36,000 Mornings

Dear Soen Sa Nim,

Tried to register for the Berkeley Yong Maeng Jong Jin, but it was already full. Hope to make the chanting retreat in October.

One evening, I was eating dinner in the cafeteria at Prudhoe Bay. Everything was quite normal, and I was conversing pleasantly with a friend. I looked around the hall, and it suddenly seemed to me that everyone was dead; death seemed absolutely palpable. I do not mean that I saw corpses all over; no, everyone was just sitting and eating, but they all, everyone, seemed dead. The atmosphere was saturated with death. Interestingly, this was not a frightening experience, but seemed quite objective, almost scientific in tone. It lasted for about forty minutes. It has happened on two subsequent occasions, though not so long.

I do not know what to make of this experience. Anything? Should I “put it down,” use it?

You asked if I was the same as a tree or different. My answer — if a wall is blocking your path, walk around it.

I am very glad that you are feeling better and are out of the hospital. The last Newsletter was especially interesting to me, since I had practiced another form of meditation for about four years before eventually becoming dissatisfied with it. Your explanation of the difference between other forms of meditation and Zen was very revealing to me.

Yours in the Dharma,


September 16, 1977

Dear James,

How are you? Thank you for your letter. You could not come to the Berkeley Yong Maeng Jong Jin, so I could not see you. That’s O.K. You said maybe you will come to the chanting retreat. That is wonderful.

You said, “Suddenly, it seemed to me that everyone was dead, not corpses, but they just seemed dead.” How about you? Were you dead or alive? What is death? What is life? I think maybe you like life. If you make death, you have death. If you make life, you have life. Death and life are originally nothing; they are made by your thinking. Your body has life and death, but your true self always remains clear, not dependent on life and death.

So, I ask you, what are you? If you don’t know, only go straight. Put it all down. Don’t check inside, don’t check outside. Outside and inside become one. What are you doing now? If you are doing something, you must do it! Don’t make anything. Only go straight.

Long ago in China, there was a famous Zen Master, Ko Bong. Before he became a Zen Master, he always kept the kong-an, “Where are you coming from; where are you going?” He only kept don’t-know mind, always, everywhere. One day, he was sweeping the yard in front of the Dharma Room. At that time, the great Zen Master Ang Sahn appeared and asked him, “What are you doing?”

He said, “I am working on my kong-an.”

“What is your kong-an?”

”My kong-an is, ‘Where are you coming from; where are you going?”’

“Oh? Then, I ask you, who is coming; who is going?”

He could not answer. Then, the Zen Master became very angry, grabbed his shirt at the neck, and shouted, “Why are you pulling around a corpse!?” Then, he pushed him very hard; Ko Bong fell back on the ground, and the Zen Master went away.

Ko Bong’s whole world was dark. There was only a big question, and he was very angry. “Why don’t I know myself? What am I?” Don’t know. He couldn’t see anything; he couldn’t hear anything; he couldn’t taste anything; he couldn’t feel anything; he couldn’t smell anything. For seven days this went on. After seven days, he saw the Fifth Patriarch’s picture. Beneath the picture, it said,

One hundred years,
36,000 mornings.
Before, I am you.
Now, you are me.

He saw this, and his don’t-know mind exploded. Inside and outside became one. Subject and object, all opposites worlds disappeared. Complete absolute. He could see the sky – only blue. He could hear a sound – only a bird’s song. All, just like this, is the truth. After that, he got Transmission from Zen Master Ang Sahn and became a great Zen Master.

So, I ask you, why are you pulling around a corpse? Tell me! Tell me!

Yours in the Dharma,


100% Crazy

A talk after a kong-an reading, by Seung Sahn Soen Sa Nim

Sometimes a student will decide to fast during Yong Maeng Jong Jin or a seven-day retreat. He begins strong. First day, second day, only water. Third day, “…maybe I’ll have a little orange juice…” Fourth day, “…just a half slice of bread…” Fifth day, the student gets a headache; “…think I’ll take a little nap…” Seventh day, starving, he stuffs himself. This is what is called “head is a dragon, tail is a snake.”

I decide, then I don’t do. This means I don’t believe in myself. Ask a child, “What is one plus two?” “Three.” “Is that correct?” “Sure, it’s correct.” He believes in himself, so he doesn’t think about it. “One plus two doesn’t equal three…” “It does too! My teacher said so!” A child’s mind doesn’t shake so easily. But Zen students! They cling to words and thinking.

Your mind is always one of these three: lost mind, empty mind, or clear mind. On the street, a thief comes up. “Give me your money!” How is your mind then? Somebody says sex mind is Zen mind, but if you suddenly found a gun in your face while you’re making love, would your mind move? If you’re afraid you’ll lose your life, you have lost your mind.

Empty mind won’t move. “This is a hold up!” “Om mani padme hum. Om mani padme hum. Om mani padme hum.” “You want some lead in your head?” “Om mani padme hum. Om mani padme hum…” “Are you crazy?” “Om mani padme hum…” Crazy/sane, alive/dead. It is all one to empty mind.

And clear mind? “Give me money!” “How much do you want?” “Shut up, you… give me all of it!” No fear. Just check the mind behind the gun.

Ma Jo one day took his student Pae Chang riding on the river. They had a good time. A flock of birds flew overhead, going south. Ma Jo asked, “What is that?” “Birds.” “Where are they going?” “South.” “Is that right?” “Yes.” Ma Jo grabbed his nose and twisted it hard. “Aaaggghh!” Very painful! “Where did the birds go?” Pae Chang couldn’t answer. They came back to the temple. Later Pae Chang’s friends came upon him holding his nose and crying, “Oh my nose!” His friends asked him, “Why are you crying?” He just kept right on. They kept asking, “What’s wrong?” Finally Pae Chang said, “Ask the master.” So they went to Ma Jo. “Why is he crying?” “Ask him!” So they went back. “The master said to ask you.” Pae Chang suddenly stopped crying and began laughing just as hard. His friends were very surprised. “Are you crazy?” “Ma Jo is the crazy one!” They all went back to Ma Jo. “Now he’s laughing and says you’re crazy!” Ma Jo understood Pae Chang’s mind then. So what does it mean? Crying mind and laughing mind: are they the same or different? Crazy mind, sane mind. Completely crazy, 100% crazy, believe-in-myself crazy – that’s completely clear mind.

At Jong Hae Sah Temple in Korea they had three months of sitting, three months vacation. During vacation, everybody had to collect money or food and bring it back for the sitting period. At that time Zen Master Mang Gong was just beginning the temple and had no money. So the students would go around to the homes of lay people, recite the Heart Sutra, get rice or money and bring it back to the monastery. But when my teacher Ko Bong got rice, he’d sell it at the end of the day and go out drinking – laughing and singing. Everybody else came back at the end of vacation with sacks of rice. All he ever brought back was alcohol. Then he’d be drinking and shouting all night, “This temple’s no good! Buddhism is full of shit! Mang Gong doesn’t understand Dharma! He’s a low class master!”

Once Mang Gong showed up during one of Ko Bong’s rampages and screamed at him, “What do you understand?” Everybody was waiting to see what would happen. “KO BONG!” “Yes!” “Why are you always insulting me behind my back?” Ko Bong looked completely surprised and offended. “Zen Master, I never said anything about you! I was talking about this good-for-nothing Mang Gong!” “Mang Gong? What do you mean, Mang Gong? I’M MANG GONG! What’s the difference between me and Mang Gong?” “KAAAATZ!” Ko Bong yelled, loud enough to split your ears. “Go sleep it off,” Mang Gong said, and left the room.

My teacher’s actions were very bad, but he always kept clear mind. Drink and sex did not hinder it. He always kept just-now mind. ”Mang Gong? What’s the difference between me and Mang Gong?” “KAAAATZ!” That katz is very important. Better than money or bags of rice. Mang Gong never bothered Ko Bong for anything after that. Dragon head, dragon tail; Ko Bong believed completely in himself.

Zen Master Seung Sahn

The Story of Seung Sahn

Seung Sahn Soen-sa was born in 1927 in Seun Choen, North Korea. His parents were Protestant Christians.

Korea at this time was under severe Japanese military rule, and all political and cultural freedom was brutally suppressed. In 1944, Soen-sa joined the underground Korean independence movement. Within a few months he was caught by the Japanese police and narrowly escaped a death sentence. After his release from prison, he and two friends stole several thousand dollars from their parents and crossed the heavily-patrolled Manchurian border in an unsuccessful attempt to join the Free Korean Army.

In the years following World War II, while he was studying Western philosophy at Dong Guk University, the political situation in South Korea grew more and more chaotic. One day Soen-sa decided that he wouldn’t be able to help people through his political activities or his academic studies. So he shaved his head and went into the mountains, vowing never to return until he had attained the absolute truth.

For three months he studied the Confucian scriptures, but he was unsatisfied by them. Then a friend of his, who was a monk in a small mountain temple, gave him the Diamond Sutra, and he first encountered Buddhism. “All things that appear in this world are transient. If you view all things that appear as never having appeared, then you will realize your true self.” When he read these words, his mind became clear. For the next few weeks he read many sutras. Finally, he decided to become a Buddhist monk and was ordained in October, 1948.

Soen-sa had already understood the sutras. He realized that the only important thing now was practice. So ten days after his ordination, he went further up into the mountains and began a one-hundred-day retreat on Won Gak Mountain (the Mountain of Perfect Enlightenment). He ate only pine needles, dried and beaten into a powder. For twenty hours every day he chanted the Great Dharani of Original Mind Energy. Several times a day he took ice-cold baths. It was a very rigorous practice.

Soon he was assailed by doubts. Why was this retreat necessary? Why did he have to go to extremes? Couldn’t he go down to a small temple in a quiet valley, get married like a Japanese monk, and attain enlightenment gradually, in the midst of a happy family? One night these thoughts became so powerful that he decided to leave and packed his belongings. But the next morning his mind was clearer, and he unpacked. A few days later the same thing happened. And in the following weeks, he packed and unpacked nine times.

By now fifty days had passed, and Soen-sa’s body was very exhausted. Every night he had terrifying visions. Demons would appear out of the dark and make obscene gestures at him. Ghouls would sneak up behind him and wrap their cold fingers around his neck. Enormous beetles would gnaw his legs. Tigers and dragons would stand in front of him, bellowing. He was in constant terror.

After a month of this, the visions turned into visions of delight. Sometimes Buddha would come and teach him a sutra. Sometimes Bodhisattvas would appear in gorgeous clothing and tell him that he would go to heaven. Sometimes he would keel over from exhaustion and Kwan Se Um Bosal would gently wake him up. By the end of eighty days, his body was strong. His flesh had turned green from the pine needles.

One day, a week before the retreat was to finish, Soen-sa was walking outside, chanting and keeping rhythm with his moktak. Suddenly, two boys, eleven or twelve years old, appeared on either side of him and bowed. They were wearing many-colored robes, and their faces were of an unearthly beauty. Soen-sa was very surprised. His mind felt powerful and perfectly clear, so how could these demons have materialized? He walked ahead on the narrow mountain path, and the two boys followed him, walking right through the boulders on either side of the path. They walked together in silence for a half-hour, then, back at the altar, when Soen-sa got up from his bow, they were gone. This happened every day for a week.

Finally it was the hundredth day. Soen-sa was outside chanting and hitting the moktak. All at once his body disappeared, and he was in infinite space. From far away he could hear the moktak beating, and the sound of his own voice. He remained in this state for some time. When he returned to his body, he understood. 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.

Soen-sa slept very well that night. When he woke up the next morning, he saw a man walking up the mountain, then some crows flying out of a tree. He wrote the following poem:

The road at the bottom of Won Gak Mountain
is not the present road.
The man climbing with his backpack
is not a man of the past.
‘fok, tok, tok – his footsteps
transfix past and present.
Crows out of a tree.
Caw, caw, caw.

Soon after he came down from the mountain, he met Zen Master Ko Bong, whose teacher had been Zen Master Mang Gong. Ko Bong was reputed to be the most brilliant Zen Master in Korea, and one of the most severe. At this time he was teaching only laymen; monks, he said, were not ardent enough to be good Zen students. Soen-sa wanted to test his enlightenment with Ko Bong, so he went to him with a moktak and said, “What is this?” Ko Bong took the moktak and hit it. This was just what Soen-sa had expected him to do.

Soen-sa then said, “How should I practice Zen?”

Ko Bong said, “A monk once asked Zen Master Jo-ju, ‘Why did Bodhidharma come to China?’ Jo-ju answered, ‘The pine tree in the front garden.’ What does this mean?”

Soen-sa understood, but he didn’t know how to answer. He said, “I don’t know.”

Ko Bong said, “Only keep this don’t-know mind. That is true Zen practice.”

That spring and summer, Soen-sa did mostly working Zen. In the fall, he sat for a hundred-day meditation session at Su Dok Sa monastery, where he learned Zen language and Dharma-combat. By the winter, he began to feel that the monks weren’t practicing hard enough, so he decided to give them some help. One night, as he was on guard-duty (there had been some burglaries), he took all the pots and pans out of the kitchen and arranged them in a circle in the front yard. The next night, he turned the Buddha on the main altar toward the wall and took the incense-burner, which was a national treasure, and hung it on a persimmon tree in the garden. By the second morning the whole monastery was in an uproar. Rumors were flying around about lunatic burglars, or gods coming from the mountain to warn the monks to practice harder.

The third night, Soen-sa went to the nuns’ quarters, took seventy pairs of nuns’ shoes and put them in front of Zen Master Dok Sahn’s room, displayed as in a shoe store. But this time, a nun woke up to go to the outhouse and, missing her shoes, she woke up everyone in the nuns’ quarters. Soen-sa was caught. The next day he was brought to trial. Since most of the monks voted to give him another chance (the nuns were unanimously against him), he wasn’t expelled from the monastery. But he had to offer formal apologies to all the high monks.

First he went to Dok Sahn and bowed. Dok Sahn said, “Keep up the good work.”

Then he went to the head nun. She said, “You’ve made a great deal too much commotion in this monastery, young man.” Soen-sa laughed and said, “The whole world is already full of commotion. What can you do?” She couldn’t answer.

Next was Zen Master Chun Song, who was famous for his wild actions and obscene language. Soen-sa bowed to him and said, “I killed all the Buddhas of past, present, and future. What can you do?”

Chun Song said, “Aha!” and looked deeply into Soen-sa’s eyes. Then he said, “What did you see?”

Soen-sa said, “You already understand.”

Chun Song said, “Is that all?”

Soen-sa said, “There’s a cuckoo singing in the tree out- side the window.”

Chun Song laughed and said, “Aha!” He asked several more questions, which Soen-sa answered without difficulty. Finally, Chun Song leaped up and danced around Soen-sa, shouting, “You are enlightened! You are enlightened!” The news spread quickly, and people began to understand the events of the preceding days.

On January 15, the session was over, and Soen-sa left to see Ko Bong. On the way to Seoul, he had interviews with Zen Master Keum Bong and Zen Master Keum Oh. Both gave him inga, the seal of validation of a Zen student’s great awakening.

Soen-sa arrived at Ko Bong’s temple dressed in his old patched retreat clothes and carrying a knapsack. He bowed to Ko Bong and said, “All the Buddhas turned out to be a bunch of corpses. How about a funeral service?”

Ko Bong said, “Prove it!”

Soen-sa reached into his knapsack and took out a dried cuttlefish and a bottle of wine. “Here are the leftovers from the funeral party.”

Ko Bong said, “Then pour me some wine.”

Soen-sa said, “Okay. Give me your glass.”

Ko Bong held out his palm.

Soen-sa slapped it with the bottle and said, “That’s not a glass, it’s your hand!” Then he put the bottle on the floor.

Ko Bong laughed and said, “Not bad. You’re almost done. But I have a few questions for you.” He proceeded to ask Soen-sa the most difficult of the seventeen-hundred traditional Zen kong-ans. Soen-sa answered without hindrance.

Then Ko Bong said, “All right, one last question. The mouse eats cat-food, but the cat-bowl is broken. What does this mean?”

Soen-sa said, “The sky is blue, the grass is green.”

Ko Bong shook his head and said, “No.”

Soen-sa was taken aback. He had never missed a Zen question before. His face began to grow red as he gave one “like this” answer after another. Ko Bong kept shaking his head. Finally Soen-sa exploded with anger and frustration. “Three Zen Masters have given me inga! Why do you say I’m wrong?!”

Ko Bong said, “What does it mean? Tell me.”

For the next fifty minutes, Ko Bong and Soen-sa sat facing each other, hunched like two tomcats. The silence was electric. Then, all of a sudden, Soen-sa had the answer. It was “just like this.”

When Ko Bong heard it, his eyes grew moist and his face filled with joy. He embraced Soen-sa and said, “You are the flower; I am the bee.”

On January 25, 1949, Soen-sa received from Ko Bong the Transmission of Dharma, thus becoming the Seventy-Eighth Patriarch in this line of succession. It was the only Transmission that Ko Bong ever gave.

After the ceremony, Ko Bong said to Soen-sa, “For the next three years you must keep silent. You are a free man. We will meet again in five hundred years.”

Soen-sa was now a Zen Master. He was twenty-two years old.

From Dropping Ashes On The Buddha: The Teaching of Zen Master Seung Sahn
edited by Stephen Mitchell (Grove Press, New York, NY, 1976)

Story of the Dead Bones

In 1957, Ko Bong Sunim became seriously ill and so Soen Sa Nim was appointed as the abbot of Hwa Gae Sah temple.

In the course of his duties as abbot, Soen Sa Nim heard of a Japanese temple in Seoul which contained the bones of 500 dead Japanese people. The temple was troubled with finances and fell under the control of lay people. The lay people were not interested in Japanese bones. They wanted to throw the bones out of the temple. When Soen Sa Nim heard about this, he went to the temple. He told the officials, “Whether these bones were once Korean or Japanese, dead people’s bones are all the same. Dead bones are dead bones!”

Then he brought the bones back to Hwa Gae Sah. For days and days, he only chanted Namu Ami Ta Bul over the bones; the chanting was for the dead spirits.

A few years later, Korea and Japan resumed diplomatic relationship. Then some Japanese came to Korea to Hwa Gae Sah to claim the bones of their dead ancestors and carry them back to their homeland.

Out of great appreciation and deep respect for Soen Sa Nim’s action the Japanese invited him to go to Japan. This invitation became an opportunity for him to live abroad which became a turning point in his life.

It has been said by some Koreans, “We lost a great master to Japan and to America because of some dead bones.”

— Do Gong (formerly John Barrouzzol from Canada)
Seoul International Zen Center, Korea

When Soen Sa Nim First Arrived in the U.S.A.

In September, 1970, 1 received a phone call from my sister, Mrs. Kimura, who lives in Japan. She told me my mother was very ill. So I decided to go see her. I prepared to leave and was on an airplane within 24 hours. When I arrived in Japan I was met at the airport by my sister and Soen Sa Nim. My sister introduced us and my first impression of Soen Sa Nim was that he was a happy, hyper person. That was it. That’s all I thought. At that time I knew nothing about Buddhism. He drove us to his temple where we spent the night.

He asked me what American life is all about. I told him about America and invited him to come and see it for himself.

In May, 1972, 1 received a phone call from my sister. She told me Soen Sa Nim would be arriving at the Los Angeles International Airport in a couple of hours. Luckily I was home. I went to meet him at the airport and brought him to my home. I gave him my son’s room. He made a small altar on which sat a statue of Kwan Seum Bosal. That evening he started chanting and told me to follow along if I would like to. I felt drawn by the sounds of Soen Sa Nim’s chanting and tears started to flow from my eyes for no apparent reason. From that day forward a new life began for me. I remember being amazed at Soen Sa Nim’s humbleness. He helped with the house cleaning, shopping, cooking, etc… Needless to say I loved his company and his help.

My children and their friends accepted him into the family without hesitation. They seemed to get a kick out of it. My oldest daughter who was thirteen at the time bought some English books to teach Soen Sa Nim English. He in turn was teaching her Buddhism. That was the start of a great teaching for all Americans.

I would like to end in saying that the happiness and contentment he brought into my life and to my children is immeasurable. I cannot think of a word that describes Soen Sa Nim – only that he is vaster than the ocean and boundless as the sky and can probably best be described by the feeling, that there is no word for, that a person attains through meditation. We love him and wish he could live forever. Thank you, Soen Sa Nim.

— Judy Barrie
Santa Monica, California

Doyle Avenue

Soen Sa Nim’s first attempt at establishing an American Zen Center was in a small apartment in Providence, Rhode Island. The apartment was located on a street named Doyle Avenue. Soen Sa Nim probably didn’t care about the fairly violent and unhappy mood of the street, which would at times stage drunken brawls and knife fights. What he saw was a house with two relatively large bedrooms and a very low rent of $150.00 a month.

At that time Soen Sa Nim was totally self-financed and, of course, totally independent. Only the spiders and a stray cat (later named Abigale) know what the apartment looked like when Soen Sa Nim first moved in, and how he spent his time. It was not long before an Eastern Religions professor from Brown University became interested in him, and with him came some of his curious students.

One or two of those brave souls decided to move in with Soen Sa Nim, surely having no idea what they were getting themselves into. There was literally no furniture in the apartment except a small kitchen table and a few assorted wooden chairs. Soen Sa Nim had brought a small electric rice cooker and a few bowls and spoons. There was an old aluminum pot in which he would create the most incredibly delicious soups.

One day a Buddha from Korea arrived in a large wooden box. It was broken into about 15 pieces. Undaunted, Soen Sa Nim asked one of his newly arrived disciples to fetch some glue and then he proceeded to meticulously and patiently convert emptiness back into form.

And that was how he did his best teaching in those days. English was awkward and difficult for him. He was a master at pantomime and example. His enthusiasm was delightful. And his examples were sometimes quite surprising. Once, objects began to be missing in the Zen Center and it soon became obvious that the thief was one of the small boys that lived in the neighborhood. The reason it was obvious was that he would be found blatantly crawling through one of the windows. He was also fond of throwing rocks at Abigale (the cat) and hanging around the driveway, making fun of Soen Sa Nim’s strange clothes. One morning the little n’er-do-well was enthusiastically teasing Soen Sa Nim while he was working in the garden and Soen Sa Nim suddenly charged towards him, screaming wildly and swinging his arms. Then he began to advance toward the then trembling youth and act out karate kicks. The boy charged out of the yard, never to be seen at close range again. One of his students questioned his methods and Soen Sa Nim simply said, “Most demons only understand demons.”

Everyone that came to the apartment in those first six months only needed to be there a half an hour before they understood his purpose and direction. Soen Sa Nim wanted to make a Zen Center out of the apartment. He wanted the altar to be the heart, the Dharma Room to be wide and clean so many people could gather and practice together and find their own hearts. He made his students feel comfortable and warm by laughing and joking with them in the kitchen. He’d suddenly decide to make a huge batch of kimchee, containing every vegetable imaginable. Or he’d be sitting at the kitchen table for hours, diligently writing letters to unknown people in Korea and suddenly look up and ask everyone if they liked noodles. Often he’d have to look the word he was searching for up in his Korean-English dictionary, that never left his side. “Noodles! You like noodles?” Of course everyone would smile inside and out, loving his accent and his enthusiasm and give him a big nod. Then he’d proceed to convert the entire kitchen into a flour-filled noodle factory, producing in less than an hour a soup that surpassed even his last, filled with delicious homemade noodles. And he’d be so unabashedly pleased that everyone liked it, telling them repeatedly, “In Korea, anytime this style soup. This style is #1. Eat this, become strong – much energy, yah?” Then he’d laugh.

He slowly introduced his brand of Zen, his tradition. First it was putting bright red and yellow cloth around the altar, which held the newly assembled Buddha. Then he insisted on the meditation mats being bright and multi-colored. Once in a while another wooden box would arrive from Korea with objects for the altar, or gray robes and incense, or a big bag of expensive black mushrooms for the famous soups.

One day Soen Sa Nim sat his students down. At that time there were about seven regular “customers” (that was one of Soen Sa Nim’s jokes, calling anyone who ate his soup or came to his Sunday night talks a “customer”). He explained that it was time for the Zen Center to have a practicing schedule. This was the end of an era. The practice began to shift from the kitchen into the Dharma Room. He even asked them to wear those gray robes. The chants were transliterated and bows were counted. Cushions were even assigned and Sunday night Dharma talks got better and better. At first they were always translated from Japanese to English by the Brown University Eastern Religions professor, but in time Soen Sa Nim became more confident with his vocabulary and he began to create talks as warm and nurturing as his soups. As a matter of fact, he got so busy with his English lessons and growing “customers” volume, that the kitchen became the newly-appointed and titled Housemaster’s domain and he came there only to write, study, and offer spontaneous talks on the Dharma. He was almost always willing to answer any questions and if nothing else seemed helpful, he would tap the student’s head with a chop stick and say, “Too much thinking! Put it down, OK?”

In the two year span of Doyle Avenue, the tone and rhythm of the future Zen Center was created. Soen Sa Nim started it all with his warmth, then introduced the practice – always stressing how important it is to practice every day, no vacations. And then he began giving Precepts, as he taught why it was so important for the mind to be able to openly take the Precepts.

So it always appeared that he was sometimes obviously making up a lot of the form as he went along, closely watching the young American mind and finding the right remedies for the sometimes powerful imbalances. The other thing that appeared like grass in spring was his ageless knowledge of practice and Dharma and how to pass that on to others … the knowledge that was way beyond following a particular form …the knowledge that would give each of his students a warm and powerful boost toward understanding themselves and understanding their original jobs.

Zen Master Seong Hyang (Barbara Rhodes)
— one of Soen Sa Nim’s very first “customers.”

These three stories are from Only DOing it for Sitxy Years
Compiled and edited by Diana Clark; published by Primary Point Press, Cumberland, RI, 1987

Seungsahn Haengwon ( 1927 ~ 2004 )

Seungsahn Haengwon ( 1927 ~ 2004 )


1. Biography
Venerable Seungsahn was born in Suncheon, Pyeongannam-do, North Korea in 1927. He graduated from Pyeongan Industrial High School in 1945, and entered Dongguk University in 1946. He left for Magoksa Temple to become a monk in 1947 as he had become disillusioned with life. At that time, the political situation consisted of a confrontation between the ideological views of the left and right wings – between the same ethnic people after liberation from Japanese rule.

One day, he met Master Gobong(1889-1961) who was a disciple of Master Mangong. During the dialogue, he was unable to respond to the master’s questions. Master Gobong told him “If you don’t know, then go out and raise your doubt about it. This is the way to practice Seon.”

After this encounter he went into an intensive retreat at Sudeoksa Temple. During the free seasons, in between the practice sessions, he was particularly fortunate to be able to meet many of the famous masters of his day. He had a second chance to meet Master Gobong, while he was doing another retreat at Mitasa Temple. At that meeting, Venerable Seungsahn said; “As I killed all Buddhas of the three realms last night, I came back after cleaning up all of the corpses.” Seon Master Gobong said, “You are very naughty, how can I believe your saying?” Then Master Gobong began to ask Seungsahn the 1,700 gongan — Seon questions — and he was able to answer all of them without hesitation. So Master Gobong told to him, “As your flowers burst into bloom, I will be a butterfly for you.” And he gave his sanction or dharma transmission to Seungsahn. Therefore, Master Seungsahn, at the age of 22 in 1949, inherited the Korean Seon lineage from masters Gyeongheo, Mangong, and Gobong who had restored the Korean Seon tradition.

After finishing eleven retreats at Sudeoksa Temple, he joined the new purification movement to reestablish the Korean Buddhist tradition which was weak after Liberation and the Korean War. From then on, he worked at reestablishing the tradition once again and improving the Jogye Order which had lost its identity during the colonization period. Due to this, he was appointed the president of the Buddhist Newspaper (1960), and worked as a director of the General Affairs Department (1961) and director of Financial Affairs (1962) in the headquarters of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism.

As the Jogye Order became stabilized in 1962, Seungsahn was free to turn to other activities. He opened the Korean temple, Hongbeobwon, in Japan and this heralded the start of his spreading Buddhism outside Korea. Later on, he proceeded to set up Korean Seon centers in America, Eastern Europe, Western Europe, Russia, Africa and South East Asia from 1972. Master Gobong had told Seungsahn, when he gave his sanction, “You will spread the teachings all over the world.” Following his teacher’s saying, he opened over 120 Seon centers in 32 countries over a period of 35 years, resulting in more than 50,000 people becoming Buddhists. For his great efforts in propagation, he was given the world peace prize by WUM in 1985.

In 1987, he held the first Seon international conference with the title given by Seon Master Mangong, “The Whole World is a Single Flower” at Sudeoksa Temple. This meeting was aimed at unifying all people of different races and from different regions of the world under the Buddha’s teachings. The second and the third conferences were held at the same temple in 1992 and 1993 respectively. In 1992, he opened the International Seon Center in Hwagyesa Temple for training his foreign disciples and for the globalization of Korean Buddhism.

Throughout his life, he taught Korean Seon to domestic and foreign monks enthusiastically while he was head monk of Hwagyesa Temple. On November 30th 2004, he called his disciples together at Yeomhwasil room. All of them recognized his approaching death, and then they asked him. “When you die, what should we do?” He said, “Don’t worry, don’t worry. The great light is immeasurable; mountains are blue and waters flow.” With this song, he died at the age of 77 in 2004.

After his death, many people as well as many condolences came from all over the world. Mr. John Kerry who was the American presidential candidate in 2004 gave a condolence speech and expressed his regrets. He said his son was also very touched by the late Seon master’s teaching. Master Seungsahn’s foreign disciples are Venerable Musim, the head monk of Musangsa Temple, in Mt. Gyeryongsan; Venerable Murang, the head monk of Taeansa Temple; Venerable Hyon Gak, the head monk of the International Seon Center in Hwagyesa temple and the author of Man Haeng: From Harvard to Hwa Gye Sah and Venerable Cheongan from Hungary, as well as many more. All of them were ordained under him and chose the path of a Buddhist practitioner instead of living an ordinary life.

2. Writings
The trace of globalization of Korean Seon by Master Seungsahn remains clearly evident in his more than 20 written works, both in English and in Korean. The Whole World is a Single Flower — 365 Gongans for Everyday Life involves the gongans of Seon; The Compass of Zen explains in simple and easy language a way of understanding Buddhism; Dropping Ashes on the Buddha is a collection of his short dharma talks. These were all written for his foreign disciples in English and translated into Korean as well. Though these books were written for his foreign disciples, they have greatly influenced laypeople who want to know Korean Buddhism and Seon better. The book, Only Doing It involving his biography and his disciples’ writings, was compiled by his foreign disciples from all over the world; Only Don’t Know is a collection of letters about Seon practice and the lives and difficulties of the practitioners; The Moon Illuminated on the Thousand Rivers, and Seon poems Bone of Space are all well known as well.Especially The Whole World is a Single Flower which was published in celebration of his thirty years of propagating Buddhism describes his work in spreading Buddhism at a glance. involves the gongans of Seon; explains in simple and easy language a way of understanding Buddhism; is a collection of his short dharma talks. These were all written for his foreign disciples in English and translated into Korean as well. Though these books were written for his foreign disciples, they have greatly influenced laypeople who want to know Korean Buddhism and Seon better. The book, involving his biography and his disciples’ writings, was compiled by his foreign disciples from all over the world; is a collection of letters about Seon practice and the lives and difficulties of the practitioners; and Seon poems are all well known as well.Especiallywhich was published in celebration of his thirty years of propagating Buddhism describes his work in spreading Buddhism at a glance.

3. Characteristics of His Thoughts
Master Seungsahn used to give everyone Seon sayings whenever he met them. Examples include: “only don’t know,” “mountains are blue and water flows,” “what news is this,” – all like hwadu. He taught that the realm of impermanence is “mountains are rivers and rivers are mountains”; that the realm of emptiness mentioned in the Heart Sutra is “mountains are empty and rivers are empty”; and that the realm of reality is “mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers.” And he often said, “Through all of these realms, the realm of ‘mountains are blue and rivers flow’ is the realm of embracing the state of how the world of truth is to be taken and adjusted to the reality of righteous living.”

He used to frequently say “Only don’t know” to his visitors. Another one of his teachings was quoted from the Diamond Sutra: “Everything with form is an illusion. If you see things without form then you see the Tathagata.” He said “As everything which has its own name and form is illusion and untruth, don’t attach to it!”

His teaching did not just follow the hwadu of previous masters but adjusted to modern society. This is one of the most characteristic aspects of his teachings. He taught this world is “only don’t know,” and so following the path of the Buddha for finding our True Nature is the only way to find the True Nature of Buddhahood.