Introduction Zen Is Understanding Yourself

Plastic Flowers, Plastic Mind

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55. Plastic Flowers, Plastic Mind

  One Sunday, while Seung Sahn Soen-sa was staying at the International Zen Center of New York, there was a big ceremony. Many Korean women came, with shopping bags full of food and presents. One woman brought a large bouquet of plastic flowers, which she smilingly presented to an American student of Soen-sa's. As quickly as he could, the student hid the flowers under a pile of coats. But soon another woman found them and, with the greatest delight, walked into the Dharma Room and put them in a vase on the altar.

The student was very upset. He went to Soen-sa and said, “Those plastic flowers are awful. Can't I take them off the altar and dump them somewhere?”

Soen-sa said, “It is your mind that is plastic. The whole universe is plastic.”

The student said, “What do you mean?”

Soen-sa said, “Buddha said, ‘When one mind is pure, the whole universe is pure; when one mind is tainted, the whole universe is tainted.’ Every day we meet people who are unhappy. When their minds are sad, everything that they see, hear, smell, taste, and touch is sad, the whole universe is sad. When the mind is happy, the whole universe is happy. If you desire something, then you are attached to it. If you reject it, you are just as attached to it. Being attached to a thing means that it becomes a hindrance in your mind. So ‘I don't like plastic’ is the same as ‘I like plastic’—both are attachments. You don't like plastic flowers, so your mind has become plastic, and the whole universe is plastic. Put it all down. Then you won't be hindered by anything. You won't care whether the flowers are plastic or real, whether they are on the altar or in the garbage pail. This is true freedom. A plastic flower is just a plastic flower. A real flower is just a real flower. You mustn't be attached to name and form.”

The student said, “But we are trying to make a beautiful Zen Center here, for all people. How can I not care? Those flowers spoil the whole room.”

Soen-sa said, “If somebody gives real flowers to Buddha, Buddha is happy. If somebody else likes plastic flowers and gives them to Buddha, Buddha is also happy. Buddha is not attached to name and form, he doesn't care whether the flowers are real or plastic, he only cares about the person's mind. These women who are offering plastic flowers have very pure minds, and their action is Bodhisattva action. Your mind rejects plastic flowers, so you have separated the universe into good and bad, beautiful and ugly. So your action is not Bodhisattva action. Only keep Buddha's mind. Then you will have no hindrance. Real flowers are good; plastic flowers are good. This mind is like the great sea, into which all waters flow—the Hudson River, the Charles River, the Yellow River, Chinese water, American water, clean water, dirty water, salt water, clear water. The sea doesn't say, ‘Your water is dirty, you can't flow into me.’ It accepts all waters and mixes them and all become sea. So if you keep the Buddha mind, your mind will be like the great sea. This is the great sea of enlightenment.”

The student bowed deeply.

56. True Emptiness

  One Sunday evening, after a Dharma talk at the Providence Zen Center, a student asked Seung Sahn Soen-sa, “What is true emptiness?”

Soen-sa said, “Are you asking because you don't know?”

The student said, “I don't know.”

Soen-sa hit him.

The student said, “I don't understand why you hit me.”

Soen-sa said, “The rocks in the stream and the tiles on the roof understand true emptiness. But you still don't understand it.”

The student said, “What do you mean?”

Soen-sa said, “Put it all down!”

57. You Must Wake Up!

  One Thursday evening, after a Dharma talk at the Cambridge Zen Center, a student said to Seung Sahn Soen-sa, “Last Sunday, when we were driving to Providence, you fell asleep in the car. Where did you go?”

Soen-sa said, “I will hit you thirty times.”

The student said, “Oh, thank you very much.”

Soen-sa said, “This question is not difficult. If you are thinking, you can't understand. If you cut off thinking, you will understand. So I hit you thirty times. Where is ‘go’? Nowhere. Teach me.”

“I wanted to know if you were dreaming. Do you mean that you weren't?”

“Do you dream?”


“Are you dreaming now?”


“No?!” (Laughter.)


“You are awake?”

“Now I'm only breathing.”

“You are breathing in a dream.”


“No? Then give me one awake sentence.”

“The bamboo curtain behind you is yellow.”

“No, it is dark.”

“That's because it's behind you. If you turn around, you'll see it's yellow.”

“Your head is a dragon, your tail is a snake.”

“I said the bamboo is yellow. If you'd said, ‘No good,’ then…”

“I didn't say, ‘No good.’ You are attached to my words.”

The student sighed.

Soen-sa said, “You must be careful not to be attached to my words. If I give a wrong answer, then you should hit me and say, ‘You must wake up!’ Okay?”

The student bowed.

58. More Ashes on the Buddha

  December 15, 1974

Dear Ven. Satam,

Homage to the Three Precious Gems.

Thank you very much for your letter. I put my palms together and pray for you to make a greater effort and attain the great fruit as soon as possible.

Let us now discuss the kong-ans.

Regarding the first one about the man with the cigarette: the problem is that he doesn't say whether the Buddha and the ashes are the same or not, he just drops ashes on the statue. If, as you said in your letter, you ask him whether it comes out of existence or emptiness, he will just hit you. And he will then ask you, “Is this hit empty or does it exist?” If you open your mouth in reply, he will hit you again. What can you do?

When we admit that the Buddha statue is the Buddha statue and that the ashes are ashes, the problem is that Buddha said the Buddha-body permeates all the Dharma-realms and everything in the universe has Buddha-nature. So where can you drop the ashes if not on the Buddha-body? That is the disease of this person. How are you going to cure this disease?

Furthermore, he believes that the moment you open your mouth you are wrong. Buddha-nature is without words; the truth is without movement; the true state is where the way is cut off and mind is extinguished. So whatever you try to say, he will hit you. What can you do?

The second kong-an is: “The mouse eats cat-food, but the cat-bowl is broken. What does this mean?” Your answer was, “If you are hungry, take a meal and have a good rest.” Your leg is itching, but you are scratching my leg. Do you think you will relieve the itching this way? You are trying to hit the moon with a stick. Your answer is 18,000 miles away from the correct one.

If the question were, “What is Buddha-nature?” or “What is Mind?” or “What is Dharma?”, your answer would be 100% correct. But my question is: “The mouse eats cat-food but the cat-bowl is broken. What does this mean?” There is no special meaning outside the words. Don't be attached to the words. Don't be attached to your thinking or fall into emptiness. Just understand the clear meaning in the words: mouse, cat-food, bowl, and broken.

If you had a bell in front of you and I asked you, “What is this?”, would you answer, “If you are hungry, have a good meal and a good rest”? This answer is not completely correct. The bell is to be rung, the watch is to tell time, the pen is to write with, and the book is for reading. Each has its own characteristics. When we act in accordance with the characteristics of each, there is the great truth as it is, the absolute truth apart from words. This is the realm of Big I. The question has four parts—mouse, cat-food, bowl, and broken. These four parts combine, and there is a clear meaning behind the combination. Please try to grasp this meaning.

Here is a poem for you:

The candy peddler is ringing his bell,

and the child cries to its mother.

Money becomes candy and candy becomes money.

Money goes into the peddler's pocket,

and candy goes into the child's mouth and is sweet.

Dear Ven. Satam, what do you say? Take one step forward on top of the 100-foot pole. Make a fierce effort.

Here is another poem:

I traced the steps of the cow that has been long forgotten.

Having caught the harness,

I hope you will ride on the cow, playing the flute with no holes,

and enter your home village, where flowers bloom in the spring.

I sincerely hope that by keeping “What am I?” always and everywhere, you will attain the great fruit very soon.


  P.S. Please tell Dae Haeng to study well. I hope you will be good to him. If you can, translate this letter into English and send it back to me.

January 4, 1975

Dear Soen-sa-nim,

Thank you very much for your letter. Dae Haeng is now typing the translation of it, and I will try to mail it tomorrow.

After reading your kind instructions, I thought about the kong-ans as follows:

1. If the man hits me and asks, “Is this hit empty or real?”, I will answer, “Ah … ah … ah.” And I will hit him back and ask him whether my hit is empty or real. Of course, I expect him to hit me back. That is his disease. He knows only form is emptiness, but he doesn't know emptiness is form. So …

2. My answer is, “The mouse eats cat-food, but the cat-bowl is broken.”

I look forward to your kind instruction.

After the rain, the sky is bluer, and the sunshine falls brightly.

Thank you.

Yours respectfully,


  January 10, 1975

Dear Ven. Satam,

Taking refuge in the Three Treasures—

Thank you for your letter and translation. I think you have been practicing hard and making great progress.

Now about the kong-ans:

1. To begin with, I will hit you thirty times. The problem is how to fix his mind and bring it to the realm of reality as it is. It is all right to hit him or ask him questions, but if you use the same words as he does, how are you different from him? You said in your letter that he understands “form is emptiness” but doesn't understand “emptiness is form.” But these two statements are expressions of the same realm, which he has already transcended. He thinks he has reached the realm of “no form, no emptiness,” and he is so strongly convinced of this that he will not listen to anyone. A statement such as “emptiness is form” means nothing to him. If you say, “Form is form, emptiness is emptiness,” that might be better.

You must realize “What is this?” as soon as possible. That is why I hit you thirty times.

2. You are still attached to this kong-an. You must not turn into an ape. The real meaning is not in the words, but in what is meant by the combination of the four phrases: “mouse, cat-food, cat-bowl, and broken.” Please try to grasp the meaning beyond the words.

As a man eats

an ape imitates him.

Acorns fall from the trees and roll down the slope.

Squirrels run after them.

  Don't be an ape and run after acorns.

You said in your letter, “The sky is bluer after the rain, and the sunshine falls brightly.” This is a very good sentence, but there is a pitfall in it. Please try to find this pitfall.

I hope you continue to do hard training and get the fruit as soon as possible and save all sentient beings.

Sincerely yours,



59. The Story of Su Tung-p'o

  Su Tung-p'o was one of the greatest poets of the Sung Dynasty. He was famous not only as a poet, but as an essayist, a painter, and a calligrapher as well. From an early age he had acquired great erudition in both the Confucian and the Buddhist classics. It is said that he knew the entire Buddhist canon by heart—some 84,000 volumes.

When he was twenty years old, Su Tung-p'o passed a high civil service examination and was appointed inspector of four provinces—the emperor's official representative, whose job it was to investigate all governmental operations in these districts. In the course of his travels, he would also visit famous Buddhist monasteries and, for his own pleasure, examine the monks and masters there. “So you know the Avatamsaka Sutra, hmm?” “Yes.” “Well, tell me what doctrine is expounded in the last five lines of chapter forty-three?” Even the most learned masters hadn't memorized all the texts, so they couldn't answer his questions. Finally, he got disgusted with what he called the laziness and ineptitude of the monks, and lost interest in visiting them.

One day, however, Su Tung-p'o was told that in the Monastery of the Jade Springs there was a very learned Zen Master who would certainly be able to answer any question he could ask. So he mounted his horse and rode off to see for himself.

Traditionally, a man waited at the monastery gate for the keeper to come and escort him inside. But Su Tung-p'o opened the gate himself, rode in, went directly to the main lecture hall, and sat down with his back to the Buddha, waiting for someone to appear.

In a short time, the Master came in. He walked up to Su Tung-p'o and bowed respectfully. “Welcome, sir. It is a great honor to have such a high official as yourself visit our unworthy shrine. What, may I ask, is your name?”

“My name is Ch'eng.” (Ch'eng means scales.)

“Mr. Scales? What a curious name!”

“I am called that because I can weigh all the eminent teachers in the land.”

All at once the Master let out an ear-splitting yell. Then, with a faint smile, he said, “How much does that weigh?”

The answer to this was in none of the sutras. Su Tung-p'o was speechless. His arrogance crumbled, and he bowed respectfully to the Master. From this moment on, he began to devote himself to Buddhism.

Eventually Su Tung-p'o was reassigned to another province, where he came to know a Zen Master named Fo Yin. The two grew very close; people said they were like brothers. One day, Su Tung-p'o happened to visit Fo Yin in his official ceremonial robes. They were made of blue and green silk, with golden stitching, and were fastened by his great jade belt of office. They were very splendid robes.

As he entered the room, Fo Yin said, “Forgive me, great sir, for the inadequate seating in my poor room. All I can offer you, I'm afraid, is a bare cushion on the bare floor.”

Su Tung-p'o said, “Oh, that's all right. I'll just sit on you.”

Fo Yin said, “I'll tell you what. Let me ask you a question. If you can give me a good answer, then you can use me as a chair. If not, you'll have to give me your jade belt.”

“All right.”

“It says in the Heart Sutra that matter is nothingness and nothingness is matter. Now if you use me as a chair, isn't this clinging to matter, without understanding its essential non-existence? But if all things don't really exist, what will you sit down on?”

Su Tung-p'o was stumped.

“You see, you're clinging even now. Do away with all discriminating thoughts. Then you'll understand.”

Su Tung-p'o handed over his jade belt. From then on, he did Zen with great ardor. He meditated at all times, read many Zen books, and went to visit the Master whenever he could.

At the Temple of the Ascending Dragon there was a famous Zen Master named Chang Tsung. Su Tung-p'o went to him and said, “Please teach me the Buddha-dharma and open up my ignorant eyes.”

The Master, whom he had expected to be the very soul of compassion, began to shout at him. “How dare you come here seeking the dead words of men! Why don't you open your ears to the living words of nature? I can't talk to someone who knows so much about Zen. Go away!”

Su Tung-p'o staggered out of the room. What had the Master meant? What was this teaching that nature could give and men couldn't?

Totally absorbed in this question, Su Tung-p'o mounted his horse and rode off. He had lost all sense of direction, so he let the horse find the way home. It led him on a path through the mountains. Suddenly he came upon a waterfall. The sound struck his ears. He understood. So this was what the Master meant! The whole world—and not only this world, but all possible worlds, all the most distant stars, the whole universe—was identical to himself. He got off his horse and bowed down to the ground in the direction of the monastery.

That evening Su Tung-p'o wrote the following poem:

The roaring waterfall

is the Buddha's golden mouth.

The mountains in the distance

are his pure luminous body.

How many thousands of poems

have flowed through me tonight!

And tomorrow I won't be

able to repeat even one word.


60. What Nature Is Saying to You

  One Sunday evening at the Providence Zen Center, Seung Sahn Soen-sa told the story of Su Tung-p'o's enlightenment. Afterwards he said to his students:

“What do we learn from this story? That Zen teaches us to cut off all discriminating thoughts and to understand that the truth of the universe is ultimately our own true self. All of you should meditate very deeply on this. What is this thing that you call the self? When you understand what it is, you will have returned to an intuitive oneness with nature and will see that nature is you and you are nature, that nature is the Buddha, who is preaching to us at every moment. I hope that all of you will be able to hear what nature is saying to you.”

One of Soen-sa's students pointed to a rock in the Dharma room and said, “What is that rock saying to you right now?”

Soen-sa said, “Why do you think it is saying anything?”

“Well, I can hear something, but I can't quite make out what it is.”

“Why don't you ask the rock?”

“I already have, but I can't understand its language.”

“That is because your mind is exactly like the rock.” (Laughter from the audience.)

There was a minute of silence.

Soen-sa said, “Are there any more questions?”

More silence.

The student said, “If there are no questions, can you answer?”

Soen-sa said, “If there are no questions, then you are all Buddhas. And Buddhas don't need to be taught.”

Another student said, “But we don't know we're Buddhas.”

Soen-sa said, “That is true, you don't know. Fish swim in the water, but they don't know they are in water. Every moment you breathe in air, but you do it unconsciously. You would be conscious of air only if you were without it. In the same way, we are always hearing the sounds of cars, waterfalls, rain. All these sounds are sermons, they are the voice of the Buddha himself preaching to us. We hear many sermons, all the time, but we are deaf to them. If we were really alive, whenever we heard, saw, smelled, tasted, touched, we would say, ‘Ah, this is a fine sermon.’ We would see that there is no scripture that teaches so well as this experience with nature.”

Another student asked, “Why do some see and others not?”

Soen-sa said, “In the past, you have sown certain seeds that now result in your encountering Buddhism. Not only that—some people come here only once, while others stay and practice very earnestly. When you practice Zen earnestly, you are burning up the karma that binds you to ignorance. In Japanese the word for ‘earnest’ means ‘to heat up the heart.’ If you heat up your heart, this karma, which is like a block of ice, melts and becomes liquid. And if you keep on heating it, it becomes steam and evaporates into space. Those people who practice come to melt their hindrances and attachments. Why do they practice? Because it is their karma to practice, just as it is other people's karma not to practice. Man's discriminating thoughts build up a great thought-mass in his mind, and this is what he mistakenly regards as his real self. In fact, it is a mental construction based on ignorance. The purpose of Zen meditation is to dissolve this thought-mass. What is finally left is the real self. You enter into the world of the selfless. And if you don't stop there, if you don't think about this realm or cling to it, you will continue in your practice until you become one with the Absolute.”

The first student said, “What do you mean by the Absolute?”

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

The student was silent.

Soen-sa said, “That is the Absolute.”

“I don't understand.”

“No matter how much I talk about it, you won't understand. The Absolute is precisely something you can't understand. If it could be understood, it wouldn't be the Absolute.”

“Then why do you talk about it?”

“It is because I talk about it that you ask questions. That is how I teach, and how you learn.”

61. It

  May 18, 1975

Dear Soen-sa-nim,

This is the middle of the fourth day of my retreat. I got your letter yesterday when I was having a hard time. It is very difficult to sit this much without the teaching. I didn't realize before what the teaching is. It keeps me straight.

It is much harder alone because my Big I has to keep me straight, cutting through the small one constantly. There is no teacher.

This knot in my middle is the same as the edge—it is its own untying. When it unties, I breathe like the waves. There is no knot, no edge, nothing to untie or fall off of.

My only question is for me—What am I? All I can do is keep sitting.

Here's a question: If I never had it, how can I lose it?


  P.S. I went to the ocean yesterday and saw why you named me Hae Mi—“Ocean Purity.” I thought an edge to it when it's not even there.

So, I must find it.

9:30 A.M., 7th day

As I crack the egg

On the edge of the bowl

I realize

The bowl has no edge

The egg has no shell

No bowl

No egg

Only love

Hae Mi

May 22, 1975

No wall, no plant, no air, no sky

Clinging to form

Clinging to emptiness

Stops the love

We create this earth

To teach us the love

We are here on this earth

To practice the love.

Hae Mi

May 27, 1975

Dear Carol,

Thank you for your three letters.

I was staying at the International Zen Center of New York, so I didn't see your letters until today, when I returned to Providence. I am sorry to be answering them late.

In your first letter, you speak about “no teacher.” Don't worry about that. As I said to you before, if you want Big I and enlightenment, then only let your situation, condition, and opinions disappear. This is your true teacher. A teaching based on language alone is no good. If you are thinking, even a good teacher sitting in front of you will not help you. But if you cut off all thinking, then the dog's barking, the wind, the trees, the mountains, the lightning, the sound of the water—all are your teachers. So you must keep the complete don't-know mind. This is very necessary.

You said, “This knot in my middle is the same as the edge—it is its own untying. When it unties, I breathe like the waves. There is no knot, no edge, nothing to untie or fall off of.” These words are not bad, not good. But you must not check your mind. This paragraph is about your condition. I already told you to throw away your condition.

If you say you haven't lost it, you have already lost it. If you want to find it, you won't be able to find it.

All people use it all the time.

But they don't understand it, because it has no name and no form.

It pierces past, present, and future, and it fills space.

Everything is contained in it.

It is apparent in everything.

But if you want to find it, it will go further and further away,

and if you lose it, it has already appeared before you.

It is brighter than sunlight, and darker than a starless night.

Sometimes it is bigger than the universe, sometimes smaller than the point of a needle.

It controls everything; it is the king of the ten thousand dharmas.

It is powerful and awesome.

People call it “mind,” “God,” “Buddha,” “nature,” “energy.”

But it has no beginning or end, and is neither form nor emptiness.

If you want it, then you must ride the ship which has no hull;

you must play the flute with no holes;

you must cross the ocean of life and death.

You will then arrive at the village of “like this.”

Within the village, you must find your true home, “just like this.”

Then, when you open the door, you will get it.

It is only “it is.”

In your second letter, you say, “no edge, no shell, no bowl, no egg.” So how does love appear? Where does this love come from?

In your third letter, you say, “no wall, no plant, no air, no sky.” So why do you say we make the earth? Why is love necessary? You say, “no wall, no plant, etc.” But then you say, “We are here …” This is a contradiction. Put it all down. Put down “no …, no …, no …” Put down “love, love, love.” Put down “we are here….” Then you will understand the true earth, true we, and true love.

First you must find It. If you find it, you will have freedom and no hindrance. Sometimes its name is you, sometimes me, sometimes us, sometimes earth, sometimes love, sometimes hit, sometimes the tree has no roots and the valley has no echo, sometimes three pounds of flax, sometimes dry shit on a stick, sometimes like this, and sometimes just like this.

What is it?

See you soon,



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