Eastern Europe is in the midst of a revolution. In comparison, the recent changes in the Kwan Um School of Zen are very tiny stuff indeed. But, for those of us who are accomplishing the Dharma way, especially in Zen Master Seung Sahn’s lineage, our changes have an importance that goes beyond organizational needs and parameters of efficiency. They represent one more step in the transmission of the Dharma to the West and in the emergence of American Buddhism.
The process of change is very interesting in that it provides us with the opportunity for success or failure. This success or failure then either entraps us or becomes the very path to absolute freedom. Most people do not mind success, but are adverse to failure. Yet it is success which often becomes enfettering, and it is the suffering associated with failure that gives us energy for practice and raises the deep questions that send us on the spiritual quest.
It is a very rare person who can learn equally well from happiness and suffering. For most of us, a good situation is a bad situation and a bad situation is a good situation, as Zen Master Seung Sahn often says.
Speaking of success and failure brings to mind the 13th case- of the Mu Mun Kwan. The case reads as follows:
Duk Sahn Carrying His Bowls
One day Duk Sahn came into the Dharma room carrying his bowls. Seol Bong, housemaster, said, “Old Master, the bell has not yet been rung and the drum has not been struck. Where are you going carrying your bowls?”
Duk Sahn returned to the Master’s Room. Seol Bong told Am Du, head monk. Am Du said, “Great Master Duk Sahn does not understand the last word.”
When Duk Sahn heard of this, he became very angry and sent for his head monk, Am Du. “Do you not approve of me?” he demanded.
Then Am Du whispered in the Master’s ear. Duk Sahn was relieved.
The next day on the rostrum, making his Dharma speech, Duk Sahn was different from before. Am Du went to the front of the Dharma Room, laughed loudly, clapped his hands, and said, “Great joy! The Master has understood the last word! From now on, no one can check him.”
There are three questions from this story:
1. “The Zen Master did not understand the last word.” What was the last word? (“Last word” means correct situation.)
2. What did Am Du whisper in the Master’s ear?
3. How was the Master’s speech different from before?
If we understand these three questions, then we understand our correct situation, relationship and function. This kong-an is a “mistake kong-an.” Zen Master Duk Sahn made a small error in coming to the meal before the signal was given. His big error was in not responding correctly to the housemaster. The matter could have been ended right then. This raises a fourth question: If you were Duk Sahn, how would you have responded to the housemaster?
It is a very interesting and profound matter. If we truly attain this, then for us any mistake is no problem. Even a mistake can be used to help others, to teach them, and to open their minds.
The more rapid the pace of our lives, the more rapid the pace of change and the bigger our opportunity for failure. It is very tempting to try to be correct at all times and to not take any risks, yet our vows call on us to save all beings from suffering, a risky proposition, with endless opportunities for failure and countless chances for mistakes.
Contrary to the popular superstition that Buddhism is a “passive contemplation of emptiness” (to paraphrase the Pope), our vows and meditation are a creative unfolding that continuously strips away “l, my, me” and allows our true nature to function for the benefit of others. In this way, our practice, our lives, and even our failures are for the sake of others. That is the true vow.