Introduction Zen Is Understanding Yourself

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31. Bodhisattva Attachment

  One evening, after a Dharma talk at the Boston Dharma-dhatu, a student asked Seung Sahn Soen-sa, “Is the Bodhisattva attached to compassion?”

Soen-sa said, “The universe is infinite; all people are infinite. So the Bodhisattva's attachment is infinite. A Bodhisattva attachment is no attachment. No attachment is a Bodhisattva attachment.”

The student said, “Does he have it in mind to save all people or does this just happen wherever he is?”

Soen-sa said, “Do you understand what the Bodhisattva is?”


“First, understand what the Bodhisattva is. Then you will understand the Bodhisattva's attachment. The Bodhisattva is your true self. Your true self is Big I. Big I is all people. All people and I become one mind. So Bodhisattva action is always for all people. When people are happy, the Bodhisattva is happy. When people are sad, the Bodhisattva is sad. He always acts together with all people.”

The student bowed and said, “Thank you.”

32. Five Kinds of Zen

  One Sunday night, after a Dharma talk at the Providence Zen Center, a student asked Seung Sahn Soen-sa, “How many kinds of Zen are there?”

Soen-sa said, “Five.”

“What are they?”

“They are: Outer Path Zen, Common People's Zen, Hinayana Zen, Mahayana Zen, and Utmost Vehicle Zen.”

“Could you explain each of these?”

Soen-sa said, “Zen is meditation. Outer Path Zen includes many different types of meditation. For example, Christian meditation, Divine Light, Transcendental Meditation, etc.

“Common People's Zen is concentration meditation, Dharma Play meditation, sports, the tea ceremony, ritual ceremonies, etc.

“Hinayana meditation is insight into impermanence, impurity, and non-self.

“Mahayana meditation is: 1) insight into the existence and nonexistence of the nature of the dharmas; 2) insight into the fact that there are no external, tangible characteristics, and that all is emptiness; 3) insight into existence, emptiness, and the Middle Way; 4) insight into the true aspect of all phenomena; 5) insight into the mutual interpenetration of all phenomena; 6) insight that sees that phenomena themselves are the Absolute.

“These six are equal to the following statement from the Avatamsaka Sutra: ‘If you wish to thoroughly understand all the Buddhas of the past, present, and future, then you should view the nature of the whole universe as being created by the mind alone.’

“Finally, there is Utmost Vehicle Zen, which is divided into three types: Theoretical Zen, Tathagata Zen, and Patriarchal Zen.”

The student then asked, “Which of the five kinds of Zen is the best?”

Soen-sa said, “Do you understand your mind?”


“When you don't understand your mind, all Zen is no good. When you understand your mind, all Zen is best.”

“I want to understand my mind. What kind of Zen is the best training?”

Soen-sa said, “Understanding one's mind is the aim of Utmost Vehicle Zen.”

“You mentioned before that this Zen is further divided into three kinds. Which of the three is the best training?”

Soen-sa said, “The three kinds are only one, not three. Intellectual understanding of Zen is Theoretical Zen. The attainment of emptiness, the unity of mind and the universe is Tathagata Zen. ‘Like this’ is Patriarchal Zen. This means a relaxed mind, the attainment of Big I. Big I is infinite time and infinite space.”

The student said, “That's all very difficult. I don't understand.”

Soen-sa said, “I will explain to you. The Heart Sutra says, ‘Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.’ So your substance and the substance of all things is the same. Your original mind is Buddha, Buddha is your original mind.”

Then, holding a pencil in his hand, he said, “This is a pencil. Are you and the pencil the same or different?”

“The same.”

Soen-sa said, “That's right. This is Theoretical Zen.”

“What is Tathagata Zen?”

“The Mahaparinirvana Sutra says, ‘All formations are impermanent; this is the law of appearing and disappearing. When appearing and disappearing disappear, then this stillness is bliss.’ This means that when there is no appearance or disappearance in your mind, that mind is bliss. This is a mind devoid of all thinking. So I ask you again: Are this pencil and you the same or different?”

The student said, “The same.”

Soen-sa said, “If you say ‘the same,’ I will hit you thirty times. If you say ‘different,’ I will still hit you thirty times. What can you do?”

The student couldn't answer and became very confused.

Soen-sa hit the floor and said, “If you keep your mind as it is just now, this is Tathagata Zen. Do you understand?”

“I don't know.”

“This don't-know mind has no Buddha, no Dharma, no good, no bad, no light, no dark, no sky, no ground, no same, no different, no emptiness, no form, no anything in it. This is a truly empty mind. Empty mind is the mind which does not appear or disappear. Keeping this mind at all times is Tathagata Zen. Before, you said that the pencil and you are the same. This ‘same’ is thinking, so I said I would hit you thirty times. Do you understand?”

The student said, “A little.”

“A little understanding is good. But if you ask me, ‘Are the pencil and you the same or different,’ I will hit the floor. When you understand why I hit the floor, you will understand Tathagata Zen.”

“Thank you. Would you now explain Patriarchal Zen?”

Soen-sa said, “A person once asked Zen Master Mang Gong, ‘What is Buddhism?’ Mang Gong said, ‘The sky is high, the ground is wide.’ Do you understand what this means?”

“I don't know.”

Soen-sa said, “That's right. ‘Like this’ is enlightenment. Patriarchal Zen is enlightenment Zen. An eminent teacher said:

1. ‘Sky is ground, ground is sky: sky and ground are constantly changing.

 ‘Water is mountain, mountain is water: water and mountain are emptiness.

2. ‘Sky is sky, ground is ground: how can they ever change?

   ‘Mountain is mountain, water is water: the truth is just like this.’

  “The first verse above is Tathagata Zen, and the second is Patriarchal Zen.

“A man once asked Zen Master Dong Sahn, ‘What is Buddha?’ He said, ‘Three pounds of flax.’ The man didn't understand, so he went to another Zen Master, described his encounter with Dong Sahn, and asked, ‘What does “three pounds of flax” mean?’ The Zen Master said, ‘In the North, pine; in the South, bamboo.’ The man still didn't understand, so he went to one of his friends who had been practicing Zen for some time. His friend said, ‘You open your mouth, your teeth are yellow. Do you understand?’ ‘I don't know.’ ‘First understand your mind, then all of this will be clear.’”

Then Soen-sa asked the student, “Do you understand?”

The student said, “Yes. Thank you.”

“What do you understand?”

“‘Like this’ is Patriarchal Zen.”

Soen-sa asked “What is ‘like this’?”

The student couldn't answer. Soen-sa pinched his arm hard. The student yelled, “Owwwwwwwwww!”

“This is ‘like this.’ What is in pain?”

“I don't know.”

“You must understand what is in pain. Then you will understand Utmost Vehicle Zen, and see that everything in the universe is the truth.”

33. The Color of Snow

  One winter afternoon, during Yong Maeng Jong Jin at the Providence Zen Center, Seung Sahn Soen-sa went for a walk with some of his students. It had snowed the day before. Soen-sa asked one student, “What color is this snow?”

The student said, “White.”

Soen-sa said, “You have an attachment to color.”

The student clapped his hands.

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

He then asked another student, “What color is this snow?”

The student said, “You already understand.”

Soen-sa said, “Then tell me.”

The student said, “It's white.”

Soen-sa said, “Is this the truth?”

The student said, “Aren't you hungry?”

Soen-sa said, “Soon it will be time for lunch.”

Another student said, “Go drink tea.”

Soen-sa said, “I've already had some.”

The student hit Soen-sa.

Soen-sa cried out, “Aie! Aie!”

34. Don't-Know Mind, Continued

  One Thursday evening, after a Dharma talk at the Cambridge Zen Center, a student asked Seung Sahn Soen-sa, “If when you're driving you're just driving, when you sit Zen and ask ‘What am I?’ are you just the question?”

Soen-sa said, “Just the question. The name we give to clear mind is don't-know mind. So you must understand don't-know. Don't-know is don't-know. This is very important.”

“But if I understand, then I don't have a don't-know mind, do I?”

Who doesn't know?” (Laughter from the audience.) “When you keep don't-know mind—this is don't-know. You are don't-know. All people are given names, like Georgie, Roger, Stephen. But when you were born, you had no name. So mind is no mind. What is mind? I don't know. Your mind's name is don't-know.”

“When you're driving, is your mind don't-know or are you just driving?”

“Only driving is don't-know.” (Laughter.) “Only keep don't-know mind. Don't-know, okay?” (Laughter.)

What don't you know?” (Laughter.) “I mean, if you're just driving, there's no knowing or not-knowing.”

“When you are driving, do you have mind?”

The student was silent.

Soen-sa said, “Now your mind is don't-know mind. If you are not attached to don't-know, there is only don't-know.”

“Don't-know what?”

“What color is this door?”


“You say brown. This is don't-know. Do you understand?”

“I don't know.” (Laughter.)

“Yah, you understand don't-know.” (Laughter.)

“Are you attached to don't-know?”

You are attached to don't-know! Attachment to words is no good. Only don't-know. When I drink water, I just drink water, I don't know, okay? So don't-know can drink water. Do you understand?”

“Why not say just that you're drinking water?”

“Now you are speaking. Who is speaking?”

The student was silent.

“Don't know. This don't-know is speaking.”

“But if I'm just speaking, you don't need to say don't-know.”

“Originally there is no name and no form. Its name is don't-know.”

“Some Zen Masters say you must keep great doubt, which is don't-know mind, I guess. But they say there must come a point where you break through the great doubt into great enlightenment.”

“Great doubt is don't-know. The names are different—great doubt, great question, great don't-know. There are many many names. My given name is Duk In, my monk's name is Haeng Won, my enlightenment name is Seung Sahn. I have many names. But none is my true name. When I was born, I had no name. The true name is no name. So great doubt, great question, don't-know—they are all the same.”

“But when you are a baby, if your mother asks, ‘What are you?’, you don't answer, ‘I don't know.’”

“Go ask a baby.” (Laughter.)

“A baby doesn't think ‘know’ or ‘don't-know’—it just is.”

“Yah, it just is. Only don't-know. The baby is not attached to the question. You are attached to the question. Don't-know is clear mind. Don't-know is before thinking. Don't-know is like this. Ask me now, ‘What is don't-know?’”

“What is don't-know?”

Soen-sa picked up a cup of water and drank. “Do you understand? This is don't-know.”

“But why say don't-know? If you're thirsty, you just drink. Why does a Zen person go around thinking ‘I don't know’?” (Laughter.)

“If you are thinking, this is not don't-know.” (Laughter.) “Don't-know is not-thinking. There is only don't-know. Socrates used to go around Athens saying, ‘You must know yourself.’ Once a student of his asked him, ‘Do you know yourself?’ Socrates said, ‘I don't know, but I understand this don't-know.’ I don't know, but when I am thirsty I drink. I don't know, but when I am tired I rest. Only this.”

“The original question is ‘What am I?’ and your answer is ‘I don't know.’ Who doesn't know? You're still stuck in the question. You're on one end of it. Either I know or I don't know, and they're opposites. What if you throw the whole thing away and just live?” (Laughter.)

Soen-sa laughed and said, “You are thinking, thinking, thinking. So I will hit you thirty times!” (Laughter.) “What are you?”

The student was silent.

Soen-sa said, “You don't know. This mind. If you keep this mind, and are not attached to the words ‘don't-know,’ you will soon understand.”

35. Zen and Tantra

  One evening, after a Dharma talk at the Boston Dharma-dhatu, a student said to Seung Sahn Soen-sa, “At a recent seminar on Zen and Tantra, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche compared Zen to black and white and tantra to color. What do you think of this?”

Soen-sa smiled and said, “Which one do you prefer?” (Laughter from the audience.)

The student shrugged his shoulders.

Soen-sa said, “What color is your shirt?”


“You are attached to color.”

The student hesitated for a few moments, then said, “Maybe you are attached to black and white.”

Soen-sa said, “The arrow has already passed downtown.” There was a long silence. “Do you understand?” (A few giggles.) “Okay, I will explain: The dog runs after the bone.” There was another long nervous silence. “Okay, I will explain even more.” (Loud laughter.) “When you are thinking, your mind and my mind are different. When you are not thinking, your mind and my mind are the same. Now tell me—when you are not thinking, is there color? Is there black and white? Not thinking, your mind is empty mind. Empty minds means cutting off all speech and words. Is there color then?”

“I don't know.”

“You don't know? I hit you! Now do you understand?” (Laughter.) “In original mind there is no color, no black and white, no words, no Buddha, no Zen, no Tibetan Buddhism.”

The student bowed and said, “Thank you.”

Soen-sa said, “‘Thank you?’ What do you mean by Thank you?”

“Only ‘Thank you.’”

Soen-sa laughed and said, “Only ‘Thank you’ is good. I hope that you soon understand your true self.”

The student said, “I've begun.”

36. The 10,000 Questions Are One Question

  April 12, 1974

Dear Soen-sa-nim,

Here are some questions for you:

How do you teach the Dharma? What do you teach? If you don't understand, what can you say about what Zen is?

Does a person learn things? Does a person understand more?

I hope you are enjoying sunny California—only cold rain in Providence, but we have money now for our new house.

See you soon,


  April 20, 1974

Dear Louise,

How are you? Thank you for your beautiful postcard. How are Alban, Roger, Bobby, Stephen, George, Suzie, and Nick?

In your letter there are many questions. If you have questions, all things are questions. Why do you live? Why do you die? How can you see, smell, and taste? Why does the sun rise in the East? Why does the moon shine only at night? Why does the earth revolve around the sun? And so on and so forth.

But the ten thousand questions are only one question. The one question is, “What am I?”

In the picture you sent me, someone is holding a sword. This is a King's Diamond Sword. If you cut off all thinking with it, the ten thousand questions disappear. Then tell me: what is this Diamond Sword? If you can find it, your life is absolutely free and your actions will have no hindrance. If you don't find it, the question-demon will kill you, and you will fall into hell. So put it all down!

It is better to keep your mouth shut as spring passes.

Here is a kong-an: “When the bell is rung, you put on your kesha.” What does this mean?

Your eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind all deceive you.

The true you is without the six senses. But the six senses use you, so you ask ten thousand questions. You must return to your true self. Then you will understand.

The butterfly alights on the flower and drinks its nectar.

Here is a poem for you:

What is Buddha?

“Three pounds of flax.”

“Dry shit on a stick.”

I don't understand these words.

The infant is sucking on his toes.

  See you soon.



37. Buddha Is Grass Shoes

  One morning after practice, four students were having breakfast with Seung Sahn Soen-sa at the Corner Coffee Shop on East Twenty-First Street in New York City. One student told about an experience which he had had with some followers of the Nichiren sect. “Their mantra, Nam yoho renge kyo, seemed to me a quite powerful practice. But when I asked them what it meant, they didn't know and said it wasn't important to know. Is this correct?”

Soen-sa said, “In practice of this kind, correct understanding is not necessary. It doesn't matter whether you know that this mantra is the name of the Lotus Sutra or that Kwanseum Bosal is the name of the Bodhisattva Avaloki-teshvara.”

Another student said, “I've heard that certain mantras have power inherent in them—that Sanskrit sounds, for example, have some link to the energy of the universe. Does it make a difference which mantra you use?”

Soen-sa said, “Three things are important: first, your reason for doing the mantra; second, strong faith that the mantra works; and third, constant practice.”

“So you can chant Coca-Cola all day long and it will work?”

“If someone tells you that the words Coca-Cola have power in them and you really believe that, then Coca-Cola will work for you. There is a good story about this:

“Three hundred years ago in Korea, there was a monk named Sok Du, which means ‘Rock Head.’ He was a very stupid man. The sutras were much too difficult for him, so he decided to study Zen. But sitting Zen was also too difficult. So he only did working Zen, in the kitchen and in the monastery fields. Twice a month the Zen Master would give a Dharma Speech, which would always fill Sok Du with confusion. One day, after the Dharma Speech, he went to the Zen Master and said, ‘Master, I'm tired of being so stupid. Isn't there some way I can understand?’

“The Master said, ‘You must ask me a good question.’

“Sok Du scratched his head and thought for a few minutes. Then he said, ‘Okay. You are always talking about Buddha. What is Buddha?’

“The Master answered, ‘Juk shim shi bul,’ which means ‘Buddha is mind.’ But Sok Du misunderstood, and thought that the Master had said, ‘Jip shin shi bul,’ which means ‘Buddha is grass shoes.’

“‘What a difficult kong-an!’ Sok Du thought, as he bowed to the Master and left. ‘How can Buddha be grass shoes? How will I ever understand?’

“For the next three years, Sok Du puzzled over this great question as he did his working Zen. He never asked the Master to explain; he just kept the question in his mind at all times. Finally, one day three years later, he was carrying a large load of firewood down the hill to the monastery. His foot hit a rock, he lost his balance, the wood fell, and his grass shoes went flying into the air. When they landed on the ground, they were broken, and he had attained enlightenment.

“Sok Du was very happy and very excited, so he went running back to the Zen Master. ‘Master, Master, now I understand what Buddha is!’

“The Master looked at him and said, ‘Oh? Then what is Buddha?’

“Sok Du took off one grass shoe and hit the Master on the head.

“The Master said, ‘Is this the truth?’

“Sok Du said, ‘My shoes are all broken!’

“The Master burst out laughing, and Sok Du flushed with joy.”

At this, Soen-sa and his students also burst out laughing. Then they returned to their fried eggs and toast.

38. Three Interviews

  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 shouted “KATZ!!!”

Soen-sa said, “No. Give me another answer.”

The student again shouted “KATZ!!!”

Soen-sa said, “You only say KATZ. How much does your KATZ weigh?”

The student answered, “Nothing.”

Soen-sa hit him thirty times and the student left.

Another student came in and bowed.

Soen-sa said, “Long ago a student came to Un-mun and asked, ‘What is Buddha?’ Un-mun said, ‘Dry shit on a stick.’ Is this answer right or wrong?”

The student said, “Wrong.”

Soen-sa asked, “Why is it wrong? If a person came and asked you ‘What is Buddha?’, what would your answer be?”

The student said, “Dry shit on a stick.”

Soen-sa said, “Oh, very good. Now one more question. Zen Master Dong Sahn said, ‘Buddha is three pounds of flax.’ Are this answer and the other answer the same or different?”

The student hit the floor.

Soen-sa said, “I don't believe you.”

The student said, “Birds fly in the sky, fish swim in the water.”

Soen-sa said, “This is scratching your left foot when your right foot itches.”

The student bowed and left.

Another student came in.

Soen-sa rang a bell and asked him, “When you hear this sound, is it inside your mind or outside?”

The student picked up the bell and rang it.

Soen-sa said, “Long ago Zen Master Un-mun, when asked ‘What is Buddha?’, answered, ‘Dry shit on a stick.’ Zen Master Dong Sahn answered the same question by saying, ‘Three pounds of flax.’ Which answer is better?”

The student said, “They're both no good.”

Soen-sa asked, “Why?”

The student said, “Dry shit on a stick is dry shit on a stick. Three pounds of flax is three pounds of flax.”

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

The student said, “I would clean the Buddha.”

“Good, but this person has an attachment to emptiness. He believes that only he is holy. You understand that his action is wrong. How can you teach him?”

The student hesitated and said, “I don't know. I'm not a Zen Master.”

Soen-sa said, “If you do hard training, you will soon attain enlightenment and become a Zen Master.”

The student bowed and left.

39. When the Lights Go Off, What?

  One evening, after a Dharma talk at Yale University, a student asked Seung Sahn Soen-sa, “If form is non-form and non-form is form, is Buddha-mind thinking and thinking Buddha-mind?”

Soen-sa said, “Yes.”

There was a long silence. Some people in the audience began to giggle.

Then Soen-sa said, “You already understand Buddhism. So I ask you: Who made thinking? Who made Buddha?”

The student was silent for a moment, then said, “I'm already thinking.”

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

“From questioning.”

“Questioning? Then where does questioning come from?”

“It comes from Buddha-mind.”

Soen-sa laughed and said, “Don't make Buddha. Okay?” (Laughter from the audience.) “You say Buddha. Then what is Buddha?”

The student walked over to the light switch and turned off the lights. Then he turned them on again.

Soen-sa said, “Oho! Very good! But I have one more question for you: If you turn off the lights, what? If you turn on the lights, what?”

“Turning off the lights is nature before thinking.”

Soen-sa laughed and said, “I hit you thirty times.” (Laughter.) “When the lights go off, what? When the lights go on, what?”

“The lights off are Buddha-nature. The lights on are thinking.”

Soen-sa said, “Okay, one more question. Buddha said, ‘All things have Buddha-nature.’ But when somebody asked Jo-ju, ‘Does a dog have Buddha-nature?’, Jo-ju answered, ‘No!’ Which one is correct?”

“I don't know.”

Soen-sa said, “You must understand this. Then you will understand Buddha-nature. You say Buddha, Buddha-mind, Buddha-nature. These are only names. What is true Buddha-nature? You must understand Jo-ju's answer. Why did he say, ‘No’? Before, I asked you, ‘When the lights go off, what? When the lights go on, what?’ When the lights go off, it is dark. When the lights go on, it is bright. Only like this. It is very simple.” (Laughter.)

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