Poem on the Occasion of Thirty Years of Teaching Abroad

Given June 20, 1996
Mountain is mountain, water is water,
Mountain is blue, water is flowing.
East, West, South, North.
Circling around, around and around this globe for thirty years.
Running, running, and running, not resting even for a day,
In order to show correct Way, correct Truth, and correct Life.

This empty world becomes substance world,
Substance world becomes truth world.
Truth world changes into function world.
World after world, life after life, only following the Bodhisattva path.
To attain that, could not even rest one minute, not even one second.

White faces, black faces, yellow faces.
Numberless eyes all become one.
Holding both hands with palms together:
Blue sky, white cloud, universal love and service.
Throughout world after world, life after life, following the Bodhisattva Way.
Kwan Se Um Bosal, Kwan Se Um Bosal. Great Love, Great Compassion, save
those in suffering, in difficulty,
Kwan Se Um Bosal.

What is this?
Don’t know!

The heavens collapse, and the ground caves in.
The great universe is split from side to side.
In the midst of true emptiness, without even one thing.
Where do you come from, and where do you go?

What is this?
Only don’t know!


The frightened rabbit with horns runs to the South,
the stone snake with wings flies to the North.
The Sunrise at dawn brightens the Eastern sky,
a beautiful white cloud passes towards the West.
Thirty years pass by just like a dream.
Shin Myo Jang Gu Dae Da Ra Ni
with palms together:

How may I help you!

Perceive Universal Sound

This interview was first printed in The American Theosophist, May 1985 and was reprinted with permission in Primary Point, volume 5, number 3 (November 1988).

American Theosophist: What is Zen chanting?

Zen Master Seung Sahn: Chanting is very important in our practice. We call it “chanting meditation.” Meditation means keeping a not-moving mind. The important thing in chanting meditation is to perceive the sound of one’s own voice; not hear, but perceive.

AT: Are you using the word “perceive” in a special sense?

ZMSS: Yes. Perceiving your voice means perceiving your true self or true nature. Then you and the sound are never separate, which means that you and the whole universe are never separate. Thus, to perceive our true nature is to perceive universal substance.

With regular chanting, our sense of being centered will get stronger. When we are strongly centered we can control our feelings, and thus our condition and situation.

AT: When you refer to a “center” do you mean any particular point in the body?

ZMSS: No, it is not just one point. To be strongly centered is to be at one with the universal center, which means infinite time and infinite space.

The first time one tries chanting meditation there will be much confused thinking, many likes, dislikes, and so on. This indicates that the whole mind is outwardly-oriented. Therefore, it is necessary first to return to one’s energy source, to return to a single point.

AT: In other words, one must first learn to concentrate?

ZMSS: Yes. Below the navel we have a center that is called an “energy garden” in Korean. We eat, we breathe, and this area becomes a source of power. If the mind becomes still, this saves energy. The mind, however, is constantly restless. There is an endless stream of desires for various kinds of experience: sights, sounds, smells, tastes, feelings. This turning outward of the mind in search of sensory experience dissipates one’s energy until finally there is nothing left in the energy garden. Thereby one becomes subject to control by outside conditions or influences, and so loses control over his or her life.

For this reason, our meditation practice means: do not think anything. In other words, do not use your eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, or mind. By doing this our center gets stronger and stronger, and there is an experience of growing clarity.

AT: How does Zen chanting differ, if at all, from the recitation of mantras?

ZMSS: In mantra practice there is no (audible) sound. It is only internal. One merely concentrates on repeating the mantra to oneself. In chanting, on the other hand, we chant out loud in a group and just perceive the sound of our voice.

When we talk about perceiving sound during chanting we mean having a clear mind. This is different from a mind that can be lost, and also different from a one-pointed mind.

For example, consider two people having a good time together, enjoying each other’s company, laughing, feeling good and so forth. Suddenly a man appears with a gun and demands money. Instantly the good feeling evaporates and there is only fear and distress. “Somebody please help! Don’t shoot!” The mind, the centeredness is completely lost.

But suppose that a person is walking in the street concentrating on a mantra with a one-pointed mind. Then if a man appears with a gun and demands money there will be only om mani padme hum or whatever. “Hey, are you crazy! I said give me your money.” Then there is still only om mani padme hum.┬áThis is concentration, one-pointed mind.

Finally, suppose that someone with a clear mind is walking in the street and a robber appears. Then the response is “How much do you want?” This is clear mind. If the man shouts “Give me all of it!” there is no problem. “Okay, here is all of it.” In fact, with a clear mind one can use such a situation to teach others. There are a number of Zen stories in which thieves or robbers have been so surprised and shaken by the calm response of a clear-minded Zen Master that they later returned to learn Zen from him.

So chanting ultimately means clear mind, not concentration. In concentration you want to make something; there is some desire to focus on one point. This is different than simply perceiving the sound of one’s voice, without separation.

AT: In some Buddhist chanting the sound is very low and constricted, as though being produced from below the navel under great pressure. What is the reason for this?

ZMSS: That is the Japanese style. It comes from the hara, the point just below the navel. This is not necessary. If the sound comes from the general area of the stomach it will be correct. One does not have to try to chant from that point below the navel. The sound comes by itself if it is done correctly.

AT: What is the difference between Zen chanting and singing?

ZMSS: Direction is what makes the difference. Love songs, for example, have only what we might call a “love direction.” This is in the realm of opposites, love and hate, liking and disliking. Emotions come in, so most singing is emotional. Chanting however, means that the direction is very clear. Remember the phrase “chanting meditation.” The direction or aim here is to obtain enlightenment in order to save all beings from suffering.

AT: And this is not to try for some type of feelings or emotional quality?

ZMSS: No, I am not trying for any good feeling for me. Chanting is not for oneself. It is for all beings. That is the difference.

AT: In other words, it is an expression of the bodhisattva’s compassion?

ZMSS: Yes.

AT: What is the relation between compassion and wisdom?

ZMSS: Compassion is the function of wisdom; it is the action. Wisdom gives the direction.

AT: By this you mean knowing what to do in order to help someone – and also how to do it correctly?

ZMSS: Right.

AT: So compassion is more than just a warm feeling toward a person.

ZMSS: Yes. If that warm feeling of compassion has no direction, if one’s mind is not clear, there is every chance of doing more harm than good; and that will not really be compassion. Therefore wisdom is crucial.

AT: How long should one chant?

ZMSS: Chanting every day is important in our practice. We do not do it for such a long time. In the morning we chant for about forty-five minutes, and in the evening, perhaps for twenty-five minutes. But regularity is important.

AT: You do not try for any emotional effect in chanting, but does it still have an effect on the emotions?

ZMSS: Just do it! This analysis into emotional mind, intellectual mind, and so on must disappear. There must be no mind. Then there is just clarity and infinite time and space.

AT: In one of the Buddhist sutras it says that enlightenment may be obtained by turning back the faculty of hearing to the original nature, and that this is the most suitable method for human beings. Will you comment on this?

ZMSS: Those are merely different “teaching words.” The idea, however, is the same as we have been discussing. Don’t cling to words. Just do it! (laughter)

AT: How?

ZMSS: Listen. Everything is universal sound; birds singing, thunder, dogs barking – all this is universal sound. If you have no mind, everything will be perceived as such. Therefore when you are chanting with no mind it is also universal sound. If you have “I” then it is “my” sound. But with a mind clear like space, sometimes even the sound of a dog barking or a car horn honking will bring enlightenment. Because at that moment you and the sound become one.

AT: Is this moment of enlightenment related to samadhi?

ZMSS: Samadhi, as we use the term, means one-pointed mind. This is not enlightenment. It is concentration mind. Samadhi, you see, is only a good feeling for me, not for other people. Moreover, it is merely a one-pointed mind, not clear mind.

AT: Will you explain about how someone can attain enlightenment by hearing a loud sound, as we read about in Zen stories?

ZMSS: If you do loud chanting, for example, and if you do it one hundred percent – put your whole energy into it – at that time there will be no “I.” Thus there is no “my” opinion, situation or condition. In this regard, chanting together in a group is very important. Group chanting takes away “my” opinion, situation, condition and so on very easily. One has to blend in and harmonize with the rest of the chanters. The main thing, however, is just to do it totally.

AT: You have said that in practicing a mantra or chanting it is important to keep the “great question,” namely, “Who is practicing this mantra” or “Who is chanting?” Why is this question about “who” important?

ZMSS: I tell students to find out “What am I?” This is a kong-an. Before thinking, what are you? One says “I don’t know.” But even before speaking, prior to any words or thoughts, this “before-thinking mind” is clear mind.

AT: Can music be a form of Zen practice also?

ZMSS: Music is not usually Zen practice but it can be. If the player just plays and becomes one with the playing it can be called Zen. But most of the time the direction is not clear in music. Usually there is some emotional control, some direction given by emotions. And the musician may be trying to control the emotions of the audience through his music. In fact, we speak of good music as having this sort of effect on other people’s emotions. Emotional music means opposites-mind: wanting or not wanting, good feeling, bad feeling. But true Zen music is different. It has been compared to the jumping of a fish up and down in the river.

AT: Spontaneous?

ZMSS: Yes, but not emotional. Listening to it brings a very quiet mind, a very clear mind. That is Zen music. But one should not cling to the opinion “This is music, that is not music.” If we are not attached to anything then everything is Zen music.

AT: In the Heart Sutra it says that the prajna paramita mantra (mantra of transcendental wisdom) is the great mantra. Would you explain this?

ZMSS: Yes. They call it “the transcendental mantra, the great bright mantra, the utmost mantra” and so forth. This means that if one simply tries this mantra, gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha, with one’s whole energy, then it will be the greatest mantra. Actually, of course, any mantra which you try in this way will be “the greatest mantra” for you! That particular mantra is not special, not different from any other. But all sutras which refer to any kind of mantra will say that it is special.

AT: Which means it is special if one believes that it is.

ZMSS: Correct. A student once asked me, “if this is true then even the words ‘Coca Cola’ can be a mantra?” Yes, if you really believe that “Coca Cola” is the greatest mantra and practice it diligently, it will work for you.

AT: Isn’t there a danger of hypnotizing oneself with a mantra, of putting oneself into a sleepy state?

ZMSS: Yes. Again the difference between this and the correct method of practice lies in the direction or aim. Falling into a sleepy or hypnotic state means that the direction is not clear. Practice thus becomes merely habitual or mechanical action. So it is important to ask “Why am I practicing this mantra? Is it for me or for other people?” In self-hypnosis from mechanical repetition there is no such aim; or perhaps the aim is merely to relax or to get some sort of good feeling for oneself. In that case it is easy to fall into a dull, drowsy state, but not so if the direction is clear.

However, sometimes, if very neurotic people come to learn about our practice, mechanical repetition of a mantra can do some good, perhaps helping them to gather more energy and become stabilized.

AT: How does one keep a before-thinking mind during chanting?

ZMSS: Just do it! If you chant with all your energy, thinking has already been cut off.

AT: Because to think while chanting is to divide one’s energy?

ZMSS: Right. Simply chanting with one hundred percent of one’s energy poured into the chant is already empty mind, clear mind, which is not a state of ignorance or delusion. “Your” before-thinking mind and “my” before-thinking mind are the same mind. Then your substance, the substance of this paper in front of us, my substance are all the same, all universal substance.

But someone will say that this universal substance is Buddha, or God, or nature, or the Absolute, and so forth. But actually it has no name, no form, no speech, no thought, because it is before all of this appears.

AT: Would you say something about the relationship between chanting and the breath? What about the link between the breath and the mind?

ZMSS: One should not check the breathing. It is necessary to put all such considerations aside and just do the chant with all of one’s energy. Correct breathing will then naturally be the result. Just sitting will also do the same thing.

AT: Do you mean as in Soto Zen where the main form of practice is called “just sitting” (shikantaza)?

ZMSS: Yes. But it is easy to get attached to sitting in Soto Zen practice. Therefore, one must understand what this “just sitting” is. Any kind of action – chanting, bowing, sitting, lying down, walking – all these can be Zen practice so long as one keeps a still mind. But in Soto Zen practice it is often only “body sitting”: that is, where one’s body is sitting but the mind is moving all over, chasing thoughts. This is not just sitting.

AT: You mentioned that any action can be Zen practice, but is there something about just sitting that makes it especially good? Why do Zen monks spend so much time at it?

ZMSS: For one thing, if one just sits, then all the internal organs of the body benefit. The sitting posture is very helpful because when one just sits with the back straight and the mind still, a great deal of energy is accumulated and all the functions of the body become correct. Sometimes the body is ill because it is out of balance. So one must first control the body. Then breathing and mind will automatically be controlled.

AT: Are there any other sorts of sounds or rhythms that are important in Zen practice?

ZMSS: One famous Zen Master only heard the sound of a rooster crowing and was enlightened. Another Zen Master was just sweeping in the yard when his broom threw a rock against a piece of bamboo with a loud knock and he was enlightened. He and the sound had become one. so this matter of sound in Zen practice is really very simple. Any sound will do.

But regarding particular sounds that we regularly use, there are bells, drums, gongs and so forth. All of these have a meaning. For instance, the drum made out of animal skin reminds us about saving all animals; the sound of the big bell means saving all beings in the different hells. Thus we are reminded about the bodhisattva’s compassion. But this is only the external meaning. The inner meaning is the same as what we have been discussing. It is necessary to perceive the sound, whatever it is – bell, drum, gong, etc. – and to become one with it. There is no thought, no separation, only perceiving sound. This is the crucial point. So just perceive this bell or drum sound, cut off all thinking, and then your wisdom-mind will grow up. You will get enlightenment and thus save all beings.

Outside It is Raining : Zen Master Seung Sahn Visits the 6th Patriarch’s Temple

This article was written by Zen Master Dae Bong.

In 1985, Zen Master Seung Sahn and twenty-one students traveled through China, visiting Buddhist temples and engaging in Zen dialogues and conversations with Chinese Masters and abbots.

In 1992, the Venerable Fou Yuen, abbot of Nam Hwa Sah, the sixth patriarch’s temple in northern Guangdong Province, invited Zen Master Seung Sahn to lead a three day retreat for Chinese and Western students. Organized by the Hong Kong Zen Center, the retreat took place September 5-7, 1992. Fifty Chinese monks from Nam Hwa Sah, thirty-five Zen students from Hong Kong and fifteen monks, nuns and lay people from America, Canada, Poland and Germany participated.

Nam Hwa Sah was built over thirteen hundred years ago. It is most famous because it is the temple of the sixth patriarch, located on Chogye Mountain (Ts’ao Chi). It is one of the few Buddhist temples in China not destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. The temple has three hundred and twenty rooms. There are six big halls and nine small ones. The temple is built in three long rectangles. In the center of the main rectangle, going up the mountain are first, the main Buddha Hall; next, the library where sutras and Buddhist statues and relics are stored; next, an ancient pagoda of stone; and next, the hall in which the sixth patriarch’s body is enshrined. To the right is a rectangle of buildings containing the kitchen and guest quarters. To the left, a rectangle of buildings containing the Zen hall and monks’ quarters. All the buildings and halls are connected by covered walkways, between which are gardens. The temple gives one a feeling of strength, serenity and openness.

There are one hundred and twenty monks and nine lay people living at the temple. The government is more open regarding religion now. There are three to five hundred visitors to the temple every day. Most are tourists from Taiwan, and local people. The government regulates money at the temple but otherwise seldom interferes with temple affairs. The government does want to register the people who regularly practice religion, however.

Teaching at the temple comes mostly from reading the sutras and from the abbot’s life experience. The practice is chanting, every morning and evening. Some monks sit Zen for the length of one incense stick four times a day. The rest of their time is spent maintaining the temple for tourists.

The Yong Maeng Jong Jin (Zen meditation retreat) led by Zen Master Seung Sahn included bowing, chanting and much sitting. Zen kong-an style interviews were given to everyone each day by Do An Sunim, JDPSN, abbot of the Providence Zen Center (now Zen Master Dae Kwang and School abbot). For the Chinese monks, it was the first time actually working with kong-ans and a Zen teacher. Zen Master Seung Sahn gave a dharma speech and answered questions each day. Many monks in addition to those sitting the retreat attended the dharma speeches. Before, they only understood sutra and Pure Land teaching. They were both very surprised and excited by Zen-style teaching. The question and answer times were particularly lively, with both younger and older monks engaged in asking the Zen Master many questions. Lively conversations ensued.

One monk said, “Zen is for very high class people to study and I am very low class. There is no way for me to understand.”

Zen Master Seung Sahn said, “Don’t make high class or low class.” Picking up a fan, he asked, “What is this? You don’t know?”

“A fan.”

“If you say ‘fan,’ you are attached to name and form. If you say ‘not fan,’ you are attached to emptiness. Is this a fan or not?”

The monk couldn’t answer.

Zen Master Seung Sahn said, “You ask me.”

The monk asked, “Is this a fan or not?”

Zen Master Seung Sahn fanned himself. Everyone applauded. Then he said, “Name and form are not important. Name and form are made by thinking. How everything correctly functions is very important. Everybody uses this fan. Chinese people use a fan. Korean people. Japanese people. American people also use this. Moment-to-moment, just do it. That’s Zen mind. That’s the Sixth Patriarch’s teaching.”

Another monk asked, “In the Pure Consciousness school they say that when you reach the eighth level you can take away ignorance. But the Tiendai school says you can’t get rid of ignorance until you become Buddha.”

Zen Master Seung Sahn said, “In the Heart Sutra it says the five skandas are empty. Do you understand that? What is the eighth consciousness?”

“Buddha said when the eighth level is reached that is the Bodhisattva level…”

“Buddha speech is all lies. The sixth patriarch said, ‘Originally nothing.’ Do you have something? Please show me.”

“Two different schools pointing at two different things. How should I apply this teaching to my practice?”

“So, I say to you, when Buddha died he said, ‘My whole life I never spoke one word.’ That is a very important point. All sutra teaching is like children’s cookies and toys. Do you like cookies? Then reading sutras is no problem.”

“There is a monk from Singapore who came here and preached about two schools. This monk said we must use Buddha’s speech to be our guideline.”

“I don’t like Buddha’s speech. I like your true speech.” (laughter)

The monk started to speak, then became confused, turned red and then smiled.

Zen Master Seung Sahn said, “That’s OK. Enough. More questions?”

A monk asked, “Does the Pure Land exist or not?”

Zen Master Seung Sahn said, “Outside, it is raining.”

Everyone was very surprised, then the monk smiled and said, “Thank you very much.”

After the retreat there was a precepts ceremony presided over by Zen Master Seung Sahn and Do An Sunim, JDPSN, held in the sixth patriarch’s hall. Twenty Chinese monks took precepts with Zen Master Seung Sahn. Also, three lay people from Guangzhou and three lay people from Hong Kong took five precepts and one American took novice monk precepts. Everyone was very happy with the retreat and precepts ceremony and pledged to continue efforts to practice together and share our teaching and experiences. Many Chinese monks expressed interest in coming to Korea to sit Winter Kyol Che (the traditional three month retreat).

On September 8th, a big ceremony was held at Un Mun Sah for the opening of the Un Mun Sah Buddhist Sutra School. Zen Master Seung Sahn and his students from Hong Kong and the West were invited, along with the Minister of Religion of the Province and other local officials and senior monks.

Un Mun Sah, also in Guangdong Province, was founded over a thousand years ago by the great Zen Master Un Mun. It has been rebuilt during the last eight years after being destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. The abbot of Nam Hwa Sah has also been abbot of Un Mun Sah for fourteen years.

After chanting in the main Buddha Hall, many speeches were given in honor of the sutra school’s opening. Zen Master Seung Sahn was also asked to speak.

Hitting the table with his stick, he said, “Opening is closed. Closed is opening.”

Hitting the table with his stick again, he said, “Originally nothing. So, no opening, no closing.”

Hitting the table a third time with his stick, he said, “Everything complete, so, opening is opening, closing is closing.”

“Three statements. Which one is correct? If you find correct, this stick will bit you thirty times. If you cannot find correct, this stick will still hit you thirty times. Why?


“Open the door, many Buddhas and bodhisattvas appear.

“Today, the Un Mun Sah Buddhism School is opening. That is very wonderful. The government helps us a lot. Everyone is helping us a lot. Also, the abbot is helping us all a lot. That is very, very wonderful.

“This world is changing, changing, changing, changing. So, everybody said, this is end of this world. But Buddha said, not end of this world. This world is always complete. Already Buddha taught us, first: this world is impermanent. Next, this world is complete. So, today this school opening means save all beings.

“Before, Chinese Buddhism was the best in this world, but it almost died. But now the government is helping Buddhism, helping many temples appear, and helping many monks receive education. That is very, very wonderful. That means, in the midnight, bright light appears.
“So, everybody come here, read sutras, practice strongly, attain Buddha’s way and save all beings.

“Long time ago Un Mun Zen Master said ‘What is Buddha? Dry shit on a stick.’ If you do strong practicing, attain that point, then you attain your true self and everything is no problem. If your center is not strong then the sutras read you. You must read the sutras. That’s very important.

I hope everyone does strong practicing, practicing, gets enlightenment and saves all beings from suffering.

“Thank you very much.”

Everyone was very happy with Zen Master Seung Sahn’s speech. The abbot said it was a very high class Zen speech. The Minister of Religion said that now that relations between China and South Korea are open, more connections, and exchange of Buddhism, and coming and going will be possible. He was very happy.

After the Western monks and nuns and the Hong Kong Zen students had bowed good-bye and thank you to the abbot, the abbot gave us a good-bye speech. He said, “Zen Master Seung Sahn got enlightenment at age twenty-two. I have not yet got enlightenment, so I cannot give a dharma speech. Only I have this robe, eat and work each day. Please take care of your teacher because he has the sixth patriarch’s mind. He has the same transmission as the sixth patriarch. So Buddhism in Korea and China has the same root. Buddhism in Korea and China is the same. That’s all.”

Our Practice

Our world is supported by three columns: time, space, and cause and effect. But, where do time and space come from? Also, who makes cause and effect? Time, space, and cause and effect are made by thinking. Our thinking makes everything. So the three columns that support our world are created by our mind.

But if our mind disappears, then thinking disappears. If thinking disappears then time, space, and cause and effect disappear; then empty world appears. Empty… completely empty. Another name for “empty world” is Substance. This is the Substance of the whole universe: human being’s substance, dog’s substance, everything’s substance.

Ten thousand dharmas return to one. This one comes from where? During interviews everybody hits the floor: BOOM! Everything becomes one point: no name, no form, no space, no cause and effect, no time … nothing at all. The name for this is the Absolute. If you open your mouth about the Absolute then you’ve already made a mistake. Only action.

If you keep that point for a long time, then you see clearly, hear clearly, smell clearly, taste clearly, touch clearly, think clearly, and act clearly. Which means the sky is blue; trees are green; the dog is barking–woof, woof; sugar is sweet. Then, when you see, when you hear, when you smell, everything, just as it is, is the truth. Truth is beyond time and space, cause and effect. There are no opposites. This is the Absolute. If you attain this point, you attain the Truth.

How can this point function correctly? Most important in our practice is a clear direction; then a correct life is possible. This world has a lot of suffering. How can we help all beings? The name for that is bodhisattva action. If you wake up moment to moment and keep a clear mind, then correct direction and truth and correct life are always in front of you. Then your action, your life, and you are never separate.

However, if this moment is not clear, then time and space, cause and effect will control you. That means your mind makes subject/object world. If your mind is clear, then subject and object disappear. This is the Absolute. Then everything is clear in front of you, and helping this world is possible. That is our practice.


From talk at Seoul International Zen Center, Korea, March 9, 1996

Some people completely understand sutras. A long time ago, a famous old Sutra Master visited Ko Bong Zen Master.

Ko Bong Sunim asked him, “How long have you been teaching the sutras?”

Dae Un Sutra Master said, “I have been teaching the sutras for fifty years.”

“Fifty years teaching sutras? What kind of teaching?”

“Ah, Mind is Buddha; Buddha is Mind. So, get Enlightenment, become Buddha.”

Ko Bong Sunim said, “Oh, Mind is Buddha; Buddha is Mind. Before Mind, before Buddha, what is this? What does this mean? Your mouth says Mind is Buddha, Buddha is Mind. If you have no mouth, what do you say?”

The Sutra Master was stuck. Ko Bong Zen Master picked up a stick and hit Dae Un Sunim’s leg hard.

The Sutra Master shouted, “Ouch!!”

Ko Bong Sunim said, “Oh, that’s number one good sutra speech!”

Opposite Worlds, Absolute World, Complete World, Moment World

Excerpted from a lecture series entitled “Compass of Zen,” delivered by Zen Master Seung Sahn at retreats in 1988.

Human beings have a lot of opposite thinking: like/dislike, good/bad, happiness/sadness, coming/going and so on. This opposite thinking creates opposite worlds within each one of us and our ignorance makes us hold on to these opposite worlds. These opposite worlds are ways in conflict with each other, so there is tension and suffering. This is the basic teaching of Hinayana Buddhism: all suffering comes from opposite thinking.

The Buddha taught how to go from opposite worlds to absolute world. Absolute world means the world before thinking. What is before thinking? Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.” If I am not thinking, then what? Descartes did not explore this question but Buddhism has always talked about before-thinking. If I am not thinking, there is no I. If there is no I, there are no opposite worlds because opposites are created by “I.” When “I” disappears, opposite worlds also disappear; this is called emptiness or nirvana.

So it is said that when mind disappears, dharma disappears; dharma disappears, name and form disappear, name and form disappear, coming and going, life and death, happiness and suffering, all these opposite categories also disappear. When there are no opposites, it is nirvana. Its name is Absolute, its name is Stillness, its name is Emptiness. So going from opposite worlds to absolute world is to move into the nirvana world. This is the teaching of Hinayana Buddhism.

Mahayana Buddhism begins at the point of emptiness, the absence of self-nature of things. If you attain “no self,” it is possible to move to complete world. Complete world means if your mind is complete, everything in the universe is complete. The sun, the moon, the stars, everything else in the universe is complete, one by one. Complete means truth. When you cut off all thinking there is no “I”; when there is no “I” your mind is clear like space. Clear like space means clear like mirror; clear like mirror means a mind which just reflects: sky is blue, grass is green, water is flowing, sugar is sweet, salt is salty. The mirror-mind only reflects what’s in front of it. In the mirror-mind what you see, what you hear, what you smell, what you taste, what you touch – everything is just like this. Just like this is truth. Just like this is complete world, so complete world is truth world.

If you attain truth and complete world, you can understand correct situation, correct function, correct relationship. Then helping others is possible; helping others means only to love others, to have compassion for others. We call love and compassion the Bodhisattva Way. So, the teaching of Mahayana Buddhism is how to follow the Bodhisattva Way, how to help others. If you want to follow this path, you must attain the truth world first; truth world means keeping moment to moment correct situation, correct function, correct relationship; truth world means great love, great compassion, great Bodhisattva Way. This is the teaching of Mahayana Buddhism.

Next is Zen Buddhism. Zen Buddhism never talks about opposite worlds, never talks about absolute world, never talks about complete world. It only points straight to our mind, to our true self. “What is Buddha?” “Dry shit on a stick.” This is a Zen answer. There is no talk here, no explanation. Only just a swift, direct pointing that cuts through all discriminations. In the history of Zen many people got enlightened as a result of this style of direct pointing and were able to help many people. So in Zen there is no speech, no words, only practicing. Talking about opposite worlds or absolute world or complete world is an intellectual style where more explanation, more analysis becomes necessary. Zen only points to the moment world, the world of this moment. This moment is very important; it has everything in it. In this moment there is infinite time, infinite space; in this moment there is truth, correct life and the Bodhisattva Way. This moment has everything, also this moment has nothing. If you attain this moment, you attain everything. This is the teaching of Zen Buddhism.

Opening and Closing

From a talk given at the opening ceremony of the New Haven Zen Center on December 16, 1978.

If you want to change anything, you must open your mind. If you do, then you can open your Zen Center and nothing will stand in the way of many people coming to the temple. But, form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Opening is closing, closing is opening. What is opening? It is an “opposites” word. Desire, anger and ignorance will appear in abundance. If you only open, you will have difficulty, so closing is also necessary. It is very important to understand when to open and when to close. When you open your eyes and see something, you cannot feel your eyes. If your eyes hurt, you become aware of them. If you don’t see clearly, you have them checked. But if you are completely open, already you have lost your eyes.

One time a famous comedian invited Zen Master Mang Gong to talk with him. After the comedian finished talking, Mang Gong asked, “Are you not talking now, smart comedian?”

“No sir,” replied the comedian.

“But you still have your tongue,” said Mang Gong.

The comedian was confused. He was always checking what his audience thought of him. He thought that because everyone was happy when he talked, his speech must be wonderful. But this happiness was only in his mind. “How can I make this mind disappear?” he asked. Mang Gong asked him,

“Where is your mind? Do you have a mind?”

“Yes, I have a mind.”

“Then give me your mind!”

The comedian was completely stumped. “I don’t know.”

“You already lost your body — where is your tongue?” demanded the Zen Master. Just then the comedian attained enlightenment. Mang Gong said, “Talk to me.” The comedian was silent. Mang Gong said, “Your name is ‘no tongue’.”

Open your eyes, ears and tongue and you will have no difficulty. If you keep them open, sometimes demons appear, but opening and closing are both okay. If you are correctly open, you lose your eyes, ears and tongue. If you close everything — eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind — you have no hindrance.

Only Teaching Words

From a morning kong-an talk by Zen Master Seung Sahn in Frankfurt, West Germany in April, 1978:

“If you attain Enlightenment, one thousand things, ten thousand things become one; if you attain Enlightenment, one thousand things, ten thousand things each become clear. Which statement is correct?”

A student said, “They are the same.”

Soen Sa Nim said, ”You say the same, so I hit you. Not the same. Also not different. If you attain Enlightenment, one thousand things, ten thousand things become one. What does this mean?”

The student said, “No mind, no Buddha, it’s all one.”

“Then what?” The student hit the floor. “Only this?”

The student said, “Outside, the sound of cars.”

Soen Sa Nim said, “Correct. So attaining Enlightenment, not attaining Enlightenment, these are teaching words. These are only teaching words. Many people are attached to these words, so they don’t understand truly attaining Enlightenment.

“Here is a kong-an about this. Someone once sat Zen for ten years; he was an old man. He had an interview with the Zen Master and said, ‘Zen Master, I have a question. I have been sitting for ten years, but Enlightenment has not appeared.’ The Zen Master said, ‘You don’t want Enlightenment, so it has not appeared.’ ‘No, no,’ said the student, ‘I want Enlightenment, but it hasn’t appeared.’ The Zen Master said, ‘So, you want Enlightenment, so it has not appeared.’

“Then the Zen Master said, ‘Go to the kitchen, drink cold water.’ There is a simple custom in Korea, that when your mind is not clear, you go to the kitchen and drink cold water. So the student said, ‘O.K., thank you very much,’ and went away.

”This is a very short interview, but very important. Everything is in it. So this morning, if you have mind, only drink cold water, O.K.?”

Only Practicing

One morning a student asked Seung Sahn Soen Sa, “How can one control thinking while sitting Zen?”

Soen Sa replied, “If you are attached to thought, your practice and your thoughts are different. if you are not attached to thoughts, thinking is practicing, practicing is thinking. This is called only practicing.”

The student asked, “What is only practicing?”

“When you first start driving, you cannot give your attention to sights or sounds, or else you will crash. However, after much practice, you can talk, look at things, and listen to the radio without any problem. Talking and sightseeing have become only driving. Your seeing, hearing, and speaking are non-attachment. It is the same with Zen. ‘Only Zen’ contains walking, eating, sleeping, talking, and watching television. All of these have become unattached thinking. This is only practicing.”

“What is attachment thinking?”

“While driving, if you are attached to your thoughts, you will go through a stop sign and get a ticket; you will cross the center line and have a crash; you will, thinking that you are going to New York, instead head for Boston. In this way, attachment to thinking leads to suffering.”

The student said, “Thank you very much. I understand well.”

“Since you understand, I will now ask you, are thinking and not thinking different? Are they the same?”

“When I am thirsty, I drink.”

“Very good. Go drink tea.”

One action is better than all sutras

Silence is better than holiness, so one action is better than all sutras. If you are attached to words and speech, you won’t understand a melon’s taste; you will only understand its outside form. If you want to understand a melon’s taste, then cut a piece and put it in your mouth. A melon ripens and grows by itself, it never explains to human beings its situation and condition.

If you are attached to the sutras, you only understand Buddha’s speech. If you want to attain Buddha’s mind, then from moment to moment put down your opinion, condition and situation. Only help all beings. Then Buddha appears in front of you. This is enlightenment and freedom from life and death.

Excerpted from Zen Master Seung Sahn’s “The Whole World is a Single Flower: 365 Kong-ans for Everyday Life” (Charles E. Tuttle Company, Rutland VT, 1992).