Conversation with a Great Sutra Master

Zen Master Seung Sahn: If one perceives their true self for one second it’s better than reading sutras for ten thousand years.

Sutra Master: I vowed to read the Diamond Sutra ten thousand times. Should I continue or not?

ZMSS: Why do you read the sutra?

Sutra Master: To take away karma.

ZMSS: Originally there is no karma. If you make karma, then you will have karma. If you don’t make karma, then there’s no karma. Keeping a “this moment mind” is very important. If you are holding onto or checking the past, then all your karma will appear. If you are not checking or holding the past, present or future then your karma will not appear. So, moment mind is very important. Karma comes from your mind. No mind, then no karma. Originally there is no mind.

Sutra Master: Should I continue to read the Diamond Sutra?

ZMSS: Reading the sutra is OK. Don’t attach to the words. Only perceive the sutra’s true meaning. Who are you? Don’t know! That is the “Big Question.” The big question is most important. Only keep this big question. The big question better than reading sutras.

Sutra Master: Because I have already made a big commitment to read this sutra, I feel a lot of pressure.

ZMSS: That is not so good.

Sutra Master: Then what should I do?

ZMSS: Put it all down–let it all rest. Eating time, just eat. Someone comes to your temple and wants a ceremony, just chant. Someone wants to read a sutra, just read sutra together with them. Don’t keep your opinion, your condition, or your situation. Then you will perceive your true nature. That is the sutra’s true meaning.

Coming Empty Handed – Zen Master Seung Sahn in Ann Arbor

Reprinted from Cutting Edge, American Zen Arts Quarterly Volume 1, Number 1 (Spring 1985).

Zen Master Seung Sahn is a stocky Korean man with a round face, shaved head, and laughing eyes. He travels to many different countries each year, spreading the dharma of Zen Buddhism in an effort to “save all beings from suffering.”

Zen Master Seung Sahn is the seventy-eighth patriarch in his line of succession in the Chogye order, the predominant Buddhist denomination in Korea. Raised in a Christian family, he studied Western philosophy and considered a career in politics before taking Buddhist monk’s vows. In 1948 he embarked on a hundred day retreat alone in the mountains, spending his time in intense meditation and chanting. During his retreat he ate only pine needles, which turned his skin green. According to his book Dropping Ashes on the Buddha, he came to the understanding that “the rocks, the river, everything he could see, everything he could hear, all this was his true self. All things are exactly as they are. The truth is just like this.” In 1949, at the age of twenty-two, he attained enlightenment. This was confirmed by the great Korean Zen Master Ko Bong, who gave Zen Master Seung Sahn “inka” or transmission of the dharma. Ko Bong’s transmission publicly certified and authenticated Zen Master Seung Sahn’s enlightenment experience, giving him the authority to teach and train students.

Following his enlightenment experience, Zen Master Seung Sahn spent three years in silence, strengthening his Zen practice. He then became active in the Chogye order, founding temples in Korea and Japan. In 1972 he came to the United States, but only as a tourist, as he did not believe teaching Zen to Americans was possible. When someone convinced him that university students might be interested in practicing Zen, he decided to stay. He took a job at a laundromat near Brown University, fixing washing machines and sweeping the floors. A professor from Brown recognized his robes and sent several students to him for instruction in Zen practice. “At first they didn’t know if he was real or a fake,” says Mu Sang Sunim, an American monk who sometimes travels with the Zen Master. “He used to cook big pots of soup for his students. He would chop up onions, and then kick the onion skins under the table. They thought a great Zen Master would not kick onion skins under the table.”

His group eventually became the Providence Zen Center, now located in Cumberland, Rhode Island. This center houses Zen Master Seung Sahn’s Kwan Um School of Zen, and is the head temple for more than sixty Zen centers and affiliates worldwide. Zen Master Seung Sahn spends much of his time visiting these centers, teaching, talking, and giving interviews.

On March 25, 1985, Zen Master Seung Sahn’s itinerary brought him to Ann Arbor, Michigan. When he arrived at the Detroit Metro Airport, he was met by his host, Michael Elta, a dharma teacher of the Kwan Um School of Zen, and members of the Mu Mun Sa temple in Northville. He was accompanied an American monk, Mu Ryang Sunim, who was traveling as his secretary. Zen Master Seung Sahn’s first stop in Ann Arbor was the Zen Buddhist Temple, where he visited with the abbot, Sanbul Sunim, and other residents.

That evening, Zen Master Seung Sahn gave a public talk at the Friends’ Meeting House. He arrived with an entourage of fellow monks wearing formal long grey robes and brown kasas. First he sat in the foyer, smiling and holding a child in his lap, as his students greeted him with three full prostrations, a traditional sign of great respect. He made his way into the main meeting room, the noise of the crowd slowly halted, and the talk began.

The first speaker was Michael Elta, who provided the audience with a background of Zen Master Seung Sahn and his teaching. Next, Mu Ryang Sunim gave a short talk about his discovery of the Zen path. After thanking the previous speakers, Zen Master Seung Sahn asked for questions from the audience.

ZMSS: Does anybody have questions? Any kind of question, about your practice, your life, your problems?

Q: Sir, I was wondering what exactly is American Zen? How is it different from Korean Zen?

ZMSS: You take away American Zen, Korean Zen … that is correct Zen. (laughter) Zen is not special, OK? Zen is everyday life. When Korean people are hungry, they eat. When American people are hungry, they also eat. That’s all.

Q: I have been training very hard as an athlete for many years and have been studying very hard in graduate school, trying to get knowledge. But sometimes I felt an imbalance which I couldn’t get a hold of until I started studying martial arts. My instructor gave me some books on Zen. Will this type of practice help me to deal with the amount of pressure and stress I put on myself, mentally and physically, as an athlete and student?

ZMSS: You have too much desire.

Q: Well, I enjoy doing a lot of things. I want…

ZMSS: Yes, you. “I want to understand, I want the martial arts, I want the teaching. I want that, I, I, I, I … ” Then it is “I.” Who are you? I ask you, who are you? (laughs) You don’t understand you, so you don’t understand your direction. If you don’t understand your direction, you cannot do anything. That’s the wrong way. You cannot get balance.

The Bible says, “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life.” In Zen, I must understand my true self, and find the correct way, correct truth, correct life. The same way, but technically different. Christians believe in God. Zen means that you must believe in your true self.

How do you believe one hundred percent? That’s very important. If you believe in your true self one hundred percent, then you can believe your hand, your eyes, your ears, your nose, your tongue, your body, your mind. Then you can believe one hundred percent that the sky is blue, trees are green, water is wet. You can believe everything. Also, you can believe in God, believe in Buddha … it’s possible.

So, I ask you again: who are you? (The questioner has been taking notes.) Put the pen down, OK? (Zen Master Seung Sahn laughs) Many thousands of lines written down cannot help you.

Q: That’s hard for me to answer because I haven’t thought about it.


Q: You get wrapped up in where you are and what you’re doing, as opposed to who you are.

ZMSS: Make it simple, not complicated. I ask you, who are you? You don’t understand, you only don’t know. That’s a very simple answer. What is an explanation? An explanation is your understanding. That only makes it more complicated.

Human beings come empty handed, go empty handed. When you are born, where do you come from? When you die, where do you go? Life is like a floating cloud which appears. Death is like a floating cloud which disappears. The floating cloud does not exist. A human being coming and going, life and death, are also like that. Our body is like the floating cloud. But there is one thing which always remains clear. It is pure and clear, not dependent on life and death. What is the one pure and clear thing? If you find it, you will have freedom from life and death. So, where do you come from? Don’t know, right? I ask you, what is your name?

Q: Mark.

ZMSS: Mark. That’s your body name. Not your true self name. How old are you? (Zen Master Seung Sahn laughs.) Maybe you understand body age, but you don’t understand true age. When you die, where do you go? Don’t know, right? So: coming, “don’t know”; name, “don’t know”; age, “don’t know”; going, “don’t know.” So, you are “don’t know,” OK? That’s “don’t know mind.” Very important.

A long time ago a famous Zen Master would say, “Understand your true self.” One day, one of his students asked him, “Do you understand your true self?” He said, “I don’t know. But I understand this ‘don’t know.'” That’s a famous “don’t know” classic (laughs). So this “don’t know” mind is very important. Keep this “don’t know” mind and listen to me, OK?

When you are thinking, your mind and my mind are different. When you cut off all thinking, then your mind and my mind are the same. If you keep “don’t know” mind one hundred percent – don’t know – at that time, your “don’t know” mind, my “don’t know” mind, everybody’s “don’t know” mind are the same. “Don’t know” mind has already stopped thinking. Stopped thinking means no thinking. No thinking means empty mind. Empty mind means before thinking. Your before thinking is your substance. My before thinking is my substance (hits his chest). This stick’s substance, universal substance, everything’s substance, is the same substance.

So, when you keep “don’t know” mind one hundred percent – don’t know – at that time you are the universe, the universe is you. You and everything have become one. That is, as we say, primary point. So, “don’t know” is not don’t know, “don’t know” is primary point. Primary point’s name is “don’t know.” Some people say primary point’s name is mind, or Buddha, or God, or nature, or substance, or absolute, or energy, or holy, or consciousness, or everything. But true primary point has no name, no form, no speech, no word, because it is before thinking. Only when you keep a “don’t know” mind one hundred percent – don’t know – at that time you and everything have already become one. So I ask you, when you keep “don’t know,” at that time, are this stick and you the same or different?

Q: The same.

ZMSS: Correct. But if you say, “the same,” I will hit you. I have this Zen stick. If you say, “different,” I will hit you. Because primary point is before thinking. Before thinking, there is no speech, no words. Open your mouth, and already it is a mistake. If you are thinking, already it is a mistake. So, to say “same” is thinking, to say “different” is also thinking. Close your mouth; how do you answer? The stick and you, are they the same or different? The same! But if you open your mouth it is already a mistake. That’s a very important point. If you don’t understand, come to the Zen center (laughs). I’ll give you a hint.

A long time ago, Buddha spoke on a mountain. There were twelve hundred others there. Usually, Buddha opened his mouth and talked: “True self is this, our mind is this.” But on this day, he did not open his mouth. A minute passed, then two, then three. Finally, everyone began to wonder, “Why won’t Buddha speak?” Buddha only picked up one flower. (Zen Master Seung Sahn picks up a flower) No one understood – only Mahakashyapa, his number one student. Mahakashyapa smiled. The Buddha said, “My true dharma transmission goes to you.” Buddha never opened his mouth. Mahakashyapa never opened his mouth. Buddha only picked up a flower. Mahakashyapa only smiled. They connected. My question is, a long time ago Buddha picked up a flower. Today, I pick up a flower. Buddha’s flower, my flower, are they the same or different? Open your mouth, I will hit you. Close your mouth, I will hit you. What can you do? That is the point, OK?

That flower Buddha held up long ago is substance. Today, this flower is substance. Not different. Always, opposite thinking cannot help. Put down your understanding.

People have dust in their consciousness, their computers. It is necessary to clean this dust. If you have dust in your computer, it is necessary to clean it. For that we use special soap (laughter). If you cannot find this special soap, you cannot clean your computer (rubs his head). This is your head computer. That soap’s name is “don’t know” soap (laughter).

Always, only try “don’t know,” then clean, clean, clean. Clean your computer, then your computer is clear like space. Clear like space means clear like a mirror. Then red comes, that’s red. White comes, that’s white. Somebody is hungry, give them food. Somebody is thirsty, then give them a drink. That’s not knowledge, that’s wisdom. So, to have your mind clear like space is very important. If you want your mind clear like space, then your understanding and your mind must go into the garbage. That’s very important.

This world has many problems. Why are there problems? There is much fighting, too much understanding and desire. Too much understanding means, “My way is correct. Your way is not correct. My opinion is correct. Your opinion is not correct.” Russia says, “Only Russia’s way is correct.” America says, “Only America’s way is correct.” And desire: “I want to control this world.” Everyone holds their opinion.

Two young people get married. The first year they love each other. No problem. The second year, “I don’t like you.” It begins. The third year, “I don’t like you!” “I also don’t like you!” They are holding their opinion, so they fight and separate. Putting down your opinion is very important. Put down your opinion, your condition, your situation. Then, correct opinion, correct condition, and correct situation appear. This is wisdom. Put it all down; that’s very important.

Now, you are practicing “you cannot.” Instead, practice “you can.” That’s all. You must choose.

Q: A while back I was reading that when people think of anything, they give words to it – labels. It occurred to me that enlightenment and the dharma are things without words, and that is why it’s so hard for people to understand them. How do you get to “before thinking” mind?

ZMSS: (picks up a cup) This is a cup. If you say “cup,” then you are attached to name and form. If you say “no cup,” then you are attached to emptiness. This cup never says, “I am a cup.” If you say “cup,” that’s wrong, OK? We say “cup.” A dog would never say “cup.” So if you say “cup,” you are attached to name and form. Is it a cup or not?

Q: Don’t know.

ZMSS: You ask me.

Q: Is that a cup?

ZMSS: (drinks from the cup) “Cup” or “not cup” doesn’t matter. Correct function is what’s necessary. That is Zen. Do it. Don’t check, don’t attach to name and form. Moment to moment, understand correct function, correct relationship. If you meet your parents, you must act from obligation to them. With your friends, correct relationship is necessary. You have your pen, your cup, your watch, your glasses, your robe – your correct function and correct relationship is very important. Your country, the whole world, all beings, must have correct relationship and correct function. How? Zen practice means putting down your opinion, your condition, your situation; then correct situation, correct function, is possible. Too many people seek understanding. They go to school, to universities, are called Masters or Doctors – too much understanding.

One man I stayed with had a Ph.D. He made lots of money. No problem. But inside, he had much suffering. Why? He kept saying, “more, more, more.” So he had a problem. (laughs) That kind of person has a big problem.

So, digest. Digest, and understanding becomes wisdom. Wisdom means your understanding, your direction, and your actions become one. Understanding is this way, action is that way. Understanding is like a Buddha, or God, or Christ. But action is like a dog or a cat. (laughs) This is unbalanced. So, it is very important that you don’t check anything. Moment to moment, what are you doing now? Just do it one hundred percent. Don’t check anything, don’t hold anything, Just do it. That is Zen practice. If your center is not strong, you cannot do it. If your center is strong, then you can do it. So it is very important that your center is strong.

If your center is strong, you can control your feelings, your condition, your situation. Then you can change your karma. Everything comes from primary cause, condition, and result. You take away primary cause – it is possible – you take away primary cause, then condition and result changes. That means you can change natural processes. That means you can change your life, which means you can do anything. So, we have two kinds of worlds: “I can” and “I can not.” Which one do you like? (laughter) I can? Then you try. You try, then you can. Never say, “I cannot,” OK? Very clear, OK?

Q: What you are saying, isn’t that a concept as well? Aren’t you denying a certain part of the person? Aren’t you defining what is the basic person, the primary person; that center you were describing, isn’t it a concept? Aren’t you denying other forms, other realms of reality, in order to get to the one you’re after? Why is this more true, more absolute, more “it” than something else? Everything that you are saying is defining a certain kind of being at the expense of another kind of being. I can define another kind of being that excludes yours. In other words, it seems like there are alternate realities from the one you are talking about. And one is not any more basic, primary, true, than another one. Why do we choose one over the other?

ZMSS: You understand too much. That is your sickness. This is only your talk about “outside.” What is your inside? Consciousness this, consciousness that. You make that, OK? A dog does not make that. Stupid people do not make that. You are clever, so you make that. If I hit you, what do you say?

Q: Ouch.

ZMSS: Correct! Keep this mind, OK? (audience laughs with Zen Master Seung Sahn) That’s all, just direct. That is, we say, an unconditional reflex.

Q: That is a simple response. If you hit me I feel pain. When I …

ZMSS: Don’t check! Why are you checking? What are you doing now? I ask you, what are you doing now?

Q: I am checking you.

ZMSS: So you have a problem. You ask me.

Q: What are you doing now?

ZMSS: Sitting on the chair, talking to you. That is all.

Q: Aren’t you thinking when you’re talking to me? You sound very coherent and clear.

ZMSS: Why are you checking me? Don’t check me. What are you doing now?

Q: Checking you. (everyone laughs)

ZMSS: Don’t check, don’t hold, don’t attach, don’t want. If you are checking, holding, attached, wanting, you will always have a problem. If you want happiness, if you want peace, if you want love, don’t check, don’t hold, don’t attach, don’t want, OK? That’s all. (laughs) OK, more questions.

Q: Isn’t this where young infants are? They don’t check.

ZMSS: Very good question. A young baby, we say, has “Buddha’s mind.” Very clear mind. But as it grows up, memory appears, then the mind becomes tainted. A baby only reflects: unhappy, cry; very happy, no problem. So they have no memory, they only just do it. Moment to moment, not checking anything, not checking mother, not checking father – only do it, do it, do it mind. That’s child mind.

Child’s mind is like a Zen Master’s mind. But a child doesn’t understand correct function. Child’s mind is very pure and clear, but how do you have a correct pure and clear mind? They have no correct situation, correct function, correct relationships; they don’t understand. But, if you have correct function, correct relationships, correct situation, that is called great love, great compassion, the great bodhisattva way. Only that is different.

Q: Can’t a “don’t know” mind, or “just doing it” be dangerous in some cases, like in the case of maybe a surgeon who just “does it” and doesn’t think?

ZMSS: One of my students here is a professor. He teaches music. One day he said to me, “I have a problem.”

“What kind of problem?”

“I teach music, but I want to keep ‘don’t know’ mind strong while teaching. If I keep ‘don’t know’ mind strong, I cannot teach music correctly. What should I do?”

“You have too much desire. You don’t understand what is ‘don’t know.'”

“I understand ‘don’t know’ mind.”

“So I ask you, what is ‘don’t know’ mind?”

Then he hit the floor. That is Zen interview style. “Only that?” Then water is wet and sky is blue. That’s all. “Don’t know” mind is not special, just “do it” mind.

One hundred percent teaching music, that name is “don’t know.” One hundred percent driving, that name is “don’t know.” One hundred percent sitting, that name is “don’t know.” A doctor who fixes a body, that is “don’t know” one hundred percent. Moment to moment one hundred percent action. That is “don’t know.” Not special, OK?

Somebody is hungry; give them food. Somebody is thirsty; give them a drink. That is “don’t know.” So “don’t know” means make correct situation, correct function, correct relationship. So that means great love, great compassion, the great bodhisattva way. Just do it, OK?

Many people understand love. What is love? Love means exact condition. “Don’t know” means already cut off from your mind any condition, any situation, any opinion. So, if you keep “don’t know” mind, then your mind is clear like space, and clear like a mirror. Just do correct action. We call this “love mind.”

A long time ago in China, there was a famous Zen Master, Nam Cheon. One day as he was in his room, it grew very, very noisy outside. So he opened the door and looked out. There, over in the east, stood 250 people, and over in the west stood 250 people, all fighting about a cat. “That’s my cat.” “No, no, our cat.” “My cat!” “Our cat!” These 500 people were fighting, so the Zen Master was very angry. He picked up the cat. “You! One moment! Tell me why you want this cat. If you cannot I will kill it.” But out of 500 people nobody answered. The Zen Master was checking his students’ minds. Did they truly love the cat or were they attached to the cat? Finally Zen Master Nam Cheon felt that killing was necessary, so KAH! he killed the cat. Then in the evening his number one student, Zen Master Joju, came in from outside. Zen Master Nam Cheon, still a little sad, talked to his disciple. “If you had been there, what would you have done?” Joju only took off his shoes, put them on his head, and went outside. Then Zen Master Nam Cheon said, “If you had been there, I could have saved the cat.”

What does this mean? If you have true love inside, if everybody has true love, they would understand this kong-an. Only understanding love is not the answer. You must attain love. If you attain love, then you will understand this kong-an. So understanding love is very easy, attaining love is very difficult. That’s an important point.

We are talking too much. In this world, many people have a problem. In Cambodia, Africa, India, South America, there are many hungry people. So how to help them? There are two kinds of hungry people: body hungry people and mind hungry people. Body hungry people are not so much of a problem.

Mind hungry people have many problems and make this world have many problems. Russia, America, China – all political people have strong opinions. “My way is correct!” “Your way is not correct!” Then they make nuclear weapons, much fighting, break this universe and kill many people. Many also kill animals and make more problems. That is mind hungry people; they have lots of problems.

So, first we take away mind hungry people, then world peace is no problem, and body hungry people disappear. How do mind hungry people make themselves full? They have lost their human nature. If everybody finds human nature – finds love mind, compassion mind, bodhisattva mind – then world peace is no problem. All over the world, they don’t understand love. So how can they find love and human nature?

Meditation is very important. When we meditate, we find our true self, and understand correct way, correct truth, correct life. We make many dharma foods: dharma candy, dharma ice cream, dharma bananas, dharma apples, dharma rice cakes. We make much dharma food for these mind hungry people, and give it to them. Then they will eat this dharma food, make enough mind, then no more fighting. No more fighting, then all the nuclear weapons money can go to Africa and India, then also no body hunger problem. How can we make world peace? How can we help these body hungry people?

Human being is number one bad animal. Dogs are not so bad, tigers are not so bad, snakes are not so bad. Only human being is number one bad. They fight, hunt, fish, make bombs, make nuclear weapons, make pollution. They make many problems in this world. All human beings must understand their situation. Human beings must wake up.

All animals say, “Human beings are number one bad! If human beings all die, then world peace is possible.” Yes, animals say that. So human beings have number one bad situation. Human beings must wake up, find human nature, understand the correct way and truth, and also attain this great love, great compassion, great bodhisattva way.

This world is not only a human being world; it’s also a dog world, cat world, snake world, tree world, air world, mountain world. Every kind of world contributes to the whole world. So we must help human beings wake up.

I hope everybody will return to their homes, and practice every day for ten minutes. Ten minutes: “What am I? Only don’t know.” Lying down is OK, sitting on a cushion is OK, sitting on a chair is OK, walking is OK. Only try “don’t know.” Then your center becomes stronger, stronger, stronger. Finally you can control your feelings, your condition, your situation. Then you can believe in your true self one hundred percent.

Zen means not depending on anything. Depend on your true self. That means to become completely independent. Return to your homes, and only try “don’t know.” Try, try, try, soon get enlightenment and save all beings from suffering. Thank you.

Child’s Mind is Buddha’s Mind

The following is taken from a question-and-answer period with Soen Sa Nim at the Empty Gate (Berkeley KBC) Zen Center on December 17, 1977.

Q: I was wondering — where did the water at the end of a four-bowl meal*, you know, the clear water that’s poured down the sink, where did it used to be poured before the hungry ghosts were in the drain? (Laughter, followed by many attempts to explain the question to Soen Sa Nim.)

S.S.: In America there are only sinks, yah? In China there were no sinks, so there was a special place in front of the Dharma room.

Q: That’s where they lived?

S.S.: Where is the hungry ghost? In your stomach.

Q: Where do the ghosts come from?

S.S.: You make them. They come from the six levels of beings: gods, ashuras, humans, animals, hungry ghosts, then demons. Where do all these six levels come from? You already have them in your mind. A good view, good music — this is heaven. Beings with great energy, very strong, always fighting — these are ashuras. Much desire, desire, desire — this is animal. Hungry ghosts are, “I want something very, very much.” Stealing, killing — this is hell. Tibetan Buddhism has a picture in which one mind has many demons, many heavens, all six levels. The outside form is different, but you have them all inside.

Before, in Korea, a woman went to visit the great temple Kong Bong Sa with her child. This child was about five years old and could only talk a little, but he was very clever. The mother went to the Buddha Hall with a monk and prayed to Buddha. The child thought, “Praying doesn’t matter; I don’t like praying,” so he went looking around. Usually the Buddha Hall is in the middle; on the left side is a Zen Center, and on the right side is a Sutra Center. The child went to the Sutra Center, but it was very noisy — many people reading sutras. He didn’t understand, so he went to the Zen Center and looked through a little open door. Everyone was facing the wall, bowing to the wall (Soen Sa Nim imitates someone falling asleep while sitting). That was O.K., but sometimes somebody would disappear and become a snake; somebody would disappear and become a big dog; somebody would become a mountain god, or somebody would become a hungry ghost — you know, they would have a very big stomach and a very small neck. This was very interesting to the child. “Oh! A snake! The snake disappeared! Now a dog! The dog disappeared!” Changing, changing.

About an hour passed, and the mother finished praying. She wondered, “Where is my child?” and went all around looking for him. Then she went to the Zen Center and saw the child at the door.

“Oh! Snake! That time a snake! Oh, Dog!”

The mother thought this was very strange and asked, “What are you doing?”

“I’m watching the dog.”

“Where is the dog?”

“Over there, over there!”

But the mother could not see a dog, only a great monk (Soen Sa Nim again imitates a monk sitting, then nodding off). At this time (when nodding off) the monk became a dog or a snake, and the child would say, “Dog!” or “Snake!”

The mother said, “No good! This is a Zen Center, and these are all great monks. This style is no good.”

“No, no, no! See, a snake! A snake!”

“Come here!”

”No, I like this!”

Then the mother asked the Zen Master, “My child said he saw dogs and snakes appearing inside the Zen Center.”

The Zen Master said, “Yah, correct. All people have these consciousnesses — god, ashura, human, animal, hungry ghost, demon. They all have these minds. If you are attached to something, then you become a dog or a snake; you get heaven or hell. Your child is very clear, so he can see other people’s consciousnesses. Normal people cannot see them. Why? Their minds are dusty, not clear, so they cannot see the consciousness body. Your child can see these monks’ consciousness bodies, their attachments. These monks are attached to something. They have their minds. So they must clean their minds. So they sit Zen. Therefore, Bodhidharma said, ‘The Buddha taught all the Dharma in order to save all minds. When you do not keep all these minds, what use is there for the Dharmas?’

“Child’s mind is Buddha’s mind. Just seeing, just doing is truth. Then, using this mind means when you are hungry, eat. When someone is hungry, give them food.”

* A four-bowl meal refers to the formal temple style of eating that is used at our Zen Centers and in monasteries in the Orient. This procedure, centuries old, includes serving the food, eating, and cleaning the bowls with tea and then water. The water referred to above is used for the final rinsing of the bowls. All food scraps are eaten, and only clear water is collected in a common bowl and poured down the drain. In addition to not wasting food, this tradition is said to save the hungry ghosts in the drain from suffering. These beings have throats like the eye of a needle and insatiable appetites, so clear water saves them from the torture of having food caught in their throats, which symbolizes saving them from the perpetuation of their endless craving.

Chew, Chew, Chew

The material for this Newsletter was contributed by the Lawrence Chogye Zen Group in Lawrence, Kansas. It is a dialogue between a student (P) and Soen Sa Nim. (SS) that took place at a Dharma Talk last November at the University of Kansas.

Digesting our understanding is very important. It’s like a cow eating grass – eat, eat, eat, eat. A cow has two stomachs. The first stomach stores food and takes out the juice; later the cow chews her cud until the food is again swallowed to be digested and become energy. Not everybody digests their understanding in this style. They only eat, eat, eat. Then comes consciousness, questions, computing and thinking, thinking, thinking. Too much understanding. Everybody understands too much but they cannot use their understanding because it is not chewed and digested.

So what am I? Only meditate: what am I? Don’t know. Chew, chew, chew. Then your understanding food becomes correct cognition. That is meditation; that is Zen. Complicated mind becomes simple mind.

People who only read books and do not chew their mind food cannot make their understanding and action come together. Understanding goes one way, action is different. They have a problem. So you must chew and digest your understanding.

P: How can I gain the most from being here with you?

SS: Sit Zen (pause). I am not special (pause). Okay, let’s talk about that, but first: where are you coming from? Zen is keeping a very simple mind, okay? Many people understand too much, so they have many questions and some confusion. Am I from God? From the universe? From nature? Thinking, thinking, thinking, thinking. Now I ask you — where are you coming from? Where is your home?

P: New York Street.

SS: You are from Now York Street. Whose hand is this? (pointing to person)

P: My hand. SS:

Correct. Whose leg?

P: My leg.

SS: Whose body?

P: My body.

SS: Correct. Your body is from New York Street.

P: Yes.

SS: Correct. Your true self comes from where?

P: God.

SS: God, correct. Where is God?

P: Here.

SS: Only here?

P: No.

SS: I ask you, is this God in your mind or outside your mind?

P: Well, both.

SS: Both? Sometimes not in your mind?

P: I don’t know. You’re asking me about something I can only think about.

SS: You say God. You also say you don’t know. Correct. I asked you, “your true self comes from where?” You said, “God.” You understand God, so I ask you: is this God in your mind or outside your mind? If you say both, I will hit you sixty times!

P: I say both.

SS: I hit you sixty times! Okay, we will talk about that. You don’t understand where your true self is coming from. Don’t know. This don’t-know mind is very important. What am I? Don’t know. Where are you coming from? Don’t understand. An eminent teacher said: “Coming empty-handed, going empty-handed, that is human. When you are born, where do you come from? When you die, where do you go?” Don’t understand. Don’t know. “Life is like a floating cloud which appears; death is like a floating cloud which disappears. The floating cloud originally does not exist. Coming, going, death and life are also like that. But there is one thing which always remains clear and pure, not dependent on life and death. What is the one pure and clear thing?”

Your body is like your car. This one thing controls your body; it is not dependent on life and death. Your body has life and death, but your true self, this one thing, is not dependent on life and death. But what is the one clear and pure thing? You don’t understand? So, this don’t understand, don’t-know mind is very important. What am I? Don’t know. Okay?

P: Okay. But what do I do? What do I do with my don’t-know mind?

SS: I ask you, what are you?

P: I don’t know.

SS: Only keep this mind, don’t-know mind. What am I? Only don’t know. You keep it 100%, okay? Then only go straight, don’t know. Then when you are doing something, do it 100%. When you are driving, just drive. When you are eating, just eat. This everyday mind is Zen mind. Today is Friday, November 3rd.

Buddha’s Enlightenment Day Speech – 1975

On Sunday, January 19, there were many flowers and fruits on the altar to commemorate the Buddha’s enlightenment according to the lunar calendar. That evening during the ceremony Zen Master Seung Sahn delivered the following Dharma Speech:

Holding up the Zen stick, pointing to the sky, then hitting the table,

“Do you understand this? If you understand this, then you have already attained enlightenment.

“If you don’t understand this, then you cannot get out from the world of fire.

“There are three worlds of fire: the world of desire, the world of form, and the world of no form. All these are made by thinking. Thinking is desire; desire is suffering; suffering is the mind’s fire. So the whole world is on fire. If you don’t understand, you cannot escape from suffering.

“Long ago, Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree for six years. One morning he saw the eastern star and attained enlightenment. How did he attain enlightenment? He only saw the eastern star.

“That star is still in the sky. If you find it, you will attain enlightenment. But in the sky there are many stars.

“Which one is it?

“Where is it?

“Have you found it?

“If you haven’t found it, I will show you.”

Holding up the Zen stick, then hitting the table,

“Now can you find it? If you still can’t find it, then you must enter through the sound. The name for this is first enlightenment. But enlightenment is no enlightenment. True enlightenment is before thinking. So there are no words, no speech, no star, no sound.

“What is true enlightenment?

“Put it all down!”

Slowly lifting up the Zen stick,

“Can you see this?

“What is it? (pause)

“This is a Zen stick.”

Hitting the table,

“Can you hear this?

“What is it? (pause)

“This is a sound.

“The stick is the stick; the sound is the sound.

“When you see the stick, your mind is only the stick. When you hear the sound, your mind is only the sound. Only become one.

“Buddha only saw the star. Only like this. The star is the star. Red comes: red. Yellow comes: yellow. Birds fly in the sky; fish swim in the water. Honey is sweet; salt is salty. One plus two equals three.

“All is like this. That is the truth.

“But you must not say, ‘I have attained enlightenment.’ If you open your mouth, I will hit you thirty times.



“Today is Buddha’s enlightenment day. The star is in the eastern sky.

“Watch your step!”

Buddha’s Birthday Poem 1977

Buddha’s Birthday was celebrated at the Providence Zen Center on April 9th by students and friends from all over New England and New York. At the evening celebration ceremony, Zen Master Seung Sahn delivered the following birthday poem:

2,521st anniversary of Buddha’s Birthday.
Happy Buddha’s Birthday.
Someone said, “Before Buddha left the palace of heaven,
he had already saved all beings.”
This is lightening in the blue sky without clouds.
The wooden dog is surprised, runs into the silver mountain.

Buddha appeared in this world, tidal wave without wind.
Sky and ground, mountain and river, everything loses light of form.
Stone girl holding a flower of wind, fanny dancing everywhere.

Buddha said, “In heaven, in hell, only I am holy.”
Un-mun said, “Hit and kill — give to a hungry dog.”
Head is like rocks, same as a bear.
Mind is like midnight, same as a masked robber.
When will you get out of the cow’s stomach?

Do not be deceived! Do not be deceived!
Open your mouth, already mistake.
You and I cannot defend ourselves. Hit — thirty times.
If you hear this, you become sick.
If you don’t hear this, good medicine for you.
The altar Buddha is smiling. Candle light is shining everywhere.

Buddha’s Birthday 1973

According to the lunar-calendar the Buddha’s birthday will take place on May 10. On April 8, the Providence Zen Center hold a celebration of the Buddha’s birthday upon which occasion Soen Sa Nim gave the following talk:

Long ago an eminent teacher said, “The Buddha did not come to the Kapila empire and was not born of his mother, for he had already saved all people from suffering.” This is having one thousand mouths, and yet not needing them. If you understand this you will understand that in the palm of your hands you hold the noses of all the eminent teachers from the distant past to the present. And so, you will first attain. If you do not understand, you should not speak for that is only blood dripping. It is better for you to keep your mouth shut as spring passes.

The Buddha sprang from the right side of his mother and took seven steps in each of the four directions. He then looked once each way, raised one finger to the sky, and touched the ground with his other hand, He said, “In the sky above and the sky below, only I am Holy.” You must understand this speech and must understand what this “I” is. I is empty. Empty is full. It has no name or form and does not appear nor disappear. All people and all things have it. So where is the Buddha coming from?

Long ago Zen Master Un Mun said, “On the Buddha’s birthday, as he sprang from his mother’s side, I hit him once and killed him, and gave him to a hungry dog. The entire world was at peace.”

What the Buddha said on his birthday is no good, so I will hit him thirty times. What the Zen Master Un Mun said is also no good, so I will hit him thirty times. What I have just said is no good, so I will. hit myself thirty times.

Where is the mistake?


Today is the Buddha’s birthday and outside white snow is falling.

After the talk, one of the guests asked Soen Sa. Nim, ‘Some people say the Buddha is a divine entity, others say he was was superhuman and god-like, still others say he was just a wise, old man who understood a little more than most. What is Buddha?’

‘How did you get here?’

‘By foot.’

‘Why did you come by foot?’

‘I had no car.’

‘A man drives a car. What is it that drove your body here?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘The mind that does not know is the Buddha.’

‘Why do you then celebrate Buddha’s birthday?’

‘As I mentioned earlier, the great Master Un Mun once said, “On the Bruddha’s birthday, as he sprang from the side of his mother, I hit him once and killed him, and gave him to a hungry dog. The entire world was at peace.” Do you understand what this means?’

‘No, I don’t.’

‘This is the Buddha’s teaching. When you understand this you will come to understand why we celebrate his birthday.’

Broken Consciousness

From a talk given by Zen Master Seung Sahn at Hwa Gye Sah Temple, Seoul, Korea on June 9, 1997

Q: Twenty years ago I was a soldier in Vietnam. At that time I had some bad experiences. These experiences still effect my consciousness today — my consciousness is a little bit “broken.” How can I fix my consciousness?

ZMSS: During the Vietnam war many young people went over there to fight. War is a very bad situation, but this war was even worse. The soldiers could not even tell who the enemy was. Even the soldiers on the same side were sometimes fighting each other. Also, the people at home didn’t completely support the soldiers. So there were many bad experiences and many came back with their consciousness damaged. How do you fix this consciousness? Broken consciousness comes from karma. Not just war: bad family situation, natural disasters – many kinds of bad experiences can have a lasting effect on our consciousness. Most important is, how do you take away your karma?

The only way to fix your consciousness is through strong practicing. Two kinds of practicing are important: bowing and mantra. First, every day do bowing practice. Slow, slow bowing. Next is mantra. Choose one mantra — Kwan Seum Bosal or any mantra — then do it. Only try, try, try mantra. This problem means you have a lot of thinking many opinions. These appear from “me.” Doing bowing and mantra practice doesn’t have “I, my or me.” Inside and outside become one — boom! If you try that, then your karma will slowly disappear. Only do it, then finally your consciousness will be clean, then your problem will disappear. Only practicing will help you. Reading books and understanding will not help you. OK? Only do it!


From a talk at the Seoul International Zen Center

Student: During Hae Jae, I did a short Ji Jang Bosal kido. I did extra chanting of Namu Amita Bul and bowing for my mother, but I still have this question: Where is my mother’s consciousness now?

Zen Master Seung Sahn: Don’t check anything, only do it. If you are checking, you will have a problem. So, your consciousness and your mother’s consciousness, are they the same or different?

[student hits the floor]

Keep this mind, OK? Then there will be no problem!

Student: Sir, a while ago you did Namu Amita Bul chanting here at Hwa Gye Sah over some Japanese bones which had been discovered. When Korean people found these bones, they wanted to destroy them, but you said no, bring them here to Hwa Gye Sah. Then for many days you chanted Namu Amita Bul. Were you chanting for these dead Japanese people?

ZMSS: Of course, why not? At one time the Buddha and Ananda were traveling together when they encountered some animal bones laying on the ground, partially buried. The Buddha started chanting. Ananda said, “Buddha, these are animal bones, why chant over them?” Buddha said, “Before, these creatures were my mother, also my father.” Everything is always changing and in the end moving up. So, any set of bones will become your mother and your father. Understand? That mind is the Buddha’s mind. No matter what the animal, no matter what the being, they are always moving up, up, up. We are always practicing together, your parents, my parents, all beings, up, up, up. One day soon you will die, then you too up, up, up. Many generations, many thousands of generations, up, up, up together. There’s only one mother and one father; understand? Keep this mind. That’s Buddha퉠 teaching. Any more questions?

Student: Buddhism teaches that if human beings do bad things, then they will become animals. But how do animals make good karma to become human beings?

ZMSS: Is your consciousness an animal’s or a human being’s?

[student hits the floor]

Good! Wonderful! Keep this mind. Don’t check. If you’re checking, you will have a problem. Checking, checking, checking, then you always have a problem. Up, up, up… only one thing. Christianity calls it God, Buddhism calls it Buddha nature. Don’t check! That’s all. OK?

The Bodhisattva of the Toll Gates

Zen Master Seung Sahn and four of his students were traveling down Route 95 from Providence to New York to visit the Chogye International Zen Center. Soen Sa Nim chatted with his students as they drove, answering questions and giving advice. They came to a toll booth. They gave the toll operator some money and waited for her to give them change. One of the students traveling with Soen Sa Nim said to her “Nice day, isn’t it?” She agreed, but added, “Where did all this wind come from?” After she gave them their change, they drove off. The car was silent for a while until Zen Master Seung Sahn looked at the student and said “That was no ordinary woman at the toll booth. That was Kwanseum Bosal asking you a great question: ‘Where did all this wind come from?’ You must always be alert to the teaching that comes your way. Put down your mind and you can see what’s actually in front of you. So I ask you ‘Where did all this wind come from?”‘