Sick practicing

According to tradition, there were four things seen by the young Prince Siddhartha which moved him so deeply as to give up his comfortable worldly life. He saw an old man, a sick man, a corpse, and a yogi. The first three of these brought to life for him the notion of impermanence, and the fourth inspired him to the search for the Absolute. Although too young and healthy to directly experience sickness and decrepitude, he nonetheless deeply perceived their role in human existence.

Unfortunately, most of us are not so perceptive, and it is necessary to have some personal experience before we can stop, and evaluate our life, and our direction. I have talked to several people who have had a heart attack, and in many cases heard that it was only after that experience that they started to appreciate each moment of their lives. Several of these people were actually grateful for the heart attack, for it made clear to them that their value system was perverted.

For Zen students being sick is only another opportunity to pursue clarity, and as such it is no different from any other kind of Zen practice. In fact “sickness practicing” is extremely valuable, because even for practicing people it often takes the threat of the loss of their body, or its ability to function well, before they can significantly slow down their desire mind. In the Blue Cliff Record, we have an interesting case about “sick practicing”:

Great Master Ma was unwell. The temple Housemaster asked him, “Master, how has your venerable health been lately?”

The Great Master said, “Sun Face Buddha, Moon Face Buddha.”

To attain the meaning of “Sun Face Buddha; Moon Face Buddha” is to attain “sick practicing.” To attain “sick practicing” is to attain our true self, that which has no sickness or health, no life or death. Then sickness is not our enemy; any sickness from the common cold to AIDS or angina. Any experience provides us with another opportunity to grow in wisdom, love and compassion.

Of Risks and Failures

Eastern Europe is in the midst of a revolution. In comparison, the recent changes in the Kwan Um School of Zen are very tiny stuff indeed. But, for those of us who are accomplishing the Dharma way, especially in Zen Master Seung Sahn’s lineage, our changes have an importance that goes beyond organizational needs and parameters of efficiency. They represent one more step in the transmission of the Dharma to the West and in the emergence of American Buddhism.

The process of change is very interesting in that it provides us with the opportunity for success or failure. This success or failure then either entraps us or becomes the very path to absolute freedom. Most people do not mind success, but are adverse to failure. Yet it is success which often becomes enfettering, and it is the suffering associated with failure that gives us energy for practice and raises the deep questions that send us on the spiritual quest.

It is a very rare person who can learn equally well from happiness and suffering. For most of us, a good situation is a bad situation and a bad situation is a good situation, as Zen Master Seung Sahn often says.

Speaking of success and failure brings to mind the 13th case- of the Mu Mun Kwan. The case reads as follows:

Duk Sahn Carrying His Bowls

One day Duk Sahn came into the Dharma room carrying his bowls. Seol Bong, housemaster, said, “Old Master, the bell has not yet been rung and the drum has not been struck. Where are you going carrying your bowls?”

Duk Sahn returned to the Master’s Room. Seol Bong told Am Du, head monk. Am Du said, “Great Master Duk Sahn does not understand the last word.”

When Duk Sahn heard of this, he became very angry and sent for his head monk, Am Du. “Do you not approve of me?” he demanded.

Then Am Du whispered in the Master’s ear. Duk Sahn was relieved.

The next day on the rostrum, making his Dharma speech, Duk Sahn was different from before. Am Du went to the front of the Dharma Room, laughed loudly, clapped his hands, and said, “Great joy! The Master has understood the last word! From now on, no one can check him.”

There are three questions from this story:

1. “The Zen Master did not understand the last word.” What was the last word? (“Last word” means correct situation.)

2. What did Am Du whisper in the Master’s ear?

3. How was the Master’s speech different from before?

If we understand these three questions, then we understand our correct situation, relationship and function. This kong-an is a “mistake kong-an.” Zen Master Duk Sahn made a small error in coming to the meal before the signal was given. His big error was in not responding correctly to the housemaster. The matter could have been ended right then. This raises a fourth question: If you were Duk Sahn, how would you have responded to the housemaster?

It is a very interesting and profound matter. If we truly attain this, then for us any mistake is no problem. Even a mistake can be used to help others, to teach them, and to open their minds.

The more rapid the pace of our lives, the more rapid the pace of change and the bigger our opportunity for failure. It is very tempting to try to be correct at all times and to not take any risks, yet our vows call on us to save all beings from suffering, a risky proposition, with endless opportunities for failure and countless chances for mistakes.

Contrary to the popular superstition that Buddhism is a “passive contemplation of emptiness” (to paraphrase the Pope), our vows and meditation are a creative unfolding that continuously strips away “l, my, me” and allows our true nature to function for the benefit of others. In this way, our practice, our lives, and even our failures are for the sake of others. That is the true vow.

Practicing is essential

Recently I glanced through a book written by a spiritual teacher. The main point seemed to be that all religious teachings and practices are totally irrelevant because everyone already has “It.”

This is almost like Zen teaching, except for the fact that this understanding alone will not help anyone’s life. It is very important to realize this understanding in your life. For that, practicing is essential. Our practicing is itself not special; practicing means to keep a clear mind and help others.

While there are many approaches to practicing, practicing with a sangha – together action – is the most powerful. It forces us to confront our limitations, which in turn helps us to overcome our limitations. In the Heart Sutra it says, “The Bodhisattva depends on Prajna Paramita and the mind is no hindrance; without any hindrance no fears exist.”

This “no fear” is our human heritage. If you like this, then throw away all thinking; throw away all liking and disliking; throw away even the most profound understanding.

Then, what is this moment’s correct job?

The Practice of Together Action and Buddhist Wisdom

One of the most important roles of Providence Zen Center is its residential training program. In the Orient, where the monastic tradition has dominated Zen, residential training has historically been the main reason for the existence of Zen centers and monasteries. While Zen in the West is undergoing a phase of adaptation and experimentation, residential training is still an important part of the practice.

To live in a community such as Providence Zen Center is not easy. There is a structure and a set of rules that must be followed. There is less privacy than one would have living outside such a community. There are people living in the community or visiting it with whom one would have nothing to do if given the choice. There is sometimes food one does not like, and often a lack of food that one likes. There is the “getting up in the morning,” one of the greatest problems facing a Center resident. And there are other obstacles to a life of leisure.

There are, of course, pluses to being a resident. There is a structure and a set of rules that help us put down our checking mind and help our discipline. With less privacy, there is more openness and less need to hide behind one’s image. There are people with whom one learns to deal correctly, notwithstanding feelings of like or dislike. There is the opportunity to learn to appreciate food, and not be hindered by its taste. There is the joy and energy of getting up in the morning and practicing with the rest of the community.

To be a resident in a Zen community like Providence Zen Center is to let go completely of one’s opinions. This is something which is impossible to do without the practice of “together action.” Only by acting together with others do we discover the boundaries set up by our habits, our prejudices, our likes and dislikes – in other words, our karma. Only by experiencing our boundaries can we let go. Only by letting go can we allow our natural wisdom to grow.

While it is possible to practice together action without living at a Zen center, the Zen center is an expedient way to do this in the context of a formal practice situation. Without the structure of a community, many of us find it too tempting to relax our discipline and to hold onto our ideas.

Even if one is very disciplined and does not hold strong opinions, there is a very good reason for living in a Zen center. That reason is the wider community the center serves, and the other residents who benefit from the support of a strong housemember. Zen Master Seung Sahn calls it “potato rubbing” practice, after a method of washing potatoes in a pot so they rub the dirt off each other, rather than washing them one by one.

When the Buddha was dying, his student Ananda was upset and worried what would happen to all the students when the teacher was gone. The Buddha told him that already the students had Dharma, and, very importantly, they had each other.

When one’s life situation and obligations allow one to live in a Zen center, it is important to take advantage of that opportunity, even if only for a limited period of time.

Finally, Zen center life is not special. Un Mun Zen Master once said, “The world is vast and wide; why do you put on a seven-fold robe at the sound of a bell?” This question relates not only to temple life, but, if we understand it correctly, it relates to every one of our daily activities.

The pilgrimage to awakening

A formal dharma speech given on Buddha’s Enlightenment Day ceremonies at Providence Zen Center on December 6, 1986. 

Holds the ceremonial Zen stick above his head,  brings the point of it down on the altar table with force.

Buddha saw a star, got enlightenment.

Hits the table again.

Guchi’s attendant saw a finger, got great enlightenment.

Hits the table a third time.

Today we celebrate Buddha’s enlightenment, but we also celebrate Guchi’s attendant’s enlightenment. Which one is greater? Which one?


Today is Saturday.

This is the traditional form. Everybody is familiar with it. We celebrate this experience because it’s worth celebrating.

Shakyamuni Buddha – Shakyamuni means “the awakened one.” That means, prior to his enlightenment experience, he was not awake; he was asleep. In the Buddhist scriptures we often read that the way we live is as if in a dream. So it is our job, according to the Buddha and the patriarchs, to awaken from this dream.

That’s what happened one day to this person called Gautama Buddha. That’s also what happened to Guchi’s attendant. So we celebrate their experience, but of course, this experience is not just limited to Buddha or Guchi’s attendant. At any moment this experience can be ours. Someone asked about enlightenment and having problems in our lives. It’s hard for people to understand how someone can be practicing very hard and still have many problems. What’s the relationship?

Here we are in this moment. What more does there need to be? This moment is a very precious moment, and if I’ve been saying that a lot in my dharma talks lately, it’s because I’m coming to appreciate this more. You can never regain this moment. Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever. Zen Master Seung Sahn puts it a little differently. He says, “Time does not wait for you.”

Every moment of our life we have this incredible chance; every moment of our dream we have this wonderful chance to wake up. Then we can experience this moment and it can become truly ours. Buddha saw a star and experienced something. What did he experience?

There’s an interesting story about Master An Sang who had a dream. In his dream he went to Maitreya’s place. I don’t know where that place is, but it must be a very nice place where people are practicing very hard, because the moment that Master An Sang got there, he was in an assembly full of monks. He was given the third seat, one of the seats of honor in front of the assembly. Then an old monk who was head of the assembly knocked three times with the gavel on the table and said, “And now the dharma speech will be given by the monk of the third seat.”

Master An Sang also hit the table with the gavel three times and said, “The teaching of Mahayana goes beyond the four propositions and the one hundred negations. Listen carefully. Listen carefully.”

What does this mean? If we listen carefully, if we see carefully, if we pay attention to this present moment, then maybe we can find out the true meaning of Master An Sang’s dream. If we want something, if we are attached to something, then we are losing this moment. When we lose this moment, in a way we are losing our life. So our life, our practice, is to become alive. Not to lose this moment means we can then be the awakened ones.

Maybe one moment we are awake and the next moment we fall asleep. Then we travel into our dream world and lose this awakening. In the past while talking about the growth of our School, I used the image of an avalanche, how it starts off very small and very subtly. One person, two people, a Zen center starts, and then grows and grows. And it has grown.

It’s the same way in our practice. It starts off innocently. Just for one moment we make a moment of “try mind” – in order to become clear, to help others. This one moment has its own special symbolism, because it is the beginning of the dharma avalanche in our life. We lose it and we try again. Maybe this next try is not as fast, because we are busy in our lives and have many things to accomplish, but there comes a time when we try again. Then maybe we again lose it, this effort mind, this “try-mind,” this mind that tries to be awake in the present, to “be here now” as a famous book said long ago. We lose that, and we go off again into our dream world.

Whether it is caused by our ignorance or laziness or some kind of attachment, we lose that try-mind. Then, again there is the energy of this first precious moment of effort, and the second, and the third. Something is happening, so we try again. We try a little more, and before we know it we are wearing grey robes and a kasa. Many things start to happen, and the process continues because we cannot stop. Whatever we do, somehow coming to this kind of assembly, and making a decision, however weak, to try this practice will bear fruit.

At the university I came to the conclusion (this was my great “intellectual enlightenment”) that we live in order to die properly. In a way, our life is a preparation for our death. I still think this is not a bad conclusion. There will come a culmination of this vehicle when we have to put it aside. If we want something or are attached to something, this process can be very painful. If we can stay awake, this process can be very wonderful.

At that time I was disenchanted with the world of politics, through which I was hoping to make the world a better place. I started reading about yoga and Buddhism and the mind and what is our human potential, our potential as sentient beings. At that time the question of life and death became very fascinating. I enjoyed reading about great masters passing away. There are many accounts, and one that fascinated me was about the famous Chinese layman called Pang.

Layman Pang was a family man, and it was said that his entire family – his wife, son, and daughter – had attained enlightenment. He became famous when one day he put all of his worldly possessions in a cart and pushed the cart into a river. I believe his wife and son left him after that. I don’t know whether it was a coincidence or had something to do with his action, but they separated amicably. He stayed with his daughter, who made things out of bamboo and sold them in the market.

He was also a poet. In a way, he lived like a monk, but he would never cut off his hair or wear a monk’s robes. He used to go around and challenge all the teachers to Dharma combat.

When Layman Pang understood that it was time to die, he made the announcement in advance. When the day came, he washed and put on nice robes and sat on his cushion in his hut. He told his daughter, “Let me know when the sun is at the zenith.” After a while, his daughter came into the hut and said, “The sun is being eclipsed.” The Layman said, “Are you sure?” The daughter went out and came back in and said, “Yes it’s being eclipsed. You’d better take a look.”

When he went out of the hut, she quickly climbed onto his cushion, sat in meditation position, and died. He came back inside and saw her sitting in his place, dead. He said, “Oh, you beat me to it,” or something to that effect. “Wonderful, now I cannot pass away. I have to take care of business. There has to be a ceremony for her.”

In those days it was the custom to make a fire, burn the corpse, and then spread the ashes around. For one week Layman Pang postponed his death and took care of this business. Then he sat down, composed himself, and also died. A friend, with whom he had left instructions, performed the ceremony for him, burned his corpse and spread his ashes around. Half of the family was now gone.

Word got back to his wife, who was living with their son. They were supporting themselves by farming. The wife said, “Oh, that stupid old man and that foolish girl – they had to do that without letting me know.” She went out into the fields and told the son, who was working the ground with a hoe. He made an exclamation, “SSSSSAAAA!” Then he stood for a while and died, standing up.

The mother said, “Oh, that idiot son of mine.” Then she went around to take care of business, said good-bye to all her friends, and disappeared. There was never a trace of her again.

This story fascinated me because our practice means to really become alive. That’s what I understood. It also means being able to die, but most importantly it means the death of what we call “the dream.” The basic truth of Buddhism is impermanence. Nonetheless, we continue to grasp that which cannot be grasped, because it’s impermanent. In this way, we go from life to death.

On my last trip to Poland, we did a kind of religious pilgrimage. Originally our idea was to have an ecumenical meeting of Zen Master Seung Sahn with people from different religious traditions, but things did not work out. When we planned the meeting, we just picked a date, and by some coincidence it was exactly the date of a meeting of many religious leaders in Asissi, Italy, called together by the pope. So our pilgrimage came to be held in the spirit of Asissi. This was very nice because it was something the Polish Catholic Church could relate to and which opened many doors.

Usually a pilgrimage means visiting some special place or person that is important to our direction in life. This pilgrimage was to several places in Poland of special significance to Polish Catholics, in particular. (There are no holy Buddhist spots in Poland yet, but soon there will be.) Still it had special meaning for us as Buddhists. There were some parallels we could draw between this pilgrimage and the pilgrimage of our lives. The pilgrimage itself was not so special, because we are all pilgrims. The pilgrimage we have undertaken is simply the pilgrimage to become awake.

Whatever the outward form of our pilgrimage was, whatever the outward form of this assembly is, whatever the outward form of our jobs or any activity we are involved in is – the point is always the same, because we have undertaken a kind of vow. Sometime in our life we made a decision to find our true self or to help all beings. But how can I help all beings? What is this “I” that is going to help all beings?

We don’t know. Our way is the way of our pilgrimage, is the way of “don’t know.” That’s the basic speech form of our teaching. That is, what are we doing at this moment? Let’s not lose it. This way of “don’t know” or “enlightenment” or “true pilgrimage” or “true life” or “true death”; how can we make this way real in our life? With each moment, how can we make it work, make it ours?

In traditional Buddhist teaching, we talk about the “four difficult things.” To be born with this human body is considered the first “difficult thing.” For most of us it was very easy. We just appeared. The next difficult thing is to hear about the Dharma, and the next is finding a keen-eyed teacher. The final difficult thing is what we call “enlightenment.” But traditional teaching says that the most important thing is to find a keen-eyed teacher. If we find one, if we get good teaching, then surely someday we will all become awake.

“Someday” may be far away. Somebody said, “Buddha’s enlightenment is far away.” Maybe this moment now is better. Why wait?

Before, Buddha saw a star and Guchi’s attendant saw a finger. In order to find this, we must find good teaching. So listen carefully, listen carefully.

Hits the altar table with the Zen stick.

A great teacher once said, “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.”

Hits the altar table again.

A great teacher once said, “No form, no emptiness.”

Hits the altar table a third time.

A great teacher once said, “Form is form, emptiness is emptiness.”

Which one of these teachings can help us? Which one of these teachers can help us? Which teacher is our true teacher, our enlightenment teacher, our Buddha teacher?


Thank you.

(Zen Master Wu Bong bows to the assembly.)

Passionate Zen

It is not uncommon for people to question whether there is any room for passionate feelings in Zen practice. After all, the second of the Four Great Vows clearly asks us to do away with any kind of passion. Each morning at the beginning of practice we recite: Passions are endless, we vow to extinguish them all. [Note: The vow has since been changed to “delusions are endless” to clarify this point.]

While the word “passion” has several meanings, they all revolve around an intense emotion which compels some kind of action. Usually, this intense emotion is associated with sexual feelings, with feelings of love, or with anger and hate. Although usually we see clearly the suffering that comes from such investments, it is very difficult to give them up. In fact, it almost seems inhuman to be completely dispassionate. Would the great works of art, or some of the greatest achievements of human science have appeared without “passion” playing a role in the creative process?

In Dropping Ashes on the Buddha we find the story of Won Hyo, the most famous monk of his time in Korea. Won Hyo Sunim one day went to visit the great Zen Master Dae An. Before arriving at the Zen Master’s mountain cave, Won Hyo already heard his beautiful chanting. Upon arriving at the cave he was chagrined to find the old man crying bitterly over the corpse of a dead baby deer. Since the Buddha taught dispassion, as expressed in the Four Great Vows, how could this highly enlightened man be so upset over the death of a deer? Won Hyo asked the Zen Master to explain what had happened. The old monk said that the mother deer had been killed by some hunters, and he had tried to save the baby deer by feeding it milk which he obtained by begging from the nearby village. Because people would not give milk for an animal, he lied that it was needed for his son. “A dirty monk,” they would say, but some would give milk. After a time, however, the nearby villagers refused to give him more milk. He had to go further, and further, and finally after obtaining a little milk, he returned three days later to his cave to find the baby deer already dead from hunger. “You don’t understand,” said the master. “My mind and the fawn’s mind are the same. It was very hungry. It wants milk, I want milk. Now it is dead. Its mind is my mind. That’s why I am weeping. I want milk.” Won Hyo began to understand this man’s great compassion and became his student.

This story very wonderfully points out that to experience one’s true self, if anything, makes us more human. It allows our natural love and compassion to function freely. The passions that we must extinguish are those born out of our anger, desire, and ignorance, but to vow to extinguish all passions, or to save all sentient beings, is in itself a kind of passion. The difference is that of direction. The motivation behind such passion is not for “me,” but for “others.” The name we give to such passion is Great Love, Great Compassion, and Great Bodhisattva Way.

On the Five Precepts

The Five Precepts

I vow to abstain from taking life.

I vow to abstain from taking things not given.

I vow to abstain from misconduct done in lust.

I vow to abstain from lying.

I vow to abstain from intoxicants, taken to induce heedlessness.

The following is a talk given by Dharma Teacher Jacob Perl (now Zen Master Wu Bong) at the Five Precepts Ceremony at the Providence Zen Center in September 1973.

The Five Precepts are a formal initiation into the Buddhist life. They are a declaration of one’s faith in Buddhist practice, and in a deeper sense, faith in oneself. The vows are not meant as absolute ethical standards of what is right and what is wrong; rather, they are meant to help us in our Zen practice.

The actions that we have vowed to avoid can be the cause of many problems and a lot of suffering for those of us who have not attained the realm of no attachment. As Zen students we are taught that sitting Zen means “mind-sitting” in whatever we do. Yet in formal sitting, with all parts of the body in their prescribed position, we usually find ourselves more able to control our mind. Our body influences our mind. Likewise, we have a breathing practice that Soen Sa Nim teaches us to use in times of stress. Our breathing influences our mind, and thinking subsides. Keeping the precepts is meant to have the same kind of influence on our mind as our formal sitting or breathing practice does.

The precepts have a deeper meaning than this, though. They are guides to us, for they constantly point at what Soen Sa Nim calls our “before thinking mind.” We can see this by going beyond the literal meaning of each precept.

The first precept — no killing — is much more than just abstention from physically killing another living thing. In fact, we are in essence inseparable from all beings, and all things in the universe. To cause harm to another is to deny our true nature. The true “no-killing I” is itself the “Big I” whose attainment is the supreme awakening of a Buddha. For us this precept includes not just killing, but all injury to others, whether through body, speech, or mind. In relation to this precept, I’ll tell a short story. Long ago, in China, a bird hunter visited a famous Zen Master and said, “I live in a nearby village with my wife and three children. We are very poor. I don’t know how to farm, and I have no trade. Recently I heard the Buddha’s teaching, and a great desire arose in me to practice it. But I can’t let my family starve. What can I do?” The Zen Master replied, “There is no need for you to change your profession. Just do this: every time you kill a bird, kill your own mind too. Practice this way and all will be well.”

The second precept deals with taking things that are not given. This is more that just not stealing. It means not coveting things in the material, psychological, or in the spiritual realms. Desire stems from a feeling of incompleteness. This precept teaches us to accept ourselves wholly and to make this total acceptance is to become complete, to attain the Buddha state.

The third precept deals with lust, and causes more consternation to many people than any of the others. Traditionally, it meant abstinence from unlawful sexual relations such as adultery. But it also forbids any act done in lust, whether it be eating, sex, or even teaching the Dharma. As such, it points to the desireless, complete Buddha realm. Just as we are taught to respect food, and not let eating become a sensual trip, we simply need to respect sex. What that means to me, and I guess it’s rather simplistic, is that sex should be based on mutual understanding and love. Mindless body groping only obscures our true nature.

The fourth precept — no lying — means honesty with oneself. Honesty is extremely important in our practice. To deceive others is to deceive oneself; to deceive oneself is to lose sight of the Truth. Long ago Zen Master Seong-Am used to open the window that had a view of the mountains, and looking up, he would shout, “Master!” Looking down, he said, “Yes?” “Always keep clear.” “Yes!” “Do not be tricked by people!” “Yes, yes!” So to be honest with ourselves is to see ourselves as we truly are, to see everything just as it is. Like all the other precepts, this one asks us to abandon all imaginings, all attachments, and to become like a clear mirror reflecting all things without distortion.

The last precept deals with intoxicants. An intoxicant is anything that intoxicates. For us this is especially Zen and our great understanding of it, our great practice and dedication to it, and our great compassion to all sentient beings.

How do we practice the precepts? Suzuki Roshi, speaking of the precepts, once said that our way is to keep the precepts without being bound by them. A visitor once asked Soen Sa Nim about breaking the precepts. In answer, Soen Sa Nim said, “If you are in the woods and a rabbit runs by with a hunter chasing it, and the hunter asks you to point the direction the rabbit ran, what will you do? If you tell the truth, the rabbit will die.   Sometimes lying is the action of a Bodhisattva. Specific actions are neither good or bad. The important point is – why? Is this action done to help others or only for some selfish motive?” I think Suzuki Roshi’s and Soen Sa Nim’s words are an injunction to keep the precepts effortlessly, in other words, to keep a clear mind.

According to Buddhism, good and bad are just thinking, enlightened and unenlightened are empty names. Why keep the precepts? This morning, Soen Sa Nim told us a story about Zen Master Mang Gong. Mang Gong lived in Korea during that country’s occupation by the Japanese. At that time, many Japanese priests and monks went to Korea to establish their style of Buddhism. At a conference to which thirty-one of the foremost leaders in Korean Buddhism were called, Mang Gong among them, the Japanese announced that from then on, Korean monks could marry, drink alcohol, and eat meat, as is done in Japan. Thirty of the Korean leaders were willing to obey their overlords, but Mang Gong rejected the Japanese suggestion. Quoting the Amithaba Sutra, he said, “If one person encourages a monk to break his vows, this person will go to hell.” Then he continued, “There are 7,000 monks in Korea. Where will all of you go? The original is clear and empty. Why did the mountains and rivers appear? If you understand this, breaking the vows is no hindrance, if you do not understand, and break vows, you will go to hell like an arrow. What can you do?”

In practicing the precepts, we will break them many times. It is important not to give up. Breaking the precepts is like falling down when you’re walking. The thing to do is to get up and start walking again, and if you fall again, get up again, keep on trying.

The precepts are to help us cut off our attachments, and when that is done, then all the precepts are kept naturally. And so I will ask you a question. Once upon a time, Zen Master Nam Cheon cut a cat in two with his knife. Was this a good or bad action? If you sit in silence, you are no better than rocks, but all speech is wrong. What can you do?


Your mind now is the mind that keeps all the precepts.

Thank you.

Only Keep “Don’t Know” Mind

Excerpted from a talk at the Foundations of Zen Retreat on May 2 0, 1990.

One of the most famous kong-ans refers to an incident from the Buddha’s own lifetime. Once the Buddha was staying on Vulture Peak mountain. It was time for him to give his usual discourse to the disciples, but the Buddha only sat silently. Everyone started to wonder what was going on. As the assembly was beginning to get restless, the Buddha held up a flower. The entire assembly was baffled; only Mahakashyapa, one of the senior disciples, smiled. Seeing his smile, the Buddha said, ‘My true Dharma is transmitted to Mahakashyapa.”

There are three questions that come out of this kong-an:

1. Buddha picked up a flower. What does this mean?

2. Mahakashyapa. smiled. Why did he smile?

3. Buddha’s statement, “my true dharma is transmitted to Mahakashyapa,” is a big mistake. What could the Buddha have done when Mahakashyapa smiled?

If you don’t understand, or if you have an answer but don’t know how to respond, only keep a “don’t know” mind. That’s kong-an practice. Don’t hold the kong-an in your thinking mind. The value of kong-an practice is that a kong-an is impervious to intellectual analysis. You can’t attain a kong-an intellectually.

Keeping a “don’t know” mind means cutting off all thinking. Cutting off all discursive thoughts takes us to the wellspring of our true nature, and brings us to the present moment. What are you doing just now? Paying attention to this moment is what Zen practice is all about. In a kong-an interview situation, the teacher uses kong-ans to understand the student’s practice, and to give them “don’t know” mind. Kong-ans let the student experience any hindrances they are having.

Any kind of formal practice is a simple situation in which it is easier to cut off thinking. As we do formal practice, it will start to affect our everyday life. Any moment in our life can be understood as a kong-an. As we are able to penetrate the simple situations of kong-ans without being confused by our discursive minds, our intuition starts to grow. Eventually our intuition can grow so that when confronted with complex situations in our lives, the correct response will automatically appear.

Not Difficult, Not Easy – Stories from the lay lineage

Adapted from a talk at Providence Zen Center in February, 1987.

Although we usually associate the transmission of Buddha’s teachings with a lineage of monks, it is very interesting that in China, India, and Korea, we can always find someone who, while not a monk, shined brilliantly and inspires us still today, This is especially interesting in the West, where most of the dharma students are laypeople.

Historically, the Zen patriarchal tradition has been one of celibate monks. Our school is no exception. Culminating in Zen Master Seung Sahn, every teacher in this lineage has been a monk. Yet here, today, while we are certainly preserving that tradition, something else is emerging, a widening of what traditionally was the province of the celibate monk, of the hermit. It’s not that this teaching was hidden from lay people in any way, but that in the past people who practiced really hard were expected, and willing, to give up any external ties and become monks.

In the India of Buddha’s time, there was a very great teacher who was not a monk. His name was Vimalakirti. One of the great scriptures of Buddhism, the Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra, is devoted entirely to his teaching. He was considered so brilliant and so sharp, and his dharma dialogues with others were so deep, that his contemporaries were afraid to engage him in dharma combat. Even Buddha’s greatest disciples, such as Manjushri and Mandalayana, were in awe of him.

Tradition has it that Vimalakirti was very sick one day, and the Buddha asked his disciples to visit him. Led by Manjushri, who was foremost among the disciples, they came to Vimalakirti’s house. The discussion went somewhat like this:

Vimalakirti: “Ah, welcome. I see that you have come, but you are not showing a sign of coming.”

Manjushri: “Yes, indeed.”

It was a kind of a metaphysical talk which was very popular in, those days. After this discussion went on for some time, Vimalakirti changed the tempo by asking all the guests, “What is the law of entering the gate of Not Two?” In turn each gave a short discourse.

Manjushri spoke last, saying “This entering of the gate of Not Two is something that cannot be said. There, there is no name, no form. It cannot be expressed in any way.” He asked, “Now, you, Vimalakirti, please give us your understanding of entering the gate of Not Two.” Vimalakirti only sat in silence. Manjushri recognized this silence and said, “Wonderful! That indeed is the true gate of Not Two!”

Most of the stories that we have from those days are about great monks. It’s very instructive to hear a story about a person who used a different way of life to teach others.

In China, there were several great laypeople. Perhaps the most notable was Layman P’ang and his family. It is said that each of them was enlightened. His daughter was said to be especially brilliant. Although she was the youngest member of the family, she was very sharp and had a way of having the last word.

One day, the Layman, musing on life and practice, uttered these words of wisdom: “Oh, difficult, difficult, difficult! It’s like trying to scatter ten thousand sesame seeds over a tree.” The wife right away retorted, “Oh, easy, easy, easy! It’s like touching your feet to the ground when you get off the bed.” The daughter was not to be outdone. Immediately she commented, “Not difficult, not easy! On the tips of ten thousand grasses, the patriarchs’ meaning,” What kind of patriarchs’ meaning can we find on the tips of grass? If you find that, you will get the true dharma eye. That this wonderful family managed to keep the vitality of the dharma in their busy lives is very important. Such examples are priceless.

In Korea, the story of Sul is very famous. She was born to a devout family of Buddhists. Her father was a very strong practitioner and the little daughter loved to chant with him. She would often accompany him on visits to great Zen Masters, including her father’s teacher. One day, this teacher said to her, “I have heard that you are practicing very hard, so I want to give you a present. This present is the words ‘Kwan Seum Bosal.’ Repeat these words all the time, then you will get great happiness.”

All the time that she could, she recited the mantra “Kwan Seum Bosal.” One day, as she was chanting

Kwan Seum Bosal in her room, she heard the sound of a temple bell and her mind opened up. She understood that she and Kwan Seum Bosal are the same. Everything is Kwan Seum Bosal.

She became very happy, but also a little bit wild. She no longer chanted “Kwan Seum Bosal” and was seen talking to trees and plants. One day, as her father came into her room, he noticed that a sutra book he had given her was not on the altar, but underneath Sul, who used it to prop up her meditation cushion. ‘Me father became furious, and said, “How dare you sit on this scripture! How dare you defile the truth?” The little girl turned to him and said, “Father, do you think the truth is contained in words?” Seeing his confusion, Sul said, “Please ask your teacher.”

The father told his teacher about Sul. “Is my daughter going crazy?” he asked. The teacher replied, “Your daughter’s not crazy. You’re crazy!” ‘Men the Zen Master said, “Don’t worry!” He wrote a poem for Sul:

When you hear a wooden chicken crow in the evening,

You will understand the country where your mind is born.

Outside the door of my house,

The willow is green, the flower is red.

When Sul read the poem she said “Ahah. So the Zen Master is also just like this.” Then she took the scripture from the floor, dusted it off, put it on the altar, and behaved quite normally from then on.

In time Sul became a wife and mother, and eventually had many grandchildren. She became known as a great Zen Master. Although she didn’t wear special robes, she was so clear and practiced so hard that her daily life, her everyday speech, helped many people. After one of her granddaughters died, Sul was very, very sad; she cried and cried. The people around her were shocked because of her reputation as a great Zen Master. Someone asked, “You already understand that there is no life or death. Why are you crying for your granddaughter?” Then Sul cried even harder, and said “You don’t understand! Because I cry, my granddaughter can enter into nirvana.” She was quite extraordinary.

What do these stories mean for us? Sometimes we tend to check ourselves, our practice, our life. We try to make one practice better, more high class, another practice low class. Or we check ourselves in the sense, “Am I good, or am I bad? Am I as committed as I should be, or should I do something different?” Sometimes we attach to the outer form of practice. The reason these kinds of out

standing people are important is that they show us very clearly that this practice is not dependent on our appearance. It’s not dependent on our way of life. This practice simply means clarity. Our everyday clarity. What are you doing right now, this moment? If you are monk, you have monk’s job; if a lay person, you have lay person’s job. Keep your correct situation, whatever it is. Moment after moment, keep the great question, “What is this?”

Question: Do you have any famous layperson stories from the present day?

ZMWB: Yes! Nowadays there is a very great story, and it is taking place even as we talk. It is the most important story of all. Everyone must attain this story, become a true Vimalakirti, or Layman Fang, or Sul. This very moment is that story. So, everyone here is a famous lay person!

This moment is your teacher

Excerpted from a talk on March 26, 1989

As I said at the beginning of the talk, wherever we are, whatever we are doing, that is our teacher. Most important is our “don’t know” mind. When we approach a teacher for help, it is the same. More than just her or his sharp and penetrating words, our own sincerity and openness is most important.

There is a wonderful story about a Korean monk who was very stupid. He was so stupid that he couldn’t understand any dharma talks, so he eventually stopped going to them. He couldn’t understand kong-ans, so he stopped going to interviews. He had a hard time even sitting Zen, so he felt he was too stupid and didn’t sit. So all he did in the temple was working practice, because he could not do anything else.

One day, he went to his teacher and said, “Master, I’m too stupid for anything. Can you help me in some way, tell me something that will help my practice?” So his teacher gave him a phrase as a hwadu, a kong-an, to work with: “mind is Buddha.” But because this monk was so dull, he misheard it. What he heard was, “grass shoe is Buddha,” which sounds very similar in Korean.

The monk was very confused when he left the Zen master. He thought, “what a difficult kong-an! How can I ever understand it?” Every day he did his working practice, and this question was alive for him all the time, very strong: “what is the meaning of ‘grass shoe is Buddha’?”

Then one day he stumbled against a rock, and his shoe flew off. In those days, shoes were indeed made of grass or straw. When his shoe flew off, it landed on the ground and broke. At this, the monk attained enlightenment.

He was so happy that he rushed to the Zen master yelling, “I understand, I understand.” The Zen master asked, “what do you understand?” The monk took his shoe, hit the Zen master with it, and said, “my shoe is broken.” The Zen master was very happy.

So, we do not need something special, some great teaching from someone. “Grass shoe is Buddha” is not exactly a very wise statement. What we need to do is cultivate the question, the fire, that we all have within, and not let it go out. All the wisdom is already there.

In this moment, it’s right in front of us. Wherever we are, whatever we are doing, that’s our teacher.