This interview took place in August 1989.
Primary Point: What is the significance of the objects on the altar – the rice, water, candles, and incense?
Zen Master Seung Sahn: Our universe is made of four elements – earth, air, fire, and water. The items on the altar are symbolic representations of these elements – the incense represents air; the candle represents fire; the water bowl represents water; the altar and the Buddha are symbolic of the earth; the rice is symbolic of earth and food. The four elements make up the universe and our human body; they also control our consciousness. So when the incense is burning, there is a good smell; the smell goes into your consciousness. At any time, what you see, what you hear, and what you smell all becomes part of your consciousness. So when you see the candles, smell the incense, see the Buddha, and listen to the chanting, it all creates good feeling in your consciousness. When you come to the dharma room, your outside condition and situation disappears and a good feeling appears. Your small mind disappears and for a little while you have Buddha mind. That’s how we use the items on the altar and in the dharma room.
PP: Why do we bow when we enter and leave the dharma room?
ZMSS: In the Orient, when two people meet, they bow to each other according to their status. The person who is high-class bows just a little bit; the person who is lower-class bows much more deeply. This is Oriental hierarchy. But when we enter the dharma room, we leave behind this high-low mind; an emperor bows to the Buddha and a beggar also bows to the Buddha. This is cultivating humility. In that moment, the mind becomes very simple. Also, this is a moment of paying attention and having correct relationship with the situation. The Buddha is our ideal and our inspiration. So the correct relationship is to bow to the altar.
PP: What is the origin of the moktak?
ZMSS: “Mok” means wood; “tak” means hit. But the original word is “mok o.” The Japanese call it “mokugyo.” “Moku” means wood, “gyo” means fish; this instrument is shaped like a fish with its mouth open.
There is a story about the origin of this instrument. A long time ago, in China, there was a monk called Chung San Poep Sa. He lived near a big city and a big lake. One day a high government official came to the lake with his family for a picnic. They had a small baby, only a few months old. By chance, when they were on the boat, the baby fell overboard. The official engaged local fishermen to swim into the waters and find the body of his baby, but they couldn’t find the body. So he went to Chung San Poep Sa and said he would like to do a ceremony for his dead baby, but could not find the body. Chung San Poep Sa went into deep meditation and perceived what had happened. He told the government official they must go to the fish market very early the next morning and buy some fish. So they went to the fish market and Chung San Poep Sa selected a very big fish. They cut open the stomach and found the baby inside. To the surprise of the family, the baby was still alive. They were all very happy. Then the official wanted to help all fish for saving the life of his baby. So this moktak is shaped like a fish, with an open mouth and a hollow stomach. When you hit the moktak, a good sound appears. The meaning of the moktak sound is that the baby is still here; all fish can hear the sound and get enlightenment.
PP: Why wear robes for formal practice?
ZMSS: Originally these robes were monks’ clothes. In India, during the Buddha’s time, the monks wore yellow robes. They chose the yellow, the color of ground, because it got less dirty when the dust was blowing. If the color were white, the robes would get dirty in no time.
When Buddhism came to China, things changed a little bit. The robes that we wear are Taoist style clothes, not Indian style. Only the monk’s big kasa is Indian style. So when Taoism and Buddhism came together, a new style of clothes appeared.
The kasa, both small and large, is a symbol. They have squares and lines – seven lines, twelve lines, eighteen lines. There are five points – east, west, north, south, and a middle. This means the whole world. A monk leads a homeless life, but wearing his kasa he symbolically carries the whole world with him; that means he is not separate from the world and still takes cares of all beings. So the robes and kasa are different; robes are Taoist style clothes; the kasa is a symbol of renunciation, of leaving behind ego and small I.
PP: What is the origin of the four bowl style of eating?
ZMSS: This style is from China. Originally, in Buddha’s lifetime, there was only one bowl. In China, this style changed again. Again, the four bowls are symbolic of the four elements – earth, air, fire, and water – and also of Buddha, dharma, sangha and mind. In Korea, they always use four bowls in the monastery; here we use four bowls during retreats and formal meals, but our American style is a little different from Korean monastery style.
PP: What is the origin of the four great vows?
ZMSS: The tradition of reciting the four great vows started during the T’ang dynasty in ancient China; these vows are taken from the Avatamsaka Sutra. In China and Korea, they recite these vows only at the end of a ceremony and not in the morning, as we do at Kwan Um School of Zen centers. When we first started Providence Zen Center, somebody suggested saying the four great vows in the morning. I thought this was a good idea, because we do one hundred and eight bows, which are the bows of repentance; these four great vows provide our direction. First wake up, then bow to the teacher in gratitude, then recite the four great vows to reaffirm our direction, then bow one hundred and eight times in repentance for all our mistakes.
PP: When you do a solo chant in the morning, before the Heart Sutra, what is the meaning of that?
ZMSS: That means praying for the whole world. The first part says we want all beings to get off the wheel of samsara and allow the wheel of dharma to go around and around and take away all peoples’ suffering. The second part means wishing for harmony in all parts of the world – east, west, south, and north. This part is praying that all beings become one mind, become world peace, become Buddha. The third part means praying that all students in the Kwan Um School of Zen and all of Buddhism get enlightenment. The last part is a recitation of the ten precepts.
PP: Why do people take off their shoes when coming into the temple?
ZMSS: That’s Korean and Japanese style, not Chinese or Indian. Korean and Japanese use ondol or tatami floors inside the house; if you wear street shoes inside the house, the floors get dirty. So the relationship is clear; if you take off your shoes, the house or the temple stays clean.
PP: Korean Buddhist statues are always large and colorful; other traditions use smaller, simpler statues. Why is there this difference?
ZMSS: This is not only Korean style; Chinese use much bigger and more colorful statues. In India, Thailand and Cambodia, they use very big statues, very colorful. But that is not Hinayana style, only Indian or Thai or Cambodian style. In Hinayana, they have Shakyamuni Buddha statues, but no bodhisattvas. Bodhisattvas are part of Mahayana tradition. Chinese style is very colorful, so they have large and colorful statues of the various bodhisattvas. In Korea, they have only middle size statues, not quite as big as Chinese style. Buddhism came from China to Korea and then went to Japan. There, during the period of Nara Buddhism, they built a very large Buddha at Todaiji which was the largest Buddha in the world. Also, during the Kamakura period, they built a huge Buddha outdoors. For many people, when they look at the huge Buddha, a very strong feeling of awe or reverence arises; for a very short time, this feeling takes away their karma, their small I. For some people, when they look at a small Buddha, there is no such feeling. But for some people, looking at a small and simple Buddha, there is a deep feeling. So people have different consciousnesses. In China, Korea and Japan, big and colorful Buddhas and bodhisattvas have a deep impact on the people’s consciousness.
PP: What is the meaning of the morning bell chant? Please explain some of the lines.
ZMSS: The morning bell chant comes from the Avatamsaka Sutra. This sutra talks about the interdependence of all beings. So all animals, birds, human beings, demons, and beings in hell hear the sound of the bell, wake up, get enlightenment, and become Buddha. So, this sound penetrates all six realms of existence – heaven, astral, human beings, animals, hungry ghosts, hell – and takes away your ignorance; wisdom grows up, you get enlightenment, and save all beings. Together, we all become Buddha.
There is a line in the chant that says, “Everywhere everything is equal.” This means in universal nature, everything is equal; there is no form, no name. So at the time when you just hear the sound of the bell, universal nature appears, name and form disappear, and everything becomes equal.
Another line says, “Together you and I simultaneously attain the way of the Buddha.” This means we are all equal – all animals, all birds, and all human beings are all equal – and all attain enlightenment at the same time through hearing the sound of the bell. When you hear the sound of the bell, it means you wake up; wake up means going beyond time and space. Time and space are a hindrance caused by thinking; so hearing the sound of the bell makes this thinking disappear, makes time and space disappear, and all become Buddha at the same time.
At another point, it talks about “great love, great sadness, our great teacher.” Great love is substance, and great sadness is compassion. If other people are suffering, I am sad and compassionate. If everyone is happy, I am happy. “Our great teacher” means we are connected to everything else in the universe, and everything is teaching us the lesson of great compassion and great love.
PP: The Great Dharani, which we chant, is a long mantra and has no translation. What is the origin of this dharani and what is its meaning?
ZMSS: In Buddha’s lifetime, one monk broke the precepts and was very unhappy. So the Buddha taught him that karma comes from your mind; if mind disappears, karma also disappears. If you hold your mistake, your karma will never go away. Then the Buddha gave this monk the Great Dharani mantra in order to take away his holding and thinking mind.
PP: Why do we do one hundred and eight prostrations in the morning? Why one hundred and eight?
ZMSS: In Korean tradition, there are one hundred and eight names for Buddhas and bodhisattvas. So in that style, one hundred and eight bows mean repeating these names. Another tradition says that human beings have one hundred and eight delusions and we bow to cut off these delusions.
PP: When people take precepts, you give them dharma names. How do you pick these names?
ZMSS: First, I pick a family name for the whole group that is taking precepts on that day; then I separate men and women; then I perceive what kind of name fits what kind of person.
PP: When someone takes monk’s or nun’s precepts, as part of the ritual you sprinkle water on his or her head and touch it with a sword. What is the meaning of this ritual?
ZMSS: It is symbolic of cutting the last hair, the last ignorance. Becoming a monk means going from ignorance to light. When you shave you have to use soap and water; otherwise it’s very hard. So we use the water from the altar for this symbolic purpose; the sword is symbolic of the mind sword, the sword of wisdom that cuts through ignorance. So this is cutting the last hair.
PP: What is the meaning of the repentance ceremony?
ZMSS: Everybody makes mistakes; how do we correct our mistakes? In some forms of Hinayana Buddhism, if you make mistakes, then you have to give up your precepts. But in Mahayana and Zen, if you make mistakes, you can do a repentance ceremony. There are big mistakes and small mistakes. Big mistakes cause many problems for other people; small mistakes cause a problem only for ourselves. Doing one hundred and eight bows every morning is a repentance ceremony for our small mistakes. For big mistakes, there is a public ceremony; then our mind becomes clean, and also other people’s minds become clean. If we don’t do this kind of ceremony, then everyone is holding “my mistake” and making more karma. In the Catholic Church, if you make a mistake, you can go to the priest and confess your mistake, then feel relieved and complete. The repentance ceremony is like that. But Catholic ceremonies are secret; in Buddhism there are no secrets, everything is open. If you make a mistake, then have a public ceremony, one can forgive and move on without holding.
PP: You often encourage your students to do forty-nine and one hundred day retreats. Why forty-nine days? Why one hundred days?
ZMSS: We have two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, and one mouth. That’s a total of seven holes in our head. The number seven is considered lucky in the Orient. Also, seven times seven is considered a good number. The 100-day retreat is a little bit not correct. Originally a retreat was done for three months, ninety days. The number 100 comes from Taoism. For Taoists, ten is a lucky number, so their retreat time is ten times ten. In China, Buddhism and Taoism got intertwined, so many Buddhist rituals have come from Taoism.
PP: What is the role of women in Korean monasteries? Should their role be different in American Zen?
ZMSS: In Korea, a nun is the same as a monk, except nuns cannot officiate at a precepts ceremony. Nuns can become teachers and Zen Masters; they can get transmission but cannot give transmission. That’s the tradition from China. But that’s not a problem in America. Buddhism is always adapting itself to the culture of the country where it goes, so Korean style is not absolute in America. We can change it. Changing the transmission rule is no problem, but we cannot change the precepts rule.
PP: How can we make Zen practice more interesting for Americans?
ZMSS: Traditionally, in China and Korea, only monks did Zen practice. But Zen has come to the West and here lay people practice Zen, so this has changed the character of Zen. Now we teach Zen in everyday life. Sitting Zen all the time is not possible for lay people. Everyday life Zen means learning mind sitting. Mind sitting means the mind that is not moving. How do you keep not-moving mind? Put down your opinion, condition, and situation, moment to moment; when you are doing something, just do it. This is everyday Zen.
Under the traditional rules for monks, they cannot go to the theater or restaurants, cannot do this, cannot do that. Their precepts are always telling them this is no good, that is no good. So monks only sit Zen all the time, then get enlightenment and understand truth. That’s old-style Zen. In that style, there is not much teaching about great love, great compassion, the great bodhisattva Way. But for lay people this teaching of great love, great compassion, great bodhisattva way is very necessary. To attain that, it is important to keep a not-moving mind; then correct situation, correct function, and correct relationship appear by themselves in everyday life.
PP: Some people don’t like any kind of form, especially chanting. How should we approach them?
ZMSS: This is Western mind, always strong like and dislike. But there are many people who like chanting very much. Chanting means doing together action with other people; then this together action takes away your opinion, your condition, and your situation very easily. That’s the teaching of chanting meditation. If people don’t like Korean chanting, then maybe some time in the future we will chant everything in English. But remember that our school is not only in America, but also in Poland, Germany, Spain, and other parts of Europe. So if someone from America goes to Poland, it’s the same form, same chanting; then you have the feeling of being part of a large international family. Then your mind becomes bigger and you are at one with the world; you “become world peace.”
PP: Could you talk a bit more about chanting as meditation?
ZMSS: Meditation means not-moving mind. As I said before, old style meditation means body sitting, but mind sitting is more important than body sitting. When you chant you first have one mind, not-moving mind; that’s mind sitting, chanting samadhi. You keep chanting “Kwan Seum Bosal, Kwan Seum Bosal, Kwan Seum Bosal,” then you perceive sound; that’s clear mind. Clear mind is wake-up mind; wake-up mind is enlightenment. So in chanting, samadhi mind is the first step; this is one mind. The next step is perceive sound; this is clear mind, enlightenment. If you attach to samadhi, then you have a problem. That’s a very important point.
PP: How do you see the relationship between Korean Buddhism and American Buddhism changing in the next ten years?
ZMSS: These days I don’t stay so much in the United States; my travels are in Korea, Europe, Australia, and other places. So now most of the teaching in the United States is being done by the Ji Do Poep Sa Nims. Before, everybody was my student, but now the Ji Do Poep Sa Nims have their own students. Now the Ji Do Poep Sa Nims will decide the Kwan Um School of Zen’s direction; they understand American mind better than me. I taught only Korean style Buddhism; now the Ji Do Poep Sa Nims are teaching American style Buddhism, so that’s already changing.
PP: When do you plan to give transmission? We are all waiting.
ZMSS: Spring comes, the grass grows by itself. (laughs)