Transmission Speech

(Hits table with stick)

Empty sky makes full moon. Full moon makes empty sky.


Empty sky never made full moon. Full moon never made empty sky.


Full moon shining brightly. Empty sky black like ink.

Which one is the correct statement?


Wake up! Why all this talk about moon and sky? The sun is hot as hell outside this morning!

About nine years ago, after Zen Master Seung Sahn certified me to be a teacher, I went around leading retreats at various Zen centers and giving talks and many times, the same question would appear: “Would you please say something about Zen and psychotherapy?” Sometimes that question would even appear in the middle of a three day Yong Maeng Jong Jin, when we have a dharma talk. I always thought, “That’s an odd question.” And I wondered if people were just indulging their conceptual minds with comparisons. But later I began to realize that in some way, they were probably asking about the role of emotions, imagination, and even fantasy in our Zen practice.

There’s a famous story, one of the kong-ans in the Mu Mun Kwan. A monk came to call on Poep An Zen Master before a ceremony. The Master pointed to the bamboo blinds and two monks simultaneously stood up and rolled them up. Then Poep An said, “One has got it. One has lost it.” You have to understand, when we hear in one of these stories that a monk came to call on a Zen Master, it doesn’t mean that he just came for a casual cup of tea. In the biographies of Zen masters, we read how, as monks, they traveled many hundreds of miles calling on different teachers. So the monk in the story probably had traveled a long way looking for instruction. And Poep An pointed to the blinds.

Maybe this monk thought, “Oh! Buddha raised up a flower, Guji Zen Master raised up one finger, this Zen Master is pointing.” Then the two monks got up and rolled up the blinds, and the Master said, “One has got it. One has lost it.” The monk at that time probably had a big headache and a big question about what it all meant and I’m sure that if he sincerely stayed with his great question, he would have eventually had a moment of “just doing something.” Maybe just seeing or just hearing or just offering food to someone, or just saying “Can I help you?”

At such a moment, his experience would certainly transcend “getting” and “losing.” If you look at this kong-an from another perspective, you could say that all the characters in this little drama are all our own mind, and are all engaged in the issue of dealing with gain and loss. When you have to get off your behind to move toward something, you’ve lost something. When you roll up the blinds, you’ve also lost something — we all know the comfort of darkness when the early morning bell rings for meditation. So it’s not without giving up something or losing something that we enter into this life of Zen practice.

Someone in New York told me a story. When he was a young boy, maybe in the sixth grade, he changed to a new school. He was seated at a table with two girls. He said one was very, very pretty, and he felt attracted to her, and the other was not so pretty. But he liked both of them, and the school was having a dance; and this was still the time in history when boys asked girls to dances, and girls didn’t ask boys. He asked the less pretty girl to the dance.

When he told me this story, he put it in the context of his own decision to not go after what he really wanted. But I see it as something more complex than that. He had some compassion for the feelings of the less pretty girl, and felt he would have hurt her feelings and disappointed her if he asked the other one to the dance. And so I think in our phenomenal existence, we are always gaining something and losing something, and that’s a very important point for us to bear in mind.

On the subject of emotions, fantasy and imagination in Zen practice, there’s a poem by Zen Master Seung Sahn in his book Bone of Space which I became very interested in a while ago. So, I’m going to read it twice. The first time, I’m just going to read it straight through. The second time, I’m going to make a little commentary on the poem. In the old Zen literature, there are two kinds of commentaries which discuss poems or kong-ans. One is a long discourse like a dharma speech. The other is a series of comments inserted in between the lines or sentences of the poem. It’s more like heckling. It’s sort of like the fans of the Brooklyn Dodgers, before the team moved to Los Angeles, sitting in the bleachers yelling, “Go Bums!”, which was the team’s nickname. So in the Zen literature, you read statements in commentaries like, “He showed his gall bladder, how regrettable.” And that’s a compliment.

Zen Master Seung Sahn’s poem says:

Looking over the southern mountain, I
Clap my hands: cumulus clouds transform
Into dog, tiger, man, Buddha, then disperse

And to my sorrow disappear over the mountain’s
Edge in a rush of wind leaving
The sky blue, the trees green.

And now for the second version. Zen Master Seung Sahn warned us about this, by the way. When his book The Whole World is a Single Flower came out and he had little commentaries on his poems, he said, “I made a little commentary, but in the future you all will add more and more commentary.” And a few weeks ago, I remembered this Yiddish expression that my mother and father used to say. It’s koch�ffel. It means literally, a cooking spoon. The significance is that some people can’t leave the soup alone, they have to keep stirring it. So I couldn’t leave the poem alone, either. So…

Looking over southern mountain,
(Which way did you say?)
I clap my hands
(Oh, there’s some magic there!)
cumulus clouds transform
Into dog, tiger, man, Buddha, then disperse.
(So soon? Where did they go?)

And to my sorrow, disappear over the mountain’s
Edge in a rush of wind
(How sad, how sad. Ji Jang Bosal, A Jang Bosal.)*
leaving the sky blue, the trees green.
(Thank you for the teaching. If you hadn’t told me, I would never have known.)

(Hits table with stick three times)

Today, two new Zen Masters appear. Which one has got it? Which one has lost it? KATZ! You please add in the last line.

*Universal bodhisattva who acts as a guide to the dead.

Stepping Off a One-Hundred Foot Flagpole

An old kong-an says: “Before the donkey has left, the horse has already arrived.” This kong-an tells something about our minds, because it points to the fact that moment by moment many different thoughts are occurring – horses coming, donkeys going. Before this one has even left, the next one is already on its way. In the Avatamsaka Sutra it says, “If you want to understand all the Buddhas of the past, present, and future, then you should view the whole universe as being created by mind alone.” The Avatamsaka Sutra is one of the major Buddhist scriptures, a very vast, visionary work, and in one paragraph it says the essence of understanding Buddha is just to view the whole universe as being created by mind alone. How can we understand this mind that creates a universe?

At the end of a one-day retreat recently, I told the story of a man who encounters a genie, or supernatural being, who says, “I will fulfill one wish for you.” The man says, “I’d like to get a view of the difference between heaven and hell.” The genie says, “O.K., I’ll show you.” He takes him to a door and they enter a huge banquet hall. On the table is everything you might wish to eat, and if something is not there you only have to think about it to make it appear. But there’s one injunction in this setting: You have to use special utensils. These utensils have a glove that fits up to the elbow, and attached to this glove is a fork that is so long that the food doesn’t reach your face when you bend your elbow. All these people are sitting at the table trying to feed themselves, but they can’t get the food to their mouths.

Then the genie takes this man through another door, and they find an identical setting. Again, the same utensils are being used – so long that the food never reaches the people’s mouths. But in this particular room the people are seated across from each other at the table, and the person on this side of the table picks up a piece of food and extends it over to the person sitting across from him. Because the fork is extremely long, it just reaches the other person’s mouth, and likewise the man or woman sitting on the other side of the table picks up a morsel of food and extends it across the table and the person opposite eats it.

So, which one is heaven and which one is hell? Exact same setting, exact same situation, exact same implements, but the relationship to those implements and to the situation is totally different. One is a desperate attempt to feed oneself, and the other is a perception of cooperation and interdependence between beings who have similar needs, desires, wants, and interests heaven, hell. If you want to understand the realm of all the Buddhas of the past, present, and future, then you should view the whole universe as being created by mind alone.

How does mind create this universe? When the Heart Sutra talks about the five skandhas (form, feeling, perception, impulse, consciousness), it indicates one way of organizing our perception of the world and of ourselves. The Sanskrit word “skandha” literally means a heap or aggregate. Thus, we bring together these different aspects of experience and begin to relate to things and experiences through them. That means at any moment our experience of self and world comes into being through the interplay of these five elements.

Imagine a moment of absolute clear space before anything has occurred. The first thing that will happen is a sense of something coming into being. This is the aggregate or skandha of “form”, the mind’s tendency to form something out of the primary openness of any particular moment. Form, feeling: As form arises, you will begin to have a feeling about it- good, bad, or indifferent. Form, feeling, perception: Then you will perceive it in someway. Form, feeling, perception, impulse: Impulse here means the tendency to go towards it or to pull away from it. And consciousness: Final recognition of the whole event. That’s our experience, and it’s created through the interplay of those five energies. It’s just a way of looking at mind and perception; it’s an organizing principle. Somebody dreamed up that set of categories to talk about the way we organize our experience. You could dream up any number of categories.

But the important thing about the Heart Sutra, and the reason you will never see a skandha face-to-face, is that it says all five skandhas are empty. To perceive that they’re all empty means to perceive that none of the things that we take as our experience is self-sufficient. These things don’t have a permanent, enduring self in them in any way. They’re all dependent on something else. Also, to see things as empty of the names, labels, and opinions we attach to them is to see the skandhas. as empty.

There is nothing wrong with naming things. The problem is that we take those names seriously and think that if we name something it exists in that way. There’s a Buddhist saying that “all names are no names”. What does this mean? That is a kong-an. Names are no names; no names are names. That doesn’t mean that we have to get rid of all names and labels. It just means we should perceive that naming something isn’t solid. It’s translucent, transparent; don’t hold it tightly. When you feel your arms, there’s a feeling in your arms, there’s just feeling your arms. That’s the moment before you give rise to calling it “my body”, as if it were something apart from you. That experience is just that. It is empty of self-nature, empty of some category. It just is what it is at that moment. It doesn’t mean there is no body, like it dissolves or is insubstantial, although, from a scientific point of view, an atomic physicist would tell you the same thing as an ancient philosopher: Everything is in flux. Your body is ultimately just a mass of energy. You could say that means it is not a body, for it is not enduring, not permanent. There’s no self-nature to it, and it depends for its existence on many things outside it.

If we were going to philosophize, we would say your body is dependent on the water, the air, the food you ate, the fact that a farmer in Nebraska grew the food you ate; the list could go on and on, until your body in this moment is only there because the whole universe is there around it. If you talked about the farmer who grew the wheat for the bread made this morning, then you would have to talk about all the things the farmer is dependent on as well; it goes on and on. Your body is not existing in and of itself. It’s existing because of many other things. It’s interdependent. And, if you recognize interdependence, then you recognize compassion, because you realize we’re not in this alone. If someone is hurting that means I am hurting, and the sense of kinship and connection emerges.

In Zen training, we give rise to the question, “What am I?’ Zen practice is essentially understanding my true nature, my true self. What am I? If you raise that question, immediately you are face to face with the state of mind that does not know. What is the essence of this “I”? All day long, I’m using the word “I” this, “I” that, “I” the other thing, but what does the word “I” refer to? As soon as you try to look for it, you’re left with a big question mark. Don’t know. You have just that mind, that actual experience of that moment of not knowing. And that not knowing is your original self before thought, before words, before ideas. That not knowing is open. Why? “Clear like space” is clear like a mirror, so if red is coming at the moment, it totally just reflects red. If white is coming, it totally just reflects white. From that standpoint, the reflective mind is the mind that is responsive to the situation at hand, the mind that is involved in clear functioning. It is the mind that is capable of compassionate activity, because it is not holding anything in a limited way. It’s like a mirror, reflecting and becoming one with the situation at hand. Morality, or right and wrong, or good and bad, are perceived in relationship to that moment. What is correct in the moment? If you’re not holding a limited notion of anything, then you can perceive what is correct in this moment. What is my correct function right now? What is my correct situation right now? What is my correct condition right now? It doesn’t come out of a preconception; it comes out of a responsiveness to the situation. But that can only occur if you let everything go and have that clear-like-space mind, mirror-like, just reflective.

But this letting go of knowing can produce a lot of fear. One old Zen Master said, “It’s like when standing on top of the flagpole, 100 feet in the air, how will you take one step forward?” Letting go of all this knowing feels like stepping off a flagpole 100 feet high in the air, and – pkshhh! – that’s the imagined sense because the whole world as we know it is organized around our experience and how we’ve categorized it. This is this, that is that, or this in relationship to that, etc., etc., etc. The whole world comes into being for us in relationship to categories that we have developed over a lifetime, or if you believe in reincarnation, over many lifetimes. If you let go and enter the realm of unknowing, at that moment fear arises because knowing is security.

If you think you know something, then you feel secure at that moment. The world is as it should be, because you know what it is. But the minute you enter the realm of not knowing, you give up that security and enter into the borderline of going beyond knowing. At that point vitality can emerge, because it’s not being limited by what’s known. But vitality that’s not supported from within turns to anxiety. The physical experience of anxiety is a kind of narrowing down of the chest and not getting enough air at the moment. But if, you can experience uncertainty without narrowing down, by getting enough support from your center of gravity and recognizing that you have eyes, you have ears, you have tongue, you have body, you have mind, you have orientation, you have all these things, then POW! – you can just perceive without having to know beforehand.

I’m talking ideally here. Obviously, this is an ability that develops. But, we set up all these categories, all these knowings, as a way of securing our ground. Of course, it’s necessary to have categories and to know things and to think about things in certain ways. That’s not the problem. Knowing, or thinking, is not the problem. It’s clinging to the knowing as if our lives depended on it, as if we were sitting on a flagpole 100 feet in the air, clinging to the known and rejecting the possibility of stepping beyond it at that moment. That’s the difficulty. Clinging. Attachment. Holding something and declining that step beyond is the real issue at hand. The step beyond is the step of non-knowing. It is beyond knowing. If you step beyond the categories of non-knowing and knowing, then what emerges? Something that is neither known, nor not known. Something that neither appears nor disappears. That’s why in the Heart Sutra it says no appearance, no disappearance, no purity, no impurity. Stepping beyond all opposite categories just means coming to the realization of what is. And the most profound transcendental experience is the most simple fact of what is.

How do we perceive what is, moment-by-moment-by-moment? Do we perceive what we are doing, moment-by-moment-by-moment? If we’re resenting, do we perceive that in this moment? If we’re pressuring ourselves, do we perceive that in this moment? If we’re making ourselves afraid in some way, do we perceive that in this moment? How are we killing ourselves in this moment? How are we hesitating from taking one step forward off the flagpole 100 feet in the air? Out of embarrassment? Out of fear of humiliation? Out of fear of failure? Out of fear of being able to negotiate the next step? Little children do not have the same difficulty. Watch them when they start to walk. They getup, take one step, then another. They plop down, getup, walk some more. That’s it. It’s no big deal.

That’s why we have to perceive that “not holding” mind, not holding so tightly to our ideas about what’s going to happen next. That’s why in the Heart Sutra it says, “When the Bodhisattva perceives that all five skandhas are empty, he is saved from all suffering and distress.” Then there is no hindrance and no fear. If you see that all five skandhas are empty, that you are not a self-sufficient independent being at war with your surroundings, then there is not so much to guard here as you thought. There is not so much to secure. Then you can more readily go with what is without fear, without resentment.

That’s why we practice, to get established and develop some degree of relaxed steadiness of mind. But that isn’t the end that we’re practicing for. That’s just something you need in the practice. Essentially, the point is that original mind, mind which is before thinking, is already relaxed, is already clear, is already radiant and perceptive, so it isn’t so much a matter of developing those qualities as a matter of returning to our original self, which is essentially those qualities. That’s the deeper meaning of “even before the donkey has left, the horse has already arrived.” Even to say it’s “those” qualities is to put some label on it. It’s something that is before labelling. But things such as relaxation or calmness or clarity are not things that you’re practicing to develop, from the Zen Buddhist standpoint. Those things are the actual essence of mind energy, and are there the moment you let go of conditioning, clinging to a situation, clinging to an opinion, clinging to ideas.

It helps to understand that all this conceptual framework good and bad, right and wrong, should and should not comes from parental and authority figures. So Hui Neng, Sixth Patriarch, asks, “When you don’t make good and bad, at the moment, what is your original face before your parents were even born?” Don’t think that’s something in the past, before your parents were born. At every moment that we get hooked onto the train of making opposites, making conceptual referents, holding opinions, that is giving birth to our parents. Time goes backwards, not forward. It goes from present to past. Any moment when we begin to get caught in some chain of associations, and rights and wrongs, and shoulds and should nots, and judgments, and seeing ourselves or the world in limited ways, then that moment is giving birth to our parents. So Zen means becoming an orphan.

At any moment, when you don’t make good and bad, what is your original face before your parents were born? Original face means empty, like a mirror. That’s why many Zen illustrations use this empty circle. That means empty and simultaneously full. Empty and simultaneously complete, whole. Totality is there in that moment. Meditation is to perceive that, to be with that, then to use that. So how will you know when you’ve seen the five skandhas face to face? You’ll know when you recognize your original face before your parents were born.

Revealing the Family Shame – The Tradition of Zen Transmission

Opening talk at the first transmission ceremony of our School. 

In the Zen records there are a number of cases that give us an example of dharma transmission. The first is the root transmission coming from Shakyamuni Buddha to Mahakashyapa. One day on Vulture’s Peak, Buddha was going to give a dharma speech and the whole assembly was there. He mounted the rostrum and sat silently for several minutes. Everyone waited, expectantly. What will the Buddha talk about today? Finally, he held up a flower. No one understood except Mahakashyapa, who smiled. And Buddha said, “I have the all pervading true dharma, incomparable nirvana, exquisite teaching of formless form. This I give to Mahakashyapa.”

Zen Master Mu Mun writes a poem about the case and comments: “Holding up the flower, tail already appears.” “A tail already appears” is like an animal with something trailing behind. Like a turtle who crawls up on the beach, digs a hole, plants its eggs – and as it walks back to the sea, inadvertently leaves traces of where it has been.

The second example of transmission is from Mahakashyapa to Ananda. Ananda was Buddha’s cousin and had spent many years studying under him, but never got enlightenment and thus never got transmission from him. After Buddha’s death, he studied with Mahakashyapa. One day he asked Mahakashyapa, “Besides the brocade robe the Buddha gave to you, what else did he give?” Mahakashyapa immediately called out, “Ananda!” And Ananda, without thinking, said “Yes, sir!” Then Mahakashyapa said, “Cut down the flag pole in front of the gate.” At that time in India, when a dharma talk was given they would raise up a pennant, and at the end of the speech take it down. So “cut down the flag pole” means it is already complete now.

Again, Zen Master Mu Mun has a comment: “Older brother calls, younger brother answers, the family shame appears.” Sometimes it takes a lot of courage to reveal the family shame. “Family shame” is an example of a Chinese form of paradoxical humor, and refers to the Zen transmission lineage. So we have to appreciate Zen Master Seung Sahn’s courage and wideness of vision, in again revealing the “family shame.”

One more example of transmission: When Zen Master Lin Chi was about to die he called an assembly and said, “Soon I will enter into nirvana, please take care of my dharma. Do not let it die out.” San Sheng, one of the senior monks, stepped forward and said, “Master, how could you ever imagine that we would let your dharma die out?” Lin Chi responded, “If someone in the future should ask you about it, what will you say?” San Sheng immediately shouted “KATZ!” Then Lin Chi said, “Who would have dreamed that the future transmission of my dharma is dependent on this blind donkey?”

So we have three examples of dharma transmission: tail appears, family shame appears, and a blind donkey. That is the what of dharma transmission; now to the why.

One day when Lin Chi was still in Huang Po’s monastery, the two of them were together planting pine trees. Huang Po said to Lin Chi, “What is the use of planting so many pine trees here, deep in the mountains?” Of course, deep in the forest, there are already many trees of all kinds growing naturally. So this is like saying, “If everything already has Buddha nature, or original enlightenment, why make something special like transmission and a teaching lineage?”

Lin Chi responded, “Firstly, it will improve the scenery of the temple; secondly, for future generations it will act as a guide, a record, and a standard.” Having said that, he took his hoe and banged it into the ground three times – whack! whack! whack! – and said “Phew!” Huang Po saw this and said, “Our school will flourish greatly with you.”

All of us who have visited mountain temples know the scenery is sometimes very inspiring, and so encourages us to practice and find that wide open mind. Scenery is not just nature scenery, but also the people we come in contact with who inspire us to practice and who act as a support and encouragement in our efforts. For those of us who have known Ji Do Poep Sa Nims Mu Deung Sunim, George Bowman and Barbara Rhodes for many years now, it is clear that they have served this function for us already.

Surely, we can say with Zen Master Lin Chi, that these three have been a guide, a record, a standard and an inspiration, and will continue to be so in the future. This is a very wonderful day. Thank you very much.

Plenty of Nothing

Opening speech at Buddha’s Enlightenment Day ceremony, Providence Zen Center, December 5, 1998.

Once a student, while in a particular mind set, said to me, “If I hear one more talk about Buddha’s enlightenment, I think I’ll scream.” This raises a question as to the purpose of our coming together to celebrate, commemorate, and recollect Buddha’s enlightenment. At Providence Zen Center, there hangs a calligraphy which reads:

Buddha went to Snow Mountain.
Sat, don’t know. Six years passed.
Saw a bright star, got enlightenment.
Without thinking, full universe.

The essence of Buddha’s enlightenment is in the last line: “Without thinking, full universe.” Two aspects are pointed out here: “full universe” and “without thinking.” “Full universe” means “nothing” is not nothing. To think “nothing” is nothing is like the old Gershwin song from the opera, Porgy and Bess: “I got plenty of nothing.” That means you are carrying a big bundle of nothing around with you, i.e. you are clinging to nothing. However, the second line of the song says, “And nothing’s plenty for me.” “Nothing” truly perceived and practiced means that without holding or grasping, we clearly connect with everything we encounter or touch, moment by moment by moment, and that truly is the practice of manifesting Buddha’s enlightenment as “full universe.”

As for the second part, “without thinking,” there is a poem by an ancient Zen Master named Shu An:

With incense burning, I sat quietly on the south terrace all day long with mind collected and all worries forgotten. I had not ceased my mental activity with a view to removing delusions, but there was not a thing to think about.

When we truly come to that place where we perceive, “I don’t have to get rid of anything,” and “there is not a thing to think about,” then we attain “without thinking, full universe,” and that is Buddha’s enlightenment.

There is an interesting slant on the story of Buddha’s enlightenment presented in the “Revelation of the Eternal Life of the Tathagata” chapter of the Lotus Sutra. Essentially, what the Buddha says in this chapter is that “it is only to inspire and encourage practice that I tell the story of leaving home, sitting under the bodhi tree, and attaining complete enlightenment. In truth, that teaching is only to inspire and encourage the practice of people who are of a dull or lesser capacity.” Truly, he says (in the way that is only found in the style of Indian sutras), “the time since I actually attained enlightenment is very, very, very long.” Then he presents an analogy: suppose you were to take all the sands of the Ganges River–not just one Ganges River, but perhaps a thousand Ganges Rivers–and then start to walk east, and about every third eon drop one grain of sand to the ground, and measure the time it would take to drop all of these grains of sand… “well, actually, my enlightenment occurred long before that!” That means infinitely long ago. To calculate it is impossible, and to think about it within the limitations of concepts like time and space is also impossible. We would say, “already” from the very beginning it was there.

Therefore, it behooves us all to recognize our dull and limited capacity and to feel a sense of gratitude for the opportunity to come here and recollect and celebrate the event of Buddha’s enlightenment so as to encourage our ongoing practice.

So thank you all for coming and supporting each other, and thank you Shakyamuni Buddha for recognizing our dullness and pointing it out to us, and pointing us toward the enlightenment of “no enlightenment.”

In December, no leaves obscure the bare brown trunk of the tree in the yard.

An Exploration of the Zen Kong-An and Gestalt Impasse

A short case from the Blue Cliff Records:

Forty-First Case
Joju’s “Man of Great Death”

Joju asked T’ou Tzu, “When a man of great death returns to life, how is it?”
T’ou Tzu said, “Going by night is not permitted. You must arrive in daylight.”

The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate certain parallels that exist between Gestalt therapy and the practice of Zen Buddhism. Many people familiar with the literature of Gestalt therapy realize in some vague way that there exists some influence of Zen in it. Hopefully, it might prove useful to clarify this more. It might also prove to be reassuring to Gestalt therapists that there exists some degree of kinship with Zen, an unbroken tradition that has existed for over a thousand years. Also, from a personal standpoint, there have been times in my own work as a therapist when I have treated patients who had both an interest in some Oriental spiritual discipline, as well as a need for psychotherapy. Some of these patients had been in treatment with other therapists before coming to me. Their experience had been that their previous therapist had had no understanding or tolerance for their spiritual interest and consequently, this had proved to be a stumbling block to treatment. Therefore, some awareness of the theory and practice of these disciplines and the areas of commonality with Gestalt might be helpful in facilitating treatment with these people.

There exists in the Gestalt literature some previous attempts to deal with the subject of Zen and Gestalt. The best known to me, is an article entitled, “Present-Centeredness: Technique, Prescription, Ideal” by Claudio Naranjo. Naranjo’s article focuses on what he calls “the continuum of awareness” as practiced both in Buddhist meditational disciplines and Gestalt therapy. Naranjo’s contention is that “the practice of attention to the present in the context of Gestalt therapy is very much like verbalized meditation.” Further, present-centeredness in Gestalt therapy is seen as a meditative practice, wherein many of the contents of awareness are related to the interpersonal encounter of therapist and client and wherein the activity of self-disclosure becomes an important component.

In the traditional Zen literature, there are many references to the utilization of moment to moment awareness and the development of an unhindered responsiveness to all aspects of the Zen practitioner’s life. Perceiving correct relatedness to the immediate situation and being able to act freely in accordance with the present situation are considered paramount in Zen training. Hence, an ancient Zen master said, “My enlightenment is that when hungry eat, when tired sleep.” Naranjo’s article makes another point which is relevant to the area of discussion to be pursued in this paper. He says that the practice of attention to the stream of life runs counter to habit, and precludes the operation of “character,” i.e. the organization of coping mechanisms. In Buddhist parlance, this is called egolessness or selflessness.

The focus of this paper will be a comparison of the technique of the Zen kong-an with Fritz Perls’ concepts of the impasse and the fertile void. These issues will be looked at from both a theoretical and practical viewpoint. Perls describes the impasse as the position where environmental support is not forthcoming anymore and authentic self support has not yet been achieved. From an experiential standpoint, this state is related to individual survival and is connected with a fear of loss of self.

“When you get close to the impasse, to the point where you just cannot believe that you might be able to survive, then the whirl starts. You get desperate and confused. Suddenly, you don’t understand anything anymore, and here the symptom of the neurotic becomes very clear. The neurotic is a person who does not see the obvious.” Perls states that when one understands the impasse correctly, he/she wakes up and experiences a satori, a Zen word meaning “enlightenment.” He further says: “It’s the awareness, the full experience of how you are stuck, that makes you recover, and realize the whole thing is not reality.” Perls therefore sees the process of therapy as one of becoming aware of and working through the roles that one plays and then experiencing the impasse. This leads to an experience of death or fear of death which then results in an explosion or release. Perls says, “The death layer comes to life, and this explosion is the link-up with the authentic person who is capable of experiencing and expressing his emotions.”

In comparison, I now turn to some discussion of the technique and purpose of the kong-an in Zen practice. The kong-an generally takes the form of a question. These questions may be posed as a philosophical dilemma or may be a question about one’s existential position. Some kong-ans are narratives of interchanges between Zen Master and student which, viewed from a logical standpoint, appear to make no sense. In any case, the kong-an is a question whose answer does not satisfactorily lie within the realm of conceptualization and logical thinking. Charles Luk, a Chinese writer on Zen says,

(Kong-ans) are, therefore, not riddles and riddle-like problems which students should solve before their enlightenment, for (kong-ans) are full of meaning which is clear only to those who have rid themselves of discrimination and discernment. Obviously, they are incomprehensible to unenlightened people who grasp at externals and cling to the names and terms of conditioned human language. However, as soon as they keep from illusions, that is, when their minds are not stirred by thoughts, they will understand all (kong-ans) without making the least effort.

The effect of the kong-an is to bring one to a stuck point, where one’s usual way of relating to oneself or the world proves to be unsatisfactory and yet how to proceed is unclear. In Zen terminology, the words of the kong-an are called the question’s tail while this stuck state is referred to as the question’s head. The Zen Master instructs the student to grasp the question head, and not let go. Contemporary Zen Master Seung Sahn, in a letter to a new student, related the following:

Sitting is only a small part of practicing Zen. The true meaning of sitting Zen is to cut off all thinking and to keep not-moving mind. So I ask you, ‘What are you?’. You don’t know; there is only don’t know mind. Always keep this don’t know mind. When the don’t know mind becomes clear, then you will understand.

In Zen literature, this state of not-knowing is referred to as great doubt and is likened to the experience of a child who has lost its mother. In practicing, one must nurture this doubt by maintaining a basic faith or confidence in one’s intrinsic potential and by having a determined courage to stick with it. In brief, these are the essentials and intent of kong-an practice.

What follows is a narrative of an interchange between Zen Master and student which has become a traditional part of the literature and which exemplifies this process.

There was once a great Japanese poet named Basho. He was a very bright young man, and a serious Buddhist who had studied many scriptures. He thought that he understood Buddhism. One day he paid a visit to Zen Master Takuan. They talked for a long time. The Master would say something and Basho would respond at length, quoting from the most profound and difficult Buddhist scriptures. Finally, the Master said, ‘You are a great Buddhist, a great man. You understand everything. But in all the time we have been talking, you have only used the words of Buddha or of eminent teachers. I do not want to hear other people’s words. I want to hear you own words, the words of your true self. Quickly now – give me a sentence of your own.’ Basho was speechless. His mind raced, ‘What can I say? My own words – what can they be?’ One minute passed, then two, then ten. Then the Master said, ‘I thought you understood Buddhism. Why can’t you answer me?’ Basho’s face turned red. His mind stopped short. It could not move left or right, forward or back. It was up against an impenetrable wall. Then, only vast emptiness. Suddenly there was a sound in the monastery garden. Basho turned to the Master and said,Still pond – a frog jumps in – splash.

The Master laughed out loud and said, ‘Well now these are the words of your true self.’ Basho laughed too. He had attained enlightenment.

I would now like to present a Gestalt therapy session which in some ways parallels the process of the above story. At a training seminar, I observed a therapist working with a young woman. It became clear early in the session that the patient had a great deal of hostility that needed to be expressed. The patient was encouraged to go around the group, person by person, and verbally tear them apart. This she did in a quite vicious way, but at times with some trepidation. When questioned about her experiences during her periodic hesitancy, the patient revealed that at times, she feared retaliation and consequently held back. The therapist then observed that this type of viciousness must have been acted out on the patient at some time in her life. The patient became sad and cried for a few minutes. She related how she had always been made to feel inadequate by her parents and that she had incorporated this relationship so thoroughly that now, in interpersonal situations she usually would feel that either the other person had all of the power, or that she needed to denigrate them to feel in control.

The therapist then requested the patient to see if she could observe something about herself and something about someone else in the group without a sense of comparison and evaluation based on the concept of more or less. For example, without judging in terms of better or worse, to observe – “you’re short, I’m tall.” As the patient tried to think of something in this way, she began to feel how she couldn’t do it. She then became somewhat confused and uncertain. This led to her becoming quite terrified and crying deeply. Upon coming out of the crying, she said to the therapist, “I see you, and I’m sitting here.” She said that this was as close to being free of her evaluative way of seeing things as she felt she could get at that moment. This was accepted as closure and the session ended.

It can be seen quite clearly that a similar process is at work in both examples. The process is one of stopping the person’s habitual way of maintaining his or her view of self and world and bringing them to a point where they feel that they have lost everything. This then enables them to reorganize in a more realistic way. In the case of Basho, he had been so identified with his role as a Buddhist scholar, that when the Master asked him to be a Buddhist without recourse to his erudition, he felt completely at a loss. The Master, understanding how important this was to Basho, used this to generate a feeling of humiliation which disturbed Basho’s balance – “I thought you understood Buddhism, why can’t you answer me?” This opened the possibility of Basho’s being able to respond differently.

In this case of the therapy session, it was the disruption of the patient’s top dog/underdog dichotomy that produced the result. It must also be observed that in both cases, preparation and timing were very important, The Zen Master allowed Basho to go on at length and expend himself before making the critical intervention. In the therapy session, the patient had first been helped to experience herself as both top dog and victim before she was confronted with the impasse. This process of heightening a behavior as a means of going beyond it, can be related to those principles of Gestalt psychology that deal with figural saturation; i.e. once a figure reaches a certain point of saturation, it begins to recede into the ground.

By way of transition to relating the above to Fritz Perls’ concept of the fertile void, I would like to quote from Castaneda’s account of his experiences with the Yaqui Indian sorcerer, Don Juan, from his book, Journey to Ixtlan. Castaneda had been alone in the hills and had had a mystical experience. He was questioning his teacher Don Juan about this. Don Juan said,

What stopped inside you yesterday was what people have been telling you the world is like. You see, people tell us from the time we are born that the world is such and such and so and so, and naturally we have no choice but to see the world the way people have been telling us it is. Yesterday, the world became as sorcerers tell you it is. In that world, coyotes talk and so do deer and all other living beings. But what I want you to learn is ‘seeing.’ Perhaps you know now that ‘seeing’ happens when one sneaks between the worlds, the world of ordinary people and the world of sorcerers. Yesterday, you believed the coyote talked to you. Any sorcerer who doesn’t ‘see’ would believe the same, but one who sees knows that to believe that is to be pinned down in the realm of sorcerers. By the same token, not to believe that coyotes talk is to be pinned down in the realm of ordinary men.

Fritz Perls calls the technique of withdrawal into the fertile void the final step in dealing with one’s areas of confusion. He describes it as “an eerie experience, often approaching a miracle when it first occurs.” The experience is likened to a trance, but accompanied by full awareness.

“The person who is capable of staying with the experience of the fertile void – experiencing his confusion to the utmost – and who can become aware of everything calling for his attention (hallucinations, broken up sentences, vague feelings, strange feelings, peculiar sensations) is in for a big surprise. He will probably have a sudden ‘aha’ experience; suddenly a solution will come forward, an insight that has not been there before, a blinding flash of realization or understanding.”

Perls sees this experience as being a schizophrenic experience in miniature, in which confusion becomes transformed into clarity and emergency into continuity. This experience of voidness is also very much stressed in Zen training. Voidness is the experience of egolessness, i.e., that there is no permanent entity called a self. Instead, everything is perceived as being in process. As Perls said, “everything is aware process.” Basho’s experience exemplifies this through the references to his mind racing, stopping short, and then the sense of vast emptiness. Buddhism expresses this process orientation succinctly in the Heart Sutra with the aphorism, “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.”

The form/emptiness dialectic is conceived of as existing on three levels. The realization of form is emptiness begins at the level of intellectual understanding, then moves through the experience of absolute voidness, which leads to the immediacy of directly apprehending the world just as it is, free from the screen of conceptualization. This three level realization is stated as: The truth of “form is emptiness, emptiness is form,” is “no-form, no-emptiness.” The truth of “no-form, no-emptiness” is “form is form, emptiness is emptiness.” Perls was fond of saying, “Lose your mind and come to your senses,” and humorously, “I am what I am. I’m Popeye, the sailor man.” In Zen training, the final emphasis is not on the extraordinary experiences of the void, Don Juan’s world of the sorcerer and Perls’ miniature psychotic experience. Instead, the final emphasis of Zen is on the completeness of one’s moment to moment experiencing, this being a temporal expression of the absolute truth. Moment by moment, the phenomenal and the absolute interpenetrate each other.

Hence, the Zen maxim – Zen mind is everyday mind. Joel Latner expresses this in Gestalt terms by saying,

In our terms, this direction is towards the last Gestalt. The momentum of our development is toward wholes that encompass more and more of the potential of the organism/environment field. In the more advanced stages of this process, we are embracing ourselves and the cosmos. The Gestalt is: I and the universe are one. All of me and all of the infinity of activities and energy around me, people and things, all of them together are one figure. Nothing is excluded.”

In conclusion, the use of the Zen kong-an and the Gestalt focus on the impasse can be seen as parallel processes. Both lead to some experiencing of disorganization and voidness with a focus toward reemergence into the world with a new orientation. Zen, with its techniques of sitting and keeping a “not moving mind,” leads to an intensive experience of centering and unification of energy. Gestalt therapy could be viewed as applied Zen within an interpersonal framework. Gestalt also enhances this process by its utilization of the concepts of developmental psychology. Therefore, it could be concluded that each discipline might enhance the other in the movement toward wholeness.


Dropping Ashes on the Buddha, Zen Master Seung Sahn, Grove Press, New York, 1976.

The Secrets of Chinese Meditation, Charles Luk, Samuel Weiser, New York, 1964.

The Gestalt Approach and Eyewitness to Therapy, Fritz Perls, M.D., Ph.D., Science and Behavior, 1973.

Gestalt Therapy Verbatim, Fritz Perls, M.D., Ph.D., Bantam Books, Real People Press, 1959.

Gestalt Therapy Now, ed., John Phagen and Irma Lee Shepard, Harper & Row, New York, 1970.

Every Day and Every Moment

Flowers in Springtime, Moon in Autumn, Cool Wind in Summer, Snow in Winter. If you don’t make anything in your mind, for you it is a good season.”

I often use this poem to teach both new and more experienced Zen students. Quite often, when I ask a student during a private Zen interview to read the poem, I see a spontaneous smile or “Aha” reaction emerge, and a kindling of the student’s “faith mind” or original confidence. It’s as if he or she were saying, “Yeah, the True Way is like that.”

The central point of this poem is essentially a restatement of the third and fourth of the Four Noble Truths, i.e., that there is an end to suffering and that there is a way or path of practice which actualizes the end of suffering. “If you don’t make anything in your mind, for you it is a good season.”

The poem comes from Case Nineteen of the Mu Mun Kwan and is titled “Everyday Mind is the Path.” The case is an interchange or dialogue between Zen Master Nam Cheon and his student JoJu, who later became a great Zen Master in his own right. At the time of this Dharma combat JoJu is still an inexperienced student. He asks Master Nam Cheon, “What is the true way?’ Nam Cheon responds that “Everyday mind is the true way.”

Then, there follows a series of questions by JoJu and answers by Nam Cheon which, one by one, undo JoJu’s conceptual orientation. For example, JoJu asks, “Then should I try to keep it or not?” Nam Cheon responds, “If you try to keep it, already you are mistaken.” Finally, Nam Cheon exclaims, “If you completely attain the true way of not thinking, it is like space, clear and void. So why do you make right and wrong?” At this, JoJu got enlightenment.

In the case, there is only talk of the Mind of no thinking, clear and void like space. The poem emphasizes how one with such a mind functions in contact with time, part of the phenomenal world, which is indicated by the four seasons. In a few words, it demonstrates a non-clinging way of being/becoming, a way of encountering the events of life. In this sense, it is in accord with Zen Master Seung Sahn’s teaching of “Don’t make anything, don’t hold anything, don’t attach to anything. Then you will realize that you have everything.”

And a similar point is made in Zen Master Yun Men’s case in the Blue Cliff Record, “Every Day is a Good Day” (Case Number Six):

Yun Men, instructing, said, “Don’t ask me before the fifteenth day of the month (Borom). After Borom, you must bring me one word.” He answered himself, “Every day is a good day.”

Our teaching in the Kwan Um School of Zen proceeds from “every day is a good day” to “every moment is a good moment.” So a number of important questions for practice appear from the four seasons poem and Yun Men’s case.

1. How can you demonstrate the meaning of, “if you don’t make anything in your mind, for you it’s a good season?”

2. What is the true meaning of “Every day is a good day?”

3. How can you demonstrate your understanding of “every moment is a good moment?”

And finally: A good season, a good day, and a good moment, how are all of these different? Which one is the best?

Commentary on Hyang Eom’s “Up a Tree”

Adapted from a talk given at Chogye International Zen Center of New York on April 1, 1990.

This kong-an presents a very interesting situation. The rather dramatic image of the man up a tree is a vivid portrayal of two existential situations or issues that we all have to face. First, what does it really mean to stay alive, or be alive? And the second issue is about responsiveness. someone under the tree is calling out, “Help me out here. Tell me something. Give me something.” This raises questions about relationship and correct situation and responsibility. Responsibility, in this sense, means the ability to respond. How is one to respond in such a situation?

There’s a similar Zen story in which a man is being chased by a tiger, and he’s running for his life. He gets to the edge of a cliff and can’t go any further, but he sees a vine going over the cliff, so he grabs hold of it, swings over, and is hanging there. Down below, he sees another tiger – waiting. The man is hanging there with one tiger above and another below. Then, a field mouse begins to gnaw at the vine right above him Just at that moment, this man sees one wild strawberry growing on the vine right near him, and without holding back anything he bites the strawberry. What a taste!

This story is about the first issue of the kong-an only. It’s about life and death and what it really means to be alive or dead. But there’s no element of relationship in the story. There’s no one calling to the person to respond. But both stories portray people pushed to the limit.

We have already seen how Hyang Eom’s training and his struggle were very intense. lie was pushed to the limit. So the kong-an that he made to test his students is also of a very intense kind. A man is up a tree hanging from a branch by his teeth. And everything is tied. This state of being tied means he can’t hold onto any conception, anymore. Also, his feet have no resting place – he can’t find support in the usual ways that he was used to finding support. At that time, someone calls to him, “Please help me.” How does he stay alive?

Jesus addressed the question of being truly alive in his saying, “It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get to heaven.” In many spiritual traditions, there is the notion that one only really becomes alive when one strips away everything. This is variously referred to as renunciation, non-attachment, letting go of ideas, conceptions, opinions, frames of reference, and one’s orientation towards oneself and the world. If one lets go of it all, one becomes really poor – has nothing.

There’s another story, a favorite of mine, also from the New Testament that speaks in a different way to this issue of what it really means to stay alive. After the Last Supper, Christ tells his disciples, “You will all fall away because of me this night,” and they all say, “No, no, no, no.” His main disciple, Peter, whose name means “the rock,” says, “Master, I would never deny you.” And Jesus says to him, “Peter, before the cock crows this very morning, you will have denied knowing me three times.”

Jesus is then arrested and Peter goes and stands outside of where they have taken Jesus into captivity. When he is asked if he is one of Jesus’ followers, he says, “No, no, no – I don’t know the man.” Three times – “No, no, no – I don’t know.” Now that’s a very interesting point. He denies knowing his master, whom he loves dearly, three times. Yet he goes on after Jesus’ death to become the organizing force in the Christian movement, the first pope.

That’s the Bodhisattva way, just try – over and over and over again. We sometimes say, “Try, try, try for ten thousand years non-stop.” The story of Peter may seem extreme, but it is instructive nevertheless. As another Zen saying goes, “If you fall down seven times, get up eight times.”

Facing our failings and our weakness and yet still again rousing up that energy of “try” is very much connected to our view of what it really means to be alive, to enliven our environment, to enliven our relationship and to be able to really be responsible and responsive.

Carrying Snow in a Teaspoon – The Bodhisattva Effort

The following exchange took place during a retreat at Providence Zen Center on February 1, 1986.

Question: What is the underlying essence of Zen?

Zen Master Wu Kwang: (lifting up his cup and drinking) Cold water. (laughter) Zen Master Seung Sahn told me that’s what they say in Korea when they want to tell someone to just keep a clear mind: “Go drink cold water.” (laughter) Only that.

I had an interesting and useful experience a few weeks ago. I was talking with Ken Kessel, a longtime student of Zen Master Seung Sahn. He told me that sometimes he likes to practice for two hours straight in the morning. He doesn’t walk, he doesn’t get up, he just sits there for two hours in his full lotus position, without moving.

I got inspired to find out what that was about. (laughter) So I tried a couple of times. I got pretty close, one time an hour and fifty minutes. But one of the interesting experiences I had when trying this was coming to a moment when I had the recognition that it was just sitting. There was nothing miraculous that was going to appear, even if I sat for two more hours straight. (laughter) It was just sitting, pure and simple, just like drinking cold water is just drinking cold water.

That’s our teaching, our way, and yet it’s difficult to believe. Over and over we want to make something, add something, romanticize something. It’s very difficult to just believe in the truth of something that simple. So maybe there is no essence of Zen, none at all. (laughter)

As soon as we start to think about the essence of something, we’re already caught up in some subtle conceptual framework because we’re looking for something called an “essence.” If you sit for two hours straight, you can go on a long journey towards essence. Your nervous system and your mind and everything will do miraculous and extraordinary things in two hours of sitting, that is, along with the pain in your legs. So one of the fundamentals of the Zen way of talking is to talk about “no self” and “no trace.” No trace means that experiences, phenomena have no trace of something conceptual sticking to them. That means no essence.

There’s a story about a sea turtle who comes out of the ocean, crawls up on the beach, buries its eggs, smoothes over the sand so that no one can find anything and then goes back down the beach to the ocean and swims away. But this turtle has a tail. As it crawls down the beach, the tail drags back and forth in the sand, leaving quite a clear tracing of just where the eggs were. So, the Zen way emphasizes existing with no trace, no tail. Somehow we have to cut off our tail, or have the patience to endure just waiting until it falls off by itself. It’s doubtful to me, at this point in my life, that we could really cut it off once and for all. If you cut it off, it just grows back anyway, like a salamander.

Richie said last night when I came in that it was good to have the retreat going on here and it was amazing how quickly things fall away and you get back to the simplicity of natural mind. After saying that, he said, “It’s amazing how easily things fall away, and also how quickly they come back.”

We need the patience just to let these things wear themselves out, over and over, until there’s no trace left. It’s like sandpaper, getting things smoother and smoother. We’re all looking for the essence of Zen, and that’s creating many problems.

Q: When I don’t think about effort, it seems like I’m able to do something. When I do think about it, I have come to think there is no such thing as trying. Where do we get the impulse inside ourselves to do it?

ZMWK: It’s a combination of self-determined focus, on the one hand, and a spontaneous emergence, on the other. I think the two come together at a certain point. Words like “try” and “effort” are teaching words, one particular expedient means that someone might offer to encourage someone else. Sometimes, a teacher might say “try,” and at other times, “don’t try at all.”

The other day my thirteen-year-old daughter was home sick, and I was there with her. We have a video cassette of the movie Karate Kid, and we were watching it for about the millionth time. (laughter) Parts of it have a Zen flavor. The karate teacher is going to teach this kid karate and they make a pact to begin. The teacher says, “Are you ready to begin?” The kid says, “Yeah, maybe, I guess so.”

The teacher then says something like this: “With some things, you can walk on one side of the road, you can walk on the other, or you can walk in the middle; but in karate, if you have this attitude of ‘I guess,’ you get squashed. So either karate ‘do’ or karate ‘don’t,’ but there’s no ‘I guess’ karate.

That’s a teaching that’s based on effort. You have to focus yourself. There’s no in-between, you either do it or not. There’s a similar scene in the second Star Wars movie, where the master-like figure, Yoda, is teaching Luke Skywalker to become attuned to the force of the universe. Luke says something like “I’ll try” and Yoda says, “Either do or don’t. There’s no try.”

On the other hand, when I was studying with Zen Master Seung Sahn around 1976, we were having a discussion with him. We had just moved the Zen center and were debating whether we could keep a daily practice going as a Zen center, because there was no one living in it, or whether we should call ourselves something other than a Zen center. Zen Master Seung Sahn subtly baited us. He said, “Well, you can be a Zen club if you want to and get together every so often and occasionally I’ll come here.” In the midst of all this talking, he finally coerced us into making a commitment. Then he said (this was the first time I’d heard him say it, and he’s said it a million times since then), “OK, so you try. Try, try, try for ten thousand years nonstop.”

That’s a teaching based on “just try.” But the intention of his “just try” and the intention that was being imparted in these two movies is basically the same spirit. To some degree, effort comes out of a determination to want to do something. If you have this determination, then there’s willingness, and in that willingness you can find interest, effort, spontaneous emergence. I think even before spontaneous interest or effort comes, there must be a certain willingness to want to do something. That’s what we call having a great vow. There’s a commitment, and out of that comes interest, which sometimes needs to be rekindled and sometimes just emerges very spontaneously.

At times “I want to do this” comes up quite easily and you don’t have to work very hard. You don’t have to work at all, except just to get out of your own way, put the conscious, computer-like activities of your mind aside, and just let the thing run on its own. Sometimes it’s like that. Sometimes when we’re sitting in a retreat, we’ll have moments or periods like that.

But there are other times when it doesn’t come forth like that. You might have to re-institute your commitment, your willingness to go through what it takes. I think both are important. In a way they come together, when you have a wide open mind that’s clear enough at any moment – pfft! – to become one with the point at hand. There’s a particular kind of energy that’s born of these two things coming together, willingness and intention and getting out of your own way and just letting it happen. It’s dangerous to think that it should just occur spontaneously.

Suzuki Roshi was very good at making that point in his writings, that human life is imperfect. It’s always leaving traces. Even the word “imperfect” isn’t quite right. Our human life, moment to moment, is always changing. There are always difficulties and limitations coming. At the same time, those particular ways of expressing ourselves and those things that we’re doing are the creative activity of the big mind or “don’t know” mind or beginner’s mind, whatever word you want to use. On one hand, we’re always leaving traces. One the other hand, there’s no need to get rid of those traces.

So we say there’s some spiritual truth and that truth is embodied in or expressed as everything. But we also look around and see so much disarray in ourselves and others. Why are people suffering? You can explain that away through some philosophical notion like karma, if you want. Not that karma is just a philosophical notion – it might be a reality as well. But while we can explain away painful things through a concept like karma, the real paradox of human existence comes if we don’t explain or justify it away. How do we live having faith that there’s some truth in the universe and that it’s manifesting itself as all this that we see and hear and taste and smell and touch, and at the same time see so much disarray? How is all this disarray truth?

Q: How is it?

ZMWK: Yes! That’s great doubt. Keep that question for ten thousand years – “how is it?”

Q: Every morning I get up with everyone else here and take a vow to save all sentient beings from suffering. How can I do that?

ZMWK: Do you want to do it?

Q: Yes.

ZMWK: Then you’ll find a way, through getting up every morning and taking that vow. That’s an impossible vow. Each one of these is an impossible vow. “The Buddha way is inconceivable – I vow to attain it.” How do you attain something that’s inconceivable? “Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them all.” How? It brings up the image of some great social worker in the sky – (laughter) – bigger than the whole universe, going to save all beings from suffering.

One time I heard Bernard Tetsugen Glassman Sensei, a teacher in Maezumi Roshi’s school (he has a group in New York), talking on the radio. He gave an example of what a bodhisattva is. He said, there’s a well that’s dry down on the plains, and up on the mountain tops there is snow. So the bodhisattva is like a guy who decides he’ll fill the well by bringing the snow down to the plains, but the only thing he has to carry the snow in is a teaspoon. So he goes up the mountain, gets one teaspoon full of snow, comes back down to the plains and puts the snow in the well. Then he goes back up the mountain, gets another teaspoon full of snow, brings it down and puts it in the well, over and over.

That’s a ridiculous endeavor. Never in a million years is he going to fill up that well, but what’s important is his sincerity of effort – to just do something, whether it’s possible or impossible. That effort, that spirit, is a contribution in and of itself that can’t be compared to anything else, so it has absolute value. Because it can’t be compared to anything else, the spirit of that fills the universe in one second. At each moment that we do that, all sentient beings are saved, because we affirm the absolute value of everything.

We have to do something, even if it’s not possible. So the vow points to something like that. At least, that’s my view of it.

Q: What is absolute value?

ZMWK: Relative value is concerned with, “This is good,” or “This is not as good as something else.” Value is ascribed to something based on a comparison with something else. “My watch is better than your watch, so it’s worth more.” That’s relative value. Absolute value has no basis like that. We can’t compare with anything, so it stands on its own just as it is. Sometimes we say subject and object become one – pfft! At that time, there’s no comparison of anything with anything else, so the absolute value of something emerges at that point. It just stands or sits on its own.

Q: Your story about the bodhisattva with the teaspoon reminds me of a similar story of the sparrow who tries to put out a forest fire by carrying water in his beak. I told that story to one of my friends and they said, “That’s the dumbest thing! Why didn’t he take a bucket?”

ZMWK: He didn’t have a bucket. But we’re not talking about mountains and snow, we’re talking about suffering. You can’t use a power tool on suffering.

Q: I get the feeling sometimes that the sparrow was really dumb.

ZMWK: Yes, sure! But dumbness has its place too. Someone might have a really simple kind of faith which is kind of dumb, given what we see all around us, and yet the energy that might come out of that effort might be quite profound. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t sometimes look at the instruments we’re using. If there’s a bucket at hand and you’re using a teaspoon, then that’s stupidity. But if there’s no bucket and you won’t choose the teaspoon because there’s no bucket, then that’s stupidity, too.

We talk about saving all sentient beings, every morning when we get up and bow and say our vows. But to have the idea that this little congregation of people here is doing something so profound that it’s going to make a dent in the social fabric of this country is, from one perspective, dumb. Yet this is the instrument we have at hand, so we make use of it.

Zen Master Wu Kwang (Richard Shrobe)

Zen Master Wu Kwang

Zen Master Wu Kwang, (Richard Shrobe) is guiding teacher of the Chogye International Zen Center of New York and lives in New York with his family. Before he began practicing Zen he studied intensively with Swami Satchidananda, living with his wife and children for four years at the Integral Yoga Institute in New York. He has a Master’s degree in Social Work and did six years of postgraduate study in Gestalt, including training with Laura Perls. He has been director of a drug program, and has served as an instructor in psychiatry and Gestalt therapy. He started practicing with Zen Master Seung Sahn in 1975 and was given inka in 1984. He received dharma transmission on August 1, 1993. A former professional musician, his undergraduate training was in music theory, and he also studied with jazz pianist, Barry Harris. Currently he has a private practice in psychotherapy specializing in the Gestalt approach. He has written three books: Open Mouth Already a MistakeDon’t Know Mind: The Spirit of Korean Zen, and Elegant Failure: A Guide to Zen Koans, all available from from

Zen means no point of view

These days the Persian Gulf war is very much on everyone’s mind. This naturally leads to the question I was recently asked, “What is Zen’s point of view on the war?” While this may sound like a pertinent and timely question, ultimately it cannot be answered because Zen has no point of view. An ancient worthy once noted that, “the view of all Buddhas and Patriarchs is the same – no view.” To someone who just wants to understand something, like our present war, not a lot is offered here. However, in the end this is the one thing which draws us to Zen practice: the basic sanity of “no point of view.” So, you will be spared one more analysis of the war.

One thing which is unique about the Buddha, and the Zen Masters in our tradition, is that they do not put forth a religion or a philosophy of life but rather point directly to Truth or, as it is said in Zen, “point directly to the human Mind.” This pointing itself is not another explanation but a means to bring one to a deep questioning about life. What am I? What is a human being? Why are we living on this planet? Any meditation practice or spiritual journey boils down to finding the answer to this great question, “Who am I?” As a practice aiming toward attainment, rather than mere understanding, Zen does not rely on concepts, beliefs, theology or ideology. Zen’s method is to evoke our own direct experience of life.

Another important aspect of the practice of great questioning is its direction. When the Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree it was not out of self-concern. His questioning was for all of humanity, since he was trying to resolve the question of human suffering, of human existence. Great questioning has this direction – for all beings. Of course, you are one of them. So, even though we may be concerned with our personal quagmire – emotional, psychological, existential or spiritual – ultimately our direction as Zen practitioners is to answer the great question which goes before these “smaller,” though not insignificant, concerns.

Recently we all breathed a collective sigh of relief because the threat of nuclear holocaust had been lifted. And now we face another major conflict, the Persian Gulf War. Much of human history is the history of conflict. Desire, anger and ignorance are continually going around and around, on an individual, family, national and international level. This war can contribute to our practice by bringing us to a deeper realization that the mind that creates conflict – this human mind – is also in each one of us.

The finger of blame which historically has been pointed at the Saddam Husseins of the world can also be pointed at us. Zen Master Seung Sahn was once asked where atomic bombs come from; what kind of person would do that? He said, “They are made by the mind which likes this and doesn’t like that.” And that is inside each one of us. The mind that wants to go to war is us. This same mind also has Buddha nature, though more or less hidden. So, this war can benefit us if it brings home more than ever the great question in each one of us, “What am I?” If we can resolve this question we have taken a step toward true world peace and helping others.