One time Un Mun Zen Master was visiting the capital city. Because of his fame as a teacher, a high government offical wanted to meet with him. During the audience the offical asked, “What is the meaning of the Hwa Yen Sutra?”
Un Mun said, “Putting that aside for a moment, what is the meaning of ‘sutra’?”
“The cover is gold and the inside is white,” was the minister’s reply.
“You only understand the form of the sutra; you don’t understand its meaning.” The minister was completely stuck.
Recently, at the Centennial of the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, the Dalai Lama gave a speech in which he said that the true basis of the ecumenical movement is spiritual attainment. True understanding of another’s religion can only come from first attaining the meaning of your own religion; not just understanding it. Ritual and theology may be important but what’s most important is what’s inside the fancy robes. If the inside is real, then cooperation is possible.
Zen Master Seung Sahn, too, emphasizes attainment over understanding. Often he will say that a lot of people understand the bible or the sutras, but very few people understand the “behind meaning”–they have not attained the meaning. Zen is a special transmission outside the sutras, not dependent on words or speech. One familiar metaphor concerning this situation is that the various religions are like fingers pointing at the moon. Unfortunately, human beings spend much of their energy finger wrestling, rather than helping our world.
When Su Bong Zen Master was just starting to practice Zen, he was very interested in the story of the Sixth Patriarch’s enlightenment. The Sixth Patriarch got enlightenment upon hearing one line being recited from the Diamond Sutra. Zen Master Su Bong was very interested in this one line, and one day took the sutra into Zen Master Seung Sahn’s room to ask him about it. Pointing to the book, he asked, “What does this mean?” Zen Master Seung Sahn said, “Bring it closer. What line are you pointing to?” Just as Zen Master Su Bong brought the book close, Zen Master Seung Sahn slammed the book on his finger–POW!–and shouted, “What are you?!”
So, if you were the government minister and Un Mun asked you, “What is the meaning of ‘sutra’?” how could you answer?