Who’s the Bee?

Early in October, the Providence Zen Center hosted the Whole World is a Single Flower conference, which brought together members of our sangha from all around the world. During the weekend we all heard many interesting tales of Zen center life from Singapore to Fairbanks to Warsaw. In Korea, I learned they have a saying: If you scratch an Asian Christian, underneath you will find a Buddhist; if you scratch a western Buddhist you will find a Christian. That’s funny–it’s a reflection of our world situation–but it’s very important to find what lies deeper, what we are before Christian, Buddhist, Asian, Western even appears.

My mother was born an identical twin. That means that she and my aunt were genetically identical. However, even though they were the same they were also very different. My mother had one husband and two children, while my aunt had several husbands and no children. My mother spent most of her life taking care of our home while my aunt was a professional woman and was an early espouser of feminist sentiment. When my mother died, I asked Zen Master Seung Sahn why it was that even though they both started out the same, they were so different. His answer was very simple — “thinking!”

Nations are also like that: they start out the same but then they become quite different. Sometimes they become very attached to these differences and start fighting. But our school’s “don’t know” teaching has none of that. The clarity and genius of Zen Master Seung Sahn is that he never teaches opinions, religion or culture, so our “don’t know” can travel anywhere in the world and help all people realize their original compassionate nature. If we keep don’t know mind, we are all identical twins even though we are different!

Fifty years ago Ko Bong Zen Master gave transmission to Zen Master Seung Sahn, saying “You are the flower and I am the bee.” But, if the whole world is a single flower, then who is the bee?

What’s Up Doc

One time Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson went on a camping trip. After a hearty meal and a bottle of wine, they crawled into their tent and went to sleep. Some hours later, Holmes woke up and nudged his faithful friend. “Watson, look up and tell me what you see.”

“I see millions and millions of stars.”

“And what does that tell you, my dear Watson?”

Watson pondered for a moment, knowing that once again he was being tested. Finally he was ready. “From the point of view of astrophysics, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies with potentially billions of planets. We circle a small sun on the edge of a medium-sized galaxy. Astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo, so we should be careful tomorrow. Chronologically, I deduce that the time is approximately a quarter past three. Theologically, I can see that God is all-powerful and that we are small and insignificant. Meteorologically, I suspect that we will have a beautiful sunny day tomorrow.” Satisfied, he relaxed back into his sleeping bag. But soon, knowing Holmes, some doubt crossed his mind. Finally, he turned to his friend and asked, “What do you see?”

“Watson, you missed the point… someone has stolen our tent!”

Sometimes our minds are like this. In fact, there is a saying in Buddhism that it’s easy to see a flea on the nose of a person one mile away, but very difficult to see an elephant standing on your own nose. But even at that time, our original nature is perfectly clear. Recently in a talk given in Korea at the end of the three-month winter retreat, Zen Master Seung Sahn said, “What is different from your original nature? The only thing that is different is your opinions and thinking. If you cut off all thinking, then your nature and Buddha’s nature become one… without cultivation, without practice.” What a deal!

One day Officer Yu Kan said to Zen Master Nam Cheon, “Gae Poep Sa once said, ‘Heaven, earth and I have the same root; the ten thousand things and I are one body.’ This is outrageous!”

Nam Cheon pointed to a tree in the garden and said, “People these days see this flowering tree as in a dream.” What does this mean? If you attain that, even Sherlock Holmes would be surprised.

What is a Zen Retreat?

At the end of his life Buddha said, “Life is very short; please investigate it closely.” This is the first meaning of a meditation retreat: Investigation. Everyone knows that life is short; soon the show is over. Behind that realization is always the question, What am I, really? This question and the profound doubt that it entails is what the Buddha faced. That is the question of our life too — what are you?

In China, a cut of meat is called “pure meat,” meaning that it is not mixed with anything else, like in a sausage. People always want the butcher to give them “pure meat.” There once was a Zen practitioner who was investigating the question, “Who has Buddha Nature?” — i.e., what am I? All day long, as much as he could, he would look into this question. Every day on his way to work he would pass a butcher shop. He would always hear people clamoring for pure meat, but he never paid it much mind. One day as he passed by, a women was vehemently insisting that the butcher give her only “pure meat.” Her insistence rankled the butcher, who shouted back, “Madam, which piece is not pure?” When the man heard this angry shout, he suddenly realized that everything is “pure meat.” Everything has Buddha Nature. What doesn’t have Buddha Nature? He was enlightened. This is true investigation. If it is constant and sincere, then it will have a result, guaranteed.

Our retreats are governed by the temple rules. Originally these rules came from the monastic code for Zen temples set up by Pai Chang Zen Master, one of Ma Tzu’s top students. Much like the Rule of Saint Benedict, it sets forth rules for how to live together harmoniously. Our temple rules also tell us how to practice correctly. But more than that, they contain a prescription for relating to everything in this world in a compassionate manner. Central to this and to the correct practicing of Zen is what we call “putting it all down.” The temple rules say, “Do not cling to your opinions. To cling to and defend your opinions is to destroy your practice. Put away all of your opinions. This is true Buddhism.” This tells how to practice correctly. Just let go of — i.e., let rest — your every opinion. As the temple rules say, “The great round mirror has no likes or dislikes.” This is our original nature. The second meaning of any mediation retreat is to put down your opinion, your condition and your situation, and return to your original nature.

In the Majjhima-nikaya, a collection of sutras in the Pali Cannon, a monk asks the Buddha to summarize all of his teaching in one sentence. In the course of forty-some years of teaching the Buddha taught many, many things. However, his simple reply was, “Don’t attach to anything.” Wow, there it is in a nutshell — very simple! The Fifth Patriarch got his big enlightenment when he heard this line from the Diamond Sutra: “When thinking arises in your mind don’t attach to it.” These ancient worthies were always teaching the same simple thing. Our only job is to do it. So the third meaning of a retreat is “just do it.” After all, retreats are very simple. Everything is decided for you: when to get up; what to eat when to meditate — everything. Your job is to do it.

Most of our retreats are relatively short — one, two or three days, or perhaps three months. But Buddha practiced very hard for six years and Bodhidharma sat for nine years in a cave above Shao Lin Temple. How can we possibly attain what they got? Actually, it’s very simple: At this moment, just apply yourself with sincere effort in asking this question: What am I? That means investigate closely. That means cut off all thinking — wake up from your like and dislike dream. At that point, you and Buddha and Bodhidharma become one. This is the last meaning of a retreat — wake up and help our world. That is already the Buddha’s mind. But that’s just dead words so, I have a question for you: How is it possible for you and Buddha and Bodhidharma to become one? Quick! Answer! Thinking won’t help you.

Upside Down World

The Chinese Zen Master Ching Ch’ing was famous for his strict discipline. Late one night as he sat with the monks he asked them, “What’s that sound outside the gate?” One of the monks replied, “Master, that’s the sound of raindrops.” Ching Ch’ing then said, “This world is upside down; people lose themselves and chase after things.”

If you look closely at our world it’s apparent that something is very wrong. Everywhere you look there is suffering. Why? The Buddha said that the cause of suffering is desire: “I want… something.” Anytime you want something you lose your true self and are “chasing” after that something. Suddenly the world flips over like an unbalanced iceberg… bluuuuuub! Once the world is upside down, everything is seen differently. The Buddha called that ignorance. And just like a fish in water, we don’t realize our ignorance until the wake-up alarm of suffering starts ringing loudly in our ears. In fact, when we hear people talking about the rightside-up world, we tend to reject it immediately… “That’s not true; no way, you must be crazy or some kind of religious nut!”

When Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount he was talking about the rightside-up world. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Do not resist one who is evil. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. Ignorance doesn’t include just our material desires, it can also embrace our “spiritual” practices as well; these too can become things. As Zen Master Huang Po, Lin Chi’s teacher, said:

So, if you students of the Way are mistaken about your own real Mind… you will indulge in various achievements and practices and expect to attain realization by such graduated practices. But, even after aeons of diligent searching, you will not be able to attain to the Way. These methods cannot be compared to the sudden elimination of conceptual thought, the certain knowledge that there is nothing at all which has absolute existence, nothing on which to lay hold, nothing on which to rely, nothing in which to abide, nothing subjective or objective. It is by preventing the rise of conceptual thought that you will realize Bodhi; and, when you do, you will just be realizing the Buddha who has always existed in your own Mind.

How simple, but few people will believe it. Zen means “I don’t want anything,” “don’t attach to anything,” the direct simple antidote to suffering of all kinds. When Zen Master Seung Sahn says that if you don’t want anything you get everything, who believes him? That’s upside down! If he tells us to put it all down or to cut off all thinking, who will follow? If we can just detach from our thinking for even a second then… bluuuuuuub, the world turns rightside up; we are awake. We call this Great Love and Great Compassion.

Here is a question for you:

A monk asked Un Mun, “When it’s not the immediate instinct and it’s not the immediate phenomenon, how is it?”

Un Mun said, “An upside-down statement.”

So, if there is no upside down and no right side up, then what? Zen won’t help you.

True Alchemy

“Alchemy” is one of the most commonly used metaphors for spiritual transformation. The turning of dross into something valuable and useful is something which has forever obsessed the human imagination. Unfortunately, people often become attached to the surface meaning of religious metaphors and thereby miss their true meaning.

This doesn’t just lead to misunderstanding and wasted time; it can be downright dangerous. One may waste time looking for the Holy Grail, or trying to go to the Western Paradise. One may spend years attempting to turn lead into gold. Or, like the first Chinese emperor, Chin Shih Huang Ti, they may seriously damage their health and shorten their lives imbibing elixirs to make themselves immortal. Chin’s attempts at immortality led to insanity. The immortality he was searching for never appeared.

However, beneath the surface, the religious metaphor always points to something much more valuable than these acquired things; and it’s accessible to everyone… right here, right now! “If they were a snake, they would bite you,” as my mother used to say during my morning pre-school search for the holy grail of socks.

True alchemy means the return to the true self. The common Buddhist metaphor of the emergence of a pure white lotus from the fetid swamp refers to the wisdom of this awakening. Actually, the swamp and the lotus are one. When we find that our true lotus appears automatically, we don’t have to do anything.

What is the secret elixir which will produce this result? The recipe is very simple.

First, keep a mind which is before thinking. If you do that just now, we call that try mind.

Next, make your direction clear. Our direction is to help our suffering world. As Zen Master Seung Sahn says, if your direction is clear your whole live is clear; if it isn’t, your whole life is not clear.

If we keep this mind, the emotions of desire and anger are changed into great love and great compassion. Our ignorance becomes wisdom. If we take this elixir moment to moment, that is true alchemy. True alchemy means no alchemy; actually the result has already appeared. Why practice alchemy?

A monk asked Ching Ch’ing, “I’m pecking out; master, please peck in.” Master Ching said, “Are you alive or not?” The monk said, “If I were not alive, people would jeer at me.” Ching said, “You, too, are a man in the weeds.” If you were the monk and Ching Ch’ing said, “Are you alive or not?”, what could you do?

Transmission Speech

Bang! (Hits the table with the Zen stick.)

Everything is always coming and going; going and coming. That is the first teaching of the Buddha. But the true meaning of this teaching cuts off the tongue of the Buddha. In the end even the five schools of Zen disappear. So, Un Mun Zen Master said, “Medicine cures disease, disease cures medicine.”


This point is complete stillness, the universal substance. The whole universe comes from this point. This is the second teaching of the Buddha. But, this point has no name, no word, no speech, no form. So, this point has already cut off my tongue.


This is the third teaching of the Buddha. It means “just like this” is the truth, which is the universe just doing it moment to moment; so now everybody’s tongue is cut off — what can you do?


Outside the birds are singing, inside the candles are bright.

Our whole life is only one thing. But nobody believes that. The reason they don’t believe that is because everybody wants something. For example, many times people who practice Zen expect or want something from their practicing. But that’s not correct practicing, because wanting and expecting something is what causes the wheel of samsara to turn round and round. This is the source of life and death and all suffering. But if you just practice, without wanting anything, then you can attain your true self. In the Diamond Sutra a student of the Buddha asks the Buddha if he got anything when he got enlightenment. The Buddha said, “No, I didn’t get anything; if I’d gotten something, it wouldn’t have been incomparable enlightenment” If you completely attain that, you get one thing, this moment. That is very simple! Zen is not a special thing; it’s just one thing.

About a hundred years ago in Korea there was a young woman who was about to be married. In those days marriages were arranged through a go-between. It was the custom that a bride would not know or even see her prospective marriage partner until the day of the ceremony. Hearing that the arrangements had been completed, the woman became quite excited, also very anxious. After all, her marriage would be the most important deciding factor of the rest of her life, and she didn’t know exactly what was going to happen. She started thinking: “What will my husband be like? Handsome or ugly? I’d like a handsome man. Will he be kind or will he be inconsiderate? Oh, I so want a kind husband.” Then she was also thinking, “I wonder if he’ll be stupid or smart? I really would like to have a smart and clever husband. I hate dull men.” Then she started to think about her mother-in-law to be.

In Korea at that time the wife went to live with the husband’s family. Since life for a woman was bound to family and home, the mother-in-law controlled the new wife’s whole life. So she was just as worried about her mother-in-law as about her prospective husband. “What will this women be like? Will she be a tyrant? Will she be mean? Or, will she be kind and generous?” She thought about all this a lot, for months in advance — thinking and thinking. Then, just the day before the ceremony she had to go to her sister’s village for the final fitting of her wedding dress. Korea is quite mountainous; so she had to cross a low pass to get to the village. As she walked, she was thinking about her marriage and since it was close to the wedding day, her mind was reeling. Then, just as she came to the top of the pass and started down towards the village, a tiger jumped out in front of her…… “Grrrrrrrrrhh!!!” That’s the end of the story as we know it.

To some, this story is sad because we have expectations. But this woman is not special because we always meet the tiger sooner or later. But to Zen students this story is interesting because one thing appeared very clear. We might say she got “tiger enlightenment.” That means “wake up!” At any moment that can happen to us; it doesn’t take a tiger. It’s very simple.

However, most people live in a dream, their “like and dislike thinking” dream. They are always thinking about the past and the future. But the past and the future do not exist! All we ever have is “right now.” We live in a “moment world,” but we “think” that we live somewhere else. The only place that you can become you is right now. Thinking itself is not good or bad, but our attachment to thinking creates suffering. Zen means wake up from your dream, your attachment thinking.

If you look at enlightenment situations closely, they’re simple — really simple; you might even say stupid. Buddha saw a star and got enlightenment; that’s simple. Hyang Eom Zen Master heard a rock hit against bamboo and got enlightenment; that’s simple. Dok Sahn Zen Master had somebody blow out a candle just as he was reaching for it; that’s simple. Buddha held up a flower and Mahakashyapa smiled. This is the first dharma transmission — that’s downright stupid. In each of these stories, nobody got anything. Only a very simple mind, our original nature, appeared. Just one thing appeared very clear, very clear! So this one thing appearing, the tiger, the rock sound; this means wake up now. Why wait? If you’re waiting for something or want something, you’re already dead. Our practice means just this moment, wake up. Very simple. This is not rocket science.

The other night some of us were out looking at the moon — there was an eclipse. The earth moved between the sun and the moon and blocked out the light that is usually reflected off the moon. If you understand that, you have some wisdom. Some people think that a serpent is eating the moon during an eclipse — munching it. As it is being eaten, they get very scared. So, they run off and get a shaman to chant and beat a drum to bring the moon back. Everybody’s mind operates like that to some extent; everybody has some delusive thoughts which separate them from what’s really happening; it’s called a hindrance. However, if you have some wisdom, then there’s no problem. That means, wake up. Your original light is already shining.

So today it happens to be cloudy; we say the sun is not shining. But that’s stupid-the sun is shining. It just happens to be cloudy today, that’s all. And even at night we say the sun’s not shining, but the sun is shining. The sun’s “out” all the time. It’s very simple. Our original nature is just like that, it’s out all the time, but we don’t think so. We’re very attached to our hindrance. But if you wake up to this moment — cut off all thinking — the hindrance evaporates and wisdom appears by itself. Simple. Then compassionate action appears naturally. So, our whole life is only one thing — this moment — wake up! It’s already there.

Bang! (Hits the table with the Zen stick.)

One and two are always playing with each other.


One and two play hide and seek with each other and hide behind a rock.


One and two come out from behind the rock and each do a dance. But the famous Korean Zen Master Man Gong said that it’s not one and it’s not two. If it’s not one and it’s not two, then what kind of dance is it? You’re not one and you’re not two, what are you?


Outside today it’s cloudy and inside… (bows and returns to his seat.)

Thousand Year Treasure

Recently I led a retreat at the Empty Gate Zen Center in Berkeley California. Among the retreatants was an older Chinese man whom I had never met before. From his dress I could tell that he was quite wealthy. Although he was quite uncomfortable sitting and bowing, he practiced with sincerity and intensity for three days. During a chat after the retreat he told me that he was from Indonesia and here in the States for just a short time visiting his son, who attended the University of California.

Suddenly, concern and sadness filled him with emotion. He told me something very shocking: just a couple of weeks ago he was quite wealthy — his family had been living in Jakarta for several generations but now, because of the recent turmoil in Indonesia he had little left. Ethnic Chinese had been targeted in the riots there, and his business was destroyed. Even his wife could not leave the country because her passport was kept in a bank which had been looted. When he saw the poster for our retreat he walked in off the street and sat down; he said it was the only thing he could do!

This man’s story reminded me of something. Every winter in the mountains of Korea our school holds a ninety-day retreat at Shin Won Sah Temple. Within the temple complex there is one building dedicated to a protective god recognized in the ancient religion of Korea. The building was originally built in the early Yi Dynasty, late fourteenth century, as a place where the queen could pray for the protection of the nation. During retreats many of us would go up to this building to do midnight practicing. As with many traditional Korean temple buildings, the gate at the entrance is supported by two columns. Painted on these columns are Chinese sayings intended to inspire and encourage the practitioner. On the left-hand post it says, “Three days looking into the self, thousand year treasure.” On the right it says, “One hundred year life, chasing after power and things, turns to dust in one day.”

This is our life. No matter what we get — even if it’s the result of a hundred-year struggle — can go away in less that a day. But the benefit we get from practicing gives us a lasting reward, a look at our true self and clear direction in our life. What a deal! The man from Jakarta was indeed fortunate — there was nothing else for him to do.

Teaching Words

When he was young the great Zen Master Ma-tzu was known for his hard practicing. One day the Seventh Patriarch, Huai-jang, came upon Ma-tzu meditating in his hut. Having heard of his reputation, Huai-jang decided to test him. He entered the hut and questioned Ma-tzu as to the purpose of meditation practice. Ma-tzu replied that he was practicing to become an enlightened being, a Buddha.

Saying nothing, Huai-jang picked up a discarded brick and started rubbing it with a rock. After a while, Ma-tzu’s curiosity got the best of him. “Why are you grinding on that brick?” he asked.

Huai-jang replied, “I’m polishing it into a mirror.”

Somewhat perturbed, Ma-tzu blurted: “How can you possibly make a mirror by polishing a brick?”

Huai-jang’s reply was immediate: “How can you become a Buddha by practicing meditation?” Hearing these words, Ma-tzu had an opening.

Zen means. “I don’t want anything”. Another name for this is “enough mind,” which means completely attain this moment. But we often hear Zen Master Seung Sahn say that his only teaching is “don’t know.” This is interesting. We hear many times that Zen is very simple. And it is, but we are human beings so we sometimes have a lot of thinking; then things get complicated. Because we have thinking, we have many teaching words. But all these teaching words mean only one thing: “don’t know.” So, “just do it” is “don’t know,” “only go straight” is “don’t know,” “put down (i.e. let it rest) your opinion, condition and situation” is “don’t know,” “enough mind” is “don’t know.” Even “the Buddha Way is inconceivable, I vow to attain it” is “don’t know.” But “don’t know” is not “don’t know.”

Sengtsan, the Third Patriarch, left us with -this poem:

To live in the Great Way
is neither easy nor difficult,
but those with limited views
are fearful and irresolute:
the faster they hurry, the slower they go,
and clinging (attachment) cannot be limited;
even to be attached to the idea of enlightenment is to go astray.
Just let things be in their own way,
and there will be neither coming nor going.

So, it is very important not to be attached to teaching words, no matter how wonderful or how great the mouth from which they emerged. Forget the net; catch the fish.

Stems and Roots

During the later T’ang Dynasty there was a large Zen temple in Southern China named Ho Pak Sah. As with most Zen temples of this period, the monks of Ho Pak Sah earned their keep by working the soil. Because of the many monks and the large land holdings of the temple, a heavy burden fell on the monk who administered the farm lands. Early each morning he would inspect the gardens and paddies to make sure everything was running smoothly.

One morning as he was walking along the path to check the upper irrigation system, he heard a loud ruckus. His initial shock soon turned to puzzlement. Usually dawn was a time for quiet reflection, but on this morning he was confronted by angry voices. Where was all this shouting coming from? His eyes were drawn toward the pumpkin patch at the edge of the garden. In disbelief his eyes grew large–the pumpkins were fighting! This would never do, the harmony and success of the whole temple was at risk.

Suddenly he gave out a loud belly shout, “Ho!” In startled surprise the pumpkins grew silent. “This is a Zen temple! You must all now learn how to practice correctly.” With great patience he taught each of them how to meditate. How to sit. How to breathe in carbon dioxide slowly through their leaves and breathe out oxygen…slowly asking, “What is a pumpkin?” Since they already knew these things, they learned quickly. Soon their minds became calm. He then asked them to put their leaves on top of their heads. Immediately there were several “ahhs” of recognition. Then the whole patch broke into a collective “YES!” The realization was clear: everyone had a stem coming out of the top of their head connecting each to the other. Why were they fighting? They all shared a common vine, rooting them to the source of life. By practicing, they had discovered their original connectedness and attained harmony. It’s very important that you find your stem.

Soap Enlightenment

The first thing the Buddha said after his great enlightenment was that everything had Buddha nature. The problem is that we don’t know that. Because we are ignorant of our original nature, we use it to produce suffering. Not good, not bad, but…suffering.

Several months ago there was a story in the news about a very rich widower who had one son. Even though the son’s education was the best that money could buy, he had some very strange opinions, which try as he might the father could not assuage. The son was very taken with the idea that humans should never cut their hair or bathe. Now, if you hold ideas like this for two or three days, they won’t create much of a problem, but as the son grew older, and the years passed, there was a big problem, as well as a big smell! Finally, the father gave up and let the son do as he pleased.

Several years later when the father died, the son was shocked, for he had only been left two things: a small empty house and a very large bar of soap. The rest went to charity. The son didn’t know what to do. Day after day he just sat in the house and looked at the bar of soap. Three… four… days passed, and he started to get hungry, something he had never experienced before. Circumstances had definitely changed for the worse; he would have to do something. Finally his soap meditation brought a realization: he would have to cut his hair, take a bath, and get a job. He grabbed the huge bar of soap and ran to the shower. He scrubbed and scrubbed… and then he scrubbed some more. Finally, just as the bar was beginning to wear down and he was starting to get clean, he noticed a bright, shiny object emerging from the center of the bar. Frantically he scrubbed, finally revealing a large diamond–his true inheritance.

Most human beings are just like this young man, except it’s their minds that need cleaning to reveal the jewel hidden inside. One time Un Mun Zen Master addressed the assembled monks saying, “Between heaven and earth, throughout the universe, there is a jewel. It is hidden in the mountain of form. Pick up the lamp and head straight for the Buddha Hall; take the triple temple gate and bring it on the lamp.” If you truly attain the jewel of this kong-an, you have already received your true inheritance.