Transmission Speech

Bang! (Hits the table with the Zen stick.)

Everything is always coming and going; going and coming. That is the first teaching of the Buddha. But the true meaning of this teaching cuts off the tongue of the Buddha. In the end even the five schools of Zen disappear. So, Un Mun Zen Master said, “Medicine cures disease, disease cures medicine.”


This point is complete stillness, the universal substance. The whole universe comes from this point. This is the second teaching of the Buddha. But, this point has no name, no word, no speech, no form. So, this point has already cut off my tongue.


This is the third teaching of the Buddha. It means “just like this” is the truth, which is the universe just doing it moment to moment; so now everybody’s tongue is cut off — what can you do?


Outside the birds are singing, inside the candles are bright.

Our whole life is only one thing. But nobody believes that. The reason they don’t believe that is because everybody wants something. For example, many times people who practice Zen expect or want something from their practicing. But that’s not correct practicing, because wanting and expecting something is what causes the wheel of samsara to turn round and round. This is the source of life and death and all suffering. But if you just practice, without wanting anything, then you can attain your true self. In the Diamond Sutra a student of the Buddha asks the Buddha if he got anything when he got enlightenment. The Buddha said, “No, I didn’t get anything; if I’d gotten something, it wouldn’t have been incomparable enlightenment” If you completely attain that, you get one thing, this moment. That is very simple! Zen is not a special thing; it’s just one thing.

About a hundred years ago in Korea there was a young woman who was about to be married. In those days marriages were arranged through a go-between. It was the custom that a bride would not know or even see her prospective marriage partner until the day of the ceremony. Hearing that the arrangements had been completed, the woman became quite excited, also very anxious. After all, her marriage would be the most important deciding factor of the rest of her life, and she didn’t know exactly what was going to happen. She started thinking: “What will my husband be like? Handsome or ugly? I’d like a handsome man. Will he be kind or will he be inconsiderate? Oh, I so want a kind husband.” Then she was also thinking, “I wonder if he’ll be stupid or smart? I really would like to have a smart and clever husband. I hate dull men.” Then she started to think about her mother-in-law to be.

In Korea at that time the wife went to live with the husband’s family. Since life for a woman was bound to family and home, the mother-in-law controlled the new wife’s whole life. So she was just as worried about her mother-in-law as about her prospective husband. “What will this women be like? Will she be a tyrant? Will she be mean? Or, will she be kind and generous?” She thought about all this a lot, for months in advance — thinking and thinking. Then, just the day before the ceremony she had to go to her sister’s village for the final fitting of her wedding dress. Korea is quite mountainous; so she had to cross a low pass to get to the village. As she walked, she was thinking about her marriage and since it was close to the wedding day, her mind was reeling. Then, just as she came to the top of the pass and started down towards the village, a tiger jumped out in front of her…… “Grrrrrrrrrhh!!!” That’s the end of the story as we know it.

To some, this story is sad because we have expectations. But this woman is not special because we always meet the tiger sooner or later. But to Zen students this story is interesting because one thing appeared very clear. We might say she got “tiger enlightenment.” That means “wake up!” At any moment that can happen to us; it doesn’t take a tiger. It’s very simple.

However, most people live in a dream, their “like and dislike thinking” dream. They are always thinking about the past and the future. But the past and the future do not exist! All we ever have is “right now.” We live in a “moment world,” but we “think” that we live somewhere else. The only place that you can become you is right now. Thinking itself is not good or bad, but our attachment to thinking creates suffering. Zen means wake up from your dream, your attachment thinking.

If you look at enlightenment situations closely, they’re simple — really simple; you might even say stupid. Buddha saw a star and got enlightenment; that’s simple. Hyang Eom Zen Master heard a rock hit against bamboo and got enlightenment; that’s simple. Dok Sahn Zen Master had somebody blow out a candle just as he was reaching for it; that’s simple. Buddha held up a flower and Mahakashyapa smiled. This is the first dharma transmission — that’s downright stupid. In each of these stories, nobody got anything. Only a very simple mind, our original nature, appeared. Just one thing appeared very clear, very clear! So this one thing appearing, the tiger, the rock sound; this means wake up now. Why wait? If you’re waiting for something or want something, you’re already dead. Our practice means just this moment, wake up. Very simple. This is not rocket science.

The other night some of us were out looking at the moon — there was an eclipse. The earth moved between the sun and the moon and blocked out the light that is usually reflected off the moon. If you understand that, you have some wisdom. Some people think that a serpent is eating the moon during an eclipse — munching it. As it is being eaten, they get very scared. So, they run off and get a shaman to chant and beat a drum to bring the moon back. Everybody’s mind operates like that to some extent; everybody has some delusive thoughts which separate them from what’s really happening; it’s called a hindrance. However, if you have some wisdom, then there’s no problem. That means, wake up. Your original light is already shining.

So today it happens to be cloudy; we say the sun is not shining. But that’s stupid-the sun is shining. It just happens to be cloudy today, that’s all. And even at night we say the sun’s not shining, but the sun is shining. The sun’s “out” all the time. It’s very simple. Our original nature is just like that, it’s out all the time, but we don’t think so. We’re very attached to our hindrance. But if you wake up to this moment — cut off all thinking — the hindrance evaporates and wisdom appears by itself. Simple. Then compassionate action appears naturally. So, our whole life is only one thing — this moment — wake up! It’s already there.

Bang! (Hits the table with the Zen stick.)

One and two are always playing with each other.


One and two play hide and seek with each other and hide behind a rock.


One and two come out from behind the rock and each do a dance. But the famous Korean Zen Master Man Gong said that it’s not one and it’s not two. If it’s not one and it’s not two, then what kind of dance is it? You’re not one and you’re not two, what are you?


Outside today it’s cloudy and inside… (bows and returns to his seat.)

Thousand Year Treasure

Recently I led a retreat at the Empty Gate Zen Center in Berkeley California. Among the retreatants was an older Chinese man whom I had never met before. From his dress I could tell that he was quite wealthy. Although he was quite uncomfortable sitting and bowing, he practiced with sincerity and intensity for three days. During a chat after the retreat he told me that he was from Indonesia and here in the States for just a short time visiting his son, who attended the University of California.

Suddenly, concern and sadness filled him with emotion. He told me something very shocking: just a couple of weeks ago he was quite wealthy — his family had been living in Jakarta for several generations but now, because of the recent turmoil in Indonesia he had little left. Ethnic Chinese had been targeted in the riots there, and his business was destroyed. Even his wife could not leave the country because her passport was kept in a bank which had been looted. When he saw the poster for our retreat he walked in off the street and sat down; he said it was the only thing he could do!

This man’s story reminded me of something. Every winter in the mountains of Korea our school holds a ninety-day retreat at Shin Won Sah Temple. Within the temple complex there is one building dedicated to a protective god recognized in the ancient religion of Korea. The building was originally built in the early Yi Dynasty, late fourteenth century, as a place where the queen could pray for the protection of the nation. During retreats many of us would go up to this building to do midnight practicing. As with many traditional Korean temple buildings, the gate at the entrance is supported by two columns. Painted on these columns are Chinese sayings intended to inspire and encourage the practitioner. On the left-hand post it says, “Three days looking into the self, thousand year treasure.” On the right it says, “One hundred year life, chasing after power and things, turns to dust in one day.”

This is our life. No matter what we get — even if it’s the result of a hundred-year struggle — can go away in less that a day. But the benefit we get from practicing gives us a lasting reward, a look at our true self and clear direction in our life. What a deal! The man from Jakarta was indeed fortunate — there was nothing else for him to do.

Teaching Words

When he was young the great Zen Master Ma-tzu was known for his hard practicing. One day the Seventh Patriarch, Huai-jang, came upon Ma-tzu meditating in his hut. Having heard of his reputation, Huai-jang decided to test him. He entered the hut and questioned Ma-tzu as to the purpose of meditation practice. Ma-tzu replied that he was practicing to become an enlightened being, a Buddha.

Saying nothing, Huai-jang picked up a discarded brick and started rubbing it with a rock. After a while, Ma-tzu’s curiosity got the best of him. “Why are you grinding on that brick?” he asked.

Huai-jang replied, “I’m polishing it into a mirror.”

Somewhat perturbed, Ma-tzu blurted: “How can you possibly make a mirror by polishing a brick?”

Huai-jang’s reply was immediate: “How can you become a Buddha by practicing meditation?” Hearing these words, Ma-tzu had an opening.

Zen means. “I don’t want anything”. Another name for this is “enough mind,” which means completely attain this moment. But we often hear Zen Master Seung Sahn say that his only teaching is “don’t know.” This is interesting. We hear many times that Zen is very simple. And it is, but we are human beings so we sometimes have a lot of thinking; then things get complicated. Because we have thinking, we have many teaching words. But all these teaching words mean only one thing: “don’t know.” So, “just do it” is “don’t know,” “only go straight” is “don’t know,” “put down (i.e. let it rest) your opinion, condition and situation” is “don’t know,” “enough mind” is “don’t know.” Even “the Buddha Way is inconceivable, I vow to attain it” is “don’t know.” But “don’t know” is not “don’t know.”

Sengtsan, the Third Patriarch, left us with -this poem:

To live in the Great Way
is neither easy nor difficult,
but those with limited views
are fearful and irresolute:
the faster they hurry, the slower they go,
and clinging (attachment) cannot be limited;
even to be attached to the idea of enlightenment is to go astray.
Just let things be in their own way,
and there will be neither coming nor going.

So, it is very important not to be attached to teaching words, no matter how wonderful or how great the mouth from which they emerged. Forget the net; catch the fish.

Stems and Roots

During the later T’ang Dynasty there was a large Zen temple in Southern China named Ho Pak Sah. As with most Zen temples of this period, the monks of Ho Pak Sah earned their keep by working the soil. Because of the many monks and the large land holdings of the temple, a heavy burden fell on the monk who administered the farm lands. Early each morning he would inspect the gardens and paddies to make sure everything was running smoothly.

One morning as he was walking along the path to check the upper irrigation system, he heard a loud ruckus. His initial shock soon turned to puzzlement. Usually dawn was a time for quiet reflection, but on this morning he was confronted by angry voices. Where was all this shouting coming from? His eyes were drawn toward the pumpkin patch at the edge of the garden. In disbelief his eyes grew large–the pumpkins were fighting! This would never do, the harmony and success of the whole temple was at risk.

Suddenly he gave out a loud belly shout, “Ho!” In startled surprise the pumpkins grew silent. “This is a Zen temple! You must all now learn how to practice correctly.” With great patience he taught each of them how to meditate. How to sit. How to breathe in carbon dioxide slowly through their leaves and breathe out oxygen…slowly asking, “What is a pumpkin?” Since they already knew these things, they learned quickly. Soon their minds became calm. He then asked them to put their leaves on top of their heads. Immediately there were several “ahhs” of recognition. Then the whole patch broke into a collective “YES!” The realization was clear: everyone had a stem coming out of the top of their head connecting each to the other. Why were they fighting? They all shared a common vine, rooting them to the source of life. By practicing, they had discovered their original connectedness and attained harmony. It’s very important that you find your stem.

Soap Enlightenment

The first thing the Buddha said after his great enlightenment was that everything had Buddha nature. The problem is that we don’t know that. Because we are ignorant of our original nature, we use it to produce suffering. Not good, not bad, but…suffering.

Several months ago there was a story in the news about a very rich widower who had one son. Even though the son’s education was the best that money could buy, he had some very strange opinions, which try as he might the father could not assuage. The son was very taken with the idea that humans should never cut their hair or bathe. Now, if you hold ideas like this for two or three days, they won’t create much of a problem, but as the son grew older, and the years passed, there was a big problem, as well as a big smell! Finally, the father gave up and let the son do as he pleased.

Several years later when the father died, the son was shocked, for he had only been left two things: a small empty house and a very large bar of soap. The rest went to charity. The son didn’t know what to do. Day after day he just sat in the house and looked at the bar of soap. Three… four… days passed, and he started to get hungry, something he had never experienced before. Circumstances had definitely changed for the worse; he would have to do something. Finally his soap meditation brought a realization: he would have to cut his hair, take a bath, and get a job. He grabbed the huge bar of soap and ran to the shower. He scrubbed and scrubbed… and then he scrubbed some more. Finally, just as the bar was beginning to wear down and he was starting to get clean, he noticed a bright, shiny object emerging from the center of the bar. Frantically he scrubbed, finally revealing a large diamond–his true inheritance.

Most human beings are just like this young man, except it’s their minds that need cleaning to reveal the jewel hidden inside. One time Un Mun Zen Master addressed the assembled monks saying, “Between heaven and earth, throughout the universe, there is a jewel. It is hidden in the mountain of form. Pick up the lamp and head straight for the Buddha Hall; take the triple temple gate and bring it on the lamp.” If you truly attain the jewel of this kong-an, you have already received your true inheritance.

Round and Round Suffering

One day during a retreat at the Kansas Zen Center, a friend and I were rearranging the cushions in the sitting room. It was the end of the second day of the retreat. Some people were coming and some going, so we had to make room for them. Just then Zen Master Seung Sahn’s head popped through a narrow opening in the door. He looked left then right saying, “What’s happening?” We explained; then he abruptly said, “Round and round; round and round!” He disappeared, leaving us looking at each other and nodding our heads in agreement.

This is the usual situation for human beings. We are continually being pulled around by anger, desire and ignorance. When the winds of desire blow through our mind one way, we go that way; when the winds change, we also change. Round and round. This is the source of our suffering and the suffering we cause on this earth. But Zen means understanding your true self and helping relieve the suffering of this world. We attain this by keeping a “just-now” mind, the mind which is before thinking. At that time, your true self has already appeared. So, in Zen our practice and what we are trying to attain are the same thing.

Many people experience difficulty practicing this way. Usually as we run around the race course of life we are running with our demons. They may elbow and shove us but we are able, at least for a while, to jockey for a good position. When we start practicing, however, it’s like turning around and running the other way on the track. This can be very painful, because now we are running head first into our demons.

In Zen we say there are two kinds of suffering. One leads to just more suffering — this is the “round and round” variety. The other kind of suffering leads to an end to suffering. This is the suffering we experience when we practice strongly. So, the question arises: which do you like?

No Dharma

In China during the Seventh Century, Zen Buddhism was divided into two schools. The sudden school of the south gathered around the Sixth Patriarch Hui Neng at T’sao Ch’i mountain just north of Canton. The gradual school of the north followed the monk Shen Hsiu. As the fame of the Sixth Patriarch spread, Shen Hsui became concerned and decided to send one of his disciples as a spy to the south.

Upon entering Hui Neng’s assembly, the spy-monk asked, “What kind of Dharma do you teach here?”

The Patriarch replied, “If I said I had a Dharma to give people that would be a lie. I only untie the bonds of each according to their needs so that their original nature can appear.”

Zen is unique in that it promotes no teaching and no techniques. When you go to a Zen center you never have to take an oath, study a catechism or recite a creed. Rather you are always told to find out what you really are–to find your true self. Zen Master Seung Sahn many times says, “I only teach ‘don’t know’.” If you keep a don’t know mind already your true nature has appeared. This is the teaching of the sudden school, Hui Neng’s lineage.

The Third Patriarch Seng Tsang said, “The great way is not difficult, simply cut off all thought of good and bad.” The Sixth Patriarch taught that one “…who treads the path in earnest sees not the mistakes of the world. If we find fault with others we too are in the wrong. Restlessly we will pass our days and in the end we will be disappointed.” Our school, too, says, “Don’t check!” Cutting off your checking mind reveals your true self. Strong medicine.

Zen Master Ko Bong composed a poem:

If you want to understand,
You don’t understand.
If you attain don’t-know,
That is your true nature.

If you attain don’t know, that is your true nature. What does that mean?

Mountain Dew

Question: Besides the meditation practice we’re doing here in this retreat, is there any other way we can save the world?

Zen Master Dae Kwang: Yes, do something. The practice of meditation isn’t special: it means, whenever you do something, do it. If somebody appears in front of you who needs help, then help them. That is meditation. We all know the story of the good Samaritan from the Bible. Two different religious functionaries hurriedly walk right by a man who has been beaten and robbed lying beside the road. They ignore him and go on about their business. Then a Samaritan, a foreigner, comes by, helps the man and takes him to an inn. The meaning of that is: when somebody needs help, you help them. If you are attached to the thought, “well, they’re not like us, we’re not going to help them,” you are already dead. But, if you just help, you’ve awakened from the dream of this and that, like and dislike. Then your mind is like a mirror. When somebody comes who needs help, help them. Red comes red, white comes white, your mind just reflects.

Meditation is not special. It means whenever you do something, just do it. Our practice is the Great Way–just do it! When we eat, just eat. When we sleep, just sleep. When someone needs help, help them. That has a direction to it. It isn’t aimless just doing it. It’s “just do it” to help our world. That’s true meditation. We don’t practice to put ourselves into a special state of mind but to make our minds clear, the original mind. Then we are in harmony with any situation.

Several hundred years ago there was a Taoist master in Korea who had attained many special powers. He had been alive for hundreds of years and could even fly–very high class. Even though his attainment was high, still every hundred years or so he had to drink a few drops of dew or he’d run out of gas and die.

Living in the same area was a bodhisattva. She knew that every hundred years the Taoist master would fly down to one special pine tree and drink a few drops of dew from its needles. She waited for the day. She put some salt in her pocket and climbed the tree. Taking a few grains of salt she sprinkled them on the dew; slowly they dissolved. She then climbed back down the tree and hid. Soon the Taoist master appeared soaring high in the sky. He circled the tree once and landed to drink the dew. But this time when he sipped the dew he tasted salt. A momentary desire for the good taste passed through his mind… then BAAAM! he fell to the ground, crumpled. Slowly he stirred, somewhat dazed; the bodhisattva crouching nearby pointed to him and said, “See! That’s human suffering. So now you have to wake up to your true self. You’ve been flying around here for hundreds of years–what for? What did you ever do to help anybody? You too will die. Now you understand human beings’ suffering.” By tasting the salt, human desire and suffering had become truly palatable to the master.

We all suffer too. Out of this suffering our compassion grows, if we have direction. Suffering is just the result of cause and effect. Suffering is a kind of compost out of which compassion grows if we practice. In Buddhism it is said: no suffering, no Buddha. That’s why Buddhism uses the lotus flower as a symbol. The lotus flower grows out of a stinky, icky mess–the swamp–which is human suffering. At any moment a wonderful pure and clear thing can emerge from the slime, the flower of compassion. That flower is your original mind, the seed of which everybody has inside. Perhaps a little salt has appeared in the dew of your life–use that! If you practice, then you make the seed grow and grow. That’s how you help the world when you’re practicing. Just now, do it!

Mind Road

“The mind road has no end,” says a common Zen teaching phrase. Zen Master Seung Sahn’s upcoming collection of kong-ans, The Whole World Is A Single Flower, has an instructive case in this regard: number fourteen, “Where does the bell sound come from?”

One day, as the big temple bell was being rung, Buddha asked Ananda, “Where does the bell sound come from?”

“The bell.”

Buddha said, “The bell? But if there were no bell stick, how would the sound appear?”

Ananda hastily corrected himself. “The stick! The stick!”

“The stick? If there were no air, how could the sound come here?”

“Yes! Of course! It comes from the air!”

Buddha asked, “Air? But unless you have an ear, you cannot hear the bell sound.”

“Yes! I need an ear to hear it. So it comes from there.”

Buddha replied, “Your ear? If you have no consciousness, how can you understand the bell sound?”

“My consciousness makes the sound.”

“Your consciousness? So, Ananda, if you have no mind, how do you hear the bell sound?”

“It was created by mind alone.”

By the time this story is finished, Ananda has traveled far down the mind road. In fact, the bus has come to the last stop. The bus driver has gotten off and is in the diner having a cup of coffee and a cigarette. Ananda is still sitting there.

Unfortunately, much of our life is like this too. We spend much of our time in a world of ideas and their associated emotions rather than waking up to right now.

Zen Master Kyong Ho Sunim, Zen Master Seung Sahn’s great-grandteacher, concluded one of his most famous dharma speeches by saying, “My only wish for you is that you free yourselves of all conceptual understanding.” This is Zen. If you are thinking, then everything in life is a problem. If you cut off all thinking, then your every action is the truth. You and the whole universe have already become one. This is clear mind, non-attachment thinking, the true way.

Kong-an practice is such a powerful meditation tool because it brings us to the end of our mind road. It allows us to directly experience this moment, not just an idea! The kong-an is not special; it is our everyday life, moment to moment. So, where does the sound of the bell come from? Will you get off the bus?

Mind Placebo

From a talk given during Winter Kyol Che at Providence Zen Center

Question: Do you think there is overlap between the altered states people might experience in Zen practice, and mental illness?

Zen Master Dae Kwang: Yes… 100% overlap! In fact, everybody is mentally ill, and not just during so-called “altered states.” Mental illness is our attachment to thinking. Everybody has it to some degree. People with the same attachments and opinions will get together and call that “sane.” Then another group gets together with a different idea and that’s their “sanity.” Then they fight. Doing a Zen retreat is taking the Zen “pill” to make our mental illness go away.

You’ve all been sitting the winter retreat for quite a while now, so maybe you don’t know what’s been going on in Serbia. The Albanians living in Serbian Kosovo think they should be independent of Serbia. The Serbs, on the other hand, have very strong ideas about ethnic purity and keeping Kosovo as part of Serbia. Of course they are at each other’s throats, creating a lot of suffering for the common people on both sides. So the Kosovans think that they are right; the Serbians think they are right; and the NATO alliance thinks that they are both a little insane. So NATO is trying to knock some sense into them by locking them up in a room at a French chalet and holding their feet against the fire until they agree to what we consider to be sane, or we will bomb them all!

All of life is some version of that. However, true sanity comes from being in touch with your original mind. That is the mind before attachment to thinking appears. In original mind, everything is already complete; there is no desire or anger. We call that enough-mind. Enough-mind doesn’t have this and that. If you look closely at your mind, when does it ever think that everything is complete? Everyone wants something. Everyone thinks that insanity is sanity. That’s why we get into so much trouble.

The cure is practice. Our Zen teaching words are like a sugar pill or placebo. This pill helps relieve our attachment thinking. The Buddha’s teaching is very simple: human suffering comes from like and dislike. Taking the “Zen pill” gives us a strong dose of: “What is a human being really–what am I?” Unfortunately, many of us get attached to our idea of Zen, a bad side-effect. We start to think the placebo is an actual medicine for a real disease. Actually, there isn’t even a disease, we just think there is! That idea is just more of the disease. Zen is very interesting, because it is always slicing itself up and feeding itself to the dogs. That way, you can’t get attached to the placebo talk and start thinking that it is the medicine:”Zen is what is going to cure me!” No way.

Am Du (Ch. Yen T’ou) was one of Duk Sahn Zen Master’s top students. Of all the Zen masters during the T’ang Dynasty, Am Du had the reputation for being the smartest. However, there was one thing that bothered people about Am Du: the way he died. As the story goes, one day Am Du was traveling between temples. As he passed through one particularly wild and mountainous area, robbers descended upon him. They stripped him naked, took all his money and then proceeded to slowly torture him to death. He screamed so loud that he could be heard five miles away. People started thinking, “That’s not a true Zen Master! A real Zen Master should have said something clever to those brigands to help them realize their Buddha nature; or, at least he could have died without a whimper.” This incident became a problem for those with an idea about Zen. The original mind is like flowing water–it only follows its situation: sad time–sad; crying time–cry; happy time–ha ha ha! Somebody else is sad, you are sad and want to help; somebody is happy, you are happy. This mind has no hindrance and becomes one with any situation. That’s what we call together action. We practice together so you can become one with any situation. When Am Du died, he screeeeeeamed!

If you just do it, moment to moment, then everything is flowing. This is not just another Zen theory about how to run your life, it is your life, moment to moment, if you wake up. Then the craziness doesn’t grab you, and you are able to help all the people who are “insane.” As a famous poem says, “Only, without thinking, just like this is Buddha.” Am Du’s action was complete. But what was his meaning?