Introduction Zen Is Understanding Yourself

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15. The Story of Ko Bong

  Ko Bong was one of the greatest Zen Masters in Sung dynasty China.

When he was twenty years old, his teacher gave him the kong-an: “Where was I before I was born, and where will I be after I die?” As he meditated on this kong-an, he came to feel like a traveler who had lost his way in a dark forest. “At that time,” he later wrote, “I was altogether dazed by my own delusions.”

Three years passed. Ko Bong struggled with the kong-an day and night, unable to achieve any degree of one-pointed-ness. Finally, in despair, he went to see the famous Zen Master Seorl Am. Ko Bong told him of his failure to penetrate the kong-an, and asked for his help.

“We have been told,” said the Master, “that all beings have Buddha-nature. This is the teaching of all Buddhas, past, present, and future. However, when a monk came to Zen Master Jo-ju and asked if dogs have Buddha-nature, Jo-ju said, ‘No!’ What does this ‘No’ mean?”

Ko Bong was stunned. As he struggled to come up with an answer, the Master took his staff, hit him viciously on the shoulder, and chased him out.

So, in great pain, and weeping with humiliation, Ko Bong returned to his monastery. He couldn't stop thinking about the Master's question. What could it mean? What could it mean? Suddenly, like a flame in a dark room, an understanding was kindled inside his mind, and it spread until it filled his whole being. The original kong-an—”Where was I before I was born, and where will I be after I die?”—seemed obvious now.

The next day, as he was working in the monastery fields, Seorl Am came to visit. He said, “Good morning. How is your search coming along?”

Ko Bong said, “If a man kills his desire to search, he will surely find what he is searching for.”

Suddenly the Master grabbed him by the collar and shouted, “Who is dragging this corpse?” Although Ko Bong had understood the kong-an perfectly, he again was paralyzed and could only stare like a moron. The Master pushed him away and left.

Ko Bong was so troubled by this new failure that he couldn't sleep for days. Then, one night, his first teacher appeared to him in a dream and gave him another kong-an: “All things return to the One; where does the One return?” When he woke up, he found that all his doubts and confusion has coalesced into one mass, which weighed on his heart like a huge rock. For five days he walked about in a stupor. On the sixth day he wandered into the great hall of the monastery, where the monks happened to be commemorating the death of the fifth patriarch of the Lin-chi school. For the occasion, they had hung up a portrait of the patriarch, on which he himself had inscribed the following stanza:

Thirty-six thousand mornings

in one hundred years.

Don't you know by now

that it is the same old fellow?

  As Ko Bong read the last word, a realization burst upon him. “At that moment,” he later wrote, “I felt as if the whole universe had been chopped up into tiny pieces and the whole earth leveled flat. There was no I, there was no world. It was like one mirror reflecting another. I asked myself several kong-ans, and the answers were transparently clear.”

The next day he went to see Seorl Am. The Master asked him, “Who is dragging around this lifeless body of yours?”

Ko Bong shouted “KATZ!!!”

The Master took hold of his stick, but Ko Bong snatched it out of his hand and said, “Uh-uh. You can't hit me today.”

The Master said, “Why not?”

Ko Bong got up and walked out of the room.

Some time later, another Zen Master visited Ko Bong and said, “Congratulations, I hear you have attained the great enlightenment.”

Ko Bong smiled and said, “Thank you.”

The Master said, “Can you maintain this state at all times?”

“Yes indeed.”

“While you are working or sleeping or dreaming?”

“Yes, even in dreams.”

“How about in dreamless sleep, where there is no sight or sound or consciousness. Where is your enlightenment then?”

Seeing that Ko Bong couldn't answer, the Master said, “Let me give you some advice. When you are hungry, eat; when you are tired, rest. The minute you wake up every morning, ask yourself, ‘Who is the master of this body, and where does he reside?’ This will lead you to a final understanding.”

So Ko Bong made up his mind to work on this question without interruption, even if it should drive him insane.

Five years passed.

Then he and a friend left on a pilgrimage to the north of China. On their way they stopped at an inn. Being very tired, the friend fell asleep immediately. Ko Bong sat in a corner and meditated. Suddenly, as the friend moved in his sleep, his wooden pillow fell to the floor. Ko Bong heard the noise and his mind burst open and the whole universe was flooded with light. He understood not only his own kong-an, but all the kong-ans handed down by Buddha and the patriarchs. He felt like a distant traveler who has finally come home. At this moment of great awakening, he composed the following stanza:

The man who has come to this

is the man who was here from the beginning.

He does what he always did.

Nothing has changed.


16. How Can the Buddha Be Smiling?

  May 5, 1973

Dear Soen-sa-nim,

Tonight was Special Zen. No one was sleeping. When we finished, Alban walked around with the stick and hit everyone very hard. Good Zen Master. Tonight we had five customers; sometimes we have none.

My father wants more kim-chee.

Today I went to many stores and bought a lot of food. You are not here—no good. I like you to help me.

I hope you are well. Everyone here is okay. We eat a lot, sit Zen a lot, say mantras, think a lot. Spring is here, the flowers are blooming. The Buddha is smiling.


  May 14, 1973

Dear Bobby,

Thank you for your letter, books, and pictures. So far I am very well. We had a wonderful ceremony on Buddha's birthday. More than two hundred people attended.

I am very glad to hear that everyone in Providence is sitting Zen earnestly and that Alban is doing a good job as Zen Master. I am always thinking and worrying about you, because you have a hard job taking care of everyone at the Zen Center. But I know you are doing very well. I will be back as soon as I can to help you.

You said, “We eat a lot, sit Zen a lot, say mantras, think a lot.” This is a very fine sentence. But I have one question for you: Were these actions done inside your mind or outside it?

Your next sentences were also very fine. But:

1) Originally everything is empty. Where does spring come from?

2) The real Buddha has no name or form. How can theBuddha be smiling?

Now if you answer, I will hit you thirty times. And if you don't answer, I will still hit you thirty times.


A wooden chicken is swimming in the water.

A stone fish is playing in the sky.

Form-body and karma-body come from thinking.

Dharma-body is pure and clear and infinite in time and space.

On the water of a thousand rivers, a thousand moons are reflected.

There are no clouds over ten thousand miles,

only blue sky for ten thousand miles.

  See you soon.



17. Apples and Oranges

  One day Seung Sahn Soen-sa was sitting in the kitchen of the Providence Zen Center with some of his students. In the center of the table was a bowl filled with apples and oranges. He picked up an apple and said, “What is this?”

One student said, “Don't you know?”

Soen-sa said, “I'm asking you.”

The student said, “It's an apple.”

Soen-sa then picked up an orange and said, “This apple and this orange—are they the same or different?”

The student took the apple and bit into it.

Soen-sa said, “Does this apple have Buddha-nature?”


“Why not? The Buddha said that all things have Buddha-nature. You say that this apple doesn't have Buddha-nature. Which one is the truth?”

The student handed the apple to Soen-sa.

“I don't want this apple. Give me another answer.”

“The apple is red.”

Soen-sa said, “Before, I didn't know what color the apple was. But now that you tell me, I know that it is red.”

18. Kong-an Blues

  March 4, 1975

Dear Soen-sa-nim,

Enclosed you will find an assortment of letters I have written and never mailed to you, so here they are.

My practice is I don't know what. It is neither good nor bad, I guess, but still I don't know what. It seems I don't know what about anything, which seems different from I don't know what.

Tell me about shakuhachi practice. It is my ego that wants to play well. How can I just play? As I watch my playing I sense today that all things are like those music notes on the page. It says: move third finger. How can I learn to live each moment as when each note directs me and fulfill that request as best I can? I don't really know what I am saying but I must write you and I hope I mail these letters to you.

See Hoy

  March 5, 1975

Dear Soen-sa-nim,

I am very confused. Since you are not here I go to sit with Venerable Hearn and sometimes Dr. Thien-An. Venerable Hearn is here only once a week for dokusan and will be leaving for the Asian countries at the end of the month.

Once, soon after you went to Providence, I went to visit with Roshi Kozan Kimura. Here are a list of kong-ans given to me:

From you: “What am I?”

  “Why does Bodhidharma have no beard?”

From Venerable Hearn: “What is the sound of the flute with no holes?”

One day he said to me, “Now show me your understanding of this,” and gave me the kong-an, “Can you drive a nail without a hammer?”

Dr. Thien-An: “Where do you find Buddha-nature?”

My answer: “Galloping through, it is all around. How could it leave a trace?”

He said: “Go work on it some more.”

Kimura Roshi said I should decide on one Master. I told him you were not here. He told me I should follow you around and go to Providence. He said he likes me to come and sit Zen with them but would not give me dokusan lest he interfere with another's kong-an.

Last night I went to sit with him and had no dokusan. Tonight I went to sit and went to dokusan. He said I should only work on one kong-an and asked me to meditate on “When were you born?” After all others were finished with dokusan, I went back and answered with, “Since there is no trace, how should I know?” We then talked and he asked me what other kong-ans I had and which I worked on. I told him I work most on “What am I?” He said it is too hard for beginners and I should work on “When were you born?”

Please advise me, because when I sit Zen I can only ask—rather, I like only to ask—“What am I?” and even at other times only “What am I?” I do not know what to do.

Shall I just go and sit with Kozan but have no dokusan? Shall I come to Providence? But here I have so many attachments and even to you attachment.

Sometimes I remember you asking “What am I?” and can even get angry with you for giving me such a thing.

Even now I am attached to “What am I?” and the thought of “When was I born?” makes me want to vomit, because all these things are puzzling my head. I will sit more zazen tonight and only think “What am I?” Please help me because I think only you can take “What am I?” back.

Please answer me soon, but you probably won't, huh? Anyway, I'd like to tell you to go fuck yourself. Respectfully, and hope to see you soon,

See Hoy

  March 22, 1975

Dear See Hoy,

Thank you for your two letters. I have been in New York since the beginning of the month, so I didn't receive them until a few days ago. That's why my answer is so late. I am sorry.

You say that you don't know what your practice is, that you don't know anything. But then you say that you are confused. If you keep a complete don't-know mind, how can confusion appear? Complete don't-know mind means cutting off all thinking. Cutting off all thinking means true emptiness. In true emptiness, there is no I to be confused and nothing to be confused about. True emptiness is before thinking. Before thinking, everything does not appear and does not disappear. So the truth is just like this. Red comes, there is red; white comes, there is white. When you close all the holes of the shakuhachi, there is no sound; when the holes are open, there is a high sound. Only like this. The shakuhachi is a very good teacher for you. If you don't understand, just ask the shakuhachi. Just enter the sound of the shakuhachi, and the shakuhachi will explain to you what enlightenment is.

Dr. Thien-An, Song Ryong Hearn, and Kimura Roshi are all good teachers. I think you can take your questions and problems to any of them and they will teach you well.

You have many kong-ans. But a kong-an is like a finger pointing at the moon. If you are attached to the finger, you don't understand the direction, so you cannot see the moon. If you are not attached to any kong-an, then you will understand the direction. The direction is the complete don't-know mind. The name for “like this” is “don't know.” If you understand “don't know,” you will understand all kong-ans and you will soon understand “like this.”

You have many problems in your kong-an work. “What am I?”—do you understand this? Your answer is, “I don't know.” “When were you born?”—do you understand this? Your answer is also, “I don't know.” If you are not attached to words, the don't-know mind is the same. All kong-ans become the same don't-know mind. Your don't-know mind, my don't-know mind, all people's don't-know minds, the “What am I?” don't-know mind, the “When was I born?” don't-know mind—all these are the same don't-know. So it is very easy. Only keep don't-know. Don't be attached to words. This don't-know is your true self. It is nothing at all. It is very easy, not difficult.

So you must keep only don't-know, always and everywhere. Then you will soon get enlightenment. But be very careful not to want enlightenment. Only keep don't-know mind.

Your situation, your condition, your opinions—throw them all away.

I think it would be very good for you to learn with Kimura Roshi. I hope you also listen to what your shakuhachi is teaching you and soon get enlightenment.

At the end of your letter you say, “Go fuck yourself.” These are wonderful words that you have given me, and I thank you very much. If you attain enlightenment, I will give them back to you.

Sincerely yours,

S. S.


19. The 84,000 Levels of Enlightenment

  One Thursday evening, after a Dharma talk at the Cambridge Zen Center, a student said to Seung Sahn Soen-sa, “I have a question about enlightenment. Now enlightenment is very good…”

Soen-sa said, “It is very bad!” (Laughter from the audience.)

The student said, “The perfected virtues of enlightenment were outlined by the Lord Buddha himself. He said that enlightenment has seven limbs.”



“No—many more than that!” (Laughter.)

“My question is, if one has awakened, is that enough? Is Anuttara Samyak Sambodhi, the Unexcelled Perfect Enlightenment, enough? Is that the same as Nirvana? Or is Nirvana a provisional form? Some teachers say there are two levels of enlightenment, some say there are three. What do you teach about levels of enlightenment? Are there one, two, three, or more?”

Soen-sa said, “There are many levels of enlightenment. About 84,000 levels. How many do you want?” (Laughter.)

“That's very interesting.”

“I will teach you all of them.” (Laughter.)

“I've heard this teaching before. This comes from T'ien-t'ai philosophy.”

“How many do you want? One, two, three, 84,000?”

“I'm aware of the teaching. But could you describe what are the two stages…”

Soen-sa handed the student a cup of water and said, “Drink this.”

The student drank.

“How did it taste?”

“As water should.”

“You have just attained the 84,000 levels of enlightenment.” (Laughter.)

The student said, “That's more than I expected.” (Laughter.) “Thank you.”

Soen-sa said, “Okay, now I will explain. In Zen, we teach that there are three kinds of enlightenment.” Then, holding up the moktak*, “This is a moktak. But if you say it is a moktak, you are attached to name and form. And if you say it is not a moktak, you are attached to emptiness. So is this a moktak or not? This is one of the elementary kong-ans that we use. If you answer by hitting the floor or shouting ‘KATZ!!!’ or hitting me, this is first enlightenment. Everything becomes one. Buddha, you, me, the moktak, the sound, KATZ, HIT—all becomes one. The ten thousand dharmas return to the One.”

The student snapped his fingers.

“That's correct. This is first enlightenment. Next is original enlightenment. Is this a moktak or not? This time, you answer, ‘The wall is white, the moktak is brown,’ or, ‘The sky is blue, the grass is green,’ or, ‘Three times three equals nine.’ Everything is like this. This is original enlightenment. Okay?”


“Next is final enlightenment. This is very important. What is final enlightenment?” Soen-sa hit the moktak. “Only this. Only one point. The truth is just like this. So we teach that there are three kinds: first enlightenment, original enlightenment, and final enlightenment. At first they seem to be the same. But they are not the same. Is it clear now?”

“Much clearer than usual.”

“Only this. If you do hard training in Zen, you will soon understand.”

“Thank you.”

“Okay, then I ask you: Once Zen Master Dong Sahn was weighing flax. Somebody came up to him and asked, ‘What is Buddha?’ He answered, ‘Three pounds of flax.’ What does this mean?”

The student thought for a few moments, then said, “Three pounds of flax means just what three pounds of flax are.”

Soen-sa said, “Only this?”

“That's all I can think of tonight.”

“Yah, that's a good answer. Not bad, not good.”

The student was silent.

Soen-sa said, “Okay, next question. Somebody asked Zen Master Un-mun, ‘What is Buddha?’ Un-mun answered, ‘Dry shit on a stick.’ Both Zen Masters were asked, ‘What is Buddha?’ But Dong Sahn said, ‘Three pounds of flax’ and Un-mun said, ‘Dry shit on a stick.’ Are these two answers the same or different?”

The student said, “When you understand with the one mind, they're the same.”

Soen-sa said, “Only this?”

“It's the best I can do.”

“I thought you were a keen-eyed lion, but now I understand that you are a blind dog.”

The student said, “Maybe some day I'll be able to see.”

Soen-sa said, “Now you are a blind dog. You must again become a keen-eyed lion.”

The student closed his eyes and bowed.

*A gourd-like instrument used to set the rhythm during chanting.


20. What Is Freedom?

  One afternoon, a young student came to tea at the Cambridge Zen Center and asked Seung Sahn Soen-sa, “What is freedom?”

Soen-sa said, “Freedom means no hindrance. If your parents tell you to do something and you think that you are a free person so you will not listen to them, this is not true freedom. True freedom is freedom from thinking, freedom from all attachments, freedom even from life and death. If I want life, I have life; if I want death, I have death.”

The student said, “So if you wanted to die right now, you could die?”

Soen-sa said, “What is death?”

“I don't know.”

“If you make death, there is death. If you make life, there is life. Do you understand? This is freedom. Freedom thinking is freedom. Attachment thinking is hindrance. Suppose your parents say, ‘Your shirt is dirty; you must change it!’ If you say, ‘No, I won't change; I am free!’, then you are attached to your dirty shirt or to your freedom itself. So you are not free. If you are really free, then dirty is good and clean is good. It doesn't matter. Not changing my shirt is good; changing my shirt is good. If my parents want me to change, then I change. I don't do it for my own sake, only for theirs. This is freedom. No desire for myself, only for all people.”

The student said, “If you have no desire, why do you eat?”

Soen-sa said, “When I am hungry, I eat.”

“But why do you eat, if you say you have no desire?”

“I eat for you.”

“What do you mean?”

“‘When I am hungry, I eat’ means ‘just like this.’ This means that there is no attachment to food. There is no ‘I want this’ or ‘I don't want this.’ If I didn't eat, I couldn't teach you. So I eat for you.”

“I don't really understand.”

Soen-sa hit him and said, “Do you understand now?”

“I don't know.”

“You must understand this don't-know. Then you will not be attached to anything. So always keep don't-know mind. This is true freedom.”

21. The Great Treasure

  When Dae Ju first came to Zen Master Ma-jo, the Master asked him, “What do you want from me?”

Dae Ju said, “I want you to teach me the Dharma.”

“What a fool you are!” said Ma-jo. “You have the greatest treasure in the world within you, and yet you go around asking other people for help. What good is this? I have nothing to give you.”

Dae Ju bowed and said, “Please, Master, tell me what this treasure is.”

Ma-jo said, “Where is your question coming from? This is your treasure. It is precisely what is making you ask the question at this very moment. Everything is stored in this precious treasure-house of yours. It is there at your disposal, you can use it as you wish, nothing is lacking. You are the master of everything. Why, then, are you running away from yourself and seeking for things outside?”

Upon hearing these words, Dae Ju attained enlightenment.

22. The Moon of Clear Mind

  One Sunday evening, after a Dharma talk at the Providence Zen Center, a student asked Seung Sahn Soen-sa, “How can I get beyond just verbalizing the question ‘What am I?’”

Soen-sa said, “You want this question to grow. This mind is no good. This is attachment thinking. You must cut off this thinking, and only do hard training. It is not important for the question to grow. What is important is one moment of clear mind. Clear mind is before thinking. If you experience this mind, you have already attained enlightenment. If you experience this for a short time—even for one moment—this is enlightenment. All the rest of the time you may be thinking, but you shouldn't worry about this thinking. It is just your karma. You must not be attached to this thinking. You must not force it to stop or force clear mind to grow. It will grow by itself, as your karma gradually disappears.

“Clear mind is like the full moon in the sky. Sometimes clouds come and cover it, but the moon is always behind them. Clouds go away, then the moon shines brightly. So don't worry about clear mind: it is always there. When thinking comes, behind it is clear mind. When thinking goes, there is only clear mind. Thinking comes and goes, comes and goes. You must not be attached to the coming or the going.”

23. What Have You Brought Here?

  One Sunday morning, a student came into the interview room at the Providence Zen Center and bowed to Seung Sahn Soen-sa. Soen-sa said, “What have you brought here?”

The student hit the floor.

Soen-sa said, “Is this the truth?”

The student again hit the floor.

Soen-sa said, “You understand One; you don't understand Two.”

The student hit the floor again.

Soen-sa said, “A second offense is not permitted.”

The student bowed and left.

The next student came into the room. Soen-sa said, “What have you brought here?”

The student said, “I don't know.”

Soen-sa said, “How long have you been sitting Zen?”

The student said, “Three months.”

Soen-sa said, “Why do you sit Zen?”

“I think too much. I like the quietness.”

Soen-sa said, “Where does your thinking come from?”

“I don't know.”

Soen-sa said, “This don't-know mind cuts off all thinking, and is the true quiet mind. So ask yourself, ‘What am I?’ all the time, and keep your don't-know mind.”

The student said, “Thank you very much.”

Soen-sa said, “Next time, bring your don't-know mind here.”

The student bowed and left.

Many students came and went. One student came and Soen-sa said, “What have you brought here?”

The student shouted “KATZ!!!”

Soen-sa put his hands over his ears and said, “Your KATZ has broken my ears.”

The student again shouted “KATZ!!!”

Soen-sa asked, “Is KATZ all you brought here?”

The student said, “No.”

Soen-sa said, “Then give me something else.”

The student stood up, bowed, and said, “Did you sleep well last night?”

Soen-sa said, “Pretty well, thank you. Now go drink tea.”

The student left.

The next student came. Soen-sa said, “What have you brought here?”

The student hit the floor. Soen-sa said, “Is this the truth?”

The student said, “No.”

Soen-sa asked, “What is the truth?”

The student said, “Today is Sunday, July 22, 1973.”

Soen-sa opened his kong-an book, and said, “Long ago a Zen Master said, ‘When you hear a wooden chicken crow, you will understand your mind.’ What does this mean?”

The student said, “A stone girl dances to the music of a flute with no holes.”

Soen-sa said, “Not bad. Now, one more question for you. A person comes to the Providence Zen Center smoking a cigarette and blows smoke and drops ashes on the Buddha. If you are the Zen Master, what can you do?”

The student said, “I would hit him.”

“This person is very strong. He only understands that he is Buddha, he is Dharma. He will hit you back.”

The student said, “I would only sit.”

Soen-sa said, “You are a Zen Master. You understand that he has an attachment to emptiness. If you only sit, you won't be teaching him.”

The student said, “I'm not a Zen Master. So how would I know?”

The student and Soen-sa laughed together. Soen-sa said, “You must practice hard. I hope you soon attain enlightenment.”

The student said, “Thank you very much,” bowed, and left.

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