From a talk at Empty Gate Zen Center in Berkeley California in April 1984.
Question: A lot of us spend a lot of time trying to get rid of our bad karma and just end up accumulating more karma.
Zen Master Seung Sahn: Is karma good or bad? Karma is not good, not bad. If you don’t like karma, then take away your mind and all karma will disappear. All karma is from your mind. If your mind disappears, your karma will disappear. That’s the point. When mind and karma both become empty, that is returning to your true self.
But if I have bad karma, how can I make it function correctly? How can I not be attached to my bad karma? By helping other people. In Korea there is a man like Robin Hood. He does many bad actions, takes money and gives it to poor people. So this is bad action, but how does it function? Even if you have bad karma, if it’s not for you but for other people, it becomes good karma. Likewise, good karma which is only for you becomes bad karma.
So it’s very important how your good or bad karma functions. So don’t be attached to it, don’t check whether you have good karma or bad karma. You have karma, so how you use it is very important. The correct function means only helping other people, making other people happy. Then it’s OK.
Once a man had very good music karma. That is very wonderful, but he used it for bad action. The music was so beautiful that people would lose consciousness, then another man would take their money. That is using good karma and making bad action. So bad karma is ok. How do you use it? How can you make it function correctly? Everybody has karma, and any karma is ok. The correct function of karma is very important.
Q: Where do good karma and bad karma arise from?
ZMSS: Good and bad have no self nature. You make the category “good,” so you have good. You make the category ”bad,” so you have bad. Zen practice is about not making “good” and “bad.” When you practice, what is your original face? If you think, “I am bad,” then you have bad. Don’t think that, don’t be attached to “I am bad.” Just bring your attention back to the question “What am I doing?” If you do a bad action or make a big mistake, and you think “I am bad,” then that bad never disappears.
The mistake was made already, so how do we make it correct? How to make it correct is a very important point. Don’t be attached to bad, and soon return to “What am I doing now?” If you do a bad action to someone, say “I am sorry.” Then it is all finished. Understand?
Someone told me this story. A man and his girlfriend decided to do something together. In the daytime he went to the office and was working very hard. Time passed. He forgot to meet his girlfriend. She was very angry. How could he explain so that his girlfriend would feel good?
Someone suggested that he say, “I was so busy I forgot.” Or, “I didn’t feel so good, so I didn’t go.” When you are in a situation like this, many opinions occur to you. You check how your mind was at that time. Zen means don’t check your past mind. Never check that. Only go straight. Already you made a mistake, so you go to your girlfriend and say, “I am sorry, I made a mistake. If you don’t like me, then kill me, please.” She will not kill you. But first, you have to make everything correct, then there is no good and bad.
Q: So what you are saying is, we are all bound by the law of karma and it’s better to give than to receive.
ZMSS: Don’t check on giving and receiving, just DO IT! (laughs) “Just do it!” is very important. If you love somebody, then only love is enough. Don’t check. If you are checking, that’s like saying, when you like somebody, “I love you, why don’t you love me?” – that’s not love. Love is unconditional. Only giving, only giving, just as this earth, this universe, gives us everything.
Every day we breathe in, breathe out. Nobody pays money for that. Living in this world, food is very important, clothes are very important, a house is very important. For all these things we must pay money. If for only ten minutes you do not breathe, you die. But no one says “Thank you very much” for their air.
The universe always gives us this air. This air has no hindrance, it connects with everybody, not just human beings. The air connects with trees and animals and sky. We are all connected by this breathing in, breathing out. When you sleep, when you’re awake, whether you have good thinking or bad thinking, you breathe in and breathe out. Always. If you stop, you die. So this much is given to you, this air. This is love mind. Think about it.
Also, if we had no sun, we would die. If we exploded all the missiles that Russia and America have, a cloud would cover the earth. No sun could penetrate this cloud. The earth would grow cold – then what? Everything would die. So this sunlight is very important, but no one says, “Thank you very much, sun.”
Next is water, very important. For water we pay money. We don’t pay the water, we only pay to have the water brought here from the mountain. Nobody pays the water any money. Also, if we had no earth, then what? We could not grow any food, any trees, any flowers.
Air, fire, water, earth – the four elements. The universe takes these elements and makes your body. That’s your life’s root. Correct roots. Nowadays, human beings don’t understand their roots. “I go to the factory, I make money, so I make a living. I don’t have to believe in God, I don’t owe the universe anything. What’s the big deal? I have money, I take care of myself.” This style of thinking. We have all forgotten our human roots. If you have no air, no ground, you cannot stay alive.
Anytime you do not believe in love, you die. What is your life? The whole universe is only giving, giving to you, We call that unconditional love. It has no condition. So you must also give to this universe. Loving and helping this universe is necessary. Don’t make atom bombs, don’t kill animals, don’t pollute the air or anything.
Many people have seen the movie “Never Cry Wolf.” Human beings never understand their correct situation. Human beings are the number one bad animal. We have destroyed much of nature, air, water and trees. Then we say we want world peace. Not possible. That is number one stupid!
So that is not so good. Human beings must just now WAKE UP – that is important. If we do not wake up, we cannot continue this human world, ok? It will soon disappear.
Q: If all the animals in the world can exist in peace without human beings, then why are we here? (Laughter)
ZMSS: Why are we here? I ask you, why do you eat every day? (Laughter) If everyone gives to each other, then there’s no problem. The universe gives us everything. We are holding our I-my-me, our “I want this?” so this earth has a problem.
You must understand correct love. There’s the famous story about two women arguing about a baby, Each one said, “This is my baby.” The the King said, “Bring the baby here, I will divide it in two. You take half, you take the other half.” He picked up his sword to kill the baby and one woman said, “Oh, you take this baby!” to the other woman. That is unconditional love. Not for myself, but only love others.