Introduction Zen Is Understanding Yourself

When the Bell Is Rung, Stand Up

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92. When the Bell Is Rung, Stand Up

  One morning, during Yong Maeng Jong Jin at the Providence Zen Center, a student walked into the interview room and bowed to Seung Sahn Soen-sa. Soen-sa said, “Do you have any questions?”

The student said, “No.”

Soen-sa said, “Then I will ask you a question. What is the true way?”

The student said, “Through the door into the kitchen.”

Soen-sa said, “That is not the true way.”

The student hit him.

Soen-sa said, “Aie, aie!”

The student leaned over and said, “Can I help you?”

Soen-sa said, “No. But I have another question for you. An eminent teacher once said, ‘When the bell is rung, stand up; when the drum is hit, bow down.’ What does this mean?”

The student said, “The bird flies in the sky.”

Soen-sa said, “You are holding a stick and trying to hit the moon. Let me give you a hint. In our temple every morning and evening, after the bell chant the moktak master hits the moktak. What does everyone do then?”

“Stand up.”

“And when the moktak is hit again, what do they do?”

“Bow down.”

“We use the moktak; in China they use bells and drums. The signals are different; the actions are the same. So now you understand: ‘When the bell is rung, stand up; when the drum is hit, bow down.’ What does this mean?”

The student stood up and bowed to Soen-sa.

Soen-sa said, “That's right. Always keep this mind. This is your true way.”

93. The Story of Mun Ik

  There was once a great Zen Master named Poep An Mun Ik. He founded many temples, gave the Transmission to sixty-three of his disciples, and was the First Patriarch of the Poep An school of Zen.

When Mun Ik was a student under Zen Master Na Han, he was known for his phenomenal memory. He could recite many sutras word for word. He had also meditated a great deal, and his mind had become clear. He used to say to those who asked him about the truth, “All the three worlds, all Dharmas, and all Buddhas are made by the mind alone.”

At tnis time in China, there were many wandering monks, who had freed themselves from all attachments and would travel from monastery to monastery and from Master to Master, like clouds across the empty sky. They were without hindrance.

Mun Ik had been admiring these monks and their way of life for some time. One day he decided to do as they did. He went to Na Han and said, “I've come to say goodbye, Master. I'm going to live the life of no hindrance from now on. So tomorrow I'll be leaving you.”

The Master raised his eyebrows a tiny bit and said, “Fine, if you think you're ready.”

Mun Ik said, “Oh, I'm ready all right.”

“Well,” said the Master, “let me test you, just to make sure. You often say that the whole universe is made by the mind. Look over there in the garden. Do you see those large rocks?


“Tell me then—are they inside your mind or outside it?”

Without the slightest hesitation, Mun Ik answered, “Of course, they are inside my mind. How can there be anything outside it?”

The Master chuckled and said, “In that case, you'd better go get a good night's sleep. It's going to be heavy traveling tomorrow, with all those rocks inside your mind.”

Mun Ik flushed with embarrassment and confusion, and looked down at the ground.

After a few moments, the Master said, “When you try to understand, you are like a man dreaming that he can see. The truth is right in front of you. It is alive, and infinitely great. How can human words contain it?”

Mun Ik bowed deeply and said, “Please, Master, teach me. I don't understand.”

The Master said, “At this moment, you don't understand. This not-understanding is the earth, the sun, the stars, and the whole universe.”

As soon as Mun Ik heard these words, his mind shot open. He bowed again and said, “Ah, Master, what else is ready now?”

Suddenly the Master shouted, “Mun Ik!”

Mun Ik shouted back, “Yes!”

“Very good,” said the Master. “Now that you are ready, you may go.”

94. What Did You Say?

  One Thursday evening, after a Dharma talk at the Cambridge Zen Center, a student asked Seung Sahn Soen-sa, “What are you?”

Soen-sa said, “What did you say?”

The student said, “What are you?”

Soen-sa said, “What did you say?”

The student said, very slowly this time, “What … are … you?”

Soen-sa said, “Thank you very much.” There was brief laughter in the audience, and then silence. Soen-sa said, “Do you understand?”

The student said, “No.”

Soen-sa said, “I said, ‘Thank you very much.’ What are you?”

The student said, “I don't know.”

Soen-sa said, “I hit you. Now do you understand?”

The student said, “No.”

Soen-sa said, “Okay. You asked me, ‘What are you.’ I answered, ‘What did you say?' You said again, ‘What are you?' I answered again, ‘What did you say?' You said one more time, ‘What are you?' So I said, ‘Thank you very much.’ The dialogue was already finished. But you didn't know that. So I asked you, ‘What are you?' You didn't know. So I hit you. Do you understand? ‘What did you say?' was my answer to your question. Everybody understood this answer. So you were teaching everybody. So I said, ‘Thank you very much.’ But you didn't understand your own teaching. So I hit you.”

The student sat for a few moments with an intensely puzzled expression on his face, then slowly bowed.

95. Much Ado About Nothing

  Zen Master Ku Sahn wrote as follows to Ven. Dok Sahn, abbot of Sambosa Temple:

“Once Ang Sahn asked Zen Master Wi Sahn Yung-wu, ‘Where does the true Buddha dwell?'

“Wi Sahn answered, ‘When origination and matter come together, they become light. This light is emptiness, and this empty is full. When all phenomena are extinguished and return to the origin, then nature and form become clear. Origination is origination; matter is matter. Only like this: this is the true Buddha.’

“At these words, Ang Sahn was enlightened.

“Now, Dok Sahn, what is your view?”

Dok Sahn wrote in reply:

“It is said that the mind has no place of abode. Dok Sahn, the general of the guards who keep the gate of Sambosa on Robin Mountain, also has no place of abode and no view.

“Regarding the dialogue between Ang Sahn and Wi Sahn —I hit them both thirty times and give their bodies to a hungry dog.”

Zen Master Ku Sahn wrote back:

“In your letter you said that you are the general of the guards who keep the gate of Sambosa. But in true emptiness, there is no entry and no exit. So what do you guard?

“You also said that you hit Ang Sahn and Wi Sahn thirty times. Please give me an answer that is before words. You hit them thirty times. Whom do you hit?”

Dok Sahn then wrote to Seung Sahn Soen-sa:

“How should I answer these questions? I look forward to your kind instruction.”

Soen-sa answered Zen Master Ku Sahn:

“The sword of the general who keeps the gate at Robin Mountain kills Buddhas when it meets them and kills Patriarchs when it meets them. If Ku Sahn opens his mouth here, he too shall have no way to escape being killed by the pitiless sword.

“Regarding the second question—it is Ang Sahn and Wi Sahn who are hit. Why do you carry these thirty hits around on your own back?


“The sky is blue, and the grass is green.”

96. An Ambush in the Fields of Dharma

  One morning, during Yong Maeng Jong Jin at the Providence Zen Center, a student walked into the interview room and bowed to Seung Sahn Soen-sa. Soen-sa said, “Do you have any questions?”

The student said, “Yes. A great Zen Master once asked his students, ‘What is Buddha-nature?' One student shouted ‘KATZ!!!' One student said, ‘Take the horns of a rabbit and lift the moon out of the water.’ One student said, ‘The bee goes to the flower.’ Which of these answers is the best?”

Soen-sa said, “They are all bad.”

The student said, “Why?”

Soen-sa said, “The bee goes to the flower.”

The student said, “That's a terrible answer.”

Soen-sa said, “Why?”

The student said, “Outside the window, the tree is green.”

Soen-sa said, “Ah, if you hadn't told me, I would have lost my way.”

97. Un-Mun's Short-Answer Zen

  One day a student asked Zen Master Un-mun, “What is it that passes over Buddha and all the eminent teachers?”

Un-mun answered, “Cake.”

Another student asked him, “If you are not thinking, are there any mistakes?”

Un-mun answered, “Sumi Mountain.”

Someone else asked him, “What is my original face?”

Un-mun said, “Sightseeing among mountains and rivers.”

This was the way Un-mun taught Zen, always giving short answers to his students' questions. Often he would use only one word to point to the student's mind.

A student asked him, “What is the keenest sword?”

Un-mun answered, “Patriarch.”

Another student asked him, “What is the true Dharma of Buddhism?”

Un-mun answered, “Wide.”

Another student asked, “When does a chicken's egg hatch?”

Un-mun answered, “Echo.”

Someone else said, “If I kill my parents, I can repent to Buddha. If I kill Buddha and all the eminent teachers, to whom can I repent?”

Un-mun answered, “Appearance.”

Another student asked, “Of the three bodies—form body, consciousness body, and Dharma body—which one speaks the truth?”

Un-mun said, “Primary.”

Thus Un-mun, with his short answers, opened many minds.

98. Ko Bong Explains a Poem

  A student came to Zen Master Ko Bong, Seung Sahn Soen-sa's teacher, and said,

“‘From the ten directions all people come together.

Each one learns not-doing.

This is the field of becoming Buddha.

Empty mind passes the test and comes back.’

“Do these words help people or not?”

Ko Bong said, “They do.”

“Which sentence helps them?”

“Bring each one here.”

“What is the first sentence: ‘From the ten directions all people come together'?”

“The dragon and the snake combine. Enlightenment and ignorance become mutual.”

“Who learns not-doing?”

“Buddha and eminent teachers are swallowed; the eye links ground and sky.”

“What is the field of becoming Buddha?”

“From West to East there are one hundred thousand, from North to South eight thousand.”

“What is the last sentence: ‘Empty mind passes the test and comes back'?”

“In action and in nonaction, the ancient way appears. The way is not dragged down into the chasm of turbulence.”

“So in each sentence nature is seen. Each one is the truth.”

“What have you seen and attained?”

The student shouted “KATZ!!!”

Ko Bong said, “This is taking a stick and trying to hit the moon.”

99. The Story of Seung Sahn Soen-sa

  Seung Sahn Soen-sa was born in 1927 in Seun Choen, North Korea. His parents were Protestant Christians.

Korea at this time was under severe Japanese military rule, and all political and cultural freedom was brutally suppressed. In 1944, Soen-sa joined the underground Korean independence movement. Within a few months he was caught by the Japanese police and narrowly escaped a death sentence. After his release from prison, he and two friends stole several thousand dollars from their parents and crossed the heavily-patrolled Manchurian border in an unsuccessful attempt to join the Free Korean Army.

In the years following World War II, while he was studying Western philosophy at Dong Guk University, the political situation in South Korea grew more and more chaotic. One day Soen-sa decided that he wouldn't be able to help people through his political activities or his academic studies. So he shaved his head and went into the mountains, vowing never to return until he had attained the absolute truth.

For three months he studied the Confucian scriptures, but he was unsatisfied by them. Then a friend of his, who was a monk in a small mountain temple, gave him the Diamond Sutra, and he first encountered Buddhism. “All things that appear in this world are transient. If you view all things that appear as never having appeared, then you will realize your true self.” When he read these words, his mind became clear. For the next few weeks he read many sutras. Finally, he decided to become a Buddhist monk and was ordained in October, 1948.

Soen-sa had already understood the sutras. He realized that the only important thing now was practice. So ten days after his ordination, he went further up into the mountains and began a one-hundred-day retreat on Won Gak Mountain (the Mountain of Perfect Enlightenment). He ate only pine-needles, dried and beaten into a powder. For twenty hours every day he chanted the Great Dharani of Original Mind Energy. Several times a day he took ice-cold baths. It was a very rigorous practice.

Soon he was assailed by doubts. Why was this retreat necessary? Why did he have to go to extremes? Couldn't he go down to a small temple in a quiet valley, get married like a Japanese monk, and attain enlightenment gradually, in the midst of a happy family? One night these thoughts became so powerful that he decided to leave and packed his belongings. But the next morning his mind was clearer, and he unpacked. A few days later the same thing happened. And in the following weeks, he packed and unpacked nine times.

By now fifty days had passed, and Soen-sa's body was very exhausted. Every night he had terrifying visions. Demons would appear out of the dark and make obscene gestures at him. Ghouls would sneak up behind him and wrap their cold fingers around his neck. Enormous beetles would gnaw his legs. Tigers and dragons would stand in front of him, bellowing. He was in constant terror.

After a month of this, the visions turned into visions of delight. Sometimes Buddha would come and teach him a sutra. Sometimes Bodhisattvas would appear in gorgeous clothing and tell him that he would go to heaven. Sometimes he would keel over from exhaustion and Kwanseum Bosal would gently wake him up. By the end of eighty days, his body was strong. His flesh had turned green from the pine-needles.

One day, a week before the retreat was to finish, Soen-sa was walking outside, chanting and keeping rhythm with his moktak. Suddenly, two boys, eleven or twelve years old, appeared on either side of him and bowed. They were wearing many-colored robes, and their faces were of an unearthly beauty. Soen-sa was very surprised. His mind felt powerful and perfectly clear, so how could these demons have materialized? He walked ahead on the narrow mountain path, and the two boys followed him, walking right through the boulders on either side of the path. They walked together in silence for a half-hour, then, back at the altar, when Soen-sa got up from his bow, they were gone. This happened every day for a week.

Finally it was the hundredth day. Soen-sa was outside chanting and hitting the moktak. All at once his body disappeared, and he was in infinite space. From far away he could hear the moktak beating, and the sound of his own voice. He remained in this state for some time. When he returned to his body, he understood. The rocks, the river, everything he could see, everything he could hear, all this was his true self. All things are exactly as they are. The truth is just like this.

Soen-sa slept very well that night. When he woke up the next morning, he saw a man walking up the mountain, then some crows flying out of a tree. He wrote the following poem:

The road at the bottom of Won Gak Mountain

is not the present road.

The man climbing with his backpack

is not a man of the past.

Tok, tok, tok—his footsteps

transfix past and present.

Crows out of a tree.

Caw, caw, caw.

  Soon after he came down from the mountain, he met Zen Master Ko Bong, whose teacher had been Zen Master Mang Gong. Ko Bong was reputed to be the most brilliant Zen Master in Korea, and one of the most severe. At this time he was teaching only laymen; monks, he said, were not ardent enough to be good Zen students. Soen-sa wanted to test his enlightenment with Ko Bong, so he went to him with a moktak and said, “What is this?” Ko Bong took the moktak and hit it. This was just what Soen-sa had expected him to do.

Soen-sa then said, “How should I practice Zen?”

Ko Bong said, “A monk once asked Zen Master Jo-ju, ‘Why did Bodhidharma come to China?' Jo-ju answered, The pine tree in the front garden.’ What does this mean?”

Soen-sa understood, but he didn't know how to answer. He said, “I don't know.”

Ko Bong said, “Only keep this don't-know mind. That is true Zen practice.”

That spring and summer, Soen-sa did mostly working Zen. In the fall, he sat for a hundred-day meditation session at Su Dok Sa monastery, where he learned Zen language and Dharma-combat. By the winter, he began to feel that the monks weren't practicing hard enough, so he decided to give them some help. One night, as he was on guard-duty (there had been some burglaries), he took all the pots and pans out of the kitchen and arranged them in a circle in the front yard. The next night, he turned the Buddha on the main altar toward the wall and took the incense-burner, which was a national treasure, and hung it on a persimmon tree in the garden. By the second morning the whole monastery was in an uproar. Rumours were flying around about lunatic burglars, or gods coming from the mountain to warn the monks to practice harder.

The third night, Soen-sa went to the nuns' quarters, took seventy pairs of nuns' shoes and put them in front of Zen Master Dok Sahn's room, displayed as in a shoe store. But this time, a nun woke up to go to the outhouse and, missing her shoes, she woke up everyone in the nuns' quarters. Soen-sa was caught. The next day he was brought to trial. Since most of the monks voted to give him another chance (the nuns were unanimously against him), he wasn't expelled from the monastery. But he had to offer formal apologies to all the high monks.

First he went to Dok Sahn and bowed. Dok Sahn said, “Keep up the good work.”

Then he went to the head nun. She said, “You've made a great deal too much commotion in this monastery, young man.” Soen-sa laughed and said, “The whole world is already full of commotion. What can you do?” She couldn't answer.

Next was Zen Master Chun Song, who was famous for his wild actions and obscene language. Soen-sa bowed to him and said, “I killed all the Buddhas of past, present, and future. What can you do?”

Chun Song said, “Aha!” and looked deeply into Soen-sa's eyes. Then he said, “What did you see?”

Soen-sa said, “You already understand.”

Chun Song said, “Is that all?”

Soen-sa said, “There's a cuckoo singing in the tree outside the window.”

Chun Song laughed and said, “Aha!” He asked several more questions, which Soen-sa answered without difficulty. Finally, Chun Song leaped up and danced around Soen-sa, shouting, “You are enlightened! You are enlightened!” The news spread quickly, and people began to understand the events of the preceding days.

On January 15, the session was over, and Soen-sa left to see Ko Bong. On the way to Seoul, he had interviews with Zen Master Keum Bong and Zen Master Keum Oh. Both gave him inga, the seal of validation of a Zen student's great awakening.

Soen-sa arrived at Ko Bong's temple dressed in his old patched retreat clothes and carrying a knapsack. He bowed to Ko Bong and said, “All the Buddhas turned out to be a bunch of corpses. How about a funeral service?”

Ko Bong said, “Prove it!”

Soen-sa reached into his knapsack and took out a dried cuttlefish and a bottle of wine. “Here are the leftovers from the funeral party.”

Ko Bong said, “Then pour me some wine.”

Soen-sa said, “Okay. Give me your glass.”

Ko Bong held out his palm.

Soen-sa slapped it with the bottle and said, “That's not a glass, it's your hand!” Then he put the bottle on the floor.

Ko Bong laughed and said, “Not bad. You're almost done. But I have a few questions for you.” He proceeded to ask Soen-sa the most difficult of the seventeen-hundred traditional Zen kong-ans. Soen-sa answered without hindrance.

Then Ko Bong said, “All right, one last question. The mouse eats cat-food, but the cat-bowl is broken. What does this mean?”

Soen-sa said, “The sky is blue, the grass is green.”

Ko Bong shook his head and said, “No.”

Soen-sa was taken aback. He had never missed a Zen question before. His face began to grow red as he gave one “like this” answer after another. Ko Bong kept shaking his head. Finally Soen-sa exploded with anger and frustration. “Three Zen Masters have given me inga! Why do you say I'm wrong?!”

Ko Bong said, “What does it mean? Tell me.”

For the next fifty minutes, Ko Bong and Soen-sa sat facing each other, hunched like two tomcats. The silence was electric. Then, all of a sudden, Soen-sa had the answer. It was “just like this.”

When Ko Bong heard it, his eyes grew moist and his face filled with joy. He embraced Soen-sa and said, “You are the flower; I am the bee.”

On January 25,1949, Soen-sa received from Ko Bong the Transmission of Dharma, thus becoming the Seventy-Eighth Patriarch in this line of succession. It was the only Transmission that Ko Bong ever gave.

After the ceremony, Ko Bong said to Soen-sa, “For the next three years you must keep silent. You are a free man. We will meet again in five hundred years.”

Soen-sa was now a Zen Master. He was twenty-two years old.

100. What Is Love?

  One evening, after a Dharma talk at the Cambridge Zen Center, a student asked Seung Sahn Soen-sa, “What is love?”

Soen-sa said, “I ask you: what is love?”

The student was silent.

Soen-sa said, “This is love.”

The student was still silent.

Soen-sa said, “You ask me: I ask you. This is love.”

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