Earth Soup

Each morning we say the Four Great Vows at the beginning of practice:

Sentient beings are numberless; we vow to save them all.
Passions are endless; we vow to extinguish them all.
The teachings are infinite; we vow to learn them all.
The Buddha Way is inconceivable; we vow to attain it.

As Zen practitioners we start each day by together stating this clear intention. One interesting aspect of these vows is that in our school we use the pronoun “we”: “we vow. . . ” The cornerstone of our practice is together action. When we act in complete harmony with others and become one with them, at that moment there is no “I, my, me.” This is great love, great compassion, the great Bodhisattva way.

A student once wrote to Zen Master Seung Sahn in a state of near frenzy because Rajneesh, an Indian Guru, had just predicted that a large earthquake would soon cause California to sink into the ocean. She wanted to know where to move to best avoid this catastrophe. He wrote back advising that she stay in California, help the people there and die with them if necessary.

In Zen we many times speak of the three poisons: desire, anger and ignorance. Usually the focus is on the first two but ignorance is also a root problem for human beings. Each of us is utterly enmeshed with everything else in this universe. From the bacteria in our bowels, to our next door neighbor, to the ozone layer, we are all in this earth soup together. It is only our thinking which allows us to “think” that we are separate in some way. Thinking creates the ego’s idea that this is a “one man (or woman) show.” This illusion of separateness is ignorance.

Buddhism uses the metaphor of Indra’s Net to express our essential connectedness with everything else. Here, every thing and event in the universe is portrayed as a brilliant jewel which lies at the intersection of the lines in the net. In addition, each jewel is many-faceted, reflecting each of the others. This is a wonderful poetic image which I’m sure we can all relate to and understand, but how can we attain it?

Zen means when you are doing something just do it. “Do it mind” has no subject and no object, no inside or outside. Inside and outside become one. Already, you and the whole universe have become one. Zen Master Ko Bong’s third gate is very interesting in this regard: “The whole universe is on fire. Through what kind of samadhi can you escape being burned?” If you hesitate for even an instant, you are lost.

Dharma LOTTO

Last week I stopped into our local ma and pa donut shop, the Donut Wagon, for some coffee. They offer up the usual tongue-pleasing fare: donuts, bagels, sticky buns, etc. They are also our local over-the-counter gambling establishment – there’s Power Ball, Keno, Lotto, scratch cards and much more. So, as I was standing in line perusing the donut selections, my eyes drifted over to the gambling possibilities. Suddenly one of the offerings jumped out at me. It said: BE AN INSTANT WINNER!!! Then it hit me, “That’s just like Zen!” Anytime you cut off all thinking — wake up just now — you. are an instant winner. And it’s even better than the lottery, because you just don’t win nine million dollars, you get the whole universe. You and the universe become one. You get everything. What a deal! You don’t even have to wait while you scratch off the thin aluminum film to see if you are a winner. In fact, at that moment there is no inside, no outside; no subject, no object; no winners or losers; you are completely IT. No more agonizing months spent sitting around the house wringing your hands waiting for Ed McMahon to pull up in the Clearing House Sweepstakes van to declare you the winner. You already ARE the winner.

When I first started going to Zen Master Seung Sahn’s talks, one thing really struck me. He would often say, “I am not special. I don’t have anything that you don’t have.” I found that very congenial. And, of course, the Buddha says the same thing. Right after his great enlightenment, he taught that everyone already had Buddha-nature; the problem was that they didn’t know it. That means that you are already ready a winner. You just have to wake up to it. How simple.

So, here’s an “I already am a winner” kong-an for you: Long ago on Yeong Sahn mountain, Shakyamuni Buddha held up a flower before the assembly. All were silent. Only Mahakashyapa smiled. Shakyamuni Buddha said, “I have the all-pervading true dharma, incomparable nirvana, exquisite teaching of formless form. Not dependent on words, a special transmission outside the sutras, I give to Mahakashyapa.” Buddha transmitted his dharma to Mahakashyapa. But what if Mahakashyapa had said, “No thank you, Buddha. I already have dharma. Keep your dharma.” If you are Buddha at that time, what could you do? If he is already a winner, what can you do for him?

Common Ground – A discussion with Zen Master Dae Kwang and Father Kevin Hunt

Last summer, the Institute for World Spirituality in Chicago hosted a weekend Cbristian – Buddhist retreat led by Father Kevin Hunt OCSO and Zen Master Dae Kwang. Two days of silent meditation, with both Christian and Zen chanting. These are excerpts from the Saturday evening question-and-answer period.

Question: In Christianity, what is important for many people is devotional type experience-thoughts, hymns, psalms all directed to a personal God. This brings much warmth and comfort to many Christians. Now this is a dimension which is not apparent in Buddhism. I am wondering how to understand that. Is this devotional spirituality, which involves thinking and images and relating to a personal God, extraneous in Buddhism – say, something Christians do because they do not have a correct understanding of the Still Point or Buddha Nature?

Father Kevin: In Christianity, you have to consider what is the meaning of “God.” Speaking about God is not the same as knowing God. If you ask me, “What is God?” I’ll answer, “God is a three-letter word.” When it comes down to what these words and images really mean, you run up against a blank wall of Unknowing. There’s an old Christian saying that any affirmation of God is a denial of God. So the question of theistic devotion in Christianity is not a simple one.

Also, the whole question of God in Buddhism is not simple either. When Buddhists talk about God are they talking about the same God that Christians do? No. In Buddhism, the gods are still in the wheel of samsara (karma, rebirth). If Christianity had a wheel of samsara, we would never be able to place God on that wheel.

In the West, most Christians would not be comfortable with a term like Shunyata — the void or infinite emptiness. But these words may be closer to God than many of the concepts and images we use!

Question: I’m still wondering about the whole devotional area.

Father Kevin: These are ways most people have to relate to God. You have devotional sects in Buddhism. Zen is just one small sect in the whole Buddhist tradition.

Question: Bowing in Buddhist practice is devotion.

Dae Kwang Sunim: When your mind is clear, everything is devotion. When you bow, just bow. When you eat, just eat. People need help, help them. Just do it! That’s true devotion.

Question: But take the Stations of the Cross, for example. If I do that, I’m thinking in very concrete images about a personal God and his suffirrings for the redemption of all human beings…

Father Kevin: Let me tell you about a monk I once knew who was, I think, a very enlightened man, although he would never have articulated his life in those terms. He would make the Stations of the Cross a dozen times a day. I used to get mad at him – we’d get up at three o’clock in the morning, I’d rush down to church in the dark (this was in South America, so we did not have electricity) and at that hour of the morning I’d trip over his body, prostrate in front of one of the Stations. To say that what he was doing was thinking about Jesus’ redemptive suffering is, in my opinion, a very superficial way to describe what was happening in the heart and mind of this monk!

The point of a vehicle is to be a vehicle – to take you somewhere. For many people it’s a devotional kind of thing; for some people it’s more apophatic. A vehicle is anything that helps you.

Question: In our retreat schedule, we have large blocks of free time. What do you do for periods of up to two hours without reading?

Dae Kwang Sunim: We continue to practice all the time. The reason for not reading during the retreat is so that we can focus on the Book of Wisdom here [points to his chest.] This is the most important book you’ll ever read. If you spend time here [pointing to his head], reading other people’s ideas, that just takes you away from yourself.

Question: I can understand conceptually the issue of not reading [laughter.] But the arising of a concept in the mind is an arising of the Buddha mind, too. If you see clearly the nature of a concept, then conceptual thinking is no problem, even on a retreat.

Dae Kwang Sunim: Usually what we do in Zen is read for encouragement rather than for understanding. The two purposes are different. So, for instance, you don’t read lives of the saints in order to understand God. Rather, you read lives of the saints to work yourself up to having enough guts to actually do something!

Father Kevin: Remember, too, that the time we are devoting to this retreat isn’t all that much. It’s only about forty-eight hours. You have a lot to pack in, in that time. What you want to concentrate on is your own experience, your own awareness. To be sure, concepts are not evil; in the Christian tradition we say the Word is God. Concepts come from God. But in a retreat like this the awareness you have to have is your awareness – not his awareness, not my awareness, not the awareness of an author of a book. It’s very easy to fall into the attempt to get somebody else’s realization.

My first Zen teacher was a Japanese Master, Sasaki Roshi. He would give koans to his students like, “How do you realize Buddha-nature when you’re taking a shower?” or “How do you realize Buddha-nature when you’re driving a cab?” Once he saw me making the sign of the cross, which we do when we start a prayer, and soon my koan was, “How do you manifest God with… what do you call it? Yes, sign of cross! With that how do you manifest God?”

So two of his students were talking, comparing koans. One was very concerned – he had no answer for his koan, “How do you realize Buddha-nature when you’re driving a taxi?” The other had passed the koan, so he told him the answer. (Of course, you’re not supposed to do that, but… ). So the first student goes into Sasaki Roshi for his interview and gives him the same answer the other student had given. Sasaki Roshi’s eyes got big, he stared at the student and said, “Oh, wonderful answer! Wonderful answer! [Pause.] Now give me your answer!”

Question: Lectio divina is a practice of reading in a way which invites me into silence; to take the step into silence, into contemplation, I begin with reading. So to me there should be no fear of that kind of reading during a retreat.

Father Kevin: It’s not a question of fear; it’s a question of what you’re doing. Are you reading or are you focusing on your own experience moment to moment? A weekend like this is a weekend for the practice of silence — mind-silence, too. When you leave there will be plenty of time for lectio divina as well as other kinds of reading.

Dae Kwang Sunim: In Zen we say you have to digest what you learn in order to understand; that means taking something you’ve learned from a book or from someone else and making it really and completely your own. There are all kinds of ideas in the world. How do you make any of them your own? You have to digest your understanding so you become one with it, like a cow chewing its cud.

My teacher will often tell people, “Don’t read for three years” or “Don’t read for five years.” By this he’s saying, “You’ve already read enough books, so just get on with it!”

Father Kevin: It’s like a kid who wants to be a professional basketball player. He can read every book in the world on how to play basketball, he can read all the lives of the best basketball players, even books of physics on the trajectory of the ball when you throw it with this or that amount of force. But at some point he’s got to go out and start bouncing the stupid ball!

Dae Kwang Sunim: There once was a person whose professional life was very secure. But as he got older a spiritual questioning arose in him. To satisfy this urge he got interested in Buddhism and read all the books he could, until he understood everything about Buddhism. The man then became anxious about his financial situation. After reading extensively in the area of investment, he understood everything about retirement plans. Next he started to worry about his body. He wasn’t getting any younger and perhaps some exercise like swimming would help him. Again, he went to the library. After reading every available book he understood everything about swimming, even the theories regarding rigorous competitive training. He then went down to the lake, jumped in and drowned. [There are several moments of silence.] That’s the end. So understanding cannot help you. It’s a Zen story!

Question: In Christianity, the deepest level of experience is described as an I – Thou relation between you and God. Can you explain why there is no I – Thou relation in Buddhism?

Dae Kwang Sunim: In Buddhism, we say that everything is one, so there is ultimately no I – Thou. If you take away the idea of “I” and take away the idea of “Thou,” then what is there?

Question: So there is no ultimate relationship in Buddhism as there is in Christianity?

Dae Kwang Sunim: Everything is relationship. Everything is direct connectedness; you just think that it isn’t. Our job is simply to become one with everything. That’s being relationship. So if you take away the idea of “I” and take away the idea of “Thou,” what do you get? Quick! Tell me! [No answer.] I’m sitting here answering your question. That’s better than any idea concerning “I – Thou” relationships.

Question: Would you describe how you became interested in Zen practice?

Father Kevin: I didn’t get interested in Buddhism and Zen as something I wanted to study. I basically got into it because the traditional Christian explanations of what my practice was didn’t quite satisfy me. Like a drum, to get the right tone, you have to tighten the skin on the drum head. So, too, in order to firm up my practice, I learned some of their ways of doing things.

Dae Kwang Sunim: I was raised Christian. The reason I went to Buddhism is much like what Father Kevin said. The Christian tradition I was raised in didn’t have any contemplative practice. I became interested in Zen Buddhism because it contained a very strong tradition of practice. I saw it not so much as an alternative to Christianity but as offering something I had never encountered before.

Question: Were you dissatisfied then with Christianity?

Dae Kwang Sunim: I wasn’t dissatisfied. I wanted something different. Actually, many people use Zen meditation to realize what Christianity is all about. Zen, you may have noticed, is very generic. It’s like drinking pure, cool water when you’re thirsty. Zen points to something before thinking, before all your ideas. Actually God is before your idea of God, and so is Buddha. And what is that? What are you? That’s the question! And how do you attain that?

Buddha likened the human situation to a man who has just been shot in the chest by an arrow. Before he gets treated for the wound, he wants to know who shot the arrow. He also wonders which tribe made the arrow. How strong was the bow and what trajectory did the arrow take to pierce his chest in such a manner? While he is asking these questions, he dies. The most important thing in this situation is getting treatment.

The Buddha was only concerned with one thing: human suffering and taking away human suffering. He refused to talk about anything else because it was not helpful to people. He went instead right to the heart of the matter, the matter of life and death. Christ, too, was not a scholar; he was not a theologian. He pointed directly to the human condition and how to relieve it. If you look at it that way, everything else pales.

The Cannon and the Shout

Chin Ming-Hu was a powerful Chinese defense minister who lived toward the end of the Ming Dynasty. Although much of his life was devoted to military matters he also had a strong interest in Ch’an Buddhism. He would regularly invite Zen Master Hsin-Hueh Ta-Hsing to his place for dharma talks. One day when the Master was about to drink the usual cup of tea at the end of the talk there was suddenly a loud explosion. At the order of Chin a cannon had been fired at his signal to scare the Master. Many people were indeed frightened, but the Master continued to calmly drink his tea as if nothing had happened.

When he had finished his tea, the Master asked Chin, “That sounded like a cannon. Is there something wrong?” “I beg your pardon. I’m sure there is no problem.” replied Chin evasively. “Cannon fire is such a routine occurrence in a military encampment that…….”

After a while, a second round of tea was served. Just as Chin raised his cup to drink the Master gave a loud shout, creating quite a mess. Chin protested, “Master! Why did you do that?” Master Hsin-Hueh just laughed and said, “What’s the matter? Don’t you know that shouting is a routine occurrence in a Zen community?” Struck by the Master’s calm and dignified manner, Chin offered his apology.

Buddha’s Birthday Poem

Given April 2, 1994

A true person
leaps into the world
takes seven steps in each direction
“Only I am holy.”
Un Mun’s foul mouth
Cries “Mistake!”

Still, 2538 birthday candles
Have already burned up
Buddha, Un Mun,
and the whole world of
desire, anger, and stupidity.
Was your birth
a mistake, too?


Blowing out the candles
a big wish for all beings
Happy Buddha’s Birthday to you!

Bomb Enlightenment

[Raises Zen stick over head, then hits table with stick.]

This point is the birthplace of all Buddhas and Patriarchs, but Buddhas and Patriarchs do not understand this point. So, this point completely kills them.

[Raises Zen stick over head, then hits table with stick.]

This point is the source of all Buddhas and Patriarchs. It is the Absolute in all its purity, but this is just someone’s idea.

[Raises Zen stick over head, then hits table with stick.]

This is the Truth. Buddhas and Patriarchs never leave this point. However,things are always changing, changing–so, how can they not leave this point? How can we ever escape this dilemma and be truly free?


Outside today it is cloudy, inside there are many bright and shining faces.

I would first like to congratulate the European sangha on your twenty years of sincere and strong effort. Also, congratulations to the Polish sangha on this wonderful new dharma hall. I’d especially like to thank our teacher, Zen Master Seung Sahn, whose tireless efforts around the world made all this possible.

Last night Zen Master Seung Sahn said that Zen started in China, then it went to Korea, then to the United States, and then to Poland. Receiving this great gift requires more than just thanks, but also a responsibility to practice, and to continue spreading this teaching.

I’m very happy to be here in Poland. Actually, you don’t know this, but for twenty years I’ve been secretly visiting Poland. For many years I’ve been seeing Polish faces at our Zen Centers around the world; so my eyes have visited Poland many times. Also, I’ve heard many people speaking Polish; at Providence Zen Center, Polish has become our second language. So, already my ears have visited Poland. Providence Zen Center also serves up some really good Polish food: lazanki, pierogi, barszcz, [laughter] prepared by the Perl family. So, my tongue too has visited Poland many times. However, better than all of that, this Friday I actually came to Poland.

So far I’ve had two exciting experiences. The first thing I saw were these strange, round balls in many of the trees. I’d said I’d never seen anything like that in my life. The driver laughed and said, “That’s mistletoe.” I always thought that mistletoe was just something that you hung from the doorway at Christmas which gave you an excuse to kiss a girl. [laughter] Now I know where mistletoe comes from.The other thing I saw was storks. Wow, I had no idea how big storks really are. And their nests are even larger — in fact, huge would be an understatement — even bigger than an apartment in Hong Kong!

The Buddha taught that our world is always changing, changing; that’s impermanence. Poland is a perfect example of this. Someone recently told me that twenty years ago you had very little…no food, no nothing. Then the government changed. Suddenly, within days, there was plenty of food for sale in the stores. That’s our life — always changing. Good, bad, up, down, all around. Changing is not the real problem; the problem is that human beings want something. One time I was discussing a little problem at the Zen Center with Zen Master Seung Sahn. He leaned over and shared a “secret” teaching with me: “Everybody wants something.” [laughter] This is also the Buddha’s teaching. Buddha said that everybody wants something; because of that, they suffer. Therefore, change is no problem if you don’t want anything for yourself. However, if you want something, all the suffering in the world appears from that point.

A couple of days ago we had a very interesting experience in Lodz. After finishing a two-hour session of sitting and interviews, we all went downtown to have lunch. We had just parked the car when there was loud noise — BOOM! — glass and debris were blown all over the street. A bomb had gone off in a small bar. Soon there were police and firemen everywhere. We went on to dinner. That night during a public talk we had just begun three minutes of meditation, when — BOOM! — another bomb went off. At that moment, everybody got “bomb enlightenment.” [laughter] These bombs are no good or bad; that’s our world’s karma, cause and effect. But these bombs mean suffering, because they come from a mind which wants this and doesn’t want that. Our teaching is very clear: cut off all likes and dislikes, then your Original Mind appears, very clear–then helping this world is possible.

Our European sangha is a very clear example of that. Indeed, this twenty years is not twenty years. This is just the beginning of our big job, because in our world there’s still a lot of suffering. I have a kong-an for you: One time Man Gong Zen Master was walking past the temple garden. It was Kyol Che time, so there were many monks in the Zen hall. In the garden was an old man working, hoeing the ground. The old man looked at Man Gong Zen Master and said, “Master, what are those monks doing, sitting in there looking at the wall?” If you were Man Gong Sunim at that time, how could you answer this old man?

Now our sangha has a new dharma hall here in Warsaw — that’s wonderful. But most important is, what will you be doing in this dharma hall? That’s a big question. A twenty year celebration is great. But how can you really attain twenty years of practice?

[Hits table with the Zen stick three times.]

Happy Twentieth Anniversary to all of you. Thank you very much.

Big Suffering

Often Zen Master Seung Sahn says, “If the direction of your life is clear, then your whole life is clear. If your direction is not clear, then your life will always be a problem.” The reason we practice Zen is to understand ourselves completely, attain our original nature, and save all beings from suffering. This is our direction – the original job of all human beings. In this there is no “I, my, me.” If we have “I, my, me” then we will get suffering, guaranteed.

Several years ago at the end of the long winter retreat in Korea, Byoek Am Sunim, our precepts teacher, gave each of the participants a calligraphy It read: “You make, you get.” This is a very simple equation! At that time, someone asked him why it was that people suffer. He said, “Human beings continue to suffer because they do not see cause and effect clearly.” So, the question “Why do I suffer?” has a simple answer: “What do you want?”

Achaan Chah, a now-deceased meditation teacher in Thailand, would often walk around the monastery grounds and ask every monk that he met, “Are you suffering today?” If the monk answered “yes,” Achaan Chah would say, “Oh, then you must have a lot of desires today.” If we can clearly see the nature of desire and anger, then it is possible to let them go. This means seeing cause and effect clearly. However, one more step is necessary.

One time a monk came to Zen Master Seung Sahn and said that he wanted to stop being a monk because the monk’s life for him was a living hell. Zen Master Seung Sahn replied, “If your direction is clear, then even living in hell is not a problem.” This means if you want to help this world, then even suffering should not be a hindrance. Most important is direction. If your direction is clear, then the suffering you experience becomes “Big Suffering” and helps this whole world. So, what do you want?

Become One

This is an excerpt from a talk given by Zen Master Dae Kwang on October 5th, 1996 at the Whole World is a Single Flower Conference. The gathering was held at the Sixth Patriarch’s temple on T’ao Che Mountain in southern China, about 200 miles north of Canton.

Twenty-five hundred years ago the Buddha held up a flower, but at that time only one person understood.

Thirteen hundred years ago Hui Neng, the Sixth Patriarch of Zen said, “originally nothing.” At that time, only a few people understood.

Sixty years ago, as the Japanese withdrew from Korea at the end of the second World War, Zen Master Man Gong picked up a flower, dipped it in ink and wrote this calligraphy: The whole world is a single flower. At that time, how many people understood?

The meaning behind each of these Master’s teaching is actually the same, become one. That’s our big job in life. Many people have come from all over the world-from South Africa, from the United States, from Europe, from Korea and from throughout China-to attend this conference. One reason for coming here is to celebrate the gift of the Zen teaching of Hui Neng. Hui Neng was the founder of Zen as we practice it today. Hui Neng’s teaching, China’s great gift to the world, is now traveling all over the world and helping many people. That gift is wonderful, but more important is that we attain this gift in our hearts and minds. So the reason for our whole world is a single flower conference is to help all people become one. Everybody understands that in our world there is a lot of suffering. All people become one means everyone find their true self and help this world. Then this conference is not just a ceremony, but has real meaning for the life of this world. So I want to thank you all for coming here to Zen’s primary point and I hope that we all practice hard and continue to attain our true self moment to moment.

Tomorrow we will visit the home temple of another great Chinese Zen teacher, Un Mun Zen Master. His name means “cloud gate” after the name of the mountain where he taught. This temple is also the home of a large memorial to the famous modern Zen Master Hsu Yun. Hsu Yun means “Empty Cloud.” So here is a poem for you:

Empty Cloud Gate says, “Hello!
Do you see me?
If you see me you are blind.
If you don’t see me you are still blind.”
Do you see this gate?

Zen Master Dae Kwang

DKSNZen Master Dae Kwang is the abbot of the Kwan Um School of Zen. He is the guiding teacher of Providence Zen Center in Cumberland, Rhode Island, the head temple of our international School. He is also the teacher for Zen centers in Wisconsin and Delaware. Zen Master Dae Kwang travels widely, leading retreats throughout North America, Europe, and Asia. His interests include meditation practices common to Christianity and Buddhism. He was ordained a monk in 1987.



Zen at the Bank

From a talk given during Kyol Che in 1982.

Somebody asked me if we should tell people that we practice Zen. I think we all have a hindrance of being embarrassed about it. I don’t mention it often, but if someone asks me where I live, I tell them. I think it’s good for them to get this in their consciousness.

One day years ago I was in a bank with Soen Sa Nim. There was a long line behind us and people were anxious to get out. When we finally got to the teller, a woman who had handled a lot of Zen Center business asked, “What is Zen?”

Soen Sa Nim was standing right next to me. I knew he would want me to give her a Dharma talk. But I just said, “Oh, it’s nothing,” took the money and ran out. How can you answer in two words or less, “What is Zen?”

As soon as we got to the car, Soen Sa Nim said, “Why not give her good teaching? Just say, Zen is understanding yourself. What are you?” At that time, it would have been really embarrassing for me to say that. It still would be. But I can see how that would have helped the woman more than what I did.

We need to expose our practice to people, and we have to expose ourselves to the practice. We have to accept that it’s our job. Soen Sa Nim shaves his head and wears those monk clothes so when people see him, they know something is going on. A lot of us are still hedging it, walking on the fence, not ready to completely give ourselves to it.