Soap Enlightenment

The first thing the Buddha said after his great enlightenment was that everything had Buddha nature. The problem is that we don’t know that. Because we are ignorant of our original nature, we use it to produce suffering. Not good, not bad, but…suffering.

Several months ago there was a story in the news about a very rich widower who had one son. Even though the son’s education was the best that money could buy, he had some very strange opinions, which try as he might the father could not assuage. The son was very taken with the idea that humans should never cut their hair or bathe. Now, if you hold ideas like this for two or three days, they won’t create much of a problem, but as the son grew older, and the years passed, there was a big problem, as well as a big smell! Finally, the father gave up and let the son do as he pleased.

Several years later when the father died, the son was shocked, for he had only been left two things: a small empty house and a very large bar of soap. The rest went to charity. The son didn’t know what to do. Day after day he just sat in the house and looked at the bar of soap. Three… four… days passed, and he started to get hungry, something he had never experienced before. Circumstances had definitely changed for the worse; he would have to do something. Finally his soap meditation brought a realization: he would have to cut his hair, take a bath, and get a job. He grabbed the huge bar of soap and ran to the shower. He scrubbed and scrubbed… and then he scrubbed some more. Finally, just as the bar was beginning to wear down and he was starting to get clean, he noticed a bright, shiny object emerging from the center of the bar. Frantically he scrubbed, finally revealing a large diamond–his true inheritance.

Most human beings are just like this young man, except it’s their minds that need cleaning to reveal the jewel hidden inside. One time Un Mun Zen Master addressed the assembled monks saying, “Between heaven and earth, throughout the universe, there is a jewel. It is hidden in the mountain of form. Pick up the lamp and head straight for the Buddha Hall; take the triple temple gate and bring it on the lamp.” If you truly attain the jewel of this kong-an, you have already received your true inheritance.

Round and Round Suffering

One day during a retreat at the Kansas Zen Center, a friend and I were rearranging the cushions in the sitting room. It was the end of the second day of the retreat. Some people were coming and some going, so we had to make room for them. Just then Zen Master Seung Sahn’s head popped through a narrow opening in the door. He looked left then right saying, “What’s happening?” We explained; then he abruptly said, “Round and round; round and round!” He disappeared, leaving us looking at each other and nodding our heads in agreement.

This is the usual situation for human beings. We are continually being pulled around by anger, desire and ignorance. When the winds of desire blow through our mind one way, we go that way; when the winds change, we also change. Round and round. This is the source of our suffering and the suffering we cause on this earth. But Zen means understanding your true self and helping relieve the suffering of this world. We attain this by keeping a “just-now” mind, the mind which is before thinking. At that time, your true self has already appeared. So, in Zen our practice and what we are trying to attain are the same thing.

Many people experience difficulty practicing this way. Usually as we run around the race course of life we are running with our demons. They may elbow and shove us but we are able, at least for a while, to jockey for a good position. When we start practicing, however, it’s like turning around and running the other way on the track. This can be very painful, because now we are running head first into our demons.

In Zen we say there are two kinds of suffering. One leads to just more suffering — this is the “round and round” variety. The other kind of suffering leads to an end to suffering. This is the suffering we experience when we practice strongly. So, the question arises: which do you like?

No Dharma

In China during the Seventh Century, Zen Buddhism was divided into two schools. The sudden school of the south gathered around the Sixth Patriarch Hui Neng at T’sao Ch’i mountain just north of Canton. The gradual school of the north followed the monk Shen Hsiu. As the fame of the Sixth Patriarch spread, Shen Hsui became concerned and decided to send one of his disciples as a spy to the south.

Upon entering Hui Neng’s assembly, the spy-monk asked, “What kind of Dharma do you teach here?”

The Patriarch replied, “If I said I had a Dharma to give people that would be a lie. I only untie the bonds of each according to their needs so that their original nature can appear.”

Zen is unique in that it promotes no teaching and no techniques. When you go to a Zen center you never have to take an oath, study a catechism or recite a creed. Rather you are always told to find out what you really are–to find your true self. Zen Master Seung Sahn many times says, “I only teach ‘don’t know’.” If you keep a don’t know mind already your true nature has appeared. This is the teaching of the sudden school, Hui Neng’s lineage.

The Third Patriarch Seng Tsang said, “The great way is not difficult, simply cut off all thought of good and bad.” The Sixth Patriarch taught that one “…who treads the path in earnest sees not the mistakes of the world. If we find fault with others we too are in the wrong. Restlessly we will pass our days and in the end we will be disappointed.” Our school, too, says, “Don’t check!” Cutting off your checking mind reveals your true self. Strong medicine.

Zen Master Ko Bong composed a poem:

If you want to understand,
You don’t understand.
If you attain don’t-know,
That is your true nature.

If you attain don’t know, that is your true nature. What does that mean?

Mountain Dew

Question: Besides the meditation practice we’re doing here in this retreat, is there any other way we can save the world?

Zen Master Dae Kwang: Yes, do something. The practice of meditation isn’t special: it means, whenever you do something, do it. If somebody appears in front of you who needs help, then help them. That is meditation. We all know the story of the good Samaritan from the Bible. Two different religious functionaries hurriedly walk right by a man who has been beaten and robbed lying beside the road. They ignore him and go on about their business. Then a Samaritan, a foreigner, comes by, helps the man and takes him to an inn. The meaning of that is: when somebody needs help, you help them. If you are attached to the thought, “well, they’re not like us, we’re not going to help them,” you are already dead. But, if you just help, you’ve awakened from the dream of this and that, like and dislike. Then your mind is like a mirror. When somebody comes who needs help, help them. Red comes red, white comes white, your mind just reflects.

Meditation is not special. It means whenever you do something, just do it. Our practice is the Great Way–just do it! When we eat, just eat. When we sleep, just sleep. When someone needs help, help them. That has a direction to it. It isn’t aimless just doing it. It’s “just do it” to help our world. That’s true meditation. We don’t practice to put ourselves into a special state of mind but to make our minds clear, the original mind. Then we are in harmony with any situation.

Several hundred years ago there was a Taoist master in Korea who had attained many special powers. He had been alive for hundreds of years and could even fly–very high class. Even though his attainment was high, still every hundred years or so he had to drink a few drops of dew or he’d run out of gas and die.

Living in the same area was a bodhisattva. She knew that every hundred years the Taoist master would fly down to one special pine tree and drink a few drops of dew from its needles. She waited for the day. She put some salt in her pocket and climbed the tree. Taking a few grains of salt she sprinkled them on the dew; slowly they dissolved. She then climbed back down the tree and hid. Soon the Taoist master appeared soaring high in the sky. He circled the tree once and landed to drink the dew. But this time when he sipped the dew he tasted salt. A momentary desire for the good taste passed through his mind… then BAAAM! he fell to the ground, crumpled. Slowly he stirred, somewhat dazed; the bodhisattva crouching nearby pointed to him and said, “See! That’s human suffering. So now you have to wake up to your true self. You’ve been flying around here for hundreds of years–what for? What did you ever do to help anybody? You too will die. Now you understand human beings’ suffering.” By tasting the salt, human desire and suffering had become truly palatable to the master.

We all suffer too. Out of this suffering our compassion grows, if we have direction. Suffering is just the result of cause and effect. Suffering is a kind of compost out of which compassion grows if we practice. In Buddhism it is said: no suffering, no Buddha. That’s why Buddhism uses the lotus flower as a symbol. The lotus flower grows out of a stinky, icky mess–the swamp–which is human suffering. At any moment a wonderful pure and clear thing can emerge from the slime, the flower of compassion. That flower is your original mind, the seed of which everybody has inside. Perhaps a little salt has appeared in the dew of your life–use that! If you practice, then you make the seed grow and grow. That’s how you help the world when you’re practicing. Just now, do it!

Mind Road

“The mind road has no end,” says a common Zen teaching phrase. Zen Master Seung Sahn’s upcoming collection of kong-ans, The Whole World Is A Single Flower, has an instructive case in this regard: number fourteen, “Where does the bell sound come from?”

One day, as the big temple bell was being rung, Buddha asked Ananda, “Where does the bell sound come from?”

“The bell.”

Buddha said, “The bell? But if there were no bell stick, how would the sound appear?”

Ananda hastily corrected himself. “The stick! The stick!”

“The stick? If there were no air, how could the sound come here?”

“Yes! Of course! It comes from the air!”

Buddha asked, “Air? But unless you have an ear, you cannot hear the bell sound.”

“Yes! I need an ear to hear it. So it comes from there.”

Buddha replied, “Your ear? If you have no consciousness, how can you understand the bell sound?”

“My consciousness makes the sound.”

“Your consciousness? So, Ananda, if you have no mind, how do you hear the bell sound?”

“It was created by mind alone.”

By the time this story is finished, Ananda has traveled far down the mind road. In fact, the bus has come to the last stop. The bus driver has gotten off and is in the diner having a cup of coffee and a cigarette. Ananda is still sitting there.

Unfortunately, much of our life is like this too. We spend much of our time in a world of ideas and their associated emotions rather than waking up to right now.

Zen Master Kyong Ho Sunim, Zen Master Seung Sahn’s great-grandteacher, concluded one of his most famous dharma speeches by saying, “My only wish for you is that you free yourselves of all conceptual understanding.” This is Zen. If you are thinking, then everything in life is a problem. If you cut off all thinking, then your every action is the truth. You and the whole universe have already become one. This is clear mind, non-attachment thinking, the true way.

Kong-an practice is such a powerful meditation tool because it brings us to the end of our mind road. It allows us to directly experience this moment, not just an idea! The kong-an is not special; it is our everyday life, moment to moment. So, where does the sound of the bell come from? Will you get off the bus?

Mind Placebo

From a talk given during Winter Kyol Che at Providence Zen Center

Question: Do you think there is overlap between the altered states people might experience in Zen practice, and mental illness?

Zen Master Dae Kwang: Yes… 100% overlap! In fact, everybody is mentally ill, and not just during so-called “altered states.” Mental illness is our attachment to thinking. Everybody has it to some degree. People with the same attachments and opinions will get together and call that “sane.” Then another group gets together with a different idea and that’s their “sanity.” Then they fight. Doing a Zen retreat is taking the Zen “pill” to make our mental illness go away.

You’ve all been sitting the winter retreat for quite a while now, so maybe you don’t know what’s been going on in Serbia. The Albanians living in Serbian Kosovo think they should be independent of Serbia. The Serbs, on the other hand, have very strong ideas about ethnic purity and keeping Kosovo as part of Serbia. Of course they are at each other’s throats, creating a lot of suffering for the common people on both sides. So the Kosovans think that they are right; the Serbians think they are right; and the NATO alliance thinks that they are both a little insane. So NATO is trying to knock some sense into them by locking them up in a room at a French chalet and holding their feet against the fire until they agree to what we consider to be sane, or we will bomb them all!

All of life is some version of that. However, true sanity comes from being in touch with your original mind. That is the mind before attachment to thinking appears. In original mind, everything is already complete; there is no desire or anger. We call that enough-mind. Enough-mind doesn’t have this and that. If you look closely at your mind, when does it ever think that everything is complete? Everyone wants something. Everyone thinks that insanity is sanity. That’s why we get into so much trouble.

The cure is practice. Our Zen teaching words are like a sugar pill or placebo. This pill helps relieve our attachment thinking. The Buddha’s teaching is very simple: human suffering comes from like and dislike. Taking the “Zen pill” gives us a strong dose of: “What is a human being really–what am I?” Unfortunately, many of us get attached to our idea of Zen, a bad side-effect. We start to think the placebo is an actual medicine for a real disease. Actually, there isn’t even a disease, we just think there is! That idea is just more of the disease. Zen is very interesting, because it is always slicing itself up and feeding itself to the dogs. That way, you can’t get attached to the placebo talk and start thinking that it is the medicine:”Zen is what is going to cure me!” No way.

Am Du (Ch. Yen T’ou) was one of Duk Sahn Zen Master’s top students. Of all the Zen masters during the T’ang Dynasty, Am Du had the reputation for being the smartest. However, there was one thing that bothered people about Am Du: the way he died. As the story goes, one day Am Du was traveling between temples. As he passed through one particularly wild and mountainous area, robbers descended upon him. They stripped him naked, took all his money and then proceeded to slowly torture him to death. He screamed so loud that he could be heard five miles away. People started thinking, “That’s not a true Zen Master! A real Zen Master should have said something clever to those brigands to help them realize their Buddha nature; or, at least he could have died without a whimper.” This incident became a problem for those with an idea about Zen. The original mind is like flowing water–it only follows its situation: sad time–sad; crying time–cry; happy time–ha ha ha! Somebody else is sad, you are sad and want to help; somebody is happy, you are happy. This mind has no hindrance and becomes one with any situation. That’s what we call together action. We practice together so you can become one with any situation. When Am Du died, he screeeeeeamed!

If you just do it, moment to moment, then everything is flowing. This is not just another Zen theory about how to run your life, it is your life, moment to moment, if you wake up. Then the craziness doesn’t grab you, and you are able to help all the people who are “insane.” As a famous poem says, “Only, without thinking, just like this is Buddha.” Am Du’s action was complete. But what was his meaning?

Lions and Dogs

The great Confucian sage Mencius noted that it was natural for the mouth to desire sweet tastes, the eye to desire beautiful colors, the ear to desire pleasant sounds, the nose to desire fragrant odors, and the four limbs to desire rest and ease. But there is an appointment of heaven in connection with them, and the superior person does not say of his pursuit of them, “This is my nature.”

The Buddha said that there were two types of practitioners: One type is always chasing after something. They want something from practice. If their minds present them with something that they don’t like, they want to get rid of it. If something appears that they like, they want to keep it. They are always trying to keep what they like, perhaps a good feeling, and fix what they don’t want, like a problem in their life. This is like a dog chasing a bone. Or, you can be like a lion. If you are out in the bush and you throw a bone to a lion it will ignore the bone and jump on you! Zen Master Seung Sahn often says, “Zen means, ‘I don’t want anything.'” Zen is very simple: if you attain your “I don’t want anything” mind then your big self appears naturally and you can help our world. Our school calls that “just do it, don’t check.”

Ching Ch’ing asked a monk, “What is that sound outside the gate?”

The monk said, “The sound of raindrops.”

Ching Ch’ing said, “Sentient beings are upside down. They lose themselves and follow things.”

The monk said, “How about you, Master?”

Ching Ch’ing answered, “I almost never lose myself.”

The monk said, “What is the meaning of, “I almost never lose myself?'”

Ching Ch’ing said, “To explain is very easy; to express function through speech is very difficult.”

If you don’t lose yourself, how can you answer?

Kill the Buddha

Lin Chi Zen Master said, “If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha. If you meet a Patriarch, kill the Patriarch.” Zen Master Seung Sahn says that in this life we must all kill three things: First we must kill our parents. Second, we must kill the Buddha. And lastly, we must kill him! This kind of speech is sometimes perplexing to people raised in the Judaeo-Christian tradition since we would never say this about Jesus or one of the Prophets. But the meaning here is very interesting and goes far beyond the martial language of the metaphor. Buddhism is quite unique in that its founder never said, “Believe what I say.” Buddhism means find out for yourself.. i.e., kill the Buddha.

At one time, the citizens of Kesaputta asked the Buddha what they should believe. They were very confused by the many religions in vogue at that time. The Buddha said, “Do not accept anything by mere tradition. Do not accept anything just because it accords with your scriptures. Do not accept anything because it agrees with your opinions or because it is socially acceptable. Do not accept anything because it comes from the mouth of a respected person. Rather, observe closely and if it is to the benefit of all, accept and abide by it.” This Sutta – the Kalama Sutta – is the root of Zen-style inquiry into the true self.

The Buddha says in the Diamond Sutra that in his whole teaching career he never spoke a single word. In Zen, we are admonished that understanding cannot help us. The wind does not read. So, what are we left with? just before he died the Buddha said, “Life is very short, please investigate it closely.” We are left with the great question: What am I? What is a human being? In his great compassion the Buddha leaves us only with footprints pointing the way… in the end he cannot help us; we must find the answer ourselves. Zen, too, asks the question but does not have the answer. But you do, if you look inside.

The Jewel and the Goose

Just before the Buddha died, his students became very anxious about who their teacher would be after he passed away. The Buddha said that after him the precepts would be their teacher. As practitioners of Zen we encounter two lineages of teaching. First, we meet a Zen teaching lineage which points to our original nature and encourages us to practice. Second, we enter a precepts lineage by taking the precepts and voluntarily accepting them as the direction of our life.

The Buddha practiced very hard to realize his original clear mind. We too can practice, then our minds will become clear. The suffering that all human beings experience has a cause. If our minds are not clear, then we don’t see the connection between cause and effect, between cause and suffering. That is why people cannot get out of suffering. They want to be happy, but they don’t see this connection. The Buddha’s original clear mind and his experience of suffering led him to establish the precepts as a guide for those who want to take away suffering. Following the precepts means making our lives clear so we can help our suffering world.

There once was a monk who was passing through a town in northern India begging for food. As was traditional, the monk would stand silently in front of a dwelling waiting for a donation. His first stop for alms was at a small store which sold precious gems. The owner of the shop said, “Oh, please wait Monk, I have something for you,” and retired to the back of the shop. Unfortunately for the monk, just as the man left, a goose tethered at the poultry shop next door stretched out its long neck and guuulp!… swallowed one of the gems offered for sale on a low table. Just then the man returned with an offering of food. As he bowed low in a gesture of offering, he noticed that one of his prize jewels was missing. “What kind of monk are you? You stole one of my jewels!” Then he began beating the monk relentlessly until he was on the ground,bleeding. The monk was thinking, “What can I do? What can I do? If I tell the man that the goose has eaten the jewel, he will surely kill the goose to get his jewel back.”

Slowly he crawled away. Suddenly he got an idea. He got some money from the monastery and returned to the poultry shop. “I want that goose.” The shop owner said, “OK, you can have it.” As the monk handed over the money, the shop owner suddenly became very angry. “What kind of monk are you? Why are you buying this goose? This is not correct. You are a monk. You should not eat meat!” As he became more angry, he began to beat the monk. Again, the monk could not say anything or the man might kill the goose or even steal the gem. So, he only crawled away with his goose.

Returning to the monastery, he went immediately to the dispensary, where he found a large bottle of castor oil. He opened the goose’s mouth and poured in the whole bottle. Then he waited: One hour. Two hours. Three hours. Then,”Phonup!”… the jewel appeared!!! He grabbed the jewel and ran back to town. He waited until the shop owner wasn’t looking, then he placed the jewel on the table and left.

This story is interesting, because even though the monk was in a very difficult situation, he perceived the correct thing to do. He suffered a lot just to save the life of the goose. Our teaching lineage and our precepts lineage come together at a single point: Not for me.

It’s Not a Thing

When Zen Master Huai Jang first visited Hui Neng, the Sixth Patriarch, he was already an experienced practitioner. After he bowed, Hui Neng asked him, “Where do you come from?” Huai Jang replied, “From Sung Shan.” The Patriarch then asked, “What thing is it that you have brought here?” Huai Jang said, “If you call it a ‘thing’ you have already missed the mark.” If it’s not a “thing,” as Huai Jang says, then the question for each of us is… what is this thing that we have brought here?

When you are thinking your mind and everything in the universe are separate. When you cut off all thinking, your mind and this whole universe become one. Subject and object fall away and you return to your original nature, our substance. For example, if you raise the big question, “What am I?” and you look deep inside, always “don’t know” appears. This “don’t know” cuts off all thinking. That is your substance. But, before thinking there aren’t any names or words because it’s before thinking. That means that “don’t know” is not “don’t know”; it is just a name for substance.

Over the centuries, humans have given “substance” many names. Eskimos have given eleven different names to snow, but that is nothing compared to our ability to give names to substance. The morning bell chant says that Buddha alone has been given 360,000,119,500 names! Some people have called substance Buddha, some have called it enlightenment, God, the Absolute, Truth, Tao, the Void, Energy, Primary Point, don’t know and even substance. On and on… But true substance is before thinking, so if you open your mouth it’s already a mistake. The wisdom of the ancient Jews was right on the mark with respect to this; they refused to even utter the name of God. This same wisdom resides in Buddhism, too. The last of the Four Great Vows says: The Buddha way is inconceivable, we vow to attain it. In fact, we are infinite in time and space, so how could words possibly capture it? And yet we are very attached to the words we use to define and understand ourselves.

Dong Sahn Yonsa said, “Shakyamuni Buddha, the Buddha of the past and Maitraya, the Buddha of the future, are servants of another.” Do you know who that is?