Three Letters to a Beginner

Dear Patricia,

Thank you for your letter. How are you?

You said in your letter that you have read many books about Zen. That’s good, but if you are thinking, you can’t understand Zen. Anything that can be written, anything that can be said – all this is thinking. If you are thinking, all Zen books, all Buddhist sutras, and all Bibles are demons’ words. But if you read with a mind that has cut off all thinking, then Zen books, sutras, and Bibles are all the truth. So is the barking of a dog or the crowing of a rooster. All things are teaching you at every moment, and these sounds are even better teaching than Zen books. So Zen is keeping the mind which is before thinking. Sciences and academic studies are after thinking. We must return to before thinking. Then we will attain our true self.

You said in your letter that your practice has been counting exhalations to ten. This method is not good, not bad. It is possible to practice in this way when you are sitting. But when you are driving, when you are talking, when you are watching television, when you are playing tennis — how is it possible to count your breaths then? Sitting is only a small part of practicing Zen. The true meaning of sitting Zen is to cut off all thinking and keep not-moving mind. So I ask you: what are you? You don’t know; there is only “I don’t know.” Always keep this don’t know mind. When this don’t know mind becomes clear, then you will understand. So if you keep it when you are talking, this is talking Zen. If you keep it when you are watching television, this is television Zen. You must keep don’t know mind always and everywhere. This is the true practice of Zen.

The Great Way is not difficult
if you don’t make distinctions.
Only throw away likes and dislikes
and everything will be perfectly clear.

So throw away all opinions, all likes and dislikes, and only keep the mind that doesn’t know. This is very important. Don’t know mind is the mind that cuts off all thinking. When all thinking has been cut off, you become empty mind. This is before thinking. Your before thinking mind, my before thinking mind, all people’s before thinking minds are the same. This is your substance. Your substance, my substance, and the substance of the whole universe become one. So the tree, the mountain, the cloud and you become one. Then I ask you: Are the mountain and you the same or different? If  you say “the same,” I will hit you thirty times. If you say “different,” I will still hit you thirty times. Why?

The mind that becomes one with the universe is before thinking. Before thinking there are no words. “Same” and “different” are opposite words; they are from the mind that separates all things. That is why I will hit you if you say either one. So what would be a good answer? If you don’t understand, only keep don’t know mind for a while, and you will soon have a good answer. If you do, please send it to me.

You asked why I use words to teach, if understanding through words is impossible. Words are not necessary. But they are very necessary. If you are attached to words, you cannot return to your true self. If you are not attached to words, soon you will attain enlightenment. So if you are thinking, words are very bad. But if you are not thinking, all words and all things that you can see or hear or smell or taste or touch will help you. So it is very important for you to cut off your thinking and your attachments to words.

Here is a poem for you:

Buddha said all things have Buddha-nature.
Joju said the dog has no Buddha-nature.
Which one is correct?
If you open your mouth, you fall into hell.
Clouds float up to the sky;
rainfalls down to the ground.

Sincerely yours,

S. S.

Dear Patricia,

Thank you for your letter. You say that keeping don’t know mind is difficult. If you examine your thinking mind, then it is difficult. You mustn’t examine your thinking mind. Thinking is okay; don’t worry about it. If you are not upset by your thinking, then it is not difficult to keep don’t know mind. At first you will be able to keep it only for a short time. But if you practice with sincerity, it will keep growing by itself.

Your mind is like the sea. When the wind comes, there are very big waves. When the wind dies down, the waves become smaller and smaller, until finally the wind disappears altogether and the sea is like a clear mirror. Then mountains, trees and all things are reflected on the surface of the sea. There are many thought-waves in your mind. But if you continue to practice don’t know mind, this thinking will become gradually smaller, until finally your mind will always be clear. When the mind becomes clear, it is like a mirror: red comes and the mirror is red; yellow comes and the mirror is yellow; a mountain comes and the mirror is a mountain. Your mind is the mountain; the mountain is your mind. They are not two. So it is very important not to be attached either to thinking or to not thinking. You mustn’t be upset by anything that goes on in your mind. Only don’t worry and keep don’t know mind.

You say that in the beginning you were enthusiastic and now you are discouraged. Both extremes are no good. It is like a guitar string; if you make it too tight, it will be out of tune and will soon snap; if you make it too loose, it will still be out of tune and will not play. You must make it just right. Too enthusiastic is no good, too discouraged is also no good. Zen mind is everyday mind. You must keep this mind during every action — eating, talking, playing tennis, watching television — always keep don’t know mind. What is most important is how you keep your mind at this very moment. “Just now mind.” If you have free time, it is good to sit. If you don’t have free time, then just do action Zen.

But be very careful about wanting enlightenment. This is a bad Zen sickness. When you keep a clear mind, the whole universe is you, you are the universe. So you have already attained enlightenment. Wanting enlightenment is only thinking. It is something extra, like painting legs on the picture of a snake. Already the snake is complete as it is. Already the truth is right before your eyes.

It is very true that contact with other Zen students will help your practice. Together action is very important for Zen students. Bowing together, chanting together, sitting together, eating together — this means that your own situation, your condition, and your opinions can disappear much more easily. Zen work is becoming empty mind. Becoming empty mind means having all my opinions fall away. Then you will experience true emptiness. When you experience true emptiness, you will attain your true situation, your true condition, and your true opinions. I hope that you will come often to the Zen Center, do hard training, soon attain enlightenment, and save all people from suffering.

Sincerely yours,

S. S.

Dear Patricia,

Thank you for your letter. You said that I have helped your practice. This is very good. Zen practice is of the greatest importance. You must decide to practice and very strongly keep this decision. This requires great faith, great courage, and great questioning.

What is great faith? Great faith means that at all times you keep the mind which decided to practice no matter what. It is like a hen sitting on her eggs. She sits on them constantly, caring for them and giving them warmth, so that they will hatch. If she becomes careless or negligent the eggs will not hatch and will not become chicks. So Zen mind means always and everywhere believing in myself. I vow to become Buddha and save all people.

Next — what is great courage? This means bringing all your energy to one point. It is like a cat hunting a mouse. The mouse has retreated into its hole, but the cat waits outside the hole for hours on end without the slightest movement. It is totally concentrated on the mouse hole. This is Zen mind cutting off all thinking and directing all your energy to one point.

Next — great questioning. This is like a child who thinks only of its mother, or a man dying of thirst who thinks only of water. It is called one mind. If you question with great sincerity, there will only be don’t know mind.

If you keep these three — great faith, great courage, and great questioning — you will soon attain enlightenment. You said in your letter that practice is difficult. This is thinking. Zen is not difficult. If you say it is difficult, that means you have been examining yourself, examining your situation, your condition, your opinions. So you say Zen is difficult. And it is not easy. The truth is only like this. Don’t make difficult, don’t make easy. Just practice.

You said that the Zen books which you read shattered your beliefs. That’s very good. But shattered is not shattered. Before, your view was a deluded view. Now it is a correct view. What you believed before was like wanting to hold the rainbow. But the rainbow soon disappears. It never really existed. All things are like this. Before, you believed that all things existed. But now you understand that all things are emptiness. Even so, you must take one step further. Believing or not believing, shattered or not shattered — this is still the area of opposites. You must throw all these opposites away. Then the truth will be only like this. You said that everything was shattered. But this “shattered” is still an attachment to name and form. Originally, there is only emptiness. There is neither shattered nor not shattered. This is the area of the absolute. The absolute is true emptiness. True emptiness is before thinking. Before thinking is like this. Form is form, emptiness is emptiness. So your don’t know mind is true emptiness, is before thinking, is the absolute, is your true self.

The names are all different, but they are all names for clear mind. Originally clear mind has no name and no form. There are no words for it. So if you open your mouth, you are wrong. This is why whenever Zen Master Lin-chi was asked a question, he only shouted, “KATZ!” Dok Sahn would answer only by hitting the questioner. Kuji would just hold up one finger. If you are not attached to KATZ or HIT or one finger, then you will understand that the meaning behind these actions is clear mind. The different actions are just different styles of pointing to clear mind. It is impossible to explain clear mind in words, so the Zen Masters used shouting and hitting and holding up one finger to explain. You must put it down! KATZ is only KATZ, HIT is only HIT, one finger is only one finger. You must understand this. When you say, “I know I don’t know,” this is no good. Don’t examine your don’t know mind.

Life is Zen. But some people say that life is suffering. How are these different? If you make “my life is Zen,” then your life becomes Zen. If somebody else makes “my life is suffering,” then that person’s life becomes suffering. So it all depends on how you are keeping your mind just now, at this very moment! This just-now mind continues and becomes your life, as one point continues and becomes a straight line.

You like Zen, so your life has become Zen. Now you think that the world is wonderful. Your mind is wonderful, so the whole world is wonderful. If you attain enlightenment, you will understand that all people are suffering greatly, so your mind also will be suffering. This is big suffering. So you must enter the great bodhisattva way and save all people from their suffering. I hope that you only keep don’t know mind, always and everywhere. Then you will soon attain enlightenment and save all beings.

Here is a question for you: Somebody once asked the great Zen Master Dong Sahn, “What is Buddha?” Dong Sahn answered, “Three pounds of flax.” What does this mean?

I will wait for a good answer.

Sincerely yours,

S. S.

A Time of Complete Transformation

Everything that happens in this world is correct. Things go in cycles: spring, summer, fall, winter. Every year this cycle of seasons occurs. But there are longer cycles too, and this year is the beginning of both a 60 year and a 360 year cycle. It is a very interesting time.

There is a very large insect called the cicada, which grows very slowly inside a cocoon fastened to a tree. The transformation from cocoon to winged creature takes a long time, about seventeen years, and is very difficult. During this time in the cocoon, the cicada’s internal body appears disrupted. The skin, the organs, the wings, all appear not to be working. They aren’t moving. The body looks as if it were confused and broken.

Then slowly the cocoon breaks open and the new body begins to appear. A wing emerges, then a leg stretches forth. At first the cicada’s movements are slow and difficult. It crawls out of the cocoon and falls to the ground. At this stage the cicada never thinks about the sky or about flying – it only thinks about how to get food, any kind of food. Sometimes it takes three or four hours between the time it leaves the cocoon and the time it is able to fly. But this is a time of complete transformation. One moment it tries to fly and it flies!

We are very worried about the future. How can we ever fly? How can our wings possibly appear? How can we get enough food? Many problems are appearing. If we buy a business, we want to know if the future will be good for sales or bad. So we have many worries. But human beings are part of nature. Like the cicada, even if we have already emerged from our cocoon, it still takes time before we understand how to stretch our wings out and fly. Finally we will fly.

There is always change, but changing means not changing. Moment to moment, everything is complete. Everything that happens is correct. If you are attached to name and form, it means that your thinking appears and disappears. If your thinking does not appear and disappear, everything is complete. If your center is not moving, you will have no difficulty even though many new conditions will appear. If you have no center, you will always have problems. Think of it like this: not much happens in the winter months, the season of cold and ice. No leaves or flowers appear from the frozen ground. When spring comes, the ground thaws. Water goes into the soil and starts working. Everything erupts. The grass grows. Leaves appear and get bigger. Flowers appear. All the colors are changing. Everything is changing, quickly changing.

It’s the same in our minds, in our “inside” world as well as the “outside” world. During winter, for three or four months everything stays the same, so we experience no difficulty. In the spring there are many changes, so our minds move and we experience many doubts and problems. Just at this time of the ending of an old set of 60 years and 360 year cycles and the beginning of a new set, many things are happening “inside.” A strange, complicated mind is appearing.

Just now we need to practice more strongly and make our direction clear. If you are not doing hard practice or your direction is unclear, any kind of demon might take you. When you die, you will not understand where you go. What kind of hell will you go to? There are many kinds. If in this life you have killed many animals, when you die, these animals will appear to you saying, “Give me my life!”

It is necessary to die every day, and every day to give life. If in one day you die ten thousand times, you are ten thousand times alive. This life is maybe seventy or eighty years long. Many things happen in one life. We think it is so short, but to some beings, even one second is very long.

Buddha went to heaven to save his mother. He only stayed three days, but in this world, it was ninety days. During this time the king missed the Buddha. He went to see the Buddha, expecting a dharma speech, but the Buddha was not there. The king was unhappy. His mind could not rest. So he invited a very good sculptor to make a gold Buddha, and he put it on the Buddha’s seat.

Then the Buddha came back. He looked at the gold Buddha – its face and his face were the same! The king explained, “We missed you, so we made this statue just like you and put it on your seat. Is this good or bad?”

The Buddha said, “You understand form is emptiness, emptiness is form. If you think this Buddha is truth, that is me.” So Buddha statues appeared at that time.

Just like that story, if your mind, your center is strong with no thinking, then you already have infinite time and infinite space. If you have thinking, then even one hour can seem like many years. Sometimes our thinking makes many years seem like only one second. So it’s very important how strong your center is. In a changing time, a time of beginnings, it’s very important to have a strong center. At this time, if your direction is clear, then the beginning goes this way and that way. If you are not clear, the future is not clear.

Some people say the end of the world is coming. But when an old age is finished, a new age appears. Human beings are part of the natural cycle and this is a changing time for all species. This year is the beginning of the age when women will control everything, just as men have up till now: the house, the family, politics, the economy. Soon there will be many more women leading their countries. Women will become as strong as men, as it was thousands of years ago. This change from yang to yin has already begun.

When Bodhidharma came to China, he became the first patriarch of Zen. As the result of a “marriage” between Vipassana-style Indian meditation and Chinese Taoism, Zen appeared. Now it has come to the West and what is already here? Christianity, Judaism, and so forth. When Zen “gets married” to one of these traditions, a new style of Buddhism will appear.

Perhaps there will be a woman matriarch and all dharma transmission would go only from woman to woman. Why not? So everyone, you must create American Buddhism. Get enlightenment!

In this new age time, a strong center is necessary. Are you clear, everyone? No? Then more hard training is necessary. Also, your direction must become clear. Why do you eat every day? Why do you study Zen? Why do you sit? These are important questions..

Ten Thousand Demons Appear

From a letter to a student in retreat:

I hope you are victorious over all demons. If you think, ten thousand demons appear. If you cut off all thinking, you will create the clear mind. Then you will get freedom, and no hinderance. I will now ask you a big question: ‘If a person comes to Sambosa smoking a cigarette, and blows smoke and drops ashes on the Buddha, and if you are a master, what can you do?’ I wish that you will soon attain enlightenment.

From a letter to the same student on the end of his retreat:

Here is a poem for you.

A great man goes on a hundred day retreat.
He makes many demons, many gods, many animals, and many Buddhas.
One hundred days are the same as the space of one breath.
You have brushed off all dust, and have breathed in the sky and ground.
The great path is in the palm of your hand, and the great freedom is in your feet.
Spring comes, flowers are blooming everywhere.

See you later,

S. S.

The Sword that Kills and the Sword that Gives Life : Finding balance in Zen practice

Zen Master Seung Sahn with Zen Master Bo Mun

The following talk was drawn from a question and answer session between Zen Master Seung Sahn and his students at the third annual Kwan Um School of Zen Congress. Zen Master Bo Mun (George Bowman) was the moderator for this session.

Zen Master Bo Mun: Last night we met in small groups to discuss the most important issues of our practice. The major issue was balance: how to find it in the midst of formal practice as Zen students, families, jobs, relationships, etc.

There are two formal aspects to Zen practice: the killing sword and the sword that gives life. The killing sword means, how do we give ourselves to the situation? How, without repressing, do we let go of our condition, opinion, and situation and really offer ourselves to what’s going on in the moment? For most of us that requires a fair amount of hard work. Sometimes it’s painful and difficult. If we try to live that way all the time, only being “good” or only taking certain roles, most of us find that it doesn’t work. We become brittle, irritable, out of balance. We do many things with such a charge behind them that we put ourselves in precarious situations.

The other aspect is the sword that gives life: the experience of empowering ourselves, doing things which come naturally, that we love to do and find fulfillment in. When we do too many of these things, most of us get a certain softness or flatness. There’s no keen working edge to our practice. It’s hard to believe in ourselves if we go too far to that side.

So there’s a swing between “putting it all down” in formal practice, life at a Zen Center, the demands of family and job and relationships; and on the other side, empowering ourselves and being happy so that our lives are workable, so that we can be the kind of people in the world that other people would like to be.

These two aspects come up in many different dimensions. On the simplest level, they arise with the inhalation and exhalation of the breath, sitting completely and receiving experience on the cushion, and receiving what comes up in family life and all the other areas. How to balance all this was the major issue that came out of last night’s meetings.

In talking with Zen Master Seung Sahn now, it would be nice if we could get into the spirit of heckling him a little. It’s hard to do that, because whenever you ask him a question you are taking your life in your hands. I am reminded of the relationship between Ananda and the Buddha. The Buddha would give long dharma talks and then Ananda would say, “Yes, but what about men and women and what goes on between them?” The Buddha would make some reply, then Ananda would say, “Well, it’s all well and good for you to say that, you’re the Buddha (or the Zen Master). People fly you around everywhere and everyone bows to you, but we’re here, slugging it out in the trenches. How about us?” So a little bit of that spirit would be helpful. Zen Master Seung Sahn, last night many people talked about balance and doing hard training. How do we find balance?

Zen Master Seung Sahn: Many people are confused about what their job is: how much they should practice, how much they should take care of their family. Sometimes this gets unbalanced. So we must talk about our direction. Why are we living in this world? Direction is very important.

If your direction is clear, then your relationships will be clear, your outside job will be clear, your inside practicing job will be clear. If your direction is not clear, it means you are holding some opinion, condition, or situation. Then already you have lost what is important. Many people want to drink alcohol and have a good time. If this mind appears, you cannot have a correct relationship to your family or your inside and outside jobs. Your practicing will not be clear. Nothing will be clear.

Everybody has this mind: I like movies, ice cream, good restaurants. Single people want a girlfriend or boyfriend to have a good time with. We have a lot of this “wanting a good feeling” mind. Good feeling is sometimes necessary; but first, what is most important? If we understand this, then family, relationships, job, practicing will be no problem. Everything will be correct and balanced.

Question: How can we balance things which help our own and other people’s spirits grow, like music and art, that are not just having a good time or doing formal practice?

ZMSS: If you live outside a Zen center, you decide how often to go. If you go two or three evenings a week and do hard practice, then maybe one evening you want music, one evening of seeing friends, maybe one special evening like yoga or something. If your center is strong, you already have everything. If your center is not strong, then you want many things: music, art, sculpture, tai chi, karate, connecting with other religions. Then your head gets complicated. Is this necessary?

If your center is strong, in one week you can do ten or twenty different jobs without difficulty. Then coming to a Zen center once a week would be enough. But if your center is not strong, coming to a Zen center more often is very important, because you will not have a correct relationship to your family, your outside job, your music, or anything. An eminent teacher once said, “When you drink water, understand whether it is cold or hot.” Everyone understand, you understand, whether your own center is strong or not. If it’s not, then coming often to a Zen center is necessary. Having a clear direction is very important.

Q: Many people have responsibilities outside of a Zen center which they cannot give up. But if they don’t come often, their center will not remain strong.

ZMSS: Then you must decide about practicing at home and make a schedule of waking up early. Maybe you want to sleep until 6:30 am, but you must wake up at 4:00 am when everyone else is asleep and do bows. Your center will become strong. Try that. It’s difficult, but you can practice at home.

ZMBM: Recently I was at Jakusho Kwong Roshi’s center at Sonoma Mountain and he talked about what happens when they have training periods there. Whether it’s a week training period or longer, people from the community come to a meeting at the center and work out a practice schedule for themselves at home. Everyone in the sangha decides together that they’re going to take this time, whether it’s a week or a month, to make more of an effort. They might come to the zendo once a week or not at all, but everyone does it together. The people who can’t come at all do a little more than they ordinarily would.

ZMSS: I like Zen Master Wu Kwang, one of our new Ji Do Poep Sa Nims, very much because he has great love for his family and is also very responsible to his job. When he would occasionally come to our Zen center in New York Zen, his center was very strong. I would ask him, “Do you have any problems?” He would say, “No problems.”

So as an example, his not coming very often to the Zen center wasn’t a problem because his direction is clear. Before he came here, he used to go around to a lot of yoga centers and other meditation groups. Then he came here and found his correct way. He found everyday life practicing – taking care of family and his outside job; that is Zen. Moment to moment, he is practicing Zen. I understand his mind.

Why separate your family, your job, and Zen? Zen Master Soeng Hyang is a senior student, and she doesn’t do as much formal practice as before, but every day her practice is to take care of her family and go to her job. Even if you are a very good student, if you check your family, your job, your feelings, your condition, you will have a problem. So don’t check, just do it, OK?

Zen is everyday life. Everyday mind is Zen mind. If you keep this mind, no problem. Keep your direction clear and try. Make a mistake, try again. Lots of thinking, try again! Even if you live at a Zen center for a long time and do many retreats and hard training, but you still check yourself and hold onto things, still your life will be unhappy and unclear.

Moment to moment, just do it: that’s our direction. That is Zen. Then your family and your outside job and your practice are never separated. They are the same direction, the same point. Try it. If you cannot do it, then you must do a thousand bows a day.

Q: Many of the people who run Zen centers and our school get over-tired from all the responsibility and worry and emergencies. Then they feel: “I don’t like this. I don’t want to practice. I don’t want to do my job.” We call this “burn-out.” What can we do about it?

ZMSS: So you have a baby. It’s your baby. This baby has many problems. At night it cries, shits, or crawls around a lot. That’s not so bad if you just take care of it. So the Zen center is your baby. If it becomes separate from you, this “I don’t like it” mind appears. What is your direction, the purpose of your life? You must take responsibility for the whole universe, for all beings. You must find your original job, then this “burn-out” mind will not appear. If you hold onto your situation, your condition, your opinion, then this mind appears.

This isn’t a good example, but when I stayed in Korea, I had no problems. I was a Zen Master and everyone took care of me – kept my rooms clean, did my laundry, brought me food. Many people liked me, came to see me, and took me around in good cars. I stayed in beautiful houses; going anywhere was no problem.

When I came to the United States I had no money, so I went to work in a laundry. Nobody understood that I was a Zen Master. I was a laundry man, carrying heavy loads of clothes to this store and that, picking up all the dirty clothes, washing them, being sent all around every day. At night I had a lot of pain and fatigue, but I always practiced. My older students understand this!

Some other old monks who have come to the United States to work found it very hard. They wept and were too tired to practice. This means the mind is very important. I never worked this hard with my body in Korea, not just eight hours a day, but twelve hours a day at the laundry job. But even with the hard work, I always practiced bowing and chanting in the morning and evening. If I didn’t work at any outside job, I couldn’t get money to pay for my apartment and food. It was difficult. But that was my job.

Q: I understand that. If you have a baby of one or two years old, it gets up in the middle of the night. But as it gets older, you don’t have to do that anymore. Also, when you came to this country, you had to work to get money; it wasn’t for the rest of your life. There are some people (whether or not they are living in a Zen center) who are pushing themselves very hard, beyond what they can really do. Then they burn out.

ZMSS: So direction is very important. If your direction is not clear, burnout appears. If your direction is clear, it never appears. Even if you are dying, if your direction is clear, it’s no problem. So we practice. If you have energy, no problem. If you have no energy, burn-out appears. Every day correct practicing is necessary.

Earlier this summer I was very sick before going to Paris. Breathing was so difficult, I almost died one night. Then I went to Paris on a charter flight, and there were many problems: standing in long lines, carrying a lot of baggage, so I got very sick again. My body had no energy. Diabetes means not much pain inside, but having no energy. Everything is very uninteresting. “I don’t care” mind appears. If you have a lot of energy, helping other people is no problem. So getting energy is very important.

Q: How did you get your energy back?

ZMSS: I am talking to you now. That is how I get energy. If today or tomorrow, I die, no problem. Worrying only means losing energy – “Oh, what shall I do?” Worrying is number one bad. If you don’t worry about anything, then whenever you die, no problem. Only follow the situation, then slowly it will get better.

Q: To all of these questions that people ask you about balance and burn-out and getting a strong center, you always answer, “have a clear direction.” So my question is, how do I get clear direction?

ZMSS: So I ask you, why do you eat everyday?

Q: I haven’t the foggiest idea. (laughter)

ZMSS: That’s your direction. Why do you eat everyday? For what?

Q: I understand your question, but I don’t know the answer.

ZMSS: You have no answer? Then you don’t understand your direction.

Q: Right! (laughter)

ZMSS: Then I will make your direction clear. Everyday before bowing we say, “Sentient beings are numberless, we vow…”

Q: ” … to save them.”

ZMSS: Good! That’s your direction. If only your mouth is saying it, you are not doing it. So do it.

Q: But when I say, “to save all beings,” it’s not true.

ZMSS: Why isn’t it true?

Q: Because I …

ZMSS: You are checking your mind. Don’t check, OK? Just do it! I eat everyday, so only “sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them all.” So I eat. Then this thinking appears, “That’s not true.” That’s what I mean by checking.

“I vow to save them all” means when you’re doing something, just do it, moment to moment. That is all. Moment to moment keep the correct situation, the correct function, the correct relationship. If someone in front of you is very hungry, what can you do? Don’t care? Everyone understands correct situation, correct function, only they cannot do it! We understand it only in our speech. If someone in front of you is hungry, give them food. If they are thirsty, give them a drink. Understand?

If you go to 42nd Street in New York City, there are many people begging, but other people just pass them by. If you have money, even if it’s only ten cents, give it to them. That is helping. But we cannot do even that.

Doing is very important. Small or big help, it doesn’t matter. Just do something. If you understand this, you must try, then your understanding becomes wisdom. If we don’t try, then understanding is only understanding and cannot help our true self, our direction, our life, our practice, or save all beings. So only do it. Don’t check your mind. That’s very important.

Sweet Things

From a talk at Providence Zen Center on May 6, 1993

Every person in this world already has everything … everything! However, very few people understand that; they don’t understand this “everything.” That means they don’t understand their true self. Understanding your true self means everything is yours. So, each one of us has an original job–our human being’s job–to understand that. Practicing people understand what is the correct way. Money, sex, fame, food, and sleep are part of desire mind; very important. But what is most important? When you get old then you will understand. I am sixty-six. When you get to be my age, desire disappears: sex mind disappears, fame mind disappears, sleep mind also disappears. All desires disappear. When that happens to you, what will you do? Many people say that a human being’s job is to get money, sex, etc. But that is only human being’s body job–an outside job. What is your inside job? Human being’s inside job is to attain your true self and save all beings. If you understand that, then this whole world can be yours. That is the Buddha’s teaching.

If you attain your true self then you become completely independent. In fact, a completely independent mind is your true self. Everything is created by mind alone. Zen means–Buddhism means–not dependent on Buddha, not dependent on God, not dependent on anything. That’s a very important point. Why?

This world is always changing, changing, changing; and these days it’s doing it very rapidly. Today many religious leaders are saying that the end of our world, even our earth, is near. Whenever the world is in rapid transition many new religious leaders appear. Many times their style is: “The end is near! You must believe me! If you don’t believe in me you will have a big problem and a lot of suffering. If you believe in me, then I will save you and you will be very happy: your business, your life, your family, everything will be OK.” Any religion can produce this kind of master, even Buddhism.

Zen does not use this type of speech. You must attain your true self, then attain everything. That’s Zen. But, people don’t like Zen practice; they only like candy. They don’t like the clear water of Zen; they like sweet things. Many people only want a good taste: “Ohhh, wonderful! I’ve had a very good experience! I must follow this master.” But, this type of master–this type of religion–steals your mind. Outside is a great master and wonderful feeling. But inside is a demon. If your mind is not clear you won’t understand this demon. Then this demon will catch you and you’ll go straight to hell. So, be careful!

The Spring Geese are Flying North

A Dharma Speech given by the Zen Master Seung Sahn at the opening ceremony of the International Zen Center of New York on April 20, 1975

(Holding up his Zen stick and hitting the table, slowly, three times)

Is this closed? Is this open?

If you say “closed”, you fall into the hell without doors. If you say “open”, you are dancing with all demons.


(Holding up the Zen stick and tracing a circle in the air; then holding the stick perpendicular on the table)

One two three four; five six seven eight.

(After a few moments) Thank you very much for coming to our ceremony even though you must be very busy. It is not an accident that we are gathered here today. It is the result of our past karma. It is very good karma that has brought us to meet here in front of the Buddha’s altar.

This karma means finding our true self and attaining the Absolute. It means leaving behind the world of corruption and journeying to the pure land of true freedom and peace.

That is why we founded Won Gak Sa one year ago and are opening the International Zen Center of New York today.

But the sutra says, “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” So all names and all forms are emptiness. Won Gak Sa, the International Zen Center of New York, this opening ceremony – these also are emptiness.

The sutra says, “All beings are already Buddha.” So why is Yom Bul or reading sutras or sitting Zen necessary?

But we don’t know ourselves. Desire, anger and ignorance cover up our clear mind. If we cut off all thinking and return to empty mind, then your mind, my mind, and all people’s minds are the same. We become one with the whole universe.

Therefore an eminent teacher said, “All things in the universe return to the One.”

True empty mind is before thinking. So thinking does not appear and does not disappear. This is the realm where nothing appears or disappears.

In the realm where nothing appears or disappears, there is no life and no death, no suffering and no happiness, no good and no bad, no you and no I. So it is said that all things in the universe return to the One.

But where does this One return?

Once somebody came up to the great Zen Master Mang Gong and asked him, “If all things return to the One, where does this One return?” Mang Gong said, “The spring geese are flying north.”

What do you think this means – “the spring geese are flying north?”

Even though you may understand enough to smash Mount Sumeru into a million pieces and swallow the ocean in one gulp, you will not understand this.

Even though you may understand enough to kill or give life to all the Buddhas of the three time-worlds and all eminent teachers and all people, you will not begin to understand this.

Then how can you understand the true meaning of “The spring geese are flying north?” Only keep don’t-know mind. This don’t-know mind is the mind that is stuck and cannot budge. It is like trying to break through a steel wall or trying to climb a silver mountain. All thinking is cut off. But as soon as you penetrate this condition, your mind will explode. Then you can see the stone lion run across the waves and devour the sun.

But you will still be bewildered. Go one more step. Then you will arrive at your true home, where spring comes and the flowers are blossoming everywhere. If you arrive here, not only will sutras and bibles be true, but also the sound of water and wind, the color of the mountain, the barking of a dog in the street everything that you see or sense, everything as it is will be the truth.

Therefore Zen Master Mang Gong said, “The spring geese are flying north.” The truth is just like this.

All things in the universe return to the One; where does the One return? Throw away Small I and enter Empty I. Then, when you open your eyes, everything that you can see and hear will be like this.

A little while ago I hit the table three times. Mang Gong said, “The spring geese are flying north.” The meaning of my action and the meaning of Mang Gong’s words – are these the same or different?

If you say ”the same”, I will hit you thirty times. If you say “different”, I will still hit you thirty times.



Open the front door to Broadway.

Spiritual Growth

Student: The aim of Zen practice is awakening. As a doctor who treats cancer patients and gives them advice about Zen meditation, I wonder what can we do for patients who are just beginning to practice in our hospital? They start using Zen as a “meditation technique,” which is OK, but what happens on the “spiritual level”? What does this beginning mean?

Zen Master Seung Sahn: Most important is that these cancer patients who are beginning to practice meditation have a vow that even if they cannot get enlightenment and practice the bodhisattva way in this life, they will continue to practice in their next life. If this vow is strong, then they will be reborn as a human being in a country where the dharma is taught and practiced. They will encounter great teachers and have the chance to get enlightenment and save all beings from suffering.

Also, if they attain their original nature, then there is no life and no death. Their original nature is clear like space, clear like a mirror. At that point they can die peacefully and their great vow will naturally lead them to a bodhisattva rebirth. Even if they are born in a non-human body, or under difficult circumstances amidst people who are not sympathetic to the dharma, their strong vow can change that birth and situation into a bodhisattva birth and situation. So, most important is a strong decision to get enlightenment and a great vow to save all beings from suffering. This vow comes from looking deeply into the great question “What am I?” and keeping a don’t know mind always and everywhere. That is correct Zen practice and correct spiritual growth.

A Special Energy Spot

January 13, 1977

Dear Soen Sa Nim,

I have heard you say that the house we will buy in the mountains near Woodstock, New York is in a very good location, a place of special energy. Why is it a special energy place? And why, in the practice of Zen as everyday mind is special energy important?

Would you explain the mountain and water configuration around the house as you described it to us: the mountain to the right as the white tiger, the mountain to the left as the blue dragon, the mountain behind as the turtle, etc.?

Several of us will go visit the house next weekend to look at the inside more closely. Then we can start planning how and when to use it.

It’s very cold here, lots of snow and ice. I hope you are taking it easy in Los Angeles.



January 20, 1977

Dear Louise,

How are you? Thank you for your letter. You ask me why the house near Woodstock is in a good location and why it’s a place of special energy. In Korea there is a metaphysics of wind-water geography. This was brought to Korea from China by a monk about fifteen hundred years ago, and since that time all temples have been built with this in mind.

A good location is necessary for the temple to grow, to save all people, and to prosper for a long time in the future. The wind-water geography determines a place as a special energy spot, where a temple can be built.

In Korea, all temples and cemeteries are placed with these ideas strongly adhered to. It is felt that the temple will grow and produce great teachers, and that the cemetery will help the descendents of those who are buried there to become prominent in society.

Why do these special places exist? This is very important. Mountains and rivers are like the earth’s physical body. On our bodies the most important part is the head. On the head the most important parts are the eyes, the nose, and the mouth. They are also among the most sensitive parts on our bodies. If you touch them then you have a strong feeling. Strong feeling means that they use strong energy. In the same way, mountains are like our bodies, and these special places are like our eyes, nose, or mouth -they are very sensitive. As in our bodies, the energy circulates in the mountain and is very sensitive in these special places. These places enable us to become one with this universal energy.

So, we check a mountain in five ways: first we check the form of the mountain; then where the mountain begins and ends; next we check it in terms of the composition of the five elements — wood, water, earth, fire, and metal; next we check the high and low points; and finally the Yin-Yang balance, the direction the mountain faces — north, south, east or west.

The basic form of the wind-water geography is a tall mountain, original turtle, which has two mountains extending in front of it like two protecting arms, white tiger to the right and blue dragon to the left. The house or temple is located at the very base of the tall mountain. In front of the house is a body of water, and just beyond that is a smaller mountain, which is called the red bird.

We check this basic form with the five characteristics that I’ve already explained. Which of the extending arms goes out further? This makes a difference, as does the direction of the flow of the water in front of the house. If the white tiger extends out further, then this place will be stronger for men. If the blue dragon extends out further, then this place will be stronger for women. Our place is very good because the two streams come together at the base of the tall mountain in front of the house.

In Korea there are professionals who also check the flow of the water in and around the temple area. They also check the mountain in terms of its importance in the whole mountain range. They check the ground for the elemental composition, that is, whether the ground has been used or moved in the past, to see if the temple will be located on land that has not been touched. They check to see whether the individual characteristics of the location will help or hinder the others, for example, if the blue dragon balances with the white tiger. Also very important is the direction that the front of the house will be facing. The balance of the characteristics is the single most important factor, just like a big nose would look funny on a small face.

So, I think that our place is wonderful.

Now there is a white house, but in the future we must build a new house. This is very necessary.

You ask why special energy is important. All people have different karma. Karma appears, and people lose their true selves. Karma appears — this means that our minds are easily moved. At a special energy place, your energy and the universal energy come together, and it is very easy to make our bad karma disappear. Sometimes people cannot control themselves, so we need this place very much.

An eminent teacher said, “Our minds change from moment to moment, but the blue mountain is always high and the clear river is always low.”

I hope that our family will use this place, get special energy, finish the Great Work of life and death, save all people from suffering, and attain world peace.

Yours in the Dharma,

S. S.

Song of Dharma Nature

The nature of the Dharmas is perfect. It does not have two different aspects.
All the various Dharmas are unmoving and fundamentally still.
They are without name and form, cut off from all things.
This is understood by enlightened wisdom, and not by any other sphere.
The One is in the many, the many are within the One.
The One is many the many are One.
Numberless kalpas are the same as one moment.
One moment is the same as numberless kalpas.

This is an excerpt from a long teaching-poem based on the Avatamsaka-sutra. It was written by a very famous master, Ui-Sang, during the golden age of the Shilla Dynasty in Korea. These verses are chanted every day in most temples in Korea. They point directly to the nature of Dharma. Many people say, “Dharma is this. Dharma is that.” But what is Dharma exactly? Originally, true Dharma has no name. Dharma has no form. Even calling it “Dharma” is already a big mistake. Dharma is not Dharma, OK? You must understand that. So, Dharma or Dharma-nature are just names for your universal substance. This substance, of which everything in the universe is composed, does not have two different aspects. It does not even have two different forms. It also does not have one aspect or form. It is not one and not two. It is also not a “thing.” It takes every form of every thing in the universe, and yet it takes no form, because form is completely empty. It is like electricity. Sometimes electricity appears to us by making fans move and radios emit sound. It produces air-conditioning. It can freeze water and heat a room. It can move a long, heavy train, and yet you walk around with it in your body. It can completely disappear into space. So if you say that electricity is just one thing, you are wrong. If you say that it is all these things that it does, all these actions that it performs, you are also completely wrong. Electricity is none of these things, and yet it is all of them. Similarly, rain, snow, fog, vapor, river, sea, sleet, and ice are all different forms of the same substance. They are different thing. But H2 0 is unchanging, and composes all of them according to their situation. They are all water. The same is true of Dharma-nature. It is not one and not two. That is a very important point.

So Dharma-nature is universal nature, and it takes many, many different forms. Sometimes it is a mountain, or the rivers, or the sun, the moon, the stars, this cup, this sound, and your mind. They are all the same, because they are all the same universal substance. When any kind of condition appears, Dharma-nature follows that condition, and then some form appears. But when condition disappears, then name and form disappear. That is the meaning of “everything is complete” in these lines. “Complete” is this Dharma-nature, this universal substance that goes around and around and around with no hindrance. It never lacks anything, anywhere. Sometimes it is a mountain, and sometimes it is a river, or trees, or rocks, clouds, humans, air, animals. But originally it is complete stillness. Even while taking form as everything in this universe, it is completely not moving. It takes these forms, but it is none of these forms and is not touched by these forms. Dharma-nature is the same as your true self. It cannot be understood with conceptual thinking. Books and learning cannot give you this point. One hundred Ph.D.’s will not help you attain it.

The One is in the many, the many are within the One.
The One is many, the many are One.
Numberless kalpas are the same as one moment.
One moment is the same as numberless kalpas.

Everyone believes that time and space exist. Ha ha ha ha! That’s very funny! Your thinking makes time, and your thinking makes space. But no one really understands this. So these lines state that time and space are the same, and they are one. They are also not one. This One is completely empty. “The One is in the many, the many are within the One. The One is many, the many are One.” That is talking about space. Everything is one point, and that one point is everything. There are not two separate things. We can think of it this way: Empty space is only one, indivisible, but in space there are many individual things-mountains, rivers, human beings, trees, dogs, cats, the sun, the moon, the stars. All of these “things” comprise space. Everything is part of space, but that space is not two, because everything is contained within it. There is nothing “outside” space.

This poem has very interesting teaching about the true nature of time, too. “Numberless kalpas are the same as one moment. One moment is the same as numberless kalpas.” Time is not long or short. As we saw earlier, since our thinking minds make time, we also make it either long or short. If you practice meditation, however, you can actually perceive that in one moment, there is infinite time. In one moment, there is infinite space. In one moment there is everything! One moment is endless time and space. To most people such a statement must be describing some special realm or experience. So how big is one moment? If we want to imagine this, we can illustrate one moment as being one second divided by infinite time. That is a very short time! A camera can teach you this. There are some special cameras with very high shutter speeds. This kind of camera can photograph a speeding bullet. A moving bullet is invisible to the naked eye. When this camera shutter opens, very quickly, it “catches” the bullet on film. You can see the bullet stopped in midair, not moving. But if you look closely at the photograph, you can tell that this bullet is still moving, though it seems stopped in space. The same is true of our minds, just as they are. If you take your don’t-know camera – your mind before thinking arises – and perceive just one moment, very deeply, very clearly, you see this bullet not moving. You see everything not moving. This whole world is not moving. That’s very interesting! Your mind and this whole universe have the same nature. Originally everything is completely still and not moving. This sutra says, “All the various Dharmas are unmoving and fundamentally still.” This is the same point. Stillness simply means our moment mind: one second divided by infinite time. We sometimes call that moment world. It is infinite in time and space, which actually means that it has no time or space.

So this gatha has very interesting poetic speech about Dharma-nature and universal substance. But this is only beautiful speech, and even the Buddha’s speech cannot help your life if it does not completely become yours. Then where does universal substance come from? Where does universal energy appear? It comes from complete stillness. “The One is in the many, the many are within the One. The One is many, the many are One.” So everything has it. [Hits the table.] Everything comes from complete stillness.[Hits the table.] Everything comes from this one point. Sometimes this point is called universal substance or energy, or Buddha, or God, or consciousness, or holiness, or mind, or the Absolute. [Hits the table.] These are all names, and names come from thinking. But originally, this complete stillness point has no name and no form whatsoever, because it is before thinking. Yet it is present in all things, and all things have it. In Zen there is a famous kong-an, “The ten thousand things return to One. Where does the One return?” If you attain that point [hits the table], you attain One, and you attain everything. That means you attain moment. You attain complete stillness and extinction. But mere intellectual understanding of this cannot help you. Only meditation practice can give you this experience directly. [Hits the table.] When this experience completely becomes yours, you attain your wisdom. That is the teaching of the Song of Dharma Nature.

Sim Gum Do – Mind Sword Path

Dharma speech given by Zen Master Seung Sahn at the opening of the Cambridge Zen Center Sim Gum Do Institute.

(Hitting the table with the Zen stick three times)

Everybody has been very busy, but you have all come to the opening ceremony of the Cambridge Zen Center Institute of Sim Gum Do. Thank you very much.

What is Sim Gum Do? It is the Mind Sword Path. Then what is Mind? If we had no mind, there would be no action. Matter is important. But without mind, we cannot understand matter. So mind is more important than matter. But mind and matter are not two. Where does mind come from? Where does matter come from? Who made mind and matter? Mind, matter, mountain, river, good, bad, Buddha, God – all these are made by our thinking. If we cut off all thinking, then we become empty mind. Here there are no opposites; there is only the absolute. This is before thinking. Everything in the universe becomes one. This is true mind.

What is Sword? An eminent teacher said, “Sometimes the sword kills, sometimes the sword gives life.” It cuts through wrong and helps the right. So if you have a mind of great compassion, you have the true sword. If you have the true sword, you have true freedom and peace over the whole world. Inside, you cut away all attachments and desires and attain the life of no hindrance. Outside, the bad disappears, the good appears. This is the great Dharma sword. Sometimes it is a steel sword, sometimes a hand sword, sometimes a mind sword. And so you will save all people.

What is Path? The path does not change color. It does not waver. It has no hindrance at all. This is the true path. You cut off all desires and leave behind the Small I. You attain emptiness and become the Nothing I. And when you leave even emptiness behind and find the Big I, you will attain the true path. We hope to save all people. So when all people are happy, we are happy; when all people are sad, we are sad. The same action, the same mind – this is the great Bodhisattva path.

So the Mind Sword Path is understanding your true self and attaining the true Dharma, for the sake of all people. But the Mind Sword Path is not the Mind Sword Path. The true mind sword is before thinking, so there are no words for it. When the Mind Sword Path and the whole universe become one, this is the true Mind Sword Path.

Here is a poem for you:

You sharpen it for ten thousand years, then are able to thrust it through the bone of space.
All Buddhas and eminent teachers stick up their hands in surrender.
A cool breeze comes from the East and all clouds are blown away.
The moon with its circle of light shines over the whole universe.

Then what is the true Mind Sword Path?

(Hitting the table with the Zen stick) KATZ!!!

Watch your step.