Lions and Dogs

The great Confucian sage Mencius noted that it was natural for the mouth to desire sweet tastes, the eye to desire beautiful colors, the ear to desire pleasant sounds, the nose to desire fragrant odors, and the four limbs to desire rest and ease. But there is an appointment of heaven in connection with them, and the superior person does not say of his pursuit of them, “This is my nature.”

The Buddha said that there were two types of practitioners: One type is always chasing after something. They want something from practice. If their minds present them with something that they don’t like, they want to get rid of it. If something appears that they like, they want to keep it. They are always trying to keep what they like, perhaps a good feeling, and fix what they don’t want, like a problem in their life. This is like a dog chasing a bone. Or, you can be like a lion. If you are out in the bush and you throw a bone to a lion it will ignore the bone and jump on you! Zen Master Seung Sahn often says, “Zen means, ‘I don’t want anything.'” Zen is very simple: if you attain your “I don’t want anything” mind then your big self appears naturally and you can help our world. Our school calls that “just do it, don’t check.”

Ching Ch’ing asked a monk, “What is that sound outside the gate?”

The monk said, “The sound of raindrops.”

Ching Ch’ing said, “Sentient beings are upside down. They lose themselves and follow things.”

The monk said, “How about you, Master?”

Ching Ch’ing answered, “I almost never lose myself.”

The monk said, “What is the meaning of, “I almost never lose myself?'”

Ching Ch’ing said, “To explain is very easy; to express function through speech is very difficult.”

If you don’t lose yourself, how can you answer?

Kill the Buddha

Lin Chi Zen Master said, “If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha. If you meet a Patriarch, kill the Patriarch.” Zen Master Seung Sahn says that in this life we must all kill three things: First we must kill our parents. Second, we must kill the Buddha. And lastly, we must kill him! This kind of speech is sometimes perplexing to people raised in the Judaeo-Christian tradition since we would never say this about Jesus or one of the Prophets. But the meaning here is very interesting and goes far beyond the martial language of the metaphor. Buddhism is quite unique in that its founder never said, “Believe what I say.” Buddhism means find out for yourself.. i.e., kill the Buddha.

At one time, the citizens of Kesaputta asked the Buddha what they should believe. They were very confused by the many religions in vogue at that time. The Buddha said, “Do not accept anything by mere tradition. Do not accept anything just because it accords with your scriptures. Do not accept anything because it agrees with your opinions or because it is socially acceptable. Do not accept anything because it comes from the mouth of a respected person. Rather, observe closely and if it is to the benefit of all, accept and abide by it.” This Sutta – the Kalama Sutta – is the root of Zen-style inquiry into the true self.

The Buddha says in the Diamond Sutra that in his whole teaching career he never spoke a single word. In Zen, we are admonished that understanding cannot help us. The wind does not read. So, what are we left with? just before he died the Buddha said, “Life is very short, please investigate it closely.” We are left with the great question: What am I? What is a human being? In his great compassion the Buddha leaves us only with footprints pointing the way… in the end he cannot help us; we must find the answer ourselves. Zen, too, asks the question but does not have the answer. But you do, if you look inside.

The Jewel and the Goose

Just before the Buddha died, his students became very anxious about who their teacher would be after he passed away. The Buddha said that after him the precepts would be their teacher. As practitioners of Zen we encounter two lineages of teaching. First, we meet a Zen teaching lineage which points to our original nature and encourages us to practice. Second, we enter a precepts lineage by taking the precepts and voluntarily accepting them as the direction of our life.

The Buddha practiced very hard to realize his original clear mind. We too can practice, then our minds will become clear. The suffering that all human beings experience has a cause. If our minds are not clear, then we don’t see the connection between cause and effect, between cause and suffering. That is why people cannot get out of suffering. They want to be happy, but they don’t see this connection. The Buddha’s original clear mind and his experience of suffering led him to establish the precepts as a guide for those who want to take away suffering. Following the precepts means making our lives clear so we can help our suffering world.

There once was a monk who was passing through a town in northern India begging for food. As was traditional, the monk would stand silently in front of a dwelling waiting for a donation. His first stop for alms was at a small store which sold precious gems. The owner of the shop said, “Oh, please wait Monk, I have something for you,” and retired to the back of the shop. Unfortunately for the monk, just as the man left, a goose tethered at the poultry shop next door stretched out its long neck and guuulp!… swallowed one of the gems offered for sale on a low table. Just then the man returned with an offering of food. As he bowed low in a gesture of offering, he noticed that one of his prize jewels was missing. “What kind of monk are you? You stole one of my jewels!” Then he began beating the monk relentlessly until he was on the ground,bleeding. The monk was thinking, “What can I do? What can I do? If I tell the man that the goose has eaten the jewel, he will surely kill the goose to get his jewel back.”

Slowly he crawled away. Suddenly he got an idea. He got some money from the monastery and returned to the poultry shop. “I want that goose.” The shop owner said, “OK, you can have it.” As the monk handed over the money, the shop owner suddenly became very angry. “What kind of monk are you? Why are you buying this goose? This is not correct. You are a monk. You should not eat meat!” As he became more angry, he began to beat the monk. Again, the monk could not say anything or the man might kill the goose or even steal the gem. So, he only crawled away with his goose.

Returning to the monastery, he went immediately to the dispensary, where he found a large bottle of castor oil. He opened the goose’s mouth and poured in the whole bottle. Then he waited: One hour. Two hours. Three hours. Then,”Phonup!”… the jewel appeared!!! He grabbed the jewel and ran back to town. He waited until the shop owner wasn’t looking, then he placed the jewel on the table and left.

This story is interesting, because even though the monk was in a very difficult situation, he perceived the correct thing to do. He suffered a lot just to save the life of the goose. Our teaching lineage and our precepts lineage come together at a single point: Not for me.

It’s Not a Thing

When Zen Master Huai Jang first visited Hui Neng, the Sixth Patriarch, he was already an experienced practitioner. After he bowed, Hui Neng asked him, “Where do you come from?” Huai Jang replied, “From Sung Shan.” The Patriarch then asked, “What thing is it that you have brought here?” Huai Jang said, “If you call it a ‘thing’ you have already missed the mark.” If it’s not a “thing,” as Huai Jang says, then the question for each of us is… what is this thing that we have brought here?

When you are thinking your mind and everything in the universe are separate. When you cut off all thinking, your mind and this whole universe become one. Subject and object fall away and you return to your original nature, our substance. For example, if you raise the big question, “What am I?” and you look deep inside, always “don’t know” appears. This “don’t know” cuts off all thinking. That is your substance. But, before thinking there aren’t any names or words because it’s before thinking. That means that “don’t know” is not “don’t know”; it is just a name for substance.

Over the centuries, humans have given “substance” many names. Eskimos have given eleven different names to snow, but that is nothing compared to our ability to give names to substance. The morning bell chant says that Buddha alone has been given 360,000,119,500 names! Some people have called substance Buddha, some have called it enlightenment, God, the Absolute, Truth, Tao, the Void, Energy, Primary Point, don’t know and even substance. On and on… But true substance is before thinking, so if you open your mouth it’s already a mistake. The wisdom of the ancient Jews was right on the mark with respect to this; they refused to even utter the name of God. This same wisdom resides in Buddhism, too. The last of the Four Great Vows says: The Buddha way is inconceivable, we vow to attain it. In fact, we are infinite in time and space, so how could words possibly capture it? And yet we are very attached to the words we use to define and understand ourselves.

Dong Sahn Yonsa said, “Shakyamuni Buddha, the Buddha of the past and Maitraya, the Buddha of the future, are servants of another.” Do you know who that is?

“I” saved the frogs

True compassion means to become one with whatever situation you find yourself in, moment to moment. This is enlightenment. This is what the Buddha’s enlightenment teaches. There is a famous story about Zen Master Man Gong, Zen Master Seung Sahn’s grand-teacher which illustrates this clearly.

One day, Man Gong Sunim was walking into town with Hae Am Sunim, who at that time was also a Zen Master, a junior Zen Master. Along the path they passed by a pond where a boy had set up a little stand, much as when you drive down the street in your neighborhood and there will be a little lemonade stand. Except, this boy had set up a little frog stand. What he had done was catch a number of frogs and put a little string around their legs tethering them to the ground. Then he would sell them to passersby. Hae Am Sunim saw this and right away he went over to the boy, took out some money, and bought all of the frogs. Reaching down he undid all of the strings tying the frogs. Immediately the frogs jumped back -PLUKE! PLUKE! PLUKE! — into the pond. Then they were all very happy, just sitting there, bulging eyes looking up. Returning to the path where Man Gong Sunim was waiting, he said, “Oh, I just saved those frogs! I bought them all and released them.”

Then Man Gong Sunim said, “Yes, those frogs are very happy, but you are a devil.”

Hae Am Sunim was quite taken aback, “Master, why do you call me a devil? I just saved those frogs from suffering.”

“You said, ‘I saved those frogs.’ You have ‘I,’ so you are a devil.”

One of my favorite stories about compassion comes from the book A Flower Does Not Talk. It’s about a bird who lives in a forest. One day a very large forest fire sweeps through the forest. Seeing this the bird immediately understands what a forest fire means: a lot of suffering for all the animals. All the animals try to flee, some of them get trapped and burned alive; the animal’s food is destroyed, their homes are destroyed. Since this bird understands what fire means, out of compassion, it flies to a pond that’s some distance away and fills its beak with water. Then it flies back and drops the water on the forest fire. And then it flies back to the pond for another mouth full of water. Back and forth; back and forth, until finally, completely exhausted, it falls to the ground, dead.

This kind of compassion has no “I,” only “how can I help?” Many times when we get the idea that we’re going to be compassionate, right with that idea is a judging and checking mind which says, “Uh-oh . . . this isn’t going to work,” or “Oh, there’s so much suffering in this world, how can my little action help” or, “‘I might get hurt,” or “Oh, I’m a really great and compassionate person.” (Hae Am Sunim’s disease.) But true compassion has no I-my-me, so it has no checking or wanting anything; no taint of “I.” Only help; only just do it!

ka Speech

On December 8, 1990, Zen Master Dae Kwang received “inka” (certification) from Zen Master Seung Sahn. 

Hits table with stick

Understanding is not understanding. Not understanding is understanding.

Hits table with stick

No understanding; no not understanding.

Hits table with stick

Understanding is understanding. Not understanding is not understanding.

About one hundred and fifty years ago, Karl Marx said, “Philosophers want to understand the world; the point, however, is to change it.”

At about the same time, Leo Tolstoy, the famous Russian writer, said, “Everybody wants to change this world; nobody wants to change themselves.”

Wu-wei quotes an ancient worthy as saying, “If you understand this world, this world is just like it is. If you don’t understand this world, this world is just like it is.”

So, which of these statements is correct?


Outside, it is dusk. Inside, the candles are burning bright.

Most people are looking for some kind of explanation or understanding of the perplexities of life. Some people even come to Zen looking for a better set of concepts to explain their existence. Much of my life, too, has been spent searching for some kind of understanding. I’m sure you experience this also: “What is this life all about, anyway? I want to understand,” or “What is it that I’m not getting? How come none of my explanations seem to satisfy me?” Underneath this kind of questioning lies a deep longing to resolve the basic human question – “What am I?”

My first encounter with Zen was through books. I spent many years reading books about Zen. I was very intrigued by its way of expressing things, and often perplexed. One day a friend of mine told me about a talk being given by a Zen Master Seung Sahn from Korea. During the talk this Zen Master said something which really put me in a tailspin: “Understanding cannot help you.” Something went off in my mind; a deep dissatisfaction had been touched. Here I was, just finishing my graduate studies, and this Zen Master says, “Understanding cannot help you.” I heard that.

After this I started looking more closely at Buddhist teachings. The Buddha is a very interesting teacher because, just like us, he didn’t understand life, didn’t understand why human beings are on this earth. Why do we suffer and cause so much pain? He absorbed himself in this fundamental and profound question. But his search for the answer was not just for himself – for his own salvation – but for all beings. In the end his deep questioning and pure, clear intention came together in one point, enlightenment. The enlightenment which we are celebrating today is the result of this trying, this intention, and this profound questioning.

Buddha’s Enlightenment Day could also be called “Buddha’s question answering day.” He attained what it means to be a complete human being, to live a life of openness and compassion for all beings. His enlightenment was an attainment, not just a change in how he understood life. He became compassion. True compassion is a way of being, not a mere idea.

Because of this, the Buddha is unique. Unlike many religious leaders, he did not put forth a new religion, philosophy, theology, ideology, or psychology. If Buddhism is now a religion, this is something which was created later. Sutras are not discourses to be understood, but wisdom which needs to be made ours. At the end of his life, Buddha did not admonish us to believe in him or what he said. Rather, his last words urged us to earnestly investigate this life for ourselves.

One of the first stories I heard about Zen was a story about Zen Master Un Mun. One day as Un Mun was on his way to the outhouse, a new monk approached him and said, “Please, Zen Master, tell me, what is the first principle of Zen?” Then Un Mun said, “Excuse me, I have to take a piss,” and marched off. Then, as he was walking away, he turned around, looked back at the student, and said, “Imagine, even such a simple thing I have to do myself.”

The teaching style of Zen is very uncompromising. As the story illustrates, the student is thrown back on his own resources. There is no explanation to help the student to understand. Rather, the teacher’s intent is to evoke a direct experience of the truth. A very famous kong-an in the Mu Mun Kwan, Nam Cheon’s “Every Day Mind is the Path” (case 19), speaks directly about understanding and true life.

One day Joju went to Zen Master Nam Cheon and asked “What is the true way?” Joju was a very high class practitioner but still he had some doubt, some question.

Nam Cheon answered, “Everyday mind is the true way.” We have all heard many times that Zen is very, very simple, that Zen is not special. So, everyday mind: what could be more simple than this clear, unattached, spontaneously manifesting mind that we all possess – everyday mind.

But still there is some doubt in Joju’s mind, so he says, “Then should I try to keep it or not?” Nam Cheon then says, “If you try to keep it, already you are mistaken.” If you want something, or are holding on to something, already you have made a mistake. It is not possible to hold on to anything in this life. Try to keep it? Already a mistake.

Then Joju has a further question. “If I do not try, how can I understand the true way?” Again, the deep desire that we all have: I want to understand life, figure it out.

Nam Cheon replies, “The true way is not dependent on understanding or not understanding. Understanding is illusion; not understanding is blankness. If you completely attain the true way of not thinking, it is like space, clear and void. So, why do you make right and wrong?” Then, Joju suddenly got enlightenment, realization.

The question put to Nam Cheon is also our question: “What is the true way?” Any time we grasp for anything, any time we want something, we are already in the quagmire of opposites-thinking. We are separated from the true way.

Hits table with stick

Sosan Taesa said, “Before Ancient Buddha appeared, one thing was already perfectly clear. Shakyamuni Buddha did not understand it; how could he transmit it to Mahakashyapa?”

Hits table with stick

The fourth great vow says, “The Buddha way is inconceivable; I vow to attain it.”

Hits table with stick

The view of all Buddhas and Patriarchs is the same – no view.

Which one of these statements is correct?


Outside, it is dark. Inside, the candles are burning bright.

Good News

December is the traditional time that we in the West celebrate the great enlightenment of the Buddha some 2,500 years ago. The enlightenment of the Buddha is good news for all beings. Why is that?

The Buddha practiced with great effort and sincerity for six years. Then one morning he saw a star and attained a great enlightenment. The first thing he said after his enlightenment was, “How wonderful, all beings have it; all beings have Buddha-nature, they just don’t know it.” A person once asked the Buddha what the difference was between the Buddha and himself The Buddha said, “There is no difference, only I am awake and you aren’t.” Good news! It means that you are already saved… you just need to wake up to it. This is why enlightenment is likened to “waking up” — awakening from a self-centered dream.

On the evening before his enlightenment the Buddha sat down with great determination, vowing not to get up unless he answered the great question of life and death: What is a human being? Why do we suffer so? Why do we walk on this earth? During the night. he experienced everything in life as continually coming and going, always changing. He was also tempted by desire — Mara — but realized that there was no satisfaction to be found anywhere through desire. Desire could not control him. These two experiences mean emptiness, the essential substance of everything.

In the morning his mind was clear. As Venus, the morning star, appeared he attained enlightenment. This means truth. Everything was just as it was.

Next, he got up from under the Bodhi tree and went out to teach the release from suffering. He had completely awakened from the dream of anger and desire. The attachment to desire — ignorance — could no longer control him; he was free to help the world. This is the function of our original nature-to help take away the suffering of the world.

Once the monks of Kung Dong Zen Temple asked Zen Master Man Gong, “On December 8th, in the early morning, Buddha saw a star and got enlightenment. What does this mean?”

Man Gong said, “Buddha saw a star and said he got enlightenment. This is sand falling in the eyes.”

Zen Master Seung Sahn’s comment on this is very interesting: “Does this star come from your mind, your eyes, or the sky? If you attain this point, you attain your true self.”

If we attain that, we understand “… sand failing in the eyes” and can help this world. That would be truly good news.

Finger Wrestling

One time Un Mun Zen Master was visiting the capital city. Because of his fame as a teacher, a high government offical wanted to meet with him. During the audience the offical asked, “What is the meaning of the Hwa Yen Sutra?”

Un Mun said, “Putting that aside for a moment, what is the meaning of ‘sutra’?”

“The cover is gold and the inside is white,” was the minister’s reply.

“You only understand the form of the sutra; you don’t understand its meaning.” The minister was completely stuck.

Recently, at the Centennial of the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, the Dalai Lama gave a speech in which he said that the true basis of the ecumenical movement is spiritual attainment. True understanding of another’s religion can only come from first attaining the meaning of your own religion; not just understanding it. Ritual and theology may be important but what’s most important is what’s inside the fancy robes. If the inside is real, then cooperation is possible.

Zen Master Seung Sahn, too, emphasizes attainment over understanding. Often he will say that a lot of people understand the bible or the sutras, but very few people understand the “behind meaning”–they have not attained the meaning. Zen is a special transmission outside the sutras, not dependent on words or speech. One familiar metaphor concerning this situation is that the various religions are like fingers pointing at the moon. Unfortunately, human beings spend much of their energy finger wrestling, rather than helping our world.

When Su Bong Zen Master was just starting to practice Zen, he was very interested in the story of the Sixth Patriarch’s enlightenment. The Sixth Patriarch got enlightenment upon hearing one line being recited from the Diamond Sutra. Zen Master Su Bong was very interested in this one line, and one day took the sutra into Zen Master Seung Sahn’s room to ask him about it. Pointing to the book, he asked, “What does this mean?” Zen Master Seung Sahn said, “Bring it closer. What line are you pointing to?” Just as Zen Master Su Bong brought the book close, Zen Master Seung Sahn slammed the book on his finger–POW!–and shouted, “What are you?!”

So, if you were the government minister and Un Mun asked you, “What is the meaning of ‘sutra’?” how could you answer?

Finding Your Compassion

From a talk at Providence Zen Center on Buddha’s Enlightenment Day, 1991

Throughout the ages people have written commentaries on the Buddha’s enlightenment using many different perspectives. But from the point of view of history, the Buddha’s enlightenment is not very interesting. Nor is it very interesting from the points of view of philosophy or psychology. However, if the Buddha’s enlightenment enters your heart and mind in this moment, that is interesting! Thinking about enlightenment is not interesting. Attaining enlightenment is interesting. The big meaning of the Buddha’s enlightenment in this moment is, “What are you?”

We practice Zen in terms of two essential questions, both of which point directly to the suffering of this world and our role in it. First, “What are you doing right now?” In other words, “What are you? What is a human being? Why are you on this planet, right now, right here? Right now!” Second, “Why do you do what you do?” The Buddha’s enlightenment connects with us at this moment through these two questions. Actually, these two questions are one question: What are you? This is the great question of life and death.

Many human beings are like lemmings running to the sea – heading pell-mell towards destruction, agony, and suffering. However, standing out in human history are some great figures who went in a different direction, whose lives say something else. Two obvious examples would be the Buddha and Christ. The lemmings are running one way, but Buddha and Christ are saying, “Hey, how ’bout this way?” And they aren’t just flapping their lips; their lives point in this direction. Let’s look at the Buddha’s life more closely.

The Buddha was born into very good circumstances. He had a good family situation, he was wealthy with the possibility of being a king – he had everything. We too have our situations; and these life circumstances become our nest. We’ve all made our nests somewhere, feathered nicely with our cozy “I-my-me” of one kind or another. We want to stay in that nest forever and make it even more secure.

One day the Buddha was shaken from the seeming security of his good situation when he saw a sick person, an old person, and a corpse. The sight of these inevitable forms of human suffering, and the transience of life so profoundly struck his mind that he could no longer stay in this comfortable situation. The Buddha left his nest.

He left home to find the answer to the great question: “What is a human being?” “Why do we suffer so much?” This burning question became the singular purpose of his life. He could no longer rest until he understood what human beings really were. The same must be true for us. That’s how his enlightenment connects to us, right here in this moment. The Buddha practiced for a long time, only trying to seek the answer to this question. Then one dawn he saw the morning star and experienced a great resolution to this question; he attained enlightenment.

Enlightenment is not an end point, actually, it is a beginning. The Buddha left home twice: once, to seek the answer to the great question and a second time, when out of compassion he went out into the pain and agony of ‘this world, to help relieve suffering. His two home leavings point directly to Zen’s two basic questions: “What are you doing right now?” This means, attain truth. And: “Why do that?” That means, how will this truth function. That means compassion. That means love. The two elements that make up our Zen practice are finding truth, and finding our function in this world. How can we help resolve this agony and suffering? These two questions point directly at us, down from Shakyamuni Buddha for the last twenty-five hundred years. That’s what we celebrate today.

Many times people will say that they don’t like Zen because “it’s cold or unemotional.” Everybody has an emotional mind that revolves around their likes and dislikes. This is our nest. You like this nest, these emotions, and this like and dislike. However, the Buddha taught that our like-and-dislike mind is the source of human suffering. We tend to confuse compassion with our emotional nest. So something is not connecting here. If you take away like and dislike you don’t get cold and unemotional, you get compassion. Humans are very attached to their like and dislike; we call this “clinging mind.”

Another feeling that everyone has is for this world, for the suffering in this world. This is a “clear emotion.” Compassion is a clear emotion. Zen means finding the compassion that’s inside of you. Suffering requires a response; we call this response “compassion.” Zen means, how do you find your compassion? Compassion means “to suffer with,” from the Latin words “to be with” and passion, “to suffer.” If one is “suffering with,” that means

there is no I-my-me, no “my likes/my dislikes.- True “suffering with” means becomes “one with.” This is enlightenment. This is what the Buddha’s enlightenment teaches.

The Buddha attained a great enlightenment that comes down to us through this lineage to Zen Master Seung Sahn. Our practice is keeping a don’t-know mind, keeping a mind which is before thinking. If you raise the big question, “What am IT’ and look inside deeply “don’t know” appears. This “don’t know” cuts off all thinking. It is before thinking. This is the Buddha’s medicine which has been passed down to us. Human beings are sick, so the Buddha gives a prescription. Then it is passed down to us. Now Zen Master Seung Sahn gives us this same wonderful medicine to take, this “don’t know” medicine.

There once was an isolated community which lived deep in the forest. One day, a member of that community became ill. Everyone became very concerned about the person who had become ill. Then a second person became ill with the same symptoms. The illness began to affect many people in the community. Since the community was isolated and didn’t have a doctor they became quite concerned. Finally, it was decided to send someone to the outside world. The emissary went and found a doctor who said, “Oh, I understand these symptoms. I know what’s causing these people to be ill.” He wrote a prescription and gave it to the man, who then returned to his community.

When he got back, he reported to the community, “This doctor understands our sickness. He knows what’s wrong with us, and gave me this prescription.” After reading the prescription aloud everyone said, “Oh, that’s very wonderful. Now there’s some hope for us.” Everyone was very happy. The next morning they got up, and the man who had gone off took the prescription out again and read it. Everybody was very happy and said, “Oh, that’s a really good prescription! You know, these drugs are really going to work, we know they are.”

That day passed, and the next day they got up and again the man, who had gone off to get the prescription, took it out of his pocket and read it to them once more. Then they were even more happy. It was finally sinking in. They were starting to understand what this prescription really meant. They were going to be relieved of their suffering and their community was going to be saved.

Then another person in this community thought that it was such a wonderful prescription that he wrote a commentary on it. Everybody was very happy because this commentary revealed more about the prescription which they hadn’t understood before. And in fact, one group of people in this community thought that this man should be the new leader of the community because his understanding of the prescription was better than that of the man who had gone to the doctor. Several of them even started arguing about the prescription with the man who had gone to the doctor. This went on for about two months… and then everybody died.

So we have this wonderful “don’t know” prescription. What will you do with it?


At the beginning of December we celebrated Buddha’s Enlightenment. Then two days later we began the seven-day intensive retreat that’s traditionally associated with the enlightenment ceremony. That’s interesting, because in Zen Buddhism, ceremonies are usually associated with actual practicing. That is somewhat unusual in conventional religious life. Zen’s direction is not just to impart the kind of good feeling that can come from participating in a ceremony, or to give you a special understanding, but to actually lead you to an attainment of what is being celebrated. In other words, Zen is always pointing you toward practice, so that you can understand yourself completely and then help other beings. That’s the meaning of Buddha’s Enlightenment, and also the reason for all our ceremonies and retreats.

During the Enlightenment Day ceremony we heard many stories about the Buddha’s enlightenment. The stories all revolve around one question: What led to the Buddha’s great enlightenment? It is written that one day his servant took him outside the protected environment of the palace grounds, whereupon he saw four things: a sick person, an old person, a dead person, and a mendicant seeker after truth. What he saw profoundly affected him. Suddenly a great doubt gripped him. What are human beings here for anyway? Even though he had a very good life situation it suddenly paled in the face of this big question. He had a very good body; he had a wonderful wife and family; and he was going to be king. However, even though he had a very good situation and was well educated he still didn’t understand what a human being was. “Why do we suffer? What is this? What am I?” Because of this big question–and a very strong try mind–he was naturally led to enlightenment.

It’s the same with us. We are human beings, so we’re cast, willy-nilly, into this world. Often Zen Master Seung Sahn will say, “Being born is already a mistake!” That phrase sounds funny to us but at other times it really grates on you. Everybody has experienced the truth of this statement to some degree. It’s the first noble truth: life is unsatisfactory. A poem in the Temple Rules reads, “Shouting into a valley, big shout, big echo, small shout, small echo.” The Buddha’s question, and his search, is this big shout! In fact the shout was so big that we can still hear the echo reverberating even today. We heard it at the Buddha’s Enlightenment Day ceremony . . . and we hear it now inside our own hearts. It still encourages us to come out of our sleep, our dream, and wake up, to find out what this is really all about anyway. Actually, the question is very simple, and yet how many people will really confront it? What about you?