Zen Master Soeng Hyang (Barhara Rhodes)

Zen Master Soeng Hyang (Barbara Rhodes) is the School Zen Master and Guiding Dharma Teacher of the Kwan Um School of Zen. She received dharma transmission from Zen Master Seung Sahn on October 10, 1992. She was one of Zen Master Seung Sahn’s first American students and studied with him since 1972. She was given inka in 1977. A registered nurse since 1969, she works for Hospice Care of Rhode Island. She helped found Providence Zen Center, and lived there for seventeen years, serving in a number of administrative capacities. Zen Master Soeng Hyang has a daughter and lives with her partner, Mary, in Providence.

Zen Stick Swallows Universe

Question: If you see a lot of blame in your life and very little praise, and you feel a lot of pain and very little pleasure, and you hang on to this then you suffer a lot. So you always say put it all down. I ask you: What is the best way to put it all down?

Zen Master Seung Sahn: If you open your mouth, that’s a mistake. Close your mouth! Put it all down means more than just saying “put it all down,” okay? If you completely put it all down then there is no “I-my-me.” Many people have I-my-me mind. I-my-me comes from where? From desire mind. When desire mind appears then I-my-me mind appears. I-my-me makes all of our suffering.

But originally we don’t have I-my-me. When you were born did you have a plan? Did you say to your mother, “I am coming into the world and I want to try such and such… please help me.” You didn’t say that. You only came into this world and… WHAAAAA! So why did you appear in this world? If you don’t understand that, then you will have a problem. No direction, no reason, no condition, nothing… only come into this world. That creates a problem.

It’s very important to take away this problem. How do you do that? You must find your true self. Only practice, practice, practice. Then you can attain your true self. If you find your true self then you can attain your correct job in life. Attaining your correct job means helping all beings. We call that bodhisattva action. Then your direction is clear — your whole life is clear. But if you cannot find your bodhisattva job, then you are the same as everyone else. Why did you come into this world? — most people don’t understand. Why eat everyday? — they don’t understand. What is my correct relationship to this world? — they don’t understand. What is human being? They don’t understand! Even a dog understands its job. If a stranger comes then, “woof, woof.” A cat understands a cat’s job: if a mouse comes… “meow,” then catch the mouse. All animals understand their job. But human beings don’t understand their job. What’s your job?

Q: Can I help you?

ZMSS: Correct! Thank you. You do correct practicing, so no problem. Only DO IT.

Q: What is the difference between tantien practice and don’t know practice?

ZMSS: Tantien — the point one inch below your navel-practicing means this: In our consciousness many things are always coming and going… coming, going, coming, going. If you do tantien practice then you should do slow in, slow out breathing and keep your attention just below your navel; then your tantien becomes stronger and stronger. If you practice this way then your tantien and your mind will get a lot of energy. But what is the correct function of this energy? This is very important. If you cannot find the correct function of this energy, then maybe you will use this energy for bad actions. Sometimes this happens with people who practice martial arts like karate. They do tantien practice and get a lot of energy but then how to use this energy… they don’t understand. Maybe they drink a lot, sex… many bad actions. Then they will have a problem.

But if you practice correctly, then when you get energy you always become one. Then when the tantien becomes stronger and stronger and the tantien energy grows up-grows, grows, grows, then the whole universe and you BOOM! become one. If you don’t become one, then how can you control this energy? If you get a lot of energy too soon and your direction isn’t clear, then you cannot control your energy and many bad actions will appear. Then suffering appears. Tantien practicing is okay, but your direction is very important: Why do you do tantien practicing? How do you use tantien energy? How does tantien energy function correctly and your life become clear? That’s a very important point. If you are attached to only tantien practicing, then you will have a big problem.

Q: So how do we use kong-an practice with tantien practice?

ZMSS: Kong-an practicing means don’t make tantien. Put it all down, “tantien.”

Q: You can’t put them together?

ZMSS: Don’t make together. Put it all down, okay? if you practice correctly then your tantien will automatically become stronger. Then when you do kong-an practicing, your tantien will grow up. Then whole universe and tantien becomes one. Then your mind becomes clear and any kind of kong-an is no problem.

Q: Why do have a big stick?

ZMSS: For you: HIT!

Q: You missed!

ZMSS: I hit! Then what do you say?

Q: Ouch!

ZMSS: Correct! If you are thinking, then you have a problem, okay? So “hit” means: cut off all thinking. Moment to moment become dear. Very important. That’s a “Zen stick.” Sometimes this Zen stick becomes bigger, bigger and bigger; it swallows the whole universe. Sometimes it becomes a snake; sometimes a club… but don’t make anything. If you make something, I will hit you, PITCHOO! Don’t make anything.

Zen is Understanding Yourself

One day a student from Chicago came to the Providence Zen Center and asked Seung Sahn Soen-Sa, “What is Zen?”

Soen-sa held his Zen stick above his head and said, “Do you understand?”

The student said, “I don’t know.”

Soen-sa said, “This don’t know mind is you. Zen is understanding yourself.”

“What do you understand about me? Teach me.”

Soen-sa said, “In a cookie factory, different cookies are baked in the shape of animals, cars, people, and airplanes. They all have different names and forms, but they are all made from the same dough, and they all taste the same.

“In the same way, all things in the universe – the sun, the moon, the stars, mountains, rivers, people, and so forth – have different names and forms, but they are all made from the same substance. The universe is organized into pairs of opposites: light and darkness, man and woman, sound and silence, good and bad. But all these opposites are mutual, because they are made from the same substance. Their names and their forms are different, but their substance is the same. Names and forms are made by your thinking. If you are not thinking and have no attachment to name and form, then all substance is one. Your don’t know mind cuts off all thinking. This is your substance. The substance of this Zen stick and your own substance are the same. You are this stick; this stick is you.”

The student said, “Some philosophers say this substance is energy, or mind, or God, or matter. Which is the truth?”

Soen-sa said, “Four blind men went to the zoo and visited the elephant. One blind man touched its side and said, ‘The elephant is like a wall.’ The next blind man touched its trunk and said, ‘The elephant is like a snake.’ The next blind man touched its leg and said, ‘The elephant is like a column.’ The last blind man touched its tail and said, ‘The elephant is like a broom.’ Then the four blind men started to fight, each one believing that his opinion was the right one. Each only understood the part he had touched; none of them understood the whole.

“Substance has no name and no form. Energy, mind, God, and matter are all name and form. Substance is the Absolute. Having name and form is having opposites. So the whole world is like the blind men fighting among themselves. Not understanding yourself is not understanding the truth. That is why there is fighting among ourselves. If all the people in the world understood themselves, they would attain the Absolute. Then the world would be at peace. World peace is Zen.”

The student said, “How can practicing Zen make world peace?”

Soen-sa said, “People desire money, fame, sex, food, and rest. All this desire is thinking. Thinking is suffering. Suffering means no world peace. Not thinking is not suffering. Not suffering means world peace. World peace is the Absolute. The Absolute is I.”

The student said, “How can I understand the Absolute?”

Soen-sa said, “You must first understand yourself.”

“How can I understand myself?”

Soen-sa held up the Zen stick and said, “Do you see this?”

He then quickly hit the table with the stick and said, “Do you hear this? This stick, this sound, your mind – are they the same or different?”

The student said, “The same.”

Soen-sa said, “If you say they are the same, I will hit you thirty times. If you say they are different, I will still hit you thirty times. Why?”

The student was silent.

Soen-sa shouted, “KATZ!!!” Then he said, “Spring comes, the grass grows by itself.”

Zen & Poetry

Primary Point: Why do you, as a Zen Master, bother to compose poems?

Zen Master Seung Sahn: For you. [laughter]

PP: When you compose your poems, do you actually write using “beautiful language”?

ZMSS: No. This moment appears, then compose a poem. Not checking situations, and not making anything.

PP: In your teaching, you say that people suffer from word sickness, so word medicine is necessary. Would you describe how you use language in your poetry?

ZMSS: Simple! Only whatever situation comes up or appears! Any style of writing is OK. You know, Korean, Japanese, English, any kind of writing, but most importantly, only what appears.

PP: This seems too simple. I love reading your poetry because it allows me to connect to this moment, so what if I was to say to you, “I love your poems; they are so beautiful,” what would you say to me in response?

ZMSS: I don’t care! [much laughter]

PP: Of course. In your teaching you often talk about candy, something that gives us a good feeling. So a Zen Master’s words can sometimes be candy and sometimes hooks. Is there candy in your poems? Are there hooks?

ZMSS: Yes, sometimes candy and sometimes hooks appear in my poems, but realize that I don’t create candy or hooks in these poems. They are written, with no intention, only for all of my students.

PP: What happens in your mind when you read or hear other peoples’ poetry?

ZMSS: I don’t check other peoples’ poetry. The mind with which I read other’s poetry is only a practicing mind, so the meaning appears. Then I only comment.

PP: So, what is the best way to read your poems so that I may learn your teaching?

ZMSS: Put it all down, everything! Then my mind and your mind can connect.

PP: That’s not so easy. Is poetry Zen? Does true poetry manifest Zen mind?

ZMSS: Zen mind, poetry mind, writing mind, practicing mind, all are not different.

From a Letter to the Polish Sangha

November in Warsaw
Fifty people together in one room.
Sitting Zen for three days.

Try mind. Bread
And potatoes and onions.
Fifty people eating together.
Get energy. Find the true way.

What is the true way?
Don’t know? Primary point?
Before thinking?
Someone appears. Hits the floor.
But is that the true way?

November in Warsaw.
The sky is dark.
Fifty faces are shining.

from Bone of Space by Zen Master Seung Sahn

PP: So would you say it is better to write poems or to talk about poems?

ZMSS: If you see clearly, hear clearly, and smell clearly, then everything is clear. So, right now… what appears? People talk about how one poem is this and another poem is something else. This is making something.

PP: So, only read the poem, then [claps hands] cut off all thinking, and then only what appears in this moment is all that is necessary?

ZMSS: Yes. It’s very simple. For example, in my poetry book Bone of Space, when I traveled around Europe, for each city I visited I wrote a poem. If you read these poems you will understand the situation, condition and relationships that existed during that trip — how I connected to each country, each city, and how I understood these cities. Something would appear, and I would make a poem. This is not special; in writing poetry, I only see clearly, hear clearly, smell clearly, and think clearly. My thinking is clear, not checking anything. just think clearly, then make your poem.

PP: In the west there is a rhyming poetry style, or in Japan there is Haiku, which is limited to 17 syllables. These are poetic structures, but it appears to me that Zen poetry has no structure. Is this correct?

ZMSS: Yes, that is correct.

PP: So, whatever appears we write it down?

ZMSS: Haiku poets only follow Japanese style. This style is very tight and many people are attached to its form. Zen means, don’t attach to name and form. Perceive everything. Don’t attach to the particular country, people, forms, situations, or conditions — only become one. Then some idea will appear; that’s the poem. That’s it, OK? My poetry does not make anything. It’s the result of seeing clearly, hearing clearly, and thinking clearly.

A long time ago in Japan, there was a well-known region called Matsushima. Matsushima is a place by the ocean, with mountains, rivers, trees, and flowers. Matsushima inspired many beautiful poems. At one time the famous Zen Master and poet named Basho decided to visit. When Basho saw the beauty of this place he wrote this poem:

Matsushima —
ah, Matsushima!

Three clear lines! This is a very famous poem. Only Matsushima is Matsushima — it is very simple. That is the most important point. This is great Zen poetry.


Many heroes, many kings,
Where did they go?
Old shadow’s tight chill.
The hero broke how many skulls?
The king drank how much blood, tears?
High buildings, wide rooms, only for one man.
Samsara is clear:
Sun comes, dew disappears.
Place de la Concorde stained red.

Many original masters
Coming, going — freedom.
Eiffel Tower, l’Arc de Triomphe, Louvre, Versailles,
Stone tiger, ancient obelisk, Winged Victory
Singing a chorus of mirages.
Palace mind deeply, deeply sleepingĀ  —
Good times, good times, never wake up,
Shining, shining eastern sky.
Seine River flowing into the ocean.

from Bone of Space by Zen Master Seung Sahn

Your True Self

Thank you very much for coming today. But what is it that brought your body here? Is it your mind? What is mind? Where is it? What is its shape? Mind is no mind. A mountain does not proclaim, “I am a mountain!” A river does not say, “I am a river!” All names and all forms are made by thinking. Thus, mind is no mind. All things have name and form. Names and forms come from emptiness. Thus, form is emptiness, emptiness is form.

When you are thinking, your mind, my mind, and all people’s minds are different. If you cut through all thinking, your mind, my mind, and all people’s minds are the same. The mind that cuts through all thinking is the true empty mind. The true empty mind is before thinking. Your substance is before thinking. Your substance is universal substance. Before thinking, there is no speech and no language. There is no God, no Buddha, no mountain, no river, nothing at all. Thus, no form, no emptiness.

But, before thinking is truly just like this. No form, no emptiness is itself a clinging to emptiness. Put it down! Then you will have no inside and no outside; you will attain the Absolute. Everything that you see, hear, taste, and smell is the truth. God is God, Buddha is Buddha, mountains are mountains, rivers are rivers. The truth is like this. Form is form, emptiness is emptiness.

If you cut through all thinking, your mind will become clear. Just that is your true self. Thinking is desire, desire is suffering. When the mind remains clear, there is no life and no death. You will find true freedom that has no hindrance.

Your body has life and death, but your true self transcends both life and death. What, then, is one’s true self? Does it exist or not? If you say that it exists, where is it? If you say that it does not, what is hearing this speech? Both these answers are not complete. Why? (striking the table) KATZ! Put it down, put it all down! The Great Way is in front of the door.

YMJJ Dialogue – January ’74

During the January Yong Maeng Jon Jin, Seung Sahn Soen-sa went for a walk with some of his students. It had been snowing the day before. Soen-sa asked one student, “What color is this snow?”

The student said, “White.”

Soen-sa said, ”You have an attachment to color.”

The student clapped his hands.

Soen-sa said, “Your head is a dragon, but your tail is a snake.”

He then asked another student, “What color is this snow?”

The student said, “You already understand.”

Soen-sa said, “I don’t know.”

The student said, “It’s white.”

Soen-sa said, “Is this the truth?”

The student said, “Aren’t you hungry?”

Soen-sa said, “Soon it will be time for lunch.”

Another student said, ”Go drink some tea.”

Soen-sa said, “I’ve already had some.”

The student hit Soen-sa. Soen-sa said, “Aie! Aie!”

World Peace is Possible

The following talk was given at Tahl Mah Sah Zen Center on January 19, 1983.

Recently one of my students died, I went to his funeral at a church. The minister talked about God. He said that anytime you have a problem, if you just depend on God, the problem disappears. But sometimes this doesn’t seem to be enough. Our life is impermanent, like smoke or water, like grass or flowers. Our life appears, then disappears. We worry about many things: money, family, our job, and also about the next life. Human life means worry. But human life also means, don’t worry. If you understand impermanence, everything is okay. Problems appear because human beings always want more.

How do we control our desire for more, and our anger and ignorance? This is a very important point. In elementary school the students learn to Study and play. They learn about their country and its boundaries. They learn, “This is my country and it starts here, ends here.” After school when the students go home to their mothers, the idea of “my country” disappears. You are born into this world. When you are about to leave it, you think “This is my house, my family, my country.” Your “I-my-me” appears. But when you die, this I-my-me disappears.

In childhood, you are your mother’s child. When you grow up, you are the student of the universe. So this is your home. When You are born, where do you come from? When you die, where do you go? Everyone has a true home. Buddhism means becoming completely independent: not dependent on God or Buddha or your understanding. If you completely become your true self, there is no life or death, no coming or going.

A long time ago a Zen Master said:

Coming empty-handed, going empty-handed — that is human.
When you are born, where do you come from?
When you die, where do you go?
Life is like a floating cloud which appears.
Death is like a floating cloud which disappears.
The floating cloud itself originally does not exist.
Life and death, coming and going, are also like that.
But there is one thing which always remains clear.
It is pure and clear, not depending on life and death.
Then what is the one pure and clear thing?

If you find it, you are free from life and death. Why then would you need Buddha or Christ? You are already Buddha, you are the same as Christ. So put down all your opinions and understand your true self. If you understand what is the one pure and clear thing, there will be no problems, no life or death. It won’t matter whether the Sun rises or sets.

Our eyes see blue sky in the daytime. dark sky at night. High up in the sky it never changes. Only our eyes perceive I change. Where do your eyes come from? Now you have eyes, but before you were born you had no eyes. When you die, your eyes will disappear. Eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, mind: these are like the floating cloud which appears and disappears. Don’t be attached to them. Put down all of your opinions and thinking.

When you are thinking, you perceive other people’s minds as different from yours. If you cut off all thinking, your mind and my mind are the same, the same as Christ and Buddha. Then there are no opposites, no coming or going, no good and bad, no high and low, no you and me.

The sun never says, “I am the sun.” The moon never says, “I am the moon.” It is your thinking that creates the sun and the moon. When you see the sun, you and the sun become one. When you see the wall, You and the wall become one. The wall is white, the sun is hot. That’s all. Just like this is the truth. That’s Zen mind. Your thinking also creates heaven and hell. If you make heaven, then there is also hell. If you don’t make heaven, then there is no hell. So don’t make opposites.

A lot of people liked the movie E.T. When you are watching it, completely absorbed, you and the picture become one. E.T.’s finger, the boys on the bicycles flying through the forest: there is no consciousness, no “I” and no “me.” Seeing a movie like this brings out the true love that everyone has inside them, sometimes better than the Bible or Buddhist sutras!

When we put down “I,” we become the original human mind, which means great love, great compassion. A dog cannot find its true self, nor can a cat, but human beings can. Zen means finding your true self and obtaining the correct way, truth and correct life. What is the correct life? Keeping your correct relationship with everything, moment to moment. If you cling to your opinions, you will have difficulty.

Everyone says at one time or another, “I’m not bad. I don’t have much desire or anger.” But this is still making “I,” so it’s a big mistake. One of my students helps people a lot. But sometimes he thinks, “I have already helped a lot of people.” This “I” is like a mountain, taking it away is very difficult. One person sent me a letter and I wrote down how many times he said “I”-75 times! So I said to him, “I hit you 75 times!” When you die, this “I” breaks up and disappears, and isn’t a problem anymore.

Recently I visited Harvard and Yale Universities. They have many libraries and millions of books. What is a book? Thinking, thinking, thinking. These books create a big problem. Many people are afraid in this nuclear age, and everyone says they want world peace. But if you only study and become more clever, you make this world more complex. Clever minds have made the atom bomb and the nuclear age. Zen means becoming simple. If we were simple, we wouldn’t make bombs. So simple is better than clever. Maybe it will be necessary to burn all the books, so the world will not be so complicated! Make your mind simple, then wisdom will appear.

How are knowledge and wisdom different? Knowledge means understanding, that is, someone’s idea. This book says this, that book says that. But any kind of understanding will lead you to difficulty. You must digest your understanding. If you can’t, then problems appear everywhere: the economy, religion, business, politics, the weather. In fact this is already happening.

Some religions are saying it’s the end of the world. I say it’s the beginning of the world. The end of the world and the beginning – how are they different? Who made this world? God? Buddha? You are sitting there, I am sitting here. I make my own south, north, east, and west. So do you. We each make our own directions. Are they the same? Also we each make our own time. For example, I have been waiting for my girlfriend for 10 minutes, and she hasn’t come. Why hasn’t she come? I am getting angry. Now I am suffering, and the time seems very long. One minute seems like an hour, because my mind is so angry. Then she comes and we go dancing. Cha cha cha! Three hours pass in what seem,, like only a few minutes.

In the same way that we make our own time, we also make our own space and our own cause and effect. If my girlfriend leaves me, I am sad. I cry and the whole world seems to cry. Then I get a new girlfriend. She makes me very happy. One moment we are very happy, the next moment we hate each other. The world seems happy, then the world seems sad, but actually it is always the same. Buddha said, all things are created by the mind alone. I create this world with my mind. You create your world with your mind. But the world is always the same.

So what is world peace? How can we attain it? First, you must understand that each one of us has a like-dislike mind inside of us. My preferences make my world. Your preferences make your world. But if we can both put down our preferences, our minds can connect with each other. I make my world, you make yours. If your mind and my mind both disappear, then what? Then the world disappears and we can make a new one together.

If each of us only clings to our opinions, fighting inevitably appears. If America, China, and Russia are each clinging to their opinions about their world, fighting appears and world peace is impossible. If all these worlds disappear, it is possible to connect with each other’s countries.

Everyone has mental power. If you are a thief, you create a bad cycle (bad energy). If you perform good actions, you create a good cycle (good energy). If you put down both good and bad, the original cycle appears, which is correct mental power. It’s the same cycle, not two. Checking it creates a different cycle. If you put down your opinions, condition and situation, this original cycle appears and your cycle and mine can connect. Then world peace is possible.

America is only clinging to its American situation. President Reagan said America is number one. He understands one, but he doesn’t understand two. America is only several hundred years old. The original Americans were Indians, and the incoming Europeans killed thousands of them. Now we say, “This is our country.” We have made boundaries and laws preventing other people from moving here. It’s just like a robber taking over a house and then saying, “This is my house. I have a gun and you can’t come in!” That’s America’s mind, like a robber’s mind.

World peace is possible only if we do not hold our opinions. Some people think it will not be possible to attain world peace in their lifetimes. But if even one young person who believed in world peace became President of the United States, changing things like the immigration laws would be possible.

When I have spoken to politicians and lawmakers, I have said to them, “You only talk about world peace, but you don’t do anything about it. Just saying it is only world peace of the tongue. So maybe only your tongue will go to heaven, and the rest of you will go to hell! It is necessary to do something to obtain world peace.” If all politicians tried meditation, change would be possible. World peace can be achieved.

If we take our inside preferences, and remove the outside boundaries, then we can truly connect with other people. E.T.’s mind had no preferences, no boundaries. He didn’t make distinctions between human beings and animals and stars, so he could connect with everything. Having “no mind” is necessary. Having no boundaries is also necessary. If we removed all boundaries, how could Russia attack America?

Last summer at Omega Institute hundreds of people came to study with masters from different religious traditions: Catholic, Sufi, Christian, Zen, Indian, Jewish and so forth. All the masters together were teaching “love mind” and asking, “How can we help this world?” This kind of teaching together is very necessary, otherwise we will not be able to change the world. In our society today, we are not teaching people how to become correct human beings. We don’t teach them about obligations to teachers, to parents and society, to this world and to all beings. We only teach people how to live like robots: push buttons, only have a good time, enjoy a good taste. This kind of society has no direction. Without direction, how can our society teach us to become correct human beings?

The question for all of us is, “What are human beings?” This world is like a ripe pear. On the outside it looks and tastes good, but inside it is rotting. This rotting is the pear’s correct function. Its correct job is to get new pear seeds into the ground, to become a corpse so that a new pear tree will grow. The outside appearance isn’t important. This rotting is necessary. Nowadays a lot of people say that society is rotten. If you see only the outside of this world, you might say that the end of the world is coming, but if you see the seeds inside this world, you would say it’s the beginning of the new world. The outside is rotting, but the seeds inside are o.k.

Everyone has seeds inside them. In order to help the world, you must find your seeds. If you can’t find them, it’s the end of the world. If you do find them, it’s the beginning. Which do you like? Where are your true seeds? It doesn’t matter whether it’s the end or the beginning of the world. in your mind there is no end, no beginning. Put down your opinions, all of them, and your correct seeds will appear.

The sun is very bright, but your mind light is even brighter. Sunlight is hindered by obstacles, but there is no hindrance to mind light. This room originally is not dark or light. If you turn on the light, it’s bright. If you turn off the light, it’s dark. Heaven and hell are the same. It’s possible for this world to become heaven or hell, but our minds create the distinction. If your mind is bright, the world becomes heaven. If your mind is dark, the world becomes hell and it seems like the end of the world is coming.

Where does this mind light come from? Think about electrical energy. It comes from natural sources, like failing water. If we have no falling water, we can’t make electricity. So where does energy come from? Your mind. In Taoism it is said that human beings follow the earth, the earth follows the sky, the sky follows nature. Where does nature come from? From the Tao – the path. Where does the path come from? Your mind.

So your mind makes everything. A crazy mind makes craziness, a busy mind makes busy-ness. So we go around and around. But mind is not mind, it is true self. The name of our true self is true nature, Buddha nature, God nature, the Absolute, or energy. We have a lot of different names for it, but originally this point has no name. There aren’t any words for it. We cannot even speak about it. All these names are made by thinking, so many meanings arise. But originally this point is before thinking. If you put down your thinking, your opinions, you can find your true nature and your correct seat, and world peace is possible.

This World is Very Funny

An excerpt from a letter:

This world is very funny. In true nature, all things neither appear nor disappear. Yet people say that things have life and death. This is funny. Things are neither tainted nor pure. Yet people think that some things are good and some things are bad, some things are clean and some things are dirty. Things neither increase nor decrease. Yet people make circles and squares; they think that some things are short and some things are long. This is funny. People are attached to good karma and bad karma. They get happiness and suffering. They have past, present, and future; coming, going, and staying; east, west, north, and south. This is funny.

An eminent teacher once said, ‘Original nature is true emptiness.’ Yet you want to attain enlightenment. This is funny.

Put it down! Put it down! This is funny. What is ‘Put it down?’


A hungry child cries to its mother. A dog sniffs all around in search of something to eat. As the sun sets behind the western mountain, the shadow of the pine tree grows longer and longer and touches a distant wall.



is World is Not Changing!

Question: The world is changing all the time; why is it that there is only one answer to kong-ans?

Zen Master Seung Sahn: This world is changing? [Laughter from-audience.] That’s the first I heard that this world is changing. No, this world is empty. If you have an empty world, is it changing? But you say this world, your world, is changing. OK. Somebody else’s world is completely empty. Form is emptiness, emptiness is form — complete emptiness. For someone else this world is truth: sky is blue; tree is green; the dog is barking, woof, woof; sugar is sweet; everything is the truth. When you see, when you hear, when you smell, when you’re thinking, everything is the truth. That’s truth world. Then somebody else says, “No, no, no, not truth world, this world is compassion world; great love, great compassion, great bodhisattva world, only help all beings.” But your world is changing world. Why do you make changing world? Do you like that?

Q: Yes, I’m probably attached to it.

ZMSS: You’re attached to that? No problem! You’re attached-no problem. But, if you’re attached to this world when you die, you will have a problem. [Laughter] Maybe “no problem.” But, when your karma is put into a new body, you won’t understand where you will go. Maybe you will go to hell, maybe you will get an animal body, perhaps a dog’s; around and around — where you don’t know. So, you must make your direction clear, OK? What is the direction of your life? So, put it all down; cut down, cut down, then “empty world” appears. However, if you only stay in this empty world, then you will have another problem. When you die, you will never come back to this world. So, take one more step, then “truth world” appears. Sky is blue, tree is green, the dog is barking — woof, woof — sugar is sweet. Then, when you see, when you hear, everything is the truth; truth and you become one. But, truth world is not enough; take one more step, bump! Then “function world” appears. Only help all beings. Not only this life. Life after life after life continue to help all beings. That’s “bodhisattva world”; bodhisattva world is number one. That’s Buddha’s teaching. Try that, then kong-ans will be no problem.

Wild Dharma Scenes & Broken Precepts

July 26, 1977

Dear Soen Sa Nim,

I hope you are well. Please, as much as possible, try to take care of your body.

I have not seen you in awhile. I, too have been traveling around teaching the Dharma. How is the family on the East Coast?

I am still living with Jennie. She is well and continues to study with her teacher. Her teacher is very good, very crazy. Many of his students think they have complete freedom to do what they want. There are many drunken parties, and the observation of precepts is practically nil. For me, it is good teaching to see such wild Dharma scenes; it surely helps cut my ideas about good and bad Dharma. Nonetheless, I am generally pretty sober — drunken freedom doesn’t appeal to me.

Nowadays, I am feeling strong in body and mind. It is easy to forget myself. I am joyed by the Bodhisattva Way.

May all beings be happy and liberated.

Much love to you and our Dharma family,


August 4, 1977

Dear Peter,

Thank you for your letter. How are you and Jennie? You worry about my body, but it is strong — no problem.

Jennie’s studying with her teacher is not good, not bad — this type of Buddhism is wonderful practicing. But the precepts are very important.

When Buddha was dying, Mahakasyapa and another great disciple asked him, “When you die, we will have no teacher. How can we continue practicing? How can we control the sangha?”

Buddha said, “I have already given you the precepts. The precepts are your teacher. If you practice correctly and keep the precepts correctly, you can control the sangha and help them find the true way.”

So, the precepts are very important. If you keep the precepts, they will be your teacher, but if you break the precepts, you kill your teacher. If you get Enlightenment, your direction is unmoving, so keeping or not keeping the precepts doesn’t matter; you will always do Bodhisattva action. But if you still have karma, if you cannot control your karma, then freedom action will arise from ignorance and only make more bad karma. When will you get out of the ocean of life and death?

The Avatamsaka Sutra says, “Drinking and sex are no-hindrance Prajna.” In other words, when you can control your karma — your desire, anger, and ignorance — then any action is no problem; whatever action you do will teach other people. My teacher, Zen Master Ko Bong, taught this way. At Jung Hae Sa Temple in Korea, the schedule consists of three months of sitting followed by three months of vacation. During vacation, everyone collects money or food and brings them back for the sitting period. When Zen Master Man Gong, my grand-teacher, was just beginning the temple, there was no money at all. The students would go around to the homes of lay people, recite the Heart Sutra, get rice or money, and return to the monastery. But when my teacher Ko Bong got rice, he’d sell it at the end of the day and go out drinking. Everyone else came back at the end of a vacation with sacks of rice. All Ko Bong brought back was wine. When he was full of wine he was also full of complaints: “This temple is no good! Man Gong doesn’t understand anything! He’s low-class!”

Once Zen Master Man Gong showed up during one of Ko Bong’s tirades and screamed at him, “What do you understand?” Everybody was waiting to see what would happen. “KO BONG!!!”


“Why are you always insulting me behind my back?”

Ko Bong looked completely surprised and offended. “Zen Master! I never said anything about you! I was talking about this good-for-nothing Man Gong!”

“Man Gong? What do you mean, Man Gong? I’M Man Gong! What’s the difference between Man Gong and me?”

“KAAAATZ!” Ko Bong yelled, loud enough to split everyone’s eardrums. That ended it.

“Go sleep it off,” Man Gong said, and he left the room.

My teacher was always drunk, used abusive speech, and showed disrespectful behavior. But he always kept a clear mind. “Man Gong? What’s the difference between Man Gong and me?” “KAAAATZ!” That katz is very important — better than money or bags of rice. Ko Bong completely believed in himself.

If you believe completely in yourself, your actions will teach other people. Also you will be able to do any action to help other people. This is the Great Bodhisattva Way.

There are four kinds of Bodhisattva action. First, there is giving things to people who don’t have something they want or need. Next, there is speaking kindly to people and showing love for them. Then there is talking about the Dharma. But if people don’t listen, then you must act together with them. Together action means if they like sex, have sex together; if they like drinking, drink together; if they like songs, sing together with them. Without any desire for yourself, your actions are only for other people. Finally, when suffering comes, they will listen to you and you can teach them.

If you have great love, then in any situation you will not be hindered by desire, anger, and ignorance. But if you do not yet have this Bodhisattva mind, then you must first attain your true self. This is very necessary.

If we are controlled by desire, anger, and ignorance, we cannot find our true way. If we keep our correct situation, moment to moment, our just-now mind becomes stronger. When we are confused or cannot control ourselves, the precepts show us what our correct situation is. So I will give you homework:

Nam Cheon Kills a Cat (“Mind Meal,” ninth gate)

Once the monks of the eastern and western halls of the monastery were disputing about a cat. Master Nam Cheon, holding up the cat and pulling out his precepts knife, said, “You! Give me one word and I will save this cat! If you cannot, I will kill it!” No one could answer. Finally, Nam Cheon killed the cat. In the evening, when Jo Ju returned to the temple, Nam Cheon told him of the incident. Jo Ju took off his shoe, put it on his head, and walked away. Nam Cheon said, “If you had been there, I could have saved the cat.”

Nam Cheon said, “Give me one word!” At that time, what can you do?

Jo Ju put his shoe on his head. What does this mean?

If you attain Nam Cheon’s Bodhisattva mind, then you understand keeping and breaking the Precepts.

I hope you always keep a mind which is clear like space, believe completely in yourself, get Enlightenment, and save all beings from suffering.

Yours in the Dharma,