A talk given after the November 1979 Yong Maeng Jong Jin retreat at the Providence Zen Center
The first thing I want to say is how honored I am to sit next to Soen Sa Nim and give a talk. We don’t see him as much as we used to, and every time he comes back, I respect him a little bit more than I did the last time he was here. That’s been going on for a long time now. When I see him again, I’m always amazed at how hard he works and how strong and happy he is.
I was visiting some friends today. Like many people, these friends aren’t so happy. I look at them, and I look at Soen Sa Nim: they have more money, more food, more wealth, more sex, and more sleep, but they’re not so happy, and he’s very happy. The reason is clear. Soen Sa Nim understands his job and his direction, and my friends don’t. The whole purpose of this seven-day training period that we’ve just finished was for all of us to perceive our correct job and our direction. Spending ten hours a day for seven days on a cushion is an amazing experience and can really help you understand what your job is.
I did a hundred-day retreat a year ago last January. When I was doing this retreat, I kept trying to understand what my job was. I had taken three months out of my life to do this retreat, and I really wanted to learn something from it and make it important. I remember after about seventy-three days, I still hadn’t had any special experiences, and I was starting to get nervous that I’d go home and wouldn’t be able to give a Dharma Talk about my retreat; it wasn’t exciting.
On the seventy-third day I was washing my white enamel rice pot at the sink. I had burned the bottom, so I was trying very hard to scrub the burnt rice off. I got about 95% of it off the bottom of the pot, and then I said to myself, “You can’t get any more off; that’s it. It’s really stuck, and it’s really burned, and it’s just going to look like other pots that have black stuff on the bottom.”
Then this little voice said, “If you scrub a little bit harder, you’re going to get the rest of it off.”
The first mind said, “No, it won’t come off. All pots look like that after they’ve been used every day for seventy-three days.”
The little voice got just a little bit stronger and said, “Scrub a little harder and see if you can get it off.” So I scrubbed a little bit harder. Actually I scrubbed a lot harder, because if I had scrubbed a little bit harder it still wouldn’t have come off. I really scrubbed it hard, and it came off!
The lesson is clear. After doing really hard training for seventy-three days and having that happen to me, it was like the famous Zen story about Hyang Eom sweeping the floor; when he heard a rock hit against bamboo, KKKKKHHHHH! – his mind opened. It was a really strong experience for me to see that, all my life, I hadn’t been making a complete effort. After that happened I was incredibly elated and thought, “Well, this is it. I’ve really attained complete-effort mind, and I’m going to be a strong teacher and a really good Zen student for the rest of my life.” I’d learned the lesson: if you try as hard as you can, then everything becomes clear. But, the next day, I wasn’t trying as hard as I could again. I would try as hard as I could, and then I wouldn’t try as hard as I could — you know, the same old thing that happens to all of us, up and down. What I keep learning over and over again is that if your effort is correct, and if you’re trying as hard as you can to do your job, then everything becomes very clear. You understand that you can get the pot clean — very simple, but incredibly profound. You can experience it yourself.
Yong Maeng Jong Jin is something we do because we don’t feel complete, we don’t feel Enlightened. So we find a teacher, and we do hard training. During Yong Maeng Jong Jin we have interviews where Soen Sa Nim asks us kong-ans. There’s a unique purpose in having interviews: we are able to see our minds completely with our teacher. There are many practices in which people become very clear and get very strong without kong-an practice, but what I see as beneficial about kong-an practice is that it’s the one time you can completely see whether you believe in yourself or not.
The Buddha taught that if your mind is clear, then what you see, what you hear, what you taste, what you touch is the complete truth. That is Mind; that is Enlightenment; that’s your True Nature. That’s all that Soen Sa Nim ever teaches. The rug is blue, the walls are white. It’s all that simple. All situations change, and each moment you’re doing something different, but if you’re seeing clearly and hearing clearly, then that’s all; there are no deceptions. If you see and hear clearly, then you will perceive the correct situation.
So, having an interview is testing your belief in what you perceive. But it’s set up so that the teacher is sitting on a higher-class cushion than you are, and he’s got a stick in his hand, and a bell, and a watch, and a cup, and you don’t have anything. You come in empty-handed. It’s set up to make you the student and the other person the teacher. Then the teacher asks you the questions; you’re not asking the teacher questions. It’s a situation that can become very difficult, and it’s difficult even before you walk through the door, because you know already what you’re going to see when you walk in. Once you are in the room, you prostrate yourself in front of this person, which is a humbling experience to say the least! Then you sit down, and you are asked these strange questions: “The tree has no root; the valley has no echo. What does this mean?” or “When someone asked Dong Sahn, ‘What is Buddha?’ he said, ‘Three pounds of flax.’ What does this mean?” You have to answer these questions!
The amazing thing about an interview is that, if you believe in yourself completely, it’s not any more difficult than picking up a cup of water and drinking it. It took me seventy-three days of hard, hard training to realize that I hadn’t been making a complete effort. What we have to do is to generate the energy to make that effort all the time. Then, if we make that constant effort, an interview is the same as anything else. It’s not complicated or frightening; it’s only special because it’s made to be special.
Interviews are an important part of our practice. We meet our teacher face to face, and we all have a strong feeling for our teacher, so it’s difficult. We have to really appreciate our relationship with our teacher and the opportunity to have interviews and use them as well as we can.
This brings me to a story from the Golden Age of Zen. There was a student out working in the fields who had been working very hard all day. It was getting to be supper time so he gathered his tools, put them in his cart, and started pushing the cart toward the monastery. He was going down a small, muddy, very narrow road with his cart, and about 25 yards ahead of him was his teacher, with his legs sprawled out across the path. The student kept pushing his cart straight along the path. When he reached his teacher, without hesitation he ran right over his legs. The teacher screamed in pain, but the student just kept ,going non-stop until he reached the monastery.
That evening, when the student came to the dining room for supper, he was met at the door by his teacher, who threatened him with his Precepts Knife, saying, “Are you the student that ran over my legs with your cart?” Again, without hesitation, the student offered his neck to his teacher’s knife. The teacher put his knife down, smiled, and the incident was never mentioned again.
On the path, the teacher tested to see if his student had complete confidence in his correct direction and job. His job was to take his tools and cart and return to the monastery. The teacher was not correct in sitting with his legs across the path. Later, the teacher again tested his student’s confidence with his Precepts Knife. Both times, the student perceived his correct situation.
This same situation often appears in interviews. Always Soen Sa Nim is testing us to allow us to see how much we believe in ourselves. Even if we give the right answer, sometimes he will tell us it’s wrong. So our job is to believe in ourselves one hundred percent.
If we believe completely in our perceptions, then our actions, like the monk’s in this story, will be spontaneous and selfless. Always, always there are lessons coming to us. We all have heard that nothing is an accident. Everything is your teacher; a bad situation is a good situation. If we practice very hard, then these words we hear will become incredibly profound. We think a situation is bad if it makes us uncomfortable or unhappy or if it’s just very difficult to get through, but it’s wonderful that these things happen. The more we do hard meditation practice and together action and just give of ourselves — give our time, give everything we have towards helping other people — then the more these things that happen to us won’t hurt us, won’t be heavy, won’t be sad. We’ll only say thank you for everything that happens.
So I hope that we all continue to practice very hard and understand our minds, so we can have the energy that Soen Sa Nim has to help other people. Thank you.