Introduction Zen Is Understanding Yourself

Keen-Eyed Lions and Blind Dogs

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71. Keen-Eyed Lions and Blind Dogs

  The next morning, the student said to Soen-sa, “You were talking yesterday morning about different kinds of teachers. How can I recognize a keen-eyed Zen Master?”

Soen-sa said, “It is difficult if you stay only in one place. You should go around and hear many Zen Masters. Then you will soon understand. In the Avatamsaka Sutra, there is a story about a young boy who studied with fifty-three teachers. He would learn what he could from one teacher, and then travel on to another. Finally, he met Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of wisdom. Manjushri asked him, ‘What have you learned from these fifty-three teachers?’ The boy said this teacher had taught him this, and that teacher had taught him that. Manjushri hit him. Everything he had learned disappeared. As soon as he realized this, he decided to begin his travels again in search of a teacher. At that moment, Manjushri, who himself had disappeared, reached out across ten thousand worlds and touched the boy on the forehead. ‘This beginner's mind,’ he said, ‘is the true mind of enlightenment.’ Upon hearing this, the boy became enlightened.

“Some people study Zen for five or ten years without attaining enlightenment. They become very attached to their teacher, and this teacher cannot help them understand. If you study with only one teacher, even if he is a great teacher, it is difficult to meet Manjushri. So Zen students should travel from teacher to teacher until they find a keen-eyed Zen Master. This is very important.”

The student said, “But how will I know?”

Soen-sa said, “At first you may not know. But if you practice Zen for a while and listen to many Zen Masters, you will soon understand what is correct teaching and what is not. If you don't taste sugar, you can't understand sweet; if you don't taste salt, you can't understand salty. No one can taste for you. You have to do it yourself.”

“But aren't all Zen Masters enlightened?”

“There are different levels of enlightenment. There is first enlightenment, original enlightenment, final enlightenment. First enlightenment is attaining true emptiness. Original enlightenment is attaining ‘like this.’ Final enlightenment is ‘just like this.’”

“Would you please explain some more?”

“Okay. Here is an apple. If you say it is an apple, you are attached to name and form. But if you say it is not an apple, you are attached to emptiness. So is this an apple or not? If you hit the floor or shout KATZ, this is a first-enlightenment answer. If you say, ‘The sky is blue, the grass is green,’ or ‘The apple is red, the wall is white,’ you are giving a ‘like this’ answer. But if you take a bite of the apple, your answer is ‘just like this.’ In the same way, you would ring the bell or open the book and read it. So first enlightenment, original enlightenment, and final enlightenment all have different answers. Some Zen Masters do not make these distinctions. Some only understand KATZ or silence. Some distinguish between KATZ and ‘like this,’ but don't understand ‘just like this.’ A keen-eyed Zen Master distinguishes among the three kinds of enlightenment. But he uses all three kinds with perfect freedom.”

“The Zen Master I heard in New Haven said that there is no such thing as complete enlightenment. He said that you can never finish. Is that correct?”

“Buddha said, ‘All beings are already enlightened.’ An eminent teacher said, ‘Without thinking, just like this is Buddha.’ Without thinking is clear mind. So if you keep a clear mind, then any action is just like this. To say that you attain more enlightenment, more, more, more, is thinking. Thinking is desire. Desire is suffering. So Zen Master Nam Chan said, ‘Everyday mind is the Way.’”

The student said, “I have one more question. You said that a keen-eyed Zen Master distinguishes three separate kinds of enlightenment. But isn't Zen mind precisely the mind that doesn't create distinctions? Didn't the Third Patriarch say, ‘The Great Way is not difficult for those who do not discriminate’?”

Soen-sa said, “First enlightenment, original enlightenment, final enlightenment—are these the same or different?”

The student thought for a moment, then smiled and said, “The wall is white, the rug is blue.”

Soen-sa said, “You are attached to color.”

You are attached to color!”

“The dog runs after the bone.”

“Then are they the same or different?”

Soen-sa said, “The wall is white, the rug is blue.”

The student smiled.

72. Original Sound, Original Body

  October 12, 1974

Dear Soen-sa-nim,

Hello from Cambridge! I hope you enjoy the enclosed “Zen Comics”—perhaps they're good to practice English with.

Things here are fine. “What am I?” grows and grows…. The yoga school starts Saturday. I have two classes to begin with, one on Saturday mornings, the other a special class of mostly professors and their wives and friends during the week. Each class will be two hours—body movements, breathing, and instructions on cleansing and diet, followed by an introduction to Zen sitting. At first only a half-hour sitting, then longer periods of time on the cushion. Dae Ja will give a yoga class for women, Jonny will give a yoga class too. It will be called the Cambridge Zen Center Institute of Hatha Yoga.

A friend of mine will bring two very wealthy people to speak to us soon. They have been generous with their time and money for others—perhaps they will help us as well.

Yesterday I had a very good interview for a teaching job that may be very helpful for us. What is unusual about the position is that I would be a university professor, which means that I would not be in any special subject (e.g., psychology, philosophy, etc). It would allow me to teach whatever I want (even Dharma). It pays much money, which would make supporting the Zen Center easier. But it is hard to get—especially since most professors are not ready to let someone come in at a high level to teach Zen, yoga, etc. If they give me the job, they will have to let me teach what I like.

A few questions:

1) I have heard a sound “in my head” while meditating for a few years now. But now it has become very strong and comes within a few minutes of sitting. It sounds like many crickets or a loud sea shell—very pleasant. It comes in response to “What am I?” Do I watch it like a tiger? disappear into it? forget it?*

2) Regarding rebirth: To be honest, I have no actual experience (or don't know it) of ever having been alive before: nor do I know what happens upon death to the physical body. The Buddhist theory of rebirth is very intelligent and plausible, but I have no direct awareness of this truth. Two very psychic people told me I was Oriental once before, and since I was a little child I have always been very comfortable with the Oriental style of living. Once on LSD I felt that I had been a very wild primitive hunter-type person in Mongolia; but I did not take this for an actual picture of a past life.

I do feel more “close” to the ideas of oneness and emptiness in Buddhism, but this is because of a little experience of such possibilities on LSD. Who is there to be reborn? It is not a constant, since everything changes. Many people at the Zen Center and in Cambridge seem very confident about rebirth. I don't know! It is not absolutely necessary for my practice, because even if this were “my” one and only life I would sit Zen anyway. Can you help me? I certainly trust that Buddha, the Patriarchs, and yourself are not liars. But I need to know from within myself too.

I must also admit that my “little I” hates the kong-an method. Of all the spiritual methods—yoga, chanting, mantra, breathing, etc.—it is the only one that “little I” really dislikes. My professor-mind moves like a car on square wheels and flies like a plane with noodles for wings. It is good medicine for me! Come back soon and laugh with us again.

May your Buddha-teaching yield rootless skinless non-fruit in America.


Byon Jo

  October 21, 1974

Dear Byon Jo,

Thank you for your letter and book. The book is very good, and I will read it and learn Zen-English words. I am glad that you have begun the yoga school and I hope it grows every day and becomes the number-one yoga school in the U.S.

Now some Americans are coming to Tal Mah Sah to sit Zen. They are hearing the teachings of the Chogye school (our way) for the first time, and they like our kind of Zen very much. Some of them want to become our students and will come to the Cambridge Zen Center. If they come to Cambridge, you must help them.

It is good if rich people come to the Zen Center, but it is better if our students work hard and make enough money to buy a house. This way is a better way.

I hope you soon get the job and help all people. Many people are attached to name and form, and if you are a professor they will listen to you in a different way. So it will be easier for you to help them. I hope you get the job, help all people, and become a good professor.

To answer your question about sound: this is original sound. If you are very quiet, you will hear original sound; but if you become attached to this sound, it will grow very loud, and this is no good. Only keep “What am I?” Then the sound will be “What am I?” Then sound will be no sound, no sound will be sound. Then you will understand your true self. This is your true self.

Your true self has no inside, no outside.

Sound is clear mind; clear mind is sound.

Sound and hearing are not separate. There is only sound.

I ask you—now you have a body: does it exist or is it emptiness?

How many colors are there in the rainbow?

One person says there are five colors, another says seven, another says twelve, another says thirty, another says a hundred. Which one is correct?

Originally the rainbow has no color.

Buddhism separates lives into past, present, and future.

Christianity has no past lives, only present and future.

Taoism has no past or future, only the present.

Which is correct?

  The Heart Sutra says that “form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” If you are attached to name and form, then all things appear and disappear. But if you cut off all thinking, then all things do not appear and do not disappear.

Buddhism says there is rebirth. Is this correct or not correct?

If you say “correct,” I will hit you thirty times.

If you say “not correct,” I will still hit you thirty times.


Already you understand.

The cat likes the mouse.

When you don't make “little I,” and you don't make “professor,” and you are not attached to the kong-an method, all thinking returns to your true self and your mind becomes clear. Mind is like a blackboard. You make pictures on it like “little I,” “professor,” “Zen student,” etc. When you erase it, everything disappears. At first everything disappears; then you must draw only a Bodhisattva picture. Bodhisattva means no desire for myself, only for all people. So I hope that you PUT IT DOWN



Here is a poem for you:

Form body and thinking body—where do they come from?

Before thinking there is no name and no form,

only infinite time and infinite space.

The children chase butterflies with a net.

Wind comes and an apple falls to the ground.

I hope you soon get enlightenment and become a great man.

See you soon.

S. S.

  *Does this have anything to do with Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva's method of separating hearing from outside sounds and turning inwards to hear the self-nature?


73. The Story of Mang Gong

  Zen Master Mang Gong, Seung Sahn Soen-sa's grand-teacher, became a monk when he was a young boy, and for several years studied the Mahayana sutras at Dong Hak Sa temple. One day, when he was thirteen years old, there was a great ceremony to mark the beginning of the long vacation. The sutra master got up and said, “You must all study very hard, learn Buddhism, and become like great trees, from which temples are built, and like large bowls, able to hold many good things. The sutra says, ‘Water becomes square or round according to the shape of the container it is put in. In the same way, people become good or bad according to the friends they have.’ Always have the Buddha in mind and keep good company. Then you will become great trees and containers of Dharma. This I sincerely wish.”

The next speaker was Zen Master Kyong Ho, who happened to be visiting the temple. He was already known all over Korea as a very great Zen Master and, clothed in rags, with long hair and a long, thin beard, he was a striking figure among the neat, shaven-headed monks. He said, “All of you are monks. Monks are free of petty personal attachments and live only to serve all people. Wanting to become a great tree or container of Dharma will prevent you from being a true teacher. Great trees have great uses; small trees have small uses. Good and bad bowls can all be used in their own way. None are to be discarded. Keep both good and bad friends. You mustn't reject anything. This is true Buddhism. My only wish for you is that you free yourselves from all conceptual thinking.”

Everyone was filled with deep admiration. As the Zen Master walked out of the Dharma room, Mang Gong ran after him and pulled at his robe. Kyong Ho turned around and said, “What do you want?”

Mang Gong said, “I want to become your student. Please take me with you.”

Kyong Ho shouted at him to go away, but the boy would not leave. Then he said, with great severity, “You are only a child. You are incapable of learning Buddhism.”

Mang Gong said, “People may be young or old, but is there youth or old age in Buddhism?”

Kyong Ho said, “You bad boy! You have killed and eaten the Buddha! Come along now.”

He took the boy to Chung Jung Sa temple, introduced him to the abbot, and left him there.

Mang Gong studied hard for the next five years. One day, when he was eighteen, he heard the kong-an: “The ten thousand dharmas return to the One: where does the One return to?” Immediately he was plunged into the great doubt. He couldn't eat or sleep or think of anything but that one question. All day long, and far into the night, he would keep the question in his mind, wherever he was, whatever he was doing.

One day, as he was sitting Zen, a large hole appeared in the wall which he was facing. He could see the whole landscape! Grass, trees, clouds, and the blue sky appeared through the wall with total clarity. He touched the wall. It was still there, but it was transparent like glass. He looked up, and he could see right through the roof. At this Mang Gong was filled with an inexpressible joy. Early the next morning, he went to see the Zen Master, rushed into his room, and announced, “I have penetrated the nature of all things. I have attained enlightenment.”

The Master said, “Oh, have you? Then what is the nature of all things?”

Mang Gong said, “I can see right through the wall and the roof, as if they weren't there.”

The Master said, “Is this the truth?”

“Yes. I have no hindrance at all.”

The Master took his Zen stick and hit Mang Gong on the head. “Is there any hindrance now?”

Mang Gong was astonished. His eyes bulged, his face flushed, and the walls became solid again. The Master said, “Where did your truth go?”

“I don't know. Please teach me.”

“What kong-an are you working on?”

“‘Where does the One return?'”

“Do you understand One?”


“You must first understand One. What you saw was an illusion. Don't be led astray by it. With more hard work on your kong-an, you will soon understand.”

Mang Gong came out of this interview with renewed aspiration. For the next three years he meditated continually on the great question. Then, one morning that was no different from other mornings, he sang the words of the morning bell chant: “If you wish to understand all Buddhas of the past, present, and future, you must perceive that the whole universe is created by the mind alone.” Having sung this, he hit the great bell. Suddenly his mind opened, and he understood that all Buddhas dwell in a single sound.

Dizzy with joy, Mang Gong ran to the Dharma room and kicked the monk who used to sit next to him. The monk cried out and said, “Are you crazy?”

Mang Gong said, “This is Buddha-nature!”

“Have you attained enlightenment?”

“The whole universe is one. I am Buddha!”

During the next year, Mang Gong kicked and hit many other monks and became very famous. People said, “He is a free man. He has no hindrance at all.”

One day, a year later, there was an important ceremony at which Kyong Ho was present. Mang Gong went to his room thinking, “This Zen Master and I are the same. We have both attained enlightenment. He is Buddha, so am I. But since he was my first teacher I will bow to him, just as an ordinary monk would do.”

After Mang Gong had bowed, Kyong Ho said, “Welcome. It's been a long time since I've seen you. I heard that you have attained enlightenment. Is that true?”

Mang Gong said, “Yes, Master.”

“Wonderful. Now let me ask you a question.” Kyong Ho picked up a fan and a writing brush and put them in front of Mang Gong. “Are these the same or different?”

Mang Gong said, “The fan is the brush; the brush is the fan.”

For the next hour, with grandmotherly compassion, Kyong Ho tried to teach Mang Gong his mistake. But Mang Gong wouldn't listen. Finally Kyong Ho said, “I have one more question for you. In the burial ceremony there is a verse that says, The statue has eyes, and its tears silently drip down.’ What does this mean?”

Mang Gong was stunned. He could find nothing to say. Suddenly, Kyong Ho shouted at him, “If you don't understand this, why do you say that the fan and the brush are the same?” In great despair, Mang Gong bowed and said, “Forgive me.”

“Do you understand your mistake?”

“Yes, Master. What can I do?”

“Long ago, when Zen Master Jo-ju was asked if a dog had Buddha-nature, he said, ‘No!' What does this mean?”

“I don't know.”

Kyong Ho said, “Always keep the mind that doesn't know and you will soon attain enlightenment.”

Mang Gong understood what a great gift this teaching was. For the next three years, he did very hard training and always kept don't-know mind. One day he heard the great bell ring and understood Jo-ju's answer. He returned to Kyong Ho, bowed, and said, “Now I know why the Bodhisattva faces away: because sugar is sweet and salt is salty.”

74. Mang Gong Explains His KATZ

  Once Zen Master Mang Gong was staying in Yang San Tong Do Sa temple with Zen Master He Wol. It was time for lunch. All the monks sat down and were served. Everyone was waiting for the chuk-pi* to be struck so that they could begin eating. Suddenly He Wol shouted “KATZ!!!” Everyone was startled and confused. They looked over at He Wol. With total unconcern, he was only eating.

So everyone began to eat. But they were thinking, “Why did the Master shout?” “What did that mean?” “Why can't I understand what just happened?” Finally lunch was over, and the bowls were cleaned, dried, and wrapped in their covering cloths. The chuk-pi was struck, and everyone stood up. Suddenly Mang Gong shouted “KATZ!!!” Again, everyone was startled and confused.

Afterwards, one monk came to Mang Gong and asked him what all this meant. Mang Gong said, “I'm sorry, but I can't tell you.” Then another monk came; then two, then three. They bowed and said, “Please, Master, teach us.”

Finally, Mang Gong said, “I don't like to open my mouth. But since you have asked me, and since you are all sincere in your desire to understand, I will explain.” Then, suddenly, Mang Gong shouted “KATZ!!!” and walked away.

*A wooden clapper used to signal the beginning and end of meditation periods and meals.


75. The Transmission of No-Mind

  One Thursday evening, after a Dharma talk at the Cambridge Zen Center, a student asked Seung Sahn Soen-sa, “In the Zen tradition, what is the teaching about grace, or the transmission of no-mind from teacher to student?”

Soen-sa said, “How can this no-mind be transmitted? What is there to transmit? Once Buddha was staying at Vulture Peak. Every day he would deliver a long sermon to his disciples. One day there were twelve hundred people assembled to hear his Dharma. He sat down in front of them and was silent. One minute passed, then five minutes, then ten minutes. Finally Buddha held up a flower. Only Mahakashyapa understood and smiled. Buddha then said, ‘I have the true Dharma, and I transmit it to you.’ But later an eminent teacher said, ‘Buddha is crazy. Everybody already has the true Dharma, so how can Buddha transmit it to him alone? This is like selling dog-meat and advertising it as filet mignon.’ In Zen, Transmission means only that a Zen Master certifies that you have already attained enlightenment. He tests your mind to see whether you understand or not. If you have attained enlightenment, then he transmits his teaching-style to you.”

A second student said, “You say that a Zen Master tests a student's enlightenment. But if all people already have the true Dharma, if they already have Buddha-nature, how can someone not be enlightened?”

Soen-sa said, “Your hair is very dark. Why is it dark?”

“It's dark. Just that.”

“You are attached to dark.”

“But it's dark!”

“The Heart Sutra says that there are no eyes and no color. So where does dark come from?”

“I don't know.”

“You don't know? I will hit you!”

“It comes from my mind.”

“Your mind? Where is your mind?” (Laughter from the audience.) “You don't know dark, yah?”

The student was silent.

“You don't know everything.”

The student was still silent.

Soen-sa said, “This is how a Zen Master tests someone's mind.” (Loud laughter.) “Everybody sees that your hair is dark, but they don't understand. Everybody has Buddha-nature, but they don't understand. So having your mind checked is very necessary.”

76. Inside the Cow's Belly

  One morning Seung Sahn Soen-sa gave the following Dharma talk at the Providence Zen Center:

“A long time ago, after breakfast, an eminent Zen Master took three grains of rice and turned them into a tiny cow. At first this cow was very small and very hungry. She looked around the table and saw a needle and began to eat it. She proceeded to eat every object she could fit into her mouth. The cow soon began to grow. The more she ate, the bigger she became. Soon she was big enough to eat the eminent Zen Master, which she did with great relish.

“She ate up the entire kitchen and went into the Dharma room. She ate the moktak; she ate the incense; she ate the Buddha! She was still very hungry, so she ate the whole temple and all the buildings surrounding it.

“The cow grew and grew. She never had to shit, so everything she ate just made her that much bigger. Although it was a frightening experience to be eaten by this cow, it did not harm anyone physically.

“But soon there was much suffering. Once inside the cow's belly, people became attached to name and form. They formed conceptions of good and bad, time and space, light and darkness. The cow continued to eat and eat. She ate all the mountains and rivers, and all the Bodhisattvas, eminent teachers, and Buddhas.

“So all infinite time and space, the entire universe, was eventually contained within the cow's belly.

“Now you are all inside the cow's belly, where all things appear and disappear. You are all attached to name and form. Outside the cow there is no suffering; nothing appears and nothing disappears.

“How can you get out?”

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