Shoot the Buddha!


After a talk at the Cambridge Zen Center, a young woman said to Zen Master Seung Sahn, “Tomorrow is my son’s birthday, and he told me he wants either a toy gun or money. But I have a problem: as a Zen student, I want to teach him not to hurt or crave things. So I don’t want to give him a toy gun or money.”

Zen Master Seung Sahn replied, “A toy gun is necessary! [Laughter] If you give him money, he will only go out and buy a toy gun. [Laughter]

“Your son wants a toy gun. This gun means: ‘How do you use it correctly?’ That’s very important–more important than just having a gun or not. If you use this gun correctly, you can help many people, but if it is not used correctly, then maybe you will kill yourself, kill your country, kill other people. So the gun itself is originally not good, not bad. More importantly, what is the correct function of this gun? So you can buy this gun, and give it to your son. Then you talk to him and tell him, ‘You must use this gun correctly. If Buddha appears, kill him! If the eminent teachers appear, kill! If a Zen Master appears, you must kill! If anything appears, you must kill it, OK? [Laughter] Then you will become Buddha!’ [Much laughter] So you must teach your son in this way. The gun itself is not good or bad. These are only names. Most importantly, why do you do something?”

Same Day, Same Time Together Become Buddha

Question: Recently I traveled in India. Everywhere I went, people were suffering because of a lack of food. I wanted to help them but I had nothing to give them — there were too many people and so much suffering. I realized I could do nothing.

Zen Master Seung Sahn: You have everything. You say “nothing,” but that isn’t correct. You don’t understand “you,” so you say “nothing.”

Q: But I had nothing to give them.

ZMSS: You are only attached to “outside”; you don’t understand “inside.” Outside you have nothing, but inside you have everything. If you have nothing on the outside to give them, then everywhere you go bow and chant Kwan Seum Bosal. Also, in your mind keep “I can!” Then this helps them, and also helps you. You have “that,” yeah?

Everything happens from primary cause, condition and results. Our world has a problem. So Buddha said this is a suffering world. In the United States, we have a lot of food. And every day we throw a lot of food in the garbage. It’s the same in Korea. But in India, there isn’t enough food. So, our world is unbalanced. Who makes things unbalanced? Human beings make this.

Nowadays there are too many human beings. Also, humans do many bad things. For example, humans kill a lot of animals and eat them-eat their meat. Then cause and effect are very clear. All suffering comes from cause and effect. If two religions are fighting — like Hinduism and Islam — then many people will be killed. Then, these people reappear again. The suffering goes around and around. Everything is from primary cause, condition and effect.

Q: Right now there is a lot of fighting going on in Bosnia. In a situation like that, is merely practice enough or should we do something more?

ZMSS: A cat and a dog are fighting in front of you. What can you do?

Q: [Action of pulling them apart.]

ZMSS: Correct! But, in Bosnia you don’t have any power so you can’t do that there. If you don’t have any power, what can you do? Buddha teaches us that if you don’t have power you should borrow Buddha’s power. So, every day you should do special chanting — Kwan Seum Bosal — for this country. If you do that every day for one hour then your power appears. That is very important because your Kwan Seum Bosal energy is absolute energy. Their fighting energy is opposites energy. Absolute energy shines in your consciousness. O.K.? That helps this world. So, what’s our job?

Our job is to practice hard and perceive this world. Humans do more bad actions on this planet than any other living thing. How can we help? Our consciousness and suffering people’s consciousness must connect. Then we can help. If you only practice for yourself, that’s not correct practicing. Our practicing means attain your true self. Attain your true self means Great Love, Great Compassion, the Great Bodhisattva Way. In other words, moment to moment keep correct situation, correct relationship and correct function. If we don’t have enough money to help people, then we chant for them. Chant Kwan Seum Bosal many times and say, “Please may all suffering human beings and all suffering animals be relieved of suffering. Same day, same time! Together become Buddha.” That’s our direction. This direction never ends, lifetime after lifetime. That’s our great vow. So, if we see suffering people, then we chant for them. That’s our job. O.K.?

Samadhi and Zen – Zen Master Seung Sahn’s teaching in Western Europe

This article was written by Mu Sang Sunim

Zen Master Seung Sahn is like a wandering mechanic — everywhere he goes he finds some engine, so to speak, which needs its valves adjusted, its screws tightened, old oil removed and fresh oil put in. On our recent teaching trip to western Europe he found that many people were confused about the relation between “samadhi” and Zen practice. So he taught over and over that while samadhi — “one-mind,” “not moving mind” may appear “on the way,” it is not the goal of Zen. The aim of our practice is truth or “clear mind,” and the correct functioning of truth moment to moment.

Zen Master Seung Sahn at the Oslo Fjord, Norway. Behind him is a traditional grass-roofed house.

“It is possible,” Zen Master Seung Sahn taught, “for people with a lot of thinking to use samadhi to cut off their thinking, cut off their desire, and get a lot of energy. The universe and you become one point. But enlightenment does not depend on energy. In enlightenment there is no concern with energy.

“Enlightenment and non-enlightenment are the same point. A long time ago, a Zen Master said, ‘Before I got enlightenment, when I saw the sky, blue; after I got enlightenment, when I see the sky, also blue.’ That’s enlightenment-the same point-the sky is blue. Getting enlightenment or not getting enlightenment doesn’t matter.

“Samadhi has no cause, no effect, no karma, no enlightenment, no I, nothing at all-only energy. No sky, no color. But it’s very easy to attach to samadhi energy and lose one’s way. ‘I am wonderful, I have lots of energy, I can do anything!’ — this kind of mind can appear: much desire, much attachment to power. Then you return — BOOM! — to small I. I-my-me again appears. So this is very dangerous.”

A second major theme addressed the students’ concern about the relationship between teacher and student. Zen Master Seung Sahn stressed that “Zen means not depending on God, or Buddha, or a teacher, or religion, but completely becoming independent. You must believe in your true self 100%. If you cannot believe in your true self, then you must believe in your teacher 100%. If you have no teacher, then you must believe in Buddha 100% — only keeping your own opinion is no good.

“Believing in your teacher and depending on your teacher are different. If you believe in your teacher, there is no subject, no object, no inside, no outside-inside and outside become one. Then you can believe in your true self, also you can believe any teacher, also you can believe your eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind. But if you only depend on your teacher, that is making two, I am here, something is there. That is not correct. When we are children, we depend on our parents. Then if our parents go away, we cry, cry, cry. But after we grow up we no longer depend on our parents; we can take care of ourselves. So don’t be like a child-you must become independent. And don’t depend on your teacher, only believe in your teacher 100%.”

After one of the retreats in Europe, Zen Master Seung Sahn told two stories that further illuminate the dangers of attaching to samadhi:

“A long time ago in China, during the time of Zen Master Lin Chi, there was a monk who was very famous for his samadhi practicing. ‘Ibis monk never wore any clothes and was known as the ‘naked monk.’ He had mastered many kinds of samadhi, had lots of energy, and didn’t need to wear clothes even in winter.

“One day Lin Chi decided to test this monk. He called a student of his, gave him a set of beautiful clothes, and asked him to present them to the monk. The student went to the monk and said, ‘Ah, you are wonderful. Your practicing is very strong. So my teacher wants to give you these beautiful clothes as a present.’ The monk kicked away the clothes and said, ‘I don’t need these clothes. I have original clothes, from my parents! Your clothes can only be kept a short time, then they will wear out. But my original clothes are never broken. Also, if they become dirty, I just take a shower and they are clean again. I don’t need your clothes!’

“The student went to Lin Chi and told him what happened. Lin Chi said, ‘You must go to this monk once more and ask him a certain question.’ So the student went to the monk and said, ‘Great monk! I have one question for you. You said you got your original clothes from your parents.’ ‘Of course!’ said the monk. ‘Then I ask you, before you got these original clothes from your parents, what kind of clothes did you have?’ Upon hearing this, the naked monk went deep into samadhi, then into nirvana (he died).

“Everyone was very surprised and sad. But when the monk’s body was cremated, many sarira  appeared, so everyone thought, ‘Ah, this was a great monk.’ Sitting on the high rostrum, Lin Chi hit the stand with his Zen stick and said, ‘Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.’ He hit it again, ‘No form, no emptiness.’ He hit it a third time, ‘Form is form, emptiness is emptiness. Which one is correct?’ Nobody understood. Then the Zen Master shouted ‘KATZ!’ and said, ‘The sky is blue, the tree is green.’ If you cannot answer in one word the question about your original clothes, then, although you can get samadhi and nirvana, you cannot get freedom from life and death.

“Then the Zen Master stared at the sarira — poof! — they turned to water. This is magic! They all turned to water and disappeared. Everyone was surprised. The meaning of this is: if you do samadhi practice deeply, then when you die many sarira will appear. But, these sarira will not last long because they represent ,one mind,’ not ‘clear mind’ which is our original nature. Our original nature has no life, no death, no coming or going. When the true dharma appears, which means form is form, emptiness is emptiness or sky is blue, tree is green- that energy -BOOM! – will appear, all the sarira will turn to water and disappear. Our teaching is substance, truth, and correct life. Our Zen practicing means attain your true self, find the correct way, truth, and life. Any style of practice is OK — even using a mantra. But, don’t be attached to samadhi — you must ‘pass’ samadhi. Zen means ‘everyday mind,’ not special states of mind. Moment to moment keeping a clear mind is what’s important.

“Here is another example. Once one of my students decided to practice with an Indian guru. This guru taught samadhi practice. So my student got a mantra, tried it all the time when he wasn’t working, and went deeply into samadhi. All the time he was having a very good feeling. Then one day while doing this mantra, he was crossing the street. The next thing he knew, a car screeched to a halt, almost hitting him, and loudly sounded its horn. The driver shouted at him, ‘Keep clear mind!’ Then my student was very afraid. The next day he came to me and said, ‘Dae Soen Sa Nim, I have a problem. Last night I almost died. I was practicing samadhi, didn’t pay attention and was almost hit by a car. Please teach me my mistake.’

“So I explained to him, samadhi practicing takes away your consciousness. But Zen means moment to moment keeping clear mind. What are you doing now? When you are doing something, just do it. Then this kind of accident cannot happen. So don’t make samadhi. Don’t make anything! Just do it, O.K.?”

Mu Sang Sunim is director of Dharma Zen Center in Los Angeles. 

Roots of American Buddhism

This talk was given at the end of the second annual congress of the Kwan Um School of Zen, in July 1984. 

Thank you very much for coming here to the school congress. This is the second year of our new school. We are planting seeds in the ground, the seeds of American Buddhism. It has taken twelve years to make this particular form of American Buddhism, so it’s important for people to understand the significance of this new school.

The Kwan Um School of Zen represents the correct roots of Bodhidharma’s teaching. As the school grows up, and as American Buddhism grows up, many other forms will appear: one, two, one hundred flowers. But these different forms will be no problem as long as we keep the original roots.

Twelve years ago Korean Buddhism came to the United States and our new school appeared, a type of Zen school that does not exist in China or Korea or Thailand. In Korea, celibate monks control Buddhism, and lay people follow their ideas. The Kwan Um School of Zen, which has created many different positions within it (Ji Do Poep Sa Nim, senior dharma teacher, dharma teacher bodhisattva teacher, traditional monk) is not just a monk’s idea, but a human idea. This is the American style, but it has the original roots.

Our school has branches in many different countries: Poland, Spain, Brazil, Canada. If we just brought an American idea to them, they wouldn’t necessarily like it or accept it. Our school is not just an American idea. The correct American idea is that when you go to another country, you must understand: that country has its own idea of what is correct for it. American Buddhism is like Buddhism anywhere; it is universal.

Many people have fixed ideas about what is American, but in fact there are countless ideas. Some of these ideas lead to difficulty, and some help many people. If we cling to one idea of what is American, we become narrow-minded and the world of opposites will appear, just as communism and capitalism appear in the political realm. The true American idea is no idea. The true American situation is no situation. The true American condition is no condition.

When any religion is brought into the United States, it’s digested, and a new style appears. For example, Hare Krishnas do not exist in India. Indian Hinduism came here and an American style of Hinduism developed. This is true of any religion, philosophy, or business that comes to the United States: it mixes with what’s here and a new style appears. The correct idea, situation, or condition in any country doesn’t matter; it’s all the same.

The direction and meaning of our school is to let go of your opinion, your condition, your situation. Practice together, become harmonious with each other, and find our true human nature. Find our correct direction, truth, and correct life. So these are our new seeds, just planted. In the second year some growth has appeared, and next year the plant will grow even more. But everything has roots, whether it is a religion, story, house, family, or any kind of group. If a plant has no roots, it will fall over.

So what kind of roots does our school have? A long time ago in India one man appeared and got enlightenment: Shakyamuni Buddha. That’s our root. Then the twenty-eighth patriarch, Bodhidharma, came to China. At that time there were already many kinds of Buddhism being taught, including the sutras, but Bodhidharma brought something new: the teaching of how to correctly perceive mind, or Zen meditation. When he came to China he didn’t bring anything. He only taught “don’t know.”

So the transmission of this “don’t know” teaching came from China and Korea and then here to the United States. The teachings of Bodhidharma are the roots of American Zen. If you have strong roots, a great tree will appear with many branches, leaves, flowers, and eventually many fruits. So it is important to examine our roots, and understand how we are supported by them.

Nowadays in China there is communism, where there used to be many kinds of Buddhism. Bodhidharma’s roots have already disappeared in China; there are no longer any Zen centers. There used to be great Zen centers in the mountains of China, and great meditation masters too, but they have not reappeared.

Japanese Zen has a different story. About a hundred years ago in the Meije dynasty, there was a great general who liked Western culture, any kind of Western education or clothing or forms of society. So he invited many Westerners to Japan, and over the next forty years, everything started changing to a new style. Instead of samurai style with a topknot and kimono, men began to wear their hair short, Western style, and to wear neckties and shoes and suits. Then the general said all the monks could get married. The monks were delighted. After all, monks have desires too. If marriage was the new style, why not get married? It was irresistible. Many monks got married and now you can hardly find celibate monks in Japan. That’s Japanese style Zen.

What is Korean style Zen? It’s an important issue for our new school, which has Korean roots. Back in the Li dynasty (starting in 1392 CE), and for a period of five hundred years, there was intense persecution of Buddhists by the ruling Confucians. It was so great at one time that no monks were allowed to enter the capital city of Seoul. There were four gates to the city, each guarded by the army. If you were a monk you were not allowed in. Even a dog could come and go, but the Li dynasty considered monks less than human beings. At that time there was an old Confucian tradition of wearing special mourning clothes for a period of three years following the death of your parents. Part of the clothing was a hat which completely covered the head, so it was impossible to tell if someone was a monk or not. Only in this manner, wearing mourning clothes, could monks pass through the gates of Seoul.

But persecution is a strong force, and it pushed great people to appear. Many great monks and Zen Masters appeared in Korea during that time. Korean monks also got the reputation of being strong fighters. In one famous series of battles in the 1600’s during the Hideyoshi invasion, Korean warrior monks helped repel a Japanese force so decisively that the Japanese had to retreat As a result, the Japanese were still afraid of Korean monks even in 1910 when the Japanese became colonial rulers of Korea. When the Japanese occupation began, the Soto school of Japanese Zen wanted to control Korean Buddhism, so they proclaimed that all Korean monks could get married. They allowed monks to travel freely, to cut or not cut their hair, and to wear any kind of clothes. They told the monks, you control the minds of your countrymen, so anything you do is no problem. You can make money, come and go in Seoul without hindrance, and do any kind of business. These proclamations made the monks very happy.

In a very famous story about Korean Buddhism, the Japanese governor Minami Chun Dok was in control of Korea at the time. He invited all the abbots of the thirty-one large temples of Korea to a great assembly at the government house in Seoul. Zen Master Man Gong, my grand-teacher, was abbot of the head temple of the Chogye order then, so he and the other abbots came to this meeting. The Japanese governor told them that Japan wanted to help Korea and asked how it could help Korean Buddhism. He spoke to the abbots, telling them they were great monks and leaders of their people. They were very flattered by this, and told him about the severe persecution during the Li dynasty. Because they had had so much suffering before, and now felt free, the monks had only good things to say about the Japanese government. Perhaps their personal feelings for the Japanese were not so good, but at least their words were complimentary.

At this important meeting, Man Gong was the last to speak. He pointed at the Japanese governor, Minami Chun Dok, and said, “Mister Minami, you have already gone to hell! The Amita Sutra says, if someone breaks the precepts of even one monk, he will go to hell. You have broken the precepts of three thousand monks, so you will go to hell!” There was a murmur of horror in the assembly. Why had this crazy monk made a speech like that? The Japanese governor grew angry. Man Gong continued. “Originally this world is pure and clear. Why then do the mountains, the river, the sun, and the moon appear? KATZ!” Now the translator had a terrible problem. If he translated correctly, perhaps the governor would become even more furious and have all the monks killed. They too were afraid of the effect of Man Gong’s speech. The governor ordered his translator to make an accurate translation. “Yes, sir!” The poor man did his job, translating correctly. Then there was a great hush in the assembly. At last Minami, who was a Buddhist, bowed deeply to Man Gong and said, “In Korea, there is still one great Zen Master.!” He wanted to give Man Gong many gifts and do many things for him, but the Zen Master would accept nothing and soon departed. After that meeting there were no further difficulties with the Japanese government. This is a famous story about our lineage, the Chogye order.

After the Second World War, there were 7,600 married monks but only 600 celibate monks. The Chogye order, which consisted of celibate monks, fought the family monk order for control, and after much fighting won control of Korean Buddhism. The family monks went off to start different schools, some going to Taiwan. In Korea now, the whole Chogye order is only celibate monks. That is our lineage, and the roots of the Kwan Um School of Zen.

In America now we are making traditional monks, bodhisattva teachers who can marry, as well as dharma teachers and five precept students all living together. That is Korean Buddhism coming here and changing its form. But roots never move. So yesterday we had an opening ceremony for our first monastery, which will be the home for traditional monks. These roots, which are the correct roots from Bodhidharma, almost died in Korea. Although they were almost lost, in Korea these roots have been kept, and now they have come to the United States.

In building a monastery, the Kwan Um School of Zen now has correct roots, from which will come correct seeds. This is very important. Some people have asked me why must we support this monastery. But this is not correct thinking, not the original style of Buddhism. For example, if you go to Thailand and you become a monk, all the people will help you. Every morning some people make food, take it into the city and give it to the monks. Perhaps our style of support will be different, but that’s original Buddhism. In Buddha’s time, there was no cooking in the monastery. All the monks went begging for food, and then they would eat. Other Buddhists would help the monks.

So we have a new form appearing, and it’s not a good attitude to think “I like this style” or “I don’t like this style” of having monks. Also, don’t judge the monks. Whether a monk is good or bad or even crazy, it doesn’t matter. A monk is a monk. Support is necessary. If you say, “I only want the fruit, but I don’t like the root,” you will have a problem. If you support these roots, the tree of American Buddhism will be strong. Leaves, flowers, fruits will appear. But if you do not support these roots, the tree will fall or soon rot and die.

In the future, American Buddhism means supporting each other; we must help them. We must help each other. After all, what is the root? The tree? The branch? The flower? What is the fruit? This is a very important question. If flower and fruit fight each other, if trunk and root fight, the tree will soon die.

As our Zen centers grow up, many opinions, many likes and dislikes will appear. This is not so good. If someone disagrees with you, follow them without hindrance. This style of mind will be necessary. “No, I won’t change until I die!” This style of mind is a big problem. Please let go of your opinions and help each other. If you say, “I am a senior dharma teacher, so you listen to me!” you are creating difficulties. Just ordering people around won’t work. So don’t hold anything. Our school’s direction is putting down our opinions, conditions, and situations and only helping other people. If you don’t help each other, you make problems. Monks are the original root for our whole school. If we support them, we support the whole tree. So how can we help each other? We must understand our job correctly and do it. That’s the correct job, no matter what your position is.

We have been meeting here for two days, doing hard training. Our sangha is already thirteen years old, so it has problems. Becoming a teenager means even more problems. These future years until we are twenty-one are very dangerous years. Be careful! The correct American idea is no idea. The correct American condition is no condition. The correct American situation is no situation. No idea, no condition, no situation means great idea, great condition, great situation. Everyday mind is Zen mind. The American idea is also the Zen idea. So please everyone, put it all down. Moment to moment, what is your correct idea, correct condition, correct situation? Find that and do it; then you will have no hindrance.

I often use these basic kong-ans: Why do you eat every day? Why is the sky blue? When does sugar become sweet? These are simple, but they have great meaning. Zen Master Joju often said “Go drink tea.” But why drink tea? That’s very important. Just one action. What is Buddha? Zen Master Guji held up one finger. That one finger is primary point. “One finger” mind is the whole universe, all Buddhas and bodhisattvas. But one finger is just one finger. Dry shit on a stick is just dry shit on a stick. Three pounds of flax is three pounds of flax. My hand is my hand. That is what we call correct view. When you see east, don’t make west. East is east, west is west. Don’t add your idea. If you do, west changes to east, and then you have problems. West is west. Don’t change it into east. This is a very important mind to keep. If you add your idea, everything changes.

So put down your ideas. Just sit, just hear, just smell, just taste, just touch, just think. An eminent teacher once said, “Without thinking, just like this is Buddha.” That means, without thinking, when you see, everything is correct, everything is truth. Then use this truth to make your life correct. That is our correct direction. So the American idea and the Zen idea are never different. I hope everyone will put down their ideas of whatever sort, help each other, find human nature, get enlightenment, and save all people from suffering. Thank you.

Q & A in Warsaw

On the first evening of the stay in Poland during Soen Sa Nim’s trip to Europe this spring, about twenty Zen students gathered in an apartment in Warsaw to hear a Dharma Talk and ask questions of Soen Sa Nim. Dharma Teacher Jacob Perl, returning to his native country for the first time since he was fourteen years old, gave the introductory talk. Then he asked if there were any questions. What follows is the beginning of the question and answer exchange:

Soen Sa Nim: O.K. very good. Any questions are O.K., not only about Buddhism. (Long pause.) You have no questions, so this means you already understand! So I have a question. Long ago in Korea there was a famous Zen Temple on a mountain-top. At the bottom of the mountain there was a Sutra Temple. In the middle there were some very wonderful hot springs. The manager of the hot springs was a woman who was a Zen student. Zen monks and Sutra monks sometimes came to the hot springs. One day a Sutra Master went to the hot springs to bathe. When he was finished bathing, this woman said to him, “Oh Master, now you have cleaned your body, but how do you clean your mind?” If you were this Sutra Master, how would you answer her? What kind of answer is good?

Student: What is this for?

Soen Sa Nim: I hit you, not enough! What kind of answer is good? O.K., somebody ask me, then I will tell you. ”How do you clean your mind?”

Student: Master, how do you clean your mind?

Soen Sa Nim: Don’t smudge mind. (Pause.) Original mind is not tainted, not pure. So — “how do you clean your mind?” is already a mistake. Don’t smudge your mind. Very simple. If you have mind, then cleaning mind is possible, smudging mind is possible. But if you have no mind, cleaning and smudging are not possible. So you must take away your mind. No mind is clear like space. Clear like space is clear like a mirror. Red comes; red. White comes; white.

Zen is not difficult, also not special. If you want special, you have special. But this special cannot help you. When you are eating, just eat; when you are walking, just walk; when you drive, just drive. That is Zen. There are many kinds of Zen — eating Zen, working Zen, television Zen, driving Zen, playing tennis Zen. Sitting Zen is one part. Most important is, moment to moment, how do you keep clear mind? So Nam Cheon Zen Master was asked, “What is Zen?” “Everyday mind is Zen mind.” So don’t make special, don’t hold something, don’t be attached to something, don’t make something; then you are already complete.

Somebody asked Ma Jo Zen Master, “What is Buddha?” He answered, “Mind is Buddha, Buddha is mind.” But the next day somebody asked the same question and he said, “No mind, no Buddha.” How are these answers different? “Mind is Buddha, Buddha is mind.” ”No mind, no Buddha.” If you have your mind, you must practice. If you have no mind, already you are Buddha. Very simple.

So before, Dok Sahn Zen Master was asked, “What is Buddha?” “Three pounds of flax.” His mind was empty mind. Just at that time he was weighing flax. So, what is Buddha? Three pounds of flax. Very simple. O.K. do you have any questions? (Long pause.)

O.K., I will teach you our formal style for questions, O.K.?

(Hits the floor with his stick.) Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.

(Hits the floor with his stick.) No form, no emptiness.

(Hits the floor with his stick.) Form is form, emptiness is emptiness.

Three statements: which one is correct?

Another student: YAAAAH! (pounding the floor.)

Soen Sa Nim: You understand one, don’t understand two. (Laughter.) What do you see now? What do you hear now? So only become one. Buddha and you become one mind. But Buddha is Buddha, you are you. The name for this is “form is form, emptiness is emptiness.” You only hit — this means, “No form, no emptiness.” So more practicing is necessary — one more step, O.K.?

O.K. We have a teaching style we use to understand the correct answer. This is a bell. If you say this is a bell, you have an attachment to name and form. If you say this is not a bell, you have an attachment to emptiness. Is this a bell or not?

(As Soen Sa Nim finishes asking the question, two students make head-first dives for the bell, accompanied by much laughter and clapping.)

Soen Sa Nim: Somebody already understands. O.K. Very good.

In our teaching style, what kinds of answers are there? “Is this a bell or not?” First course, only silence. This is without-like-this. Next, your style — hit! This is become-one-like-this. Then next, “The bell is gold, the wall is white:” only-like-this. Next, ring the bell (Soen Sa Nim rings the bell): just-like-this. Four kinds of answers.

So before I told you: form is emptiness, emptiness is form; no form, no emptiness; form is form, emptiness is emptiness. Which one is correct? (No answer.) Yah, somebody ask me, then I will tell you. (Long pause.) No? Then I have an answer for you, O.K.? If you say “correct,” some word is correct, if you find correct, I will hit you. If you cannot find correct, also I will hit you. Why?


The second student gets up quickly, scrambles to the front, picks up Soen Sa Nim’s water cup, and smashes it to the floor.

Soen Sa Nim: Not good, not bad. You only understand one. Hit, breaking the cup; katz, are all the same realm. Yah, when you are a great Zen Master, then sometimes katz!, hit are not only become-one-like-this; any use is possible — freedom. But also, 3 x 3 = 9. Before, when we talked about the bell, only ring is correct. Just like this. What is the function, O.K.?

Soen Sa Nim picks up Jacob’s water cup. This is a cup. If you say “cup,” you have an attachment to name and form; if you say “not a cup,” you have an attachment to emptiness. Is this a cup or not? Will you break this?

The same student: No, I can drink.

Soen Sa Nim: Correct! Why do you break the cup? This is not correct. (He tosses a cup fragment on the floor.)

Same student: “I?”

Soen Sa Nim: You must make “I” disappear.

Jacob: He said, “The ‘I’ which broke the cup?”

Soen Sa Nim: Who is breaking the cup? You broke. So you only understand one, you don’t understand two.

Student: I don’t understand anything.

Soen Sa Nim: You don’t understand anything means you already understand “don’t understand anything,” so already understand something. Don’t understand anything is already one. Where does “don’t understand” come from?

O.K., next, this cup and this bell, are they the same or different? Then do you break them?

The student again gets up quickly…

Soen Sa Nim: Strong action is not necessary, O.K.? Very strong student! You only (hits the floor with his stick) understand this style, but this cup and this bell, are they the same or different? What can you say? Only this style (hits the floor with his stick) is not enough. You ask me, are they the same or different? You ask me!

Student: Are they the same or different?

Soen Sa Nim rings the bell and drinks from the cup. There is laughter.

Soen Sa Nim: Now you understand. Very simple.

Zen is understanding your correct situation. Correct situation means your correct relationship. You and this bell, what is the correct relationship? You and this cup, what is the correct relationship? You and your parents, girlfriend, husband, wife, your job, your country, the whole universe — what is your correct relationship?

This means, you and something always become one. Don’t make subject-object: no inside, no outside. Subject and object become one action. We say that is the nature of function. That is your correct relationship. So we say, when you are doing something, you must do it. This is Great Love, Great Compassion, the Great Bodhisattva Way. When you are hungry, eat. When someone is hungry, give them food.

Q&A about God at Brown University

On Tuesday nights The Providence Zen Center holds a meditation session at the Dharma Room (Manning Chapel) at Brown University. The following is an account of one of the exchanges which has taken place there.

After one of the Dharma Teachers was finished with his introductory remarks, he asked those congregated to direct their questions to Zen Master Seung Sahn, Soen Sa Nim. One of the visitors asked if there was a God.

Soen Sa answered “If you think God, you have God, if you do not think God, you do not have God.”

“I think that there is no God. Why do I have God if I think God?”

“Do you understand God?”

“No, I don’t know.”

“Do you understand yourself?”

“I don’t know.”

“You do not understand God. You do not understand yourself. How would you even know if there was a God or not?”

“Then, is there a God?”

“God is not God, no God is God.”

“Why is God not God?”

Holding up the Zen stick, Soen Sa said “This is a stick, but it is not a stick. Originally, there is no stick. It is the same with God for originally there is no God. God is only name. The same is true of all things in the universe.”

“Then is there no God?”

“The philosopher Descartes said, ‘I think therefore I am.’ If you do not think, you are not, and so the universe and you are one. This is your substance, the universe’s substance, and God’s substance. It has no name and no form. You are God, God is you. This is the ‘big I,’ this is the path, this is the truth. Do you now understand God?”

“Yes, I think that there is no God, and I have no God.”

“If you say that you have no God, I will hit you thirty times. If you say that you do, I will still hit you thirty times.”

“Why will you hit me? I don’t understand. Please explain.”

“I do not give acupuncture to a dead cow. Today is Tuesday.” replied Soen Sa.

The Purposes of Buddhism

“The purposes of Buddhism” means understanding Buddhism’s direction. What we call Buddhism is the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha. Buddhism is not a revelatory religion; it is based entirely on what the Buddha taught as a result of his great enlightenment. So Buddhism is based not on some idea of divinity but on the enlightenment experience of Shakyamuni Buddha, the central event in Buddhist history. The Buddha himself is not special. He attained his true self, which means he completely understood himself and this world. So we say Buddha is mind, mind is Buddha.

If you completely understand yourself, completely attain your true self, you too become a Buddha. The experience of the Buddha says that it is possible for each one of us to have the same enlightenment experience and to become Buddhas ourselves. This means it is possible for each one of us to completely understand ourselves, attain correct way and correct life.

What is attaining correct way and correct life? When the Buddha attained enlightenment, he was not sure if it was possible to transmit the truth he had received, in the hour of his enlightenment, to others. He thought that mankind, addicted to its delusions and attachment, would find it hard to understand his dharma. According to Buddhist legend, Brahma, the highest god in the pantheon, read the Buddha’s mind. Brahma, fearful that the Buddha’s teaching would be lost to this world, appeared before the Buddha and pleaded with him, “May the Blessed One teach the dharma; may the Well-gone One teach the dharma. There are living beings who have only a little dust in their eyes and who have fallen away through not hearing the dharma. It is they who will be recognizers of the dharma.” Then, out of compassion for all beings, the Buddha looked at the world with his Buddha-eye and saw that indeed there were some beings who had keen faculties and only a little impurity. Realizing that there was a suitable audience for his teaching, he decided to proclaim the dharma.

The decision by the Buddha to share his dharma with others was a critical choice in Buddhist history. If he had decided not to act in this world, his withdrawal would have been insignificant for human history. The stated motive for his choice is compassion for all mankind. At the same time, he must have realized that the truth received by him had a dynamic quality and needed to be converted into a message; otherwise, it would go to waste. So the direction or purpose of Buddhism is the same as the Buddha’s example: if you completely understand yourself and attain your true self, you must teach others.

So every day we recite the four great vows. The first vow is, “Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them all.” This vow is a manifestation of Shakyamuni Buddha’s own compassion for all beings. This means that our practice and our enlightenment is not just for ourselves but for all beings. Once again, the purpose of Buddhism is to attain truth, attain prajna (wisdom); that means attain correct way, correct life. Then you can save all beings. This is human beings’ correct job. Attain your true self means attain universal substance; attain universal substance means attain whole-world situation; attain whole-world situation means attain your correct job. How? It means, moment to moment, keep your correct situation, correct function, correct relationship. That means, moment to moment, how do you help others? Not only human beings, but this whole world. When enlightenment and correct life come together, that means your life becomes truth, the suffering world becomes paradise. Then you can change this suffering world into paradise for others. This is human beings’ correct job; this is the purpose of Buddhism.

Practicing Alone

New York, New York
June 26, 1978

Dear Soen Sa Nim,

Thank you for your letter and for the picture of Kwan Seum Bosal. Thank you so much for your care.

I went to Yong Maeng Jong Jin held at Bob’s house on Long Island last weekend. I found practicing with other people very difficult. It is as if I struggle with some deep barrier; I become very strange with people, so that I cannot really act appropriately and want a lot of special attention. I know that this is not good for other people. I cannot bear to do it, but I can’t seem to control it either.

You say that practicing with others will help my bad karma. But I feel as if I would take much more than I could give — that I would be a burden. I do not want to do that again. That is why I have been living and practicing alone. It is so important for me to work every day and to keep my balance.

George, the Master Dharma Teacher, said none of us is special, especially good or especially bad, but I feel so very different from other people. It is strange. I myself do not understand, and I am sorry. I feel that I must continue my practice alone.

Thank you so much for your concern.

Yours sincerely,


The Power of Practice – A tale of old Korea

Buddhism in Korea has a long oral tradition. These stories, transmitted across the generations, helped preserve Korean Buddhism during periods of invasion and repression. Zen Master Seung Sahn is a noted raconteur, and often relates this tale when asked about geomancy.

About two hundred years ago, a young woman, Mrs. Lee, lived with her husband in the city of Seoul, the capital of Korea. They had three young sons and her husband imported and sold fine, high-quality Chinese silk fabrics. It was a happy, comfortable existence for the family. Mrs. Lee herself was very devout and prayed to Kwan Seum Bosal constantly for the prosperity of her family.

One time the husband had to go to Pusan, a city in the far south, on a business trip. A few weeks later news came to Mrs. Lee that her husband had died in Pusan. Her world was shattered. But she was a courageous woman, and she went to Pusan to collect her husband’s body and take possession of the inventory he was traveling with, the bulk of his capital.

In those days the only way to travel distances was to walk. Since it was not possible to carry her husband’s body all the way to Seoul, Mrs. Lee arranged to have the head cut off and embalmed. She put the head in a box, and wrapped the box with most of the Chinese silks her husband had been traveling with. Mrs. Lee hired a servant to carry the box back to Seoul. During their walk back to Seoul, they would stop overnight at country inns; at these inns, Mrs. Lee always kept the box in her own room.

They reached the city of Chonan, which is a major intersection of roads from the south (Pusan) and west (Seoul). At Chonan, Mrs. Lee stayed in a country inn. It so happened that another man who was staying at the inn at the same time was also a dealer in Chinese silks. With only one glance at the silks Mrs. Lee was carrying with her, this man knew that her silks were of a much higher quality than any he had ever dealt in. He knew he could get very good prices for these silks, so he decided to steal them.

Not wishing to be caught, however, he prepared a box of similar dimensions and wrapped it in a thin layer of inferior silks of exactly the same color. He knew only a connoisseur could tell the difference merely by looking at them. With his box ready, he waited for Mrs. Lee to go to sleep. To his frustration, he found that as the night wore on Mrs. Lee was sitting upright in her room and chanting the “Kwan Seum Bosal” mantra very softly for hours on end.

Finally, in the wee hours of the morning, she lay down to sleep. The businessman-turned-thief quietly entered the room and switched boxes. With the precious box in his hands, he left the inn and ran away as far as he could into the woods. Finding an isolated spot, he started unwrapping the box. To his great surprise, he found a wooden box inside the wraps, rather than the bale of silks he had expected. With equally great curiosity, he opened the box and shrieked in horror at seeing a human head inside. He kicked the box away from himself; the head fell out and rolled down a slope into a lake.

Mrs. Lee woke up in the morning and started her journey back to Seoul. Soon she reached home and, in the presence of her grieving relatives, opened the box. She was dumbfounded to see that the box inside was empty; moreover, it was not even the same box she had packed in Pusan! What had happened to her husband’s head? Completely puzzled, she nonetheless went through the mourning ceremonies and soon started looking after her husband’s business. She took equally good care of her three sons. Her business prospered and she became the leading silk merchant in Seoul. Her business advice was widely sought. She put her three sons through the finest schools with the best tutors, and they became fine scholars. They all passed the civil service examinations and were appointed as magistrates and high administrators by the royal court.

The sons convinced their mother they could support her very comfortably, so she wouldn’t have to work so hard at her business any longer. The business was very prosperous and sure to attract a number of buyers. Mrs. Lee acceded reluctantly to her sons’ pleas, but on one condition: that her sons help her build an inn in the town of Chonan, which she would operate herself! It was a most unorthodox wish, but she would not change her mind and finally the sons helped her build the inn.

Mrs. Lee opened the inn with an unusual offer. Anyone could stay free of charge for one night, provided they tell her an interesting story from their life experience! Many came to stay overnight at the inn, some out of curiosity, some out of gratitude for her generosity. Late each morning, she would hold court in the front parlor, where the guests would gather to tell her their stories.

One day, an old man appeared among the guests. When it was his turn, he told how, many long years earlier, he had once stayed at an inn in Chonan. He had seen a young woman with a box of fine Chinese silks and had switched the boxes. To his surprise, Mrs. Lee became greatly excited. She grabbed him by the collar and started shouting, “So you are the thief who stole my box.” The frightened guest protested that it was many years ago and there was no longer anything that could be done about it. Mrs. Lee calmed down and told him she didn’t want to take any action against him – she only wanted to know what he had done with the box inside the silks. He then told her his whole experience of running into the woods, unwrapping the box only to find a head, and kicking it away in horror.

Mrs. Lee prevailed upon him to take her to the spot where this incident had taken place many years ago. From the top of the slope, she followed the path which her husband’s severed head had taken when the box was kicked away by the horrified thief. She hired divers to try to find the head; she consulted skilled geomancers to find an auspicious place to bury the head if it were recovered.

After much consultation among themselves, the geomancers told Mrs. Lee that the spot in the lake where the head had originally landed was actually the most auspicious place for a burial. They listened to her whole story and told her that the success and prosperity she had been able to achieve in business after her husband’s death could be attributed to the auspicious location of her husband’s head in the lake. Furthermore, a geomancer-monk told her that the rolling down of her husband’s head into that auspicious location was not an accident; it was due to her faith and constant chanting of the name of Kwan Seum. Bosal.

After hearing all these findings, Mrs. Lee was very grateful to the thief who had been an unwitting tool for her good fortune. Even though his action had caused her great pain, it turned out to be a blessing for her. To show her appreciation for this accident of karma, she gave money and gifts to the thief and repeatedly expressed her gratitude.

This story is about the original mind of Korean Buddhism. This mind is very pure, very strong. Just have faith in something, then do your practice. Originally there is nothing; so, originally, there is no Kwan Seum Bosal. There is only the power of your mind. All things that happen to you, good things and bad, come from your own mind. That is karma. So, mind is karma, karma is mind. Both are empty. Then, how do you keep your mind in this moment? Just do it. Then you will get everything. That is the true meaning of geomancy, the true meaning of Buddhism.

Post Card Dharma

In the mid-1980’s Soen Sa Nim was on the road so much that he is answered much of his correspondence with post cards. The following is a sample:

Dear Soen Sa Nim,

I have been asking myself the question, what am I?

Please tell me, what are you?

Thank you very much.


Dear Michael,

Thank you for your letter. How are you?

You asked me, what am I? I say to you, you already understand. Look at the ground. What do you see? What do you hear now? You must open your eyes and ears. Also you must attain your true self. Then you will not have to ask about me.

I hope you only go straight don’t know, which is clear like space, soon believe your eyes and ears, get Enlightenment and save all beings from suffering.

Yours in the Dharma,

Soen Sa Nim