master. He thought, “what a difficult kong-an! How can I ever understand it?” Every day he did his working practice, and this question was alive for him all the time, very strong: “what is the meaning of ‘grass shoe is Buddha’?”

Then one day he stumbled against a rock, and his shoe flew off. In those days, shoes were indeed made of grass or straw. When his shoe flew off, it landed on the ground and broke. At this, the monk attained enlightenment.

He was so happy that he rushed to the Zen master yelling, “I understand, I understand.” The Zen master asked, “what do you understand?” The monk took his shoe, hit the Zen master with it, and said, “my shoe is broken.” The Zen master was very happy.

So, we do not need something special, some great teaching from someone. “Grass shoe is Buddha” is not exactly a very wise statement. What we need to do is cultivate the question, the fire, that we all have within, and not let it go out. All the wisdom is already there.

In this moment, it’s right in front of us. Wherever we are, whatever we are doing, that’s our teacher.

Making your direction clear

During the Buddha’s lifetime and for many generations thereafter, winter and summer were the times for retreats. In keeping with this tradition, both our one-week Yong Maeng Jong Jins and our Kyol Ches take place during those two seasons.

Our 90-day Kyol Che is only a month away. It is a good time to decide on one’s participation in this retreat. Last year we introduced a “Heart Kyol Che,” which consists of a personal practice commitment during the time of the retreat.

This commitment has a two-fold purpose. It is a way to participate for those of us who are not able to come to the Zen Center to sit together with others. Secondly, it is a way to support those who do come and sit. This year I would encourage everyone who is unable to do Kyol Che to participate in the “Heart Kyol Che.” Depending on one’s situation, it could range from a commitment to sit five extra minutes every day to a commitment to do part of Kyol Che and/or some kind of special practice every day.

To make such a commitment and to carry it out is extremely valuable. “Special practice” is not very special. To carry it out, though, is to make one’s center very strong and one’s direction very clear.

In the Mu Mun Kwan, a collection of traditional Zen teaching cases, we have a very interesting example of “special practice.” The twelfth case talks of Zen Master Seong Am Eon who used to call to himself every day, “Master!” and would answer, “Yes?” Then the dialogue continued: “You must keep clear!” “Yes!” “Never be deceived by others, any day, any time!” “Yes! Yes!”

The question associated with this kong-an is as follows: “Master Seong Am called to himself and answered himself; two minds. Which is the correct Master?” What is very interesting is that apparently Zen Master Seong Am carried out this performance every day for a long period of time. His “special practice” has been helping Zen students until today, and its value for our practice is likely to continue as long as there are Zen students to keep our practice alive.

It is important to understand that “special practice” is not just for us, but is for others in keeping with our vows. This “for others” may not be readily visible, but nonetheless the energy of our practice radiates throughout the world. It helps our families, our friends, our coworkers, and all beings. An eminent teacher said: “One mind is clear; the whole universe is clear.”

Those words, and the words you are reading, are just expedient means to help our life, to help our practice. The next step is to leave these words behind, and simply to do “it.” That which we call “special practice” is just another expedient means to help us do “it.”

Leave Your Mind Alone

Excerpted from a dharma talk in September, 1991

Question: I have a friend who has amnesia. Could you explain this in Buddhist terms?

WBZM: In Buddhist psychology, we speak of eight kinds of consciousness. The first five are sensory-sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste. The sixth is mind consciousness, which controls our body, and the seventh is “discriminating consciousness,” which enables us to distinguish white from black or good from bad. The eighth consciousness is that which controls memory.

Sometimes these last three consciousness are split apart and don’t function together. The result might be amnesia, or perhaps a split personality. In extreme cases one personality doesn’t know what the other personality is doing. If you are practicing, however, you return to “before thinking.” Before thinking there is no first, second, third consciousness, etc. It is before any consciousness. If you keep this “before consciousness,” then amnesia and even a more serious kind of dysfunction can heal. The sixth, seventh and eighth consciousness can work together.

Practicing means you don’t use your consciousness; you let it rest. When your arm is damaged, you put it in a sling and let it heal. Otherwise you will damage it more and more. It’s the same way with your mind; if you leave it alone, it will heal. Leaving it alone means returning to before thinking. This is the purpose of Zen meditation.

Q: I have trouble deciding things. Is there some way practicing can help?

WBZM: I have a secret technique which I’ve been teaching for several years now. Take a coin (laughter) and throw it up in the air. By the time you catch it, you usually know what way you want it to come up. You don’t even have to took. Just do it.

From the vantage point of distance, most decisions are not so important Either way will be OK. Why you do what you do is most important-is it for me or for others? If your direction is clear, then your choice is also clear. But sometimes you cannot decide what is helpful, so flip a coin. It’s OK.

Q: My desires seem to come in two varieties: low elm, like “I want that cheesecake” or “I want that woman in a bikini,” and high class, like I really want to see peace in this world” or “I want to see my family flourish.” Is this the difference you’re talking about?

WBZM: Not exactly. We talk about desire versus aspiration. Every morning at our Zen centers we recite “Sentient beings are numberless, we vow to save them all.” That vow’s direction is for others. That is aspiration.

Desire means “for me.” You said, for example, “my family will flourish.” Why only “my family?” That is desire mind. But, “May all families flourish.” Not only human families. Tree family, cat family, dog family … Then there is no I, my, me. Or someone says I want enlightenment” That, again, is desire mind.

But suppose someone says I don’t understand my true self, what is this “I”? That question takes away desire mind. If you cultivate desire, desire will grow. If you cultivate Great Question, thinking calms down and desires disappear.

Thinking itself is not a problem, but if you let your desires and thinking control your actions, then you do have a problem. Let’s say a feeling or an idea appears, and you know it’s not correct to act on it. If you’re practicing, you’ve learned to let what appears in your consciousness pass. If you’re not practicing, it’s harder to control your actions. Even though you know something’s not correct, you still do it. Or something should be done, but you don’t do it. Later you say, “Why did I do that?’ But the next time is not any different. When I was a university student, I remember vowing after each exam that the next time my preparation would begin well ahead of time. I was never able to keep that vow, which means that my laziness thinking was quite strong. I wasn’t practicing hard enough, so this lazy mind controlled me.

Q: You said “don’t check yourself, don’t check others.” What does this mean?

WBZM: When you are practicing, uncomfortable thoughts and feelings often arise. We are accustomed to running away from these things. One way we try to escape when we’re alone on the cushion is to check ourselves: “Oh, I am no good. I should not be thinking. I am a lousy Zen student.” Thinking about thinking is like putting a head on top of your head. Another way of escaping is to look at and judge others. It is much more amusing than dealing with our own predicament

Q: I saw a book named “If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him.” What does this mean?

WBZM: Zen means becoming independent. That is the Buddha’s teaching. Many people, however, become attached to teachers, attached to ideas, attached to words. It can be a kind of sickness. I heard a story about two friends walking down the street. One friend fell down, and the other one started to laugh. So the one who fell down said, “Look, that’s not very nice. In the Bible it says that even if your enemy falls into adversity, you must not laugh, or rejoice. His friend responded, “Yes, of course I read that in the Bible, but it doesn’t say anything about laughing when your friend falls down.” That’s a joke of course, but sadly we do attach to words, usually missing what they point at.

To be independent means that you find for yourself what the truth is. Don’t just take someone’s word for it, no matter how famous a person it is. If you attach to someone, you attach to someone’s ideas, judgments, opinions. So if you meet the Buddha on the road you must kill him. Those are good words! However, even more importantly, when you meet your own 1, my, me, kill them. Think of your life as a kind of a laboratory. You hear of a good formula. Don’t accept it automatically. Test it in your fife. If it really works, then use it, and teach it to others. If it doesn’t, throw it out Kill the Buddha, because you are the most important authority. That means that you must become Buddha. That means that your practicing is most important

Q: Do you mean practicing, as you people do here in this room?

WBZM: Earlier this morning I asked you “What are you?” You were stuck, and unable to answer. That is our practice. Formal practice, which is what we do twice a day in this room, is only a technique, albeit a very important one. We can easily talk about keeping a don’t know mind, but it is not always easy to actually do it. Even ten or fifteen minutes a day of formal practice can help us carry that practice into the rest of our life.

In your daily life, when you are doing something, do it one hundred percent. Then you are completely awake. If you are dreaming, wake up. Good dream or bad dream, dream of the past, the present, or the future, it does not matter. Become awake! Become an awakened one. Become Buddha.

The interview

The Zen interview is a vital part of the training in our school. While the form and content of the interview depend entirely on the student and the particular teacher’s style, the purpose is to help the student experience his or her own strengths and limitations. It is not very useful, nor even possible, to judge one’s practice, but it is possible for us to experience the quality of our practice through the Zen interview.

There is an “incorrect” and a “correct” way to approach the interview. If we are attached to being “correct,” to answering any kong-an correctly, to demonstrating always how clear and strong we are, the interview becomes quite an ordeal. It is this desire to answer correctly, to not show our weaknesses, our dirty corners, that causes fear to appear. It is not easy to be able to make mistakes, to be stupid, and yet not check that and keep on trying. Some Zen students try to avoid this situation by simply avoiding the interview. There is another extreme, which is also not very helpful for our practice. It manifests itself through an unhealthy fascination with kong-ans, and with interviews. This is especially unhealthy in the case of students whose entire practice revolves around trying to answer kong-ans. These students forget that without the fire of “don’t know,” without a steady effort, such kong-an answers and such interviews cannot connect to their lives and are quite useless.

Finally, the Zen interview is very important, but only as part of our practice. If used correctly, without avoidance or fascination, it is a very powerful tool and helps both the student and the teacher. It can provide a vital link between our meditation and our life. It is like a lab where we can safely test our practice under fire. The kong-an situations presented in the interview are usually extremely simple, and even if we make a mistake, no serious consequence occurs. Our lives are usually not so forgiving, and many of our everyday situations are very complex and full of subtleties. But, the Gordian knot they represent can be cut through. The Zen interview and kong-an teach us how to do that.

“I don’t like kong-ans”

The following exchange took place in an interview during a retreat in Norway in February:

Student: I don’t like kong-ans. That is why I come so rarely to interviews. Can you say something about that?

Wu Bong Zen Master: Sure. You don’t like kong-ans, then you must drop dead.

Student: Hmmm? I don’t understand.

WBZM: A kong-an is not special. Any of your everyday life situations is already a kong-an. If you don’t like kong-ans, you don’t like life. So, you must die. Do you want that?

Student: (laughing) No. I would like to live a little while still.

WBZM: Good. Then put down your like and dislike. When a kong-an appears, only respond. If the correct response does not appear, return to “don’t know.” In your everyday life it is the same. If any situation is not clear for you, return to “don’t know.”

Student: I understand. Thank you very much.

Good Feeling Suffering, Bad Feeling Suffering

This exchange is from a talk at the Introduction to Zen Workshop on September 9, 1990.

Question: What do you mean by suffering? I read somewhere that suffering isn’t really what one thinks it is.

Wu Bong Zen Master: There are many kinds of suffering: body pain, emotional pain, mental pain. Sometimes people are happy but this happiness is also a kind of suffering. For example, someone takes some cocaine and it makes them feel very good, this is also suffering. The root of this happiness is suffering. So, suffering does not mean just bad feeling.

Sometimes, we have good feeling suffering, sometimes we have bad feeling suffering. Someone may be very happy, because he or she is attached to something. This kind of happiness already has the seeds of suffering. The seeds of suffering come from our attachment, our expectations, our wanting something from a situation. If you have, “I, my, me” you are suffering whether you know it or not.

Q: Then does Zen mean not to think in terms of “I, my, me,” and suffering will go away?

WBZM: If you attain Zen then you will get more suffering. If you do not want suffering, you shouldn’t try Zen, because if you are practicing, then everyone’s suffering becomes yours. Then there is no “my suffering,” but still there is suffering in the world.

We talk often about compassion. Many of us want to become more compassionate, but we do not always understand what compassion is. Compassion is not some kind of a feeling. Compassion is not just feeling bad for someone or feeling pity for someone. Feeling bad for someone who is hungry will not fill that person’s stomach. Compassion means moment to moment, what do you do? When somebody is hungry, what can you do?

For example, ten years ago I was very sick and had to stay in a hospital. My doctors thought that I would soon die, so all of my friends worried about me. Among the people who came to visit me from the Zen Center was one person who was very emotional. I was exhausted after each of her visits because I had to spend a lot of my energy on cheering her up.

To make it more clear, consider a teacher’s job. Being a human being, it is not unusual for a teacher to have favorites among his or her students, and others that are perhaps even disliked. The teacher’s job, however, is to encourage, compliment, and give good grades to students when they deserve it, whether one likes them or not. Also, to give correct grades and good feedback to students who perform poorly, even if they are one’s favorites. Another name for this is compassion.

So finally, compassion simply means keeping one’s correct situation, correct relationship, and correct function, moment to moment.