Good Feeling Suffering, Bad Feeling Suffering

This exchange is from a talk at the Introduction to Zen Workshop on September 9, 1990.

Question: What do you mean by suffering? I read somewhere that suffering isn’t really what one thinks it is.

Wu Bong Zen Master: There are many kinds of suffering: body pain, emotional pain, mental pain. Sometimes people are happy but this happiness is also a kind of suffering. For example, someone takes some cocaine and it makes them feel very good, this is also suffering. The root of this happiness is suffering. So, suffering does not mean just bad feeling.

Sometimes, we have good feeling suffering, sometimes we have bad feeling suffering. Someone may be very happy, because he or she is attached to something. This kind of happiness already has the seeds of suffering. The seeds of suffering come from our attachment, our expectations, our wanting something from a situation. If you have, “I, my, me” you are suffering whether you know it or not.

Q: Then does Zen mean not to think in terms of “I, my, me,” and suffering will go away?

WBZM: If you attain Zen then you will get more suffering. If you do not want suffering, you shouldn’t try Zen, because if you are practicing, then everyone’s suffering becomes yours. Then there is no “my suffering,” but still there is suffering in the world.

We talk often about compassion. Many of us want to become more compassionate, but we do not always understand what compassion is. Compassion is not some kind of a feeling. Compassion is not just feeling bad for someone or feeling pity for someone. Feeling bad for someone who is hungry will not fill that person’s stomach. Compassion means moment to moment, what do you do? When somebody is hungry, what can you do?

For example, ten years ago I was very sick and had to stay in a hospital. My doctors thought that I would soon die, so all of my friends worried about me. Among the people who came to visit me from the Zen Center was one person who was very emotional. I was exhausted after each of her visits because I had to spend a lot of my energy on cheering her up.

To make it more clear, consider a teacher’s job. Being a human being, it is not unusual for a teacher to have favorites among his or her students, and others that are perhaps even disliked. The teacher’s job, however, is to encourage, compliment, and give good grades to students when they deserve it, whether one likes them or not. Also, to give correct grades and good feedback to students who perform poorly, even if they are one’s favorites. Another name for this is compassion.

So finally, compassion simply means keeping one’s correct situation, correct relationship, and correct function, moment to moment.

Ecology of Mind

Adapted from a dharma talk given at the Buddha’s Birthday Ceremony at Providence Zen Center on April 9, 1990.


Long ago a great man came, saved all beings, and left. His coming and his going continues to teach us to this day.


Long ago, a great man said, “The True Way has no coming, and no going.” To this day, this teaching is saving us.


We too, have come into this world, have gathered here today, and will soon depart. Then, in our coming and going, how do we attain the great man’s way of coming and going? How do we attain the great man’s way of not coming and not going?


Winter has gone north. Spring has come in from the south.

Recently, Zen Master Seung Sahn attended an important meeting in Moscow, and I had the good fortune of joining him for this trip. The meeting was called the Global Forum of Parliamentary and Spiritual Leaders for Human Survival. Its primary subject was our relationship with this world, how we are destroying this world, and how we human beings can survive.

The key issue of this meeting was ecology. According to Webster’s, ecology is that branch of biology which deals with the relationship of living things and the environment.

What is our relationship to our environment? That is a question which the Buddha’s teaching addresses very clearly. In Buddha’s time there were not the same kind of problems with the pollution of air, water, and ground. The Buddha, for that reason, did not talk very specifically about those kinds of pollution. He taught us a slightly different kind of ecology, a more basic and more comprehensive kind of ecology.

This teaching is so fundamental that not only is biological ecology a natural consequence of this teaching, but so is ethical ecology, spiritual ecology, and finally through the teaching of the patriarchs the ecology of moment-to-moment correct situation, correct relationship, correct function. If we understand this way correctly, then we can understand all relationships, including our relationship to our environment, which means not only ground, water, air, sky, trees, plants, and animals, but also each other.

In view of the Buddha’s teaching, a forum for human survival is a mistake. This goal already separates human beings from the rest of this world. It is not enough to love this world so that human beings can survive. That is not true love, because true love is unconditional. In fact, at the forum, many speakers talked about love. Then what is love?

In China, long ago, Zen Master Nam Cheon came into the dharma room of his temple, where several hundred monks were fighting about a cat. Nam Cheon picked up the cat, and demanded of the suddenly silent congregation, “Give me one word. If not, I will kill this cat!” Everyone was silent, so finally the Zen Master killed the cat. Later that day when he told his student Joju about this incident, Joju removed his slippers, put them on top of his head, and walked out of the room. Zen Master Nam Cheon said, “If you had been there, the cat could have been saved.”

This kong-an is about love. When Nam Cheon challenged his students, he wanted to see if they loved the cat, or only desired the cat. Today, I ask you: If you had been there when the Zen Master demanded one word, how would you have saved the cat? And, what is the meaning of Joju’s action? If these questions become clear to you, then love becomes clear. To attain this kong-an means to attain true love. To attain true love is to become ecologically correct in our relationship with the environment.

There is a branch of science which is relatively new. It is the study of chaos. While for us the world “chaos” implies a state of utter confusion, for the scientist the word “chaos” has a very specific meaning involving an equation with a number of possible solutions at any one moment. Equations describing turbulence, meteorological phenomena, or even stock market behavior are examples of “chaotic” equations.

What is very interesting is that scientists have found that in any kind of a chaotic system there is some order. They have also found that in many systems that up to now were thought to be very orderly and very predictable, some chaotic behavior can be found at times. That’s not so much of a surprise for the followers of the Eastern sages.

The Korean flag is a good example of this. It is basically a yin/yang symbol. The yang side has a little bit of the yin color. The yin side has a little bit of the yang color. yin gives birth to yang, yang gives birth to yin. Chaos gives birth to order, and vice versa. This is because we live in a world of opposites, and if you take away one opposite, the other would not exist. If you take away man, then the word woman becomes meaningless. If you take away dark, then there can not be light. If you take away ignorance, then there can not be enlightenment.

In this world of opposites, how do we find our correct situation, correct relationship, correct function? To understand this world of opposites is to respect all of nature. It becomes foolish to dislike the night, for without it the day would not exist. To respect nature is to give up the notion of ownership of nature, of ownership of this world. To not treat this world as “my” world is to realize that it belongs to all life.

Our job then becomes more clear. Our life is not only from our parents. The ground, the water, the air, the sun and the moon, all support our life; in fact they give us our life. They are all our parents. Just as we have an obligation to our parents, this obligation extends to the whole world. That is the Buddha’s teaching. That is Zen Master Seung Sahn’s teaching. That is our true nature’s teaching. In other words, the fundamental thing is not so much polluting the environment, but polluting our mind.

Buddha taught something very simple. He taught how to deal with anger, desire and ignorance: three major pollutants. If we are able to take away this pollution, then the other kinds of pollution will also disappear. Without taking away this pollution, it is not possible to attain the true harmony with nature. Without harmony with nature it is not possible to avoid harming the environment.

In science class in elementary school, one learns what happens if we connect two containers, one full of hot water, and another one full of cold water. When the containers are joined and the water can freely mix, very soon, even without stirring, the temperature will be uniform. The hot one becomes cooler, and the cold one becomes warmer. The hot water has more thermal energy. This energy seeks a level where it is equalized, seeks a kind of balance.

We observe that everywhere in nature. At the forum some people said that this world is unbalanced. But, the world is always balanced. All of the environmental problems result in death, sickness, hunger. This is only correct. This is part of the balance equation. This is human beings’ bad energy dispersing throughout our world container. That is also Buddha’s teaching. Buddha taught us balance – in our life, how to make correct balance; in our mind, how to make correct balance; in our dealings with our family, with our friends, with the whole world, with the animals, the trees, the air, how to make correct balance.

At the forum, people talked about various environmental problems and suggested some solutions. Zen Master Seung Sahn also had a chance to talk. What he talked about was the teaching of karma. Every result in this world comes from a cause. Then any disease has a primary cause. It is very important to change the primary cause, then any sickness, any karma can be fixed, can be changed. To do that it is necessary for all of us to put down our opinions, our understanding, our “I, my, me.” Zen Master Seung Sahn by saying this, in effect, asked everyone to keep a clear mind. This means everyone can get dharma energy. Then this dharma energy disperses throughout the whole world.

This teaching is very simple, and very clear. But practicing people know that while very simple, this teaching is not always easy to carry out. It is one of a Zen student’s great sicknesses to judge one’s own practice, and to question one’s own ability to make the required effort.

Sometimes so many hindrances appear in our life, in our practice, that it is tempting to indulge in self-doubt and become paralyzed. The ecological problems confronting us appear to be overwhelming. The mental pollution, for those who attempt some kind of practice, is often more overwhelming still. How can we even begin to help this world? One of the most important teachings I received from Zen Master Seung Sahn is that there are two kinds of mind. There’s a mind that says “I can,” and there’s a mind that says “I cannot.” If one thinks “I cannot,” then one cannot. If somebody thinks “I can,” then it’s possible. Best of all, just do it. Every moment of our life the Buddha continues to give us the great present, his Dharma. The best present we offer in return is to apply this teaching to our life. Then “do it” correct balance; “do it” harmony; “do it” true love; “do it” moment-to-moment correct situation, correct relationship, correct function. Then our life is no longer ours, but belongs to the whole universe. Then ecologically correct life is not something special. It is simply the correct function of our true nature. This is indeed the great person’s way. Can we attain it right now?


If this sound is clear, then the whole universe is clear. Also the Great Way is meticulously clear. Then, where is the Great Way?


Pointing to the dharma room exit doors.

Through these doors to the dining room.

Thank you very much.

Desires and Aspirations

Question: Can we really help the world? Look at hunger, for example.

Zen Master Wu Bong: Yes, we can help. Consider hunger. We have hunger all over this world. Where does this hunger come from? It doesn’t come from economic problems. It doesn’t come because there isn’t enough food in the world to feed the hungry. It comes from the mind that wants something, from the mind that is holding something. Hunger comes from that mind.

These days we often talk about ecology. Buddha didn’t explicitly talk about ecology, but in a way Buddha always talked about ecology. What kind of ecology? He talked about the mind. He talked about anger, desire, and ignorance. Those are three kinds of pollution. If we take away these three kinds of pollution, then this world’s hunger will disappear. Not only hunger, but any kind of problem. So this world needs you; everybody must practice and attain the true self.

Question: We all have dreams or ideals. Desires seem to come in at least two kinds. Some are low class, like “I want that cheesecake.” Others are high class, such as, “I want to see peace in this world,” or “I want to see my family flourish.” Is there any difference between these?

Zen Master Wu Bong: We talk about desire, and we talk about aspiration. They are a little different. How can we help this world? Every morning at the Zen Center we recite the Four Great Vows. The first vow says, “Sentient beings are numberless, we vow to save them all.” We call that an aspiration, or a great vow. On the other hand, desire means wanting something for me. You said, for example, “my family will thrive.” That is my family. Why only my family?

That is desire mind. But, “May all families thrive” is an aspiration. Not only for human families: tree families, dog families, cat families . . . any kind of family. That has no “I, my, me.”

If one says, “This enlightenment business sounds good; I want enlightenment,” that is desire mind. This mind doesn’t even understand enlightenment, so why does it want it? But, if one says, “I don’t understand my true self; what am I?”, then this question takes away desire mind. So, if you cultivate desire, then desire will grow. If you cultivate great question, then desire disappears.

Commentary on Hyang Eom’s “Up a Tree”

Adapted from comments made following a talk at Providence Zen Center in December, 1989.

The Hua Yen Sutra, that the last speaker talked about, like other sutras, is a collection of teaching techniques that the Buddha used. When Paul finished his introductory remarks he hit the floor and said, “Wall is white.” Then he said, “That’s my dharma.” This point is really the essence of the Hua Yen Sutra, which means that our practice and all sutras finally come to one thing only … what is our correct situation, correct relationship and correct function at this moment, any given moment of our life.

Our correct situation means our work situation, our speech situation, our eye-ear-nose-tongue-body-and-mind situation. Our correct relationship is not only to other people, but also our correct relationship to the air, the water, to the ground. Out of all this our correct function appears which means that our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind can function without any hindrance. While we talk about correct situation, correct relationship and correct function, they are in fact inseparable.

One of the kong-ans that we have in the Mu Mun Kwan is the situation that was set up by Zen Master Hyang Eom: “It is like a man hanging from a tree. He is holding to a branch by his teeth. His bands and his legs are all tied, so he cannot grasp another branch, and he cannot grasp the trunk of the tree. Then just at that time somebody comes and asks him “Why did Bodhidharma come to China?” If he does not answer, he is avoiding his duty and will be killed. If he opens his mouth to answer, he will fall off the tree and also die.” Then if you are in this tree how “Do you stay alive? It’s a very difficult situation. This is a very interesting kind of a kong-an because any understanding cannot help. Any understanding which we have will fail. We cannot do anything. Cannot move hands, cannot use mouth, but there’s one thing … just one thing that’s possible.

Zen means to attain our true self. To attain our true self means that truth can function in our life. To let truth function in our life is not to attach to life or death. Without attaching to life or death, we allow love and compassion to naturally function in our life, which means that our obligation to this world is always very clear. We say life, but life is not life. Our body has life and death, but our true life, our true self, has no life nor death. If we can let truth function in our life, then even this kind of a difficult situation is not so difficult. Then even in such a difficult situation our correct situation, correct relationship and correct function appear, which means we attain true life. Holding on to either life or death, we are like walking corpses. Not holding on to life and death, we are truly alive.

The situation that Zen Master Hyang Eom set up as a Dharma gate for us may appear somewhat exotic. If we examine our lives however, we may be able to see this situation all too often. In fact, any time that we create and hold on to some duality, we are like this man in the tree. I remember some foolish arguments I had with my parents, whom I tried to convince of the correctness of my ways. It was only when I gave up such foolish notions and simply did what was necessary, that our relationship became very intimate, very alive. Maybe that happened to some of you, maybe in some different way.

What this kong-an does is challenge us to find the true way by setting up a seemingly impossible situation. Indeed, it challenges us to the utmost, where it is not enough to be clever. How do we work then with a situation like that? The way to work with it is to leave it alone; only keep don’t know. If your practice is mantra practice then only try mantra. If you’re keeping a big question, “What am I?” or “What is this?”, only keep big question, only keep don’t know. Then the kong-an will work by itself One day the kong-an will appear vivid and completely translucent. The correct response will be there. But, it is completely redundant to want something vivid, or something translucent, or something that you do not have in this very moment. To do that is to be lost in, the dream world, to lose one’s life.

“The man hanging from a branch” kong-an, or any kong-an, is not so important. Most important is to wake up. Be alive! Then, what are you doing right now?

Buddha’s Enlightenment Day Poem – 1993

An eminent teacher said
“Enlightenment and unenlightenment
are merely empty name.”

The Buddha saw a star, got enlightenment.
What did he get?

Did you see a star?
What did you get?
Where is your enlightenment star?
In the sky?
In Hollywood?
On top of a Christmas tree?
Up, down; north, south; east, west?
Always in front of you?
Do you see it?
Tell me, tell me!!!


Bright stars lighten up the night sky.
Bright faces lighten up the dharma room

Become an Expert… Or Become a Buddha

From a talk by Zen Master Wu Bong

Question: Sometimes I feel complete, and everything is clear, but then at other times I lose that, and no longer understand. What can you say about this?

Zen Master Wu Bong: Being complete is not dependant on your feeling. Everyone is complete, you are all Buddha. Does that help your life? You have everything! I don’t have anything that you don’t have. Buddha doesn’t have anything you don’t have. Does hearing that help your life? No? So any understanding, even the most wonderful understanding, cannot help you. You are already complete, but until you realize that for yourself; until you become intimate with that; until you digest that understanding so that it becomes yours, it has no power to help you. Maybe sometimes it will make a nice feeling: “I am already complete. I am Buddha. Ahhh . . . ” But feelings change, so you will not remember that you are complete. Understanding that and attaining that are very different. So practicing is necessary.

Q: How can one be Buddha and not be Buddha?

ZMWB: I ask you, what is Buddha?

Q: I have no idea.

ZMWB: That’s correct. That’s Buddha.

Q: But what about people who don’t know that they don’t know?

ZMWB: Those people are the experts. So you have a choice in this life; you can become an expert, or you can not know, and become Buddha. Again this brings us to practicing. No matter what anybody says and no matter how well anything can be explained; it is finally all up to you. The wonderful thing about Buddha’s teaching is that Buddha taught us not to accept something just because a wise person or an expert said it. Don’t accept something because a holy book says that it’s true, or because of tradition. You must find the truth for yourself. Everyone has that capacity. You came to a dharma talk, but no matter how well things are explained and how appealing it may be to you, that alone has no power to change your life. There is a vast gulf between understanding what is being said and actually being able to do it. That’s why having a big question is very important. In Buddhism we talk about bodhicitta. Bodhicitta is propensity toward bodhi or enlightenment. Everybody has that. That question is your bodhicitta. That is the power that brought you here. Bodhicitta is called the seed of enlightenment by some Buddhist scholars, so your seed has already sprouted. Next, you must cultivate it; that cultivation we call practicing. If you take care of this question, then it can grow up, grow up, grow up. Then one day, this flower can bloom. Then you can say, (slapping his knee) “Ah ha.” This “Ah ha” is not the Buddha’s, is not Zen Master Seung Sahn’s, is not Zen Master Wu Bong’s, it is all yours. So everybody must find that, because this world needs you.

Zen Master Wu Bong (Jacob Perl)

Zen Master Wu Bong (Jacob Perl) is the head teacher of the Kwan Um School of Zen of Europe. Before meeting Zen Master Seung Sahn and becoming his first American student in 1972, he practiced with Suzuki Roshi at the San Francisco Zen Center, and spent a year practicing with Tarthang Tulku atthe Tibetan Nyingmapa Meditation Center in Berkeley, California. He was born in Poland, and speaks Polish fluently. In 1978 he helped Zen Master Seung Sahn establish the first Zen center in Poland. In 1984 he was given teaching authority and soon thereafter started to teach regularly in the United States and Europe. He has a degree in mathematics from Brown University and is married to Zen Master Bon Yo. They founded and live at the Paris Zen Center, and they have two children.

Zen and Psychotherapy

From a Dharma talk given at Dwight Chapel, Yale University

Q: An issue rather than a question has come up lately in discussions about Zen meditation practice and psychotherapy which seems to be a different way of getting at the same things. Do I just sit with something and let it dissolve or is it better to sit and talk about it in a psychotherapy situation?

A: People have often asked me this question. Sometimes in the middle of a retreat, this question has come up. I wondered at first if they were asking just because I’m a psychotherapist. Were they just indulging their intellectual curiosity in the middle of a retreat? It felt counterproductive to me if that was the reason. But I began to realize later on that the question really, in some cases, was: What is the place of my emotional life in Zen practice? Or, is there any place for my emotional life in Zen practice? Of course, practice may have different kinds of leanings or attitudes connected to it. For instance, there is a fierce approach in Zen practice which is about stripping something away and having the courage to have the props knocked out from under you in order to face certain things. This is to fiercely face the rawness of things without any props. On the other hand, some people approach Zen practice from the viewpoint of acceptance, melting, letting go, warm embracing, and appreciation. That has a different flavor and attitude. The direction of the practice is the same in either case, but the nuance is stated differently.

If someone does not have enough confidence in their direction, and in what they need and how they should proceed, they are influenced by messages such as fierceness or openness or warmth. One teacher may say, “Take hold of the big question fiercely and hold it as if your life depended on it. There is nothing more important than this one big question, ‘What am I?’ or ‘Who am I?’ Grab hold of that and do not let go.” That is the samurai-like attitude of fierceness. On the other hand, another teacher might say, “As soon as you raise the question, already that is enlightened mind.” just let yourself be. What am I? Don’t know. That is it!

Zen practice can be therapeutic, but it is not the same as therapy. A lot of therapies deal with shifting around attitudes, whereas Zen practice primarily heads toward wiping everything clean and seeing what is. Sometimes, people need the help of a therapist to talk things out. If what they are holding is very subtle and specific to a “set-up,” a specific limiting way of being in the world, then they might need someone fairly skilled in spotting “setups” and in helping someone to let go at a pace that is workable and reasonably comfortable. They might also need help in facing why they even feel the need for that set-up! That is what psychotherapy is about. There are many kinds of psychotherapy just as there are many different strains of Zen practice.

Q: In the Kwan Um School of Zen, we emphasize that Zen is everyday mind, nothing special. But there seems to be a style of Zen that tries to encourage profound enlightenment. Could you comment on the difference?

A: What is profound enlightenment?

Q: I don’t know but other schools seem to emphasize finding enlightenment. That I do not understand. Can you comment on it?

A: When you get out of bed and put your foot on the floor, that is the first moment of enlightenment. Then you go to the bathroom, and you look at yourself in the mirror. That is the second moment of enlightenment. (That is what you call a “rude awakening”!) Then there is the brushing your teeth moment of enlightenment. That is, be careful, and polish, polish, polish. At my age the samadhi of tooth brushing becomes very important! But that is no more important than the next step which becomes the samadhi of putting the tea kettle on. I heard that the poet Gary Snyder wanted to visit Japan during the Korean War, and the Japanese officials gave him a hard time. They wanted him to prove that he was an American poet, so he sat down and wrote a poem for the immigration officer:

Making a cup of green tea
I stop the war.

I believe that this poem served as his passport into Japan. So, the samadhi of putting the kettle on is also very important!

We emphasize the moment of profound enlightenment, but every experience is an opportunity for profound enlightenment. If every experience is profound enlightenment, then why use the word “profound” anymore? That is like adding a head on top of your head, or, as the old Chinese Zen Masters used to say, it’s like painting feet on a snake. Even though you may think that a snake looks as though it might need feet, it does not! Likewise, the word “profound” originally is not necessary. It is extra.

The Lotus Sutra stresses the point of skillful lying. Throughout its three hundred or more pages, there are several parables in which the main character tells a lie, or tricks the people into doing something that they would not ordinarily do. There is a parable of the skillful physician whose sons took some of his powerful medicine when he was away. When he returned, they were all rolling on the floor poisoned, and he made a remedy. Some of them took the remedy quite readily and returned to normal. His other children refused to take it. “I don’t like the smell of it. I don’t like the color of it.” They are in delusional toxicity! They think that it is important that it smells bad or that they do not like the color! He told them, “Children, I am going to die soon. I am leaving. I have some last business to finish. I leave the remedy here with you.” He went away and sent a messenger back who told the children, “Your father has died.” He was not dead. So that was a lie and he was breaking one of the five precepts. Hearing this lie about their father’s death, they were shocked and in anguish. They felt that they should take the medicine of their father. So, they took it, and then he returned. Likewise, the phrase “profound enlightenment” or “satori” or “kensho,” or any of these phrases are big lies. But they are skillful lies. If people are stubborn as a mule, you have to beat them and then they practice! Or if others like candy, candy is offered. “Enlightenment” is only a teaching word. “Enlightenment,” that’s bullshit. “Profound enlightenment,” that’s elephant shit! “Deep, profound enlightenment,” that’s rhinoceros shit! But it helps some people, so it is medicine. The problem is that if you get too attached to the notion of it, or think that practice has to always be fierce and hard and difficult in order to get some moment of profound breakthrough, then that stands in your way like a big iron gate.

In the Zen tradition there are sayings like, “A golden chain still binds,” or “Gold dust in the eyes, still blinds you.” If you pick up dust off the floor and rub it in your eyes, it will blind you. The same with gold dust; but it’s worth a lot of money! The Buddha in our Providence Zen Center is gold leafed. That means that it has gold dust all over it. Someone decided that the Buddha needed to be cleaned and they started to rub it. Some of the gold dust came off. They had to replace it and it was quite expensive. Expensive enlightenment! So gold dust is more valuable than floor dust, but get either of them in your eyes and you still cannot see. If you become too attached to some notion of enlightenment, then that also blinds you.

Sometimes hard training practice is the correct medicine. Sometimes easy does it, or just let it be is the correct medicine. Sometimes not talking about it at all is the correct medicine. just making a cup of tea to stop the war is the correct medicine. Talk about profound enlightenment is a particular technique. So is telling someone that they have to sit down and dig into the kong-an and experience it. While you may gain something valuable from it, it is a mistake to think that that is the only true way of practice. That can become deeply problematic.

“Zen and Psychotheraphy” is excerpted from Open Mouth Already a Mistake (Primary Point Press, 1997).

Your Inner Gyroscope

From a talk at Providence Zen Center on August 6, 2000

First, congratulations to all of you who took precepts today. And second, congratulations to all the rest of us who reaffirmed our commitment to these precepts once again during this ceremony.

These precepts provide us with something of a roadmap, leading to an ethical, moral life. In our world today, following that kind of life — while declining to resort to some rigid fundamentalism or to hedonism — can be tricky. One bit of advice on how to meet that challenge was offered by the Sixth Patriarch when giving instruction to a monk. He said, simply, “Don’t make good and bad.”

“Don’t make good and bad,” of course, does not mean there is no good and bad.  “Don’t make good and bad” means don’t construct some idea of good and bad in your mind, then paste it on the nose of the situation in front of you — and then fabricate some story to substantiate how you are going to react to your construction. That becomes a big problem. If you don’t make good and bad, if you don’t make anything, and if you return to [hits floor with Zen stick] this original empty mind, then this empty mind will perceive what is correct in that situation, based on what appears in front of you in the moment, and based on time and place and the nature of your relationship to that event and person and situation.

And that means finding your inner gyroscope, so you can hold your balance moment by moment by moment and act correctly. If, fundamentally, you are coming from a place of cherishing all existence, while feeling your connection with each and every existence you encounter, then that gyroscope will appear. As we practice it appears more and more frequently.

However, what also appears is our sticky areas. While some karma immediately [hits floor with Zen stick] goes, there is also sticky karma, which reappears and reappears and reappears. It behooves us all to be patient with ourselves and to look into that sticky karma and see what we are holding.

Some time ago I attended a talk by the Dalai Lama. He, too, suggested the need to practice and progress, while recognizing that occasional backsliding is part of the process. The talk was given at a Mongolian monastery in New Jersey. This monastery, sitting up on a hill, has been there for a long time. There were probably a couple of thousand people there, mostly Tibetan Buddhist students, all sitting on the grass and listening to the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama’s subject, Vajra sattva purification, was one of special meaning to that audience.

I’m going to report on just a bit of his talk, so you get an idea of how it went, because the part that relates directly to my subject actually appears in his comment after the talk. The process, he said, begins by visualizing this particular Buddhist deity. You could visualize the deity in front of you, up in the air above your head, sitting on your head, or on your head then moving down into your body and heart. It doesn’t matter. Next you were to do a particular kind of breathing exercise, visualizing yourself taking in truth and light, then breathing out black smoke representing all your impurities. However, he added, if you were practicing the kind of yoga where you were conserving energy, you were not to breathe out, but to imagine a fire lit inside your very being, a fire that consumed all your impurities. After his talk, we all chanted this mantra together; it was very long.

Finally, the Dalai Lama thanked everyone for coming. Then he said — this was something that surprised and delighted that whole audience, and it is what brings me to my point — “Now that you have all purified yourself with the Vajra sattva mantra, please go out and do some more mischief.” My recollection of his exact words may not be altogether correct, but you get the idea. He, too, was recognizing that even though his audience had just chanted a lengthy mantra — even as you have just taken precepts — the process is not complete. We do not always live up to our own highest intentions.

Bodhidharma said, “Fall down seven, get up eight.” So, just as you must know when the precepts are open and when they are closed, and when to keep them and when to break them, also know when to forgive yourself. Taking the precepts is an important step. Thank you for being here.

What is Your Original Face?

The word “recovery,” according to the dictionary, means regaining something that was either stolen or lost. From a spiritual point of view, what you are actually recovering is your perception of something that you already possess. The thief is yourself, disabling you from seeing what you already possess.

Case number ten in the Mu Mun Kwan, “Cheong Sae is poor,” illustrates this idea: A monk, Cheong Sae, approached Zen Master Chosan and said, “Master! I am poor and destitute. Please help me!” Zen Master Chosan, without hesitation, just called out the monk’s name: “Cheong Sae!” And the monk, without thinking, responded, “Yes, sir!” Zen Master Chosan then said, “It is as if you have already drunk three bottles of the best vintage wine in China, and yet act as if you have not even wet your lips.”

One way of talking about this story is in terms of “emptiness” and “fullness.” The monk presents himself as “poor and destitute,” having nothing. Translation: I have emptied myself completely of words, ideas, opinions, and even a feeling of self. I am completely empty. In that sense, this statement is also a Dharma Combat challenge.

Chosan’s response, “Chong Sae!”, and the monk’s reply “Yes, sir!”, are both immediate and non-conceptual. Thus, the monk throws away the last vestige of holding. In spite of his presentation of himself as “empty,” the monk was still holding one thing — this idea of emptiness. This holding disappears in an act of spontaneous response: calling/answering, inside/outside, myself/universe all come together in a complete experience of fullness, or healing. Total emptiness was a prerequisite for his awakening.

Basho’s famous enlightenment haiku points us in the same direction. Sitting by a pond, he is asked by the Zen Master to give something of his own words, rather than the regurgitated words of the Buddhas and patriarchs. Basho is stuck. He sits there for a long time in a sense of stillness or vacancy. All of a sudden, a frog jumps in the pond. Basho’s mind opens up and he says: “Still pond, frog jumps in. Splash!” Still pond, or emptiness, comes to life in the momentary perception of “Splash!”, just as it does in Chong Sae’s “Yes, sir!” Emptiness and fullness are then two sides of the same coin.

If we say, like Chong Sae, that we don’t have anything, even that idea of not having anything must be taken away. And it’s taken away by just perceiving clearly the sounds of this world, moment by moment. That’s why the Bodhisattva of Compassion is represented as the one who hears the sounds of the world. Compassion manifests as hearing with one’s whole being, without hesitancy, without ideas, without holding.

Another famous Zen story is about two monks who were traveling together in the rainy season. They came to a small creek, overflowing with heavy rains. There they saw a lovely young girl in a silk kimono, unable to cross. One of the monks offered to carry her across on his shoulder, and did so. The monks walked on silently for a long time, until the other monk could not restrain himself and said, “We have precepts about not touching a woman. How could you so blatantly carry that girl on your shoulders?” The first monk replied, “Oh! I put that girl down a long time ago. Why are you still carrying her around?”

Substance abuse and addiction are usually associated with holding – the holding of particular images and their concomitant feelings. This is where a lot of the current “inner child” work is being done. When a person is holding on to some internal image of a bad or abandoned or rejected child, it has become part of their idea of who they are, part of their self-concept. The strategies to reverse this syndrome – to heal the individual – include “re-parenting” the inner child by visualizing a more positive kind of relationship.

In psychotherapy there is also a focusing on what might be the person’s need to keep holding onto this negative imagery. Are they fearful of what growing beyond these images brings? Or, are they holding onto some sense of “a bad parent or bad family is better than no parent and no family” and the fear of giving the whole thing up?

The Alcoholics Anonymous approach to the same problem is very interesting because it makes use of the paradox of power and powerlessness. In AA and other twelve-step programs, people publicly state: “I admit my powerlessness over alcohol” (or over drugs, food, etc.) But in this admission of powerlessness and the declaration that they are giving themselves over to a higher power, a certain sense of control or power emerges. In this way, a sense of false pride and humiliation (which is the opposite of false pride because what goes up must come down eventually) is transmuted into a feeling of humility and connectedness to a power greater than oneself – be it the group, community or sangha, or some universal principle such as God, Buddha or Nature.

As helpful as all these other approaches are – and oftentimes quite necessary – Zen attacks these issue somewhat differently. For instance, while inner child work is very connected with a person’s family context the Sixth Patriarch asked “Without making good or bad in that moment, what is your original face before your parents were born?” The last line is a very interesting and powerful intervention in healing and recovery. What is your original face before any ideas, images, feelings that you have been carrying like so much baggage? When investigating “What is your original face before parents were even born?” we are thrown back on our most primal, original self. If we get a glimpse or recognition of that, we attain one instant’s sense of total freedom, uncolored and unhindered by our mind and history. There is nothing to heal; we have returned to our original self.

Getting a sense of that freedom also gives us a vantage point from which to approach the inner attitudes that we are carrying around. It does not mean we have no ideas or images to work through; we simply have a gravity point from which to proceed.

Another provocative implication of this kong-an is that time goes not from past to present to future, but, psychologically, from present to past. If you touch the moment where you perceive your original face before your parents were born, then you can also see how you give birth to your own parents! If you are having a moment of unencumbered freedom, and then begin to step back into the mental and emotional attitudes of better or worse, should or should not, good or bad, valuable or not so valuable, at that moment you are giving birth to a relationship with authority figures and parental edicts. At that moment, you give birth to your parents – whether your real parents or little bits and pieces which you extracted from them that sit in your mind-belly, giving you a lot of indigestion.

When you perceive that, you begin to take some responsibility in the present for what you are carrying around. ‘Ibis sense of responsibility gives you a tremendous sense of freedom, and hopefulness, and a way to work with all of these things. From a Zen standpoint, we are most interested in, “What was your original face before your parents were born?” or, as Zen Master Chosan said to Cheong Sae, “It’s as if you had already drunk three bottles of the best vintage wine in China and, yet, why do you act as if you haven’t even wet your lips?” We all need to be careful that, after tasting the best vintage wine in China, we don’t slip back into acting as if were poor and destitute and have not even wet our lips.