Introduction Zen Is Understanding Yourself

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62. Small Love and Big Love

  One Thursday evening, after a Dharma talk at the Cambridge Zen Center, a student said to Seung Sahn Soen-sa, “You always speak of thinking. I would like to know how the Way of the Heart fits into your teaching. In the Christian path it is said that without love, all attainments are worthless.”

Soen-sa said, “There are two kinds of love. The first is small love. This is desire love, opposites love, attachment love. The second is big love. This is absolute love. It is freedom. If you have desire for yourself, your love is not true love. It is dependent on many conditions; if these change, you suffer. Suppose I love a girl very much, and she loves me. I go away to Los Angeles, and when I come back she has another boyfriend. My love changes to anger and hatred. So small love always contains suffering. Big love has no suffering. It is only love, absolute love, so there is no happiness, no suffering. This is Bodhisattva love.”

“I was under the impression that Zen Masters don't care particularly about love.”

“If I didn't love, why would I be teaching? Teaching is love. Hitting my students is true love.”


“True teaching means true love. A true teacher sometimes gets angry, sometimes hits, sometimes does bad actions. Why? Because he loves his students very strongly. It is like a mother who loves her child very much, but the child doesn't listen to her good teaching. So sometimes it is necessary for the mother to get angry or hit her child. This is love action. There is no desire for herself; everything is for the child's sake, to teach it the true way. With big love, I have no desire for myself, I only give my love to other people. If I love you and you don't love me, that's okay. I will still give you as much love as if you loved me in return. If I love God and get bad karma in return, that's okay. I will not be angry at God, I will still love as much as before. So Big I is true love. It is only for all people.”

“Do you love all people?”

“Of course! All people and all things. Okay, I will tell you a story. Once, long ago in China, there was a monk who went out begging and was on his way back to the temple. On the way, some robbers held him up and took all his money, food, and clothes. Then they threw him on his back and tied his hands and feet to the ground with braided strands of the long grass that was growing in the fields. He stayed there, naked, for hours. Finally, the emperor passed with his servants, on their way to the temple. He was shocked to see a naked man near the highway and went up to him to ask what had happened. The monk explained. The emperor said, ‘Why haven't you just gotten up?’ The monk said, ‘Please untie the grass.’ The emperor began to pull it up by the roots. ‘Stop!’ said the monk. ‘You mustn't pull it up. Please untie it.’ At this the emperor realized that the naked man was a great monk, whose love extended even to the grass in the fields. So he accompanied him to the temple and took him for his own teacher.

“So we see that big love doesn't kill anything. Most Christians think that killing humans is wrong, but killing animals is okay. ‘Fishing—ah, it is very interesting.’ Even killing grass is no good, so of course we mustn't kill fish or animals or people. But sometimes killing is big love. If one person wants to kill all people, then killing that person means saving all people. So Buddhist love is very wide love. You must understand this.”

The student bowed deeply.

63. Does the Cat Have Buddha-Nature?

  One evening, after a Dharma talk at the Cambridge Zen Center, a student pointed to Katz, the Zen Center cat, and said to Seung Sahn Soen-sa, “You said before that this cat doesn't say it's a cat, that it has don't-know mind. Is the cat enlightened? But if it is, why does Buddhism teach that only humans can attain enlightenment?”

Soen-sa said, “What is enlightenment?”

“I don't know.”

“Enlightenment is not enlightenment. If someone says, ‘I have attained enlightenment,’ he is mistaken. Many students think, ‘I want enlightenment! I want enlightenment!’ With this kind of thinking, they will never attain enlightenment.”

“The cat doesn't think enlightenment or no-enlightenment.”

“The cat is just a cat. I ask you: Does the cat have Buddha-nature? If it has Buddha-nature, then it can attain enlightenment. If it has no Buddha-nature, no enlightenment.”

“Hmmm … I don't know.”

Soen-sa laughed and said, “Yah, don't-know is good. Very good.”

64. Out of the Depths

  June 13, 1975

Dear Soen-sa-nim,

I am sorry that I have not written, but I have nothing to say. I haven't been sitting well enough to answer your kong-ans. No games. I am feeling awful. My life is meaningless to me. I feel an indescribable anguish, all the time. I try and practice on my own, but somehow I am too weak to make any progress. I don't have any faith in my Buddha-nature. I really shouldn't be writing this letter, because a Zen Master should not have to deal with sick fools. Master Hearn told me to get in touch with you while he was gone, because you are a great Zen Master. I am afraid that I am not much of a man or Zen student, but anything you could tell me would help. I have contacted no one since he left or since I wrote to you because I believe you can't jump around to different masters.

I have no poems left in me, only doubt and anguish.

In gassho,


  June 17, 1975

Dear Steve,

Thank you for your letter. You have written me many letters this year. These letters were not bad, not good. But the letter which you just sent me is a very wonderful letter. It is a true Zen letter. Thinking is only thinking. Suffering is only suffering. If you were to think, “I want my mind to become clear,” this would be bad thinking. When you are suffering, you must only suffer.

So you must understand the true meaning of your letter. It told me the truth. You want to become enlightened. Without thinking, enlightenment is not possible. Thinking is enlightenment! An eminent teacher said, “Mind is constantly changing. This changing mind is itself entirely the truth. If you are not attached to your changing mind, then you will attain your true nature. Then you will understand that there is neither good nor bad.”

You said that you are feeling very bad. If you make bad, it is bad. If you don't make bad, it is not bad. Don't make good or bad. Then everything will be good. You said, “I am not a good man, not a good Zen student.” But if you understand good and bad, then good and bad have already disappeared. Please read the Heart Sutra once more. Then your mind will be clear. What is good? What is bad? You want to be a good Zen student; you want to be a good man. This is thinking. Put it down! Put it all down! If your mind is not clear, you must ask a tree or the sky to help you. Then the tree or the sky will give you a good answer.

If you are always checking your mind, that is very bad. Don't check your mind. You say that you have no faith in your Buddha-nature. I too have no faith in my Buddha-nature. And I have no faith in Buddha or God or anything. If you have no faith, you must completely have no faith. You must not believe in anything at all. Then your mind will become true emptiness. But this true emptiness is only a name. This true emptiness is before thinking. Before thinking is like this. It is very good that you don't have faith in your Buddha-nature. But when you see red, there is red; when you see white, there is only white. You must let go of both faith and non-faith. Things are only as they are.

I think that it would be good for you to visit other Zen Masters. If you have already made a strong decision in your mind about who is your teacher, then you can meet ten thousand other teachers and there will be no problem. And it would be good also to visit other meditation centers sometimes. Don't be concerned with the practice there. If you are free, then you can go and only sit by yourself, if necessary. You must always keep Big Mind.

I am sending you copies of some letters that I wrote to a student in New Haven. I hope that these letters will help you.

You mustn't worry about how your practice is, whether you are making progress or not, whether you are in anguish or not. All these things are not important. They are like clouds passing in front of the moon. You must not be attached to anything that appears in your mind. Then you will attain freedom thinking. No-attachment thinking is just like this.

I hope that you soon attain enlightenment and save all people from their suffering.

Yours sincerely,



65. Funny

  February 4, 1974

Dear Suzie, George, Roger, Alban, and Louise,

Thank you very much for your postcard. Are you all having a good time? Are you eating a lot? Doing hard training?

Your postcard said, “I hope you are having a good time.” Thank you for helping us. We are having a good time. Much food, much talk, much visiting.

This world is very funny. In true nature, all things neither appear nor disappear. Yet people say that things have life and death. This is funny. Things are neither tainted nor pure. Yet people think that some things are good and some things are bad, some things are clean and some things are dirty. Things neither increase nor decrease. Yet people make circles and squares; they think that some things are long and some things are short. This is funny. People are attached to good karma and bad karma. They get happiness and suffering. They have past, present, and future; coming, going, and staying; East, West, North, and South. This is funny.

An eminent teacher once said, “Originally all things are empty.” Yet you want to attain enlightenment. This is funny.

Put it down! Put it down! This is funny. What is there to put down?

Gatē, gatē, paragatē, parasamgatē, bodhi swaha!

A hungry child cries to its mother. A dog sniffs around in search of something to eat. As the sun sets behind the western mountain, the shadow of the pine tree grows longer and longer, and touches a distant wall.

See you soon.




66. The Story of Kyong Ho

  Seventy-five years ago, when Seung Sahn Soen-sa's great-grandteacher, Zen Master Kyong Ho, was a young man, Korean Buddhism was very weak. Then Kyong Ho attained enlightenment and became the teacher of many great Zen monks. He is now known as the Patriarch of Korean Zen.

When Kyong Ho was nine years old, his father died. Since his mother was too poor to bring him up, she sent him to a temple and he became a monk. At the age of fourteen, he began to study the sutras. He was a brilliant student; he heard one and understood ten. Within a few years he had learned all he could from the sutra master, so he moved on to the great sutra temple Dong Gak Sa. There he advanced to the highest level. By the time he was twenty-three years old, he had mastered all the principal sutras. Soon many monks began to gather around him, and he became a famous sutra master.

One day, Kyong Ho decided to pay a visit to his first teacher. After a few days of walking, he passed through a small village. There were no people in the streets. Immediately he knew something was wrong, and he began to feel an overwhelming sense of disaster. He opened the door of one of the houses. There were five corpses lying on the floor, in various states of decomposition. He opened the door of the next house, and there were more corpses rotting on the floor. As he walked through the main street, dazed and terrified, he noticed a sign. “Danger: Cholera. If you value your life, go away.”

This sign struck Kyong Ho like a hammer, and his mind became clear. “I am supposed to be a great sutra master; I already understand all of the Buddha's teachings. Why am I so afraid? Even though I understand that all things are transient, that life and death are aspects of the one reality, I am very attached to my body. So life is a hindrance, and death is a hindrance. What can I do?”

On the way home, Kyong Ho thought very deeply about these questions. Finally, he summoned all his students and said, “You have all come here to study the sutras, and I have been teaching you. But I know now that the sutras are only Buddha's words. They are not Buddha's mind. As many sutras as I have mastered, I still haven't attained true understanding. I can't teach you any more. If you wish to continue your studies, there are many qualified sutra masters who will be glad to teach you. But I have decided to understand my true self, and I will not teach again until I attain enlightenment.”

All the students went away except one. Kyong Ho shut himself in his room. Once a day the student brought him food, leaving the platter outside the closed door. All day long, Kyong Ho sat or did lying-down Zen. He meditated on a kong-an which he had seen in a Zen book: “Zen Master Yong Un said, ‘Before the donkey leaves, the horse has already arrived.’ What does this mean?” “I am already as good as dead,” he thought; “if I can't get beyond life and death, I vow never to leave this room.” Every time he began to feel sleepy, he would take an awl and plunge it into his thigh.

Three months passed. During this time, Kyong Ho didn't sleep for a moment.

One day, the student went to a nearby town to beg for food. There he happened to meet a Mr. Lee, who was a close friend of Kyong Ho's. Mr. Lee said, “What is your Master doing nowadays?”

The student said, “He is doing hard training. He only eats, sits, and lies down.”

“If he just eats, sits, and lies down, he will be reborn as a cow.”

The young monk got very angry. “How can you say that? My teacher is the greatest scholar in Korea! I'm positive that he'll go to heaven after he dies!”

Mr. Lee said, “That's no way to answer me.”

“Why not? How should I have answered?”

“I would have said, ‘If my teacher is reborn as a cow, he will be a cow with no nostrils.’”

“A cow with no nostrils? What does that mean?”

“Go ask your teacher.”

When he returned to the temple, the student knocked at Kyong Ho's door and told him of his conversation with Mr. Lee. As soon as he had finished, to his amazement, Kyong Ho opened the door and, with great luminous eyes, walked out of the room.

This is the poem which he wrote upon attaining the great enlightenment:

I heard about the cow with no nostrils

and suddenly the whole universe is my home.

Yon Am Mountain lies flat under the road.

A farmer, at the end of his work, is singing.

Soon afterward, he went to Zen Master Man Hwa for an interview. Man Hwa gave him Transmission and the Dharma name Kyong Ho, which means “Empty Mirror.” He thus became the Seventy-fifth Patriarch in his line of succession. In turn, five great Zen Masters received the Transmission from him: Yong Son, Han Am, He Wol, Sa Wol, and Mang Gong, the teacher of Ko Bong, who was the teacher of Seung Sahn Soen-sa.

Just before Kyong Ho died, he wrote the following poem:

Light from the moon of clear mind

drinks up everything in the world.

When mind and light disappear,

what … is … this…?

A moment after he had finished the poem, he was dead.

67. Bodhisattva Sin

  One Thursday evening, after a Dharma talk at the New Haven Zen Center, a student said to Seung Sahn Soen-sa, “You say that sometimes a Bodhisattva will commit a wrong action. What would be an appropriate occasion?”

Soen-sa said, “Come here.” (A few giggles from the audience.)

The student came forward and kneeled in front of Soen-sa. Soen-sa hit him. (Laughter.) Then he said, “Do you understand?”

The student smiled and bowed.

Soen-sa said, “In our Temple Rules, it says, ‘You have taken the Five or the Ten Precepts. Know when to keep them and when to break them, when they are open and when they are closed.’ The Precepts are very important: They are like a sign pointing in the right direction, and without them it is difficult to find the true way. But it is also important not to be attached to the Precepts. No action is good or bad in itself. Only the intention matters. So if you keep a Bodhisattva mind, you may sometimes need to break the Precepts in order to help others.

“For example, suppose you are walking in the woods and a rabbit crosses your path and runs off to the right. A few minutes later, a hunter comes along and asks you where the rabbit went. If you tell the truth, the rabbit may be killed. If you say nothing, the hunter may choose the right path. But if you tell a lie and send him off to the left, you will save the rabbit's life.

“Once Zen Master Kyong Ho was traveling with his student Zen Master Mang Gong. Mang Gong's leg began to hurt, so much so that when he finally sat down under a tree, he couldn't get up again. This was a big problem, since they had to be at a certain temple before nightfall, and there were still many miles to go.

“So Kyong Ho left Mang Gong under the tree and walked away. He crossed several fields until he came to some peasants at work. One of them was a girl of sixteen or seventeen. He went up to her, took her in his arms, and gave her a passionate kiss. The girl's father and the other peasants looked on in astonishment, which grew even greater when they noticed that Kyong Ho was a monk. Of course, they were outraged, and began to chase Kyong Ho across the fields. Kyong Ho headed right for the tree, shouting, ‘Get up! Run for your life!’ When Mang Gong saw him coming closer with a band of angry peasants behind him, he leaped up and ran away at full speed. They reached the temple before nightfall.”

68. A Dharma Speech

Given by Seung Sahn Soen-sa at Brown University on March 18, 1974.

  (Holding up his Zen stick and hitting the table three times) The Mahaparinirvana Sutra says, “All things are impermanent. This is the law of appearing and disappearing. When appearing and disappearing disappear, then this stillness is bliss.”

The Diamond Sutra says, “All things that appear are transient. If we view all appearance as nonappearance, then we will see the true nature of all things.”

The Heart Sutra says, “Form does not differ from emptiness; emptiness does not differ from form. That which is form is emptiness; that which is emptiness, form.”

What is appearing and disappearing? What is impermanence and permanence? What is form and emptiness? In true stillness, in true nature, in true emptiness, there is no appearing or disappearing, no impermanence or permanence, no form or emptiness. The Sixth Patriarch said, “Originally there is nothing at all.”

The sutra says, “When appearing and disappearing disappear, then this stillness is bliss.” But there is no stillness and no bliss.

The sutra says, “If we view all appearance as nonappearance, then we will see the true nature of all things.” But there is no true nature and no things.

The sutra says, “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” But there is no emptiness and no form.

So when there is no thinking and no speech, already there is no appearing or disappearing, no impermanence or permanence, no form or emptiness. But to say that these things do not exist is incorrect. If you open your mouth, you are wrong.

Can you see colors, can you hear sounds, can you touch things? Is this form or is it emptiness? Tell me, tell me! If you say even one word, you are wrong. And if you say nothing, you are wrong. What can you do?


Appearing, disappearing—put it down! Impermanence, permanence—put it down! Form, emptiness—put it down!

Spring comes and the snow melts: appearing and disappearing are just like this. The east wind blows the rainclouds west: impermanence and permanence are just like this. When you turn on the lamp, the whole room becomes bright: all truth is just like this. Form is form, emptiness is emptiness.

Then what is your original face?

(Hitting the table) KATZ!!!

One two three four, four three two one.

69. The True Way

  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, “What is the true way?”

The student shouted “KATZ!!!”

Soen-sa said, “That answer is neither good nor bad. It has cut off all thinking, so there is no speech, no Buddha, no mind, no way. Tell me then: what is the true way?”

The student said, “The sky is blue.”

Soen-sa said, “That's true enough, but it is not the way.” Then, holding up his Zen stick, “What color is this?”


“Yes. When I ask you what color is the stick, you don't answer, ‘The bell is yellow,’ even though that's perfectly true. It would be scratching your left foot when your right one itches. It's the same when I ask you what is the true way and you answer, ‘The sky is blue.’

“Go ask a child about the true way. A child will give you a good answer. Zen mind is children's mind. Children have no past or future, they are always living in the truth, which is just like this. When they are hungry, they eat; when they are tired, they rest. Children understand everything. So let me ask you again: what is the true way?”

The student stood up and bowed.

Soen-sa said, “This is the Great Way, the Buddha Way, the Tao. It is not the true way. Do you hear the sounds outside the window?”


“What are they?”


“Where are these cars driving?”

“Over there.”

“What is the name over there?”

The student was confused and said nothing.

Soen-sa said, “It is Route 95. That is the true way. Hope Street is the true way. Doyle Avenue is the true way. The way is only the way. There is nothing beyond.”

The student bowed and said, “I understand. Thank you.”

Soen-sa said, “You're welcome. Now what is the true way?”

The student said, “Route 95 goes from Providence to Boston.”

After he had returned to Cambridge, the student went up to two children—a six-year-old girl and a four-year-old boy—who were playing in the driveway by the Cambridge Zen Center. He asked the girl, “What is the true way?”

The girl pointed to Fayerweather Street.

He then asked the boy, “What is the true way?”

The boy gave him a fierce look, turned around, and walked away.

70. Sex Mind=Zen Mind?

  One day a student of Seung Sahn Soen-sa's heard a Zen Master speak at Yale University. When he returned to the International Zen Center of New York, the student said to Soen-sa, “This Zen Master's teaching is a little strange. He says that sex mind is Zen mind, because when a man and woman are having sex, they lose their particular identities and become one. So he says that everyone should get married. Is this correct teaching?”

Soen-sa said, “Your mind when you are having sex and your mind when you are driving a car—are they the same or different?”

The student was silent.

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


“You must understand the true meaning of my hitting you. This Zen Master said that during sex you lose your Small I. This may be true. But outside conditions are taking away the Small I. When the outside conditions change, you again become Small I. When you are driving a car with a clear mind, you don't lose yourself. Outside and inside become one. Red light comes and you stop; green light comes and you go. But if you have sex on your mind, red comes and you don't understand red. You lose everything.”

The student said, “So what is the difference between sex mind and Zen mind?”

Soen-sa said, “We can talk about three separate minds. The first is attachment mind. This is called losing your mind. Next is keeping one mind. The third is clear mind.”

“What is losing your mind?”

“For example, you are standing in a train station and suddenly there is a loud whistle blast. You are startled out of yourself: no self, no world, only the whistle. This is losing your mind. Or if you haven't eaten for three days and then someone gives you food, you gobble it down without thinking. There is only the eating. Or when you are having sex, there is only the good feeling, the absorption in the other person. This is losing your mind. But afterwards, when you stop having sex, your small mind is just as strong as ever. All these actions are attachment actions. They come from desire and end in suffering.”

“What is keeping one mind?”

“When somebody is reciting a mantra, there is only the mantra. He sees good, and there is only Om mani padme hum; he sees bad, and there is only Om mani padme hum. Whatever he does, whatever he sees, there is only the mantra.”

“Then what is clear mind?”

“Clear mind is like a mirror. Red comes, and the mirror is red; white comes, and the mirror is white. When all people are sad, I am sad; when all people are happy, I am happy. The mind that only tries to help all people is clear mind. So the mind that is lost in desire is small mind. One mind is empty mind. Clear mind is big mind, which is infinite time and infinite space.”

“It's still not completely clear to me. Would you please give me another example?”

“Okay. Suppose a man and a woman are having sex. They have lost their minds and they are very very happy. Just then, a robber breaks in with a gun and says, ‘Give me money!’ All their happiness disappears and they are very afraid. ‘Oh help me, help me!’ This is small mind. It is constantly changing, as outside conditions change.

“Next, somebody is doing mantra. This is one mind. His mind is not moving at all. There is no inside or outside, only true emptiness. The robber appears. ‘Give me money!’ But the person is not afraid. Only Om mani padme hum, Om mani padme hum. ‘Give me money or I'll kill you!’ He doesn't care. Already there is no life and no death. So he is not in the least afraid.

“Next is clear mind. This person always keeps Bodhisattva mind. The robber appears. ‘Give me money!’ This person says, ‘How much do you want?’ ‘Give me everything!’ ‘Okay’—and he gives the robber all his money. He is not afraid. But his mind is very sad. He is thinking, ‘Why are you doing this? Now you are all right, but in the future you will have much suffering.’ The robber looks at him and sees that he is not afraid, that there is only motherly compassion on his face. So the robber is a little confused. The person has given him money and is now teaching him the correct way. This is true Zen mind.”

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

Soen-sa said, “There are four difficult things in this life. The first is to receive a human body. The second is to encounter the Dharma. The third is to meet a keen-eyed Zen Master. The fourth is to attain enlightenment. Number three is very important. A Zen Master may not be deeply enlightened; he may not be a good teacher. If you meet the wrong Zen Master, you will go the wrong way. It is like one blind man leading another blind man into a ditch. So I hope you will be able to tell the difference between a keen-eyed lion and a blind dog.”

The student said, “How can I tell the difference?”

Soen-sa said, “Now it is time for breakfast.”

The student bowed.

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