ka Speech

On December 8, 1990, Zen Master Dae Kwang received “inka” (certification) from Zen Master Seung Sahn. 

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Understanding is not understanding. Not understanding is understanding.

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No understanding; no not understanding.

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Understanding is understanding. Not understanding is not understanding.

About one hundred and fifty years ago, Karl Marx said, “Philosophers want to understand the world; the point, however, is to change it.”

At about the same time, Leo Tolstoy, the famous Russian writer, said, “Everybody wants to change this world; nobody wants to change themselves.”

Wu-wei quotes an ancient worthy as saying, “If you understand this world, this world is just like it is. If you don’t understand this world, this world is just like it is.”

So, which of these statements is correct?


Outside, it is dusk. Inside, the candles are burning bright.

Most people are looking for some kind of explanation or understanding of the perplexities of life. Some people even come to Zen looking for a better set of concepts to explain their existence. Much of my life, too, has been spent searching for some kind of understanding. I’m sure you experience this also: “What is this life all about, anyway? I want to understand,” or “What is it that I’m not getting? How come none of my explanations seem to satisfy me?” Underneath this kind of questioning lies a deep longing to resolve the basic human question – “What am I?”

My first encounter with Zen was through books. I spent many years reading books about Zen. I was very intrigued by its way of expressing things, and often perplexed. One day a friend of mine told me about a talk being given by a Zen Master Seung Sahn from Korea. During the talk this Zen Master said something which really put me in a tailspin: “Understanding cannot help you.” Something went off in my mind; a deep dissatisfaction had been touched. Here I was, just finishing my graduate studies, and this Zen Master says, “Understanding cannot help you.” I heard that.

After this I started looking more closely at Buddhist teachings. The Buddha is a very interesting teacher because, just like us, he didn’t understand life, didn’t understand why human beings are on this earth. Why do we suffer and cause so much pain? He absorbed himself in this fundamental and profound question. But his search for the answer was not just for himself – for his own salvation – but for all beings. In the end his deep questioning and pure, clear intention came together in one point, enlightenment. The enlightenment which we are celebrating today is the result of this trying, this intention, and this profound questioning.

Buddha’s Enlightenment Day could also be called “Buddha’s question answering day.” He attained what it means to be a complete human being, to live a life of openness and compassion for all beings. His enlightenment was an attainment, not just a change in how he understood life. He became compassion. True compassion is a way of being, not a mere idea.

Because of this, the Buddha is unique. Unlike many religious leaders, he did not put forth a new religion, philosophy, theology, ideology, or psychology. If Buddhism is now a religion, this is something which was created later. Sutras are not discourses to be understood, but wisdom which needs to be made ours. At the end of his life, Buddha did not admonish us to believe in him or what he said. Rather, his last words urged us to earnestly investigate this life for ourselves.

One of the first stories I heard about Zen was a story about Zen Master Un Mun. One day as Un Mun was on his way to the outhouse, a new monk approached him and said, “Please, Zen Master, tell me, what is the first principle of Zen?” Then Un Mun said, “Excuse me, I have to take a piss,” and marched off. Then, as he was walking away, he turned around, looked back at the student, and said, “Imagine, even such a simple thing I have to do myself.”

The teaching style of Zen is very uncompromising. As the story illustrates, the student is thrown back on his own resources. There is no explanation to help the student to understand. Rather, the teacher’s intent is to evoke a direct experience of the truth. A very famous kong-an in the Mu Mun Kwan, Nam Cheon’s “Every Day Mind is the Path” (case 19), speaks directly about understanding and true life.

One day Joju went to Zen Master Nam Cheon and asked “What is the true way?” Joju was a very high class practitioner but still he had some doubt, some question.

Nam Cheon answered, “Everyday mind is the true way.” We have all heard many times that Zen is very, very simple, that Zen is not special. So, everyday mind: what could be more simple than this clear, unattached, spontaneously manifesting mind that we all possess – everyday mind.

But still there is some doubt in Joju’s mind, so he says, “Then should I try to keep it or not?” Nam Cheon then says, “If you try to keep it, already you are mistaken.” If you want something, or are holding on to something, already you have made a mistake. It is not possible to hold on to anything in this life. Try to keep it? Already a mistake.

Then Joju has a further question. “If I do not try, how can I understand the true way?” Again, the deep desire that we all have: I want to understand life, figure it out.

Nam Cheon replies, “The true way is not dependent on understanding or not understanding. Understanding is illusion; not understanding is blankness. If you completely attain the true way of not thinking, it is like space, clear and void. So, why do you make right and wrong?” Then, Joju suddenly got enlightenment, realization.

The question put to Nam Cheon is also our question: “What is the true way?” Any time we grasp for anything, any time we want something, we are already in the quagmire of opposites-thinking. We are separated from the true way.

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Sosan Taesa said, “Before Ancient Buddha appeared, one thing was already perfectly clear. Shakyamuni Buddha did not understand it; how could he transmit it to Mahakashyapa?”

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The fourth great vow says, “The Buddha way is inconceivable; I vow to attain it.”

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The view of all Buddhas and Patriarchs is the same – no view.

Which one of these statements is correct?


Outside, it is dark. Inside, the candles are burning bright.

Good News

December is the traditional time that we in the West celebrate the great enlightenment of the Buddha some 2,500 years ago. The enlightenment of the Buddha is good news for all beings. Why is that?

The Buddha practiced with great effort and sincerity for six years. Then one morning he saw a star and attained a great enlightenment. The first thing he said after his enlightenment was, “How wonderful, all beings have it; all beings have Buddha-nature, they just don’t know it.” A person once asked the Buddha what the difference was between the Buddha and himself The Buddha said, “There is no difference, only I am awake and you aren’t.” Good news! It means that you are already saved… you just need to wake up to it. This is why enlightenment is likened to “waking up” — awakening from a self-centered dream.

On the evening before his enlightenment the Buddha sat down with great determination, vowing not to get up unless he answered the great question of life and death: What is a human being? Why do we suffer so? Why do we walk on this earth? During the night. he experienced everything in life as continually coming and going, always changing. He was also tempted by desire — Mara — but realized that there was no satisfaction to be found anywhere through desire. Desire could not control him. These two experiences mean emptiness, the essential substance of everything.

In the morning his mind was clear. As Venus, the morning star, appeared he attained enlightenment. This means truth. Everything was just as it was.

Next, he got up from under the Bodhi tree and went out to teach the release from suffering. He had completely awakened from the dream of anger and desire. The attachment to desire — ignorance — could no longer control him; he was free to help the world. This is the function of our original nature-to help take away the suffering of the world.

Once the monks of Kung Dong Zen Temple asked Zen Master Man Gong, “On December 8th, in the early morning, Buddha saw a star and got enlightenment. What does this mean?”

Man Gong said, “Buddha saw a star and said he got enlightenment. This is sand falling in the eyes.”

Zen Master Seung Sahn’s comment on this is very interesting: “Does this star come from your mind, your eyes, or the sky? If you attain this point, you attain your true self.”

If we attain that, we understand “… sand failing in the eyes” and can help this world. That would be truly good news.

Finger Wrestling

One time Un Mun Zen Master was visiting the capital city. Because of his fame as a teacher, a high government offical wanted to meet with him. During the audience the offical asked, “What is the meaning of the Hwa Yen Sutra?”

Un Mun said, “Putting that aside for a moment, what is the meaning of ‘sutra’?”

“The cover is gold and the inside is white,” was the minister’s reply.

“You only understand the form of the sutra; you don’t understand its meaning.” The minister was completely stuck.

Recently, at the Centennial of the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, the Dalai Lama gave a speech in which he said that the true basis of the ecumenical movement is spiritual attainment. True understanding of another’s religion can only come from first attaining the meaning of your own religion; not just understanding it. Ritual and theology may be important but what’s most important is what’s inside the fancy robes. If the inside is real, then cooperation is possible.

Zen Master Seung Sahn, too, emphasizes attainment over understanding. Often he will say that a lot of people understand the bible or the sutras, but very few people understand the “behind meaning”–they have not attained the meaning. Zen is a special transmission outside the sutras, not dependent on words or speech. One familiar metaphor concerning this situation is that the various religions are like fingers pointing at the moon. Unfortunately, human beings spend much of their energy finger wrestling, rather than helping our world.

When Su Bong Zen Master was just starting to practice Zen, he was very interested in the story of the Sixth Patriarch’s enlightenment. The Sixth Patriarch got enlightenment upon hearing one line being recited from the Diamond Sutra. Zen Master Su Bong was very interested in this one line, and one day took the sutra into Zen Master Seung Sahn’s room to ask him about it. Pointing to the book, he asked, “What does this mean?” Zen Master Seung Sahn said, “Bring it closer. What line are you pointing to?” Just as Zen Master Su Bong brought the book close, Zen Master Seung Sahn slammed the book on his finger–POW!–and shouted, “What are you?!”

So, if you were the government minister and Un Mun asked you, “What is the meaning of ‘sutra’?” how could you answer?

Finding Your Compassion

From a talk at Providence Zen Center on Buddha’s Enlightenment Day, 1991

Throughout the ages people have written commentaries on the Buddha’s enlightenment using many different perspectives. But from the point of view of history, the Buddha’s enlightenment is not very interesting. Nor is it very interesting from the points of view of philosophy or psychology. However, if the Buddha’s enlightenment enters your heart and mind in this moment, that is interesting! Thinking about enlightenment is not interesting. Attaining enlightenment is interesting. The big meaning of the Buddha’s enlightenment in this moment is, “What are you?”

We practice Zen in terms of two essential questions, both of which point directly to the suffering of this world and our role in it. First, “What are you doing right now?” In other words, “What are you? What is a human being? Why are you on this planet, right now, right here? Right now!” Second, “Why do you do what you do?” The Buddha’s enlightenment connects with us at this moment through these two questions. Actually, these two questions are one question: What are you? This is the great question of life and death.

Many human beings are like lemmings running to the sea – heading pell-mell towards destruction, agony, and suffering. However, standing out in human history are some great figures who went in a different direction, whose lives say something else. Two obvious examples would be the Buddha and Christ. The lemmings are running one way, but Buddha and Christ are saying, “Hey, how ’bout this way?” And they aren’t just flapping their lips; their lives point in this direction. Let’s look at the Buddha’s life more closely.

The Buddha was born into very good circumstances. He had a good family situation, he was wealthy with the possibility of being a king – he had everything. We too have our situations; and these life circumstances become our nest. We’ve all made our nests somewhere, feathered nicely with our cozy “I-my-me” of one kind or another. We want to stay in that nest forever and make it even more secure.

One day the Buddha was shaken from the seeming security of his good situation when he saw a sick person, an old person, and a corpse. The sight of these inevitable forms of human suffering, and the transience of life so profoundly struck his mind that he could no longer stay in this comfortable situation. The Buddha left his nest.

He left home to find the answer to the great question: “What is a human being?” “Why do we suffer so much?” This burning question became the singular purpose of his life. He could no longer rest until he understood what human beings really were. The same must be true for us. That’s how his enlightenment connects to us, right here in this moment. The Buddha practiced for a long time, only trying to seek the answer to this question. Then one dawn he saw the morning star and experienced a great resolution to this question; he attained enlightenment.

Enlightenment is not an end point, actually, it is a beginning. The Buddha left home twice: once, to seek the answer to the great question and a second time, when out of compassion he went out into the pain and agony of ‘this world, to help relieve suffering. His two home leavings point directly to Zen’s two basic questions: “What are you doing right now?” This means, attain truth. And: “Why do that?” That means, how will this truth function. That means compassion. That means love. The two elements that make up our Zen practice are finding truth, and finding our function in this world. How can we help resolve this agony and suffering? These two questions point directly at us, down from Shakyamuni Buddha for the last twenty-five hundred years. That’s what we celebrate today.

Many times people will say that they don’t like Zen because “it’s cold or unemotional.” Everybody has an emotional mind that revolves around their likes and dislikes. This is our nest. You like this nest, these emotions, and this like and dislike. However, the Buddha taught that our like-and-dislike mind is the source of human suffering. We tend to confuse compassion with our emotional nest. So something is not connecting here. If you take away like and dislike you don’t get cold and unemotional, you get compassion. Humans are very attached to their like and dislike; we call this “clinging mind.”

Another feeling that everyone has is for this world, for the suffering in this world. This is a “clear emotion.” Compassion is a clear emotion. Zen means finding the compassion that’s inside of you. Suffering requires a response; we call this response “compassion.” Zen means, how do you find your compassion? Compassion means “to suffer with,” from the Latin words “to be with” and passion, “to suffer.” If one is “suffering with,” that means

there is no I-my-me, no “my likes/my dislikes.- True “suffering with” means becomes “one with.” This is enlightenment. This is what the Buddha’s enlightenment teaches.

The Buddha attained a great enlightenment that comes down to us through this lineage to Zen Master Seung Sahn. Our practice is keeping a don’t-know mind, keeping a mind which is before thinking. If you raise the big question, “What am IT’ and look inside deeply “don’t know” appears. This “don’t know” cuts off all thinking. It is before thinking. This is the Buddha’s medicine which has been passed down to us. Human beings are sick, so the Buddha gives a prescription. Then it is passed down to us. Now Zen Master Seung Sahn gives us this same wonderful medicine to take, this “don’t know” medicine.

There once was an isolated community which lived deep in the forest. One day, a member of that community became ill. Everyone became very concerned about the person who had become ill. Then a second person became ill with the same symptoms. The illness began to affect many people in the community. Since the community was isolated and didn’t have a doctor they became quite concerned. Finally, it was decided to send someone to the outside world. The emissary went and found a doctor who said, “Oh, I understand these symptoms. I know what’s causing these people to be ill.” He wrote a prescription and gave it to the man, who then returned to his community.

When he got back, he reported to the community, “This doctor understands our sickness. He knows what’s wrong with us, and gave me this prescription.” After reading the prescription aloud everyone said, “Oh, that’s very wonderful. Now there’s some hope for us.” Everyone was very happy. The next morning they got up, and the man who had gone off took the prescription out again and read it. Everybody was very happy and said, “Oh, that’s a really good prescription! You know, these drugs are really going to work, we know they are.”

That day passed, and the next day they got up and again the man, who had gone off to get the prescription, took it out of his pocket and read it to them once more. Then they were even more happy. It was finally sinking in. They were starting to understand what this prescription really meant. They were going to be relieved of their suffering and their community was going to be saved.

Then another person in this community thought that it was such a wonderful prescription that he wrote a commentary on it. Everybody was very happy because this commentary revealed more about the prescription which they hadn’t understood before. And in fact, one group of people in this community thought that this man should be the new leader of the community because his understanding of the prescription was better than that of the man who had gone to the doctor. Several of them even started arguing about the prescription with the man who had gone to the doctor. This went on for about two months… and then everybody died.

So we have this wonderful “don’t know” prescription. What will you do with it?


At the beginning of December we celebrated Buddha’s Enlightenment. Then two days later we began the seven-day intensive retreat that’s traditionally associated with the enlightenment ceremony. That’s interesting, because in Zen Buddhism, ceremonies are usually associated with actual practicing. That is somewhat unusual in conventional religious life. Zen’s direction is not just to impart the kind of good feeling that can come from participating in a ceremony, or to give you a special understanding, but to actually lead you to an attainment of what is being celebrated. In other words, Zen is always pointing you toward practice, so that you can understand yourself completely and then help other beings. That’s the meaning of Buddha’s Enlightenment, and also the reason for all our ceremonies and retreats.

During the Enlightenment Day ceremony we heard many stories about the Buddha’s enlightenment. The stories all revolve around one question: What led to the Buddha’s great enlightenment? It is written that one day his servant took him outside the protected environment of the palace grounds, whereupon he saw four things: a sick person, an old person, a dead person, and a mendicant seeker after truth. What he saw profoundly affected him. Suddenly a great doubt gripped him. What are human beings here for anyway? Even though he had a very good life situation it suddenly paled in the face of this big question. He had a very good body; he had a wonderful wife and family; and he was going to be king. However, even though he had a very good situation and was well educated he still didn’t understand what a human being was. “Why do we suffer? What is this? What am I?” Because of this big question–and a very strong try mind–he was naturally led to enlightenment.

It’s the same with us. We are human beings, so we’re cast, willy-nilly, into this world. Often Zen Master Seung Sahn will say, “Being born is already a mistake!” That phrase sounds funny to us but at other times it really grates on you. Everybody has experienced the truth of this statement to some degree. It’s the first noble truth: life is unsatisfactory. A poem in the Temple Rules reads, “Shouting into a valley, big shout, big echo, small shout, small echo.” The Buddha’s question, and his search, is this big shout! In fact the shout was so big that we can still hear the echo reverberating even today. We heard it at the Buddha’s Enlightenment Day ceremony . . . and we hear it now inside our own hearts. It still encourages us to come out of our sleep, our dream, and wake up, to find out what this is really all about anyway. Actually, the question is very simple, and yet how many people will really confront it? What about you?

Earth Soup

Each morning we say the Four Great Vows at the beginning of practice:

Sentient beings are numberless; we vow to save them all.
Passions are endless; we vow to extinguish them all.
The teachings are infinite; we vow to learn them all.
The Buddha Way is inconceivable; we vow to attain it.

As Zen practitioners we start each day by together stating this clear intention. One interesting aspect of these vows is that in our school we use the pronoun “we”: “we vow. . . ” The cornerstone of our practice is together action. When we act in complete harmony with others and become one with them, at that moment there is no “I, my, me.” This is great love, great compassion, the great Bodhisattva way.

A student once wrote to Zen Master Seung Sahn in a state of near frenzy because Rajneesh, an Indian Guru, had just predicted that a large earthquake would soon cause California to sink into the ocean. She wanted to know where to move to best avoid this catastrophe. He wrote back advising that she stay in California, help the people there and die with them if necessary.

In Zen we many times speak of the three poisons: desire, anger and ignorance. Usually the focus is on the first two but ignorance is also a root problem for human beings. Each of us is utterly enmeshed with everything else in this universe. From the bacteria in our bowels, to our next door neighbor, to the ozone layer, we are all in this earth soup together. It is only our thinking which allows us to “think” that we are separate in some way. Thinking creates the ego’s idea that this is a “one man (or woman) show.” This illusion of separateness is ignorance.

Buddhism uses the metaphor of Indra’s Net to express our essential connectedness with everything else. Here, every thing and event in the universe is portrayed as a brilliant jewel which lies at the intersection of the lines in the net. In addition, each jewel is many-faceted, reflecting each of the others. This is a wonderful poetic image which I’m sure we can all relate to and understand, but how can we attain it?

Zen means when you are doing something just do it. “Do it mind” has no subject and no object, no inside or outside. Inside and outside become one. Already, you and the whole universe have become one. Zen Master Ko Bong’s third gate is very interesting in this regard: “The whole universe is on fire. Through what kind of samadhi can you escape being burned?” If you hesitate for even an instant, you are lost.

Dharma LOTTO

Last week I stopped into our local ma and pa donut shop, the Donut Wagon, for some coffee. They offer up the usual tongue-pleasing fare: donuts, bagels, sticky buns, etc. They are also our local over-the-counter gambling establishment – there’s Power Ball, Keno, Lotto, scratch cards and much more. So, as I was standing in line perusing the donut selections, my eyes drifted over to the gambling possibilities. Suddenly one of the offerings jumped out at me. It said: BE AN INSTANT WINNER!!! Then it hit me, “That’s just like Zen!” Anytime you cut off all thinking — wake up just now — you. are an instant winner. And it’s even better than the lottery, because you just don’t win nine million dollars, you get the whole universe. You and the universe become one. You get everything. What a deal! You don’t even have to wait while you scratch off the thin aluminum film to see if you are a winner. In fact, at that moment there is no inside, no outside; no subject, no object; no winners or losers; you are completely IT. No more agonizing months spent sitting around the house wringing your hands waiting for Ed McMahon to pull up in the Clearing House Sweepstakes van to declare you the winner. You already ARE the winner.

When I first started going to Zen Master Seung Sahn’s talks, one thing really struck me. He would often say, “I am not special. I don’t have anything that you don’t have.” I found that very congenial. And, of course, the Buddha says the same thing. Right after his great enlightenment, he taught that everyone already had Buddha-nature; the problem was that they didn’t know it. That means that you are already ready a winner. You just have to wake up to it. How simple.

So, here’s an “I already am a winner” kong-an for you: Long ago on Yeong Sahn mountain, Shakyamuni Buddha held up a flower before the assembly. All were silent. Only Mahakashyapa smiled. Shakyamuni Buddha said, “I have the all-pervading true dharma, incomparable nirvana, exquisite teaching of formless form. Not dependent on words, a special transmission outside the sutras, I give to Mahakashyapa.” Buddha transmitted his dharma to Mahakashyapa. But what if Mahakashyapa had said, “No thank you, Buddha. I already have dharma. Keep your dharma.” If you are Buddha at that time, what could you do? If he is already a winner, what can you do for him?

Common Ground – A discussion with Zen Master Dae Kwang and Father Kevin Hunt

Last summer, the Institute for World Spirituality in Chicago hosted a weekend Cbristian – Buddhist retreat led by Father Kevin Hunt OCSO and Zen Master Dae Kwang. Two days of silent meditation, with both Christian and Zen chanting. These are excerpts from the Saturday evening question-and-answer period.

Question: In Christianity, what is important for many people is devotional type experience-thoughts, hymns, psalms all directed to a personal God. This brings much warmth and comfort to many Christians. Now this is a dimension which is not apparent in Buddhism. I am wondering how to understand that. Is this devotional spirituality, which involves thinking and images and relating to a personal God, extraneous in Buddhism – say, something Christians do because they do not have a correct understanding of the Still Point or Buddha Nature?

Father Kevin: In Christianity, you have to consider what is the meaning of “God.” Speaking about God is not the same as knowing God. If you ask me, “What is God?” I’ll answer, “God is a three-letter word.” When it comes down to what these words and images really mean, you run up against a blank wall of Unknowing. There’s an old Christian saying that any affirmation of God is a denial of God. So the question of theistic devotion in Christianity is not a simple one.

Also, the whole question of God in Buddhism is not simple either. When Buddhists talk about God are they talking about the same God that Christians do? No. In Buddhism, the gods are still in the wheel of samsara (karma, rebirth). If Christianity had a wheel of samsara, we would never be able to place God on that wheel.

In the West, most Christians would not be comfortable with a term like Shunyata — the void or infinite emptiness. But these words may be closer to God than many of the concepts and images we use!

Question: I’m still wondering about the whole devotional area.

Father Kevin: These are ways most people have to relate to God. You have devotional sects in Buddhism. Zen is just one small sect in the whole Buddhist tradition.

Question: Bowing in Buddhist practice is devotion.

Dae Kwang Sunim: When your mind is clear, everything is devotion. When you bow, just bow. When you eat, just eat. People need help, help them. Just do it! That’s true devotion.

Question: But take the Stations of the Cross, for example. If I do that, I’m thinking in very concrete images about a personal God and his suffirrings for the redemption of all human beings…

Father Kevin: Let me tell you about a monk I once knew who was, I think, a very enlightened man, although he would never have articulated his life in those terms. He would make the Stations of the Cross a dozen times a day. I used to get mad at him – we’d get up at three o’clock in the morning, I’d rush down to church in the dark (this was in South America, so we did not have electricity) and at that hour of the morning I’d trip over his body, prostrate in front of one of the Stations. To say that what he was doing was thinking about Jesus’ redemptive suffering is, in my opinion, a very superficial way to describe what was happening in the heart and mind of this monk!

The point of a vehicle is to be a vehicle – to take you somewhere. For many people it’s a devotional kind of thing; for some people it’s more apophatic. A vehicle is anything that helps you.

Question: In our retreat schedule, we have large blocks of free time. What do you do for periods of up to two hours without reading?

Dae Kwang Sunim: We continue to practice all the time. The reason for not reading during the retreat is so that we can focus on the Book of Wisdom here [points to his chest.] This is the most important book you’ll ever read. If you spend time here [pointing to his head], reading other people’s ideas, that just takes you away from yourself.

Question: I can understand conceptually the issue of not reading [laughter.] But the arising of a concept in the mind is an arising of the Buddha mind, too. If you see clearly the nature of a concept, then conceptual thinking is no problem, even on a retreat.

Dae Kwang Sunim: Usually what we do in Zen is read for encouragement rather than for understanding. The two purposes are different. So, for instance, you don’t read lives of the saints in order to understand God. Rather, you read lives of the saints to work yourself up to having enough guts to actually do something!

Father Kevin: Remember, too, that the time we are devoting to this retreat isn’t all that much. It’s only about forty-eight hours. You have a lot to pack in, in that time. What you want to concentrate on is your own experience, your own awareness. To be sure, concepts are not evil; in the Christian tradition we say the Word is God. Concepts come from God. But in a retreat like this the awareness you have to have is your awareness – not his awareness, not my awareness, not the awareness of an author of a book. It’s very easy to fall into the attempt to get somebody else’s realization.

My first Zen teacher was a Japanese Master, Sasaki Roshi. He would give koans to his students like, “How do you realize Buddha-nature when you’re taking a shower?” or “How do you realize Buddha-nature when you’re driving a cab?” Once he saw me making the sign of the cross, which we do when we start a prayer, and soon my koan was, “How do you manifest God with… what do you call it? Yes, sign of cross! With that how do you manifest God?”

So two of his students were talking, comparing koans. One was very concerned – he had no answer for his koan, “How do you realize Buddha-nature when you’re driving a taxi?” The other had passed the koan, so he told him the answer. (Of course, you’re not supposed to do that, but… ). So the first student goes into Sasaki Roshi for his interview and gives him the same answer the other student had given. Sasaki Roshi’s eyes got big, he stared at the student and said, “Oh, wonderful answer! Wonderful answer! [Pause.] Now give me your answer!”

Question: Lectio divina is a practice of reading in a way which invites me into silence; to take the step into silence, into contemplation, I begin with reading. So to me there should be no fear of that kind of reading during a retreat.

Father Kevin: It’s not a question of fear; it’s a question of what you’re doing. Are you reading or are you focusing on your own experience moment to moment? A weekend like this is a weekend for the practice of silence — mind-silence, too. When you leave there will be plenty of time for lectio divina as well as other kinds of reading.

Dae Kwang Sunim: In Zen we say you have to digest what you learn in order to understand; that means taking something you’ve learned from a book or from someone else and making it really and completely your own. There are all kinds of ideas in the world. How do you make any of them your own? You have to digest your understanding so you become one with it, like a cow chewing its cud.

My teacher will often tell people, “Don’t read for three years” or “Don’t read for five years.” By this he’s saying, “You’ve already read enough books, so just get on with it!”

Father Kevin: It’s like a kid who wants to be a professional basketball player. He can read every book in the world on how to play basketball, he can read all the lives of the best basketball players, even books of physics on the trajectory of the ball when you throw it with this or that amount of force. But at some point he’s got to go out and start bouncing the stupid ball!

Dae Kwang Sunim: There once was a person whose professional life was very secure. But as he got older a spiritual questioning arose in him. To satisfy this urge he got interested in Buddhism and read all the books he could, until he understood everything about Buddhism. The man then became anxious about his financial situation. After reading extensively in the area of investment, he understood everything about retirement plans. Next he started to worry about his body. He wasn’t getting any younger and perhaps some exercise like swimming would help him. Again, he went to the library. After reading every available book he understood everything about swimming, even the theories regarding rigorous competitive training. He then went down to the lake, jumped in and drowned. [There are several moments of silence.] That’s the end. So understanding cannot help you. It’s a Zen story!

Question: In Christianity, the deepest level of experience is described as an I – Thou relation between you and God. Can you explain why there is no I – Thou relation in Buddhism?

Dae Kwang Sunim: In Buddhism, we say that everything is one, so there is ultimately no I – Thou. If you take away the idea of “I” and take away the idea of “Thou,” then what is there?

Question: So there is no ultimate relationship in Buddhism as there is in Christianity?

Dae Kwang Sunim: Everything is relationship. Everything is direct connectedness; you just think that it isn’t. Our job is simply to become one with everything. That’s being relationship. So if you take away the idea of “I” and take away the idea of “Thou,” what do you get? Quick! Tell me! [No answer.] I’m sitting here answering your question. That’s better than any idea concerning “I – Thou” relationships.

Question: Would you describe how you became interested in Zen practice?

Father Kevin: I didn’t get interested in Buddhism and Zen as something I wanted to study. I basically got into it because the traditional Christian explanations of what my practice was didn’t quite satisfy me. Like a drum, to get the right tone, you have to tighten the skin on the drum head. So, too, in order to firm up my practice, I learned some of their ways of doing things.

Dae Kwang Sunim: I was raised Christian. The reason I went to Buddhism is much like what Father Kevin said. The Christian tradition I was raised in didn’t have any contemplative practice. I became interested in Zen Buddhism because it contained a very strong tradition of practice. I saw it not so much as an alternative to Christianity but as offering something I had never encountered before.

Question: Were you dissatisfied then with Christianity?

Dae Kwang Sunim: I wasn’t dissatisfied. I wanted something different. Actually, many people use Zen meditation to realize what Christianity is all about. Zen, you may have noticed, is very generic. It’s like drinking pure, cool water when you’re thirsty. Zen points to something before thinking, before all your ideas. Actually God is before your idea of God, and so is Buddha. And what is that? What are you? That’s the question! And how do you attain that?

Buddha likened the human situation to a man who has just been shot in the chest by an arrow. Before he gets treated for the wound, he wants to know who shot the arrow. He also wonders which tribe made the arrow. How strong was the bow and what trajectory did the arrow take to pierce his chest in such a manner? While he is asking these questions, he dies. The most important thing in this situation is getting treatment.

The Buddha was only concerned with one thing: human suffering and taking away human suffering. He refused to talk about anything else because it was not helpful to people. He went instead right to the heart of the matter, the matter of life and death. Christ, too, was not a scholar; he was not a theologian. He pointed directly to the human condition and how to relieve it. If you look at it that way, everything else pales.

The Cannon and the Shout

Chin Ming-Hu was a powerful Chinese defense minister who lived toward the end of the Ming Dynasty. Although much of his life was devoted to military matters he also had a strong interest in Ch’an Buddhism. He would regularly invite Zen Master Hsin-Hueh Ta-Hsing to his place for dharma talks. One day when the Master was about to drink the usual cup of tea at the end of the talk there was suddenly a loud explosion. At the order of Chin a cannon had been fired at his signal to scare the Master. Many people were indeed frightened, but the Master continued to calmly drink his tea as if nothing had happened.

When he had finished his tea, the Master asked Chin, “That sounded like a cannon. Is there something wrong?” “I beg your pardon. I’m sure there is no problem.” replied Chin evasively. “Cannon fire is such a routine occurrence in a military encampment that…….”

After a while, a second round of tea was served. Just as Chin raised his cup to drink the Master gave a loud shout, creating quite a mess. Chin protested, “Master! Why did you do that?” Master Hsin-Hueh just laughed and said, “What’s the matter? Don’t you know that shouting is a routine occurrence in a Zen community?” Struck by the Master’s calm and dignified manner, Chin offered his apology.

Buddha’s Birthday Poem

Given April 2, 1994

A true person
leaps into the world
takes seven steps in each direction
“Only I am holy.”
Un Mun’s foul mouth
Cries “Mistake!”

Still, 2538 birthday candles
Have already burned up
Buddha, Un Mun,
and the whole world of
desire, anger, and stupidity.
Was your birth
a mistake, too?


Blowing out the candles
a big wish for all beings
Happy Buddha’s Birthday to you!