Introduction Zen Is Understanding Yourself

A Little Thinking, A Little Sparring

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48. A Little Thinking, A Little Sparring

  One evening, after a Dharma talk at the Boston Dharmadhatu, a student said to Seung Sahn Soen-sa, “They say that you reach a point in Zen meditation where there's a cessation of thought, or, alternatively, there's a cessation of the watcher, although thoughts continue. Could you comment on that?”

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

The student pointed to his forehead and said, “It's supposed to be here.”

“Where does thinking go?”

“Ummm … I don't know.”

“What is thinking?”

“Something that happens, I guess. An awareness.”

Soen-sa said, “Thinking is a name which people make.” Then, pointing to a piece of paper, “The name for this is paper. If you ask a cat what this is, the cat will not say it is a piece of paper. River, mountain, sun, moon—all are names. For a cat, the sun is not the sun; for a dog, the moon is not the moon. Go point to the moon and ask a dog, ‘What is this?’” (Laughter from the audience.) “People's thinking makes all these things. So thinking is your mind. Mind is no mind. So thinking is no thinking.”

The student said, “I sort of realize that. But how do you stop thinking?”

Soen-sa said, “Okay, I will teach you. Come here.” The student came to the front of the room and sat down in front of Soen-sa. Soen-sa handed him a cup of water and said, “Drink this.” The student drank. Soen-sa said, “Is it hot or cold?”

The student was silent for a few moments, then said, “It tastes good.”

Soen-sa said, “This is thinking. When you drank the water, you were not thinking. When I asked you if it was hot or cold, you were thinking, ‘What answer is good?’ This is thinking. When you drank, you only drank.” Then, holding up the piece of paper, “What is this?”

The student was silent.

“Why don't you answer?”

“Well, you want me to say it's a piece of paper.” (Laughter.)

Soen-sa said, “Very late. Many thinking.” (Laughter.) “Here, come closer.” The student came closer. “Bend down.” The student bent down, and Soen-sa hit him on the back. “What was that?”

“Well, it was a noise.”

“When I hit you, you didn't know. Why did I hit you?”

“Umm, to shake me up a little?”

“Do you understand what my hit means?”

“It felt kind of nice.”

“Feeling good is your action. Do you understand what my action means?”

“Maybe you're trying to teach me.”

Soen-sa said, “Once Buddha was staying at Vulture Peak. Every day he would speak before many people. One day he came and sat before an audience of twelve hundred people. Everyone waited for him to begin, but he sat in silence. One minute passed, then two minutes, then three minutes. Only silence. Finally Buddha held up a flower. Nobody understood but Mahakashyapa. He saw the flower and smiled. Buddha said, ‘I have transmitted the true Dharma to you.’ Now I ask you: when Buddha held up the flower, what did this mean?”

“He only lifted up the flower. To show it was his own action.”

“If you were there and saw him lift up the flower, what would you do?”

“I'd pick it.”

Soen-sa exclaimed, “Ah ha ha!” (Laughter.) “You are Buddha, okay?”

The student said, “I'm not Buddha.” (More laughter.)

Soen-sa said, “If you pick the flower, Buddha hits you. What can you do?”

“Hit him back.”

“Then Buddha says, ‘You understand One, but you don't understand Two.’ What would you answer?”

“I don't understand three.”

“Then Buddha says, ‘I thought you were a keen-eyed lion, but now I see you are a blind dog.’”

The student was silent.

Soen-sa said, “Okay, I will explain. What Buddha says means, ‘Your hit is very good. I am Buddha, you are Buddha! So you hit back. Buddha and you are the same. This is a high-class answer. So Buddha once more tests you. ‘You understand One, you don't understand Two.’ Your answer to this was no good, so Buddha says, ‘I thought you were a keen-eyed lion, but now I see you are a blind dog.’”

The student said, “Well …” and then was silent. Everybody laughed.

Soen-sa said, “You must open your mind's eye. Okay?”

The student said, “Thank you.”

Soen-sa said, “You're welcome.”

49. No-Attainment Is Attainment

  One Thursday evening, after a Dharma talk at the Cambridge Zen Center, a student asked Seung Sahn Soen-sa, “If, as the Heart Sutra says, there is no attainment with nothing to attain, why do we practice Zen?”

Soen-sa said, “Do you understand no-attainment?”

The student said, “I don't know.”

Soen-sa said, “No-attainment is attainment. You must attain no-attainment. So what is attainment? What is there to attain?”


“In true emptiness there is no name and no form. So there is no attainment. If you say, ‘I have attained true emptiness,’ you are wrong.”

“Is there a false emptiness?”

“The universe is always true emptiness. Now you are living in a dream. Wake up! Then you will understand true emptiness.”

“How can I wake up?”

“I hit you.” (Laughter from the audience.) Soen-sa said, “It is very easy.”

The student said, “What is this dream?”

Soen-sa said, “This is a dream.”

“Do I look like I'm dreaming?”

Soen-sa said, “Yah. What is not a dream? Give me one sentence of not-dream words.” Then, after a few moments, “All is a dream.”

“Are you dreaming?”

“Yah!” (Loud laughter.) “You make the dream, so I am having it. It is a good dream. It is a Zen dream. A Zen-lecture dream.” (Laughter.) “But how can you wake up? This is very important. Your whole past life is the same as a dream, isn't it? The future is the same as a dream. And this present moment is the same as a dream. So tell me—how can you wake up?”

The student said, “You put me in an impossible situation. How can I wake up if I'm asleep?”

Soen-sa said, “Okay, let me ask you—what is good?”

“Good is thinking.”

“Who made good?”

“I did.”

“Where does I come from?”

“I comes from I.”

“You understand the word ‘l,’ but you don't understand the true I. Where does I come from?”

“From thinking.”

“Thinking is also a word. Where does thinking come from?”

The student was silent for a long time, then said, very slowly, “I really don't know.”

Soen-sa said, “Yes! This is the complete don't-know mind. There are no words and no speech—there is only don't-know. Only don't-know means that all thinking is cut off. Cutting off all thinking is true emptiness. This is how you begin to wake up.”

The student bowed and said, “Thank you. I have another question now. In daily life, many people ask us for our opinions and judgments. ‘Do you like this? Do you like that?’ Should we avoid such conversations?”

Soen-sa said, “Why should you avoid them?”

“Because they make me feel like an individual, a separate entity. I begin to feel my ego more strongly.”

Soen-sa said, “When you are walking, your hand moves back and forth. This is not-thinking action. So if you talk, don't be attached to talking. No-attachment thinking is not thinking. If you are attached to your thinking, this creates karma. If you are not attached, you don't create karma. Today my English teacher at the Harvard Summer School gave me some homework. Very difficult!” (Laughter.) “How can I do this homework? Don't know. Only this big question. I eat, but there is no taste, there is only the big homework question inside. On the way home in the bus there is only my homework, so I forget to get off at the right stop. If you keep this mind, seeing is the same as not seeing, hearing is the same as not hearing, working is the same as not working. This is no-attachment thinking. There is only the big question. Then talking is no-attachment action. So it is not talking. You use your eyes, but there are no eyes. You use your mouth, but there is no mouth. If you keep a clear mind, red is red, white is white. But you are not attached to red or to white. There is only red, only white. ‘I like this’ is only ‘I like this.’ ‘I don't like this’ is only ‘I don't like this.’ This mind is the same as a child's mind. So here there is no-attainment, with nothing to attain. This means that before thinking there are no words and no speech. If you keep don't-know mind, there is no-attainment, with nothing to attain. Attainment is a name. This is thinking mind. Attainment and no-attainment are opposites. Before thinking is the Absolute. There are no words, no speech. So there is nothing. If you open your mouth, you are wrong. Then what is attainment? Only KATZ!!! Only HIT.”

The student said, “It's very difficult to keep the kong-an while I'm working. What can I do?”

Soen-sa said, “In the beginning it is difficult. It is the same as driving a car. When you are learning to drive and somebody walks in front of your car, you step on the brake hard. This is thinking action. But after you have driven a lot, you step on the brake automatically when you need to stop. This is reflex action, not-thinking action. When you begin kong-an practice, the don't-know mind and your work are separate, fighting. But after much practice, don't-know mind is work mind, work mind is don't-know mind. When you do our morning chanting, there is only chanting. If you are thinking, you will forget the words or make a mistake. With don't-know mind it is very easy to remember. So you must ask yourself the big question, ‘What am I?’”

The student said, “I feel like I've already understood that kong-an, understood true emptiness. But then I forget. I'm back in the world of duality. Is what I've understood not true emptiness?”

Soen-sa said, “If you understand emptiness, this is not emptiness. It is only a word. You understand the word ‘emptiness.’ Have you ever tasted kim-chee, Korean pickled cabbage? It is very hot. When guests come to dinner here, I tell them that kim-chee is very hot. But they don't really know what this ‘hot’ means until they experience it for themselves. So I give them a piece of kim-chee. Ow!! Hot!!!” (Laughter.) “Other people understand that kim-chee is hot, but they haven't tasted it. Once they taste it, then they really understand what hot means. They have attained ‘hot.’ So understanding ‘hot’ is not the same as attaining ‘hot.’ Many young Americans understand one mind. But this is not true understanding; it is only thinking. So understanding emptiness and attaining emptiness are different. If you attain emptiness one time, you have attained it forever. You don't forget. You say you understand emptiness. Then what is emptiness?”

“This is emptiness.”

You say it is emptiness. I say it is not emptiness. You have a hand, a voice, a body. In emptiness there is no hand, no voice, no body. What is true emptiness? This is very important. In true emptiness there are no words. If you open your mouth, you are wrong. So … what color is this door?”

The student was silent.

Soen-sa said, “What color is this?”

The student said, “You have eyes.”

Soen-sa said, “Eyes? These are not eyes. They are holes in my face.” (Laughter.) “I ask you once again—what color is this door?”

The student was silent.

Soen-sa said, “It is brown.”

“But if I'd said brown, you would've said I'm attached to color!”

Soen-sa said, “Brown is only brown.” Then, pointing to a glass of water, “What is this?”


“Yah. Water is water. This is not thinking. When you said ‘water’—this mind. This mind is very important. It is a clear mirror. Red comes, the mirror is red. Yellow comes, the mirror is yellow. Water comes, there is water. A door comes, there is a door. If you are not thinking, your mind is the same as a mirror. It is only like this. So true emptiness is clear mind. In original clear mind there is no name and no form. Nothing appears or disappears. All things are just as they are. If you are thinking, you are in a dream. You must cut off all your thinking and wake up.”

50. True Sitting Zen

  December 15, 1974

Dear Soen-sa-nim,

Maezumi Roshi asked me to write to you and ask if it is all right for me to study with him.

Susan and I spent three days with him at sesshin. He is a very aware man. Full to the top and empty as the sky. He is using your kong-ans. Sitting is becoming stronger.

See you.

Byon Mon

  All pervading

stone breathing

zafu sitting

children play

wind blows

what more

ahh …

legs hurt

  December 20, 1974

Dear Byon Mon,

Thank you for your letter. It is very good that you are sitting with Maezumi Roshi. I like him also.

If you continue studying with him, you must be careful not to be attached to his words and not to be attached to sitting Zen. You must understand what true sitting is, what true Zen is. True sitting means to cut off all thinking and to keep not-moving mind. True Zen means to become clear. Beautiful words and hard sitting are important. But attachment to them is very dangerous. Then you will not be able to understand true sitting Zen.

Once Zen Master To An was visiting another temple. He wasn't wearing his Zen Master clothes, only the clothes of a wandering monk. He began a conversation with one of the monks at the temple, who did not recognize that he was a Zen Master. Soon the monk began to talk about his Master. “Every day he does one thousand prostrations. He eats only once a day. He hasn't left the temple for thirty years. He is always sitting Zen. He is the greatest Zen Master in all of China.”

To An said, “Well well, he sounds like an extraordinary man. I can't do any of these things. I can't bow a thousand times a day; but my mind is never lazy. I can't eat only once a day; but I never desire food. I can't stay in a temple for more than a short time; but wherever I go I have no hindrance. I can't sit Zen for very long; but I never give rise to thinking.”

The monk said, “I don't understand.”

To An said, “Go ask your Master to explain.”

The monk bowed and went into the temple. Soon the Zen Master came running out to To An and prostrated himself three times in front of him. “You are a great Zen Master,” he said. “Please let me become your disciple. I have been very attached to hard training. But now that I have heard your kind words, my mind is clear.”

To An laughed and said, “No no, I can't be your teacher. You are already a great Zen Master. All you need to do is to keep the mind you had when you were bowing to me. Already you are a free man. Before, you were bowing, sitting, and eating only for yourself. Now it is for all people.”

At these words, the Zen Master began to weep with joy. He bowed again to To An and said, simply, “Thank you.”

Byon Mon, what do you think about this?

You said in your letter that Maezumi Roshi is “full to the top and empty as the sky.” What does this mean? If you understand true emptiness, then you understand these words. If you understand these words, then you have already attained enlightenment. But if you have not attained enlightenment, then you don't understand these words.

Your poem is very nice. But I don't like words. So please send me a poem before words.

Sincerely yours,

S. S.


51. Samadhi vs. Satori

  One Thursday evening, after a Dharma talk at the Cambridge Zen Center, a student said to Seung Sahn Soen-sa, “I understand that samadhi is a state that takes quite a while to attain. However, satori is a sort of instant enlightenment. How do the two differ?”

Soen-sa said, “If you are thinking, samadhi and enlightenment are different. If you cut off thinking, samadhi and enlightenment are the same. But when we explain them, they are different. Samadhi is one mind. Enlightenment is only like this. One mind; like this—these are different. But they are the same. So when we do the mantra, there is only the mantra. Om mani padme hum, om mani padme hum. All thinking is cut off. When I look, there is only the mantra; when I hear, there is only the mantra. This is samadhi. So if someone asks me, ‘What color is this wall?’, I answer, ‘Om mani padme hum.’ If someone asks me, ‘What is this?’ “(holding up his hand) “I answer, ‘Om mani padme hum.’ But enlightenment is: ‘What color is the wall?’ ‘White.’ ‘What is this?’ ‘A hand.’ So samadhi is only one mind, not-moving mind.”

“Then it's the same as satori.”

“It is not the same. Yah, it is the same and not the same.”

“I understand.”

“Then I ask you: Once, during Buddha's lifetime, a woman was sitting in samadhi—very deeply into samadhi. She didn't wake up, only samadhi, as if she were dead. The Bodhisattva Manjushri, who is a tenth-class Bodhisattva, the highest class, tried to wake her, but couldn't. Finally a first-class Bodhisattva appeared, walked around her three times, and hit her on the back. She woke up immediately. Why couldn't this great Bodhisattva bring her out of samadhi, while the low-class Bodhisattva could? If you understand this, you will have a true understanding of samadhi and enlightenment. Do you understand?”

The student was silent.

Soen-sa said, “You must understand this. There is another kong-an with the same meaning. An eminent teacher said, ‘If I kill my parents, I can repent to Buddha. But if I kill all Buddhas and eminent teachers, to whom can I repent?’”

The student said, “Myself?”

Another student called out from the back of the room, “Go drink tea!”

Soen-sa said, “Who said that?”

The student raised her hand.

Soen-sa said, “Oh, very good! Wonderful! These two kong-ans are the same kong-an. If you understand this, you understand samadhi and enlightenment.”

52. Lin-Chi's KATZ

  Whenever Zen Master Dok Sahn was asked a question, he would answer only by hitting the questioner. Zen Master Ku-ji would answer only by raising one finger, and Zen Master Lin-chi only by shouting “KATZ!!!” And so the stick of Dok Sahn, the finger of Ku-ji, and the KATZ of Lin-chi became famous.

Lin-chi always shouted “KATZ!!!” Sometimes the KATZ cut off people's thinking, sometimes it was a testing of Zen progress, and sometimes it opened up minds.

One day a person came and asked Lin-chi, “What is Buddhism?”

Lin-chi shouted “KATZ!!!” The person bowed and left.

Another day a person came and bowed. As soon as he raised his head, he shouted “KATZ!!!” Lin-chi made no reply, but as the person turned his head to leave, Lin-chi shouted “KATZ!!!”

Another person came and, as he was bowing, Lin-chi shouted “KATZ!!!” The person raised his head, looked at Lin-chi, and then shouted “KATZ!!!” Quickly Lin-chi shouted “KATZ!!!” and walked away.

Another person asked Lin-chi, “Nowadays, what are you doing?”

Lin-chi shouted “KATZ!!!”

These are Lin-chi's four ways of using KATZ. He used it freely and opened many students' minds.

One day a person asked Lin-chi, “What is Zen?” Lin-chi held up his horse-hair whip. The person shouted “KATZ!!!” Lin-chi hit him.

Again the person asked, “What is Zen?”

Lin-chi again held up the whip.

The person shouted “KATZ!!!”

Lin-chi immediately shouted “KATZ!!!”

The person was confused and didn't know how to answer. Lin-chi hit him.

One day many people gathered in the Zen room. Lin-chi was sitting on a high platform and said, “Inside a wall of pink flesh lives the Utmost Master. All day long this Master goes in and out through the six doors. Do you understand?”

One monk stood up and asked, “What is this Utmost Master?”

Lin-chi got up, ran down the steps, grabbed the monk, and shouted, “Tell me! Tell me!”

The monk hesitated. Lin-chi flung him away and said, “This Utmost Master is a lump of shit.”

53. Nirvana and Anuttara Samyak Sambodhi

  One Sunday morning, at the Providence Zen Center, a student walked into the interview room and bowed to Seung Sahn Soen-sa. Soen-sa said, “What is Nirvana?”

The student hit the floor.

“In the Heart Sutra, it speaks first of Nirvana, then of Anuttara Samyak Sambodhi. What is this?”

Again the student hit the floor.

“Then are the two the same?”

Again the student hit the floor.

“You only hit the floor. You are clinging to this answer. Give me another one.”

The student hit the floor.

“You do not distinguish between red and white. You have eyes, but you are blind. A second offense is not permitted.”

After the student had bowed and left, another student came in. Soen-sa said, “What is Nirvana?”

The student hit the floor.

“What is Anuttara Samyak Sambodhi?”

“When the sun comes up, the whole world is bright.”

“Then are the two different?”

The student hit the floor.

“Is this the truth?”


“Then what is the truth?”

“Sunlight falls on the floor, and the cat lies sleeping.” Soen-sa said, “I will meet you again in five hundred years.”

The student bowed and left.

54. Zen and the Arts

  One day a student came to tea at the Providence Zen Center and asked Seung Sahn Soen-sa about the relationship between Zen and the arts.

Soen-sa said, “Zen is understanding life and death. Why are you alive?”

The student said, “I don't know.”

Soen-sa said, “Why will you have to die?”

The student shrugged his shoulders.

Soen-sa said, “People live and die on the earth without understanding what life and death are. When you were born, you were only born. You didn't say, as you were coming out of your mother's womb, ‘Now I am going into the world. Help me.’ You just came, without wanting to be born or knowing why you were born. It is the same with death. When you die, you only die. You are not free to choose.

“Zen is the Great Work of life and death. Descartes said, ‘I think, therefore I am.’ I think, therefore I have life and death; I do not think, therefore I do not have life and death. So life and death are created by our own thinking. They exist because we think them into existence, and they cease to exist when we cease to think.

“If you are thinking, your mind, my mind, and all people's minds are different. If you are not thinking, your mind, my mind, and all people's minds are the same….”

The student interrupted and said, “They're not different and not the same. These words are only thinking.”

Soen-sa said, “Yes. If you cut off all thinking, this mind is before thinking. If you keep the before-thinking mind and I keep the before-thinking mind, we become one mind. Okay?”

The student said, “If we cut off all thinking, there's no mind.”

Soen-sa laughed and said, “Very good. There is no mind. But its name is One Mind. Before thinking, there are no words or speech, no life or death. Then what is your true self?”

The student was silent.

Soen-sa said, “Zen is understanding your true self. You must ask yourself, ‘What am I?’ You must keep this great question and cut off all your thinking. When you understand the great question, you will understand yourself.

“Socrates used to walk around Athens telling his students, ‘You must know yourselves.’ Someone once asked him. ‘Do you know yourself?’ Socrates said, ‘No. But I understand this not-knowing.’ Zen is the same. It is not-knowing, not-thinking. ‘What am I?’ This is your true self.

“When you understand yourself, it is very easy to paint or write poems or do calligraphy or tea-ceremony or karate. You paint effortlessly; you write effortlessly. Why? When you are painting or writing or doing any action, you become totally absorbed in that action. You are only painting; you are only writing. No thinking gets between you and the action. There is only not-thinking action. This is freedom.

“If you are thinking, your mind wanders away from your action, and the flow of your painting or writing will be blocked, your tea-ceremony will be stiff or clumsy. If you are not thinking, you are one with your action. You are the tea that you're drinking. You are the brush that you're painting with. Not-thinking is before thinking. You are the whole universe; the universe is you. This is Zen mind, absolute mind. It is beyond space and time, beyond the dualities of self and other, good and bad, life and death. The truth is just like this. So when a Zen person is painting, the whole universe is present in the tip of his brush.

“There was once a great Japanese poet named Basho. He was a very bright young man, and as a serious Buddhist he had studied many sutras. He thought that he understood Buddhism. One day he paid a visit to Zen Master Takuan. They talked for a long time. The Master would say something and Basho would respond at length, quoting from the most profound and difficult sutras. Finally, the Master said, ‘You are a great Buddhist, a great man. You understand everything. But in all the time we have been talking, you have only used the words of the Buddha or of eminent teachers. I do not want to hear other people's words. I want to hear your own words, the words of your true self. Quickly now—give me one sentence of your own.’

“Basho was speechless. His mind raced. ‘What can I say? My own words—what can they be?’ One minute passed, then two, then ten. Then the Master said, ‘I thought you understood Buddhism. Why can't you answer me?’ Basho's face turned red. His mind stopped short. It could not move left or right, forward or back. It was up against an impenetrable wall. Then, only vast emptiness.

“Suddenly there was a sound in the monastery garden. Basho turned to the master and said,

‘Still pond—

a frog jumps in—

the splash.’

  The Master laughed out loud and said, ‘Well now! These are the words of your true self!’ Basho laughed too. He had attained enlightenment.

“Later on, Basho went to Matsushima, one of the most beautiful places in Japan, where a poetry contest was being held. Poets from all over the country were there. Everyone wrote in praise of the loveliness of the countryside, the majestic snow-capped peak of Mount Fuji, the brilliant mirror surface of the lake, the sailboats flying across the water like great white birds, etc., etc. Basho wrote only three lines:


ah Matsushima,


  His poem won the contest.

“This is a true Zen poem. It does not use poetic language or images. There is no thinking in it. I am Matsushima, Matsushima is me.

“So in Zen there is no outside and no inside. There is only the one mind, which is just like this. This is the life of all the arts, and it is the life of Zen.”

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