Transmission Speech

Before Heaven and Earth separate
True nature completely bright.
Originally – nothing happening.
Spring comes, many flowers blooming.
              – Zen Master Seung Sahn

I have been appreciating the smell of grass in the tent all weekend, so Soeng Hyang (Nature Smell) is a good name for me. When the Buddha gave transmission to Mahakashyapa he said, “I have the utmost profound exquisite teaching, a special transmission outside the dharma that I give to you, Mahakashyapa.” I thought that that was wonderful until I started studying with Zen Master Seung Sahn. One day he said “You know, Buddha made a big mistake when he gave that kind of transmission.” So I ask you, if you are the Buddha and you are holding up a flower, a stick, or anything, and your wonderful student who has been practicing for many many years looks at you and smiles, how would you give that student transmission?


Only don’t know. I can’t give you the answer.

I also have a short story. When we first moved to Cumberland, many people were worried because they were afraid we were some kind of bad cult. They were afraid of us. The local newspaper interviewed a neighbor down the street and asked what the people were like who moved in. The neighbor said, “I think they are OK. I only know one man, and he stopped to help me fix a flat tire.” Then the neighbor observed, “They must leave their religion at home.” So I hope that you all find your home – your true self – and leave your religion there. Thank you.

A Thousand Eyes, a Thousand Hands

The Buddha taught that human beings’ original mistake is perceiving ourselves as separate entities. All of the infinite manifestations of human suffering originate from feeling separate.

The Sanskrit word “Buddha” means “the Awakened One.” Just as it is possible to be more and more awake, it is possible to go into a deeper and deeper sleep. As we awaken, we become more intimate with the sources of joy and pain.

How do we awaken from the illusion of separateness? Reading about waking up will not wake us up. Sincerely wishing to wake up, becoming more and more aware of our “stuck places” will not completely wake us up. What is the ultimate alarm clock? Is there an absolute, earthshaking, fool-proof method to shake us out of our sleepy habit force?

In Zen practice we ask “what is this?” To ask this is to inquire into each moment of our lives. To ask this is to let go of our ancient assumptions, opinions, and desires, and wake up to what is actually happening in this very moment.

In my work as a Hospice nurse, I have many opportunities to be with people as they are sick and dying. We have a large poster in our office which says, “Dying is no reason to stop living.” As ironic as it may seem, dying often awakens people to living. Tremendous healing can occur during the dying process, at death, and after death both for the dying person and for their family and friends.

A few years ago, my father died very suddenly. Unable to be with him at the time of his death, I felt a need to do some type of ceremony. I went up to the attic of my parents’ home, put a picture of my father on an altar, lit the candles and incense, and began to chant the “Thousand Eyes and Hands Sutra.”

The message of this sutra is that each of us is capable of great compassion and wisdom. Each one of us has the potential to open an infinite number of eyes, and to sprout an infinite number of hands. We can use all those eyes and hands to see and reach out to our fellow sentient beings throughout the universe, extending our wisdom and compassion.

As I chanted, I felt myself getting confused about why I was chanting, and who I was chanting to. I began wondering where my father was, and what I wanted the chanting to do for him (or, for that matter, for me.) I noticed that I was doing just what we do so often: I was separating myself from the chanting and from my father, and thinking about a goal or purpose for my actions.

At that point of confusion, I felt inadequate and very humble. I asked myself, “What is this? What does it mean to chant for someone after they die?” While questioning, I continued to chant.

For a few moments I tried to perceive my father’s karmic suffering, and direct my energy in some way that would be healthy and bring him increased clarity. Trying that felt contrived, pompous, and useless. Who was I to try to help direct my father’s flight into who knows where?

Again I asked, “what is this?” My head full of questions and doubt, I continued to chant. Thoughts of the confusing life my father and I had together flashed across my mind.

Then, finally, I was able to just chant, just try to hear my own sound, the sound of the sutra’s words being repeated over and over again. ‘Ibis is the medicine of chanting: filling our usually busy mind with simple syllables, repeating these sounds that have no intellectual messages, and just listening.

Again I thought of my father, and his passing, and gradually, like warm sand heating my body after a plunge in the cool ocean, I allowed myself to remember the love I had for him. The love I felt in those moments was strong and simple. Subject and object fell away, leaving just a daughter’s love for her father – just love.

In those moments, I felt awake and intimately connected to my father, dropping my habits of judging and controlling. Simply and genuinely, just loving him.

I have regrets about not having been able to feel that intimacy with my father while he was alive. But regrets can be a powerful fuel to move us towards a deeper commitment to heal, a deeper commitment to continually ask, “what is this?”

Whether we perceive our experiences as joyful or painful doesn’t matter. The more we awaken, the less we make distinctions. We gradually stop thinking in terms of opposites (good and bad, health and illness) and simply are with each moment in a clear and open relationship. Our healing, our growth, come from being open and awake. Our discomfort, our suffering, come from defending and protecting our delusional separate selves.

This is the healing process – awakening to the original wholeness of life. Open and present in this moment, the thought of healing disappears; healing is a human idea. There is only being in an intimate relationship with the conditions and situations in our lives.

Sincere & Consistent Effort

Letter to a student:

April 14, 1982

Dear Jerry,

Thank you for your letter and the information about EST training. You helped me understand more about the training, especially by the way you talked about your own experience with it. I do not feel compelled to do the training — not because I don’t think I have anything to learn from it, but because I think I can learn everything through the practice that I am doing now. Does that make sense? The analogy that just popped into my mind was this taking EST training would be like changing to a different size tennis racket in the middle of a match when the one I am using now feels fine. I know what I really need to do is grip the handle harder and keep playing as well as I can. I guess I feel that whatever practice or discipline we have simply needs to be followed up by sincere and consistent effort. We need to have a very clear picture about what sincere and consistent effort means in our life. Soen Sa Nim illustrated it by saying, “When you’re doing something, just do it. Put down your condition, situation, and opinion. Only go straight — don’t know:” The “don’t know” needs a lot of cultivation for most of us.

You said the EST training brochure mentioned instant transformation. I too believe that it is possible to transform our mind instantly and “get it.” But what I also know is that it is very hard to keep it.

So I guess that is where we started in our first letter exchange. Why live at a Zen Center? Living there serves as a constant reminder that when you are doing something, just try to do it. Maybe even more important is that the together action of the Zen Center takes your opinion, condition, and situation a few feet away from you at times, just painfully enough so that you can’t help but see your attachment to them. It’s usually very hard to see all the different tethers our mind is holding. The tethers have to be yanked before we can know them. The Zen Center is a great yanker, believe me.

You said that you have a hard time committing yourself to 10,000 years non-stop. I do have a suggestion. Try just fifty years to begin with. That’s a good start. Who knows where it will take you?

You asked about the Precepts. I’ll send you the literature we have about them. You said, “My sense is that the Precepts are like a fence along the path and sometimes you have to leave the path to take a piss.” The idea of a fence along a path leaves me with an image of the path being narrow and bound in by a solid, infinitely long barrier (the Precepts). I think of the Precepts as being a walking stick or fancy running shoes or, even better, a five-speed bicycle that you can use to move along at a steady pace. Sex, lying, killing, stealing, and heedlessness are all neither good nor bad by themselves. Why do you do them? That is what is most important. If it is to help people, then you are not breaking a Precept. If you are not sure, then often it helps to ride the bicycle and follow the path until the bicycle, the path, and you are merged into one thing. What is that one thing? I hope you can tell me soon.



The Samadhi of Coolness

Excerpt from a letter to a student in our school.

February 11, 1982

Dear Bruce,

You wrote to me about the samadhi of coolness — coolness of detachment and emptiness. You must be very careful. If you have detachment, you have attachment. If you have emptiness, you have fullness. If you sit on your cushion and have even a second’s thought about struggling towards the emptiness beneath the fiery universe of greed and desire, you are already lost. You are lost in the dead realm of opposites. How can you keep your mind present and alive?

Once, when Soen Sa Nim was explaining to someone how to sit, he said something that I found extremely helpful. He said imagine that you have lost your only set of car keys and you have to get somewhere very desperately. Just at that time your mind is totally focused on trying to find those car keys. You don’t stop and think about the nature of car keys, or about where they originally came from; nor do you stop and read books about what other people have done when they have lost something that they need very badly. You also don’t try to feel detached or empty about the keys. You only look for them! Where are my keys? Where are my keys?

So again I must tell you that I can’t accept your answers. You are very lucky that you have such a dilemma. Where is your mistake? What can you do? Drop the particular situations in both kong-ans and try to keep a mind that just doesn’t know.

Thank you for your struggle.



The One Necessary Ingredient

November 13, 1981

Dear Bobby,

Hello, how are you? Do you remember me? How are Linc and the baby? Please say hello to Linc for me.

I have been practicing Zen for about two years now. All the while I had this nagging doubt about the extent of the usefulness of practicing clear mind. I could understand the necessity for clarity but could not see past that. Consequently, my practice (i.e. life) lacked direction and I was beginning to despair.

I have been very uptight lately and my mind has been like a live wire. But the other day, in a moment of clarity I really perceived the momentum of my mind. This momentum predetermines my (one’s) response in all situations. This being so, how can a person being dragged by their mind’s momentum really experience any situation? I have been “out of control.” This momentum is karma.

Now I know why keeping clear mind is so important. My practice now has direction, focus. My job is to break free of this karma.

I am very grateful for the teaching that Soen Sa Nim, you, and George make available. Thank you all very much. Take care of yourself.



December 2, 1981

Dear Peter,

Thank you for your letter. I just got back from a trip to California, so I’m a little late answering you.

How are you? Of course I remember you. It’s wonderful that you despaired and got uptight. Without those two emotions you may never have perceived the momentum in your mind. This is not saying that Zen practice has a particular recipe that must always include being uptight and in despair, but those two are common ingredients. The one necessary ingredient is the desire to understand yourself. Your description of seeing the momentum of your mind and also of it as being “out of control” is wonderful. It seems ironic, but we have to really accept and perceive this uncontrolled momentum before we break free and understand our true selves.

Now that you understand why keeping a clear mind is important, how are you going to keep clear mind? Just seeing the uncontrolled quality of your thoughts is not enough. So I ask you, where do your thoughts come from? Where is their original source? Please send me an answer soon. If you don’t know, then completely don’t know. Only ask, “Where are these thoughts coming from?” Or, even more simply, “What am I?”

I hope you never lose this new-found focus and direction and you continue to cultivate them until your energy and compassion fill the entire universe. It’s possible, you know.

I hope to see you soon.



The Mustard Seed

or’s note: The author draws from the Gospel of Thomas, a Gnostic Christian text dating to the first few centuries A.D. Since their discovery in Egypt in 1945, the “Gnostic Gospels” have inspired a renewed exploration of Jesus’ person and message. Although not considered authoritative by Christian churches, these texts continue to gain in influence both within and beyond Christianity.

Adapted from a talk at a Christian-Buddhist conference at Providence Zen Center in October, 1990.

In Christianity and Buddhism, the heart of true meditation is to be intimate with your own experience. One of the inspiring things in the lives of Jesus and Buddha is their innocence, their questioning. They had examples and teachers, but ultimately each went off on his own.

There are some quotes from Jesus that I find particularly relevant. One is, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you have will save you.” One of the first things Zen Master Seung Sahn taught me to do was to ask, “What am I?” Suppose you were sitting at Jesus’ knee two thousand years ago, and he said that about “bringing forth that which is within you.” And then he didn’t say any more, he just walked away. Those would be your instructions. Over time, maybe you would begin to ask, naturally, what it is within you that could save you? What is that?

In our school, we have three month retreats in the winter called Kyol Che, “tight dharma.” We repeat and repeat and repeat the same schedule every day, in silence. There are about ten hours of just gazing at the floor in silence. Every day there’s a work period, every day there’s breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The repetition is so that our mind can rest a little and ask, “What am l?,” or “What is within me that is going to save me? How can I find that?” There’s a tremendous gift in that repetition.

It doesn’t take too much life experience to realize that we could use a little saving; that there is discomfort, disease, sadness, selfishness. Religion gives us qualities to aspire to, such as generosity, patience, and forbearance.

There are mantras and phrases used in Buddhism, as with ejaculatory prayer in Christianity, that replace a discriminating mind — a mind that has preferences and aversions and attractions which are out of balance-with just that prayer, that repetition. Just as a child will touch something hot out of ignorance and burn her hand, so adults will touch hot subjects-or objects that we’re attached to — and get into trouble. If we repeat the phrase or prayer, we replace what hurts with a mind that is steady, clear, open, and present.

Jesus talked about the mustard seed, “the tiniest of all seeds. But when it falls on prepared soil, it grows into a large plant and shelters the birds of the sky.” The mustard seed has been used metaphorically in Buddhism, too. Our mind is the same. Sometimes our Buddha-nature, our God-nature, our ability to see clearly is very, very tiny. We have bad days. We have bad lives, some of us! So you start right now. You don’t think of yourself as being bad or good or proficient or clumsy. Simply regard yourself as having that seed.

Prepared soil is very important. With a casual lifestyle, it’s difficult to attain your true self completely. But it’s also said, “in sterile water, fish cannot live.” If the water is too clean, there will be nothing to eat. Each of us has to find the “middle way” for ourselves. We have to find the relationship with this world that will work for us. It can’t be too loose or too tight.

I lived at Providence Zen Center for seventeen years. Every morning, the wake-up bell would remind me, “It’s time to practice.” The Buddha taught that food, sex, sleep, fame, and wealth are especially sticky. They keep you in bed in the morning; you’re exhausted from not being in a balanced relationship with one or another of them. The bell helps you stay in balance. You’ve gotten up early, so you have that time to ask, “What is it within me that can save me, keep me out of that stickiness?”

Those five sticky things are inherently neither good nor bad; it’s our relationship to them that matters. Zen Master Seung Sahn says, “Why do that-for what and for whom?” That can be one of our ejaculatory prayers, one of our questions. If you wake up, then it’s, “For what and for whom? What am I doing just now?”

Prayer and contemplation don’t stop in the monastery or Zen center. If taught and practiced sincerely, they’re totally portable. As a visiting hospice nurse, I’m exposed to endless opportunities to wake up to life situations, to incorporate meditation into my nursing practice. Many of the patients I work with personify what goes on with all of us. We get despondent, we feel like giving up, we can be self-destructive.

Many of my patients have a history of severe drug abuse. Shoving heroin up your veins is overtly self-destructive. Sometimes it’s very challenging to be present and supportive with someone who has been eroding the field that the mustard seed needs to settle in.

But I realize that there are also more subtle forms of self-destruction that we all fall prey to. Perhaps sleeping — not being truly present-when praying or meditating is just a more subtle form of the heroin addict’s actions. We have this wonderful opportunity, we’ve set time aside in our lives, and we’re not staying awake to ask, “What is it within me that can save me?” It’s very interesting how we can get right to the edge of liberation and then not stay awake.

Two other quotes from Jesus are very striking considered together: “Whoever has come to know the world has discovered the body, and whoever has discovered the body is worth more than the world … Seek a place of rest for yourselves, that you may not become a carcass and be eaten.” The carcass represents attachment to food, sex, sleep, fame, and wealth-worldliness. So one who has become a carcass is one who has a perverted knowledge of the world. A Zen Master might say, “How long have you been carrying around that corpse?,” or, “You’re just a rice bag!” A rice bag is a heavy, hard-to-handle object-so calling someone a rice bag means they have no direction, no vocation.

Each of us needs to find our vocation so we don’t become a carcass and get eaten. I can’t tell you the number of people I’ve watched die who felt like a carcass. Before they take their last breath they’ll say in a discouraged way, “What was this life all about?” It’s so sad. It’s possible to find good teachers and traditions that can help us to get in balance with our carcass, so that it becomes a vehicle for our vocation rather than the container of our greed, anxieties, and misconceptions.

But there’s no need to hold to that idea of “I am a carcass; I’m going to be eaten.” Jesus said that to wake us up. It’s a little warning: “Oh yeah, I know what it feels like to be stuck in my body, kowtowing to every desire that it has.” So just wake up.

Someone once asked Jesus, “When will the final rest for the dead take place, and when will the new world come?” People wanted to know that from the Buddha, too. They would ask, “What is Buddha? What is dharma? Show me the way!” We all think, this life is not so great, so when is it going to get better? Jesus answered, “What you look for has already come, but you do not know it.” The Buddha said it’s like a fish swimming in water and saying, “I’m thirsty.”

Sometimes it’s easier for someone else to see your Buddha-nature than it is for you. But the work begins with each of us. It’s in our center. We have to find our guts, our ability to be in balance with those five things: food, sex, sleep, fame, wealth. Dying without ever really knowing who we are can seem easier than finding out what we’re responsible for in this life.

Each of us has the ability to open to “what am I?,” whatever the situation. There are tremendous opportunities to learn, to get out of the safe zone and into the regions that are more difficult. What’s important is to be uncontrived, not to have an idea, but to open up each moment to what’s going on right now. We may need to prepare the soil, but we always have the mustard seed. Nobody is ever born without it.

king a Complete Effort

A talk given after the November 1979 Yong Maeng Jong Jin retreat at the Providence Zen Center

The first thing I want to say is how honored I am to sit next to Soen Sa Nim and give a talk. We don’t see him as much as we used to, and every time he comes back, I respect him a little bit more than I did the last time he was here. That’s been going on for a long time now. When I see him again, I’m always amazed at how hard he works and how strong and happy he is.

I was visiting some friends today. Like many people, these friends aren’t so happy. I look at them, and I look at Soen Sa Nim: they have more money, more food, more wealth, more sex, and more sleep, but they’re not so happy, and he’s very happy. The reason is clear. Soen Sa Nim understands his job and his direction, and my friends don’t. The whole purpose of this seven-day training period that we’ve just finished was for all of us to perceive our correct job and our direction. Spending ten hours a day for seven days on a cushion is an amazing experience and can really help you understand what your job is.

I did a hundred-day retreat a year ago last January. When I was doing this retreat, I kept trying to understand what my job was. I had taken three months out of my life to do this retreat, and I really wanted to learn something from it and make it important. I remember after about seventy-three days, I still hadn’t had any special experiences, and I was starting to get nervous that I’d go home and wouldn’t be able to give a Dharma Talk about my retreat; it wasn’t exciting.

On the seventy-third day I was washing my white enamel rice pot at the sink. I had burned the bottom, so I was trying very hard to scrub the burnt rice off. I got about 95% of it off the bottom of the pot, and then I said to myself, “You can’t get any more off; that’s it. It’s really stuck, and it’s really burned, and it’s just going to look like other pots that have black stuff on the bottom.”

Then this little voice said, “If you scrub a little bit harder, you’re going to get the rest of it off.”

The first mind said, “No, it won’t come off. All pots look like that after they’ve been used every day for seventy-three days.”

The little voice got just a little bit stronger and said, “Scrub a little harder and see if you can get it off.” So I scrubbed a little bit harder. Actually I scrubbed a lot harder, because if I had scrubbed a little bit harder it still wouldn’t have come off. I really scrubbed it hard, and it came off!

The lesson is clear. After doing really hard training for seventy-three days and having that happen to me, it was like the famous Zen story about Hyang Eom sweeping the floor; when he heard a rock hit against bamboo, KKKKKHHHHH! – his mind opened. It was a really strong experience for me to see that, all my life, I hadn’t been making a complete effort. After that happened I was incredibly elated and thought, “Well, this is it. I’ve really attained complete-effort mind, and I’m going to be a strong teacher and a really good Zen student for the rest of my life.” I’d learned the lesson: if you try as hard as you can, then everything becomes clear. But, the next day, I wasn’t trying as hard as I could again. I would try as hard as I could, and then I wouldn’t try as hard as I could — you know, the same old thing that happens to all of us, up and down. What I keep learning over and over again is that if your effort is correct, and if you’re trying as hard as you can to do your job, then everything becomes very clear. You understand that you can get the pot clean — very simple, but incredibly profound. You can experience it yourself.

Yong Maeng Jong Jin is something we do because we don’t feel complete, we don’t feel Enlightened. So we find a teacher, and we do hard training. During Yong Maeng Jong Jin we have interviews where Soen Sa Nim asks us kong-ans. There’s a unique purpose in having interviews: we are able to see our minds completely with our teacher. There are many practices in which people become very clear and get very strong without kong-an practice, but what I see as beneficial about kong-an practice is that it’s the one time you can completely see whether you believe in yourself or not.

The Buddha taught that if your mind is clear, then what you see, what you hear, what you taste, what you touch is the complete truth. That is Mind; that is Enlightenment; that’s your True Nature. That’s all that Soen Sa Nim ever teaches. The rug is blue, the walls are white. It’s all that simple. All situations change, and each moment you’re doing something different, but if you’re seeing clearly and hearing clearly, then that’s all; there are no deceptions. If you see and hear clearly, then you will perceive the correct situation.

So, having an interview is testing your belief in what you perceive. But it’s set up so that the teacher is sitting on a higher-class cushion than you are, and he’s got a stick in his hand, and a bell, and a watch, and a cup, and you don’t have anything. You come in empty-handed. It’s set up to make you the student and the other person the teacher. Then the teacher asks you the questions; you’re not asking the teacher questions. It’s a situation that can become very difficult, and it’s difficult even before you walk through the door, because you know already what you’re going to see when you walk in. Once you are in the room, you prostrate yourself in front of this person, which is a humbling experience to say the least! Then you sit down, and you are asked these strange questions: “The tree has no root; the valley has no echo. What does this mean?” or “When someone asked Dong Sahn, ‘What is Buddha?’ he said, ‘Three pounds of flax.’ What does this mean?” You have to answer these questions!

The amazing thing about an interview is that, if you believe in yourself completely, it’s not any more difficult than picking up a cup of water and drinking it. It took me seventy-three days of hard, hard training to realize that I hadn’t been making a complete effort. What we have to do is to generate the energy to make that effort all the time. Then, if we make that constant effort, an interview is the same as anything else. It’s not complicated or frightening; it’s only special because it’s made to be special.

Interviews are an important part of our practice. We meet our teacher face to face, and we all have a strong feeling for our teacher, so it’s difficult. We have to really appreciate our relationship with our teacher and the opportunity to have interviews and use them as well as we can.

This brings me to a story from the Golden Age of Zen. There was a student out working in the fields who had been working very hard all day. It was getting to be supper time so he gathered his tools, put them in his cart, and started pushing the cart toward the monastery. He was going down a small, muddy, very narrow road with his cart, and about 25 yards ahead of him was his teacher, with his legs sprawled out across the path. The student kept pushing his cart straight along the path. When he reached his teacher, without hesitation he ran right over his legs. The teacher screamed in pain, but the student just kept ,going non-stop until he reached the monastery.

That evening, when the student came to the dining room for supper, he was met at the door by his teacher, who threatened him with his Precepts Knife, saying, “Are you the student that ran over my legs with your cart?” Again, without hesitation, the student offered his neck to his teacher’s knife. The teacher put his knife down, smiled, and the incident was never mentioned again.

On the path, the teacher tested to see if his student had complete confidence in his correct direction and job. His job was to take his tools and cart and return to the monastery. The teacher was not correct in sitting with his legs across the path. Later, the teacher again tested his student’s confidence with his Precepts Knife. Both times, the student perceived his correct situation.

This same situation often appears in interviews. Always Soen Sa Nim is testing us to allow us to see how much we believe in ourselves. Even if we give the right answer, sometimes he will tell us it’s wrong. So our job is to believe in ourselves one hundred percent.

If we believe completely in our perceptions, then our actions, like the monk’s in this story, will be spontaneous and selfless. Always, always there are lessons coming to us. We all have heard that nothing is an accident. Everything is your teacher; a bad situation is a good situation. If we practice very hard, then these words we hear will become incredibly profound. We think a situation is bad if it makes us uncomfortable or unhappy or if it’s just very difficult to get through, but it’s wonderful that these things happen. The more we do hard meditation practice and together action and just give of ourselves — give our time, give everything we have towards helping other people — then the more these things that happen to us won’t hurt us, won’t be heavy, won’t be sad. We’ll only say thank you for everything that happens.

So I hope that we all continue to practice very hard and understand our minds, so we can have the energy that Soen Sa Nim has to help other people. Thank you.


Excerpted from a workshop at the Whole World is a Single Flower Conference

Zen Master Soeng Hyang: It’s great that so many people came for the kong-an discussion. For me, kong-ans are the root of our practice. Kong-ans are like receiving a gift. There’s the package: it’s beautifully wrapped, there’s a ribbon, wrapping paper, a beautiful box, and when you open the box there’s tissue paper. But what you really want is the gift inside, which is our true self. The very heart of the gift is to ask, “what is this?… what am I?” until it’s totally unfiltered, totally present and intimate. Zen Master Seung Sahn has done an excellent job of making it palatable–making it possible for us to learn how to practice with the kong-an.

The first time I had an interview with Zen Master Seung Sahn, I was very frightened. I had read all these books about Zen, mostly from the Japanese tradition. In 1972 that was all that was available, mostly translations from Japanese or Chinese. The masters were very severe. They were hitting people with staffs and shouting, “KATZ!” I was very afraid he was going to do that, too. But what he did was teach about HIT [hits floor]. He just kept saying, “What is Buddha? [hits floor] Boom. “What is dharma?” [hits floor] Boom. After drilling that into my head for about five minutes he asked me, “What is Buddha?” I tried a timid little tap on the floor [hits floor softly]. I was so afraid, and he says, “Wonderful!” If I were to look at it from the outside I’d say, oh God, he’s just trying to prop her up and make her feel good–but it worked. I felt as if I got something. I felt a little bit of that hit. Something was communicated with that hit. That was important.

Zen Master Bon Yeon: One of the things that I always appreciate about kong-an practice is the great relief it is to at last meet somebody in your life who asks you, “Who are you?” You’re stuck and you don’t know, but you’re happy. I think other people feel this relief too.

I recall one funny example of seeing this relief in a video clip of Zen Master Seung Sahn’s teaching in Europe. In the film he’s giving a first or possibly second interview to several people at once, all from different countries. With his Zen stick in hand he pokes them each in the belly asking them one by one, “When you die, where do you go?” Of course nobody could answer. There’s a tension in the room which is visible on the faces of these Zen students. After none of them can answer, he says to the group, “OK. You ask me.” They look puzzled, like, “You’re gonna TELL us??” Then they all look at him and ask together, “When you die, where do you go?” With those bright eyes of his, he says, “To the cemetery!!!” You can hear the laughter and see this relief come over their faces as if to say, “Oh my God! Is that all?” In that moment they realized they don’t have to try and figure it out, and they could just be with “don’t know.” If you keep it really simple and in this moment then the questions we have about life and death are quite approachable. You allow yourself to just see, or hear, or smell. Then it’s very wonderful and for that moment the question and the answer dissolve in the act of you just doing something 100%. When you give up the feeling that you have to be right or you have to have the answer, then it’s fun and great to have the “gift of the question itself,” as Zen Master Soeng Hyang just called it. That’s the thing–it’s not about finding the answer to some question such as, “When you die, where do you go?” or “Who are you?” It’s the question itself which is the gift.

Student: I’ve had the experience of having the answer appear; that is very satisfying.

I understand the idea of keeping in your mind the question without thinking, but it still makes me angry and frustrated that I have this question that I’m working on.

ZMSH: When I was working on the kong-an about hanging from a branch by your teeth, I was working in a nursing home. I was in charge of a unit housed in an area which had really long hallways. I had to walk for a minute and a half just to bring medication to a patient. I was walking down this corridor one morning after I had had an interview with Zen Master Seung Sahn. It was the same thing you express: part of my mind was wrestling with the kong-an. Suddenly, I was just stuck with the kong-an and it really was a great experience, because I thought, “That’s don’t know!” I was just right there with not having the answer. Then I woke up to the hallway. I was just walking down the hallway. I thought of the patient’s name, what he needed and what I was going to do. And that was the kong-an. This is now. Asking that kong-an opened me up to now: How are you? What do you need? How may I help you? And whatever I had to do in the room. The kong-an brings us to that question.

ZMBY: One of the things about kong-ans is how do you take that HIT that Zen Master Soeng Hyang was talking about as the substance of your original question, “What is this?”, and then find out how it works with each situation and relationship. How does it function? A dog has its specific situation, relationship, and function that is quite different from a cat’s. Interviews allow us to take our experience and try out how our spontaneous true self functions in certain situations. What if I was in that monastery with Nam Cheon on that day? What would my true self do? Could I save the cat? For me, this is the great breadth of Zen Master Seung Sahn’s particular style of doing kong-ans, exposing us to all these different scenarios. Like Zen Master Soeng Hyang said, maybe this one is easy for me, but that one I don’t know what to do with. Just as in life, that’s how we learn: through all these different stories, through trial and error, how to use this point [hits floor] in our everyday life.

ZMSH: To me, interview room training is very valuable because you are vulnerable. The teacher has the stick and the bell and the title and the experience behind them and then you walk in and you usually have less experience. It’s a set-up. But you can rise to the occasion. You just face it. And you just might face it with [hits floor] don’t know and that’s totally valid and totally perfect just to do that. Keep the eye contact. Keep your chest open. I haven’t answered that one, don’t know, it’s just not clear to me yet. Don’t know. I love it when students do that.

I’m talking about courage to stay open. In order to have courage, you have to have faith. You have to have faith that it’s not a bunch of teachers trying to look good and carry their title around and get their honorarium and then go back to the plane and go home. If you feel with a teacher that there isn’t some authentic vow to teach clearly, then you should hit the teacher with that. You have to try to find that courage to say, “I don’t trust you,” if that’s how you feel. If the teacher is worth their weight as a teacher, they will be able to meet you in that place with honesty, integrity and not overpower you because that’s not what it’s about.

Student: There are two types of mind sets, there’s one that is rational-centered and there’s one that is intuitive. I’m not into solving things intuitively.

ZMSH: All I can say to you is just try to be kind. That’s the biggest kong-an. How can I be kind in this moment? That’s correct relationship, function and situation. That’s what all these kong-ans are trying to point to. All of them. Student: I’m screwed again because I’m not a very kind, compassionate person. It’s really difficult because I…

ZMSH: Don’t make I, only do I.

Student: I would love to be able to solve some of these…

ZMSH: So, just do. Don’t be you–just exist–don’t make you. “I am not,” that’s what we call checking. “I am not this. I am not that.” Don’t check! When you get up, put on your underpants and brush your teeth–only that–don’t check.

Student: I struggle a lot with kong-an practice too. It disturbs me.

ZMSH: I know. It should be disturbing. I was in Korea once with my three year old daughter, my only child. We were at Hwa Gye Sah, the main temple. At that time, if a bus or a car pulled up, they would pass between the outhouse and the main temple gate. We had been at the outhouse and were going to cross over to the main gate. So I crossed ahead of her. All of a sudden this bus is barreling up this driveway at about 25-30 miles an hour. I just wasn’t expecting it. She hesitated. She looked at me and she looked at the bus. I said, “Come on!” but she hesitated.

I had already answered Nam Cheon’s cat, this great compassion, great love kong-an. I had already answered it, but for a second, I too hesitated, instead of running in front of the bus and grabbing her. I completely owned it. You shit! You did not pass that kong-an. Your own kid and you’re not going to even try to get her out of danger, let alone get a cat out of danger. I got her, but I checked for a second. That was a beautiful experience for me because I felt like such a hypocrite. Especially between a mother and a child, I’m supposed to be the epitome of compassion. That wasn’t good or bad–it just made me think: you didn’t pass that kong-an yet, honey. But don’t check; just wake up to the fact that this is deeper than you thought it was… a lot deeper.

ZMBY: We don’t come up with hitting the floor ourselves. Somebody tells you to hit the floor, so you do it. Then they say, “Wonderful!” Then you think, “Oh good, that’s done.” But you could spend your entire life on just this point alone! Zen Master Guji used just one finger his whole life and never exhausted it. The kong-ans are opportunities, one after another, to pass something on, to realize it, to communicate it, or to perceive one thing over and over from different points of view. For example, “The sky is blue.” That’s a famous Zen sentence. You could spend twenty, thirty, forty years, ten thousand years practicing with that and it would always be fresh and new. Over time, it becomes more and more your own. When you see the moon in the sky, its light reflects exactly the same way in a million rivers all over the universe. It doesn’t change, and nobody owns it. We’re like those rivers: the clearer we become, then that reflection is going to look the same in you as it does in me as it does in the next person, because that’s the way that the truth is. So I think of it like an opportunity to keep learning or experiencing that kong-an in my life, over and over.

As women, it’s important to remember the strong lineage of women who practiced before us. Unfortunately, we just don’t hear about them. For thousands of years we’ve been there beside the men practicing. Because history didn’t record it, we don’t have a lot of female role models. There might be a couple of tea house owners on the side of the road somewhere, but we don’t even know their names. Young women who want to practice see that all the major spiritual role models are male. The Pope is a man, God is a man, the three parts of the Trinity are men. Buddha is a man. Most traditions are like that. One of the things that I appreciate about the “combat” side of dharma combat is the way it teaches us to trust your experience. A great example of that is to go in for an interview with someone who, in our case, is very male and very strong, like Zen Master Seung Sahn. He asks you a simple thing like, “What’s your name?” But he has such a strength and clarity that you’re stunned–you can’t even answer!!! Then he teaches you, “Your name is Jane.” Ha Ha! Oh Jane, yeah, good. The next day you come in and he says “What’s your name?” and you proudly say “Jane!” and he says “No good!” Then what happens? You fall down. You think, “Oh, something’s changed, today is different. I must be off the track again.” Then he pokes you and says, “You were right! I’m just seeing how much you believe in yourself!” Can you imagine–Buddha gets up from six years under the bodhi tree and somebody asks him a question and he says, “The sky is blue,” and they say “No good!” Will Buddha stumble and say, “Oh, was that not a good answer?” No! Why? Because he believes his eyes, he can trust his experience. Both women and men in today’s complex world have been so beaten down by all the thinking and all the different choices we have that we fall down very easily. Zen Master Soeng Hyang, who is a woman, was one of the first teachers to teach me that I, too, can be strong. I, too, can believe in myself. I can see that blue sky. I know my name, it’s Jane. Twenty years later I can really say that. If somebody says to me, “No, it isn’t,” I’m not going to fall down. Very basic stuff, not about winning or losing, and not about fighting–it’s about trusting in yourself. As women, this kind of teaching has been lacking in our society. If you want to be a great bodhisattva you have to have a big tool box. You can’t just always use a feather duster, and you can’t always use a hammer; sometimes you need a screwdriver. You need different types of things for different situations. As women, why lock ourselves out of the ability to be strong?

ZMSH: Kong-an practice gives you the ability to see what you don’t have in your tool box in a positive way. It’s good to get stuck! Because you can become complacent. “Oh, we’re cool.” If you’ve got somebody to pull the rug out from underneath you once in a while, that’s good.

ZMBY: To utilize skillful means, you need to be able to be anything. A dragon, a demon, an angel, a bodhisattva, whatever. You learn, slowly, clumsily, through trial and error, all those skills, for others. It’s not about ourselves.

A Kong-An is Nothing Other than the Present Moment

The function of a kong-an is to spark a question, to give rise to that which in the Zen tradition has been called the Great Question. When the mind “questions,” it awakens and opens. This moment of questioning, however fleeting it is, is a manifestation of a pure and unconditioned mind. In this moment all filters of pre-conception and pre-judgment are taken away and only pure questioning remains.

This “questioning” is vastly different from “checking.” A “checking” mind is always resisting, trying to find an argument based on its preconceived ideas and opinions. A “questioning” mind, on the other hand, is one which is stuck, which truly doesn’t know. This mind only asks, “What is this?” The mind that truly asks “What is this?” does so in response to something in the present moment, whether it be a concrete life situation, a feeling, an emotion, an incomprehensible thought or whatever. In asking, “What is this?” the mind stops assuming, even if only for a fleeting second, stops operating on pre-conceptions and instead feels and looks attentively at the moment in hand.

There are two stories that have helped me tremendously to understand how kong-an practice applies to daily life. As it happens, both stories are about mothers. The first was told by Zen Master Seung Sahn when someone asked him how to “keep” a kong-an:

A mother of four has just watched her oldest child board a plane headed for Vietnam. In the months that follow she attends to her family, her part-time job, her friends and community. She plays bridge, goes to her daughter’s class play, shops for food, etc. Through all of this she never forgets that her son is in Vietnam. She never doesn’t feel some fear and concern. There is never a time when she doesn’t wonder where her son is or what he is doing. She always asks herself, “When is my son coming home?” Because of her tremendous love for her son, she always has him in the recesses of her mind. At the same time she is totally present in her daily life.

Kong-an practice can be like this mother’s mind. The “Great Question” of a kong-an, like the “Great Question” in the mother’s mind about her son, remains with you, always in the recesses of your mind. The kong-an reminds you always to ask, look into “What is this?” rather than to know.

The second story is about a mother lion. This mother lion takes her five cubs out for their very first walk. They instinctively form a single line behind her. Up until this point, she has been their only source of love, warmth, protection, and nourishment; their world so far has been safe and most generous. So as they walk the cubs take in the sights, sounds, and smells around them and innocently delight in nature’s gifts. Suddenly, the mother lion turns to one of the cubs and bats him five feet into the brush. The cub is shocked and hurt. Why would the thus-far warm and benevolent mother do such a thing? The cub scrambles back to the line and continues with the others. The mother has just taught the cub to be careful, be aware. She did it in the simplest, most direct way she knew.

A kong-an is able to wake up the mind in the same way. An alert mind can see through the kong-an and bring it to a wholesome conclusion, like a wise lion walking through the forest perfectly in tune with all that is there. As the mother lion swings her great paw towards her child, she has no thought as to being superior or better. She only wants the child to learn. A genuine Zen Master shares this mind.

The questions that a kong-an can raise can bring a deeper attentiveness to both sitting meditation and to daily activities. Just as a weight attached to a fishing line can help the hook to sink deeply into the ocean rather than bobbing on the water’s surface, a kong-an can guide the mind to places of deeper insight, to places that are often difficult to enter without a persistent, steady direction. Using the mind’s natural tendency to question gives it more focus and perception.

Thus, bringing the mind to the present moment by asking “What is this?” is to enter the space of not-knowing. Trusting this process of not-knowing is to go beyond the edge of what is familiar. Going beyond the edge of what is familiar is to let go of the self-imposed constructs of reality that we have created for ourselves and to which we cling so desperately. It is to look at each moment with a pure awareness rather than through colored filters. So, maybe when you ask someone, “How are you?”, you are really asking, really open to see, feel, and listen to the response. Then true intimacy is possible and compassion naturally arises.

Kill Your Eyes – Zen Master Seung Sahn

Bobby Rhodes, JDPSN, (now Zen Master Seong Hyang) gave this formal Dharma Speech at the Buddha’s Enlightenment Ceremony at the Providence Zen Center on December 9th, 1978.

(Holding up the Zen stick.) Do you see?

(Hitting the table.) Do you hear?

If you say you see and hear, you lose it. If you say you don’t see and you don’t hear, you also lose it. Why? Seeing, hearing, winning and losing, you must wake up from this dream.

Every day many babies are born, and they all have eyes and ears and noses and tongues and little bodies. And because they have all these things, they start crying, and they start suffering right away. Sometimes they get wet and cold; sometimes they get hungry; sometimes they get frightened.

And then they grow up a little bit and they learn how to cope with these things and they become young children. And these children still cry sometimes, and they get cold and wet. They still cry when they get hungry sometimes; they cry when they get frightened. But they also have another whole set of things to cry and suffer about: they start to develop a little anger; they start to develop a little ignorance; and they start to develop a lot of desires.

And so they grow and they grow, and they cultivate their anger and their ignorance and their desires, and they become grown-ups.

So then something really wonderful happens: they get something else to suffer about. The Buddha got it, and we all got it, and this extra added-on suffering is: “What am I doing here? Why was I born? Where am I going to go after I die?” And if you give it time, you’ll start suffering more and more with this question. And then you don’t suffer so much when you’re wet or when you’re hungry, and you don’t suffer quite so much when you have a lot of desire, or when you have anger. And this question begins to grow and grow: “What am I doing here? Where am I going to go after I die?”

So we all came here today to honor this final great suffering. We came to honor a man who did a really good job at it. And we came to honor ourselves because we have that same mind. So we came to honor this mind.

Some of us have been cooking all day in honor of this mind, and some of us have travelled great distances in honor of this mind. Some of us have racked our brains all day figuring our what to say for a Dharma Talk in honor of this mind (laughter). We’ve bought special flowers for the altar and put some fruit on the altar.

So I ask you, what did the Buddha understand? What is Enlightenment? You must first put down your desires, put down your anger, put down your ignorance. Kill your eyes, your ears, your nose, your tongue, and your body. Cut off all thinking and become empty. If you keep this empty mind for just a little while, you lose yourself, and you stop having this big wrestling match we all have with ourselves: “this is I, my, me and everything else is outside there.” So you lose that, and so there’s no more suffering, no more happiness; there’s no more “I,” there’s no more “this,” and everything becomes one.

But as Soen Sa Nim has said several times this afternoon, one more step is necessary. So what is this step? There’s a very famous kong-an that says, “Ten thousand Dharmas return to One. Where does the One return?” Once I heard someone ask Soen Sa Nim, “Where does the One return?” and he said, ”When I am hungry, I eat; when I am tired, I sleep.” This is very boring speech. I think that everything you say that’s just like this is often very boring. That’s a problem many people have: it’s not enough that the wall is white, and the cloth is blue — it’s too boring. And so our practice gets us so that we tolerate this boredom more and more, and we have more and more of what Soen Sa Nim calls “enough mind.”

So slowly this mind where things become enough grows and grows. You can stop making things, and everything is O.K. just as it is. If you keep this “enough mind” for a while, one day you’ll hear this speech: “When I am hungry, I eat; when I am tired, I sleep,” and it sounds incredibly profound and very, very wonderful. And you hear, “The wall is white; this cloth is blue,” and that sounds profound and wonderful. And you hear someone say, “Today is Buddha’s Enlightenment Day, and outside it is raining,” and that sounds wonderful. Your mind just rests a little bit. You accept things as they are, and you accept yourself as you are. And everything is O.K. You accept your jealousy; you accept your anger; and you accept your ignorance. Once you accept those things, then you accept everybody else’s jealousy, anger, and ignorance. You rest your mind, and you just start looking at people for what they are; you look at yourself for what you are. And that’s a very wonderful feeling.

So we came here today to honor this mind. A little while ago I held up this stick: “Do you see this?” I hit the stick on the table (hit): “Do you hear this? Then I talked about Soen Sa Nim’s boring speech, “When I am hungry, I eat; when I am tired, I sleep.” So I ask you: which is better, my action or Soen Sa Nim’s speech? If you answer me, I’ll hit you thirty times. If you don’t answer me, I’ll hit you thirty times. What can you do?


Thank you all for your hard training.