Commentary on Hyang Eom’s “Up a Tree”

Adapted from a talk given at Chogye International Zen Center of New York on April 1, 1990.

This kong-an presents a very interesting situation. The rather dramatic image of the man up a tree is a vivid portrayal of two existential situations or issues that we all have to face. First, what does it really mean to stay alive, or be alive? And the second issue is about responsiveness. someone under the tree is calling out, “Help me out here. Tell me something. Give me something.” This raises questions about relationship and correct situation and responsibility. Responsibility, in this sense, means the ability to respond. How is one to respond in such a situation?

There’s a similar Zen story in which a man is being chased by a tiger, and he’s running for his life. He gets to the edge of a cliff and can’t go any further, but he sees a vine going over the cliff, so he grabs hold of it, swings over, and is hanging there. Down below, he sees another tiger – waiting. The man is hanging there with one tiger above and another below. Then, a field mouse begins to gnaw at the vine right above him Just at that moment, this man sees one wild strawberry growing on the vine right near him, and without holding back anything he bites the strawberry. What a taste!

This story is about the first issue of the kong-an only. It’s about life and death and what it really means to be alive or dead. But there’s no element of relationship in the story. There’s no one calling to the person to respond. But both stories portray people pushed to the limit.

We have already seen how Hyang Eom’s training and his struggle were very intense. lie was pushed to the limit. So the kong-an that he made to test his students is also of a very intense kind. A man is up a tree hanging from a branch by his teeth. And everything is tied. This state of being tied means he can’t hold onto any conception, anymore. Also, his feet have no resting place – he can’t find support in the usual ways that he was used to finding support. At that time, someone calls to him, “Please help me.” How does he stay alive?

Jesus addressed the question of being truly alive in his saying, “It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get to heaven.” In many spiritual traditions, there is the notion that one only really becomes alive when one strips away everything. This is variously referred to as renunciation, non-attachment, letting go of ideas, conceptions, opinions, frames of reference, and one’s orientation towards oneself and the world. If one lets go of it all, one becomes really poor – has nothing.

There’s another story, a favorite of mine, also from the New Testament that speaks in a different way to this issue of what it really means to stay alive. After the Last Supper, Christ tells his disciples, “You will all fall away because of me this night,” and they all say, “No, no, no, no.” His main disciple, Peter, whose name means “the rock,” says, “Master, I would never deny you.” And Jesus says to him, “Peter, before the cock crows this very morning, you will have denied knowing me three times.”

Jesus is then arrested and Peter goes and stands outside of where they have taken Jesus into captivity. When he is asked if he is one of Jesus’ followers, he says, “No, no, no – I don’t know the man.” Three times – “No, no, no – I don’t know.” Now that’s a very interesting point. He denies knowing his master, whom he loves dearly, three times. Yet he goes on after Jesus’ death to become the organizing force in the Christian movement, the first pope.

That’s the Bodhisattva way, just try – over and over and over again. We sometimes say, “Try, try, try for ten thousand years non-stop.” The story of Peter may seem extreme, but it is instructive nevertheless. As another Zen saying goes, “If you fall down seven times, get up eight times.”

Facing our failings and our weakness and yet still again rousing up that energy of “try” is very much connected to our view of what it really means to be alive, to enliven our environment, to enliven our relationship and to be able to really be responsible and responsive.

Carrying Snow in a Teaspoon – The Bodhisattva Effort

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?

Q: Yes.

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.

Zen Master Wu Kwang (Richard Shrobe)

Zen Master Wu Kwang

Zen Master Wu Kwang, (Richard Shrobe) is guiding teacher of the Chogye International Zen Center of New York and lives in New York with his family. Before he began practicing Zen he studied intensively with Swami Satchidananda, living with his wife and children for four years at the Integral Yoga Institute in New York. He has a Master’s degree in Social Work and did six years of postgraduate study in Gestalt, including training with Laura Perls. He has been director of a drug program, and has served as an instructor in psychiatry and Gestalt therapy. He started practicing with Zen Master Seung Sahn in 1975 and was given inka in 1984. He received dharma transmission on August 1, 1993. A former professional musician, his undergraduate training was in music theory, and he also studied with jazz pianist, Barry Harris. Currently he has a private practice in psychotherapy specializing in the Gestalt approach. He has written three books: Open Mouth Already a MistakeDon’t Know Mind: The Spirit of Korean Zen, and Elegant Failure: A Guide to Zen Koans, all available from from Amazon.com.

Zen means no point of view

These days the Persian Gulf war is very much on everyone’s mind. This naturally leads to the question I was recently asked, “What is Zen’s point of view on the war?” While this may sound like a pertinent and timely question, ultimately it cannot be answered because Zen has no point of view. An ancient worthy once noted that, “the view of all Buddhas and Patriarchs is the same – no view.” To someone who just wants to understand something, like our present war, not a lot is offered here. However, in the end this is the one thing which draws us to Zen practice: the basic sanity of “no point of view.” So, you will be spared one more analysis of the war.

One thing which is unique about the Buddha, and the Zen Masters in our tradition, is that they do not put forth a religion or a philosophy of life but rather point directly to Truth or, as it is said in Zen, “point directly to the human Mind.” This pointing itself is not another explanation but a means to bring one to a deep questioning about life. What am I? What is a human being? Why are we living on this planet? Any meditation practice or spiritual journey boils down to finding the answer to this great question, “Who am I?” As a practice aiming toward attainment, rather than mere understanding, Zen does not rely on concepts, beliefs, theology or ideology. Zen’s method is to evoke our own direct experience of life.

Another important aspect of the practice of great questioning is its direction. When the Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree it was not out of self-concern. His questioning was for all of humanity, since he was trying to resolve the question of human suffering, of human existence. Great questioning has this direction – for all beings. Of course, you are one of them. So, even though we may be concerned with our personal quagmire – emotional, psychological, existential or spiritual – ultimately our direction as Zen practitioners is to answer the great question which goes before these “smaller,” though not insignificant, concerns.

Recently we all breathed a collective sigh of relief because the threat of nuclear holocaust had been lifted. And now we face another major conflict, the Persian Gulf War. Much of human history is the history of conflict. Desire, anger and ignorance are continually going around and around, on an individual, family, national and international level. This war can contribute to our practice by bringing us to a deeper realization that the mind that creates conflict – this human mind – is also in each one of us.

The finger of blame which historically has been pointed at the Saddam Husseins of the world can also be pointed at us. Zen Master Seung Sahn was once asked where atomic bombs come from; what kind of person would do that? He said, “They are made by the mind which likes this and doesn’t like that.” And that is inside each one of us. The mind that wants to go to war is us. This same mind also has Buddha nature, though more or less hidden. So, this war can benefit us if it brings home more than ever the great question in each one of us, “What am I?” If we can resolve this question we have taken a step toward true world peace and helping others.

Why does the Buddha have big ears?

Recently at a talk, someone pointed to the Buddha statue and asked me, “Why does the Buddha have such big ears?” Buddhas and bodhisattvas are always portrayed as having large, pendulous ears. In Western culture small ears close to the head are thought to be the most beautiful, but in the Orient large ears are looked upon as auspicious because they indicate wisdom and compassion. So, the Buddha is depicted as having big ears because he is the compassionate one. He hears the sound of the world – hears the cries of suffering beings – and responds. The important thing for us is not how large our ears are, but how open are our “mind ears.”

At our last Enlightenment Day ceremony, Zen Master Seung Sahn gave a talk in which he posed the question, “If Buddha got enlightenment today, what kind of enlightenment would he get?” He then answered himself, “Crying for the suffering of this world.” What does this kind of enlightenment mean? Our morning bell chant uses the phrase “dae ja dae bi.” “Dae ja” means Great Love (or Great Compassion) and “dae bi” means Great Sadness. The English word “compassion” comes from Latin roots, and means “to suffer with” (in Zen, we would say “become one with the suffering of another.”) Great Sadness is the feeling we get when we see someone doing something which will cause suffering for themselves or others. If someone harms us, rather than reacting in anger, we feel sadness for the person because of the suffering they are causing for themselves. Great Sadness does not have “I, my, me.” It is compassion.

Zen means finding your true self and helping this world. Your original true self is Great Compassion and Great Sadness. When the Buddha left home to find the answer to the great question of life and death — What is a human being? Why are we on this planet? It was not to solve some intellectual puzzle, or even to take away his own suffering. Rather, it was for all beings. During his Fall trip to Europe, Zen Master Seung Sahn said, “This world doesn’t need arhats anymore; it needs bodhisattvas.”* So, how can this need be fulfilled? Every evening we chant the Thousand Hands and Eyes Sutra, the sutra of Kwan Seum Bosal, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. This Bodhisattva is very high class. It has a thousand hands and eyes to help this world; but, which of these eyes are the correct eyes? Which hands are the correct hands? If you attain that, then this world will say, “Thank you!”

*An arhat is one who has attained enlightenment and left the world behind. A bodhisattva is someone who delays their own enlightenment to help save all beings from suffering.

Who’s the Bee?

Early in October, the Providence Zen Center hosted the Whole World is a Single Flower conference, which brought together members of our sangha from all around the world. During the weekend we all heard many interesting tales of Zen center life from Singapore to Fairbanks to Warsaw. In Korea, I learned they have a saying: If you scratch an Asian Christian, underneath you will find a Buddhist; if you scratch a western Buddhist you will find a Christian. That’s funny–it’s a reflection of our world situation–but it’s very important to find what lies deeper, what we are before Christian, Buddhist, Asian, Western even appears.

My mother was born an identical twin. That means that she and my aunt were genetically identical. However, even though they were the same they were also very different. My mother had one husband and two children, while my aunt had several husbands and no children. My mother spent most of her life taking care of our home while my aunt was a professional woman and was an early espouser of feminist sentiment. When my mother died, I asked Zen Master Seung Sahn why it was that even though they both started out the same, they were so different. His answer was very simple — “thinking!”

Nations are also like that: they start out the same but then they become quite different. Sometimes they become very attached to these differences and start fighting. But our school’s “don’t know” teaching has none of that. The clarity and genius of Zen Master Seung Sahn is that he never teaches opinions, religion or culture, so our “don’t know” can travel anywhere in the world and help all people realize their original compassionate nature. If we keep don’t know mind, we are all identical twins even though we are different!

Fifty years ago Ko Bong Zen Master gave transmission to Zen Master Seung Sahn, saying “You are the flower and I am the bee.” But, if the whole world is a single flower, then who is the bee?

What’s Up Doc

One time Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson went on a camping trip. After a hearty meal and a bottle of wine, they crawled into their tent and went to sleep. Some hours later, Holmes woke up and nudged his faithful friend. “Watson, look up and tell me what you see.”

“I see millions and millions of stars.”

“And what does that tell you, my dear Watson?”

Watson pondered for a moment, knowing that once again he was being tested. Finally he was ready. “From the point of view of astrophysics, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies with potentially billions of planets. We circle a small sun on the edge of a medium-sized galaxy. Astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo, so we should be careful tomorrow. Chronologically, I deduce that the time is approximately a quarter past three. Theologically, I can see that God is all-powerful and that we are small and insignificant. Meteorologically, I suspect that we will have a beautiful sunny day tomorrow.” Satisfied, he relaxed back into his sleeping bag. But soon, knowing Holmes, some doubt crossed his mind. Finally, he turned to his friend and asked, “What do you see?”

“Watson, you missed the point… someone has stolen our tent!”

Sometimes our minds are like this. In fact, there is a saying in Buddhism that it’s easy to see a flea on the nose of a person one mile away, but very difficult to see an elephant standing on your own nose. But even at that time, our original nature is perfectly clear. Recently in a talk given in Korea at the end of the three-month winter retreat, Zen Master Seung Sahn said, “What is different from your original nature? The only thing that is different is your opinions and thinking. If you cut off all thinking, then your nature and Buddha’s nature become one… without cultivation, without practice.” What a deal!

One day Officer Yu Kan said to Zen Master Nam Cheon, “Gae Poep Sa once said, ‘Heaven, earth and I have the same root; the ten thousand things and I are one body.’ This is outrageous!”

Nam Cheon pointed to a tree in the garden and said, “People these days see this flowering tree as in a dream.” What does this mean? If you attain that, even Sherlock Holmes would be surprised.

What is a Zen Retreat?

At the end of his life Buddha said, “Life is very short; please investigate it closely.” This is the first meaning of a meditation retreat: Investigation. Everyone knows that life is short; soon the show is over. Behind that realization is always the question, What am I, really? This question and the profound doubt that it entails is what the Buddha faced. That is the question of our life too — what are you?

In China, a cut of meat is called “pure meat,” meaning that it is not mixed with anything else, like in a sausage. People always want the butcher to give them “pure meat.” There once was a Zen practitioner who was investigating the question, “Who has Buddha Nature?” — i.e., what am I? All day long, as much as he could, he would look into this question. Every day on his way to work he would pass a butcher shop. He would always hear people clamoring for pure meat, but he never paid it much mind. One day as he passed by, a women was vehemently insisting that the butcher give her only “pure meat.” Her insistence rankled the butcher, who shouted back, “Madam, which piece is not pure?” When the man heard this angry shout, he suddenly realized that everything is “pure meat.” Everything has Buddha Nature. What doesn’t have Buddha Nature? He was enlightened. This is true investigation. If it is constant and sincere, then it will have a result, guaranteed.

Our retreats are governed by the temple rules. Originally these rules came from the monastic code for Zen temples set up by Pai Chang Zen Master, one of Ma Tzu’s top students. Much like the Rule of Saint Benedict, it sets forth rules for how to live together harmoniously. Our temple rules also tell us how to practice correctly. But more than that, they contain a prescription for relating to everything in this world in a compassionate manner. Central to this and to the correct practicing of Zen is what we call “putting it all down.” The temple rules say, “Do not cling to your opinions. To cling to and defend your opinions is to destroy your practice. Put away all of your opinions. This is true Buddhism.” This tells how to practice correctly. Just let go of — i.e., let rest — your every opinion. As the temple rules say, “The great round mirror has no likes or dislikes.” This is our original nature. The second meaning of any mediation retreat is to put down your opinion, your condition and your situation, and return to your original nature.

In the Majjhima-nikaya, a collection of sutras in the Pali Cannon, a monk asks the Buddha to summarize all of his teaching in one sentence. In the course of forty-some years of teaching the Buddha taught many, many things. However, his simple reply was, “Don’t attach to anything.” Wow, there it is in a nutshell — very simple! The Fifth Patriarch got his big enlightenment when he heard this line from the Diamond Sutra: “When thinking arises in your mind don’t attach to it.” These ancient worthies were always teaching the same simple thing. Our only job is to do it. So the third meaning of a retreat is “just do it.” After all, retreats are very simple. Everything is decided for you: when to get up; what to eat when to meditate — everything. Your job is to do it.

Most of our retreats are relatively short — one, two or three days, or perhaps three months. But Buddha practiced very hard for six years and Bodhidharma sat for nine years in a cave above Shao Lin Temple. How can we possibly attain what they got? Actually, it’s very simple: At this moment, just apply yourself with sincere effort in asking this question: What am I? That means investigate closely. That means cut off all thinking — wake up from your like and dislike dream. At that point, you and Buddha and Bodhidharma become one. This is the last meaning of a retreat — wake up and help our world. That is already the Buddha’s mind. But that’s just dead words so, I have a question for you: How is it possible for you and Buddha and Bodhidharma to become one? Quick! Answer! Thinking won’t help you.

Upside Down World

The Chinese Zen Master Ching Ch’ing was famous for his strict discipline. Late one night as he sat with the monks he asked them, “What’s that sound outside the gate?” One of the monks replied, “Master, that’s the sound of raindrops.” Ching Ch’ing then said, “This world is upside down; people lose themselves and chase after things.”

If you look closely at our world it’s apparent that something is very wrong. Everywhere you look there is suffering. Why? The Buddha said that the cause of suffering is desire: “I want… something.” Anytime you want something you lose your true self and are “chasing” after that something. Suddenly the world flips over like an unbalanced iceberg… bluuuuuub! Once the world is upside down, everything is seen differently. The Buddha called that ignorance. And just like a fish in water, we don’t realize our ignorance until the wake-up alarm of suffering starts ringing loudly in our ears. In fact, when we hear people talking about the rightside-up world, we tend to reject it immediately… “That’s not true; no way, you must be crazy or some kind of religious nut!”

When Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount he was talking about the rightside-up world. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Do not resist one who is evil. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. Ignorance doesn’t include just our material desires, it can also embrace our “spiritual” practices as well; these too can become things. As Zen Master Huang Po, Lin Chi’s teacher, said:

So, if you students of the Way are mistaken about your own real Mind… you will indulge in various achievements and practices and expect to attain realization by such graduated practices. But, even after aeons of diligent searching, you will not be able to attain to the Way. These methods cannot be compared to the sudden elimination of conceptual thought, the certain knowledge that there is nothing at all which has absolute existence, nothing on which to lay hold, nothing on which to rely, nothing in which to abide, nothing subjective or objective. It is by preventing the rise of conceptual thought that you will realize Bodhi; and, when you do, you will just be realizing the Buddha who has always existed in your own Mind.

How simple, but few people will believe it. Zen means “I don’t want anything,” “don’t attach to anything,” the direct simple antidote to suffering of all kinds. When Zen Master Seung Sahn says that if you don’t want anything you get everything, who believes him? That’s upside down! If he tells us to put it all down or to cut off all thinking, who will follow? If we can just detach from our thinking for even a second then… bluuuuuuub, the world turns rightside up; we are awake. We call this Great Love and Great Compassion.

Here is a question for you:

A monk asked Un Mun, “When it’s not the immediate instinct and it’s not the immediate phenomenon, how is it?”

Un Mun said, “An upside-down statement.”

So, if there is no upside down and no right side up, then what? Zen won’t help you.

True Alchemy

“Alchemy” is one of the most commonly used metaphors for spiritual transformation. The turning of dross into something valuable and useful is something which has forever obsessed the human imagination. Unfortunately, people often become attached to the surface meaning of religious metaphors and thereby miss their true meaning.

This doesn’t just lead to misunderstanding and wasted time; it can be downright dangerous. One may waste time looking for the Holy Grail, or trying to go to the Western Paradise. One may spend years attempting to turn lead into gold. Or, like the first Chinese emperor, Chin Shih Huang Ti, they may seriously damage their health and shorten their lives imbibing elixirs to make themselves immortal. Chin’s attempts at immortality led to insanity. The immortality he was searching for never appeared.

However, beneath the surface, the religious metaphor always points to something much more valuable than these acquired things; and it’s accessible to everyone… right here, right now! “If they were a snake, they would bite you,” as my mother used to say during my morning pre-school search for the holy grail of socks.

True alchemy means the return to the true self. The common Buddhist metaphor of the emergence of a pure white lotus from the fetid swamp refers to the wisdom of this awakening. Actually, the swamp and the lotus are one. When we find that our true lotus appears automatically, we don’t have to do anything.

What is the secret elixir which will produce this result? The recipe is very simple.

First, keep a mind which is before thinking. If you do that just now, we call that try mind.

Next, make your direction clear. Our direction is to help our suffering world. As Zen Master Seung Sahn says, if your direction is clear your whole live is clear; if it isn’t, your whole life is not clear.

If we keep this mind, the emotions of desire and anger are changed into great love and great compassion. Our ignorance becomes wisdom. If we take this elixir moment to moment, that is true alchemy. True alchemy means no alchemy; actually the result has already appeared. Why practice alchemy?

A monk asked Ching Ch’ing, “I’m pecking out; master, please peck in.” Master Ching said, “Are you alive or not?” The monk said, “If I were not alive, people would jeer at me.” Ching said, “You, too, are a man in the weeds.” If you were the monk and Ching Ch’ing said, “Are you alive or not?”, what could you do?