Introduction Zen Is Understanding Yourself

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40. Testing the Mind

  One Thursday evening, after a Dharma talk at the Cambridge Zen Center, a student asked Seung Sahn Soen-sa, “How does a Zen Master test his students' minds?”

Soen-sa said, “What is mind?”

The student was silent for a few moments, then said, “I don't know.”

Soen-sa said, “Okay, I will ask you a question. One day somebody asked Zen Master Ma-jo, ‘What is Buddha?’ Ma-jo said, ‘Mind is Buddha, Buddha is mind.’ Later, somebody else asked him the same question and he answered, ‘No mind, no Buddha.’ Which answer is correct?”

The student hit the floor.

Soen-sa said, “I don't believe you.”

The student was silent.

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

The student was still silent.

Soen-sa said, “Your first answer was good. But then you began to think, which is no good. Hitting the floor is a good answer. There is no correct or incorrect, so you only hit the floor. But does this hit mean ‘No mind, no Buddha’ or ‘Mind is Buddha, Buddha is mind’?

“I can't say.”

“Why not? Both Ma-jo's answers—‘Mind is Buddha, Buddha is mind’ and ‘No mind, no Buddha’—are wrong. They are very low-class answers. As soon as you say ‘mind,’ you create ‘not-mind’; as soon as you say ‘Buddha’, you create ‘not-Buddha.’ So Zen Master Jo-ju said, ‘Even mentioning Buddha is like dumping shit on your head.’ Both ‘mind’ and ‘Buddha’ are opposites words. They are not the Absolute. So both Ma-jo's answers are very bad teaching.”


“No? Why no?”

“Because he's right for the person asking the question.”

“The true Buddha cannot be expressed in words. If you were a Zen Master and somebody asked you, ‘What is Buddha?’, what would you answer?”

The student was silent.

Soen-sa said, “Only silence? Then this person won't understand. Suppose this person is very wild and hits you. What will you do then? Will you just continue to sit in silence?”

“I'd hit him back.”

“Then he says, ‘Your head is a dragon, your tail is a snake.’ When you just sat in silence, that was a very good answer. But when you hit the person back, that wasn't so good. His hit was only to test your mind. So he says, ‘Your head—your first answer—is a dragon, but your tail—your next answer—is only a snake.’”

“A dragon is a dragon, a snake is a snake.”

“Then he says, ‘The dog runs after the bone.’”

“Then I bow.”

“Then he says, ‘You must do more hard training!’ “(Laughter from the audience.) “This is how a Zen Master tests his students' minds.” (Loud laughter.)

The student laughed and bowed to Soen-sa.

41. What Is Death?

  One morning, during Yong Maeng Jong Jin at the Providence Zen Center, a student walked into the interview room and bowed to Seung Sahn Soen-sa.

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

The student said, “Yes. What is death?”

Soen-sa said, “You are already dead.”

The student said, “I'm only dying. I haven't really experienced death yet. I don't even understand what that would mean.”

Soen-sa hit him.

The student became confused and couldn't answer.

After a few moments, Soen-sa said, “When you think death, you make death. When you think life, you make life. When you are not thinking, there is no life and no death. In empty mind, is there a you? Is there an I?”


“You say No. You must understand No. This No is no self, no other, no body, no mind, no world. So it is no life and no death. This is true emptiness. True emptiness is before thinking. Before thinking is just like this. So life is only life; death is only death. You must not be attached to names and forms. It is like a clear mirror. In a clear mirror, all is nothing; there is only the clear mirror. Red comes, the mirror is red. Yellow comes, there is yellow. A woman comes, there is a woman. A man comes, there is a man. Death comes, there is death. Life comes, there is life. But all of these do not exist. The mirror does not hold on to anything. There is only the coming and the going. This is before thinking: all things are just as they are. The name for this mind is original pure mind. You must find your original face. Then you will not make life or death.”

The student bowed, and the interview continued.

The next morning, the same student walked into the interview room and bowed.

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

“Yes. What is death?”

“You are already dead.”

“Thank you very much. Now I understand.”

Soen-sa said, “You understand? Then what is death?”

The student said, “You are already dead.”

Soen-sa smiled and bowed.

42. Wanting Enlightenment

  After a Sunday night Dharma talk at the Providence Zen Center, Seung Sahn Soen-sa said to his students, “If you throw away all thoughts of attainment, you will then come to see the real purpose of your quest. Some of you want to reach enlightenment and become Zen Masters as quickly as possible. But as long as you have a thought like this, you will never attain anything. Just cut off all thoughts and conceptions. Then, as you work hard on your kong-an, all your questions and doubts will come to form one great mass. This mass will grow and grow, until you don't care about eating or sleeping or anything but finding the answer to the great question. When you find yourself in this state, enlightenment will not be far away.”

A student asked, “If we didn't want to get enlightened, why would we take the trouble to come here?”

Soen-sa said, “Desire and aspiration are two different things. The idea that you want to achieve something in Zen meditation is basically selfish. ‘I want to get enlightened’ means ‘I want to get enlightened.’ But aspiration is not for myself, it is not a merely individual desire, it transcends the idea of self. It is desire without attachment. If enlightenment comes, good. If enlightenment does not come, good. Actually, this is enlightenment.

“Could you explain why?”

“Originally there is no enlightenment. If I attain enlightenment, it is not enlightenment. As the Heart Sutra says there is ‘no-attainment, with nothing to attain.’ Enlighten ment is not enlightenment. It is just a teaching word.”

“What does it teach?”

“When you are hungry, eat. When you are tired, rest.”

“Sometimes I feel that meditating is itself very selfish. I really don't feel I'm going to help others by sitting Zen….”

“What are you? What is this self that is feeling selfish? If you understand this, you will know that there is no real difference between your self and all beings in the universe. Ultimately, they are one and the same. You include all beings. So if you are coming here for your own sake, you are coming for the sake of all beings.”

Another student said, “I don't understand the difference between desire and aspiration. If you have the idea ‘I want to save all beings,’ isn't there still the duality, I and all beings?”

Soen-sa said, “Before you use these words, you must understand what the self is.”

“Okay, tell me, what is it?”

“Did you have dinner?”


“What did it taste like?”

“It tasted like rice.”

“I will hit you thirty times.”


The first student said, “What you taught before is as clear as day. But I still feel selfish when I come here and my children want me to be with them at home.”

Soen-sa said, “Let me ask you this: If you could do anything your heart desired, what would you want to do most of all?”

“Get enlightened.”

“And after you get enlightened, what will you do then?”

The student was silent for several moments. Then she said, “I don't know.”

Soen-sa said, “You want most of all to attain enlightenment. And you don't have any idea what you will do with it. That not-knowing is your true self. As long as you cling to your desire to attain enlightenment, you will never attain. But desire brings you here to sit Zen. So come and sit. That is a first step.”

43. The True Way for Women

  One Thursday evening, after a Dharma talk at the Cambridge Zen Center, a young woman asked Seung Sahn Soen-sa, “What is the true way for women?”

Soen-sa said, “I don't know—I'm not a woman.” (Laughter from the audience.) Then, after a few moments, “Okay, I ask you: what is woman?”

The student said, “I don't know.”

Soen-sa said, “This is the true way. Only don't-know mind. In don't-know mind, there is no woman, no man, no old, no young, no people, no Buddhas, no self, no world, nothing at all. If you understand this don't-know mind, you understand the true way. If you don't understand don't-know mind, you cannot understand the true way. Okay?”

“I don't know.”

“Then you must keep don't-know mind.”

“But if things are only like this, then man is man and woman is woman!”


“So the true way for men and the true way for women—are they the same or different?” (Laughter.)

Soen-sa said, “Ah, that is a very big question!” (Laughter.) “So I ask you: man and woman—are they the same or different?”

“I asked you first!”

“Then you have already attained the true way for women.” (Laughter.)

“I don't understand.”

Soen-sa said, “Then I will hit you.” (Laughter.) “Do you understand now?”

The student bowed.

44. Can You See Your Eyes?

  One evening, after a Dharma talk at the Boston Dharmadhatu, a student asked Seung Sahn Soen-sa, “What is the difference betwen shikan taza—‘only sitting’—and kong-an practice?”

Soen-sa said, “When I was in Los Angeles last month, many people asked me about the difference between Soto and Rinzai Zen. I answered, ‘They are the same.’ Only the externals are different. Soto uses awareness of breathing to cut off thinking. Kong-an Zen uses the kong-an to cut off thinking. Only the method is different. Cutting off thinking and becoming clear mind is the same. They are two doors into the same room. If I am attached to shikan taza or to the kong-an, then they are different. But if I am not attached, then they are the same.”

The student said, “Sometimes you hear of people struggling with kong-ans for years. That bothers me. The implication is that either they're on the wrong path or it takes all that time to realize you shouldn't struggle at all. Are you saying there shouldn't be a struggle?”

Soen-sa said, “Keeping the mind that desires enlightenment is the wrong way to use the kong-an. Only keep the great question. The great question means cutting off all thinking, becoming empty mind. So the mind that keeps the great question is enlightenment! You are already enlightened, but you don't know it. So after much hard training: ah, this is enlightenment! It is very easy. Can you see your eyes?”


“You have no eyes? You have eyes. Can you grasp your mind?”


“You have no mind? It is the same. Can you see this cup? Can you hear my voice?”


“This is your mind. My eyes can't see my eyes. To try to see my eyes is the wrong way. My mind can't understand my mind. So to try to understand my mind is the wrong way. If you cut off this mind, you will soon attain enlightenment. I can see this cup; so I have eyes. I can hear this sound; so I have mind. What am I? I am asking I. So there are no opposites. Having no opposites is the Absolute. So all thinking is cut off. Only don't know, only empty mind. This is my true self. It is very easy.”

45. Special Medicine and Big Business

  One spring afternoon, three students were having tea in Seung Sahn Soen-sa's room at the Providence Zen Center. One student said to Soen-sa, “Many people have come to Zen as a result of their experience with psychedelics, or ‘special medicine,’ as you call it. Is taking psychedelics good or bad?”

Soen-sa said, “The question of good or bad is not important. It is neither good nor bad. What is important is why they take this medicine. Do you understand?”

Another student said, “What do you mean by good and bad?”

Soen-sa said, “Taking the medicine in order to understand is good. Taking the medicine because of the good feelings it gives you is not so good.”

“Then it's possible to come to an understanding through special medicine?”

“It is possible. Many people are attached to name and form. They take this medicine and for five or ten hours it is the same as death. They have no hindrance from their body and their body's desires. It is like a dream. There is only the free action of their consciousness, the free play of the Karma I. So they understand that all life is empty. Life is death; death is life. They understand very clearly that fighting and differences among people are unnecessary, are just the result of wrong thinking. They no longer desire to be rich or successful. Rich or poor, success or failure—it is all the same. It comes to the same thing when you are dead.”

The first student said, “You've just convinced me to take special medicine twice a day!”

Soen-sa said, “Taking it once or twice can be very helpful. But taking it more often is dangerous. It is very easy to become attached to special medicine. You are already a Zen student. So you already understand that life is empty; you understand what the true way is. When your body is sick, it is sometimes necessary to take a strong drug. But when you are healthy, you don't take drugs. So this special medicine cures some sickness, but it creates other sicknesses. After you take it, you have many attachments. You don't feel like working. You don't want to make money. You only want to relax or work in the garden or listen to music or enjoy art.”

“Not make money? Heaven forbid!”

“This is an attachment to natural-style or hippie-style living. It is no good for a Zen student. Many people take special medicine and understand themselves. But their understanding is only thinking. It is not attainment. True attainment of emptiness means that all thinking has been cut off. There are neither likes nor dislikes. Natural-style living is good. Plastic-style living is good. There are no attachments to anything.”

The third student said, “Soen-sa-nim, many different people practice Zen. I practice Zen; businessmen and lawyers practice Zen. I have an attachment to natural-style; they have an attachment to big-business-style. You don't say to them that they must give up business and only practice Zen, and you don't say to me that I must give up natural-style and only practice Zen. It's just different karma, isn't it?”

Soen-sa said, “Your life is natural-style; that's good. Businessman-style living is also good. What is important is why you are living this way. If you desire money for yourself or if you desire natural-style for yourself—this is no good. If you cut off your desires, then business is not business. It is Bodhisattva business. Natural-style is not natural-style. It is Bodhisattva action. So you can use business or natural-style living to teach all people the true way.”

“You can teach natural-style living?”

“Yes, teaching natural-style is very good, as long as you are not attached to it. Natural-style is very high-class Bodhisattva action.”


“True hippies have no hindrance. If I have no money, that's okay. If I don't have a house or a bed, that's okay. I can sleep anywhere, I can eat any food. My whole life is freedom. I am free to do anything. Having no hindrance means not being attached to anything. So this hippie-mind is very good; it is a very high-class mind. But many young people are attached to hippie-style or natural-style living. This is no good. If you are attached, then hippie-style becomes a hindrance. You must cut off all thinking and all desires for yourself. Then you will soon attain enlightenment. The hippie-mind is only one hair's-breadth away from enlightenment. If a hippie could cut off his attachment to being a hippie, he would soon discover, ‘Oh, this is enlightenment!’ One of my first students in America had very long blond hair, which he wore in a pony-tail. One day I said to him, ‘I think it would be good if you cut your hair.’ He said, ‘No no, I like my hair the way it is.’ I said, ‘If you are attached to your hair, you cannot attain enlightenment.’ ‘Is this true?’ ‘Yah, enlightenment is complete freedom. If you are attached to your hair, then your hair is a hindrance. If you have a hindrance, you cannot attain enlightenment.’ ‘Okay, then I will cut my hair.’ ‘Fine. Now you don't need to cut it.’ So he learned that being a true hippie is having no attachments. Afterwards, he did hard training and soon understood.”

The first student said, “Is it possible for a businessman to have no hindrance?”

Soen-sa said, “Only if he has no desire. If he is working and earning money in order to help other people, then Zen is business, business is Zen. They are not two. All jobs are the same. Most people don't understand this. They are only interested in making a lot of money or becoming successful. This is small I. But if I make money to help all people, then business is good business. It is Big Business!”

46. Miracles

  July 26, 1975

Dear Soen-sa-nim,

Somebody at the New Haven Zen Center asked me the following questions: “If a Zen Master is capable of doing miracles, why doesn't he do them? He is supposed to be a great Bodhisattva: doesn't this mean curing both physical and mental diseases? Why doesn't Soen-sa-nim do as Jesus did—make the blind see, or touch a crazy person and make him sane? Wouldn't even such a showy miracle as walking on water make many people believe in Zen, so that they would begin to practice and eventually come to understand themselves? So why doesn't he do miracles only for all people?”

How should I answer such questions?

Yours sincerely,

Mu Gak

  August 3, 1975

Dear Mu Gak,

Thank you for your letter.

Many people want miracles, and if they witness miracles they become very attached to them. But miracles are only a technique. They are not the true way. If a Zen Master used miracles often, people would become very attached to this technique of his, and they wouldn't learn the true way. If a doctor gave a sick person medicine that cured his sickness but gave him another sickness, would you call him a good doctor? It is true that people might be attracted to Zen if a Zen Master were to walk on water. But if they came for this reason, they would find actual Zen practice too difficult, or too boring, or too unmiraculous, and they would soon leave.

You know the story about Zen Master Huang Po. He was traveling with another monk, and they came to a river. Without breaking stride, the monk walked across the water, then beckoned to Huang Po to do the same. Huang Po said, “If I'd known he was that kind of fellow, I'd have broken his legs before he reached the water.”

A keen-eyed Zen Master understands people's karma. The Buddha said, “Karma that you have made for yourself can only disappear if you want it to. No one can make you want it to disappear.” He also said, “I have many kinds of good medicine, but I can't take it for you.” The Buddha has already given instructions for someone who is blind or disabled. But most people want easy solutions. They want someone else to do their work for them.

It's like a mother teaching her child. If a mother does everything for the child, the child will come to depend on her. A good mother makes the child do things for itself. Then it will grow up strong and independent. There is now a man in Korea who has proclaimed himself as Christ. Many people believe in him. After he washes his face and his feet, they take the water and drink it as medicine. And indeed, their sicknesses are miraculously cured. But it is their minds that are curing their bodies. They believe in this man so completely that he can do miracles. If they didn't believe, he wouldn't be able to do miracles. In the same way, when a boy and girl are in love, the first time they kiss, their lips are filled with magical energy. This man can touch his followers and it is as if his fingers were flowing with electricity. There are many religious leaders like this in India.

But this is not good teaching. It keeps the disciples dependent on the leader. They cannot understand how their own minds are creating the miracles. And it becomes difficult for them to act for themselves. Magic alone can't make bad karma disappear; it is only a technique. Did Jesus solve anything by raising Lazarus from the grave? Lazarus still had the same karma as before, and he still had to die.

One of the Buddha's disciples, Mong Nyon, was a great miracle-worker. One day, as he was meditating, he saw that the Kapila kingdom would soon be destroyed by a war. He thought, “If I don't do something, a week from today, at 11 a.m., our whole country will be in ruins.” So he went to the Buddha and said, “Lord, do you know that next week many of your people are going to be killed?”


“Then why don't you save them?”

“I can't.”

“But you have special energy and can do miracles. Why can't you save them?”

The Buddha said, “It is impossible to make merited karma disappear.”

But Mong Nyon didn't believe him. He got very angry, because he thought the Buddha wasn't being compassionate. So he went and shrunk the whole kingdom and put it into an eating bowl. Then he took the bowl to the highest heaven, where all is peace and serenity. There, in the middle of the palace in the middle of Do Sol heaven, he left the bowl for seven days. After the allotted time had passed, Mong Nyon breathed deeply and said to himself, “Ah, everything is okay now.” So he took the bowl and brought it back to earth. But when he took off the cover and looked inside, he saw that the miniature country had been devastated by a miniature war.

Magic is only a technique. Some people know how to do card tricks. It looks as if they have done something magical, but it is really a trick. We don't see what is actually happening. What we call magic is the same. It is taking a person's consciousness and manipulating it. This can indeed be very powerful. There was once a Chinese general who was a great magician. During a civil war, he conjured up an enormous army of gods, and sent it flying through the air. The opposing army was terrified, and many soldiers were killed by this god-army. But the opposing general happened to be a wise man. He understood what was going on. So the next day he called his troops together before a large crystal ball which he had put up on a high post. “You must all gaze intently at this crystal,” he said, “and keep your minds clear of all thinking. Then you will be safe. But if you look around or begin to think, you will certainly be killed by the gods.” So all the soldiers kept their minds clear and couldn't be manipulated by magic. Soon the army of gods appeared. They hung in the air for a moment; then all that could be seen was a bunch of dry leaves floating down to the ground.

If someone wants to be able to do miracles, it is possible to learn how. But this is not the correct way. Keen-eyed Zen Masters seldom use magic or miracles, because these can't help people find the true way. The only way to make karma disappear is for your consciousness to become empty. Then there are no miracles. Then there are only correct views and correct practice. This is the true miracle.

Sincerely yours,

S. S.


47. A Dharma Speech

Given by Seung Sahn Soen-sa at the San Francisco Zen Center on February 9, 1975.

  (Hitting the table with his Zen stick) Do you understand this? If you do, you understand One. If you don't, you separate things into ten thousand classes and one thousand levels.

(Hitting the table) Do you understand this? If you do, you understand the ten thousand classes and one thousand levels. If you don't, you have an attachment to One.

(Hitting the table) Do you understand this? If you open your mouth and say that you understand, I will hit you thirty times. And if you say that you don't understand, I will still hit you thirty times.



Spring air fills the universe, and flowers are blossoming everywhere.

If you proclaim this, you shut the mouths of all Buddhas and all eminent teachers. So how can you hear what they say? To hear what they say, you must understand what sitting Zen is.

When you are able to stay perfectly clear by cutting off all thinking and yet not falling into a trance-like sleep, this is sitting. When inside and outside become one, and no circumstances can hinder you, this is Zen.

When you understand sitting Zen, you understand yourself. In your mind there is a diamond sword. If you want to understand yourself, take it and cut off good and bad, long and short, coming and going, high and low, God and Buddha. Cut off all things.

You must proceed as if you were walking on thin ice, concentrating totally on each one of your steps. If you make one wrong move, you will die and go to hell like an arrow.

Passing beyond this realm of not-thinking, you reach the land of true emptiness. True emptiness is before thinking. This land is without words or speech; so there are no mountains, no rivers, no East, West, North, or South, no God, no Buddha.

But if you stay there, you will become attached to emptiness, and not even Buddha will be able to save you.

When you are hanging by your hands from a mountain ledge and can let go, not thinking of life or death, then you will have true freedom. You can see the wooden dog eating steel and shitting fire. You make friends with the hairy-shelled turtle and the rabbit with horns. You learn to play the flute which has no holes. But where does the sound of the flute come from?

Leave this place behind, and you understand that birds sing, hills are green, and the sky is blue. Seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching—the truth is just like this. This is the language of Buddha and eminent teachers. The sounds of rivers and birds are the sutras; earth and sky are the very body of the Buddha.

(Holding up his Zen stick) Then do you see this?

(Hitting the table) Do you hear this?

This stick, this sound, and your mind—are they the same or different?

If you say they are the same, that is not permitted, and the stick will hit you. If you say they are different, that is not permitted, and the stick will hit you. If you say they are both different and the same, that too is not permitted, and the stick will hit you even harder.



If you don't enter the lion's den, you will never capture the lion.

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