king a Complete Effort

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.


Excerpted from a workshop at the Whole World is a Single Flower Conference

Zen Master Soeng Hyang: It’s great that so many people came for the kong-an discussion. For me, kong-ans are the root of our practice. Kong-ans are like receiving a gift. There’s the package: it’s beautifully wrapped, there’s a ribbon, wrapping paper, a beautiful box, and when you open the box there’s tissue paper. But what you really want is the gift inside, which is our true self. The very heart of the gift is to ask, “what is this?… what am I?” until it’s totally unfiltered, totally present and intimate. Zen Master Seung Sahn has done an excellent job of making it palatable–making it possible for us to learn how to practice with the kong-an.

The first time I had an interview with Zen Master Seung Sahn, I was very frightened. I had read all these books about Zen, mostly from the Japanese tradition. In 1972 that was all that was available, mostly translations from Japanese or Chinese. The masters were very severe. They were hitting people with staffs and shouting, “KATZ!” I was very afraid he was going to do that, too. But what he did was teach about HIT [hits floor]. He just kept saying, “What is Buddha? [hits floor] Boom. “What is dharma?” [hits floor] Boom. After drilling that into my head for about five minutes he asked me, “What is Buddha?” I tried a timid little tap on the floor [hits floor softly]. I was so afraid, and he says, “Wonderful!” If I were to look at it from the outside I’d say, oh God, he’s just trying to prop her up and make her feel good–but it worked. I felt as if I got something. I felt a little bit of that hit. Something was communicated with that hit. That was important.

Zen Master Bon Yeon: One of the things that I always appreciate about kong-an practice is the great relief it is to at last meet somebody in your life who asks you, “Who are you?” You’re stuck and you don’t know, but you’re happy. I think other people feel this relief too.

I recall one funny example of seeing this relief in a video clip of Zen Master Seung Sahn’s teaching in Europe. In the film he’s giving a first or possibly second interview to several people at once, all from different countries. With his Zen stick in hand he pokes them each in the belly asking them one by one, “When you die, where do you go?” Of course nobody could answer. There’s a tension in the room which is visible on the faces of these Zen students. After none of them can answer, he says to the group, “OK. You ask me.” They look puzzled, like, “You’re gonna TELL us??” Then they all look at him and ask together, “When you die, where do you go?” With those bright eyes of his, he says, “To the cemetery!!!” You can hear the laughter and see this relief come over their faces as if to say, “Oh my God! Is that all?” In that moment they realized they don’t have to try and figure it out, and they could just be with “don’t know.” If you keep it really simple and in this moment then the questions we have about life and death are quite approachable. You allow yourself to just see, or hear, or smell. Then it’s very wonderful and for that moment the question and the answer dissolve in the act of you just doing something 100%. When you give up the feeling that you have to be right or you have to have the answer, then it’s fun and great to have the “gift of the question itself,” as Zen Master Soeng Hyang just called it. That’s the thing–it’s not about finding the answer to some question such as, “When you die, where do you go?” or “Who are you?” It’s the question itself which is the gift.

Student: I’ve had the experience of having the answer appear; that is very satisfying.

I understand the idea of keeping in your mind the question without thinking, but it still makes me angry and frustrated that I have this question that I’m working on.

ZMSH: When I was working on the kong-an about hanging from a branch by your teeth, I was working in a nursing home. I was in charge of a unit housed in an area which had really long hallways. I had to walk for a minute and a half just to bring medication to a patient. I was walking down this corridor one morning after I had had an interview with Zen Master Seung Sahn. It was the same thing you express: part of my mind was wrestling with the kong-an. Suddenly, I was just stuck with the kong-an and it really was a great experience, because I thought, “That’s don’t know!” I was just right there with not having the answer. Then I woke up to the hallway. I was just walking down the hallway. I thought of the patient’s name, what he needed and what I was going to do. And that was the kong-an. This is now. Asking that kong-an opened me up to now: How are you? What do you need? How may I help you? And whatever I had to do in the room. The kong-an brings us to that question.

ZMBY: One of the things about kong-ans is how do you take that HIT that Zen Master Soeng Hyang was talking about as the substance of your original question, “What is this?”, and then find out how it works with each situation and relationship. How does it function? A dog has its specific situation, relationship, and function that is quite different from a cat’s. Interviews allow us to take our experience and try out how our spontaneous true self functions in certain situations. What if I was in that monastery with Nam Cheon on that day? What would my true self do? Could I save the cat? For me, this is the great breadth of Zen Master Seung Sahn’s particular style of doing kong-ans, exposing us to all these different scenarios. Like Zen Master Soeng Hyang said, maybe this one is easy for me, but that one I don’t know what to do with. Just as in life, that’s how we learn: through all these different stories, through trial and error, how to use this point [hits floor] in our everyday life.

ZMSH: To me, interview room training is very valuable because you are vulnerable. The teacher has the stick and the bell and the title and the experience behind them and then you walk in and you usually have less experience. It’s a set-up. But you can rise to the occasion. You just face it. And you just might face it with [hits floor] don’t know and that’s totally valid and totally perfect just to do that. Keep the eye contact. Keep your chest open. I haven’t answered that one, don’t know, it’s just not clear to me yet. Don’t know. I love it when students do that.

I’m talking about courage to stay open. In order to have courage, you have to have faith. You have to have faith that it’s not a bunch of teachers trying to look good and carry their title around and get their honorarium and then go back to the plane and go home. If you feel with a teacher that there isn’t some authentic vow to teach clearly, then you should hit the teacher with that. You have to try to find that courage to say, “I don’t trust you,” if that’s how you feel. If the teacher is worth their weight as a teacher, they will be able to meet you in that place with honesty, integrity and not overpower you because that’s not what it’s about.

Student: There are two types of mind sets, there’s one that is rational-centered and there’s one that is intuitive. I’m not into solving things intuitively.

ZMSH: All I can say to you is just try to be kind. That’s the biggest kong-an. How can I be kind in this moment? That’s correct relationship, function and situation. That’s what all these kong-ans are trying to point to. All of them. Student: I’m screwed again because I’m not a very kind, compassionate person. It’s really difficult because I…

ZMSH: Don’t make I, only do I.

Student: I would love to be able to solve some of these…

ZMSH: So, just do. Don’t be you–just exist–don’t make you. “I am not,” that’s what we call checking. “I am not this. I am not that.” Don’t check! When you get up, put on your underpants and brush your teeth–only that–don’t check.

Student: I struggle a lot with kong-an practice too. It disturbs me.

ZMSH: I know. It should be disturbing. I was in Korea once with my three year old daughter, my only child. We were at Hwa Gye Sah, the main temple. At that time, if a bus or a car pulled up, they would pass between the outhouse and the main temple gate. We had been at the outhouse and were going to cross over to the main gate. So I crossed ahead of her. All of a sudden this bus is barreling up this driveway at about 25-30 miles an hour. I just wasn’t expecting it. She hesitated. She looked at me and she looked at the bus. I said, “Come on!” but she hesitated.

I had already answered Nam Cheon’s cat, this great compassion, great love kong-an. I had already answered it, but for a second, I too hesitated, instead of running in front of the bus and grabbing her. I completely owned it. You shit! You did not pass that kong-an. Your own kid and you’re not going to even try to get her out of danger, let alone get a cat out of danger. I got her, but I checked for a second. That was a beautiful experience for me because I felt like such a hypocrite. Especially between a mother and a child, I’m supposed to be the epitome of compassion. That wasn’t good or bad–it just made me think: you didn’t pass that kong-an yet, honey. But don’t check; just wake up to the fact that this is deeper than you thought it was… a lot deeper.

ZMBY: We don’t come up with hitting the floor ourselves. Somebody tells you to hit the floor, so you do it. Then they say, “Wonderful!” Then you think, “Oh good, that’s done.” But you could spend your entire life on just this point alone! Zen Master Guji used just one finger his whole life and never exhausted it. The kong-ans are opportunities, one after another, to pass something on, to realize it, to communicate it, or to perceive one thing over and over from different points of view. For example, “The sky is blue.” That’s a famous Zen sentence. You could spend twenty, thirty, forty years, ten thousand years practicing with that and it would always be fresh and new. Over time, it becomes more and more your own. When you see the moon in the sky, its light reflects exactly the same way in a million rivers all over the universe. It doesn’t change, and nobody owns it. We’re like those rivers: the clearer we become, then that reflection is going to look the same in you as it does in me as it does in the next person, because that’s the way that the truth is. So I think of it like an opportunity to keep learning or experiencing that kong-an in my life, over and over.

As women, it’s important to remember the strong lineage of women who practiced before us. Unfortunately, we just don’t hear about them. For thousands of years we’ve been there beside the men practicing. Because history didn’t record it, we don’t have a lot of female role models. There might be a couple of tea house owners on the side of the road somewhere, but we don’t even know their names. Young women who want to practice see that all the major spiritual role models are male. The Pope is a man, God is a man, the three parts of the Trinity are men. Buddha is a man. Most traditions are like that. One of the things that I appreciate about the “combat” side of dharma combat is the way it teaches us to trust your experience. A great example of that is to go in for an interview with someone who, in our case, is very male and very strong, like Zen Master Seung Sahn. He asks you a simple thing like, “What’s your name?” But he has such a strength and clarity that you’re stunned–you can’t even answer!!! Then he teaches you, “Your name is Jane.” Ha Ha! Oh Jane, yeah, good. The next day you come in and he says “What’s your name?” and you proudly say “Jane!” and he says “No good!” Then what happens? You fall down. You think, “Oh, something’s changed, today is different. I must be off the track again.” Then he pokes you and says, “You were right! I’m just seeing how much you believe in yourself!” Can you imagine–Buddha gets up from six years under the bodhi tree and somebody asks him a question and he says, “The sky is blue,” and they say “No good!” Will Buddha stumble and say, “Oh, was that not a good answer?” No! Why? Because he believes his eyes, he can trust his experience. Both women and men in today’s complex world have been so beaten down by all the thinking and all the different choices we have that we fall down very easily. Zen Master Soeng Hyang, who is a woman, was one of the first teachers to teach me that I, too, can be strong. I, too, can believe in myself. I can see that blue sky. I know my name, it’s Jane. Twenty years later I can really say that. If somebody says to me, “No, it isn’t,” I’m not going to fall down. Very basic stuff, not about winning or losing, and not about fighting–it’s about trusting in yourself. As women, this kind of teaching has been lacking in our society. If you want to be a great bodhisattva you have to have a big tool box. You can’t just always use a feather duster, and you can’t always use a hammer; sometimes you need a screwdriver. You need different types of things for different situations. As women, why lock ourselves out of the ability to be strong?

ZMSH: Kong-an practice gives you the ability to see what you don’t have in your tool box in a positive way. It’s good to get stuck! Because you can become complacent. “Oh, we’re cool.” If you’ve got somebody to pull the rug out from underneath you once in a while, that’s good.

ZMBY: To utilize skillful means, you need to be able to be anything. A dragon, a demon, an angel, a bodhisattva, whatever. You learn, slowly, clumsily, through trial and error, all those skills, for others. It’s not about ourselves.

A Kong-An is Nothing Other than the Present Moment

The function of a kong-an is to spark a question, to give rise to that which in the Zen tradition has been called the Great Question. When the mind “questions,” it awakens and opens. This moment of questioning, however fleeting it is, is a manifestation of a pure and unconditioned mind. In this moment all filters of pre-conception and pre-judgment are taken away and only pure questioning remains.

This “questioning” is vastly different from “checking.” A “checking” mind is always resisting, trying to find an argument based on its preconceived ideas and opinions. A “questioning” mind, on the other hand, is one which is stuck, which truly doesn’t know. This mind only asks, “What is this?” The mind that truly asks “What is this?” does so in response to something in the present moment, whether it be a concrete life situation, a feeling, an emotion, an incomprehensible thought or whatever. In asking, “What is this?” the mind stops assuming, even if only for a fleeting second, stops operating on pre-conceptions and instead feels and looks attentively at the moment in hand.

There are two stories that have helped me tremendously to understand how kong-an practice applies to daily life. As it happens, both stories are about mothers. The first was told by Zen Master Seung Sahn when someone asked him how to “keep” a kong-an:

A mother of four has just watched her oldest child board a plane headed for Vietnam. In the months that follow she attends to her family, her part-time job, her friends and community. She plays bridge, goes to her daughter’s class play, shops for food, etc. Through all of this she never forgets that her son is in Vietnam. She never doesn’t feel some fear and concern. There is never a time when she doesn’t wonder where her son is or what he is doing. She always asks herself, “When is my son coming home?” Because of her tremendous love for her son, she always has him in the recesses of her mind. At the same time she is totally present in her daily life.

Kong-an practice can be like this mother’s mind. The “Great Question” of a kong-an, like the “Great Question” in the mother’s mind about her son, remains with you, always in the recesses of your mind. The kong-an reminds you always to ask, look into “What is this?” rather than to know.

The second story is about a mother lion. This mother lion takes her five cubs out for their very first walk. They instinctively form a single line behind her. Up until this point, she has been their only source of love, warmth, protection, and nourishment; their world so far has been safe and most generous. So as they walk the cubs take in the sights, sounds, and smells around them and innocently delight in nature’s gifts. Suddenly, the mother lion turns to one of the cubs and bats him five feet into the brush. The cub is shocked and hurt. Why would the thus-far warm and benevolent mother do such a thing? The cub scrambles back to the line and continues with the others. The mother has just taught the cub to be careful, be aware. She did it in the simplest, most direct way she knew.

A kong-an is able to wake up the mind in the same way. An alert mind can see through the kong-an and bring it to a wholesome conclusion, like a wise lion walking through the forest perfectly in tune with all that is there. As the mother lion swings her great paw towards her child, she has no thought as to being superior or better. She only wants the child to learn. A genuine Zen Master shares this mind.

The questions that a kong-an can raise can bring a deeper attentiveness to both sitting meditation and to daily activities. Just as a weight attached to a fishing line can help the hook to sink deeply into the ocean rather than bobbing on the water’s surface, a kong-an can guide the mind to places of deeper insight, to places that are often difficult to enter without a persistent, steady direction. Using the mind’s natural tendency to question gives it more focus and perception.

Thus, bringing the mind to the present moment by asking “What is this?” is to enter the space of not-knowing. Trusting this process of not-knowing is to go beyond the edge of what is familiar. Going beyond the edge of what is familiar is to let go of the self-imposed constructs of reality that we have created for ourselves and to which we cling so desperately. It is to look at each moment with a pure awareness rather than through colored filters. So, maybe when you ask someone, “How are you?”, you are really asking, really open to see, feel, and listen to the response. Then true intimacy is possible and compassion naturally arises.

Kill Your Eyes – Zen Master Seung Sahn

Bobby Rhodes, JDPSN, (now Zen Master Seong Hyang) gave this formal Dharma Speech at the Buddha’s Enlightenment Ceremony at the Providence Zen Center on December 9th, 1978.

(Holding up the Zen stick.) Do you see?

(Hitting the table.) Do you hear?

If you say you see and hear, you lose it. If you say you don’t see and you don’t hear, you also lose it. Why? Seeing, hearing, winning and losing, you must wake up from this dream.

Every day many babies are born, and they all have eyes and ears and noses and tongues and little bodies. And because they have all these things, they start crying, and they start suffering right away. Sometimes they get wet and cold; sometimes they get hungry; sometimes they get frightened.

And then they grow up a little bit and they learn how to cope with these things and they become young children. And these children still cry sometimes, and they get cold and wet. They still cry when they get hungry sometimes; they cry when they get frightened. But they also have another whole set of things to cry and suffer about: they start to develop a little anger; they start to develop a little ignorance; and they start to develop a lot of desires.

And so they grow and they grow, and they cultivate their anger and their ignorance and their desires, and they become grown-ups.

So then something really wonderful happens: they get something else to suffer about. The Buddha got it, and we all got it, and this extra added-on suffering is: “What am I doing here? Why was I born? Where am I going to go after I die?” And if you give it time, you’ll start suffering more and more with this question. And then you don’t suffer so much when you’re wet or when you’re hungry, and you don’t suffer quite so much when you have a lot of desire, or when you have anger. And this question begins to grow and grow: “What am I doing here? Where am I going to go after I die?”

So we all came here today to honor this final great suffering. We came to honor a man who did a really good job at it. And we came to honor ourselves because we have that same mind. So we came to honor this mind.

Some of us have been cooking all day in honor of this mind, and some of us have travelled great distances in honor of this mind. Some of us have racked our brains all day figuring our what to say for a Dharma Talk in honor of this mind (laughter). We’ve bought special flowers for the altar and put some fruit on the altar.

So I ask you, what did the Buddha understand? What is Enlightenment? You must first put down your desires, put down your anger, put down your ignorance. Kill your eyes, your ears, your nose, your tongue, and your body. Cut off all thinking and become empty. If you keep this empty mind for just a little while, you lose yourself, and you stop having this big wrestling match we all have with ourselves: “this is I, my, me and everything else is outside there.” So you lose that, and so there’s no more suffering, no more happiness; there’s no more “I,” there’s no more “this,” and everything becomes one.

But as Soen Sa Nim has said several times this afternoon, one more step is necessary. So what is this step? There’s a very famous kong-an that says, “Ten thousand Dharmas return to One. Where does the One return?” Once I heard someone ask Soen Sa Nim, “Where does the One return?” and he said, ”When I am hungry, I eat; when I am tired, I sleep.” This is very boring speech. I think that everything you say that’s just like this is often very boring. That’s a problem many people have: it’s not enough that the wall is white, and the cloth is blue — it’s too boring. And so our practice gets us so that we tolerate this boredom more and more, and we have more and more of what Soen Sa Nim calls “enough mind.”

So slowly this mind where things become enough grows and grows. You can stop making things, and everything is O.K. just as it is. If you keep this “enough mind” for a while, one day you’ll hear this speech: “When I am hungry, I eat; when I am tired, I sleep,” and it sounds incredibly profound and very, very wonderful. And you hear, “The wall is white; this cloth is blue,” and that sounds profound and wonderful. And you hear someone say, “Today is Buddha’s Enlightenment Day, and outside it is raining,” and that sounds wonderful. Your mind just rests a little bit. You accept things as they are, and you accept yourself as you are. And everything is O.K. You accept your jealousy; you accept your anger; and you accept your ignorance. Once you accept those things, then you accept everybody else’s jealousy, anger, and ignorance. You rest your mind, and you just start looking at people for what they are; you look at yourself for what you are. And that’s a very wonderful feeling.

So we came here today to honor this mind. A little while ago I held up this stick: “Do you see this?” I hit the stick on the table (hit): “Do you hear this? Then I talked about Soen Sa Nim’s boring speech, “When I am hungry, I eat; when I am tired, I sleep.” So I ask you: which is better, my action or Soen Sa Nim’s speech? If you answer me, I’ll hit you thirty times. If you don’t answer me, I’ll hit you thirty times. What can you do?


Thank you all for your hard training.

Kill or Not Kill – That’s a Big Question

Dear Bobby,

I am writing with many questions, and also bringing greetings however! First, my questions…

I’ve been confronted with the problem of what course of action to take in the event of a military draft or a war: to fight or not to, which comes down to killing or not killing.

Killing is O.K. with me, and so is not killing. If a man wanted to kill all beings, and the only way I could stop him was to kill him, I would kill for all beings. So, if for example the Soviets invaded another country and harassed and murdered as they’ve done, I would not hesitate to stop the Soviets, killing some soldiers to save the whole Afghan people, or Polish people, or whatever, if this was the only way. Similarly, if our country started victimizing another country like we did in Vietnam, I would not hesitate to use any means to stop that abuse.

Bobby, is this delusion? What comments and suggestions have you? I guess I am confused as to how I may best serve all people.

Many months ago you asked me, “How old are you?” My answer: “LOOK AT YOUR WRISTWATCH!”

Trying to hit Saturn with a toothpick?

I eagerly await your reply! I hope to come to Yong Maeng Jong Jin this Spring, and do hard training!



December 20, 1980

Dear John,

It was nice to hear from you again. How are you? Thanks for your letter.

You asked me about how to make important decisions in your life. Kill or not kill — that’s a big question! There’s something I’ve been learning about questions: whether they are big or small, philosophical or concrete, important or unimportant, they are all very easy to answer if your life’s direction is clear.

So, John, I ask you, why are you alive? What is the purpose of your life? You said that if you had to, you would kill for all beings. Killing for all beings is O.K., but there is something else you must do first. you must kill yourself to save all beings from any kind of suffering. How can you kill yourself? How can you completely understand your true self and end the life of delusive “I” that prevents you from being able to answer all of life’s questions?

You must find out how to understand your true self. This week at the Zen Center we had a seven-day Yong Maeng Jong Jin. It was a very wonderful and strong retreat. Everyone was supporting each other and there were Dharma Talks that answered all questions as completely as possible in the realm of speech. I hope you will soon have more time to formalize your practice. I think that will help you very much.

In the meantime, join the Army if you believe in the causes you will be fighting for. If you don’t believe in the causes, stay home and fight for a cause you believe in. In other words, do not be lazy. Pay attention to life, and try to help other people as well as you can.

I asked you how old you were, and you told me to look at my wristwatch. I didn’t ask .you for the time! Zen is only keeping a clear mind. Ask your clear mind, and maybe next time you can give me a better answer.

I hope to see you soon. Have a nice Christmas vacation.



It’s OK to Let Go – A hospice experience

Most of you know that I’m a nurse and I’ve been working with a hospice program in Rhode Island. The story I want to tell you is about this patient I’ve been taking care of since July. She has cancer of the liver and intestines. We have been doing guided meditations together for several months and have gotten very close. I care a lot about her. Her husband is very nice and they have three daughters with little children – it’s a lovely Italian family, very close. Through the months I’ve gotten to know all of them, even the grandchildren.

In the past few weeks my patient has gotten sicker. Her pain has increased, so we’ve been trying to get the pain under control. She’s needed more and more care in the past few weeks and I’ve spent a lot more time with her. A few days ago she went to bed and didn’t get out of it again. When I went to see her Friday, she was almost in a coma and in a lot of pain. We changed her medication again and she got more and more confused.

This was the one thing she had been afraid of: losing control and not being able to understand what was going on. I understand that fear. I think that’s why all of us are in this room right now: not being able to understand what’s going on, not being able to control in a clear way what we need to do with our lives. I don’t mean control in the sense of being rigid, but being able to control our destiny, our needs, our ability to be with our families, with our lives.

She used to say to me, “What is it going to be like when I get so sick that I won’t be able to express what I need? I’m going to be so dependent. My family might not be able to take care of me.” I told her that I thought it was going to be okay, that I thought she was just going to be lying in bed and she would slowly lose consciousness. I told her that after all these months her family would be ready and able to take care of her, and that I would come and help as much as I could.

That’s pretty much the way it happened. She got weaker and weaker. As she needed more equipment, I would bring it to the house: johnnies (nightgowns) that are easy to put on, and pads for her bed in case she was incontinent, and a commode if she couldn’t walk to the bathroom anymore. It’s a step by step process when people die. Gradually you can’t do these things for yourself, so the hospice is prepared for that. You bring these things to the house and sometimes it seems premature to be bringing them and there would be a little resistance. But I knew that the time was going to come soon.

She would say, “Do you think we’re really going to need this?” And I would say, “Maybe we won’t need it, but why don’t you have it on hand anyway?” It’s the same with our practice. Sometimes we don’t want to think that we need something or that we’re going to have to do something. Sometimes we need to listen to people with experience, like hospice nurses. Many families don’t want to look at death. Many families don’t even sign up for the hospice because in a way it looks like a death certificate. Hospice care is intended to be care for the terminally ill, but we always tell people that they can still get better even though they have hospice care. We would be happy if they got better, but in case they don’t, we’re really adept at being able to take care of people in their homes when they’re terminal.

When we sit and practice, sometimes someone who is older and has practiced longer will say something to us. Instead of rejecting it outright, it helps to say to yourself, “I’ll put that in a corner in case I need it.” This Italian family would do that with the things I brought. They would hide them, put them over in a corner and cover them up. Slowly these things would come out of the corner as they were needed. It’s important to just listen, keep an open mind, and to know when you need something and have to take it. It’s important for our whole life to do that, whether we’re practicing Zen or practicing dying or whatever.

When I went over on Friday, she was in a lot of pain. I gave her some other medication that helped more. Then I sat on her bed with her. (That was another thing she wanted to control. She didn’t want a hospital bed. She wanted to stay in her own bed. It turned out to be a nice thing, as it was a queen size bed, big enough so that at times her husband and her three daughters and I could all sit there together with her at the same time. It’s not possible to do that with a hospital bed.) Her husband was sitting on the other side of her and we were both holding her hands. The pain started to go away and things settled down. I said to them, “Why don’t we just try to pray for a little while?”

They know I’m a Buddhist, but it doesn’t really matter. They had a strong Catholic background, but we knew each other so well by now that we all knew what we meant when we talked about prayer. For about twenty minutes we didn’t say anything. We were just quiet and closed our eyes, and it was wonderful. It was wonderful for me to sit silently for twenty minutes with these two people. It’s not like having robes and meditation cushions and all the paraphernalia, but it was just sitting on her bed. There was an agreement between us that helped us to just sit and be quiet. After twenty minutes I looked up at her face and she looked at mine, and she gave me the most beautiful smile I’ve ever received.

She had been very confused and in and out of consciousness, but she gave me this beautiful smile. It was such an incredible gift after months and months of trying to get calm together and accept the time when she was going to be this sick. There was no thinking, just this wonderful moment. I thought, “Oh, this is how it’s going to be. This morphine is going to help her and she’s just going to slowly fade out and it’s going to be okay.” That was the thought that came after her smile, so much like the Buddha when he held up the flower to Mahakashyapa. I was thinking, “I give this to you, this comfortable home death, me the wonderful hospice nurse.” I had the idea that her dying was going to be just right.

Then Saturday morning I went to see how she was doing. She was okay but she didn’t look very comfortable. We had a retreat going on here and I told her family that I was going home for a while and to call me if they needed anything. I called several times during the day to see how she was. Then at five o’clock they called me to say she was groaning and clammy and they wanted me to come.

When I went there, her abdomen had gotten swollen. I think she was bleeding internally and there was a lot of pressure. With every exhalation she would just grunt, about twenty times a minute. She had a terrible grimace on her face. I thought, “Oh, it’s not supposed to be like this! Not this wonderful lady!” The family were all looking at me and wanting me to fix it so that she was not in any pain. So I called the doctor and got permission to give her twice as much pain medication.

An hour and a half later she was still making the same noise, so I called the doctor again to see if we could get an even stronger medication. It wasn’t terrible, but she seemed to be so uncomfortable. And yet in many ways we felt strongly we were doing everything we could for her. Her family were holding her hands and telling her how much they loved her. It wasn’t being obviously received, because she was in a coma. Once in a while she was a little bit awake, but basically she couldn’t say “Thank you for saying you love me.” She just kept grunting and moaning every time she exhaled.

I finally called a nurse that I work with and asked her to bring over more morphine, because I was afraid we were going to run out. She came over, a more experienced nurse than I. I asked her, “What is this exhalation, this grunting? Is it pain, or what?” She said many people do that when they are dying and it’s not seen so much as pain but as a reflex, because it can be hard to die. This grunting really disturbs people when dying people do it. Researchers who have studied it basically feel that it’s not pain, it’s just hard effort.

We all felt better after that. We sat there holding her, five of us, each holding one of her hands or feet. We often talk about the direction of our lives, and it can be a high-faluting idea, but basically what it boils down to is, “What am I doing just now?” I was just sitting there. I wasn’t one of the daughters or the husband, but I had a role. I felt that I was trying to perceive. I emptied out and just perceived, and it came to me all of a sudden what was happening, all these long hours since five o’clock in the afternoon and now it was ten o’clock and she was still grunting.

I said to them, “I think it’s time for us to tell her that it’s okay to let go.” Nobody had told her that. We had all kept telling her we loved her, but nobody had said, “It’s okay to go away now.”

Her husband is a great guy, a genuine Rhode Island Italian about sixty-two years old. He was earthy, and kind of hid his feelings a lot, but he was very warm. He looked at me and said, “What do you mean by let go?”

I said, “Die.” He didn’t want me to say it. “It’s time to tell her it’s okay to die.”

He said, “I can’t do that!”

I said, “Well, maybe she thinks it’s not okay because everyone is holding onto her so tight.”

One of her daughters is a nurse and she said, “I was just thinking that myself.” So she leaned close to her mother’s face and said, “Mom, it’s okay with me if you go right now. I think it would be really good if you started to try to let go right now.”

The husband was on the other side, and every time his daughter said, “It’s okay to let go,” he would cover his wife’s face so she couldn’t hear what her daughter was saying. He didn’t even know he was doing it. He wasn’t angry with his daughter. It was just as if he had this question: is it okay to let go? He wasn’t sure it was okay, so he was protecting his wife from hearing it.

I didn’t try to control that. I didn’t say, “Wait a minute, do you see what you’re doing?” I just let it happen. Finally another daughter said, “Mom, it’s okay to go to sleep now.” She was modifying it.

I said, “Is going to sleep and letting go the same thing?” And she said, “Well, not quite. Just out of pain and asleep.” At that the husband said to his wife, “Yeah, I think it’s okay for you to die now.” Then he started to say Hail Marys over and over again in a beautiful way, about fifteen of them.

He was telling her to let go, but he was thinking that there was something unfinished between them. Then I really admired him, because in front of this audience, his three daughters and me, he said to his wife, “I want to tell you something. I want you to forgive me for anything I’ve done in our marriage which has hurt you.” It was so beautiful. He said, “I know that I’ve hurt you many times and I am really sorry and I want you to forgive me.”

Up till then she hadn’t moved at all, but just then she moved her head towards him. He told her again that he loved her. It felt complete. All the daughters said that they wanted her to let go and that they loved her very much but they wanted her out of pain. For about ten more minutes we sat there quietly and watched her grunt.

I really wanted her to stop, to relax. I was trying to keep an empty mind and just perceive what was going on. I said, “I think she’s trying to think that it’s okay to let go. I think she knows that you think it’s okay to go and now she’s trying to do that.” We all sat there patiently, not rushing her, not forcing her. Two of the daughters left the room and I moved closer to her and held her. She started to relax. We thought, “That’s wonderful.”

Then something happened which I didn’t expect. Again, it’s like our practice not to make some thought about the future but just to take things as they come in the moment. At that moment some really dark blood started coming out of her mouth. Nobody expected it. Of course I had to act as if this happened all the time and not look worried about it. I got a pad and a basin and said, “We have to let this come out. She needs to have this come out. Maybe when she lets this come out, she’s going to let go.” Actually, she was letting go. I told her it was okay to try to let it all come out.

The blood kept flowing slowly. The daughter, who was only about twenty-eight years old, was incredible and got some tissue and kept cleaning her face. It was so quiet in the room. The beautiful thing about it was that even though it was such an ugly thing in a way, there was complete attention by the three of us. Her husband even kissed her on the mouth – totally unconditional love.

I called the other two girls in. She was just resting; her respirations were very slow. I said, “Now she’s going to let go.” She stopped breathing. All of a sudden her husband took the basin and got up and started to take it to the bathroom. We knew each other really well. I said to him, “Wait a minute, we’re not finished. This isn’t finished. I’ll take this out and you go back to her.” I could tell that he was scared all of a sudden. She wasn’t going to take another breath, but this was the finish of it, so I told him, “Go back and look at her – watch her stillness.” Then I left the room and stayed out for a few minutes.

They all started to cry. It was beautiful just to let them get it out. The father had never in his whole life cried before his daughters, and he was crying. Then all these other people who had been outside in another room all night came in and began to cry and say Hail Marys.

My karma is that I’m very composed and tight, even though I’m always telling people to let it out, to relax. In essence I wasn’t in this family, so I kind of stood back and watched it all and watched myself too. I come from a middle-class Protestant background and I was telling myself, “Look, there’s nothing wrong with being Italian and screaming and yelling and saying Hail Marys.” Then I got into it: I almost cried, but I held it back. I was so relieved that she was out of pain. Then after about ten minutes this wonderful thing happened. The father and his three daughters went into another room and closed the door, just the four of them. I could hear them laughing. They were so high, it was like a five-hour retreat of being at her bedside and they all had gotten so close in that five hours.

There were certain family dynamics between the daughters. They would talk to me and complain a little about each other. Basically they got along but there were frictions, and now all the friction was gone because they had done this bedside retreat together. They were talking and laughing and telling each other how much they loved each other and how much they had helped each other. l wondered what the rest of the family was thinking, because their mother and wife had died just ten minutes ago and here they were laughing their heads off. It was a great thing. I wanted to tell you about it because it was so wonderful for me.

It’s wonderful when you can take your work and take what we do here and bring them together. You don’t have to use the word Buddhism or Zen. I’ve started using the word “pray” because that’s what most people feel comfortable with. It isn’t threatening to them. I say, “Let’s be quiet and listen to what God has to teach us.” I never used to use the word “God,” but I do now because people like it. I say, “There’s this whole universe and whatever makes this universe work is God. So let’s be quiet and just listen.” That’s a sneaky way to get people to do what I like to do.

This woman was the first hospice patient that was all my responsibility, and she was the first person since I’ve been a nurse that prayed with me. I never had the nerve to ask before. I asked her early in our relationship if she would like to try some guided meditation, since it might help her relax and relieve the pain. She said she wanted to. We ended up doing guided meditations that were in a book on grief meditation. She got in touch with a lot of her grief and was able to let it go. I taught her about breathing and how that could help her feel stronger, and she would use that to handle her painful memories. She meant a lot to me. It was wonderful to see how her family pulled together, even though it was not an “ideal” death in a sense, with her constant pain and so forth. One of the things we teach here is how to let our minds go anywhere without hindrance, no matter what the outside circumstances.

Inka Speech

(Holding up the Zen stick in the air, then hitting the floor.)

“This” is just like this.

(Holding up the Zen stick in the air, then resting it on the floor.)

“This” is just like this.

If you understand “this” then you understand the rivers, the mountains, the trees, the sun, the moon, the stars, the sky, all sentient beings, all come from “this.”

You must understand that Rinzai’s KATZ, Ku Ji’s one finger, Jo Ju’s Mu, Ma Jo’s “no mind, no Buddha,” Dong Sahn’s “three pounds of flax,” Un Mun’s “Dry shit on a stick,” Pai Chang’s five hundred generation fox, Duk Sahn’s carrying his bowl and last word, Hok Am’s “Bodhidharma has no beard,” Nam Cheon’s killing the cat, Hyang Eom’s “up a tree, hanging by your teeth,” Kyong Ho’s cow with no nostrils, Mang Gong’s “ten thousand Dharmas return to one; where does the one return?” Ko Bong’s “the mouse eats cat food, but the cat bowl is broken,” Seung Sahn’s “dropping ashes on the Buddha,” all return to “this.”

Maybe someone will appear and say, “I understand ‘this.'” This stick will hit this person thirty times.

Maybe someone will appear and say, “I don’t understand ‘this.”’ This stick will hit the person thirty times.

Because “this” is not dependent on understanding or not understanding.

But if you want to attain “this,” your head must become a mass of iron with no holes. How can your head become like iron? You must crush your eyes, your ears, your nose, your tongue, your body, your mind, and pour melted iron into your head.

Then what?


The elephant is afraid of the mouse; the mouse is afraid of the cat; the cat is afraid of the lion; the lion is afraid of the elephant. (Making circles with her finger,) Around, around, around.

(Students then came forward and asked questions.)

The Mahaparanirvana Sutra says, “All formations are impermanent. That is the law of appearing and disappearing. If both appearing and disappearing disappear, this stillness is bliss.” But this world is full of suffering and problems. How can you become still, and attain this bliss? How can you save the countless millions of beings?


(Holding up the Zen stick in the air, then hitting the floor. Holding up the Zen stick, then resting it on the floor.)

Hit the floor, sound. Don’t hit the floor, no sound.

Gilding The Lily

Dear Bobby,

At the “leaping tiger” retreat in Lawrence several weeks ago, I had two interviews with you. I was the one who practices with Katagiri Roshi (sort of tall, thin, old, no hair).

During the interviews you gave me two koans that brought me to “don’t know.” Now, I have written something about them. Perhaps when you have the time, you can send me a bit more Dharma teaching.

In gassho,


Reflections on Two Koans

Q: If the whole universe is on fire, by what samadhi can we avoid being burned?

A: By a samadhi of “oneness with the fire.” To realize a deep samadhi of the universal fire of pain, suffering and death is to become one with it; to consume as we are consumed, to assimilate as we are assimilated.

Concretely: we have to enter fully and go straight ahead, as if putting our hand through the flame of a candle.

Q: A monk is bound hand and foot hanging by his teeth over a precipice, when he sees someone passing below who needs a word of the Dharma. It is his duty to give the word; if he does not, he fails his vows and dies. But if he opens his mouth to speak, he falls and dies. What should he do?

A: Like this monk, we are all bound hand and foot by greed and desire, beginningless greed, anger, and self-delusion.” And we fear that if we were to speak a word of the Dharma, act on the truth by giving voice to it, we will surely fall into the emptiness of karmic death. Yet the true (Dharma) cause of death is birth; our concern is only how we function in between. Is life not a fall from a precipice?

Concretely: Soon enough, this shirt I wear will be a dust rag, this car I drive will be junk. A shirt is to be worn, a car is to be driven, and a monk is to give the Dharma.

December 30, 1981

Dear Leo,

Thanks for your beautiful card. It was good to hear from you. I enjoyed meeting and talking with you while I was in Kansas. How are you?

Your reflections on the two kong-ans are very wonderful, but a kong-an is never completely answered unless there is absolutely no trace left of the person answering it. So I must tell you that one more step is necessary. Soen Sa Nim often describes Zen as being like a glass of water. It quenches your thirst, probably better than any other liquid, but it has no taste. It does not shout out to you, “Hey! I’m pink! I have sparkling bubbles!” Or, “Taste me! I’m thick, rich, and chocolatey!” Water is only water.

As in all other religions and philosophies, there is the possibility in Zen practice of “gilding the lily,” of adding something of your own to an already perfect glass of water. We do this because our minds are complicated — full of many ideas about what is right, what is wrong, what is pure, what is simple, etc. So, Leo, what I am saying to you is that although your answers are very good, they are not complete.

Sometimes when a student answers a kong-an incorrectly — very incorrectly — the teacher says, “Your answer is like trying to hit the moon with a stick,” or “You’re scratching your left foot when your right foot itches.” But your answers were not that far away from the truth. It is like there is a piece of slightly rose-colored cellophane between you and the truth.

So I ask you again: You’re hanging from a branch by your teeth. Your hands are tied behind your back; you can’t reach the tree in any way. Someone beneath the tree asks you, “Why did Bodhidharma come to China?” If you answer, you fall to your death; if you don’t answer, you will be killed. How do you stay alive?

Also … The whole universe is on fire. Through what kind of Samadhi can you escape being burned?

I hope you only go straight — don’t know, soon finish the great work of life and death, and save all people from suffering.



P.S. I hope you will send me another letter soon with the correct answers.

January 30, 1982

Dear Bobby:

Deeply appreciate your response to my efforts on the kong-ans, and the invitation to try to go further, beyond that “rose-colored, gilding” ego mind blurring the path.

Now, for a month, I have been holding that branch firmly between my teeth and hearing the question from below, “Why did Bodhidharma come to China?” The bark is rough on the mouth; the taste is sour. Perhaps I can spit hard enough to cool the fire of the universe.

From between my clenched teeth, the sound of a hard spit or a loud, from-the-belly “Mu” answers the questioner from within the concrete situation, like a finger pointing toward the Dharma: “here is one hanging between life and death!” And the questioner may realize the truth of their own peril, that he or she may be next, that he or she is also at that moment hanging between life and death. Stopping to help the monk or going on, either way the danger remains, and awareness of this immediate reality brought on by my outcry cuts through the question.

(Maybe I am gilding here again; if I were facing you in interview, I should simply clench my teeth and directly bring out the noise.)


If the whole universe is on fire, the samadhi through which I escape being burned is the samadhi of coolness; coolness of detachment and emptiness. Detachment from the fiery universe of greed and desire by entry into the emptiness beneath it, where “all five skandhas are empty.” Don’t we struggle toward this every time we sit?


Well, going straight to don’t know … don’t know if these answers are correct. Thank you for the struggle.

Yours in gassho,


February 11, 1982

Dear Leo,

You can’t spit hard enough to cool the fire of the universe. It is still on fire. Your “Mu” sounds like a whimper by the time it reaches the questioner’s ears. How much longer can your clenched mind bear the rough bark and sour taste?

Someone is totally depending on you to show them the Way. What is this Way? Leo, each moment is candidly revealing itself to you. Please try to pay attention!

You wrote to me about the samadhi of coolness — coolness of detachment and emptiness. You must be very careful. If you have detachment, you have attachment. If you have emptiness, you have fullness. If you sit on your cushion and have even a second’s thought about struggling towards the emptiness beneath the fiery universe of greed and desire, you are already lost. You are lost in the dead realm of opposites. How can you keep your mind present and alive?

Once, when Soen Sa Nim was explaining to someone how to sit, he said something that I found extremely helpful. He said imagine that you have lost your only set of car keys and you have to get somewhere very desperately. Just at that time your mind is totally focused on trying to find those car keys. You don’t stop and think about the nature of car keys, or about where they originally came from; nor do you stop and read books about what other people have done when they have lost something that they need very badly. You also don’t try to feel detached or empty about the keys. You only look for them! Where are my keys? Where are my keys!

So again I must tell you that I can’t accept your answers. You are very lucky that you have such a dilemma. Where is your mistake? What can you do? Drop the particular situations in both kong-ans and try to keep a mind that just doesn’t know.

Thank you for your struggle.




A Dharma Talk given on February 15, 1982 to Winter Kyol Che, a 90 day retreat held at the Providence Zen Center each winter, led by George Bowman.

George asked me to speak about doubt. If you don’t understand doubt, if you don’t believe in doubt, if you don’t believe in trying to understand doubt, then it’s very hard to practice. It took me years to really attain my understanding of what doubt is. For years I sat on the cushion in the Dharma Room on Hope Street. George and Louise and I spent many hours there and Soen Sa Nim gave many Dharma talks. He was always saying, “Only go straight, don’t-know.” And I was always wondering, “What is don’t-know?” I wouldn’t admit to anybody that I didn’t understand what don’t-know meant, but I didn’t. I wasn’t sure, and more and more trying to understand don’t-know was what kept me going. That was doubt. That was a big question, this thing that nobody could explain to you – that’s what doubt is.

Teachers all talk about it in different ways. But they’re all pointing to the same thing. Our minds are always trying to label and attach, to make our own identity fields concrete by saying, “Yeah, that’s how I thought it was,” by always trying to make something. When we do that, we’re not doubting. It’s when you can’t understand something that you start to purge yourself – when you are actually stumped. You just sit there and you are stumped. That’s doubt.

Practicing with other people really helps me see where I am stuck in my own mind. One of these people was a girl named Polly who lived with us for a while about 2� years ago. About a week before Annie was born a little 6-year-old girl got killed in our yard, in an accident. She was holding onto a pony with a rope, and the rope was wrapped around her wrists. A horse grazing at the other end of the field called to the pony. The pony wanted to go see the other horse, so he ran, dragged her with him over the stone wall and she was killed. Polly and I were both home that day. Polly had seen the whole thing happen. At the time Polly was 19 or 20. The little girl’s father and I got there at about the same time. I saw the little girl lying in the grass. This happened about a week before I had Annie, so I was very pregnant and very emotional at the time. I couldn’t believe that I was watching this little kid die. I felt really shaken up. Her mother was there too and she also was very pregnant, so I had complete empathy for this woman. Walking back to the house after the emergency squad had taken her away, I was shaking. We had been in the middle of a directors’ meeting, but I wasn’t going to go back to it. I had been thinking, “Oh God, how can I go back to the directors’ meeting if this is happening?” Not that I could go to the hospital; it wasn’t appropriate at all. I didn’t even know the little girl that well but I felt as though I should be doing something. Just then Linc said to me, “You have to just practice.” He shook me and said, “The best thing you can do right now is return to the directors’ meeting and do your best right there. That’s the only way you can help that girl’s mother or father or her!” Then I realized, “of course!” I saw that all I could do was just do my job. So I dropped the mind that asked why that had happened to that little girl.

Polly was very shaken up. She kept asking me why that had happened, and she asked Soen Sa Nim. Soen Sa Nim explained karma to her – the law of cause and effect. He said that in a previous life she had maybe killed this pony or done something mean to it, and so he had come back to her. The way Soen Sa Nim explained it, it wasn’t as if she had sinned or she had finally gotten justice – not a fatalistic idea but just that that’s the way nature balances itself, that’s just what happens in this world. It sounded very coarse. The little girl killed the pony last time and the pony killed her this time – a poor little 6-year-old girl. Anyway, you could see that explanation wasn’t enough for Polly at all. She continued to keep the question, “Why did that happen?” or, “Why are the people in Africa starving to death?” She had lots of questions just like that: “Why is this world so unfair?” “Why are some people born rich and some born poor?” That’s one way of experiencing doubt – asking, “Why is this world so screwed up? What’s it all about?” and thinking, thinking, thinking, and with this mind, later that year, Polly went to Texas, found Reverend Moon’s teaching, and joined his group. I think she is still with them.

Many times when we experience the doubting mind that is trying to understand the puzzles of the world, we have the idea that we can find a light, a God, something that will give us something to believe in, something to attach to, some ideal to make our fears and anxieties rest. But it is very dangerous to try to take away your uncertainty. When you’re uncertain and insecure and don’t want to feel like you don’t know, it’s dangerous to look for someone who knows, who will guide you, show you the way and give you the truth. There are many teachers and religions who offer to release you from doubt and give you something.

The reason I thought of Polly was because this morning after practice, we read a kong-an from her. It’s good teaching. Polly has written to Soen Sa Nim several times since she had this revelation in finding Rev. Moon, and Soen Sa Nim has just tried to tell her that she has to find herself – not find it, but find herself, in every moment, every situation – not to depend on anything, any teaching, any teacher, any way, but just to understand herself. Several letters have come back and forth, but every time she kind of doesn’t get it. Here’s the letter:

Dear Soen Sa Nim,Hi. Sorry I don’t have any pretty paper. Just now I want to write you. I’ve been thinking of you. I’m on a subway train to Manhattan from Queens. There’s a cute little boy eating a lollipop. It’s morning – a new day. Take care, Soen Sa Nim; I am one of many who love you and are grateful.

Love, Polly
Dear Polly,

Thank you for your letter. How are you?

Don’t check; don’t hold; don’t be attached. Only go straight, What am I? If you attain I, you will get correct direction, correct truth, correct life.

That’s it. In one sense this letter to Soen Sa Nim is just like this – I’m on a train, this boy is eating a lollipop, it’s a new day. When everything is O.K. – a cute little boy, lollipops, a new day – then we can rest a little bit and believe in things. But when a child gets her head smashed by a pony out in the yard, then it’s a different story. Then everything falls apart. Our life is always fluctuating between happiness and sadness, comfort and discomfort, certainty and uncertainty. And if we let our minds move, then we’ve lost our way, we’ve lost ourselves. Soen Sa Nim says here, “Don’t check, don’t hold, don’t be attached.” Just boom, boom, boom. Only go straight. What am I? That ‘What Am I?’ is extremely difficult. It’s as if you’re sitting in the middle of the ocean in a teeny little teetery boat. It’s not giving you what you want, and you’re not supported. It’s scary sometimes, but you have to be able to get your own guts strong, to be able to sit without anybody saying, “I will help you. I am the way. I am the light.” But just, what is this? If you can do that, if you can just be completely purged of any other idea, then you’re going to get strong.

Eido Roshi said something once that I thought was very beautiful. He was talking about Zen Master Un Mun who said that every day is a good day. He said, “I’m not talking about the 15th day (the full moon day on the 30-day moon calendar), but tell me about after the 15th day, then what?” Nobody could answer. Then he said that every day is a good day. What Eido Roshi said about this story is that we have a full moon idea. If everything is lit up and you can see it all, then you feel ‘ah, that’s beautiful, that’s complete.’ But then there is a whole period after the 15th when a little less and less and less of the moon is showing. Eido Roshi said that it’s always a full moon; it’s always a good day. Even though just a crescent shows, it’s there. It’s just not lit – there’s a shadow.

Last night George told a story about a man who sat for so many kalpas and didn’t attain the Dharma; the Dharma did not appear. We make that in our minds because we think there is something to appear. We think that there is some Dharma that is going to appear when it has already appeared. It is already always a full moon, but we have an idea of full as being lit. But the whole teaching is that if your mind is complete, then everything is complete.

How can you get this complete mind? How can you not have the mind that needs to have a good feeling, that sees the moon as the fuller the better, the mind that doesn’t want anything like a kid getting kicked in the head to happen? Things like that are going on all the time. That’s our life. Good feelings, bad feelings – we’re never going to get away from them. The whole teaching is to completely make peace with everything – to be able to just be with anything completely.

The whole Zen teaching of doubt is just to keep that doubt. Interview after interview I get so frustrated when I try to give people what I’ve understood about what don’t-know is. So many times it falls on deaf ears because there hasn’t been enough hard training yet, not enough suffering yet, not enough not checking and letting go. So, all the words come to mind that I hear from George and from Soen Sa Nim and from everybody: you have to have try mind; you have to not make anything in your mind; you have to persevere. If you can do that and have great faith in your practice, then you can sit.

I remember on Hope Street, for five years, talking to myself over and over – “I don’t know why I’m getting up so early; I don’t know why every night at 7 o’clock I go down the stairs and hit the moktak.” Sometimes I’d just think, “Wow! The last thing I want to do is go down there.” I found it unpleasant in the Dharma Room because it was so noisy outside, but I had faith – I completely believed in the teaching, in the practice. With faith, slowly, slowly you can begin to put down your ideas, and your doubt grows. Your ability to slow down and to attain a quiet mind gets stronger. So if you have one sitting period when you perceive that every day is a good day – when you completely see that – then that’s enough to keep you going for another ten kalpas. Just stay with it and don’t give up. It’s a beautiful thing just to keep trying.

What we can do is completely get our own center so strong that we’re not holding anything – just what Soen Sa Nim says: “Don’t check, don’t hold, don’t be attached.” If you can do that, then you can just slip some energy to somebody because you’ve got energy to give. When you can’t slip some energy in, then more suffering is necessary. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do. (It seems like I’m giving myself a Dharma talk.) People have to work out their own karma. You just have to make your center strong. You have to understand great doubt, have faith and just keep trying. Then your job is going to get clearer and clearer.

Death, Dying, and Kong-Ans

Zen Master Seong Hyang and Kwang Myong Sunim, JDPS

Excerpted from a workshop at the Whole World is a Single Flower Conference, Providence Zen Center, October 1999.

Kwang Myong Sunim JDPS: This workshop is entitled “Death, Dying, and Kong-ans.” Maybe we could start with a kong-an: what is death? [Pause] What a huge kong-an! Perhaps the biggest kong-an faced by humankind. What is death? [Pause] How many people have been with someone who was dying? What kind of experience was it for you? Frightening, sad, positive?

Student: Last year my father died. That was very difficult.

Zen Master Soeng Hyang: I want to ask you, did you chant or use this practice at all after his death?

Student: Yes, I did. I chanted Ji Jang Bosal…

ZMSH: Did you find that helpful?

Student: I think that was the beginning of dealing with my grief; Ji Jang Bosal was all that I could think of to do.

ZMSH: The fact that you said, “That was all I could do, was Ji Jang Bosal,” at least it was something! We can say, “At least it’s something,” but it’s really something when we really do it! If we have that person in our consciousness and do this repetition, there can be an incredible increase in intuition about the whole relationship. This is someone you knew, cared about, and had a lot of questions about. Death of a loved one is not cut and dried. Many questions appear: “Is he peaceful? Is he not peaceful? Was I a good son? Was he a good father? Could we have done more?” But this is really beyond life and death. Chanting Ji Jang Bosal after someone passes away helps open your heart so that the line of demarcation between life and death fades, and what’s left is intuition and intimacy. Then it’s not just about you and your father.

KMSN: This question of how to practice the bodhisattva path with the sick and dying is an important question. If you are holding anything about life and death, then it is very hard to meet the other and help them. If you can be present with wherever they are, in their anger, in their fear, in their courage, in their dying, and go with them, then a just-like-this experience appears and correct function becomes possible. So how do we meet this person who is suffering and in need? Perhaps first by confronting who we think we are, what we think death is, what we think life is, what we think about the whole process. What is death and who is it that dies? It is only in sitting with these kong-ans and bringing one’s realization forth that one can be truly present for another. The specific function of that realization in a given moment may mean holding hands, breathing in and out together, or perhaps facilitating verbal expressions of regret, sadness, or gratitude.

ZMSH: I had a patient only a few weeks ago who had a prison background. There was absolutely nothing I could do. Inside, I just did a mantra the whole time. I sat with him, his wife, the young children who were there. But I couldn’t fix anything. I just did my mantra and tried to breathe slowly. There was no way I could get him to connect with my breath or with his own breath. There was no communication and there hadn’t been, not enough for him to relax and say, “I’m sorry” or “God, I need to talk about this.” We all have to live with suffering constantly, don’t we? Can we get right in the middle and say, “Come on, guys, let’s breathe!” It has nothing to do with whether they are physically dying or not. If each of us tries to be in that place where it’s not death or life but intimacy, then maybe we can help teach that to other people and encourage people to practice. Also, things cannot paralyze us when they aren’t comfortable or not exactly the way we’d like them to be. We can keep our hearts and minds open, and look for the possibilities. And then that awareness, whether it’s out of humor or profound, exquisite communication, is something that can evolve and develop as we practice.

KMSN: An ongoing practice for me is trying to sit with a patient who is vomiting — I still find it hard to keep my center when a patient is vomiting blood or fecal matter! There is initially a reflexive response to protect oneself — to grab a towel and duck out of the way. But if I can stay in the room and at the bedside, the purely physical revulsion and disgust passes and only then can I be of some service to that person; perhaps wiping their forehead and mouth with a slightly damp, cool cloth. In the midst of the entire stink and mess, a deeply profound meeting transpires! It is one thing having romantic notions about helping the terminally ill, or having blissful ideas about meditation practice. However, the reality is something quite different and can be profoundly confronting if there is an “I” who wants to help or if this “I” wants to attain enlightenment.

Student: What can we do to help someone heal who is terminally ill?

ZMSH: My answer to that comes right from our Zen practice. Say you have cancer: when you have any kind of personal kong-an, if you enter the kong-an even when it’s uncomfortable or you have no resolution to it or feel it might kill you — even if the kong-an is cancer — then you enter it and ask, “What is this?” What is my relationship to this? How are you? What is this all about? That’s the healing. Whether it actually dissipates and leaves your body — and there are documented cases of that — or the person takes it on into another realm, there is the intimacy of entering that and not hiding. If you have the opposition of “I’m against this and I’m against this,” this means only more pain and more suffering. Just melt into it. Melt into “What are you?” That’s what I tell people. But even with a kong-an, it can be very frightening to do that. Some people who have tumors visualize a little Pac-Man eating their cancer tumors. To me, that seems oppositional: that’s more fighting!

Ji Hyang Sunim: Recently, I’ve been getting calls from hospitals and hospices in the area about people who are dying and are interested in having a Buddhist nun visit. These are people who haven’t been practicing so I mostly just talk to them. I worry, though, that there is something more direct or closely related to practice that I could be doing, only I’m not sure how to bring that home for them. Do you have any ideas?

KMSN: Go for some training. What I do is Clinical Pastoral Education, an accredited program for ministers, ordained, and lay people who want to learn how to care for the spiritual needs of others. In addition to using your experience as a dharma practitioner and as a human being, professional training will give you the skills you need to facilitate clear communication with the sick or dying.

ZMSH: I would say that a good 80% of the people that I’ve witnessed dying, that had no practice, died as they lived. There was no increased potential to focus in for that last two weeks or one week or 24 hours or five hours. I’ve seen televisions on, radios on; I’ve seen anger, like “Why didn’t you give me that when I asked for it?” It’s very sad. It’s like when someone drops into the middle of a Yong Maeng Jong Jin with no training: they probably are not going to have a good time. Zen Master Seung Sahn always says, “Hurry up! Hurry up! We have no time!” It’s true, and it’s so much harder to practice when you’re sick and in pain.

KMSN: There is a danger in getting caught up in the forms of religion or particular meditation techniques, or having some idea about Zen practice or Christian practice. It isn’t the practice itself that is significant; it’s how the practice manifests through us as human beings. Attachment to form bogs down natural human process. Death and/or being present with someone who is dying is not a Zen Buddhist process, nor a Tibetan Buddhist process, it’s a sentient being process. But, as human beings, can we recognize and meet the dying in the totality of being, then respond appropriately? Again, in a given moment, that may simply mean bringing a bowl for a patient to vomit in. It may mean ten thousand things. But there is a danger in getting distracted by form when fundamentally, death, dying and kong-ans are just human beings expressing humanness.

ZMSH: You know, form is emptiness, emptiness is form. It’s not time or no-time, not before or after. When you really just take it to your center and sense, “What was that?” or “Who was that?” That intimacy and love are still there. You don’t worry about the time that has gone by, or practicing and not-practicing. It’s intimacy, letting that come into your heart and your consciousness. I love that story in Dropping Ashes on the Buddha, about the grandmother who was crying for her dead granddaughter and somebody checked her because she was a Zen Master. “You’re a great Zen Master, why are you crying?” And she said, “My tears send her to heaven.” I love that. That’s what that means: love is just flowing, and you send it to them.

Student: Do you believe in life after death?

KMSN: What do you believe?

Student: I don’t know.

KMSN: That’s where it begins, not knowing. Thank you for listening.