The following exchange took place during a retreat at Providence Zen Center on February 1, 1986.
Question: What is the underlying essence of Zen?
Zen Master Wu Kwang: (lifting up his cup and drinking) Cold water. (laughter) Zen Master Seung Sahn told me that’s what they say in Korea when they want to tell someone to just keep a clear mind: “Go drink cold water.” (laughter) Only that.
I had an interesting and useful experience a few weeks ago. I was talking with Ken Kessel, a longtime student of Zen Master Seung Sahn. He told me that sometimes he likes to practice for two hours straight in the morning. He doesn’t walk, he doesn’t get up, he just sits there for two hours in his full lotus position, without moving.
I got inspired to find out what that was about. (laughter) So I tried a couple of times. I got pretty close, one time an hour and fifty minutes. But one of the interesting experiences I had when trying this was coming to a moment when I had the recognition that it was just sitting. There was nothing miraculous that was going to appear, even if I sat for two more hours straight. (laughter) It was just sitting, pure and simple, just like drinking cold water is just drinking cold water.
That’s our teaching, our way, and yet it’s difficult to believe. Over and over we want to make something, add something, romanticize something. It’s very difficult to just believe in the truth of something that simple. So maybe there is no essence of Zen, none at all. (laughter)
As soon as we start to think about the essence of something, we’re already caught up in some subtle conceptual framework because we’re looking for something called an “essence.” If you sit for two hours straight, you can go on a long journey towards essence. Your nervous system and your mind and everything will do miraculous and extraordinary things in two hours of sitting, that is, along with the pain in your legs. So one of the fundamentals of the Zen way of talking is to talk about “no self” and “no trace.” No trace means that experiences, phenomena have no trace of something conceptual sticking to them. That means no essence.
There’s a story about a sea turtle who comes out of the ocean, crawls up on the beach, buries its eggs, smoothes over the sand so that no one can find anything and then goes back down the beach to the ocean and swims away. But this turtle has a tail. As it crawls down the beach, the tail drags back and forth in the sand, leaving quite a clear tracing of just where the eggs were. So, the Zen way emphasizes existing with no trace, no tail. Somehow we have to cut off our tail, or have the patience to endure just waiting until it falls off by itself. It’s doubtful to me, at this point in my life, that we could really cut it off once and for all. If you cut it off, it just grows back anyway, like a salamander.
Richie said last night when I came in that it was good to have the retreat going on here and it was amazing how quickly things fall away and you get back to the simplicity of natural mind. After saying that, he said, “It’s amazing how easily things fall away, and also how quickly they come back.”
We need the patience just to let these things wear themselves out, over and over, until there’s no trace left. It’s like sandpaper, getting things smoother and smoother. We’re all looking for the essence of Zen, and that’s creating many problems.
Q: When I don’t think about effort, it seems like I’m able to do something. When I do think about it, I have come to think there is no such thing as trying. Where do we get the impulse inside ourselves to do it?
ZMWK: It’s a combination of self-determined focus, on the one hand, and a spontaneous emergence, on the other. I think the two come together at a certain point. Words like “try” and “effort” are teaching words, one particular expedient means that someone might offer to encourage someone else. Sometimes, a teacher might say “try,” and at other times, “don’t try at all.”
The other day my thirteen-year-old daughter was home sick, and I was there with her. We have a video cassette of the movie Karate Kid, and we were watching it for about the millionth time. (laughter) Parts of it have a Zen flavor. The karate teacher is going to teach this kid karate and they make a pact to begin. The teacher says, “Are you ready to begin?” The kid says, “Yeah, maybe, I guess so.”
The teacher then says something like this: “With some things, you can walk on one side of the road, you can walk on the other, or you can walk in the middle; but in karate, if you have this attitude of ‘I guess,’ you get squashed. So either karate ‘do’ or karate ‘don’t,’ but there’s no ‘I guess’ karate.
That’s a teaching that’s based on effort. You have to focus yourself. There’s no in-between, you either do it or not. There’s a similar scene in the second Star Wars movie, where the master-like figure, Yoda, is teaching Luke Skywalker to become attuned to the force of the universe. Luke says something like “I’ll try” and Yoda says, “Either do or don’t. There’s no try.”
On the other hand, when I was studying with Zen Master Seung Sahn around 1976, we were having a discussion with him. We had just moved the Zen center and were debating whether we could keep a daily practice going as a Zen center, because there was no one living in it, or whether we should call ourselves something other than a Zen center. Zen Master Seung Sahn subtly baited us. He said, “Well, you can be a Zen club if you want to and get together every so often and occasionally I’ll come here.” In the midst of all this talking, he finally coerced us into making a commitment. Then he said (this was the first time I’d heard him say it, and he’s said it a million times since then), “OK, so you try. Try, try, try for ten thousand years nonstop.”
That’s a teaching based on “just try.” But the intention of his “just try” and the intention that was being imparted in these two movies is basically the same spirit. To some degree, effort comes out of a determination to want to do something. If you have this determination, then there’s willingness, and in that willingness you can find interest, effort, spontaneous emergence. I think even before spontaneous interest or effort comes, there must be a certain willingness to want to do something. That’s what we call having a great vow. There’s a commitment, and out of that comes interest, which sometimes needs to be rekindled and sometimes just emerges very spontaneously.
At times “I want to do this” comes up quite easily and you don’t have to work very hard. You don’t have to work at all, except just to get out of your own way, put the conscious, computer-like activities of your mind aside, and just let the thing run on its own. Sometimes it’s like that. Sometimes when we’re sitting in a retreat, we’ll have moments or periods like that.
But there are other times when it doesn’t come forth like that. You might have to re-institute your commitment, your willingness to go through what it takes. I think both are important. In a way they come together, when you have a wide open mind that’s clear enough at any moment – pfft! – to become one with the point at hand. There’s a particular kind of energy that’s born of these two things coming together, willingness and intention and getting out of your own way and just letting it happen. It’s dangerous to think that it should just occur spontaneously.
Suzuki Roshi was very good at making that point in his writings, that human life is imperfect. It’s always leaving traces. Even the word “imperfect” isn’t quite right. Our human life, moment to moment, is always changing. There are always difficulties and limitations coming. At the same time, those particular ways of expressing ourselves and those things that we’re doing are the creative activity of the big mind or “don’t know” mind or beginner’s mind, whatever word you want to use. On one hand, we’re always leaving traces. One the other hand, there’s no need to get rid of those traces.
So we say there’s some spiritual truth and that truth is embodied in or expressed as everything. But we also look around and see so much disarray in ourselves and others. Why are people suffering? You can explain that away through some philosophical notion like karma, if you want. Not that karma is just a philosophical notion – it might be a reality as well. But while we can explain away painful things through a concept like karma, the real paradox of human existence comes if we don’t explain or justify it away. How do we live having faith that there’s some truth in the universe and that it’s manifesting itself as all this that we see and hear and taste and smell and touch, and at the same time see so much disarray? How is all this disarray truth?
Q: How is it?
ZMWK: Yes! That’s great doubt. Keep that question for ten thousand years – “how is it?”
Q: Every morning I get up with everyone else here and take a vow to save all sentient beings from suffering. How can I do that?
ZMWK: Do you want to do it?
ZMWK: Then you’ll find a way, through getting up every morning and taking that vow. That’s an impossible vow. Each one of these is an impossible vow. “The Buddha way is inconceivable – I vow to attain it.” How do you attain something that’s inconceivable? “Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them all.” How? It brings up the image of some great social worker in the sky – (laughter) – bigger than the whole universe, going to save all beings from suffering.
One time I heard Bernard Tetsugen Glassman Sensei, a teacher in Maezumi Roshi’s school (he has a group in New York), talking on the radio. He gave an example of what a bodhisattva is. He said, there’s a well that’s dry down on the plains, and up on the mountain tops there is snow. So the bodhisattva is like a guy who decides he’ll fill the well by bringing the snow down to the plains, but the only thing he has to carry the snow in is a teaspoon. So he goes up the mountain, gets one teaspoon full of snow, comes back down to the plains and puts the snow in the well. Then he goes back up the mountain, gets another teaspoon full of snow, brings it down and puts it in the well, over and over.
That’s a ridiculous endeavor. Never in a million years is he going to fill up that well, but what’s important is his sincerity of effort – to just do something, whether it’s possible or impossible. That effort, that spirit, is a contribution in and of itself that can’t be compared to anything else, so it has absolute value. Because it can’t be compared to anything else, the spirit of that fills the universe in one second. At each moment that we do that, all sentient beings are saved, because we affirm the absolute value of everything.
We have to do something, even if it’s not possible. So the vow points to something like that. At least, that’s my view of it.
Q: What is absolute value?
ZMWK: Relative value is concerned with, “This is good,” or “This is not as good as something else.” Value is ascribed to something based on a comparison with something else. “My watch is better than your watch, so it’s worth more.” That’s relative value. Absolute value has no basis like that. We can’t compare with anything, so it stands on its own just as it is. Sometimes we say subject and object become one – pfft! At that time, there’s no comparison of anything with anything else, so the absolute value of something emerges at that point. It just stands or sits on its own.
Q: Your story about the bodhisattva with the teaspoon reminds me of a similar story of the sparrow who tries to put out a forest fire by carrying water in his beak. I told that story to one of my friends and they said, “That’s the dumbest thing! Why didn’t he take a bucket?”
ZMWK: He didn’t have a bucket. But we’re not talking about mountains and snow, we’re talking about suffering. You can’t use a power tool on suffering.
Q: I get the feeling sometimes that the sparrow was really dumb.
ZMWK: Yes, sure! But dumbness has its place too. Someone might have a really simple kind of faith which is kind of dumb, given what we see all around us, and yet the energy that might come out of that effort might be quite profound. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t sometimes look at the instruments we’re using. If there’s a bucket at hand and you’re using a teaspoon, then that’s stupidity. But if there’s no bucket and you won’t choose the teaspoon because there’s no bucket, then that’s stupidity, too.
We talk about saving all sentient beings, every morning when we get up and bow and say our vows. But to have the idea that this little congregation of people here is doing something so profound that it’s going to make a dent in the social fabric of this country is, from one perspective, dumb. Yet this is the instrument we have at hand, so we make use of it.