Our Practice

Our world is supported by three columns: time, space, and cause and effect. But, where do time and space come from? Also, who makes cause and effect? Time, space, and cause and effect are made by thinking. Our thinking makes everything. So the three columns that support our world are created by our mind.

But if our mind disappears, then thinking disappears. If thinking disappears then time, space, and cause and effect disappear; then empty world appears. Empty… completely empty. Another name for “empty world” is Substance. This is the Substance of the whole universe: human being’s substance, dog’s substance, everything’s substance.

Ten thousand dharmas return to one. This one comes from where? During interviews everybody hits the floor: BOOM! Everything becomes one point: no name, no form, no space, no cause and effect, no time … nothing at all. The name for this is the Absolute. If you open your mouth about the Absolute then you’ve already made a mistake. Only action.

If you keep that point for a long time, then you see clearly, hear clearly, smell clearly, taste clearly, touch clearly, think clearly, and act clearly. Which means the sky is blue; trees are green; the dog is barking–woof, woof; sugar is sweet. Then, when you see, when you hear, when you smell, everything, just as it is, is the truth. Truth is beyond time and space, cause and effect. There are no opposites. This is the Absolute. If you attain this point, you attain the Truth.

How can this point function correctly? Most important in our practice is a clear direction; then a correct life is possible. This world has a lot of suffering. How can we help all beings? The name for that is bodhisattva action. If you wake up moment to moment and keep a clear mind, then correct direction and truth and correct life are always in front of you. Then your action, your life, and you are never separate.

However, if this moment is not clear, then time and space, cause and effect will control you. That means your mind makes subject/object world. If your mind is clear, then subject and object disappear. This is the Absolute. Then everything is clear in front of you, and helping this world is possible. That is our practice.


From talk at Seoul International Zen Center, Korea, March 9, 1996

Some people completely understand sutras. A long time ago, a famous old Sutra Master visited Ko Bong Zen Master.

Ko Bong Sunim asked him, “How long have you been teaching the sutras?”

Dae Un Sutra Master said, “I have been teaching the sutras for fifty years.”

“Fifty years teaching sutras? What kind of teaching?”

“Ah, Mind is Buddha; Buddha is Mind. So, get Enlightenment, become Buddha.”

Ko Bong Sunim said, “Oh, Mind is Buddha; Buddha is Mind. Before Mind, before Buddha, what is this? What does this mean? Your mouth says Mind is Buddha, Buddha is Mind. If you have no mouth, what do you say?”

The Sutra Master was stuck. Ko Bong Zen Master picked up a stick and hit Dae Un Sunim’s leg hard.

The Sutra Master shouted, “Ouch!!”

Ko Bong Sunim said, “Oh, that’s number one good sutra speech!”

Opposite Worlds, Absolute World, Complete World, Moment World

Excerpted from a lecture series entitled “Compass of Zen,” delivered by Zen Master Seung Sahn at retreats in 1988.

Human beings have a lot of opposite thinking: like/dislike, good/bad, happiness/sadness, coming/going and so on. This opposite thinking creates opposite worlds within each one of us and our ignorance makes us hold on to these opposite worlds. These opposite worlds are ways in conflict with each other, so there is tension and suffering. This is the basic teaching of Hinayana Buddhism: all suffering comes from opposite thinking.

The Buddha taught how to go from opposite worlds to absolute world. Absolute world means the world before thinking. What is before thinking? Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.” If I am not thinking, then what? Descartes did not explore this question but Buddhism has always talked about before-thinking. If I am not thinking, there is no I. If there is no I, there are no opposite worlds because opposites are created by “I.” When “I” disappears, opposite worlds also disappear; this is called emptiness or nirvana.

So it is said that when mind disappears, dharma disappears; dharma disappears, name and form disappear, name and form disappear, coming and going, life and death, happiness and suffering, all these opposite categories also disappear. When there are no opposites, it is nirvana. Its name is Absolute, its name is Stillness, its name is Emptiness. So going from opposite worlds to absolute world is to move into the nirvana world. This is the teaching of Hinayana Buddhism.

Mahayana Buddhism begins at the point of emptiness, the absence of self-nature of things. If you attain “no self,” it is possible to move to complete world. Complete world means if your mind is complete, everything in the universe is complete. The sun, the moon, the stars, everything else in the universe is complete, one by one. Complete means truth. When you cut off all thinking there is no “I”; when there is no “I” your mind is clear like space. Clear like space means clear like mirror; clear like mirror means a mind which just reflects: sky is blue, grass is green, water is flowing, sugar is sweet, salt is salty. The mirror-mind only reflects what’s in front of it. In the mirror-mind what you see, what you hear, what you smell, what you taste, what you touch – everything is just like this. Just like this is truth. Just like this is complete world, so complete world is truth world.

If you attain truth and complete world, you can understand correct situation, correct function, correct relationship. Then helping others is possible; helping others means only to love others, to have compassion for others. We call love and compassion the Bodhisattva Way. So, the teaching of Mahayana Buddhism is how to follow the Bodhisattva Way, how to help others. If you want to follow this path, you must attain the truth world first; truth world means keeping moment to moment correct situation, correct function, correct relationship; truth world means great love, great compassion, great Bodhisattva Way. This is the teaching of Mahayana Buddhism.

Next is Zen Buddhism. Zen Buddhism never talks about opposite worlds, never talks about absolute world, never talks about complete world. It only points straight to our mind, to our true self. “What is Buddha?” “Dry shit on a stick.” This is a Zen answer. There is no talk here, no explanation. Only just a swift, direct pointing that cuts through all discriminations. In the history of Zen many people got enlightened as a result of this style of direct pointing and were able to help many people. So in Zen there is no speech, no words, only practicing. Talking about opposite worlds or absolute world or complete world is an intellectual style where more explanation, more analysis becomes necessary. Zen only points to the moment world, the world of this moment. This moment is very important; it has everything in it. In this moment there is infinite time, infinite space; in this moment there is truth, correct life and the Bodhisattva Way. This moment has everything, also this moment has nothing. If you attain this moment, you attain everything. This is the teaching of Zen Buddhism.

Opening and Closing

From a talk given at the opening ceremony of the New Haven Zen Center on December 16, 1978.

If you want to change anything, you must open your mind. If you do, then you can open your Zen Center and nothing will stand in the way of many people coming to the temple. But, form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Opening is closing, closing is opening. What is opening? It is an “opposites” word. Desire, anger and ignorance will appear in abundance. If you only open, you will have difficulty, so closing is also necessary. It is very important to understand when to open and when to close. When you open your eyes and see something, you cannot feel your eyes. If your eyes hurt, you become aware of them. If you don’t see clearly, you have them checked. But if you are completely open, already you have lost your eyes.

One time a famous comedian invited Zen Master Mang Gong to talk with him. After the comedian finished talking, Mang Gong asked, “Are you not talking now, smart comedian?”

“No sir,” replied the comedian.

“But you still have your tongue,” said Mang Gong.

The comedian was confused. He was always checking what his audience thought of him. He thought that because everyone was happy when he talked, his speech must be wonderful. But this happiness was only in his mind. “How can I make this mind disappear?” he asked. Mang Gong asked him,

“Where is your mind? Do you have a mind?”

“Yes, I have a mind.”

“Then give me your mind!”

The comedian was completely stumped. “I don’t know.”

“You already lost your body — where is your tongue?” demanded the Zen Master. Just then the comedian attained enlightenment. Mang Gong said, “Talk to me.” The comedian was silent. Mang Gong said, “Your name is ‘no tongue’.”

Open your eyes, ears and tongue and you will have no difficulty. If you keep them open, sometimes demons appear, but opening and closing are both okay. If you are correctly open, you lose your eyes, ears and tongue. If you close everything — eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind — you have no hindrance.

Only Teaching Words

From a morning kong-an talk by Zen Master Seung Sahn in Frankfurt, West Germany in April, 1978:

“If you attain Enlightenment, one thousand things, ten thousand things become one; if you attain Enlightenment, one thousand things, ten thousand things each become clear. Which statement is correct?”

A student said, “They are the same.”

Soen Sa Nim said, ”You say the same, so I hit you. Not the same. Also not different. If you attain Enlightenment, one thousand things, ten thousand things become one. What does this mean?”

The student said, “No mind, no Buddha, it’s all one.”

“Then what?” The student hit the floor. “Only this?”

The student said, “Outside, the sound of cars.”

Soen Sa Nim said, “Correct. So attaining Enlightenment, not attaining Enlightenment, these are teaching words. These are only teaching words. Many people are attached to these words, so they don’t understand truly attaining Enlightenment.

“Here is a kong-an about this. Someone once sat Zen for ten years; he was an old man. He had an interview with the Zen Master and said, ‘Zen Master, I have a question. I have been sitting for ten years, but Enlightenment has not appeared.’ The Zen Master said, ‘You don’t want Enlightenment, so it has not appeared.’ ‘No, no,’ said the student, ‘I want Enlightenment, but it hasn’t appeared.’ The Zen Master said, ‘So, you want Enlightenment, so it has not appeared.’

“Then the Zen Master said, ‘Go to the kitchen, drink cold water.’ There is a simple custom in Korea, that when your mind is not clear, you go to the kitchen and drink cold water. So the student said, ‘O.K., thank you very much,’ and went away.

”This is a very short interview, but very important. Everything is in it. So this morning, if you have mind, only drink cold water, O.K.?”

Only Practicing

One morning a student asked Seung Sahn Soen Sa, “How can one control thinking while sitting Zen?”

Soen Sa replied, “If you are attached to thought, your practice and your thoughts are different. if you are not attached to thoughts, thinking is practicing, practicing is thinking. This is called only practicing.”

The student asked, “What is only practicing?”

“When you first start driving, you cannot give your attention to sights or sounds, or else you will crash. However, after much practice, you can talk, look at things, and listen to the radio without any problem. Talking and sightseeing have become only driving. Your seeing, hearing, and speaking are non-attachment. It is the same with Zen. ‘Only Zen’ contains walking, eating, sleeping, talking, and watching television. All of these have become unattached thinking. This is only practicing.”

“What is attachment thinking?”

“While driving, if you are attached to your thoughts, you will go through a stop sign and get a ticket; you will cross the center line and have a crash; you will, thinking that you are going to New York, instead head for Boston. In this way, attachment to thinking leads to suffering.”

The student said, “Thank you very much. I understand well.”

“Since you understand, I will now ask you, are thinking and not thinking different? Are they the same?”

“When I am thirsty, I drink.”

“Very good. Go drink tea.”

One action is better than all sutras

Silence is better than holiness, so one action is better than all sutras. If you are attached to words and speech, you won’t understand a melon’s taste; you will only understand its outside form. If you want to understand a melon’s taste, then cut a piece and put it in your mouth. A melon ripens and grows by itself, it never explains to human beings its situation and condition.

If you are attached to the sutras, you only understand Buddha’s speech. If you want to attain Buddha’s mind, then from moment to moment put down your opinion, condition and situation. Only help all beings. Then Buddha appears in front of you. This is enlightenment and freedom from life and death.

Excerpted from Zen Master Seung Sahn’s “The Whole World is a Single Flower: 365 Kong-ans for Everyday Life” (Charles E. Tuttle Company, Rutland VT, 1992).

On the film Little Buddha

During his recent swing through the East Coast, Zen Master Seung Sahn was asked by several people his opinion of the movie, “Little Buddha.” As the first feature-length movie to deal with the life of the Buddha and Buddhist teachings, “Little Buddha” has drawn many different reactions from members of the American Buddhist sangha. The following comments were made in response to a question asked by a student during Zen Master Seung Sahn’s public Dharma talk at the Providence Zen Center, June 24, 1994:

Question: Zen Master, someone told me that you recently saw this movie, Little Buddha. What is your opinion of this movie and the teaching it contains? I heard that the filmmaker tried to use this movie as a vehicle to transmit Buddhist teaching to a wide audience…

Zen Master Seung Sahn: The first half of this movie was very good, and had good teaching. The beginning of the movie showed the Buddha as a young prince, how he was struck by the suffering of the world. The movie also showed the Buddha leaving home to find his true self. That’s a very important point: the Buddha left home, left his wife and child, left the palace in order to answer this question for all beings: “What am I? What is a human being?”

But the second half of the movie was not as clear. The Buddha left home, and never went back to his family. He never went back to his good situation. In the movie, this young American boy is taken by the teachers. He leaves the world of samsara, just like the Buddha did. But at the end of the movie, the boy is back with his parents again. That’s not clear teaching. He already left home: Why go back to his parents? What kind of teaching is this? It does not connect to the Buddha’s life.

Also, this movie does not show the young boy growing up, getting enlightenment and teaching other people. That’s the point of him being recognized as a teacher. So that’s not complete. It’s like when you go to the bathroom. After you use the toilet, you must wipe yourself. That’s how you finish the job! This movie should show what happened to this boy that he studied hard, became a great person, and helped many beings. This movie did not finish the job, so a bad smell appears! Same as that. If the filmmakers only want to make a happy ending, that’s not clear. Why spend the whole movie to find this dead teacher, and then this teacher ends up with his parents again? Same with the young Nepali boy and girl, who were also chosen as teachers. The movie would have been complete if it showed them practicing hard, getting enlightenment, and helping other people. But why finish this movie before that? If you finish the movie before that, it does not connect to the Buddha’s life. It does not show Buddhism is about teaching other people today. So it’s not complete — not clear teaching.

Dependent Origination

While visiting the Sambosa Temple in Carmel Volleys California, Seung Sahn Soen Sa gave a Dharma talk to a large gathering of visitors on a Sunday evening.

Soen Sa, walking up to a table in the front of the room, held a stick up and drew a circle in the air. He then asked, “Do you know what this is? If you say you understand, I will hit you thirty times; if you say you don’t understand, I will hit you thirty times. Why?” He paused for a few moments and then hit the stick on the table. ”Today is Sunday,” he said.

He then delivered this speech:

“Buddha said, ‘Existence or non-existence depends on a series of causes and effects.’ In Buddhism the process of conditioned life is viewed as one of continual phenomenal change. Aging and dying depend on birth, which in turn depends on becoming. Becoming depends on attachment, attachment depends on thinking, thinking depends on consciousness. This series of conditions perpetuates itself, causing suffering, the degree of which is measured by karma. The concept of karma can be defined as volition, or the act of making a choice.

“You were not born into this world because you planned or wanted to. You were born because your karma and your parents’ karma caused you to be here. According to Buddhism, nothing occurs by accident; it does so by necessity through the functioning of karma. Our gathering here at Sambosa is not an accident.

“Some are born with silver spoons in their mouths; some in famous families, some in poor status: some as whites, some as blacks, some as yellows. All people have different physical characteristics, personalities, intelligences, attitudes, etc.

“Who or what creates this kind of universe where so many varieties of things are happening constantly? God? Buddha? Neither of them! The answer lies in the strict rule of cause and effect. Buddhism explains cause and effect with regard to the life continuum through the doctrine of dependent origination. It clearly shows how the cause becomes the effect and the effect becomes the cause. By the same token, the continuous recurance of birth and death has been aptly compared to a circle. Death is not a release, but merely the prelude to rebirth. As long as this process keeps on recurring, suffering is inevitable.

“Craving, or attachment, initiates thinking, which in turn causes human suffering. Your thinking influences not only yourself but also everyone else, which causes you to accumulate karma in your storehouse consciousness. This keeps you in a state of constant suffering.

”Thus, in order to stop suffering, you must first stop thinking. If you raise a thought or craving, that will differentiate you from everybody else. When you are not thinking, you and all people are one, and there is no suffering.

“The no-thinking, no-craving state of mind is the state of emptiness, The conception of emptiness in Buddhism, however, is not the total rejection of the common sense reality we experience through oar senses, but rather it is the brushing off of our false views so as to see the world and things as they really are.

“The Buddha said, ‘Men come and go with empty hands. Then where do they come from and where are they going? Life is like a cloud floating across the sky and death is like its disappearance over the mountain. As the cloud is without substance, so is man’s life and death. It is all empty.

“The categories of existence and non-existence are applicable only in the realm of the conditioned and phenomenal world. Nevertheless, there is a seed innate in every man that never dies, that is crystal-clear and intrinsically pure.

“Then what is it that stops craving and thinking, through which you transcend yourself to reach the state of nirvana? It is the very Suchness. In this realm you are identical with everything and everybody.

“Realize that the myriad of things, alive or dead, organic or inorganic are all identical with Suchness. This is the Buddha state, the absolute and completely-independent unconditioned world where you can be with and of the whole universe.

“At the beginning of my talk I held up my stick and drew a circle in the air. If you were thinking for an answer to what it was, your answer would be no good. only when you are able to cut your thinking will you understand. When I hit the stick on the table all our minds became one for that instant. ”

“I hope you understand this truth. When you do understand, I hope you will teach others so they too can stop their thinking, craving, and suffering.

“Thank you.”

Obligation to Your Parents

September 3, 1983

Dear Grant,

Thank you for your letter. How are you?

You say that you are studying music at York University and martial arts with David Mott. That is wonderful. Also you say that you had an experience of “seeing” music like flowing water through the subway, instead of divided up into beats and bars. That is very wonderful, too.

Next you say that you have moved into the Zen Center but that your parents do not like that. Obligation to your parent is very important. If your center is strong, then your outside condition and situation are no problem. But if your center is not strong, then you cannot help yourself or your parents. If your center is strong then you can understand your parents, minds and you can always give love to them. This means that every week you must visit your parents, only give them good speech and good actions. Don’t talk about Buddhism. If they like wine, then drink wine with them. If they like sports, then do sports with them. If they like music, then do music with them. Then slowly, slowly they will begin to understand your mind and also Zen mind. If you explain Zen to them (“Zen is this or Zen is that”), then they will like your living at the Zen Center less and less. Only give happiness to them. That is very important! That is what obligation to your parents means. Slowly, slowly they come to understand your mind and your practice — then no problem.

So I hope you only go straight – don’t know, try, try, try – which is clear like space. Attain the correct situation and condition, get Enlightenment and save all beings from suffering.

Yours in the Dharma,

S. S.