Commentary on Hyang Eom’s “Up a Tree”

It is taught that this kong-an has only one answer that will truly release all the tethers that tie us to our ignorance. Only one response will be universally received as correct: “Ahi, that’s it, that’s how you stay alive!”

What is that answer? How do you stay alive? How can you generously offer your wisdom while tied and bound, dangling above a fatal fall with only the grip of your teeth to save you?

The gift that is offered by this kong-an is total bondage, total physical and intellectual bondage. Only a Zen student would be so foolish as to accept such a gift. Only a Zen student would recognize it as a gift, rather than seeing it as a manipulative mind game that has no answer.

Open the gift. Inside is only don’t know. Such an expensive gift, and yet few will accept it Accepting it means abandoning the familiar, and that can be terrifying. And yet, not knowing is very familiar territory for us all, a place where we can be empowered. Not knowing allows us to let go of false assumptions. It frees us of preconceptions and attachments. When the mind doesn’t know, it is sitting exactly in this moment. Men it is in this moment, it is wide open … a perfect receptor … a perfect reflector.

In the Temple Rules of the Kwan Um School of Zen, it says, “In original nature there is no this and that. The Great Round Mirror has no likes or dislikes.” No likes or dislikes means letting conditioned, structured mind states dissolve so that our natural wisdom and compassion can manifest themselves. In Zen, this wise and compassionate state is simply called having a clear mind.

The Buddha gave all kinds of teaching, and he said that he taught that way to save all different kinds of minds. But if there is no mind, then there is nothing to save. So, if you can completely engage in the question, the “don’t know” that a kong-an offers, where is your mind? Doing meditation and a kong-an practice, tapping into the generosity of those techniques, your mind becomes very spacious.

Even while being tied and bound, our mind can feel as spacious as the sky. Look up at the sky and think of it as your mind. The sky doesn’t have any hindrances. If a cloud appears, the sky doesn’t complain. If there is thunder and lightning, if there’s pollution, it remains just as spacious. There is no tightening, no fear. Our practice can help us to open to those qualities, so that we’re not hindered by the ropes around our limbs and the fall beneath our feet. Just in that moment – don’t know – be in relationship with that situation. How do you stay alive?

Out of this spaciousness comes the ability to realize our wisdom and remember how to be in relationship with the lessons, the opportunities that appear in our life. Few ever say it is easy. A wise teacher will encourage cultivation of patience, forbearance, generosity, precepts . encourage courage.

And then, what? We have the sky for inspiration, our teacher’s encouragement, total support from the tree’s branch. How do we share in the generosity?


The universe awaits your response.

Clowns & Dharma Teachers

Dear Bobbie,

I’ve just written to the Dharma Teacher Association to ask for a leave of absence as a Dharma Teacher. This is a confusing and difficult step for me.

I have not been practicing (sitting, bowing) for a while now. I’m not being a Dharma Teacher, and I’m not sure what relationship to have to the Zen centers.

My life is full and I feel that I’m meant to live in the world. I also need the Dharma, and love and respect Soen Sa Nim and my friends in the sangha of the Zen centers. I don’t know what the balance is or just how to find it. I feel that perhaps I need just to have a freer relationship to the Zen centers.

I would love to hear any thoughts or advice you might have for this confused being.

I hope you and Linc and Annie are all well. When will you be out here again?

I am going to school in Theology (!?) and the Arts, and my art is clowning. The main reason for the theology part is that I get a PhD, but I also want to integrate my spirituality with my clowning.

I am also in love and feel that I’ve found a real and good mate.

Please do write! I hope you’re not too busy. Please give my love to everyone.



Dear Jeanne,

Thanks for writing. I’m glad that you are happy and feeling fulfilled with your mate and your schooling. I’m also pleased that you wrote to me and trusted me enough to ask such a meaningful question.

You said that your life is full and you feel that you’re meant to live in the world. Then you said you also need the Dharma, love and respect Soen Sa Nim and your friends in the sangha of the Zen centers.

I have some questions for you. I know you want me to ask them, or else you never would have written to me, knowing what a crusty and dyed-in-the-wool Dharma Teacher I am.

What is most important? What is the purpose of your life? Is living in the world and teaching about the Dharma the same or different?

What is a perfect clown? A low class clown can only make people who are already happy laugh. A middle class clown can make people who are sad laugh. A high class clown can teach all people how to make each other laugh.

A high class Dharma Teacher can be a high class clown. A high class clown is already a high class Dharma Teacher.

I feel that Soen Sa Nim has given me the most precious gift that can be given – so I feel a tremendous obligation to him and to his School. Not an obligation formed from “shoulds” or guilt. But a very deep heart-felt obligation to support and try to transmit the teaching that he is so generously giving to me. So that is where I am being a “Dharma Teacher.” I pay my dues and try to keep my practice (life) alive without feeling any distinction between Zen centers, Dharma teaching, and “living in the world.”

So I guess I feel that nothing is free – especially my teacher’s teaching. Paying for that teaching in some clear way is very important. To me, the best payment is making my relationship to the Three Jewels as clear as I can.

So being or not being a Dharma Teacher isn’t important. Being anything isn’t important. What is important is having a big question -“What am I?” and “going straight – don’t know.” Then your mind will become clear and a high class clown following a compassionate heart will appear.

I hope you always keep a big question and try your hardest to understand.

Much love,

Bobby Rhodes

The Bodhisattva Ideal

A talk given during the winter 1982 Kyol Che intensive meditation retreat at Providence Zen Center.

People often ask me what does the Bodhisattva vow – to save all people from suffering – really mean? A student said to me last week, “I really want to practice and help people. How can I keep this mind?” “What you have right now is wonderful,” I told him. “All you have to do is try to keep it; just try. There’s no formula.” But he didn’t really believe that. He thought there was possibly something else that I could hand him.

I often feel frustrated with my own practice, questioning how much I’m able to affect other people’s lives, or the quality of my own. That’s what Soen Sa Nim calls “checking.” You start to look at what is happening with your practice, your friends, family, or your Zen Center. But the Buddha said, “I have every kind of medicine to help people no matter what their problem is, but I can’t make them take it.” We are Buddha, we have Buddha’s mind, so we have every remedy for every kind of suffering. We are Bodhisattvas and all we have to do is accept our ‘Bodhisattvaness’ and it will seep out. Any thought of how long it will take or how much we can do – any single thought – is not practicing.

In an old story, Zen Master Huang Po was walking with a man. When they reached a river, the man walked right across the water without breaking stride. Huang Po said, “If I had known he was that kind of man, I would have broken his legs before he reached the water.” He meant that this act was completely unnecessary. You have a physical body and sometimes an obstacle like a river appears and slows you down. Then you have to either get wet, or build a bridge. In itself, that’s not good or bad, that is just water, slowing you down.

Huang Po said, “Your practice is like being an insect with very sensitive antennae.” Your mind, your consciousness, your perceptions are like antennae. If your checking mind moves those antennae feelers even the smallest amount, then you’ve lost your way. Huang Po was saying, don’t check. Don’t think in terms of opposites, or of yourself as separate from anything. only completely perceive; believe in what you have already. You are already Buddha. Just give yourself to everything.

We make hindrances for ourselves. We also make “The entire universe is suffering.” What does it mean to ask, “How can I save all people?” There is a story about one of Buddha’s disciples. One day, as he was meditating, this man had an intuition that the Kapila Kingdom would be destroyed by a war in seven days. He wanted desperately to stop that war. He said to Buddha, “Do you know that next week many of your people are going to be killed?”


“Then why don’t you save them?”

“I can’t.”

“But you have magical powers. Why can’t you save them?”

But Buddha said, his mind not moving at all, “You can’t make merited karma disappear.”

Then the man did an incredible thing with his wisdom and power. He shrunk the whole kingdom, put them in a small bowl and took them up to a high heaven where it was very safe. After seven days when he thought it was safe, he brought the bowl back to earth. But when he took the cover off and looked inside, he saw that the miniature country had been destroyed by a miniature war.

I was very I relieved when I first heard that story, because it pointed out that even special magical powers can’t help people if they aren’t ready. This story taught me that we don’t need to develop special abilities or perform miracles. Becoming a Billy Graham isn’t going to help, either. Even if you have tremendous charisma, the other person has to want to practice. Buddha said, “You can hand somebody medicine but you can’t make him take it.” Soen Sa Nim has said, “The only way to make karma disappear is for your consciousness to become empty; then there are no miracles, only correct view and correct practice. This is the true miracle.”

We often hear: “correct view, correct practice.” But until our mind completely digests it and knows there is nothing beyond that, we aren’t going to be able to do what we can in this lifetime. There is a story about a man in India who came from a caste that slaughtered cattle. His grandfather did it, his father did it. His job was to hit the cattle over the head with a hammer and kill them. But his mind was very pure. He always asked himself, “What is this? Why am I …. ?” He hated the job, but he had this question all the time. One day, at the instant he killed a cow, he got enlightenment. From the outside, his life looked miserable; all day long he slaughtered sentient beings. But his outside action wasn’t important; it was how he kept his mind. He wanted to help people and understand his life.

This is why the question, “How can I keep this mind that wants to help?” impressed me so much. The student who asked it really wanted to learn. We don’t have to worry about losing that mind, because we already have it. Complete sincerity is all that’s necessary. As we practice more, we learn to see what helping means. I can see now that there is no way we can intellectually grasp how to save all beings from suffering. It’s a waste of time even to try to measure whether it’s possible. As Soen Sa Nim says, “I hope you soon get enlightenment and save all beings from suffering.” I grab that once in a while, but we don’t even have to think about it. We just have to try becoming empty mind and get correct view and correct practice.

At work I am trying to become more of a correct nurse. Last week I saw how I could be doing more, and it’s on such a simple scale, I often think of work as being 5 or 6 hours of busy work, and then an hour or so of free time. I’ve started to see what nonsense that is. I get paid for 8 hours, so why don’t I give the nursing home the whole 8 hours? If I don’t do that at work, there’s no way I’m doing it anywhere else. So last week I started to do that – be more of a correct nurse. That night driving home was a complete experience, I wasn’t feeling guilty about anything; I was just driving home. I knew I had done a good job that day. Having that mind, you are ready for the next step, If someone appears in front of your car, you’re ready to put on the brakes. You have to give yourself to each situation: correct view, correct practice.

I work with a lot of under-educated people at the nursing home. Some of them steal and cheat and fight each other. It would be ridiculous for me to preach to them. Some of the people know I’m a Zen teacher, but they’re too embarrassed to ask about it. A lot of them think it’s cultish or that I’m a real goody-goody. So when a girl at work asked me for advice one day, I was excited about it, but I tried not to say too much. She is a hyperactive sort of person and gets things confused, so I told her to try taking just 10 minutes a day to relax and reflect on her life a little, to see what’s happening. She said, “Yeah,, that’s a good idea.” The next day as I walked by her I overheard her complaining to somebody about how she always got confused. I said, “Well, don’t you remember what I told you to do?” She had completely forgotten what I had said!

It was good teaching for me. I was really hoping that finally, after working at this place for eight years, somebody was going to ask me for advice and get helped by it. I used to be on the day shift and people still come to me and say, “You were the best nurse we ever had on the day shift. I wish you would come back.” Then I realize that my practice has helped people just by making the quality of life a little better

It’s our lazy mind that makes this idea of saving all people something difficult. We don’t want to realize that we can do it, and that it’s right in front of us. As long as we think it’s something far away that only special people can do, we don’t take the responsibility for doing it. If you can completely be here right now and give energy to your practice, you can do it any time. Don’t try to measure how long you will live, or how big is the universe. It’s completely impossible.

When I was little I used to think there must be a wall somewhere with nothing on the other side. How could life and time be infinite? We don’t understand where we’re going and where we come from, and we don’t need to. We just need (claps her hands) to hear that, then we know. So keep listening.

Believing in Yourself

A talk at the Women and American Buddhism conference held at Providence Zen Center in September 1984.

It was wonderful for me to hear everyone share of themselves this weekend. It convinces me once again that we’re all one big family. I hope we keep sharing our dharma with each other. As has been mentioned already, there is a tendency for human beings to separate, to think “my practice is the best.” We build walls, names, and ideas. It’s a human condition and it’s very destructive. We are lucky in this country because we have this opportunity to share ideas. But we have to make an active effort or it’s not going to happen. There’s a pull toward separation all the time.

I was sitting in a sesshin with Sasaki Roshi last May. It was about the fourth day of the retreat. I was about to have my sixteenth interview. Things were so different from what I’m used to with Zen Master Seung Sahn. I had answered a couple of his questions, but there was one kong-an that I had been trying to answer for a day and a half and I kept thinking, “Where is my mistake?” All of a sudden a wave went through me, this wonderful feeling that I’ve had before many times. All of a sudden I had gotten it.

You have to believe in yourself. It’s not so much that he was looking for a word; he was looking for a belief, a confidence to just have it come out … believing in yourself. Then I went up and answered the kong-an. It was the same answer I had given two hours earlier. I just had confidence. I didn’t care what he said. That is how I thought of the title for this talk.

The past several years many of the Zen Centers in America have been having trouble. All of those things that we think of as hard times don’t really have to be a hard time at all. All of those things are your teacher. Arrogance, laughing at someone, laziness are all different traps. You say “thank-you” when anything appears. 1983, 1984, thank-you. All of the things that appear in this universe are for each one of us. Then there’s no winning and no losing anymore. That’s real freedom: freedom from life and death, from winning and losing, from pride and arrogance. Freedom from everything.

I led a retreat in Toronto last weekend. It was wonderful, nice weather, more people than usual, and everyone felt good. We always have a circle talk at the end and share something about the retreat. Several people told me they only see a teacher about every three or four months. They seemed hungry and grateful. You could say anything and they wanted to hear it. It’s really easy, especially to say something nice. They almost draw it out of you. So three of the people who had been at the retreat took me to the airport the next morning. They said things like, “I can’t wait until you come back,” and “It was such a great retreat.” They were full of admiration, and I saw the orange caution light appear.

That’s dangerous, this attachment of people liking your teaching or needing and wanting you. It weighs exactly the same as someone saying “Thanks a lot, but I’d rather have so and so come up and teach. You weren’t so great.” Good speech or bad speech, if either one touches you more than the other, you’ve got problems: clinging, grabbing, not believing in yourself.

If you need good words to feel good about yourself, then it’s devastating when someone gives you bad words. Neither one needs to touch you. At the same time, it’s wonderful if someone tells you your teaching is inadequate and shallow. It’s the same thing as “Wow, it’s great, I can’t wait until you come back!” Your mind doesn’t need to move with either. You can feel a little sad about one reaction and a little proud or happy about the other, just happy that you make people happy. But then that feeling is gone and you’re getting on the airplane, watching an old lady trying to pick up her heavy bag, helping her to carry it.

You’re right there the next moment. I think that’s the goods you get from sitting and practicing. That is Zen – being able to answer the next moment with no trace of the last.

I want to share one story that’s been helpful to me. When Zen Master Seung Sahn, my teacher, had been in this country for six or eight months, everybody was always asking him questions about Korea, Buddhism, and enlightenment. Somebody asked him if there were any women Zen Masters in Korea. He said, “No, women can’t get enlightenment.”

I just looked at him. He gave these wonderful dharma talks about “don’t make man, don’t make woman, don’t make anything.” So I said, “Soen Sa Nim, you always say originally there is nothing. Don’t make distinctions. Don’t make good and bad or man and woman. What do you mean women can’t get enlightenment?” I wasn’t angry, I was just shocked that he was saying that. He looked at me and said, “So you’re a woman!”

“I am a woman.” “I am a man.” Already enlightenment has passed through your fingers. It’s not a thing. You can’t get it. Nobody can get it. Buddha didn’t get it either. So we don’t have to worry. We’re all in the same family and that’s wonderful.

An eminent Zen teacher once said, picture yourself as an insect with sensitive antennae. How they stay alive and find their food depends on those antennae. To attain, or understand yourself, you can’t let those antennae move at all, not one tiny vibration from either of them. They have to be completely still.

In a sense he’s saying that any phenomenon appearing in our life makes us check or doubt ourselves or others by thinking and separating. If the antennae or the mind move just a fraction of an inch, you’ve already gone straight to hell. That’s why enlightenment sounds so difficult. How could we ever be so clear that our minds don’t move at all, that we can always just be there? The only time that the antenna is not moving at all is when you’re meticulously paying attention to each moment.

So it’s not the dishwater or the ninety-day retreat. Either one is food for our practice. One is not better than the other, although sometimes one is more supportive than the other. We have to become sensitive and balanced about those things and it’s not easy.

Zen Master Seung Sahn once gave a talk at the end of our ninety-day winter Kyol Che retreat. He told about the high class Zen student, who only has to hear one word and he or she gets it. The second-class Zen student needs to sit a seven-day retreat and then gets it. The low-class Zen student has to sit 90 days and then gets it. So he asked, “Did you get it?”

Most of the people in the room began feeling horrible, doubting themselves, their practice. Then Zen Master Seung Sahn immediately said, just now, even this mind that doubts itself, this is enlightenment. It’s “I didn’t get it” enlightenment.” He said it so compassionately and beautifully. It felt like he’d taken out a silver tray with twenty-five beautiful little cakes on it, one for each of the people in the room, their favorite flavor and color. Enlightenment cakes. I didn’t get it, and that’s it! Just believe in yourself, this mind, this moment.

I really want to encourage people to find a teacher and a practice, anything that helps you practice consistently and to your fullest. It doesn’t matter who the teacher is or what the form is. If you decide to get up in the morning and do 108 bows, to sit twenty minutes twice a day, or do a retreat twice a year, whatever it is, get yourself to do that.

We all have this resistance to practice. It’s not an easy thing to practice hard. Sometimes we have to force ourselves to pay attention. We could be doing any kind of practice as long as it means mindfulness and consistency and accountability to someone. It’s important to get some feedback about your practice once in a while.

There’s a story that goes with that. Up in the seventh heaven, the King of Kings of all the heavens and the universe was sitting on his throne, feeling tired and old and thinking it was time to pass on his responsibilities. He looked at his attendant and said, “I want to find a person to replace me: the perfect compassionate, all-knowing person. I’m ready to retire.”

The attendant said, “How can we find this being?” The King of Kings said, “Don’t worry. There’s a certain fellow that I’ve had my eye on.” It was Shakyamuni Buddha, in one of his previous incarnations.

So the King of Kings went flying down over the different realms and found the Buddha in a cave. The King manifested himself as a hawk, and had his attendant manifest himself as a dove. The hawk soared around and made threatening moves toward the dove, right over the Buddha’s head.

The Buddha looked up, very compassionate and loving, and saw the dove’s predicament. He yelled up to the hawk, “Please don’t attack that dove. Don’t eat it!” The hawk said, “Why not? I’m hungry.”

Buddha replied, “Oh, the dove will suffer so much! Please don’t kill him.” But the hawk said, “I’M HUNGRY!”

So Buddha said, “You may have one of my fingers to eat.” The hawk produced a scale and put the dove on one side of the scale, which dipped way down. Then he said, “Give me an equal amount of meat and I won’t eat the dove.”

So the Buddha chopped off his hand and put it on the scale. The scale barely moved. The dove was much heavier. Then the Buddha cut off his forearm and put that on the scale, but the dove was still much heavier. He continued to dismember himself to try to equal the weight of the dove, but everything he offered didn’t weigh enough.

This great question of how much can I give, how hard should I practice, appears when our practice is genuine. In this story we’re racing through Buddha’s mind, the great caring mind of “what can I do?” until finally he gets it. Because he had a strong question and a strong direction, he got it. He put his whole self on the scale and then it was much heavier than the dove. Then of course the hawk manifested himself as the King of Kings, and the Buddha became whole again.

This is a very lofty old story. We tend to think we couldn’t be that compassionate. But that’s our situation at the moment, seeing other beings in distress. Because we’re not sensitive enough, most of the time we don’t even see that distress, or sense the sadness that is going on around us. The longer we practice, the more we begin to see the suffering of others as well as our own suffering and faults.

It’s at this point that a lot of people draw away from practicing. As you become more aware and sensitive, you think you’re worse than you were five years ago, but you’re not.

The day after my Toronto retreat where I had been so “wonderful,” I was at work and I couldn’t get one of my patients to swallow her medication. I was very tired and eventually lost my temper, and had to get one of the aides to give the pill. Walking down the hall I could see my frustration, my lazy karma, my laziness enlightenment. Zen Master Seung Sahn would call that “losing it” enlightenment.

If you can’t see that in yourself, you can’t teach anybody else. You can’t share or be anybody else’s friend unless you see those things in yourself. So when you are losing your temper, take a good look at it. The next time you see someone else acting that way, there’s no separation – you have complete understanding and maybe you can give that person support. That’s our job.

So they loved me in Toronto and the next evening I’m an impatient, weary nurse. Which one is correct? KATZ! I hope we all learn to believe in ourselves and help others.

Zen Master Soeng Hyang (Barhara Rhodes)

Zen Master Soeng Hyang (Barbara Rhodes) is the School Zen Master and Guiding Dharma Teacher of the Kwan Um School of Zen. She received dharma transmission from Zen Master Seung Sahn on October 10, 1992. She was one of Zen Master Seung Sahn’s first American students and studied with him since 1972. She was given inka in 1977. A registered nurse since 1969, she works for Hospice Care of Rhode Island. She helped found Providence Zen Center, and lived there for seventeen years, serving in a number of administrative capacities. Zen Master Soeng Hyang has a daughter and lives with her partner, Mary, in Providence.

Zen Stick Swallows Universe

Question: If you see a lot of blame in your life and very little praise, and you feel a lot of pain and very little pleasure, and you hang on to this then you suffer a lot. So you always say put it all down. I ask you: What is the best way to put it all down?

Zen Master Seung Sahn: If you open your mouth, that’s a mistake. Close your mouth! Put it all down means more than just saying “put it all down,” okay? If you completely put it all down then there is no “I-my-me.” Many people have I-my-me mind. I-my-me comes from where? From desire mind. When desire mind appears then I-my-me mind appears. I-my-me makes all of our suffering.

But originally we don’t have I-my-me. When you were born did you have a plan? Did you say to your mother, “I am coming into the world and I want to try such and such… please help me.” You didn’t say that. You only came into this world and… WHAAAAA! So why did you appear in this world? If you don’t understand that, then you will have a problem. No direction, no reason, no condition, nothing… only come into this world. That creates a problem.

It’s very important to take away this problem. How do you do that? You must find your true self. Only practice, practice, practice. Then you can attain your true self. If you find your true self then you can attain your correct job in life. Attaining your correct job means helping all beings. We call that bodhisattva action. Then your direction is clear — your whole life is clear. But if you cannot find your bodhisattva job, then you are the same as everyone else. Why did you come into this world? — most people don’t understand. Why eat everyday? — they don’t understand. What is my correct relationship to this world? — they don’t understand. What is human being? They don’t understand! Even a dog understands its job. If a stranger comes then, “woof, woof.” A cat understands a cat’s job: if a mouse comes… “meow,” then catch the mouse. All animals understand their job. But human beings don’t understand their job. What’s your job?

Q: Can I help you?

ZMSS: Correct! Thank you. You do correct practicing, so no problem. Only DO IT.

Q: What is the difference between tantien practice and don’t know practice?

ZMSS: Tantien — the point one inch below your navel-practicing means this: In our consciousness many things are always coming and going… coming, going, coming, going. If you do tantien practice then you should do slow in, slow out breathing and keep your attention just below your navel; then your tantien becomes stronger and stronger. If you practice this way then your tantien and your mind will get a lot of energy. But what is the correct function of this energy? This is very important. If you cannot find the correct function of this energy, then maybe you will use this energy for bad actions. Sometimes this happens with people who practice martial arts like karate. They do tantien practice and get a lot of energy but then how to use this energy… they don’t understand. Maybe they drink a lot, sex… many bad actions. Then they will have a problem.

But if you practice correctly, then when you get energy you always become one. Then when the tantien becomes stronger and stronger and the tantien energy grows up-grows, grows, grows, then the whole universe and you BOOM! become one. If you don’t become one, then how can you control this energy? If you get a lot of energy too soon and your direction isn’t clear, then you cannot control your energy and many bad actions will appear. Then suffering appears. Tantien practicing is okay, but your direction is very important: Why do you do tantien practicing? How do you use tantien energy? How does tantien energy function correctly and your life become clear? That’s a very important point. If you are attached to only tantien practicing, then you will have a big problem.

Q: So how do we use kong-an practice with tantien practice?

ZMSS: Kong-an practicing means don’t make tantien. Put it all down, “tantien.”

Q: You can’t put them together?

ZMSS: Don’t make together. Put it all down, okay? if you practice correctly then your tantien will automatically become stronger. Then when you do kong-an practicing, your tantien will grow up. Then whole universe and tantien becomes one. Then your mind becomes clear and any kind of kong-an is no problem.

Q: Why do have a big stick?

ZMSS: For you: HIT!

Q: You missed!

ZMSS: I hit! Then what do you say?

Q: Ouch!

ZMSS: Correct! If you are thinking, then you have a problem, okay? So “hit” means: cut off all thinking. Moment to moment become dear. Very important. That’s a “Zen stick.” Sometimes this Zen stick becomes bigger, bigger and bigger; it swallows the whole universe. Sometimes it becomes a snake; sometimes a club… but don’t make anything. If you make something, I will hit you, PITCHOO! Don’t make anything.

Zen is Understanding Yourself

One day a student from Chicago came to the Providence Zen Center and asked Seung Sahn Soen-Sa, “What is Zen?”

Soen-sa held his Zen stick above his head and said, “Do you understand?”

The student said, “I don’t know.”

Soen-sa said, “This don’t know mind is you. Zen is understanding yourself.”

“What do you understand about me? Teach me.”

Soen-sa said, “In a cookie factory, different cookies are baked in the shape of animals, cars, people, and airplanes. They all have different names and forms, but they are all made from the same dough, and they all taste the same.

“In the same way, all things in the universe – the sun, the moon, the stars, mountains, rivers, people, and so forth – have different names and forms, but they are all made from the same substance. The universe is organized into pairs of opposites: light and darkness, man and woman, sound and silence, good and bad. But all these opposites are mutual, because they are made from the same substance. Their names and their forms are different, but their substance is the same. Names and forms are made by your thinking. If you are not thinking and have no attachment to name and form, then all substance is one. Your don’t know mind cuts off all thinking. This is your substance. The substance of this Zen stick and your own substance are the same. You are this stick; this stick is you.”

The student said, “Some philosophers say this substance is energy, or mind, or God, or matter. Which is the truth?”

Soen-sa said, “Four blind men went to the zoo and visited the elephant. One blind man touched its side and said, ‘The elephant is like a wall.’ The next blind man touched its trunk and said, ‘The elephant is like a snake.’ The next blind man touched its leg and said, ‘The elephant is like a column.’ The last blind man touched its tail and said, ‘The elephant is like a broom.’ Then the four blind men started to fight, each one believing that his opinion was the right one. Each only understood the part he had touched; none of them understood the whole.

“Substance has no name and no form. Energy, mind, God, and matter are all name and form. Substance is the Absolute. Having name and form is having opposites. So the whole world is like the blind men fighting among themselves. Not understanding yourself is not understanding the truth. That is why there is fighting among ourselves. If all the people in the world understood themselves, they would attain the Absolute. Then the world would be at peace. World peace is Zen.”

The student said, “How can practicing Zen make world peace?”

Soen-sa said, “People desire money, fame, sex, food, and rest. All this desire is thinking. Thinking is suffering. Suffering means no world peace. Not thinking is not suffering. Not suffering means world peace. World peace is the Absolute. The Absolute is I.”

The student said, “How can I understand the Absolute?”

Soen-sa said, “You must first understand yourself.”

“How can I understand myself?”

Soen-sa held up the Zen stick and said, “Do you see this?”

He then quickly hit the table with the stick and said, “Do you hear this? This stick, this sound, your mind – are they the same or different?”

The student said, “The same.”

Soen-sa said, “If you say they are the same, I will hit you thirty times. If you say they are different, I will still hit you thirty times. Why?”

The student was silent.

Soen-sa shouted, “KATZ!!!” Then he said, “Spring comes, the grass grows by itself.”

Zen & Poetry

Primary Point: Why do you, as a Zen Master, bother to compose poems?

Zen Master Seung Sahn: For you. [laughter]

PP: When you compose your poems, do you actually write using “beautiful language”?

ZMSS: No. This moment appears, then compose a poem. Not checking situations, and not making anything.

PP: In your teaching, you say that people suffer from word sickness, so word medicine is necessary. Would you describe how you use language in your poetry?

ZMSS: Simple! Only whatever situation comes up or appears! Any style of writing is OK. You know, Korean, Japanese, English, any kind of writing, but most importantly, only what appears.

PP: This seems too simple. I love reading your poetry because it allows me to connect to this moment, so what if I was to say to you, “I love your poems; they are so beautiful,” what would you say to me in response?

ZMSS: I don’t care! [much laughter]

PP: Of course. In your teaching you often talk about candy, something that gives us a good feeling. So a Zen Master’s words can sometimes be candy and sometimes hooks. Is there candy in your poems? Are there hooks?

ZMSS: Yes, sometimes candy and sometimes hooks appear in my poems, but realize that I don’t create candy or hooks in these poems. They are written, with no intention, only for all of my students.

PP: What happens in your mind when you read or hear other peoples’ poetry?

ZMSS: I don’t check other peoples’ poetry. The mind with which I read other’s poetry is only a practicing mind, so the meaning appears. Then I only comment.

PP: So, what is the best way to read your poems so that I may learn your teaching?

ZMSS: Put it all down, everything! Then my mind and your mind can connect.

PP: That’s not so easy. Is poetry Zen? Does true poetry manifest Zen mind?

ZMSS: Zen mind, poetry mind, writing mind, practicing mind, all are not different.

From a Letter to the Polish Sangha

November in Warsaw
Fifty people together in one room.
Sitting Zen for three days.

Try mind. Bread
And potatoes and onions.
Fifty people eating together.
Get energy. Find the true way.

What is the true way?
Don’t know? Primary point?
Before thinking?
Someone appears. Hits the floor.
But is that the true way?

November in Warsaw.
The sky is dark.
Fifty faces are shining.

from Bone of Space by Zen Master Seung Sahn

PP: So would you say it is better to write poems or to talk about poems?

ZMSS: If you see clearly, hear clearly, and smell clearly, then everything is clear. So, right now… what appears? People talk about how one poem is this and another poem is something else. This is making something.

PP: So, only read the poem, then [claps hands] cut off all thinking, and then only what appears in this moment is all that is necessary?

ZMSS: Yes. It’s very simple. For example, in my poetry book Bone of Space, when I traveled around Europe, for each city I visited I wrote a poem. If you read these poems you will understand the situation, condition and relationships that existed during that trip — how I connected to each country, each city, and how I understood these cities. Something would appear, and I would make a poem. This is not special; in writing poetry, I only see clearly, hear clearly, smell clearly, and think clearly. My thinking is clear, not checking anything. just think clearly, then make your poem.

PP: In the west there is a rhyming poetry style, or in Japan there is Haiku, which is limited to 17 syllables. These are poetic structures, but it appears to me that Zen poetry has no structure. Is this correct?

ZMSS: Yes, that is correct.

PP: So, whatever appears we write it down?

ZMSS: Haiku poets only follow Japanese style. This style is very tight and many people are attached to its form. Zen means, don’t attach to name and form. Perceive everything. Don’t attach to the particular country, people, forms, situations, or conditions — only become one. Then some idea will appear; that’s the poem. That’s it, OK? My poetry does not make anything. It’s the result of seeing clearly, hearing clearly, and thinking clearly.

A long time ago in Japan, there was a well-known region called Matsushima. Matsushima is a place by the ocean, with mountains, rivers, trees, and flowers. Matsushima inspired many beautiful poems. At one time the famous Zen Master and poet named Basho decided to visit. When Basho saw the beauty of this place he wrote this poem:

Matsushima —
ah, Matsushima!

Three clear lines! This is a very famous poem. Only Matsushima is Matsushima — it is very simple. That is the most important point. This is great Zen poetry.


Many heroes, many kings,
Where did they go?
Old shadow’s tight chill.
The hero broke how many skulls?
The king drank how much blood, tears?
High buildings, wide rooms, only for one man.
Samsara is clear:
Sun comes, dew disappears.
Place de la Concorde stained red.

Many original masters
Coming, going — freedom.
Eiffel Tower, l’Arc de Triomphe, Louvre, Versailles,
Stone tiger, ancient obelisk, Winged Victory
Singing a chorus of mirages.
Palace mind deeply, deeply sleeping  —
Good times, good times, never wake up,
Shining, shining eastern sky.
Seine River flowing into the ocean.

from Bone of Space by Zen Master Seung Sahn

Your True Self

Thank you very much for coming today. But what is it that brought your body here? Is it your mind? What is mind? Where is it? What is its shape? Mind is no mind. A mountain does not proclaim, “I am a mountain!” A river does not say, “I am a river!” All names and all forms are made by thinking. Thus, mind is no mind. All things have name and form. Names and forms come from emptiness. Thus, form is emptiness, emptiness is form.

When you are thinking, your mind, my mind, and all people’s minds are different. If you cut through all thinking, your mind, my mind, and all people’s minds are the same. The mind that cuts through all thinking is the true empty mind. The true empty mind is before thinking. Your substance is before thinking. Your substance is universal substance. Before thinking, there is no speech and no language. There is no God, no Buddha, no mountain, no river, nothing at all. Thus, no form, no emptiness.

But, before thinking is truly just like this. No form, no emptiness is itself a clinging to emptiness. Put it down! Then you will have no inside and no outside; you will attain the Absolute. Everything that you see, hear, taste, and smell is the truth. God is God, Buddha is Buddha, mountains are mountains, rivers are rivers. The truth is like this. Form is form, emptiness is emptiness.

If you cut through all thinking, your mind will become clear. Just that is your true self. Thinking is desire, desire is suffering. When the mind remains clear, there is no life and no death. You will find true freedom that has no hindrance.

Your body has life and death, but your true self transcends both life and death. What, then, is one’s true self? Does it exist or not? If you say that it exists, where is it? If you say that it does not, what is hearing this speech? Both these answers are not complete. Why? (striking the table) KATZ! Put it down, put it all down! The Great Way is in front of the door.

YMJJ Dialogue – January ’74

During the January Yong Maeng Jon Jin, Seung Sahn Soen-sa went for a walk with some of his students. It had been snowing the day before. Soen-sa asked one student, “What color is this snow?”

The student said, “White.”

Soen-sa said, ”You have an attachment to color.”

The student clapped his hands.

Soen-sa said, “Your head is a dragon, but your tail is a snake.”

He then asked another student, “What color is this snow?”

The student said, “You already understand.”

Soen-sa said, “I don’t know.”

The student said, “It’s white.”

Soen-sa said, “Is this the truth?”

The student said, “Aren’t you hungry?”

Soen-sa said, “Soon it will be time for lunch.”

Another student said, ”Go drink some tea.”

Soen-sa said, “I’ve already had some.”

The student hit Soen-sa. Soen-sa said, “Aie! Aie!”