Buddha’s Birthday Poem

Given April 2, 1994

A true person
leaps into the world
takes seven steps in each direction
“Only I am holy.”
Un Mun’s foul mouth
Cries “Mistake!”

Still, 2538 birthday candles
Have already burned up
Buddha, Un Mun,
and the whole world of
desire, anger, and stupidity.
Was your birth
a mistake, too?


Blowing out the candles
a big wish for all beings
Happy Buddha’s Birthday to you!

Bomb Enlightenment

[Raises Zen stick over head, then hits table with stick.]

This point is the birthplace of all Buddhas and Patriarchs, but Buddhas and Patriarchs do not understand this point. So, this point completely kills them.

[Raises Zen stick over head, then hits table with stick.]

This point is the source of all Buddhas and Patriarchs. It is the Absolute in all its purity, but this is just someone’s idea.

[Raises Zen stick over head, then hits table with stick.]

This is the Truth. Buddhas and Patriarchs never leave this point. However,things are always changing, changing–so, how can they not leave this point? How can we ever escape this dilemma and be truly free?


Outside today it is cloudy, inside there are many bright and shining faces.

I would first like to congratulate the European sangha on your twenty years of sincere and strong effort. Also, congratulations to the Polish sangha on this wonderful new dharma hall. I’d especially like to thank our teacher, Zen Master Seung Sahn, whose tireless efforts around the world made all this possible.

Last night Zen Master Seung Sahn said that Zen started in China, then it went to Korea, then to the United States, and then to Poland. Receiving this great gift requires more than just thanks, but also a responsibility to practice, and to continue spreading this teaching.

I’m very happy to be here in Poland. Actually, you don’t know this, but for twenty years I’ve been secretly visiting Poland. For many years I’ve been seeing Polish faces at our Zen Centers around the world; so my eyes have visited Poland many times. Also, I’ve heard many people speaking Polish; at Providence Zen Center, Polish has become our second language. So, already my ears have visited Poland. Providence Zen Center also serves up some really good Polish food: lazanki, pierogi, barszcz, [laughter] prepared by the Perl family. So, my tongue too has visited Poland many times. However, better than all of that, this Friday I actually came to Poland.

So far I’ve had two exciting experiences. The first thing I saw were these strange, round balls in many of the trees. I’d said I’d never seen anything like that in my life. The driver laughed and said, “That’s mistletoe.” I always thought that mistletoe was just something that you hung from the doorway at Christmas which gave you an excuse to kiss a girl. [laughter] Now I know where mistletoe comes from.The other thing I saw was storks. Wow, I had no idea how big storks really are. And their nests are even larger — in fact, huge would be an understatement — even bigger than an apartment in Hong Kong!

The Buddha taught that our world is always changing, changing; that’s impermanence. Poland is a perfect example of this. Someone recently told me that twenty years ago you had very little…no food, no nothing. Then the government changed. Suddenly, within days, there was plenty of food for sale in the stores. That’s our life — always changing. Good, bad, up, down, all around. Changing is not the real problem; the problem is that human beings want something. One time I was discussing a little problem at the Zen Center with Zen Master Seung Sahn. He leaned over and shared a “secret” teaching with me: “Everybody wants something.” [laughter] This is also the Buddha’s teaching. Buddha said that everybody wants something; because of that, they suffer. Therefore, change is no problem if you don’t want anything for yourself. However, if you want something, all the suffering in the world appears from that point.

A couple of days ago we had a very interesting experience in Lodz. After finishing a two-hour session of sitting and interviews, we all went downtown to have lunch. We had just parked the car when there was loud noise — BOOM! — glass and debris were blown all over the street. A bomb had gone off in a small bar. Soon there were police and firemen everywhere. We went on to dinner. That night during a public talk we had just begun three minutes of meditation, when — BOOM! — another bomb went off. At that moment, everybody got “bomb enlightenment.” [laughter] These bombs are no good or bad; that’s our world’s karma, cause and effect. But these bombs mean suffering, because they come from a mind which wants this and doesn’t want that. Our teaching is very clear: cut off all likes and dislikes, then your Original Mind appears, very clear–then helping this world is possible.

Our European sangha is a very clear example of that. Indeed, this twenty years is not twenty years. This is just the beginning of our big job, because in our world there’s still a lot of suffering. I have a kong-an for you: One time Man Gong Zen Master was walking past the temple garden. It was Kyol Che time, so there were many monks in the Zen hall. In the garden was an old man working, hoeing the ground. The old man looked at Man Gong Zen Master and said, “Master, what are those monks doing, sitting in there looking at the wall?” If you were Man Gong Sunim at that time, how could you answer this old man?

Now our sangha has a new dharma hall here in Warsaw — that’s wonderful. But most important is, what will you be doing in this dharma hall? That’s a big question. A twenty year celebration is great. But how can you really attain twenty years of practice?

[Hits table with the Zen stick three times.]

Happy Twentieth Anniversary to all of you. Thank you very much.

Big Suffering

Often Zen Master Seung Sahn says, “If the direction of your life is clear, then your whole life is clear. If your direction is not clear, then your life will always be a problem.” The reason we practice Zen is to understand ourselves completely, attain our original nature, and save all beings from suffering. This is our direction – the original job of all human beings. In this there is no “I, my, me.” If we have “I, my, me” then we will get suffering, guaranteed.

Several years ago at the end of the long winter retreat in Korea, Byoek Am Sunim, our precepts teacher, gave each of the participants a calligraphy It read: “You make, you get.” This is a very simple equation! At that time, someone asked him why it was that people suffer. He said, “Human beings continue to suffer because they do not see cause and effect clearly.” So, the question “Why do I suffer?” has a simple answer: “What do you want?”

Achaan Chah, a now-deceased meditation teacher in Thailand, would often walk around the monastery grounds and ask every monk that he met, “Are you suffering today?” If the monk answered “yes,” Achaan Chah would say, “Oh, then you must have a lot of desires today.” If we can clearly see the nature of desire and anger, then it is possible to let them go. This means seeing cause and effect clearly. However, one more step is necessary.

One time a monk came to Zen Master Seung Sahn and said that he wanted to stop being a monk because the monk’s life for him was a living hell. Zen Master Seung Sahn replied, “If your direction is clear, then even living in hell is not a problem.” This means if you want to help this world, then even suffering should not be a hindrance. Most important is direction. If your direction is clear, then the suffering you experience becomes “Big Suffering” and helps this whole world. So, what do you want?

Become One

This is an excerpt from a talk given by Zen Master Dae Kwang on October 5th, 1996 at the Whole World is a Single Flower Conference. The gathering was held at the Sixth Patriarch’s temple on T’ao Che Mountain in southern China, about 200 miles north of Canton.

Twenty-five hundred years ago the Buddha held up a flower, but at that time only one person understood.

Thirteen hundred years ago Hui Neng, the Sixth Patriarch of Zen said, “originally nothing.” At that time, only a few people understood.

Sixty years ago, as the Japanese withdrew from Korea at the end of the second World War, Zen Master Man Gong picked up a flower, dipped it in ink and wrote this calligraphy: The whole world is a single flower. At that time, how many people understood?

The meaning behind each of these Master’s teaching is actually the same, become one. That’s our big job in life. Many people have come from all over the world-from South Africa, from the United States, from Europe, from Korea and from throughout China-to attend this conference. One reason for coming here is to celebrate the gift of the Zen teaching of Hui Neng. Hui Neng was the founder of Zen as we practice it today. Hui Neng’s teaching, China’s great gift to the world, is now traveling all over the world and helping many people. That gift is wonderful, but more important is that we attain this gift in our hearts and minds. So the reason for our whole world is a single flower conference is to help all people become one. Everybody understands that in our world there is a lot of suffering. All people become one means everyone find their true self and help this world. Then this conference is not just a ceremony, but has real meaning for the life of this world. So I want to thank you all for coming here to Zen’s primary point and I hope that we all practice hard and continue to attain our true self moment to moment.

Tomorrow we will visit the home temple of another great Chinese Zen teacher, Un Mun Zen Master. His name means “cloud gate” after the name of the mountain where he taught. This temple is also the home of a large memorial to the famous modern Zen Master Hsu Yun. Hsu Yun means “Empty Cloud.” So here is a poem for you:

Empty Cloud Gate says, “Hello!
Do you see me?
If you see me you are blind.
If you don’t see me you are still blind.”
Do you see this gate?

Zen Master Dae Kwang

DKSNZen Master Dae Kwang is the abbot of the Kwan Um School of Zen. He is the guiding teacher of Providence Zen Center in Cumberland, Rhode Island, the head temple of our international School. He is also the teacher for Zen centers in Wisconsin and Delaware. Zen Master Dae Kwang travels widely, leading retreats throughout North America, Europe, and Asia. His interests include meditation practices common to Christianity and Buddhism. He was ordained a monk in 1987.



Zen at the Bank

From a talk given during Kyol Che in 1982.

Somebody asked me if we should tell people that we practice Zen. I think we all have a hindrance of being embarrassed about it. I don’t mention it often, but if someone asks me where I live, I tell them. I think it’s good for them to get this in their consciousness.

One day years ago I was in a bank with Soen Sa Nim. There was a long line behind us and people were anxious to get out. When we finally got to the teller, a woman who had handled a lot of Zen Center business asked, “What is Zen?”

Soen Sa Nim was standing right next to me. I knew he would want me to give her a Dharma talk. But I just said, “Oh, it’s nothing,” took the money and ran out. How can you answer in two words or less, “What is Zen?”

As soon as we got to the car, Soen Sa Nim said, “Why not give her good teaching? Just say, Zen is understanding yourself. What are you?” At that time, it would have been really embarrassing for me to say that. It still would be. But I can see how that would have helped the woman more than what I did.

We need to expose our practice to people, and we have to expose ourselves to the practice. We have to accept that it’s our job. Soen Sa Nim shaves his head and wears those monk clothes so when people see him, they know something is going on. A lot of us are still hedging it, walking on the fence, not ready to completely give ourselves to it.

Why Can’t I? How Can I?

January 10, 1981

Dear Bobby,

Why can’t I resolve to practice Dharma fully? Why can’t I commit myself to it? Why don’t I trust any of my teachers?

How can I resolve to practice Dharma fully? How can I commit myself to it? How can I trust my teachers?

Thank you for your efforts.



February 24, 1981

Dear Patrick,

Why can’t you resolve to practice Dharma fully? I have never met you, but I can guess two big reasons why you can’t resolve to practice Dharma fully: (1) you have too many selfish desires, and (2) you don’t understand how valuable the Dharma is.

Why can’t you commit yourself to it? You can’t commit yourself to it because you can’t control your desires long enough to find out what “it” is. What is “it”?

Why don’t you trust any of your teachers? How can you trust a teacher if you don’t practice or commit yourself to the Dharma that they are teaching about?

How can you practice Dharma fully? You must see that your selfish desires are endless and that no matter how much you try to satiate them, they will just grow stronger and increase in number. Then you must understand that desire leads to suffering. If you can understand this completely, then you will understand how valuable the Dharma is.

How can you commit yourself to it? You can commit yourself to it by making a firm decision to control your desires.

How can you trust your teachers? You must practice and commit yourself to the Dharma.

What is Dharma? What are you?

Long ago Bodhidharma sat facing a wall for nine years, He killed all Buddhas. He killed all eminent teachers. He killed all people.

What does this mean? When you understand this, you will have no problem with your practice, commitment, or your teachers. Practice = commitment = teachers.



”What is this Seed?”

onehundred day retreat, which she will finish in early May.

January 13, 1978

Dear Bobby,

It was nice that you called the other night. I wish we lived closer so we could be together more often.

I washed the painter’s pants and they did shrink some. You’re right; they are really comfortable. Thank you.

I don’t understand your 100-day meditation at all. I wonder what you’re looking for. Aren’t you satisfied with yourself? I think you are great. You love people and they love you. Why aren’t you satisfied with yourself? I just don’t think you need much improvement. Don’t you think you are a good person? I’m not trying to criticize; I just don’t understand at all what you are trying to do.

I hope you find what you want. Please take care of yourself.



January 19, 1978

Dear Sally,

The world is full of suffering. How can it be stopped? Every human being has a seed of compassion and wisdom that must be very carefully nurtured. It is our responsibility to find this seed and do everything we can to make it grow.

First, you must believe that you have this seed. Then you must ask yourself with all the strength you have, ”What is this seed?” If you truly search for it, you will understand that everyone is just like you. Everyone has it. You will have no more desire for yourself; you will only want to teach everyone how to find their seed.

Enlightenment is believing in yourself. Enlightenment is finding your seed. But your job is not over yet. Your mind must become strong enough to be totally wise and compassionate moment to moment in any situation.

This is much more difficult than attaining Enlightenment.

So, I must do a rigorous practice now, so the seedling isn’t washed away in the flood, or withered in a drought, or plucked by desire.

I hope you understand this. There is nothing esoteric or mysterious about what I am doing. Soen Sa Nim teaches some very simple techniques which help you to become strong. I feel that after being his student for more than five years, I am ready to try this long retreat. Don’t worry Sal; I will be O.K.

Thanks for your big sister letter. I’m looking forward to seeing you in May.

Much love,


What is Checking?

August 21, 1981

Dear Bobby,

I’m writing you because I’ve been told that Soen Sa Nim is flooded with mail, and I’d like to decrease his burden by one correspondent and also, if I may, add to yours by one, which a recent PZC Newsletter suggested. Is this OK with you?

I like writing to someone because I feel in touch with fellow seekers and encouraged and reassured about the worth of seeking through correspondence.

I don’t understand “don’t check.” Does it mean practice not reflecting upon your own feelings, behavior, etc? Does it mean let go of praise and blame? I was at PZC last Wednesday night. During meditation, we stood up to walk. My foot was soundly asleep, and I fell right back down. I started to laugh at this, but I cut it off because I thought that laughter in that time and place might be rude. Is this checking? What is?

I met Annie for the first time last week. She is quite friendly, a wonderful greeting for a stranger just arrived!

What is inga?

Thank you for reading this, for your excellent talks that appear in the Newsletter, and for being there.



September 4, 1981

Dear Carolyn,

Thanks for your letter. I’m happy to correspond with you. It was good of you to think of Soen Sa Nim; he is very busy now, although he would certainly answer you if you wrote him.

You asked me about what “don’t check” means. There are two basic divisions of checking. One is checking yourself and the other is checking something outside of yourself (i.e. other people or situations). I can use the example you gave me in your letter about your foot falling asleep to explain something about ways of checking.

There you are, sitting in meditation at the PZC and the chugpi is hit, indicating that it is time to stand up. You try to stand up, fall back down and start to laugh. Then you start thinking, “don’t laugh, everyone is keeping silence at this time.” If that is all you thought, that is not checking. That is what is called “following your correct situation.” If you had continued to laugh, you would have disturbed the formal meditation, so you and Buddha are the same. Congratulations!

But let’s say you start having more thoughts about your sleeping foot situation: “I hope nobody saw me fall. If they did see me fall, they probably think I’m stupid, just a beginner, a clumsy slob. No, it’s not their fault, maybe I am a clumsy slob. I’m lazy and no good. Why are we doing this?’ Sitting cross-legged is not natural, this whole system of practicing is too strict. Oh, I wish I could be like Soen Sa Nim!”

So that’s checking. Instead of digesting each moment completely and understanding it intuitively, the mind turns, twists, and holds it. If we were not attached to our idea of I, my, me, we would not have to manipulate reality. But because we think we are separate from everything else, we have to defend our self-image and consequently expend tremendous amounts of energy doing so. We make up a complex world of Opposites, running from, or clinging to things in order to avoid feeling threatened or hurt.

Practicing with the question, “What is this?” will stop the habitual process of thinking in terms of opposites, and the mind then becomes one with each moment.

I hope your practice is strong now and you have others to practice with. The most important part of practicing is to just try consistently every day and “don’t check” your condition, situation, or opinion.

You asked me what inga is. Inga is when your teacher approves of your practice and of your answers to kong-ans and authorizes you to teach others.

Thanks again for your letter. I hope my answers help you. Please visit again soon.



Unfolding Seasons

Each of the seasons of nature come forth on their own whether we ask them to or not. They are beautiful teachers that are around us all the time. Each season, each situation, each moment generously offers us an opportunity to see the mind that sometimes has trouble trusting how things are unfolding.

A famous Zen saying is, “Spring comes and the grass grows by itself.” The grass just does it. Whether it’s a late spring or an early spring, the grass has no opinion. You can sit on the lawn in complete stillness, and you will not hear a complaint from one blade of grass about spring being late or early.

One spring morning I was sitting in the orchard at Providence Zen Center. There were two cardinals; one was over the beehives, and the other was near the pine tree about fifty yards away. They were speaking to each other. Their calls kept changing, and it seemed so beautiful. Then the cardinal by the beehives swept down into the brush and disappeared. The other bird kept calling out for a little while; then it stopped.

The practice of Zen is to just perceive and to see. But as humans we sometimes apply our ideas to animals. I had decided that the cardinal that had disappeared was a male, and the one left behind was a female. So I was thinking, “That’s too bad. The male left her; she’s still calling, and he disappeared and stopped answering her.

But did some sad thing happen? I don’t know. The cardinal stopped calling for a cardinal reason, not a human reason.

The seasons can show us not only our projections, but also our expectations. As summer approaches, my aversion to heat makes me distrust that season. I start wondering if it’s hot and muggy in June, what will it be like in August? I start worrying that it’s hot because pollution has ruined the ecological balance, and that my daughter won’t be able to grow up in a “normal” world because of our myopia and greed.

But if I sit with my questions, I can feel very grateful. Grateful for the beautiful spring that has passed, grateful for the summer heat, grateful for my happy, healthy daughter. I can also feel grateful for all my worries. Worries wake me up. I can look at the content of my worries and learn what it is I still don’t quite trust, and ask what it is that has aversions and attractions.

In the fall I’ve often taken my daughter to Temenos, a retreat center in northwestern Massachusetts. There’s a beautiful, tall white pine that I’ve climbed many times. When my daughter was eight, I let her climb it with me for the first time.

Three quarters of the way up, I looked down and asked myself, “What have I done?” Instead of feeling grounded and balanced in what I was doing, suddenly my center went up to my head. That’s not a good place for your center to be. I gulped and took a deep breath, and reminded myself of why I had wanted to climb this tree with her.

My daughter was really enjoying it, and she wasn’t feeling frightened. So I just kept going, and the branches started to get thicker; there were more needles, and you couldn’t see down as easily. There’s a spectacular view from the top, and my daughter got to see it.

But going down a tree is even harder than going up. When we finally got to the bottom, we both laid on our backs on the ground, and looked up at the tree and admired. it. I asked myself, “What is this?” Just to experience how we felt at that moment. We were both really glad we had climbed that beautiful tree; that was all.

On a warm morning during a Winter Kyol Che retreat, I was sitting quietly in the interview room, waiting to give interviews. The window was open, and I was listening to the melting snow on the monastery roof coming down, landing on the ground. It was really nice to simplify, to just listen to that dripping, that melting.

Then a student came in for an interview; she was upset to the point where she couldn’t even sit down. Just listening to that snow had made my mind so clear and simple that I could say to her, “Now the situation is to sit down.” Finally, enough trust formed that the student was able to sit.

I asked, “Do you have any questions?” There were lots of questions … complicated questions, painful questions, lost questions. I didn’t answer any of them directly. I just said, “Stop. What is this retreat? Let’s try to practice what this retreat is.”

I said, “Be quiet, then listen.” The student heard the melting snow. “Let’s just sit and listen to that for five minutes.” So we sat and listened to it … just the trickling water.

Then I said, “You know, that’s choicelessness.” It was warm enough that the snow became liquid, with no idea or discrimination about it. The snow was just following the situation. Not wanting to hold onto the white crispness, not wishing to stay that way, and not wanting to become water, either. Just melting and then falling onto the mud next to the monastery … slap, slap, slap.

The ground knew the ground’s job. Sometimes it thaws a little bit and takes in the water; sometimes it stays hard and the water runs down into the pond. It’s all just following the situation.

The student finally began to relax, following that natural process going on outside the window. I had a lot of faith in the sound of that melting snow dropping off the roof. I was really in tune with just that morning, just that melting, just that January thaw. Through that came teaching, came support for the student’s practice.

If the snow was thinking, it might be very frightening to melt, drop off the roof, and slap onto the ground. If we’re thinking, if we’re holding onto our own identity, what could be more scary than to lose it? “I’m crisp white snow. Oh no, I’m water!” Zap, like that.

With people, it’s more subtle and slower than snow melting. But if we’re holding onto what we think we are, the transformation becomes very frightening. If we’re able to let go and just be with the change, we will be able to recognize it as grace, as universal compassion. Rather than feeling fear, we will be able to feel grateful … grateful for the unfolding of this moment, grateful for the unfolding of the seasons.