Introduction Zen Is Understanding Yourself

Enlightened and Unenlightened Are Empty Names

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24. Enlightened and Unenlightened Are Empty Names

  One Thursday evening, after a Dharma talk at the Cambridge Zen Center, a student asked Seung Sahn Soen-sa, “Is an enlightened man's behavior different from an unenlightened man's?”

Soen-sa said, “One, two, three, four, five, six. This begins with one. Where does one come from?”


“Mind? Where does mind come from?”

The student couldn't answer.

Soen-sa said, “Now your mind is don't-know mind. You only don't know. Where does mind come from? What is mind? I don't know. This don't-know is your true mind. This true mind cuts off all thinking. So mind is no mind. Why? True mind is empty mind. Empty mind is before thinking. Before thinking there are no words and no speech. So mind is no mind. Mind is only a name; it is made by thinking. If you cut off thinking, then there is no mind. If you are thinking, you have opposites: good and bad, enlightened and unenlightened. But if you cut off thinking, there are no opposites, there is only the Absolute. Opposites words are dead words. Absolute words are live words. Buddha said, ‘All things have Buddha-nature.’ But Zen Master Jo-ju, when somebody asked him if a dog has Buddha-nature, said, ‘No!’ Which answer is correct, Buddha's or Jo-ju's?”

“I think I see that. They're just words.”

“Yah, just words. Then they are the same?”

“It doesn't matter. But what I want to know is how a man with empty mind differs in his behavior from a man with thinking mind.”

“So I ask you: are Buddha's answer and Jo-ju's answer different or the same?”

“Well, all things have Buddha-nature. Some people know they have Buddha-nature and some people don't know they have Buddha-nature. Maybe the dog doesn't know.”

Soen-sa said, “That is a very good answer. The dog doesn't know Buddha-nature, so he has no Buddha-nature. But if you gave me this answer during an interview, I would hit you thirty times. Why?”

“Uh … I'm not answering to play a game.”

“And if you asked your question about an enlightened man's behavior during an interview, I would also hit you thirty times. Do you understand?”

“I understand that this question has no answer.”

“It has many answers.” (Laughter from the audience.) “But if you have not attained enlightenment, everything is different. If you attain enlightenment, all things become one. You must understand this.”

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

25. Why We Chant

  One Sunday evening, after a Dharma talk at the International Zen Center of New York, a student asked Seung Sahn Soen-sa, “Why do you chant? Isn't sitting Zen enough?”

Soen-sa said, “This is a very important matter. We bow together, chant together, eat together, sit together, and do many other things together here at the Zen Center. Why do we practice together?

“Everybody has different karma. So all people have different situations, different conditions, and different opinions. One person is a monk, another is a student, another works in a factory; one person always keeps a clear mind, another is often troubled or dissatisfied; one person likes the women's movement, another doesn't. But everybody thinks, ‘My opinion is correct!’ Even Zen Masters are like this. Ten Zen Masters will have ten different ways of teaching, and each Zen Master will think that his way is the best. Americans have an American opinion; Orientals have an Oriental opinion. Different opinions result in different actions, which make different karma. So when you hold on to your own opinions, it is very difficult to control your karma, and your life will remain difficult. Your wrong opinions continue, so your bad karma continues. But at our Zen Centers, we live together and practice together, and all of us abide by the Temple Rules. People come to us with many strong likes and dislikes, and gradually cut them all off. Everybody bows together 108 times at five-thirty in the morning, everybody sits together, everybody eats together, everybody works together. Sometimes you don't feel like bowing; but this is a temple rule, so you bow. Sometimes you don't want to chant, but you chant. Sometimes you are tired and want to sleep; but you know that if you don't come to sitting, people will wonder why; so you sit.

“When we eat, we eat in ritual style, with four bowls; and after we finish eating, we wash out the bowls with tea, using our index finger to clean them. The first few times we ate this way, nobody liked it. One person from the Cambridge Zen Center came to me very upset. ‘I can't stand this way of eating! The tea gets full of garbage! I can't drink it!’ I said to him, ‘Do you know the Heart Sutra?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Doesn't it say that things are neither tainted nor pure?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Then why can't you drink the tea?’ ‘Because it's filthy!’” (Laughter from the audience.) “‘Why is it filthy? These crumbs are from the food that you already ate. If you think the tea is dirty, it is dirty. If you think it is clean, it is clean.’ He said, ‘You're right. I will drink the tea.’” (Laughter.)

“So we live together and act together. Acting together means cutting off my opinions, cutting off my condition, cutting off my situation. Then we become empty mind. We return to white paper. Then our true opinion, our true condition, our true situation will appear. When we bow together and chant together and eat together, our minds become one mind. It is like on the sea. When the wind comes, there are many waves. When the wind dies down, the waves become smaller. When the wind stops, the water becomes a mirror, in which everything is reflected—mountains, trees, clouds. Our mind is the same. When we have many desires and many opinions, there are many big waves. But after we sit Zen and act together for some time, our opinions and desires disappear. The waves become smaller and smaller. Then our mind is like a clear mirror, and everything we see or hear or smell or taste or touch or think is the truth. Then it is very easy to understand other people's minds. Their minds are reflected in my mind.

“So chanting is very important. At first you won't understand. But after you chant regularly, you will understand. ‘Ah, chanting—very good feeling!’ It is the same with bowing 108 times. At first people don't like this. Why do we bow? We are not bowing to Buddha, we are bowing to ourselves. Small I is bowing to Big I. Then Small I disappears and becomes Big I. This is true bowing. So come practice with us. You will soon understand.”

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

26. A Dharma Speech

  On the Buddha's birthday, 1973, Seung Sahn Soen-sa gave the following Dharma speech at the Providence Zen Center:

“Long ago an eminent teacher said, ‘Before the Buddha came to the Kapila Empire or was born of his mother, he had already saved all people from suffering.’

“This is having a thousand mouths, and yet not needing them. If you understand this, then you will understand that in the palm of your hand you hold the noses of all the eminent teachers from the distant past to the present. So you will first attain. If you do not understand, you should not speak, for that is only blood dripping. It is better for you to keep your mouth shut as spring passes.

“The Buddha sprang from the right side of his mother and took seven steps in each of the four directions. He then looked once each way, pointed one finger to the sky, and touched the ground with his other hand. He said, ‘In the sky above and the sky below, only I am holy.’

“You must understand this speech and understand what this ‘I’ is. ‘I’ is empty. Empty is full. It has no name or form, and does not appear or disappear. All people and all things have it. So where does the Buddha come from?

“Long ago Zen Master Un-mun said, ‘On the Buddha's birthday, as he sprang from the side of his mother, I hit him once and killed him, and fed him to a hungry dog. The whole world was at peace.’

“What the Buddha said on his birthday is wrong, so I will hit him thirty times. What Zen Master Un-mun said is also wrong, so I will hit him thirty times. What I just said is wrong, so I will hit myself thirty times.

“Where is the mistake?


“Today is the Buddha's birthday, and outside white snow is falling.”

After the Dharma speech, Soen-sa asked if there were any questions.

One student said, “Some people say the Buddha is a divine being, others say he was super-human, others say he was just a wise old man who understood a little more than most people. Who is Buddha?”

Soen-sa said, “How did you get here?”

“I walked.”

“Why did you walk?”

“I don't have a car.”

“A person drives a car. What is it that drove your body here?”

“I don't know.”

“The mind that doesn't know is the Buddha.”

“Then why do you celebrate Buddha's birthday?”

“Zen Master Un-mun said, ‘On the Buddha's birthday, as he sprang from the side of his mother, I hit him once and killed him, and fed him to a hungry dog. The whole world was at peace.’ Do you understand what this means?”


“This is the Buddha's teaching. When you understand it, you will understand why we celebrate his birthday.”

27. The Story of Won Hyo

  Thirteen hundred years ago, in an ancient province of Korea, there was a great Zen Master named Won Hyo. As a young man, he fought in a bloody civil war and saw many friends slaughtered and homes destroyed. He was overcome by the emptiness of this life, so he shaved his head and went to the mountains to live the life of a monk. In the mountains he read many sutras and kept the precepts well, but still he didn't understand the true meaning of Buddhism. Finally, since he knew that in China he might find a Zen Master who could help him become enlightened, he put on his backpack and headed for the great dry northern plains.

He went on foot. He would walk all day long and rest at night. One evening, as he was crossing the desert, he stopped at a small patch of green, where there were a few trees and some water, and went to sleep. Toward midnight he woke up, very thirsty. It was pitch-dark. He groped along on all fours, searching for water. At last his hand touched a cup on the ground. He picked it up and drank. Ah, how delicious! Then he bowed deeply, in gratitude to Buddha for the gift of water.

The next morning, Won Hyo woke up and saw beside him what he had taken for a cup. It was a shattered skull, blood-caked and with shreds of flesh still stuck to the cheekbones. Strange insects crawled or floated on the surface of the filthy rain-water inside it. Won Hyo looked at the skull and felt a great wave of nausea. He opened his mouth. As soon as the vomit poured out, his mind opened and he understood. Last night, since he hadn't seen and hadn't thought, the water was delicious. This morning, seeing and thinking had made him vomit. Ah, he said to himself, thinking makes good and bad, life and death. It creates the whole universe. It is the universal master. And without thinking, there is no universe, no Buddha, no Dharma. All is one, and this one is empty.

There was no need now to find a Master. Won Hyo already understood life and death. What more was there to learn? So he turned and started back across the desert to Korea.

Twenty years passed. During this time Won Hyo became the most famous monk in the land. He was the trusted advisor of the great king of Shilla, and preceptor to the noblest and most powerful families. Whenever he gave a public lecture, the hall was packed. He lived in a beautiful temple, taught the best students, ate the best food, and slept the dreamless sleep of the just.

Now at this time, there was a very great Zen Master in Shilla—a little old man, with a wisp of a beard and skin like a crumpled paper bag. Barefoot and in tattered clothes, he would walk through the towns ringing his bell. De-an, * dean, de-an, de-an don't think, de-an like this, de-an rest mind, de-an, de-an. Won Hyo heard of him and one day hiked to the mountain cave where he lived. From a distance he could hear the sound of extraordinarily lovely chanting echoing through the valleys. But when he arrived at the cave, he found the Master sitting beside a dead fawn, weeping. Won Hyo was dumbfounded. How could an enlightened being be either happy or sad, since in the state of Nirvana there is nothing to be happy or sad about, and no one to be happy or sad? He stood speechless for a while, and then asked the Master why he was weeping.

The Master explained. He had come upon the fawn after its mother had been killed by hunters. It was very hungry. So he had gone into town and begged for milk. Since he knew that no one would give milk for an animal, he had said it was for his son. “A monk with a son? What a dirty old man!” people thought. But some gave him a little milk. He had continued this way for a month, begging enough to keep the animal alive. Then the scandal became too great, and no one would help. He had been wandering for three days now, in search of milk. At last he had found some, but when he had returned to the cave, his fawn was already dead. “You don't understand,” said the Master. “My mind and the fawn's mind are the same. It was very hungry. I want milk, I want milk. Now it is dead. Its mind is my mind. That's why I am weeping. I want milk.”

Won Hyo began to understand how great a Bodhisattva the Master was. When all creatures were happy, he was happy. When all creatures were sad, he was sad. He said to him, “Please teach me.” The Master said, “All right. Come along with me.”

They went to the red-light district of town. The Master took Won Hyo's arm and walked up to the door of a geisha-house. De-an, de-an, he rang. A beautiful woman opened the door. “Today I've brought the great monk Won Hyo to visit you.” “Oh! Won Hyo!” she cried out. Won Hyo blushed. The woman blushed, and her eyes grew large. She led them upstairs, in great happiness, fear, and exhilaration that the famous, handsome monk had come to her. As she prepared meat and wine for her visitors, the Master said to Won Hyo, “For twenty years you've kept company with kings and princes and monks. It's not good for a monk to live in heaven all the time. He must also visit hell and save the people there, who are wallowing in their desires. Hell too is ‘like this.’ So tonight you will ride this wine straight to hell.”

“But I've never broken a single Precept before,” Won Hyo said.

“Have a good trip,” said the Master.

He then turned to the woman and said sternly, “Don't you know it's a sin to give wine to a monk? Aren't you afraid of going to hell?”

“No,” the woman said. “Won Hyo will come and save me.”

“A very good answer!” said the Master.

So Won Hyo stayed the night, and broke more than one Precept. The next morning he took off his elegant robes and went dancing through the streets, barefoot and in tatters. “De-an, de-an, de-an! The whole universe is like this! What are you?”

*This means, in Chinese, “The Great Peace.”


28. Porcupines in Rat-Holes

  August 10, 1974

Dear Soen-sa-nim,

Thank you for your most recent “hit”—my humble apologies for soiling this almost clean white paper with thinking, and even thinking about thinking.

My overall state is very good. Teaching here in Boulder is the best it has ever been for me—the tremendous enthusiasm, hunger, and sincerity of the students helps me rise beyond myself at times. My practice continues (I bow 108 times to the Cambridge Zen Center each morning) and my health flourishes. My first real exposure to real mountains is beyond words. I try to get to my favorite spot, near a glacier lake 10,000 feet high. “What am I?” at 10,000 feet!!!! At times I am a bit lonely for you all. Rinpoche is a Tantric master—there is much drinking, sex, drugs, etc. Ten years ago this might have been exciting for me; now I just watch.

A few questions. What is the relationship between asking “What am I?” and the flow of thoughts, perceptions, etc.? For example, do you address the question to particular thoughts, pains in the knee when sitting, etc.? When a thought comes, do you ask whom this thought is coming to? Do you do it with each thought as it comes in turn? each dominant sensation? or do you simply keep the question alive and let everything else come and go? In other words, are you mindful of the thought content and ask the question with each particular event in mind, or do you not pay much attention to the content of the mind, pouring energy into the question instead? Related to this are common student problems. Many students have asked how to work with problems like fear, anger, masturbation, etc. Should they enter into the content of the fear, anger, etc.? Should they acknowledge the fear and then ask to whom the fear is coming? Should they let it all happen and pour energy into the big question? Part of the problem seems to be that people can ask the question amidst the flow of ordinary thoughts, but when very dramatic states, personal problems come up, they find it hard to pay attention to the question, which seems remote.

I look forward to seeing you soon. When do you leave for California? I hope to be back in time for the August sesshin. It sounds like I won't recognize the Center—many changes.

Until then, I hope your English and health are good.


Byon Jo

  P.S. Perhaps the most important lesson for me here is a negative one. Being exposed to so many different teachers and teachings has only made your approach stand out with even greater clarity. People here read, talk, and think even more than I do!!!! Can you believe that??

August 15, 1974

How are you, Byon Jo?

Thank you for your long letter. I already understand that your teaching is very good. Before, you only understood everything; now you have attained the HIT.

Drinking, sex, drugs—these actions are neither good nor bad. But people get attached to these actions very easily. Young people in America are especially attached to sex. Zen Master Won Hyo says that being involved with sex is like a porcupine who crawls into a rat's hole: easy to go in, but impossible to back out, no matter how hard he tries. People make new karma through their attachment-actions. Karma means hindrance. Hindrance is suffering. If someone is not attached to drinking, sex, etc., then there is no hindrance. No hindrance is freedom. Freedom means Big I. You must check to find out if these people are attached to drink and sex. Many people think, “I am not attached to such-and-such.” But “I am not attached” is attachment-thinking. “I am not attached” is the same as “I am attached.”

About “What am I?”—The true “What am I?” is the complete question. Only don't-know mind. All the questions which you asked me in your letter are thinking. If you keep the complete “What am I?”, then you don't know “What am I?” All thinking has been cut off, so how can the question appear? Asking who is thinking is not the correct way. This is opposites thinking. This is an opposites question, not the complete question, the perfect question. Pain is pain, the question is the question. Why ask the question about pain? If you are keeping the complete question, there is no pain. These actions—anger, fear, etc.—are made by past karma, so the result is actions done in anger, etc. If a person sits Zen, he will make his karma disappear and he will no longer be caught up in these actions. So when you are angry, afraid, etc., only try Zen. If you happen to get angry, that's all right, don't worry. “I want to cut off anger!”—this is thinking. Anger is not bad, not good. Only don't be attached to it. Only ask “What am I?” and the action will soon disappear.

When the Buddha was alive, there was a prostitute called Pass-a-million. Every day she sold her body many times. Every day many different men came and had sex with her. But any man who had sex with her would become enlightened. So she was only using sex to teach Buddhism. When a man came to her, he had many desires. But after being with her, he had no desires, he understood his true self, and he went away with a clear mind. This sex is saving-all-people sex. But if I have sex just because I like it, because of my own desires, it will result in suffering. So actions themselves are not good and not bad; only the intention is important. If you think something is good, it is good; if you think it is bad, it is bad. If you want to cut off all thinking and all karma, you must practice Zen.

Me, too, I miss you. When will you come back to the Cambridge Zen Center? I will leave for California on Sept. 17 or 18. I will be in Cambridge during the August sesshin with you.

Here is a question for you: Whenever anyone asked Zen Master Lin-chi a question, he would shout “KATZ!!!” Zen Master Dok Sahn would only hit the questioner. Zen Master Ku-ji would only lift up one finger. Are these three answers the same or different? If you answer me, I will hit you thirty times. And if you don't answer, I will hit you thirty times. What can you do?

See you soon.



29. Practicing Zen

  One day, after a Dharma talk at the Vihara in Washington, D.C., a student asked Seung Sahn Soen-sa, “How should I practice Zen?”

Soen-sa said, “Don't you know?”

The student said, “I believe that the name and form of all things are different, but that their substance is the same. So to practice Zen I have to become one with the universe.”

Soen-sa said, “What is this ‘one’?”


“Once, when Zen Master Dong Sahn was asked, ‘What is Buddha?’, he said, ‘Three pounds of flax.’ What does this mean?”

“Three pounds of flax.”

“Very good! But you are holding a stick and trying to hit the moon.”

“That is Buddha-nature.”

Soen-sa said, “Your head is a dragon, but your tail is a snake.”

The student became confused and couldn't answer.

Soen-sa said, “I don't give acupuncture to a dead cow.”


Soen-sa said, “The arrow has already passed downtown.”

The student again was silent.

Soen-sa said, “Dong Sahn said that Buddha was three pounds of flax. In answer to the same question, Zen Master Un-mun said, ‘Dry shit on a stick.’ Are these two answers the same or different?”

You tell me.”

“I don't know. Ask my student.”

He asked the student, who answered by shouting “KATZ!!!”

Soen-sa said, “Do you understand?”

The first student shouted “KATZ!!!”

Soen-sa said, “Very good. But your understanding is still only conceptual. Sometimes your answers are ‘like this,’ sometimes they show an attachment to emptiness. I will explain the Zen circle once more. At 90° the book is the pencil, the pencil is the book. At 180° you can only answer with a hit or a shout. At 270° the pencil is angry, the book laughs. At 360° the book is blue, the pencil is yellow. Now which one of these four answers is the best?”

The student said, “They're all good.”

Soen-sa hit him and said, “Today is Saturday.”

30. It Is Your Mind That Is Moving

  November 24, 1974

Dear Soen-sa-nim,

Do you remember me? Here is a picture of myself.

I have some questions:

In the fall, there are leaves on the ground. If they are on a person's lawn, he comes out of his house and sweeps them together into little piles. In the afternoon, the wind comes and blows all the leaves away. Most people are very mad at the wind. Some of them go out again and sweep the new leaves into new piles. But again, the wind comes and blows them away. The wind always blows all the dead leaves away. Then what work must be done? Should a person always sweep leaves into piles and feel bad because he knows the wind will come soon?

If the tree has no roots, then how can it stand?

I hope to see you next summer. I look forward to that time very much. See you then.



November 29, 1974

Dear Peter,

Thank you for your letter. If a person goes outside and stays with leaves and wind and people, he cannot find his way back home. Why are you attached to leaves and wind and people's anger? Who is it that sees these leaves? Who?

Long ago in China, the Sixth Patriarch once passed two monks who were arguing about a flag blowing in the wind. One monk said, “It is the flag that is moving.” The second monk said, “It is the wind that is moving.” The Sixth Patriarch said, “You are both wrong. It is not the flag, it is not the wind: it is your mind that is moving.” In the same way, with the leaves, wind, anger, etc., when your mind is moving, then actions appear. But when your mind is not moving, the truth is just like this. The falling of the leaves is the truth. The sweeping is the truth. The wind's blowing them away is the truth. The people's anger also is the truth. If your mind is moving, you can't understand the truth. You must first understand that form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Next, no form, no emptiness. Then you will understand that form is form, emptiness is emptiness. Then all these actions are the truth. And then you will find your true home. If you find your true home, come to me any time and tell me. I will check whether you have found it or not.

You say, “If the tree has no roots, how can it stand?” I say, “The dog runs after the bone.” You must not be attached to words. First attain true emptiness. If you do not dwell in emptiness, you will get freedom and no hindrance. Then you will understand that the tree has no roots. Thinking is no good. Put it all down. Only “What am I?” This don't-know mind is very important. If you keep it for a long time, you will understand this tree without roots.

I will try to send you the newsletters. See you soon.



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