Introduction Zen Is Understanding Yourself

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5. Inside, Outside

  One Thursday evening, after a Dharma talk at the New Haven Zen Center, a student asked Seung Sahn Soen-sa, “It seems that in Christianity God is outside me, whereas in Zen God is inside me, so God and I are one. Is this correct?”

Soen-sa said, “Where is inside? Where is outside?”

“Inside is in here; outside is out there.”

“How can you separate? Where is the boundary line?”

“I'm inside my skin, and the world is outside it.”

Soen-sa said, “This is your body's skin. Where is your mind's skin?”

“Mind has no skin.”

“Then where is mind?”

“Inside my head.”

“Ah, your mind is very small.” (Loud laughter from the audience.) “You must keep your mind big. Then you will understand that God, Buddha, and the whole universe fit into your mind.” Then, holding up his watch, Soen-sa said, “Is this watch outside your mind or inside it?”


“If you say ‘outside,’ I will hit you. If you say ‘inside,’ I will still hit you.”

“I don't care—I still say it's outside!”

“If it is outside, how do you know that this is a watch? Does your mind fly out of your eyes and touch the watch and fly back inside?”

“I see the watch. I'm inside, and the watch is outside.”

There were a few moments of silence. Soen-sa said, “Don't make inside or outside. Okay?”

The student, still looking doubtful, bowed.

6. A Child Asks About Death

  One evening, Katz, a black cat with a white-tipped tail who lived at the Cambridge Zen Center, died after a long illness. The seven-year-old daughter of one of Seung Sahn Soen-sa's students was troubled by the death. After the burial and chanting to Amita Buddha, she went to Soen-sa for an interview.

Soen-sa said, “Do you have any questions?”

Gita said, “Yes. What happened to Katzie? Where did he go?”

Soen-sa said, “Where do you come from?”

“From my mother's belly.”

“Where does your mother come from?”

Gita was silent.

Soen-sa said, “Everything in the world comes from the same one thing. It is like in a cookie factory. Many different kinds of cookies are made—lions, tigers, elephants, houses, people. They all have different shapes and different names, but they are all made from the same dough and they all taste the same. So all the different things that you see—a cat, a person, a tree, the sun, this floor—all these things are really the same.”

“What are they?”

“People give them many different names. But in themselves, they have no names. When you are thinking, all things have different names and different shapes. But when you are not thinking, all things are the same. There are no words for them. People make the words. A cat doesn't say, ‘I am a cat.’ People say, ‘This is a cat.’ The sun doesn't say, ‘My name is sun.’ People say, ‘This is the sun.’ So when someone asks you, ‘What is this?’, how should you answer?”

“I shouldn't use words.”

Soen-sa said, “Very good! You shouldn't use words. So if someone asks you, ‘What is Buddha?’, what would be a good answer?”

Gita was silent.

Soen-sa said, “Now you ask me. “

“What is Buddha?”

Soen-sa hit the floor.

Gita laughed.

Soen-sa said, “Now / ask you: What is Buddha?”

Gita hit the floor.

“What is God?”

Gita hit the floor.

“What is your mother?”

Gita hit the floor.

“What are you?”

Gita hit the floor.

“Very good! This is what all things in the world are made of. You and Buddha and God and your mother and the whole world are the same.”

Gita smiled.

Soen-sa said, “Do you have any more questions?”

“You still haven't told me where Katz went.”

Soen-sa leaned over, looked into her eyes, and said, “You already understand.”

Gita said, “Oh!” and hit the floor very hard. Then she laughed.

Soen-sa said, “Very very good! That is how you should answer any question. That is the truth.”

Gita bowed and left. As she was opening the door, she turned to Soen-sa and said, “But I'm not going to answer that way when I'm in school. I'm going to give regular answers!”

Soen-sa laughed.

7. Who Needs a Zen Master

  One Thursday evening, after a Dharma talk at the Cambridge Zen Center, a student asked Seung Sahn Soen-sa, “Is it necessary to have a Zen Master, and why?”

Soen-sa said, “Why did you come here?”

The student was silent.

Soen-sa said, “If you are thinking, it is necessary. If you have cut off all thinking, it is not necessary. If your mind is clear, a Zen Master is not necessary, Buddha is not necessary, all things are not necessary.”

8. You Are Attached!

  One evening, after a Dharma talk at Yale University, a student asked Seung Sahn Soen-sa, “What is clear mind?”

Soen-sa held up his watch and said, “What is this?”

The student said, “A watch.”

Soen-sa said, “You are attached to name and form. This is not a watch.”

“What is it?”

“You already understand.”

The student was silent for a moment, then again asked, “What is it?”

Soen-sa said, “You already understand! You can see it, I can see it.” (Laughter from the audience.)

The student said, “Thank you.”

Soen-sa said, “That's all?” (Laughter.) “What did you understand?”

“I don't know.”

Soen-sa pointed to a cup and said, “This is a cup. But the Diamond Sutra says, ‘All things that appear in the world are transient. If you view all appearances as non-appearance, then you will see the true nature of everything.’ So if you are attached to the form of this cup, you don't understand the truth. If you say this is a cup, you are attached to name and form. But if you say it is not a cup, you are attached to emptiness. Is this a cup or not?”

The student was silent. Then he said, “I'm stuck.”

Soen-sa said, “Okay, I will answer for you.” He picked up the cup and drank the water in it. “Only this.” Then, after a few moments, he said, “All things have names and forms. But who made these names, who made these forms? The sun doesn't say ‘My name is sun.’ People say, ‘This is the sun, this is the moon, this is a mountain, this is a river.’ Then who made names and forms? They are made by thinking.”

“Who made thinking?”

Soen-sa laughed and said, “Just you made thinking!” (Laughter.) “So Zen mind means returning to original mind. Original mind is before thinking. After thinking, there are opposites. Before thinking, there are no opposites. This is the Absolute. There are no words or speech. If you open your mouth, you are wrong. So before thinking is clear mind. In clear mind there is no inside and no outside. What color is that wall? White. This mind. Only white. My mind and this white become one. What is this? This is a watch. Your answer was correct. But when I said, ‘You are attached to name and form,’ you soon began to think: ‘Oh, what was wrong with my answer? What answer can I give that won't be attached to name and form?’ This kind of thinking. You were attached to what I said. But I said that only to test your mind. If you weren't attached to my words, you could have said to me, ‘You are attached to my words.’ This is a good answer. I say to you, ‘You are attached to name and form.’ Then you say to me, ‘You are attached to my words.’” (Laughter.) “When you asked me, ‘What is it?’ I answered, ‘Already you understand.’” Soen-sa laughed and continued, “This is before thinking.

“So if you cut off all thinking, the universe and you become one. Your substance and the substance of the whole universe are the same. So this cup is you, you are this cup. They are not two. If you are thinking, they are different.

“Now I have explained everything. So I ask you: Are this cup and you the same or different?”

The student said, “You already know.”

Soen-sa said, “I don't know. So I am asking you.”

“You already understand.”

“So I ask you!”

“There's clear water in it.”

“You are attached to clear water.”

You are attached to clear water!” (Laughter.)

Soen-sa laughed and said, “Very good! Now you understand. The cup is filled with clear water. The wall is white. Zen mind is everyday mind. That's all.”

9. About the Heart Sutra

  November 21, 1974

Dear Soen-sa-nim,

I have some questions concerning the Heart Sutra:

1. The Sutra says that in Nirvana there is “no-attainment, with nothing to attain.” But then it says, “All Buddhas of past, present, and future depend on Prajna Paramita and attain Anuttara Samyak Sambodhi.” Why is Nirvana not attained, but complete enlightenment, Anuttara Samyak Sambodhi, is attained?

2. What is the difference between Nirvana and Anuttara Samyak Sambodhi—between 180° and “like this”—such that 180° is not attained and 360° is attained?

3. When the mind disappears at 180°, doesn't the “like this” mind automatically appear?

4. The first part of the Sutra says, “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” But the second part says, “In emptiness there is no form.” One sentence says they are identical, one sentence says they are not. I think I understand, but can you say something about this?



  November 29, 1974

Dear Ed,

Thank you for your letter. How are you doing lately? Is it good or bad?

In answer to your questions:

1. “Why is Nirvana not attained?”—I hit you.

   “Why is Anuttara Samyak Sambodhi attained?”—The sky is blue, the grass is green.

Do you understand my answers? Then you understand no-attainment and attainment.

2. You ask about the difference between Nirvana and Anuttara Samyak Sambodhi. Nirvana is like an empty mirror—no good, no bad, no color, no form, no anything. But when yellow comes, the mirror reflects yellow; when red comes, the mirror becomes red. To dwell in Nirvana for a long time is to be attached to emptiness. This is no good, because then you can't save all people. In Nirvana there are no people, no Buddhas, no suffering, no happiness—only quiet. So it is being attached to this serenity, being attached to your own peace. But past 180°, you arrive at 360°. Then everything is clear. Happiness is happiness; suffering is suffering. So when you meet people who are suffering, you save them from their suffering. When you meet people who are happy, you are happy together. You must teach the true way. The true way is the great Bodhisattva way. If you find the great Bodhisattva way, this is 360°.

3. You ask, “When the mind disappears at 180°, doesn't the ‘like this’ mind automatically appear?” 180° is only true empty mind. “Like this” mind is the mind that neither appears nor disappears. But what is true empty mind? What is the mind that neither appears nor disappears? It is very necessary not to be attached to name and form. 180° and “like this” are only teaching words. Don't be attached to words.

4. “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.”—This is 90°.

 “No form, no emptiness.”—This is 180°.

But if you are not attached to words, these two are the same. So we divide: form is emptiness, emptiness is form; no form, no emptiness. Next, gatē gatē paragatē parasamgatē bodhi swaha. This means that form is form, emptiness is emptiness. You must understand these three kinds. But of these three, which one is correct?

If you say that any are correct, I will hit you thirty times. But if you say that none are correct, I will still hit you thirty times.

So what is the true meaning of the Heart Sutra?

Here is a poem for you:

After so much suffering in Nirvanic castles,

what a joy to sink into this world!

People wearing silk clothes,

Buddhas dressed in rags,

a wooden man walking in the evening,

a stone woman with a bonnet—

for the first time you will see,

when you can cup your hands

and pick up the moon as it floats

on the still surface of a pond.

  Sincerely yours,



10. Not Difficult, Not Easy

  In May, 1975, a student decided to move into the newly formed New Haven Zen Center. He wrote to a man with whom he had studied Zen and asked him what he thought of the decision. The Zen teacher wrote back at length and said, among other things, “Zen training is hard work. Make no mistake about this. There is no easy way. Dogen says, ‘Those who seek the easy way do not seek the true way.’”

The student asked Seung Sahn Soen-sa for his advice. Soen-sa said, “If you want the easy way, this is desire. But if you want the difficult way, this too is desire. Zen is letting go of all your desires. Then you will find the true way.

“This teacher says that Zen is difficult. I say that Zen is very easy. But we are saying the same thing. Buddha said, ‘All things have Buddha-nature.’ Jo-ju, when he was asked if a dog has Buddha-nature, said, ‘No!’ Is Buddha right and Jo-ju wrong? These are just two different ways of teaching.

“Why do I teach that Zen is easy? Many Zen students in the United States have Difficulty Sickness. ‘Oh, Zen is very difficult! We must do zazen and sesshins all the time. Then maybe in ten or twenty years we will attain enlightenment.’ So when I show them that Zen is easy, I cure their attachment to difficulty. When Jo-ju was teaching, many students were attached to Buddha and Buddha-nature. So: ‘Does the dog have Buddha-nature?’ ‘NO!!!!!!’ This is Jo-ju's way.

“But if you think that Zen is difficult or easy, these words become a hindrance and you can't understand Zen. I always teach that if you are not thinking, just like this is Buddha. ‘Difficult’ is thinking; ‘easy’ is thinking. You mustn't be attached to words. If you are attached to Jo-ju's No, you can't understand Jo-ju's mind. If you are attached to my words, you can't understand my ‘easy way.’

“Once there was a famous Buddhist layman named Busol. He was a deeply enlightened man; his wife too was enlightened, and so were his son and daughter. A man came up to Busol one day and asked, ‘Is Zen difficult or not?’ Busol said, ‘Oh, it's very difficult. It's like taking a stick and trying to hit the moon.’

“The man was puzzled and began to think. ‘If Zen is so difficult, how did Busol's wife attain enlightenment?’ So he went and asked her the same question. She said, ‘It's the easiest thing in the world. It's just like touching your nose when you wash your face in the morning.’

“By now the man was thoroughly confused. ‘I don't understand. Is Zen easy? Is it difficult? Who is right?’ So he asked their son. The son said, ‘Zen is not difficult and not easy. On the tips of a hundred blades of grass is the Patriarchs' meaning.’

“‘Not difficult? Not easy? What is it then?’ So the man went to the daughter and asked her. ‘Your father, your mother, and your brother all gave me different answers. Who is right?’ She said, ‘If you make difficult, it is difficult. If you make easy, it is easy. But if you don't think, the truth is just as it is. Tell me now—how are you keeping your mind at this very moment?’

“The man was totally confused. Suddenly the daughter hit him and said, ‘Where are difficult and easy now?’ He understood.

“So you mustn't think that Zen is difficult or that it is easy. Zen is just as it is.”

11. A Dharma Speech

Given by Seung Sahn Soen-sa at the opening ceremony of the International Zen Center of New York on April 20, 1975.


  (Holding up his Zen stick and hitting the table, slowly, three times) Is this closed? Is this open?

If you say “closed,” you fall into the hell without doors. If you say “open,” you are dancing with all demons.


(Holding up the Zen stick and tracing a circle in the air; then holding the stick perpendicular to the table) One two three four; five six seven eight.

(After a few moments) Thank you very much for coming to our ceremony even though you must be very busy. It is not an accident that we are gathered here today. It is the result of our past karma. It is very good karma that has brought us to meet here in front of the Buddha's altar.

This karma means finding our true self and attaining the Absolute. It means leaving behind the world of desire and journeying to the land of true freedom and peace.

That is why we founded Won Gak Sa one year ago and are opening the International Zen Center of New York today.

But the Sutra says, “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” So all names and all forms are emptiness. Won Gak Sa, the International Zen Center of New York, this opening ceremony—these also are emptiness.

The Sutra says, “All beings are already Buddha.” So why is chanting or reading sutras or sitting Zen necessary?

But we don't know ourselves. Desire, anger, and ignorance cover up our clear mind. If we cut off all thinking and return to empty mind, then your mind, my mind, and all people's minds are the same. We become one with the whole universe.

Therefore an eminent teacher said, “All things in the universe return to the One.”

True empty mind is before thinking. So thinking does not appear and does not disappear. There is the realm where nothing appears or disappears.

In the realm where nothing appears or disappears, there is no life and no death, no suffering and no happiness, no good and no bad, no you and no I. So it is said that all things in the universe return to One.

But where does this One return?

Once somebody came up to the great Zen Master Mang Gong and asked him, “If all things return to the One, where does this One return?” Mang Gong said, “The spring geese are flying north.”

What do you think this means—”The spring geese are flying north”?

Even though you may understand enough to smash Mount Sumeru into a million pieces and swallow the ocean in one gulp, you will not understand this.

Even though you may understand enough to kill or give life to all the Buddhas of the three time-worlds and all eminent teachers and all people, you will not begin to understand this.

Then how can you understand the true meaning of “The spring geese are flying north”? Only keep don't-know mind. This don't-know mind is the mind that is stuck and cannot budge. It is like trying to break through a steel wall or trying to climb a silver mountain. All thinking is cut off. But as soon as you penetrate this condition, your mind will explode. Then you can see the stone lion run across the waves and devour the sun.

But you will still be bewildered. Go one step further. Then you will arrive at your true home, where spring comes and the flowers are blossoming everywhere. If you arrive here, not only will sutras and bibles be true, but also the sound of water and wind, the color of the mountain, the barking of a dog in the street—everything that you see or sense, everything as it is, will be the truth.

Therefore Zen Master Mang Gong said, “The spring geese are flying north.” The truth is just like this.

All things in the universe return to the One; where does the One return? Throw away Small I and enter Empty I. Then, when you open your eyes, everything that you can see and hear will be like this.

A little while ago I hit the table three times. Mang Gong said, “The spring geese are flying north.” The meaning of my action and the meaning of Mang Gong's words—are these the same or different?

If you say “the same,” I will hit you thirty times. If you say “different,” I will still hit you thirty times.



Open the front door to Broadway.

12. What Is One Plus Two?

  One day Seung Sahn Soen-sa asked his students, “What is one plus two?”

One student answered, “Three.”

Soen-sa said, “Wrong. One plus two is zero.”

“Why? If you add one apple to two apples, you have three apples.”

“If I eat one apple and two apples, then there are no apples.”

“That's not right.”

“You say one plus two equals three. I say one plus two equals zero. Who is right?”

The student couldn't answer.

Soen-sa hit him and said, “The lion claws people; the dog runs after the bone.”

The next day, Soen-sa again asked his students, “What is one plus two?”

One student shouted “KATZ!!!”

“Is this the truth?”


“Then what is the truth?”

“One plus two equals three.”

Soen-sa said, “I thought you were a blind dog, but now I see you are a keen-eyed lion.”

13. What to Do About Noise

  One day a student at the Cambridge Zen Center said to Seung Sahn Soen-sa, “I am disturbed by noise when I sit Zen. What can I do about this?”

Soen-sa said, “What color is this rug?”


“Is it quiet or noisy?”


“Who makes it quiet?”

The student shrugged his shoulders.

Soen-sa said, “You do. Noisy and quiet are made by your thinking. If you think something is noisy, it is noisy; if you think something is quiet, it is quiet. Noisy is not noisy, quiet is not quiet. True quiet is neither quiet nor noisy. If you listen to the traffic with a clear mind, without any concepts, it is not noisy, it is only what it is. Noisy and quiet are opposites. The Absolute is only like this.”

There were a few moments of silence. Then Soen-sa said, “What is the opposite of blue?”

The student said, “I don't know.”

Soen-sa said, “Blue is blue. White is white. This is the truth.”

14. You Must Become Completely Crazy

  One day a visitor came to the Providence Zen Center and asked Seung Sahn Soen-sa, “If I study Zen, will I attain enlightenment?”

Soen-sa said, “Why do you want to attain enlightenment?”

The visitor said, “I'm upset by all sorts of things. I don't feel free.”

Soen-sa said, “Why don't you feel free?”

“I guess I have too many attachments.”

“Why don't you cut through these attachments?”

“They all seem very real.”

Soen-sa said, “No one knows when he will die. It could be next year, or next week, or in the next five minutes. So put it all down, now, at this very moment. Keep your mind as if you were already dead. Then all your attachments will disappear, and it won't matter whether you study Zen or not. Right now you think, ‘I am alive, I am strong.’ So you have many desires, many attachments. Only think, ‘I am dead.’ A dead man has no desires.”

The visitor said, “How can I be alive and dead?”

Soen-sa said, “Dead is not dead. We have eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind. But the Heart Sutra says that in emptiness there are no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind. Without my six senses I have no hindrance. It is very easy. So if I am already dead, seeing is not seeing, hearing is not hearing. It is like passing in front of a restaurant, smelling the good smells, and passing on. It is not my house, so I don't touch.”

The visitor said, “How can I practice being dead?”

Soen-sa said, “Only keep the great question, ‘What am I?’ Now let me ask you, what are you?”

“I'm one.”

“Where does one come from?”

“From God. God is one.”

“God? Do you understand God?”


“You say ‘one,’ you say ‘God.’ This is wrong. If you make one, it is one. If you make God, it is God. All this is thinking. Without thinking, what are you?”


“Nothing?” Soen-sa hit him and said, “This is pain. Can ‘nothing’ feel pain?”

The visitor smiled.

Soen-sa said, “Before thinking, your mind was like a sheet of white paper. Then you wrote down ‘one,’ and ‘God,’ and ‘nothing,’ and so on and so forth. When you cut off all thinking, you erase all these names and forms and return to your original emptiness. What am I? I don't know. When you keep the great question, you keep the mind that doesn't know. Don't-know mind is empty mind. There are no words, no speech. So there is no one, no God, no nothing, no mind, no emptiness. This don't-know mind is very important. I is don't-know, don't-know is I. Only this. This is your true self. So always keep don't-know mind.”

The visitor said, “My friends think I'm crazy because I'm interested in Zen.”

Soen-sa said, “Craziness is good. Crazy people are happy, free, they have no hindrance. But since you have many attachments, you are only a little crazy. This is not crazy enough. You must become completely crazy. Then you will understand.”

The visitor bowed. Someone came and poured out two cups of tea.

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