Bodhidharma, founder of the Zen lineage, is said to have described Zen this way: A special transmission outside the scriptures / Not depending on words and letters / Pointing directly to the human mind / Seeing into ones nature and attaining buddhahood. Theres no better example of Zens direct, penetrating spirit than these exchanges between the late Seung Sahnone of the great Zen masters to have lived and taught in the United Statesand his students.
Someone asked Zen Master Seung Sahn,
What do you think about the beginning of this world
The beginning of this world came from your mouth. Ha ha ha ha! Do you understand
The student was silent.
Then I will explain: what is this world You must understand that point first. You make time, space, cause and effect. In three seconds, when you asked that question, you made this whole world. Physics used to teach that time and space, and cause and effect, are absolutes. But modern physics teaches that time, space, and cause and effect are subjective. So you make this whole world, and you make your time and space.
The student said, I still dont understand.
Zen Master Seung Sahn replied, OK, so first you must understand, what is time One unit of time is an hour. But my thinking sometimes makes this hour very long, or very short. You go to the airport to pick up your girlfriend. You havent seen her in a long time. You wait at the airport, and the airplane is very late. Five, ten, twenty, thirty minuteswaiting, waiting, waiting. Even another half hour passes. Ten minutes seems like a whole day. So this one hour feels like a very, very long time because you want to see her very much, and you sit there saying, Where is the plane Why hasnt it arrived yet But yet some other time, you go dancing with friends, and dance all night, and even one hour seems to pass by very quickly. Now that same amount of time measured as one hour seems very short. A whole hour has already passed It seems like only a minute! So mind makes one hour very long or very short. Time depends on thinking, because time is created by thinking. The Buddha taught this, and we can test it in our everyday life. Everything is created by mind alone.
It is the same with space: Spain is here, and New York is there, Korea is over there, and Japan is over here. People in Spain say, This way is north, thats south, east, and west. But on the opposite side of the earth, Korean people say that north is here, south is over there, and east and west are here and here. If I stay here, my north, south, east, and west are like this. If I am not here, my north, south, east, and west disappear. Cause and effect are also the same: if I do some good action, I go to heaven; bad action, go to hell. Thats cause and effect. But if I dont make anything, where do I go
So I make time, and space, and cause and effect. I make my world; you make your world. A cat makes a cats world. The dog makes the dogs world. God makes Gods world. Buddha makes Buddhas world. If you believe in God 100 percent, then when you die, and your world disappears, you go to Gods world. If you believe in Buddha 100 percent, then when your world disappears, you will go to Buddhas world. But if you believe in your true self 100 percent, then you make your world, and thats complete freedom: heaven or hell, coming and going anywhere with no hindrance.
Zen Master Seung Sahn looked at the questioner. So I ask you, which one do you like
The student was silent.
Anytime you open your mouth, your world appears.
The student asked, So, who was the first person to open his mouth
You already understand!
Amid general laughter, the student was silent for a few moments. Then he bowed deeply.
A student had the following exchange with Zen Master Seung Sahn:
What is enlightenment
Enlightenment is only a name, he replied. If you make enlighten-ment, then enlightenment exists. But if enlightenment exists, then ignorance exists, too. And that already makes an opposites-world. Good and bad, right and wrong, enlightened and ignorantall of these are opposites. All opposites are just your own thinking. But truth is absolute, and is before any thinking or opposites appear. So if you make something, you will get something, and that something will be a hindrance. But if you dont make anything, you will get everything, OK
The student continued, But is enlightenment really just a name Doesnt a Zen master have to attain the experience of enlightenment in order to become a Zen master
The Heart Sutra says that there is no attainment, with nothing to attain. If enlightenment is attained, it is not true enlightenment. Having enlightenment is already a big mistake.
Then is everyone already enlightened
Zen Master Seung Sahn laughed and said, Do you understand no attainment
No attainment is true attainment. So I already told you about the Heart Sutra. It says, There is no attainment, with nothing to attain. You must attain no attainment.
The student rubbed his head. I think I understand
You understand So I ask you, what is attainment What is there to attain
Emptiness, the man replied.
Emptiness Zen Master Seung Sahn asked. But in true emptiness, there is no name and no form. So there is also no attainment. Even opening your mouth to express it, you are already mistaken. If you say, I have attained true emptiness, you are wrong.
Hmmm, the student said. Im beginning to understand. At least I think I am.
The universe is always true emptiness, OK Now you are living in a dream. Wake up! Then you will soon understand.
How can I wake up
I hit you! [Laughter from the audience.] Very easy, yah
The student was silent for a few moments, while Zen Master Seung Sahn eyed him intently. I still dont get it. Would you please explain a bit more
OK. Can you see your eyes
Yes, I can.
By looking in a mirror.
Thats not your eyes! That is only a reflection of your eyes. So your eyes cannot see your eyes. If you try to see your eyes, its already a big mistake. Talking about enlightenment is also like that. Its like your eyes trying to see your eyes.
But my question is, when you were a young monk, you had the actual experience of enlightenment. What was this experience
I hit you! Ha ha ha ha!
The student was silent.
OK, one more try. Suppose we have before us some honey, some sugar, and a banana. All of them are sweet. Can you explain the difference between honeys sweetness, sugars sweetness, and bananas sweetness
But each has a different sweetness, yah How can you explain it to me
The student looked suddenly even more perplexed. I dont know
The Zen master continued, Well, you could say to me, Open your mouth. This is honey, this is sugar, and this is banana! Ha ha ha ha! So if you want to understand enlightenment, its already making something. Dont make anything. Moment to moment, just do it. Thats already enlightenment. So, first understand your true self. To understand your true self, you must understand the meaning of my hitting you. I have already put enlightenment into your mind. Ha ha ha ha! [Extended laughter from the audience]
After a Dharma talk at the Cambridge Zen Center, a student asked Zen Master Seung Sahn, Is there such a thing as a clean mind
If you have mind, then you must clean your mind. If you have no mind, cleaning is not necessary. So I ask you, do you have a mind
Yes, I do.
Where is it
The student looked puzzled for a moment. Where is it
Yes, where is it How big is your mind
This much [holding arms open wide] or this much [narrowing them together]
The student tilted his head back and stretched his arms open wide. This much right now.
Ooohh, only that Thats very small! [Much laughter from the assembly.] Thats not your original mind. Originally, your mind is the whole universe; the whole universe and your mind are the same. Why do you make just this much So that is a problem. Since you make this-much mind, now you must dry-clean your mind. Use dont-know soap. If you clean, clean, clean your mind, it will become bigger, bigger, and biggeras big as the whole universe. But if there is any taint, it becomes smaller, smaller, smaller. But actually, you have no mind, I think.
You think I have no mind
Yes, no mind.
The student was silent.
You dont understand, yah Do you have mind
Well, I dont understand a lot of I dont understand a lot umm I [Laughter.]
The Sixth Patriarch said, Originally nothing: where can dust alight So maybe you have no mind.
After a long silence, the student brightened a bit. OK, you talk about right livelihood, you talk about having monk karma and wanting to practice Zen umm and my question is not to live in a Zen center to live in the world its very difficult to practice, umm to coincide practice and livelihood, umm . So the mind that meets the mind thats conflicted is the mind Im speaking with from umm
Yah, your mind is a strange mind, Seung Sahn said.
A strange mind
Yah, strange mind. Nowadays everybody has a strange mind, because inside its not correct, not meticulous, not clear. This strange mind is like an animals mind, not really a human beings mind. It is maybe eighty percent animal mind, twenty percent human mind. So that is strange, thats crazy. Nowadays there are many, many crazy people. But everybody is crazy, so this crazy is not special. Even a Zen masters speech is crazy. Yesterday I said in a dharma speech, The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Those are crazy words. The sun never rises in the east nor sets in the west. The sun never moves! Only the earth moves, around and around the sun, so why make this speech about the sun rising in the east and setting in the west Thats crazy! [Laughter.] So that means: crazy is not crazy. Not crazy is crazy. [He looks at the questioners face.] Do you understand that Crazy is not crazy; not crazy is crazy.
The student started to say something, but stopped.
Ha, ha, ha! Now complicated! Thats no problem. Zen teaches that if you have mind, you have a problem. If you dont have mind, then everything is no hindrance. But everybody makes mind, so there are many problems in this world. Say you own a hotel. Mind is like this hotels manager, who should be working for you. Usually, everything is OK in the hotel, but this manager is always causing problems: I want this, I want that. I like this, I dont like that. I want to be free, go here, do that That is mind, OK The Buddha taught, When mind appears, dharma appears. When dharma appears, form appears. When form appears, then like/dislike, coming/going, life and death, everything appears. So if you have mind, you have a problem; no mind, no problem. Here are some very popular words: Everything is created by mind alone. These are good words; they have a good taste. Your mind makes something, and something hinders you. So dont make anything! Take your mind and throw it into the garbage. Only dont know!
The student sat, expressionless.
So Zen practice means you fire this low-class hotel manager, because hes doing a bad job in your high-class hotel. You must take control of your hotel, which means you control your eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind. The owner must be strong. If the manager doesnt do his job correctly, the owner must say, You are no good! Why didnt you fix these things! Thats your job! Why did you take all the money! Im going to fire you! Then this manager will be afraid, Oh, please dont fire me! Please! Then the owner must say, You listen to me, OK OK, OK, Ill only follow you from now on!
You must hit your mind, OK Tell your mind, You must listen to me! If your mind says OK, then no problem. If not, you must cut this mind. How You must use your dont-know sword. Always hold on to this dont-know sword: mind is very afraid of it. If you keep this dont-know sword, then everything is no problem.
Brightening up considerably, the student bowed and said, Thank you very much for your teaching.
Why Zen Seems Difficult
After a dharma talk at the Cambridge Zen Center, someone asked Zen Master Seung Sahn, Why does Zen seem so difficult
Yes, the man said. Why does it seem so difficult I didnt say it was, but why does it seem so difficult
Seem difficult Zen is very easy; why make difficult
The man persisted, All right, Ill ask you as a psychologist: why do I make it difficult
A psychologist said that Who said what
Why do I or anybody make Zen difficult
You say difficult, so its difficult. A long time ago in China there lived a famous man named Layman Pang. His whole family was a Zen family. Layman Pang used to be rich, but then he realized that many people dont have enough food to eat. So he gave all of his land to the farmers. He had many precious jewels and other possessions, but he thought, If I give things away, theyll only create desire-mind in other people. So he took a boat out to the middle of a very deep lake and dumped all his priceless possessions overboard. Then he and his daughter went and lived in a cave; meanwhile, his wife and son moved into a very small house. Sometimes the Pangs would visit Zen temples to have dharma combat with the monks. They had a very simple life, and practiced very hard.
One day, someone asked Layman Pang, Is Zen difficult or easy
He replied, Its like trying to hit the moon with a stick. Very difficult!
Then this man thought, Oh, Zen is very difficult. So he asked Layman Pangs wife, Your husband said Zen is difficult. I ask you, then, is Zen difficult or easy
She said, Oh, Zen is very easy! Its like touching your nose when you wash your face in the morning!
The man could not understand. He thought to himself, Hmmm Layman Pang says Zen is difficult; his wife says it is very easy. Which one is correct So he went to their son and said, Your father said Zen is very difficult; your mother said it is very easy. Which one is correct
The son replied, If you think its difficult, then its difficult. If you think its easy, then its easy. Dont make difficult and easy!
But the man was still not satisfied, so he went to the daughter. Everyone in your whole family has a different answer to my question. Your mother said Zen is easy. Your father said Zen is difficult. And your brother said dont make difficult and easy. So I ask you, is Zen difficult or easy
Go drink tea.
Seung Sahn Sunim looked at the student who asked the question and said, So, go drink tea, OK Dont make difficult. Dont make easy. Dont make anything. From moment to moment, just do it!
One afternoon, Zen Master Seung Sahn and several of his students were driving down Route I-95, from Providence, Rhode Island, to New York City. They chatted from time to time as they drove, with the students asking him questions about various things. At one point they stopped at a tollbooth. The driver handed the tollbooth operator some money, and was waiting for his change. One of the students said to her through the open window, Nice day, isnt it
Yes, she replied. But, my goodness, where did all this wind come from After she gave them their change, they drove off.
The car was quiet for several miles. Then Zen Master Seung Sahn turned to his students and said, That was no ordinary woman at the tollbooth. That was Kwan Seum Bosal [the bodhisattva of compassion] asking you a great question: Where did all this wind come from What a wonderful koan! You must always be alert to the teaching that comes your way, all the time. Let go of your mind and then you can see whats actually in front of you. So I ask you, where did all this wind come from
No one could answer.
OK. Ill give you a hint. Zen Master Man Gong wrote a poem that will help you:
Everything is born by following the wind;
everything dies by following the wind.
When you find out where the wind comes from,
there is no life, no death.
When you have an answer like-this,
You see nature through spiritual eyes.
2006 by the Kwan Um School of Zen. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc.
Seung Sahn was the first Korean Zen master to live and teach in the West. He was founding teacher of the Kwan Um School of Zen, an international organization of more than one hundred centers and groups. Seung Sahn died in 2005. This article is excerpted from a new book of his teachings, Wanting Enlightenment Is a Big Mistake, to be published in August 2006 by Shambhala.