Wearing a Kasa, Carrying the World – Uncovering the mystery of form

This interview took place in August 1989.

Primary Point: What is the significance of the objects on the altar – the rice, water, candles, and incense?

Zen Master Seung Sahn: Our universe is made of four elements – earth, air, fire, and water. The items on the altar are symbolic representations of these elements – the incense represents air; the candle represents fire; the water bowl represents water; the altar and the Buddha are symbolic of the earth; the rice is symbolic of earth and food. The four elements make up the universe and our human body; they also control our consciousness. So when the incense is burning, there is a good smell; the smell goes into your consciousness. At any time, what you see, what you hear, and what you smell all becomes part of your consciousness. So when you see the candles, smell the incense, see the Buddha, and listen to the chanting, it all creates good feeling in your consciousness. When you come to the dharma room, your outside condition and situation disappears and a good feeling appears. Your small mind disappears and for a little while you have Buddha mind. That’s how we use the items on the altar and in the dharma room.

PP: Why do we bow when we enter and leave the dharma room?

ZMSS: In the Orient, when two people meet, they bow to each other according to their status. The person who is high-class bows just a little bit; the person who is lower-class bows much more deeply. This is Oriental hierarchy. But when we enter the dharma room, we leave behind this high-low mind; an emperor bows to the Buddha and a beggar also bows to the Buddha. This is cultivating humility. In that moment, the mind becomes very simple. Also, this is a moment of paying attention and having correct relationship with the situation. The Buddha is our ideal and our inspiration. So the correct relationship is to bow to the altar.

PP: What is the origin of the moktak?

ZMSS: “Mok” means wood; “tak” means hit. But the original word is “mok o.” The Japanese call it “mokugyo.” “Moku” means wood, “gyo” means fish; this instrument is shaped like a fish with its mouth open.

There is a story about the origin of this instrument. A long time ago, in China, there was a monk called Chung San Poep Sa. He lived near a big city and a big lake. One day a high government official came to the lake with his family for a picnic. They had a small baby, only a few months old. By chance, when they were on the boat, the baby fell overboard. The official engaged local fishermen to swim into the waters and find the body of his baby, but they couldn’t find the body. So he went to Chung San Poep Sa and said he would like to do a ceremony for his dead baby, but could not find the body. Chung San Poep Sa went into deep meditation and perceived what had happened. He told the government official they must go to the fish market very early the next morning and buy some fish. So they went to the fish market and Chung San Poep Sa selected a very big fish. They cut open the stomach and found the baby inside. To the surprise of the family, the baby was still alive. They were all very happy. Then the official wanted to help all fish for saving the life of his baby. So this moktak is shaped like a fish, with an open mouth and a hollow stomach. When you hit the moktak, a good sound appears. The meaning of the moktak sound is that the baby is still here; all fish can hear the sound and get enlightenment.

PP: Why wear robes for formal practice?

ZMSS: Originally these robes were monks’ clothes. In India, during the Buddha’s time, the monks wore yellow robes. They chose the yellow, the color of ground, because it got less dirty when the dust was blowing. If the color were white, the robes would get dirty in no time.

When Buddhism came to China, things changed a little bit. The robes that we wear are Taoist style clothes, not Indian style. Only the monk’s big kasa is Indian style. So when Taoism and Buddhism came together, a new style of clothes appeared.

The kasa, both small and large, is a symbol. They have squares and lines – seven lines, twelve lines, eighteen lines. There are five points – east, west, north, south, and a middle. This means the whole world. A monk leads a homeless life, but wearing his kasa he symbolically carries the whole world with him; that means he is not separate from the world and still takes cares of all beings. So the robes and kasa are different; robes are Taoist style clothes; the kasa is a symbol of renunciation, of leaving behind ego and small I.

PP: What is the origin of the four bowl style of eating?

ZMSS: This style is from China. Originally, in Buddha’s lifetime, there was only one bowl. In China, this style changed again. Again, the four bowls are symbolic of the four elements – earth, air, fire, and water – and also of Buddha, dharma, sangha and mind. In Korea, they always use four bowls in the monastery; here we use four bowls during retreats and formal meals, but our American style is a little different from Korean monastery style.

PP: What is the origin of the four great vows?

ZMSS: The tradition of reciting the four great vows started during the T’ang dynasty in ancient China; these vows are taken from the Avatamsaka Sutra. In China and Korea, they recite these vows only at the end of a ceremony and not in the morning, as we do at Kwan Um School of Zen centers. When we first started Providence Zen Center, somebody suggested saying the four great vows in the morning. I thought this was a good idea, because we do one hundred and eight bows, which are the bows of repentance; these four great vows provide our direction. First wake up, then bow to the teacher in gratitude, then recite the four great vows to reaffirm our direction, then bow one hundred and eight times in repentance for all our mistakes.

PP: When you do a solo chant in the morning, before the Heart Sutra, what is the meaning of that?

ZMSS: That means praying for the whole world. The first part says we want all beings to get off the wheel of samsara and allow the wheel of dharma to go around and around and take away all peoples’ suffering. The second part means wishing for harmony in all parts of the world – east, west, south, and north. This part is praying that all beings become one mind, become world peace, become Buddha. The third part means praying that all students in the Kwan Um School of Zen and all of Buddhism get enlightenment. The last part is a recitation of the ten precepts.

PP: Why do people take off their shoes when coming into the temple?

ZMSS: That’s Korean and Japanese style, not Chinese or Indian. Korean and Japanese use ondol or tatami floors inside the house; if you wear street shoes inside the house, the floors get dirty. So the relationship is clear; if you take off your shoes, the house or the temple stays clean.

PP: Korean Buddhist statues are always large and colorful; other traditions use smaller, simpler statues. Why is there this difference?

ZMSS: This is not only Korean style; Chinese use much bigger and more colorful statues. In India, Thailand and Cambodia, they use very big statues, very colorful. But that is not Hinayana style, only Indian or Thai or Cambodian style. In Hinayana, they have Shakyamuni Buddha statues, but no bodhisattvas. Bodhisattvas are part of Mahayana tradition. Chinese style is very colorful, so they have large and colorful statues of the various bodhisattvas. In Korea, they have only middle size statues, not quite as big as Chinese style. Buddhism came from China to Korea and then went to Japan. There, during the period of Nara Buddhism, they built a very large Buddha at Todaiji which was the largest Buddha in the world. Also, during the Kamakura period, they built a huge Buddha outdoors. For many people, when they look at the huge Buddha, a very strong feeling of awe or reverence arises; for a very short time, this feeling takes away their karma, their small I. For some people, when they look at a small Buddha, there is no such feeling. But for some people, looking at a small and simple Buddha, there is a deep feeling. So people have different consciousnesses. In China, Korea and Japan, big and colorful Buddhas and bodhisattvas have a deep impact on the people’s consciousness.

PP: What is the meaning of the morning bell chant? Please explain some of the lines.

ZMSS: The morning bell chant comes from the Avatamsaka Sutra. This sutra talks about the interdependence of all beings. So all animals, birds, human beings, demons, and beings in hell hear the sound of the bell, wake up, get enlightenment, and become Buddha. So, this sound penetrates all six realms of existence – heaven, astral, human beings, animals, hungry ghosts, hell – and takes away your ignorance; wisdom grows up, you get enlightenment, and save all beings. Together, we all become Buddha.

There is a line in the chant that says, “Everywhere everything is equal.” This means in universal nature, everything is equal; there is no form, no name. So at the time when you just hear the sound of the bell, universal nature appears, name and form disappear, and everything becomes equal.

Another line says, “Together you and I simultaneously attain the way of the Buddha.” This means we are all equal – all animals, all birds, and all human beings are all equal – and all attain enlightenment at the same time through hearing the sound of the bell. When you hear the sound of the bell, it means you wake up; wake up means going beyond time and space. Time and space are a hindrance caused by thinking; so hearing the sound of the bell makes this thinking disappear, makes time and space disappear, and all become Buddha at the same time.

At another point, it talks about “great love, great sadness, our great teacher.” Great love is substance, and great sadness is compassion. If other people are suffering, I am sad and compassionate. If everyone is happy, I am happy. “Our great teacher” means we are connected to everything else in the universe, and everything is teaching us the lesson of great compassion and great love.

PP: The Great Dharani, which we chant, is a long mantra and has no translation. What is the origin of this dharani and what is its meaning?

ZMSS: In Buddha’s lifetime, one monk broke the precepts and was very unhappy. So the Buddha taught him that karma comes from your mind; if mind disappears, karma also disappears. If you hold your mistake, your karma will never go away. Then the Buddha gave this monk the Great Dharani mantra in order to take away his holding and thinking mind.

PP: Why do we do one hundred and eight prostrations in the morning? Why one hundred and eight?

ZMSS: In Korean tradition, there are one hundred and eight names for Buddhas and bodhisattvas. So in that style, one hundred and eight bows mean repeating these names. Another tradition says that human beings have one hundred and eight delusions and we bow to cut off these delusions.

PP: When people take precepts, you give them dharma names. How do you pick these names?

ZMSS: First, I pick a family name for the whole group that is taking precepts on that day; then I separate men and women; then I perceive what kind of name fits what kind of person.

PP: When someone takes monk’s or nun’s precepts, as part of the ritual you sprinkle water on his or her head and touch it with a sword. What is the meaning of this ritual?

ZMSS: It is symbolic of cutting the last hair, the last ignorance. Becoming a monk means going from ignorance to light. When you shave you have to use soap and water; otherwise it’s very hard. So we use the water from the altar for this symbolic purpose; the sword is symbolic of the mind sword, the sword of wisdom that cuts through ignorance. So this is cutting the last hair.

PP: What is the meaning of the repentance ceremony?

ZMSS: Everybody makes mistakes; how do we correct our mistakes? In some forms of Hinayana Buddhism, if you make mistakes, then you have to give up your precepts. But in Mahayana and Zen, if you make mistakes, you can do a repentance ceremony. There are big mistakes and small mistakes. Big mistakes cause many problems for other people; small mistakes cause a problem only for ourselves. Doing one hundred and eight bows every morning is a repentance ceremony for our small mistakes. For big mistakes, there is a public ceremony; then our mind becomes clean, and also other people’s minds become clean. If we don’t do this kind of ceremony, then everyone is holding “my mistake” and making more karma. In the Catholic Church, if you make a mistake, you can go to the priest and confess your mistake, then feel relieved and complete. The repentance ceremony is like that. But Catholic ceremonies are secret; in Buddhism there are no secrets, everything is open. If you make a mistake, then have a public ceremony, one can forgive and move on without holding.

PP: You often encourage your students to do forty-nine and one hundred day retreats. Why forty-nine days? Why one hundred days?

ZMSS: We have two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, and one mouth. That’s a total of seven holes in our head. The number seven is considered lucky in the Orient. Also, seven times seven is considered a good number. The 100-day retreat is a little bit not correct. Originally a retreat was done for three months, ninety days. The number 100 comes from Taoism. For Taoists, ten is a lucky number, so their retreat time is ten times ten. In China, Buddhism and Taoism got intertwined, so many Buddhist rituals have come from Taoism.

PP: What is the role of women in Korean monasteries? Should their role be different in American Zen?

ZMSS: In Korea, a nun is the same as a monk, except nuns cannot officiate at a precepts ceremony. Nuns can become teachers and Zen Masters; they can get transmission but cannot give transmission. That’s the tradition from China. But that’s not a problem in America. Buddhism is always adapting itself to the culture of the country where it goes, so Korean style is not absolute in America. We can change it. Changing the transmission rule is no problem, but we cannot change the precepts rule.

PP: How can we make Zen practice more interesting for Americans?

ZMSS: Traditionally, in China and Korea, only monks did Zen practice. But Zen has come to the West and here lay people practice Zen, so this has changed the character of Zen. Now we teach Zen in everyday life. Sitting Zen all the time is not possible for lay people. Everyday life Zen means learning mind sitting. Mind sitting means the mind that is not moving. How do you keep not-moving mind? Put down your opinion, condition, and situation, moment to moment; when you are doing something, just do it. This is everyday Zen.

Under the traditional rules for monks, they cannot go to the theater or restaurants, cannot do this, cannot do that. Their precepts are always telling them this is no good, that is no good. So monks only sit Zen all the time, then get enlightenment and understand truth. That’s old-style Zen. In that style, there is not much teaching about great love, great compassion, the great bodhisattva Way. But for lay people this teaching of great love, great compassion, great bodhisattva way is very necessary. To attain that, it is important to keep a not-moving mind; then correct situation, correct function, and correct relationship appear by themselves in everyday life.

PP: Some people don’t like any kind of form, especially chanting. How should we approach them?

ZMSS: This is Western mind, always strong like and dislike. But there are many people who like chanting very much. Chanting means doing together action with other people; then this together action takes away your opinion, your condition, and your situation very easily. That’s the teaching of chanting meditation. If people don’t like Korean chanting, then maybe some time in the future we will chant everything in English. But remember that our school is not only in America, but also in Poland, Germany, Spain, and other parts of Europe. So if someone from America goes to Poland, it’s the same form, same chanting; then you have the feeling of being part of a large international family. Then your mind becomes bigger and you are at one with the world; you “become world peace.”

PP: Could you talk a bit more about chanting as meditation?

ZMSS: Meditation means not-moving mind. As I said before, old style meditation means body sitting, but mind sitting is more important than body sitting. When you chant you first have one mind, not-moving mind; that’s mind sitting, chanting samadhi. You keep chanting “Kwan Seum Bosal, Kwan Seum Bosal, Kwan Seum Bosal,” then you perceive sound; that’s clear mind. Clear mind is wake-up mind; wake-up mind is enlightenment. So in chanting, samadhi mind is the first step; this is one mind. The next step is perceive sound; this is clear mind, enlightenment. If you attach to samadhi, then you have a problem. That’s a very important point.

PP: How do you see the relationship between Korean Buddhism and American Buddhism changing in the next ten years?

ZMSS: These days I don’t stay so much in the United States; my travels are in Korea, Europe, Australia, and other places. So now most of the teaching in the United States is being done by the Ji Do Poep Sa Nims. Before, everybody was my student, but now the Ji Do Poep Sa Nims have their own students. Now the Ji Do Poep Sa Nims will decide the Kwan Um School of Zen’s direction; they understand American mind better than me. I taught only Korean style Buddhism; now the Ji Do Poep Sa Nims are teaching American style Buddhism, so that’s already changing.

PP: When do you plan to give transmission? We are all waiting.

ZMSS: Spring comes, the grass grows by itself. (laughs)

We are All Like Rocks

An excerpt from a letter written by Mu Bul Su Nim from Korea:

Before Soen Sa Nim left Korea, we had the great fortune to meet Mrs. So. She has been working for almost a year on getting a bell made for the Providence Zen Center. She went to great trouble and expense to find the right poet and sculptor and foundrymen to do the job. We happened to be here in Seoul just when everything came together, on the day the bell was to be cast. We took a long taxi ride to the town where the foundry was and we all watched for about an hour as the men very carefully assembled the mold. The form for the inside shape of the bell was in one piece, but the outside was made up of three collar-like pieces which had to be placed over the inside form just so. The master foundryman checked each step very carefully. This bell is very big, about six feet tall, and a single mistake at this time would mean a whole year’s work shot to hell, so the tension could almost be felt as the final piece of the mold was put in place.

Then, very quickly, the men rushed around getting the chain falls ready to carry the pot of molten bronze and to pour the bronze from the furnaces outside. Then, as they started pouring the red hot liquid from the furnaces into the pouring pot, Soen Sa Nim said something like this, “Originally this metal was ugly rocks. Then the rocks were heated for a long time over a very hot fire until finally they became liquid. Now this liquid will be poured into a mold and take the shape of a big beautiful bell, and when it cools someone will strike the bell and the beautiful sound will fill the whole universe.”

Then everything was ready and the men started pouring the liquid bronze into the mold. They poured from two pots, from both sides, and they were very careful to pour both at the same speed, and not to spill. Two men guided each pot which was supported by a chain fall, and their faces were wet with sweating from the work. It seemed it would take forever to fill the huge mold, but finally the master foundryman gave the order to stop pouring and the men backed off the pouring pots. It wasn’t quite done yet though. On a Korean temple bell, there is a tube coming out of the top of the bell which carries the air out of the bell when it is struck, making it resonate choong …. like a wa, wa, wongwongwongwong …. chong.

This had to be filled from the top, so one of the men took a longhandled ladle filled from one of the pouring pots and slowly and carefully filled the tube until the red metal overflowed onto the top of the mold.

Then it was finished. The whole room breathed a sigh of relief. The master foundryman was happy. He said the pouring had gone well.

“So,” Soen Sa Nim said, “we are all like rocks. And when we practice hard we heat up our hearts making a big hot flame which melts our condition, situation, and opinion until we become like molten metal, ready to assume the shape of a great Bodhisattva, who, when struck with a cry for help, makes a big, deep sound which resonates and fills the whole universe, and makes everybody happy.”

So I hope you keep such a mind, and save all people from suffering.

The Walls are White – The Rug is Blue

One morning after chanting at the Providence Zen Center, Seung Sahn Soen Sa gave a Dharma talk, and afterwards one student asked, “What is Buddha?”

Seung Sahn Soen Sa said, “The walls are white. The rug is blue.”

“I don’t understand,” said the student.

Seung Sahn Soen Sa hit him and said, “Just seeing is Buddha nature. If you want to understand the realm of Buddha, keep a mind which is clear as space. So let all thinking and all externalized desires fall far away. Let your mind go anyplace, with no hinderance.”

The student asked, “What is keeping a mind which is clear as space?”

Seung Sahn Soen Sa answered, “It is enlightenment nature. Above, the abode of Buddhas. Below, the six realms of existence. One by one, each thing is complete in it. One by one, each thing has it. It and dust interpenetrate. It is already apparent in all things. So, without cultivation, you are already complete. Understand, understand. It is very clear.”

Then Seung Sahn Soen Sa held up the Zen stick and said, “Do you see?”

And hitting the floor with the stick, he said, “Do you hear?”

The student nodded his head.

“Already you see clearly. Already you hear clearly. Then, what are this stick, this sound, and your mind? Are they the same or different?”

The student said, “They are the same.”

“If you say ‘the same,’ I will hit you thirty times,” said Seung Sahn Soen Sa, “and if you say ‘different,’ I will also hit you thirty times.”

“Why?” asked the student.

“KATZ!” shouted Seung Sahn Soen Sa. “Three times three is nine.”

The student bowed and said, “Thank you. I understand the meaning of your shout, but, I don’t understand three times three is nine.”

Seung Sahn Soen Sa said, “O.K., then here is a poem for you:

The four elements (earth, fire, water, and air) disperse as in a dream.
The six dusts (perceptions), roots (senses), and consciousnesses are originally emptiness.
To understand that the Buddha and the eminent teachers return to the place of light:
The sun sets over the western mountains.
The moon rises in the East.”

NOTES: The six dusts or perceptions are color, sound, smell, taste, touch, and ideas. The six roots or senses are the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind, and the six consciousnesses arise from the six corresponding senses.

Wake Up!

From a talk by Zen Master Seung Sahn on December 5, 1992

Buddha’s story is very interesting because he had a very good situation, but he gave up this good situation to have a suffering situation. He did suffering practice for six years, and then BOOM! got enlightenment. So today is Got Enlightenment Day. Everybody understands this day, but when Zen Master Man Gong celebrated this day, he called it “I Lost Enlightenment Day.” That’s a famous story.

Man Gong Sunim was the disciple of a very great monk, Zen Master Chun Song, who did not give the usual style of teaching. Only some people understood. Chun Song Sunim’s temple was in the To Bong Mountains of Korea.

It was wintertime. Buddha’s Enlightenment Day was coming, so many people came to the temple. They were very cold, so everyone went outside and cut trees to make firewood.

But there was a law against cutting down trees, so a policeman came and took this great Zen Master to the police station. He asked Chun Song Sunim, “Why did you cut down these trees?”

“You already understand.”

“WHY?! It’s not correct!”

“What is ‘correct’? What is ‘not correct’?”

“That is the rule!”

“Who makes the rule?”

“The country!”

“Oh! That’s a country rule. I don’t care about country rules. My rule is important.”

“You cut trees, and now you must go to jail. You speak strangely. Who are you?”

“I am a monk.”

“Where do you come from?”

“My mother’s ——–.” (Zen Master Chun Song was famous for his scatalogical speech.) A very strange thing to say to a policeman, right?

“WHAT? Where is your hometown?”

“My father’s ——–.”

“You’re crazy!” shouted the policeman. “Go away!” And he let Chun Song Sunim go. That was Zen Master Chun Song’s action.

On Buddha’s Enlightenment Day, Chun Song Sunim said, “Buddha is number one stupid man!” Everybody asked themselves what this meant.

“Everybody already has enlightenment. Why did he sit for six years, see a star, and then get enlightenment? That’s stupid! If you see a star, you get enlightenment NOW!”

So everybody wondered: now see a star, now get enlightenment? Where is this star?

Nobody understood. “HERE! HERE! This is the star!” But still nobody understood. Then he hit the floor with his Zen stick and yelled “KATZ!!” Still nobody understood him. But under the floor a sleeping dog was woken by the hit. Jumping up, it hit its head. The dog howled.

“Only this dog has enlightenment,” Zen Master Chun Song said.

This Universe Gives Us Everything

From a talk at Empty Gate Zen Center in Berkeley California in April 1984.

Question: A lot of us spend a lot of time trying to get rid of our bad karma and just end up accumulating more karma.

Zen Master Seung Sahn: Is karma good or bad? Karma is not good, not bad. If you don’t like karma, then take away your mind and all karma will disappear. All karma is from your mind. If your mind disappears, your karma will disappear. That’s the point. When mind and karma both become empty, that is returning to your true self.

But if I have bad karma, how can I make it function correctly? How can I not be attached to my bad karma? By helping other people. In Korea there is a man like Robin Hood. He does many bad actions, takes money and gives it to poor people. So this is bad action, but how does it function? Even if you have bad karma, if it’s not for you but for other people, it becomes good karma. Likewise, good karma which is only for you becomes bad karma.

So it’s very important how your good or bad karma functions. So don’t be attached to it, don’t check whether you have good karma or bad karma. You have karma, so how you use it is very important. The correct function means only helping other people, making other people happy. Then it’s OK.

Once a man had very good music karma. That is very wonderful, but he used it for bad action. The music was so beautiful that people would lose consciousness, then another man would take their money. That is using good karma and making bad action. So bad karma is ok. How do you use it? How can you make it function correctly? Everybody has karma, and any karma is ok. The correct function of karma is very important.

Q: Where do good karma and bad karma arise from?

ZMSS: Good and bad have no self nature. You make the category “good,” so you have good. You make the category ”bad,” so you have bad. Zen practice is about not making “good” and “bad.” When you practice, what is your original face? If you think, “I am bad,” then you have bad.  Don’t think that, don’t be attached to “I am bad.”  Just bring your attention back to the question “What am I doing?”  If you do a bad action or make a big mistake, and you think “I am bad,” then that bad never disappears.

The mistake was made already, so how do we make it correct? How to make it correct is a very important point. Don’t be attached to bad, and soon return to “What am I doing now?” If you do a bad action to someone, say “I am sorry.” Then it is all finished. Understand?

Someone told me this story. A man and his girlfriend decided to do something together. In the daytime he went to the office and was working very hard. Time passed. He forgot to meet his girlfriend. She was very angry. How could he explain so that his girlfriend would feel good?

Someone suggested that he say, “I was so busy I forgot.” Or, “I didn’t feel so good, so I didn’t go.” When you are in a situation like this, many opinions occur to you. You check how your mind was at that time. Zen means don’t check your past mind. Never check that. Only go straight. Already you made a mistake, so you go to your girlfriend and say, “I am sorry, I made a mistake. If you don’t like me, then kill me, please.” She will not kill you. But first, you have to make everything correct, then there is no good and bad.

Q: So what you are saying is, we are all bound by the law of karma and it’s better to give than to receive.

ZMSS: Don’t check on giving and receiving, just DO IT! (laughs) “Just do it!” is very important. If you love somebody, then only love is enough. Don’t check. If you are checking, that’s like saying, when you like somebody, “I love you, why don’t you love me?” – that’s not love. Love is unconditional. Only giving, only giving, just as this earth, this universe, gives us everything.

Every day we breathe in, breathe out. Nobody pays money for that. Living in this world, food is very important, clothes are very important, a house is very important. For all these things we must pay money. If for only ten minutes you do not breathe, you die. But no one says “Thank you very much” for their air.

The universe always gives us this air. This air has no hindrance, it connects with everybody, not just human beings. The air connects with trees and animals and sky. We are all connected by this breathing in, breathing out. When you sleep, when you’re awake, whether you have good thinking or bad thinking, you breathe in and breathe out. Always. If you stop, you die. So this much is given to you, this air. This is love mind. Think about it.

Also, if we had no sun, we would die. If we exploded all the missiles that Russia and America have, a cloud would cover the earth. No sun could penetrate this cloud. The earth would grow cold – then what? Everything would die. So this sunlight is very important, but no one says, “Thank you very much, sun.”

Next is water, very important. For water we pay money. We don’t pay the water, we only pay to have the water brought here from the mountain. Nobody pays the water any money. Also, if we had no earth, then what? We could not grow any food, any trees, any flowers.

Air, fire, water, earth – the four elements. The universe takes these elements and makes your body. That’s your life’s root. Correct roots. Nowadays, human beings don’t understand their roots. “I go to the factory, I make money, so I make a living. I don’t have to believe in God, I don’t owe the universe anything. What’s the big deal? I have money, I take care of myself.” This style of thinking. We have all forgotten our human roots. If you have no air, no ground, you cannot stay alive.

Anytime you do not believe in love, you die. What is your life? The whole universe is only giving, giving to you, We call that unconditional love. It has no condition. So you must also give to this universe. Loving and helping this universe is necessary. Don’t make atom bombs, don’t kill animals, don’t pollute the air or anything.

Many people have seen the movie “Never Cry Wolf.” Human beings never understand their correct situation. Human beings are the number one bad animal. We have destroyed much of nature, air, water and trees. Then we say we want world peace. Not possible. That is number one stupid!

So that is not so good. Human beings must just now WAKE UP – that is important. If we do not wake up, we cannot continue this human world, ok? It will soon disappear.

Q: If all the animals in the world can exist in peace without human beings, then why are we here? (Laughter)

ZMSS: Why are we here? I ask you, why do you eat every day? (Laughter) If everyone gives to each other, then there’s no problem. The universe gives us everything. We are holding our I-my-me, our “I want this?” so this earth has a problem.

You must understand correct love. There’s the famous story about two women arguing about a baby, Each one said, “This is my baby.” The the King said, “Bring the baby here, I will divide it in two. You take half, you take the other half.” He picked up his sword to kill the baby and one woman said, “Oh, you take this baby!” to the other woman. That is unconditional love. Not for myself, but only love others.

Two Kinds of Teaching

From a kong-an talk, April 30, 1978, London

The letter we just read from Dropping Ashes on the Buddha was from a professor, very complicated. “I am a professor, I have this position, my position, etc.” Sometimes having a good position cannot help you. Also it cannot help other people. If this good position is not only for me, but only for helping other people, then this position is a very great position.

It’s like Kwanseum Bosal. Kwanseum Bosal doesn’t want earrings, necklaces, beautiful clothes. These are not necessary. If you see pictures of the Bodhisattva she is very beautiful, but this is not necessary. But everyone likes beautiful earrings, beautiful necklaces, beautiful clothes. They see the pictures and think, “Oh wonderful, I believe in this Bodhisattva.” This style of thinking appears. But Buddha’s picture, you know, is nothing at all. Only very simple clothes, simple face, no necklace, no earrings. So Buddha’s teaching and the Bodhisattva’s teaching are different.

Buddha’s teaching is only truth. But many people don’t like Buddha’s teaching. Why? Everyone has desire mind. So when someone is hungry, how does Buddha teach him? “You are hungry, but if you keep hungry mind, no good! Put it all down.” This teaching is not possible! First you must give the person food, then he will have enough mind. Then you can say, “Where does this hungry mind come from? You eat a lot, this is no good. Not good for your body. If you eat too much when you’re hungry you will hurt your stomach, so only eat a little.” First give the person food, then give correct teaching. This is necessary. If you say, “You are hungry. This is no good. Put it all down. Then you won’t be hungry. Only drink water. For three days, five days, one month, this is possible. Why do you let desire mind appear?” This is not bad teaching, but he will not listen. Nobody will listen.

So Buddha’s teaching is the original true teaching. But the Bodhisattva understands all humans’ desire mind. Then she first satisfies these desires. Then next, cut: “Desire is no good!” So Buddha’s teaching is only straight. The Bodhisattva’s teaching is always together teaching with human beings. So Buddha’s teaching is only intellectual. The Bodhisattva’s teaching is first emotional, then intellectual. This is different.

At the time of Buddha there were three great men: Buddha, Vimalakirti, and Devadatta. Buddha already got enlightenment and was teaching all people. Vimalakirti also got enlightenment, he was teaching all laymen, Bodhisattva teaching. Buddha was teaching only true teaching, Vimalakirti, only Bodhisattva teaching to laymen. So Devadatta was thinking, “I have no job.” He also got enlightenment. So he always had bad speech for Buddha. “Buddha doesn’t understand, he only goes around saying, ‘I am Buddha.’ This is no good.” He always had bad speech for Buddha, so he went to hell. But hell was no problem, going to hell was OK. Already he had special energy and understood everything.

Buddha’s disciples sometimes visited Vimalakirti, sometimes visited Devadatta. So one day Ananda visited Devadatta. “You always had bad speech for Buddha, so you went to hell. How do you feel?”

Devadatta smiled and said, “Even if I stay in hell, my happiness is like staying in heaven. No problem.”

Then Ananda said, “Oh, then you won’t want to get out of hell. Hell is good, you can stay in hell.”

Then Devadatta said, “Shakyamuni Buddha will come here and take me out.”

Ananda said, “Shakyamuni Buddha is teaching all people, he’s spending his whole life teaching the six realms. Why should he come here?”

Devadatta replied, “Shakyamuni Buddha is spending his whole life teaching the six realms, so he will come here.” This hit Ananda, boom! Do you understand? This is a very short dialogue, but inside it has a bone.

Having a bone means: Who is Shakyamuni Buddha? Where is hell? Where is heaven? This style talking is nothing at all. We say form is emptiness, emptiness is form. He already got enlightenment. He said making hell is possible, making heaven is possible, also he understood everything. “You only understand Shakyamuni Buddha. Shakyamuni Buddha will come here and take me out,” means, “I am Shakyamuni Buddha.” So this kind of talking has a meaning. Devadatta understood Ananda’s mind, so Ananda could not answer. (Ananda was only Buddha’s secretary, not his number one disciple. That was Mahakashyapa.)

Shakyamuni Buddha and Vimalakirti never said, “I,” Devadatta talked about “I,” so made hell. This is the only difference. All three got enlightenment, all three had magic, but Devadatta was checking himself. “I have no job.” He could teach other people, but he says, “Shakyamuni Buddha is teaching everyone so I have no job.” So he only has bad speech for Buddha and goes to hell, but this hell is not hell. He has this much power, this much magic, very clever. But there is one point, like a small hair. One hair, “I.” So he goes to hell. If he cuts this “I,” then no problem. Finally he says, “Buddha will come here and help me, I will get out.” This means, “Buddha and I have the same mind.” That time he cuts “I.” So that time Buddha and Devadatta become one. Before, he never talked this way.

So someone may have a lot of power and understanding, get enlightenment, yet still have the small “I.” It’s like one hair. One ignorance hair, the last hair. So how do you cut this one ignorance hair. Go straight, don’t-know, OK? Don’t-know-mind is very important. Don’t-know mind has everything, can fix everything.

The Twelfth Gate – Three Men Are Walking

Three men are walking. The first man makes a sword sound, the second man waves his hands, and the third man picks up a handkerchief.

1. If you were there, what would be your correct function?

2. What is the relationship?

3. And lastly, what is the situation?

Commentary: The function of each is different, but the situation is the same.

A long time ago Zen Master Cheung Sahn would ask his students this kong-an frequently. Nobody understood. Sometimes he would use wild actions or shout, “Yahhhh! Why don’t you understand?” Still, they couldn’t answer completely.

This kong-an is very important. It is an object “just like this” style kong-an. There are two kinds of “just like this” kong-ans, subject and object. Subject “just like this” means when you are hungry, what? Eat! Object “just like this” means if someone is hungry, what? Give them food! That is object “just like this” style. So, in this kong-an, what is your correct function? These three men do different actions, but the situation is the same. Their function is different, but it is the same situation. What is their relationship? What is the situation? Same situation, same condition, same relationship, but the function is different: one makes a sword sound, one takes out a handkerchief, one waves his hand–different actions, but the meaning is the same.

Here’s a hint: you go to a theater where somebody is doing a one-man show. He tells a very funny story, he acts funny, talks funny, and then everybody laughs. Everybody is happy. Many different people are laughing with different styles. Somebody is laughing, “Ha, Ha, Ha, Ha.” Somebody else is laughing, “Hu, Hu, Hu, Hu!” Somebody else is laughing, “Ho, Ho, Ho, Ho!”–different laughing styles. The action is different, but the condition and the situation are the same. So, what kind of condition, what kind of situation, what kind of relationship? You must attain that. That is the object “just like this.”

If you don’t understand, just don’t understand. If you keep this “don’t understand” then your Don’t Know mind becomes very strong and a big Don’t Know is possible, which means great question and great doubt. If you completely don’t know, then you will get complete enlightenment. If you have only a small question, only small enlightenment is possible. There are many kinds of enlightenment–small enlightenment, middle enlightenment, big enlightenment, and then finally, no enlightenment. No enlightenment is complete enlightenment.

True Meditation

At a recent Dharma Talk, Zen Master Seung Sahn was asked what elements contribute to make a meditation practice strong and clear. He answered:

“True meditation comes from true cognition; true cognition comes from true meditation.

There are many schools of meditation in the United States. Some meditations use breathing awareness, some focus on sound, smell, vision, or body practices to build strong concentration. Very good feeling. This is “very good feeling” meditation, but it can miss the true way. Meditation can control anger and desire, and this feels good. But why do you want this good feeling? This is very important. Meditation means not-moving mind, but meditation alone is not enough. Good feeling, then what? For correct meditation, you must find correct cognition.

Cognition means understanding. But cognition alone cannot control your mind and body. What is truth? Many people can talk about this, they can tell other people what to do, but in their day to day life they cannot live their understanding. They are hindered by their thinking, their anger, their desire. Many people have clever speech, but only clever speech is not enough. Only cognition, without practicing, is dry cognition. Without both correct meditation and correct cognition, you cannot find your true self.

When not-moving mind and understanding come together, this is Zen. This is clear mind, not dependent on feeling or words, not dependent on anything. Clear mind means keeping a mind that is clear like space, clear like a mirror. Red comes, red. Yellow comes, yellow.”

Another student said, “Lin Chi Zen Master answered every question with, ‘Katz!’ Is this true meditation or true cognition?”

Seung Sahn Soen Sa answered, “Why do you ride around on the bone of space?”

The student answered, ”What does this mean?”

Seung Sahn Soen Sa hit him thirty times.

True Kensho

The following is a reply by Zen Master Seung Sahn to a letter written to him by a student.

Dear Paul,

Thank you for your letter. How are you? In your letter you said you have two problems. First, you talked about your service in Viet Nam as a soldier and medic. As a soldier you saw many people including children die all around you. As a medic you treated wounded, suffering soldiers. You say these experiences weigh heavily on your heart and mind.

You have already seen many dead people. Some day your body will also disappear — maybe tomorrow, maybe day after tomorrow. This is true not just for your body or for the people who lost their lives in Viet Nam. Maybe this entire world will disappear tomorrow. Already all the large countries have nuclear weapons. If one person makes a mistake and pushes a button setting off all the missiles, the whole world will be destroyed in a second.

You saw many people die in Viet Nam, so you have a strong feeling. If your mind opens and you perceive this world, then you will see that moment to moment there is great danger. This will make you very unhappy, not knowing which way to turn, like a child who has lost his mother.

When Shakyamuni Buddha was a prince he had everything that he wanted but this did not satisfy him. He put it all down, cut his hair, went to the mountains, and sat under the Bodhi Tree. One day he saw the morning star and attained Enlightenment: he perceived that your True Self has no life, no death.

You must understand that. Then, no problem. What are you?

If you don’t understand, only go straight don’t know. Try, try, try for 10,000 years non-stop, O.K.? Then you can finish the Great Work of life and death, get Enlightenment, and save all beings. This is possible. Then world peace.

Next, you say that you have experienced kensho several times, but when you try for this point during zazen you end up in a struggle. We say this is “feeling kensho,” not true kensho. Ken means perceive, sho means nature. Perceive your true nature. This means attain your true nature. If you attain your true nature one time, this never disappears. But you have experienced kensho many times. What does this mean? There are many kinds of kensho like your kensho — 84,000 kenshos. Why 84,000? We have 84,000 kinds of thinking and feeling. So if you experience one feeling of kensho, then experiencing kensho 84,000 times is necessary. How many times have you had kensho? Put it all down. Who told you that you already had kensho? You make kensho, so you have kensho. This is your kensho, not true kensho.

True kensho means no kensho. The Heart Sutra says, “no attainment with nothing to attain.” This means you must attain no attainment. That is true kensho. You still want something; you still want kensho. That is a big mistake. That way you will never get Enlightenment, never get true kensho. If you want true kensho, you must make your opinion, your condition, and your situation disappear. Then the correct opinion, correct condition, and correct situation will appear. The name for this is kensho. The name for this is our True Self. The name for this is Great Love, Great Compassion, and the Great Bodhisattva Way. Not special. When you are hungry, eat. When you are tired, rest. When you see a hungry person, give him food. When you see someone sad, you are also sad. Only this. Moment to moment, you must keep your correct situation. All your actions are for other people. Put down I, my, me.

An eminent teacher said, ”Without thinking, Just like this is Buddha.” Someone asked Zen Master Dong Sahn, “What in Buddha?” He said, “Three pounds of flax.” Someone asked Zen Master Un Mun, ”What in Buddha?” He said, ”Dry shit on a stick.”.

These two answers, are they the same or different? If you say, “Same,” I will hit you 30 times. If you say, “Different,” I will also hit you 30 times. What can you do? If you don’t understand, only go straight don’t know. Try, try, try, any time, always, everywhere, O.K.?

I hope you always go straight don’t know, which is clear like space, soon finish the Great Work of life and death, get Enlightenment, and save all beings from suffering.

In the Dharma,

Seung Sahn

True God, True Buddha

Adapted from a talk during a retreat at Providence Zen Center in December, 1990.

Question: I’m a Christian, and I would like to know, is there anything you would like us to understand that we tend not to understand?

Zen Master Seung Sahn: Christianity says God made everything — good and bad, heaven and earth, human beings and animals and so on. He worked for six days, then rested.

But in Buddhism, there is no original cause or creator; there is no coming, no going, no existence, no nonexistence; all of these are opposites thinking. Sun and moon, light and dark, day and night — all these are names; the world of names is opposites thinking. “God” is also a name; it’s also opposite thinking. True God has no name, no form. In no name/no form, there is no coming, no going — no opposite thinking. That which is beyond all names and forms is always bright. That is True God.

The purpose of Buddhism is to find primary point. What is the primary point of this universe? The Bible says, “God made everything.” But what is the primary point of God? Where does God come from?

These days, not many young people are becoming monks or nuns. I was in Paris — a big Catholic university had closed its doors. No more students! Any society that has a “good situation” doesn’t have young monks, only old monks. This is a different age, a different mind, Old-style religion was to just believe in God. Now people check — what kind of religion will help me, help society? Monk or not monk is not important. They like new idea, new style religion, perhaps some meditation.

This is a time of great change and religions need to adapt; a change in teaching style is necessary. A simple belief in God is no longer enough for many people. They want to understand: What is God? What is my true self? In the Bible, it says, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” What is this “I”? Is this “I” God? Is this God separate from me? If this God is not separate from me, are God and I two or one? Through meditation practice these questions can be resolved on a deep level. Then one can truly understand religion, understand this world. In meditation all opposites become one point: mind, God, dharma, truth. You can call it many things, but this point is before all names and forms.

If you only talk about a belief in God, then there are many questions: Where is God? Inside the body or outside? Someone says God is in heaven; nowadays spaceships roam about in vast outer space, but don’t find any God because all is curved space. Here is God? Here is God? True God has no inside and outside, no name and form.

Nowadays many Christians like Thomas Merton’s books. He didn’t only analyze Biblical words. He understood and practiced Zen meditation, so he was able to connect with his true self, and wrote about this connection. That’s why his books are so popular.

Any kind of religion, any kind of style doesn’t matter. Why do this? Making this direction clear is very important; if this direction is clear, then your life is clear. If you only hold your religion, your idea, then you have a problem. If you are not holding “my religion,” not holding “my practice,” have a clear direction, and only try, try, try, then you attain something. Clear direction and try mind are most important.

Zen mind means put down any idea, any form. If your direction is clear and you completely put down everything, then you will attain something. When you attain something, you connect with everything else.

All religions are like different paths to the mountaintop. The top of the mountain is very clear; it’s the primary point. But there are many paths leading to this point; there is the eastern road, western road, southern road, and northern road. When people begin climbing the mountain, they are always fighting: “My way is correct, your way is not correct.” But from the bottom of the mountain, they cannot see the top, so they are very strongly attached to “my way.” Having clear direction and try mind means just going up, going up, one step after another. So you don’t spend energy in fighting other people or their ideas; you just practice. Then you can reach the mountaintop.

The different paths to the mountaintop are made by our mind. But what is mind? If you try to understand it intellectually, you will not find it. Our mind is very big, but it’s also small. A very sharp needle cannot touch this mind, because this mind is smaller than the tip of the needle. But our mind is also bigger than the whole universe. Sometimes our mind is very bright, sometimes very dark. If you make “my path,” you also make “my mind.” But if you let go of “my mind,” you become a Buddha. Then any path will lead you to the mountaintop.

If you control your mind, you control everything. But if you say, “I control my mind,” then what is this that controls the mind? Is it some other mind that controls the mind or is it no mind? Also, how do you control your mind? Where is your mind? Are you and your mind two things or one? Same or different? Big problem! That’s all thinking. POW! Put it all down, OK? Don’t think!

The Diamond Sutra says “All things are impermanent. A pure view is to see all appearances as non-appearances. When all appearances and non-appearances disappear, that’s complete stillness. Then you can see Buddha nature.” But if everything is impermanent, I am also impermanent; Buddha is also impermanent. Then how can I see Buddha? How can impermanence see impermanence?

If you check the words in the Bible or in the Diamond Sutra, then it’s all checking, all opposites thinking. But truth means there are no opposites. No opposites means the absolute. If you are checking, then everything is not correct. If you are not checking, everything is correct. That is Zen. The Diamond Sutra teaches that silence is better than holiness. And the Bible says “Be still and know that I am God.” This silent mind is very important. How do we transmit this silent mind from me to you? Buddha picked up a flower, and only Mahakashyapa smiled. Then Buddha said, “My true dharma, I transmit to you.” But that was a big mistake on Buddha’s part. If I was Mahakashyapa at that time, I would have said, “No, thank you, Buddha, I already have dharma.” Then Buddha would have a problem!!

So, already everybody has dharma, already everybody has truth, already everybody has the correct way and correct life. Already everybody has, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” So why does anyone need transmission from someone else? Open your mouth and it’s already a mistake. But our job is to help all beings. So, we only use this mouth to teach the dharma and help all beings. That, we say, is “tongue formula.”

If you only keep a try mind, a don’t-know mind, then your center becomes stronger, stronger, stronger. Then everything you hear, smell, see, taste, touch is better than the Buddha’s speech, better than the Bible’s speech. That’s enlightenment. Then you can save all beings from suffering.