One Sunday night at the Providence Zen Center, Seung Sahn Soen-sa told the story of Su Tung-po’s enlightenment. Afterwards he said to his students:
“What do we learn from this story? That Zen teaches us to cut off all discriminating thoughts and to understand that the truth of the universe is ultimately our own true self. All of you should meditate very deeply on this. What is this entity that you call the self? When you understand what it is, you will have returned to an intuitive oneness with Nature and will see that Nature is you and you are Nature, that Nature is the Buddha, who is preaching to us at every moment. It is my wish that all of you will be able to hear what Nature is saying.”
Student A (pointing to a rock in the zendo) — What is that rock saying to you right now?
Soen-sa — Why do you think it’s speaking to me?
Student A — Well, I hear something, but I can’t quite make out. what it is?
Soen-sa — Why don’t you ask the rock?
Student A — I already have, but I can’t understand its language.
Soen-sa — That’s because your mind is exactly like the rock! (Laughter)
Soen-sa — Are there any more questions?
Student A — If there are no questions, can you answer?
Soen-sa — If there are no questions, then you’re all Buddhas. And Buddhas don’t need to be taught.
Student B — But we don’t know we’re Buddhas.
Soen-sa — That’s true, you don’t know…. Fish swim in water, but they don’t know they’re in water. Every moment you breathe in air, but you do it unconsciously. You’d only be conscious of air if you were without it. In the same way, we are always hearing the sounds of cars, voices, waterfalls. All these sounds are sermons, they’re the voice of the Buddha himself preaching to us. We hear many sermons, all the time, but we’re deaf to them. If we were really alive, whenever we heard, saw, smelled, tasted, touched, we’d say, “Ah, this is a fine sermon!” We’d see that there’s no scripture that teaches as well as this experience with Nature.
Student C — Why do some see and others not?
Soen-sa — Your nose sticks out and your eyes are sunken. Do you know why? It would be just as functional to have two holes in the middle of our face, and eyes on a flat plane. So why are our eyes and noses the way they are?
Student C — I don’t know.
Soen-sa — Well, it’s human karma. In the same way, you’ve sown certain seeds in the past that now result in your encountering Buddhism. Not only that: some people come here only once, while others stay and practice very earnestly. When you practice Zen earnestly, you’re burning up the karma that binds you to ignorance. In Japanese the word for “earnest” means “to heat up the heart”. If you heat up your heart, this karma, which is like a block of ice in your mind, melts and becomes liquid. And if you keep heating it, it becomes steam, and evaporates into space. Those people who practice come to melt their hinderances. Why do they Practice? Because it’s their karma to do so, just as it’s others’ not to. Man’s discriminating thoughts build up a great thought-mass in his mind, and this is what he mistakenly regards as his real self. In fact, it’s merely a mental construction based on ignorance. The purpose of Zen meditation is to dissolve this thought-mass. What is finally left is the real self. You enter into the world of the selfless. And if you don’t stop there, if you don’t think about this realm or cling to it, you will continue in your practice until you become one with the Absolute.