The following is taken from a question-and-answer period with Soen Sa Nim at the Empty Gate (Berkeley KBC) Zen Center on December 17, 1977.
Q: I was wondering — where did the water at the end of a four-bowl meal*, you know, the clear water that’s poured down the sink, where did it used to be poured before the hungry ghosts were in the drain? (Laughter, followed by many attempts to explain the question to Soen Sa Nim.)
S.S.: In America there are only sinks, yah? In China there were no sinks, so there was a special place in front of the Dharma room.
Q: That’s where they lived?
S.S.: Where is the hungry ghost? In your stomach.
Q: Where do the ghosts come from?
S.S.: You make them. They come from the six levels of beings: gods, ashuras, humans, animals, hungry ghosts, then demons. Where do all these six levels come from? You already have them in your mind. A good view, good music — this is heaven. Beings with great energy, very strong, always fighting — these are ashuras. Much desire, desire, desire — this is animal. Hungry ghosts are, “I want something very, very much.” Stealing, killing — this is hell. Tibetan Buddhism has a picture in which one mind has many demons, many heavens, all six levels. The outside form is different, but you have them all inside.
Before, in Korea, a woman went to visit the great temple Kong Bong Sa with her child. This child was about five years old and could only talk a little, but he was very clever. The mother went to the Buddha Hall with a monk and prayed to Buddha. The child thought, “Praying doesn’t matter; I don’t like praying,” so he went looking around. Usually the Buddha Hall is in the middle; on the left side is a Zen Center, and on the right side is a Sutra Center. The child went to the Sutra Center, but it was very noisy — many people reading sutras. He didn’t understand, so he went to the Zen Center and looked through a little open door. Everyone was facing the wall, bowing to the wall (Soen Sa Nim imitates someone falling asleep while sitting). That was O.K., but sometimes somebody would disappear and become a snake; somebody would disappear and become a big dog; somebody would become a mountain god, or somebody would become a hungry ghost — you know, they would have a very big stomach and a very small neck. This was very interesting to the child. “Oh! A snake! The snake disappeared! Now a dog! The dog disappeared!” Changing, changing.
About an hour passed, and the mother finished praying. She wondered, “Where is my child?” and went all around looking for him. Then she went to the Zen Center and saw the child at the door.
“Oh! Snake! That time a snake! Oh, Dog!”
The mother thought this was very strange and asked, “What are you doing?”
“I’m watching the dog.”
“Where is the dog?”
“Over there, over there!”
But the mother could not see a dog, only a great monk (Soen Sa Nim again imitates a monk sitting, then nodding off). At this time (when nodding off) the monk became a dog or a snake, and the child would say, “Dog!” or “Snake!”
The mother said, “No good! This is a Zen Center, and these are all great monks. This style is no good.”
“No, no, no! See, a snake! A snake!”
”No, I like this!”
Then the mother asked the Zen Master, “My child said he saw dogs and snakes appearing inside the Zen Center.”
The Zen Master said, “Yah, correct. All people have these consciousnesses — god, ashura, human, animal, hungry ghost, demon. They all have these minds. If you are attached to something, then you become a dog or a snake; you get heaven or hell. Your child is very clear, so he can see other people’s consciousnesses. Normal people cannot see them. Why? Their minds are dusty, not clear, so they cannot see the consciousness body. Your child can see these monks’ consciousness bodies, their attachments. These monks are attached to something. They have their minds. So they must clean their minds. So they sit Zen. Therefore, Bodhidharma said, ‘The Buddha taught all the Dharma in order to save all minds. When you do not keep all these minds, what use is there for the Dharmas?’
“Child’s mind is Buddha’s mind. Just seeing, just doing is truth. Then, using this mind means when you are hungry, eat. When someone is hungry, give them food.”
* A four-bowl meal refers to the formal temple style of eating that is used at our Zen Centers and in monasteries in the Orient. This procedure, centuries old, includes serving the food, eating, and cleaning the bowls with tea and then water. The water referred to above is used for the final rinsing of the bowls. All food scraps are eaten, and only clear water is collected in a common bowl and poured down the drain. In addition to not wasting food, this tradition is said to save the hungry ghosts in the drain from suffering. These beings have throats like the eye of a needle and insatiable appetites, so clear water saves them from the torture of having food caught in their throats, which symbolizes saving them from the perpetuation of their endless craving.