An Evening with Zen Master Ji Haeng

It has been ten years since the passing of our founding teacher, Zen Master Seung Sahn, and yet the heart of his teaching legacy continues to beat strongly all around the world. Unveiling the great teacher’s memorial at Providence Zen Center evokes poignant memories for me of Dae Soen Sa Nim’s teaching and the lasting effect it had on me personally.

It was auspicious meeting Dae Soen Sa Nim when I did. It was the late 1980s, and I was a five-precepts student traveling regularly to Dharma Zen Center in Los Angeles to sit their bimonthly Yong Maeng Jong Jin. It was there that I had the privilege of meeing Dae Soen Sa Nim, practicing with him, and hearing his marvelous dharma talks.

At that time, Las Vegas was home to one of the premier Asian doctors in the western United States, Dr. Ju Cheon Lee. Whenever Zen Master Seung Sahn came to Los Angeles to teach, he would also make the hour flight to Las Vegas to see Dr. Lee for acupuncture and moxibustion treatments. During his visits to Las Vegas, I would meet Dae Soen Sa Nim and his entourage at the airport, drive them to their hotel, and be their chauffer for the visit. It was also my good fortune to have regular kong-an interviews with Dae Soen Sa Nim in his hotel room.

One day I received a phone call and was asked to meet with Dr. Lee. When I arrived, he gave me a set of keys to his office, a schedule of office hours, and told me that I could use his medical practice facility to offer meditation during the off hours and weekends. Much later I learned that Dae Soen Sa Nim had convinced Dr. Lee that I could be trusted with this responsibility.

Three times a week, for two years until I became a dharma teacher, I moved all the waiting room furniture into the hallway; set up mats, cushions and an altar; conducted practice, and then packed everything up again; and moved the furniture back into the waiting room.

Then, during one of Dae Soen Sa Nim’s visits, while driving him, Mu Shim Sunim (now Zen Master Dae Jin) and Mu Sang Sunim from the airport to the hotel, the conversation drifted to practice at Dr. Lee’s office. I said that there were enough people practicing now that we were thinking of making the leap from Dr. Lee’s office to a new location in an industrial strip mall. But I was concerned: “What if I’m unable to pay the rent?”

Dae Soen Sa Nim listened politely and then turned to Mu Shim Sunim and said, “Tomorrow you call Providence and tell them that if Thom needs extra money for his rent, that they send it to him from my personal account each month.” Even now, after so many years, this brings tears to my eyes. He didn’t know me so well, yet he had no reservations about my intentions. The best part was that I never once needed to call Providence. Dae Soen Sa Nim’s unwavering commitment to the dharma inspired complete try-mind, 100 percent “just do it.” Our beautiful Las Vegas Zen Center today requires a significantly larger monthly overhead, but there are no qualms. Just as in the old days, we “only go straight.”

Another time I was in Los Angeles right before Buddha’s Birthday. Dae Soen Sa Nim sent me over to Tal Mah Sah to help hang prayer lanterns on the ceiling in the Buddha hall. I was given a tall ladder, many lanterns, and some basic instructions. While I worked, all the women were in the kitchen downstairs, laughing and talking as they prepared food for the ceremony.

After a while, one of the bosalnims came back upstairs. I looked down at her from the ladder, smiling to indicate, “Well, what do you think?” Her face turned ashen and her own smile disappeared. She began yelling for the other women to come back upstairs to see what I had done, just as Dae Soen Sa Nim’s car arrived and he walked in the door. One woman pointed at the ceiling and shouted, “Look, look what he has done!” Apparently all the lanterns were hung upside down! They expected Dae Soen Sa Nim to deliver a strong reprimand. Instead he just smiled at me, then turned to the women, dismissing the whole thing by saying, “No problem. This is just Zen style!”

Here again, Dae Soen Sa Nim was able to cut through any attachment to the external trappings of Buddhism, focusing only on a student’s pure intentions and sincere try-mind. On another occasion Dae Soen Sa Nim arrived in Las Vegas on a tight schedule, needing to fly out again the next day. After checking in at the Las Vegas Hilton, we drove immediately to Dr. Lee’s for a moxibustion treatment. Rather than returning to the hotel to rest, we then had to meet Dr. Lee and his family within an hour for dinner at a fancy Chinese restaurant. I mentioned to Dae Soen Sa Nim that one of our Zen center’s practitioners, Ken, had recently suffered a stroke, leaving him paralyzed and deeply frightened by his impairment. His only wish was to have Zen Master Seung Sahn visit him.

Although by now very tired, Dae Soen Sa Nim instructed me to drive first to the medical facility even if it meant arriving late at the restaurant. He presented my friend Ken with a 108-bead mala, encouraged him to keep practicing, and spoke comfortingly to him, holding Ken’s hand throughout the entire visit.

For me this was the most wonderful example of great love and great compassion in the face of need. Despite the distractions of a tight schedule, social obligations and great fatigue, Dae Soen Sa Nim made himself fully available to a suffering person he had never met, giving him his wholehearted attention.

Unveiling our great teacher’s memorial no doubt evokes similar memories for each of us who had the good fortune either to meet Dae Soen Sa Nim personally or to encounter his teaching. Surely many of us recall some time in our life and in our practice when some aspect of Dae Soen Sa Nim’s teaching made all the difference—awakening our great faith in the dharma, sustaining our great determination to follow the bodhisattva path and evoking the great question of our life.
And so, ten years after his passing, we celebrate Dae Soen Sa Nim’s living legacy—his clear direction, tireless dedication to the dharma, his Great Love, Great Compassion, Great Bodhisattva Way.

Zen Master Ji Haeng

Bio: Zen Master Ji Haeng, Thomas Pastor, is founder (1994) and Abbot of the Zen Center of Las Vegas. He began formal study in the Kwan Um School of Zen in the late 1980’s at Dharma Zen Center in Los Angeles. He became a Dharma Teacher in 1994 and received inka from Zen Master Seung Sahn on April 6, 2002. In addition to his Abbot responsibilities in Las Vegas, Zen Master Ji Haeng is also the guiding teacher of the Isthmus Zen Community in Madison, WI. and served as Guiding Teacher in Vancouver, BC. for a period of some years. Ji Haeng has led retreats in Denver, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Fairbanks, Cambridge, South Florida, and Tallahassee and has given kongan interviews in Pengerang, Malaysia and Singapore. For fifteen years he taught an Introduction to Zen Buddhism course at UNLV before retiring from that position. He initiated a zen meditation program at Federal Prison Nellis which was recognized for having the highest participation rate of any religious program at the facility. (The prison was closed in 2006). An alumnus of the famed Berklee College of Music in Boston, Thom has performed with dozens of recording and show business luminaries and continues to play saxophone in Las Vegas at various jazz venues. Having continued his kong an practice with Zen Master Wu Kwang, Richard Shrobe, who he still considers to be his teacher, Ji Haeng received transmission from Wu Kwang Zen Master on April 5, 2014.

Understanding it, doing it

Recently, a friend of mine, while giving a Dharma talk, reminded me of an interesting figure in the history of Zen. This particular Zen Master was famous not only for his clear and simple teaching, but perhaps even more for his unusual lifestyle. Known as “the bird’s nest monk,” he lived in a tree, depending on his followers for help with basic necessities of life. At one time, a great Buddhist scholar from the neighboring province came to visit him. The scholar was an eighty year old monk who was very learned in all the major scriptures and commentaries, and was curious to meet someone who, although not very learned, was even more famous than himself. The scholar asked the Zen Master for his teaching. The “bird’s nest monk” replied: “Don’t do any evil; do good.” The scholar scornfully pointed out that this kind of simplistic teaching is something that even a four year old child understands. To this the Zen Master replied that while it is true that a four year old child understands it, even an eighty year old man cannot do it.

The teaching of Zen is very simple, and very clear. One way to present it is by “don’t do evil; do good.” Unfortunately, just understanding this principle, or even believing and aspiring to it, by itself cannot help us to accomplish it in our everyday endeavors. Practice is essential. The war in the Persian Gulf is a good example of this. In television interviews before the conflict started, both our President and the President of Iraq stated their abhorrence to war and support for peace. The same was true of the people interviewed in the streets, who expressed the hope that conflict would be avoided. But the Americans and the Iraqis saw the dispute very differently. As long as we hold on to our opinions, and our ideas, we will continue to face the dichotomy between our beliefs and our actions. It is only by letting go of “I,” “my,” “me” that a “correct idea”, “correct opinion,” can appear. This means “Bodhisattva idea,” which means an idea for all beings, not just for my family, my country, not even just for people; for animals, for trees, for water, for air, for this whole world. This also means that without the “l,” “my,” “me” there is no separation, no wall between our understanding and our action. The taking away of “l,” “my,” “me” brings us again to the subject of practice. Like any endeavor where we seek some kind of perfection, practice is essential. It is not enough to understand that the selfless state just described is our natural state, our natural heritage. It is not enough to understand that everyone is essentially an enlightened being, a “Buddha.” A final very important step is necessary. We must make that understanding completely ours, which means that we must attain “that.” It is for this reason that Zen Centers, retreats, and teachers are all important. It is for that reason that a regular daily formal practice schedule, as an adjunct to our everyday practice, is important. It is only for the encouragement of the practice that Dharma talks and articles like this one are important.

Finally, does it all make any sense? Then do it.

Make a daily schedule. Make the effort to practice regularly together with other Sangha members. Regularly join an intensive retreat. Make the effort to regularly attend a Dharma talk. All of these activities help your practice, and your participation and your energy help other practitioners.

Transmission Speech

(Striking the table with his Zen stick.)

Do you hear that? Then this stick, this sound, and your mind: Are they the same or different?

KATZ! Listen. In the comer, the fan: “shhhhhhhhhhh.”

An eminent teacher said, “The gate of Zen is very wide. Very easy.” Our teacher says, “Only put down your idea and your opinion, then you become complete.” But, “Put down your idea and your opinion” does not mean that you must lose your eyes.

Two stories:

Once a monk went to do a solo retreat. In the middle of the retreat a great bodhisattva appeared at night and said, “You are a great monk. You have special power. Tomorrow you must go to the nearby ledge. Only believe. Only trust. When you jump, you will be able to fly in the air.” The next morning this monk went to the ledge, jumped, and died.

Once, when other monks in the temple were practicing, a monk was cooking rice in a big pot. At that time, in the steam, a great bodhisattva appeared and said to him, “You are a great monk. You have special power.” Hearing this, the monk took the big ladle with which he was stirring the rice, hit the vision, and shouted, “Why do you dirty the monks’ soup?” WHACK! Later he became a great Zen Master.

If you lose your eyes, you lose your life. Get true eyes, and you get everything. Let’s consider what is True Eye. Watch carefully.

(Striking the table with his Zen stick.)

Long ago Buddha told Shariputra, “No eyes.” So perhaps to get this True Eye, you must lose your eyes. If you have no eyes, however, how do you get True Eye? (Striking the table with his Zen stick.)

Our honored guest here [Supreme Cambodian Patriarch Maha Ghosananda] says that your eyes are always eating. Eating eyes. What kind of eating? I don’t understand. Maybe eating form. Maybe eating color. Then how do they digest? What kind of eye is that? (Striking the table with his Zen stick.)

At a talk, a great Zen Master pointed to his Zen stick and said, “This stick has special eyes. They can see through everything. Even see into your mind.” Maybe that is the True Eye. But what kind of eye is that?

All these are wonderful ideas, but just now how do you get this True Eye? KATZ! Please look. (Lifting the Zen stick above his head)

This stick is brown.

Thank you very much.

This is the only moment we have

Excerpted from a talk at the start of the One Day Retreat on Sunday, June 17, 1990.

One thing that is not always clear to us as we go through our daily routine is that if we look at our life, if we think about it and try to analyze it, we find that there are not so many “important” events — events that have great significance, great meaning. Mostly our life, moment by moment, is composed of very mundane tasks, very small things.

So what happens, and it’s sort of a human fallibility, is that we don’t pay attention to the small things. But the small things are also very important.

I like to tell the story of how an avalanche comes to take place. If we start to trace the cause of an avalanche, we find that often it’s a very minute action. Maybe somebody speaks too loudly and that loosens a small rock and that rock loosens a bigger rock, and so on and so on. Just one small thing that is very insignificant, through a chain of events, comes to be very meaningful and has a big impact.

In a way, it is the same with our practice. We don’t often realize the power of practice. One day, one retreat, just coming here on this Sunday morning and doing what we’re doing. What kind of significance will it have? We don’t understand right now.

What Zen teaches us is not to make those distinctions about whether something is important or not important. But as we go moment by moment, we are asked to pay attention — to give ourselves fully to this moment, one hundred percent. It doesn’t matter whether it is an important moment or not an important moment; it is the only moment we have.

So what I emphasize is that in fact the only thing, the only true thing, that we ever have is this moment. The past we cannot touch. The future we cannot grasp. And if we try to catch the present, it’s already gone.

Sleeping Zen

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind is the title of a widely read Zen book by Suzuki Roshi. Although the book presented Soto Zen teaching as typically practiced in Japan, keeping “beginner’s mind” is an attitude which cuts across any school boundaries. In our school, we may call it keeping “don’t know,” but what is important is not the name but the complete sincerity and openness of a mind in search of the truth. It is the very mind that we had when we first started to practice. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for senior Zen students to fall into a kind of “sleeping Zen” sickness, in which that original mind of inquiry has nearly or completely disappeared.

Not long ago, I suggested to a friend that although he is surely helping many people through his work as a doctor, perhaps he has been neglecting his Zen practice. In response, he said that his work is already his practice. That is very wonderful, indeed, but a vast gulf exists between mere understanding and its actualization. Long ago an eminent teacher said, “the tongue has no bone.” It is possible to say anything, but to do as my friend has stated is not very easy without consistent effort through formal daily practice and regular intensive retreats. Even for one very accomplished, there remains the question of the direction of one’s accomplishment. Is it for me, or is it for others? If for others, then how can I help the most? Perhaps it is by helping their bodies, but not always. It is for that very reason that students seek the supportive atmosphere of a Zen community in which to practice, while others, unable to move into a Zen center, regularly join in retreats or other group practice.

The Buddha taught us the “Middle Way,” eschewing any extreme. This suggests creating a balance between all the various activities in our lives. If we are not quite sure what that balance should look like, that is even more of a reason to pursue practice in all of its forms, in all the moments of our life. Admittedly, that is not always easy to accomplish.

Mr. P’ang, an accomplished layman in eighth century China, whose wife and children were said to have also attained enlightenment, is reputed to have announced to his family: “Difficult, difficult, difficult; it is like trying to scatter ten measures of sesame seed all over a tree!” His wife said in response, “easy, easy, easy; just like touching your feet to the ground when you get out of bed.” Their daughter remarked, “neither difficult, nor easy; on the hundred grass-tips, the Patriarch’s meaning.”

If we understand this exchange correctly, we can find correct practice in our everyday life, and we can also find everyday life in our practice. If we understand this exchange correctly, we can also understand that while all the Fangs shoot sharp arrows, they all miss the bull’s eye with their remarks, How do we attain the Patriarch’s meaning, then? If we can truly attain it, then in each moment we return to the very mind with which we started practicing. Thus we prevent the “senior Zen student syndrome,” and in fact we can shake off the worst case of the “sleeping Zen” sickness.

Sick practicing

According to tradition, there were four things seen by the young Prince Siddhartha which moved him so deeply as to give up his comfortable worldly life. He saw an old man, a sick man, a corpse, and a yogi. The first three of these brought to life for him the notion of impermanence, and the fourth inspired him to the search for the Absolute. Although too young and healthy to directly experience sickness and decrepitude, he nonetheless deeply perceived their role in human existence.

Unfortunately, most of us are not so perceptive, and it is necessary to have some personal experience before we can stop, and evaluate our life, and our direction. I have talked to several people who have had a heart attack, and in many cases heard that it was only after that experience that they started to appreciate each moment of their lives. Several of these people were actually grateful for the heart attack, for it made clear to them that their value system was perverted.

For Zen students being sick is only another opportunity to pursue clarity, and as such it is no different from any other kind of Zen practice. In fact “sickness practicing” is extremely valuable, because even for practicing people it often takes the threat of the loss of their body, or its ability to function well, before they can significantly slow down their desire mind. In the Blue Cliff Record, we have an interesting case about “sick practicing”:

Great Master Ma was unwell. The temple Housemaster asked him, “Master, how has your venerable health been lately?”

The Great Master said, “Sun Face Buddha, Moon Face Buddha.”

To attain the meaning of “Sun Face Buddha; Moon Face Buddha” is to attain “sick practicing.” To attain “sick practicing” is to attain our true self, that which has no sickness or health, no life or death. Then sickness is not our enemy; any sickness from the common cold to AIDS or angina. Any experience provides us with another opportunity to grow in wisdom, love and compassion.

Of Risks and Failures

Eastern Europe is in the midst of a revolution. In comparison, the recent changes in the Kwan Um School of Zen are very tiny stuff indeed. But, for those of us who are accomplishing the Dharma way, especially in Zen Master Seung Sahn’s lineage, our changes have an importance that goes beyond organizational needs and parameters of efficiency. They represent one more step in the transmission of the Dharma to the West and in the emergence of American Buddhism.

The process of change is very interesting in that it provides us with the opportunity for success or failure. This success or failure then either entraps us or becomes the very path to absolute freedom. Most people do not mind success, but are adverse to failure. Yet it is success which often becomes enfettering, and it is the suffering associated with failure that gives us energy for practice and raises the deep questions that send us on the spiritual quest.

It is a very rare person who can learn equally well from happiness and suffering. For most of us, a good situation is a bad situation and a bad situation is a good situation, as Zen Master Seung Sahn often says.

Speaking of success and failure brings to mind the 13th case- of the Mu Mun Kwan. The case reads as follows:

Duk Sahn Carrying His Bowls

One day Duk Sahn came into the Dharma room carrying his bowls. Seol Bong, housemaster, said, “Old Master, the bell has not yet been rung and the drum has not been struck. Where are you going carrying your bowls?”

Duk Sahn returned to the Master’s Room. Seol Bong told Am Du, head monk. Am Du said, “Great Master Duk Sahn does not understand the last word.”

When Duk Sahn heard of this, he became very angry and sent for his head monk, Am Du. “Do you not approve of me?” he demanded.

Then Am Du whispered in the Master’s ear. Duk Sahn was relieved.

The next day on the rostrum, making his Dharma speech, Duk Sahn was different from before. Am Du went to the front of the Dharma Room, laughed loudly, clapped his hands, and said, “Great joy! The Master has understood the last word! From now on, no one can check him.”

There are three questions from this story:

1. “The Zen Master did not understand the last word.” What was the last word? (“Last word” means correct situation.)

2. What did Am Du whisper in the Master’s ear?

3. How was the Master’s speech different from before?

If we understand these three questions, then we understand our correct situation, relationship and function. This kong-an is a “mistake kong-an.” Zen Master Duk Sahn made a small error in coming to the meal before the signal was given. His big error was in not responding correctly to the housemaster. The matter could have been ended right then. This raises a fourth question: If you were Duk Sahn, how would you have responded to the housemaster?

It is a very interesting and profound matter. If we truly attain this, then for us any mistake is no problem. Even a mistake can be used to help others, to teach them, and to open their minds.

The more rapid the pace of our lives, the more rapid the pace of change and the bigger our opportunity for failure. It is very tempting to try to be correct at all times and to not take any risks, yet our vows call on us to save all beings from suffering, a risky proposition, with endless opportunities for failure and countless chances for mistakes.

Contrary to the popular superstition that Buddhism is a “passive contemplation of emptiness” (to paraphrase the Pope), our vows and meditation are a creative unfolding that continuously strips away “l, my, me” and allows our true nature to function for the benefit of others. In this way, our practice, our lives, and even our failures are for the sake of others. That is the true vow.

Practicing is essential

Recently I glanced through a book written by a spiritual teacher. The main point seemed to be that all religious teachings and practices are totally irrelevant because everyone already has “It.”

This is almost like Zen teaching, except for the fact that this understanding alone will not help anyone’s life. It is very important to realize this understanding in your life. For that, practicing is essential. Our practicing is itself not special; practicing means to keep a clear mind and help others.

While there are many approaches to practicing, practicing with a sangha – together action – is the most powerful. It forces us to confront our limitations, which in turn helps us to overcome our limitations. In the Heart Sutra it says, “The Bodhisattva depends on Prajna Paramita and the mind is no hindrance; without any hindrance no fears exist.”

This “no fear” is our human heritage. If you like this, then throw away all thinking; throw away all liking and disliking; throw away even the most profound understanding.

Then, what is this moment’s correct job?

The Practice of Together Action and Buddhist Wisdom

One of the most important roles of Providence Zen Center is its residential training program. In the Orient, where the monastic tradition has dominated Zen, residential training has historically been the main reason for the existence of Zen centers and monasteries. While Zen in the West is undergoing a phase of adaptation and experimentation, residential training is still an important part of the practice.

To live in a community such as Providence Zen Center is not easy. There is a structure and a set of rules that must be followed. There is less privacy than one would have living outside such a community. There are people living in the community or visiting it with whom one would have nothing to do if given the choice. There is sometimes food one does not like, and often a lack of food that one likes. There is the “getting up in the morning,” one of the greatest problems facing a Center resident. And there are other obstacles to a life of leisure.

There are, of course, pluses to being a resident. There is a structure and a set of rules that help us put down our checking mind and help our discipline. With less privacy, there is more openness and less need to hide behind one’s image. There are people with whom one learns to deal correctly, notwithstanding feelings of like or dislike. There is the opportunity to learn to appreciate food, and not be hindered by its taste. There is the joy and energy of getting up in the morning and practicing with the rest of the community.

To be a resident in a Zen community like Providence Zen Center is to let go completely of one’s opinions. This is something which is impossible to do without the practice of “together action.” Only by acting together with others do we discover the boundaries set up by our habits, our prejudices, our likes and dislikes – in other words, our karma. Only by experiencing our boundaries can we let go. Only by letting go can we allow our natural wisdom to grow.

While it is possible to practice together action without living at a Zen center, the Zen center is an expedient way to do this in the context of a formal practice situation. Without the structure of a community, many of us find it too tempting to relax our discipline and to hold onto our ideas.

Even if one is very disciplined and does not hold strong opinions, there is a very good reason for living in a Zen center. That reason is the wider community the center serves, and the other residents who benefit from the support of a strong housemember. Zen Master Seung Sahn calls it “potato rubbing” practice, after a method of washing potatoes in a pot so they rub the dirt off each other, rather than washing them one by one.

When the Buddha was dying, his student Ananda was upset and worried what would happen to all the students when the teacher was gone. The Buddha told him that already the students had Dharma, and, very importantly, they had each other.

When one’s life situation and obligations allow one to live in a Zen center, it is important to take advantage of that opportunity, even if only for a limited period of time.

Finally, Zen center life is not special. Un Mun Zen Master once said, “The world is vast and wide; why do you put on a seven-fold robe at the sound of a bell?” This question relates not only to temple life, but, if we understand it correctly, it relates to every one of our daily activities.