Zen Master Seung Sahn (Da Soen Sa Nim) was born in 1927, near Pyongyang, now the capital of North Korea. After World War II, he went to the mountains for a one-hundred-day solo retreat. Later he received dharma transmission from Zen Master Ko Bong. Afterwards he worked to reorganize the Chogye Order of Korean Buddhism while serving as abbot of several temples in Korea. He also spent several years in Japan, founding temples and teaching Zen.
In 1972 Seung Sahn came to the United States. While working in a laundromat in Providence, Rhode Island, he met some students from Brown University who would come to ask him questions about life and Zen practice. The Providence Zen Center grew out of this.
Seung Sahn has published several books, including Dropping Ashes on the Buddha, and The Whole World is a Single Flower. In attempt to connect Zen practice with Christian contemplative prayer, he has led many Zen retreats at the Abbey of Gethsemani, the Trappist monastery in Kentucky, and with other Christian groups.
This interview was conducted in Providence, Rhode Island, in August, 1996.
Tricycle: You grew up in a Protestant family in Korea. I’m curious to know what made the Buddhist teachings so attractive to you.
Seung Sahn: When North and South Korea separated, society became complicated. Everyone fighting. So I went to the mountains to study Confucianism. Then one day a monk asked me, “What are you doing?”
“I’m studying Chinese philosophy,” I say.
“Chinese philosophy?” he said. “You don’t understand Korean philosophy! You should study Korean philosophy.”
So I studied Korean philosophy. Then one day a Zen monk appeared and asked me, “What are you doing?”
I say, “I’m studying Korean philosophy.”
“You don’t understand you. Who are you?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“You must get rid of understanding and attain your true self,” he told me. It was like meeting Socrates. So I became a monk and started practicing meditation.
Tricycle: Like meeting Socrates?
Seung Sahn: Yeah. Socrates said, “Understand your true self.” Very good teaching!
Tricycle: When you first came to Providence you tried to integrate Korean-Americans with Anglo-Americans, but it didn’t work.
Seung Sahn: No! Korean and American practicing together is impossible. [Laughter]
Seung Sahn: Korean people understand too much Buddhism. So clearing mind is very difficult. American students have no idea what Buddhism is, so—Boom! They get it. Very easy! Americans make good students. Koreans too much thinking, which makes practice very difficult. They already understand so much Buddhism, they have a big problem.
Tricycle: You made popular in this country the expression “don’t-know mind.” Could you say what that is?
Seung Sahn: Human beings understand too much. But what they understand is just somebody’s opinion. Like a dog barking. American dog say, “Woof, woof.” Korean dog say, “Mung, mung.” Polish dog say, “How, how.” So which dog barking is correct? That is human beings’ barking, not dog barking. If dog and you become one hundred percent one, then you know sound of barking. This is Zen teaching. Boom! Become one.
Tricycle: But when you live in a Zen community, so many obstacles to “don’t-know mind” are generated by the community itself. Most of us want what Trungpa Rinpoche used to call the “babysitter in the sky”—that need and desire to depend on some other authority outside of oneself. Are we just doomed to live within the suffering that the institution causes?
Seung Sahn: When students first come to the Zen Center, they’re like babies. Babies don’t understand how to eat, how to walk or talk. But slowly, slowly they grow up. At two years they walk. At three comes speech. After three, memory. That is growing up. At twenty, maybe twenty-five, then get a job, become independent.
Our practice is the same. At first a teacher is necessary. Then when you grow up, a teacher is not necessary. Kick the teacher out.
Tricycle: Do you have students for whom you are not necessary?
Seung Sahn: Yeah. Some become Zen masters. They find their own way.
Tricycle: And yet you have a reputation for being very strict with what goes on in your centers. And that you want the same form at all your different Zen centers.
Seung Sahn: I just understand Korean style. That’s all. First, Buddhism appeared in India, so Indian style developed. Then China, so Chinese style appeared. From China it went to Korea, so Korean style developed. Now I transmit Korean style to American students. After a while, American style appears. When that happens, kick out the Korean style, ok. But it takes time for American style to appear.
Tricycle: Do you think that there will be a time when your students will do the chanting in English?
Seung Sahn: In the future, maybe. When I first came here I thought to change it to English. But then I went to Poland. Can’t use English chants there. And Germany. So I decided to keep Korean style. Now, when our sangha has a big ceremony, people come from all over the world. No problem, we all chant together in Korean. Only Heart Sutra chanted in the language of each country.
Tricycle: You’ve taught in so many different countries. Are there particular obstacles that Americans encounter because of their cultural history or because of their Western philosophy?
Seung Sahn: American students very easy. America only 350 years old. If you go to Germany or Poland, they have a long tradition.
In the Zen center, five minutes before we begin to sit, we hit the moktak (wooden percussion instrument). In Germany, students are already seated in dharma hall when we hit the moktak. Go to France and hit moktak, then, slowly, a few minutes, people begin to show up. That is French style. English style: Hit the moktak and people look to see who goes first. Spanish style: Hit the moktak and the man pokes wife to see whether she is going or not. She goes, he goes too. In each country people have different consciousness. Each country has a different style.
Tricycle: What about in Asian centers?
Seung Sahn: Japanese style is very correct. Chinese style is a little slow—time passes, no matter. Korean style is in the middle, between China and Japan.
Tricycle: Not too loose, not too tight?
Seung Sahn: Yes. Japanese style too tight. Japanese Zen shout, “Don’t know!” Chinese style not tight at all. Even Chinese Communism is not so tight.
Tricycle: And American style?
Seung Sahn: American style is all mixed up. [Laughter]
Tricycle: But the absence of a long tradition is beneficial?
Seung Sahn: Yeah, that’s American style. Wonderful—so much growing up to do.
Tricycle: In your own writing you have repeated a story that is often told about the Buddha, why he did not give transmission. People came to him when he was dying and said, “What are we going to do now?” And he said, “You have the teachings and the precepts.” Why does the Zen tradition emphasize transmission when the Buddha himself didn’t?
Seung Sahn: Zen tradition says Buddha did make transmission—to Mahakashyapa. Later, Mahakashyapa gave transmission to Ananda.
Tricycle: Doesn’t that version contradict what the Buddha said?
Seung Sahn: Other versions come from the sutra tradition. Zen tradition says to transmit clear line from teacher to disciple. In the sutra tradition, they have no line. Buddha gave many kinds of teaching. Peoples’ minds are all so different. To some people give a mantra; for some people, studying sutras is good. Sometimes give yom bul practice, repeating Buddha’s name. The real question is, what is most important? Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree until . . . Boom! Got enlightenment. That’s a very important point.
Tricycle: You are also well known in the West for asking “What is this?” For example, you will hold up a stick and ask, “What is this?”
Seung Sahn: Yes. What is this? [Holding up his fist]
Tricycle: Well, I’ve seen you often enough to know that I can’t just say, “This is a fist,” and I can’t say, “This is not a fist.”
Seung Sahn: What is this? [Holding up his fist] Is it empty or not empty? What is it? Whether it’s empty or not empty—doesn’t matter. What matters—only moment by moment, what is reflected in your mind.
Tricycle: What do you mean,“reflected in your mind”?
Seung Sahn: No time, no space. Just moment. Boom! Whatever is in the moment. This moment is very important—whether the world is empty or not, whether it exists or not, doesn’t matter. What we call “world” is only an opinion. Take away your opinion, then what? What is left? That is the point. Take away your opinion—your condition, situation—then your mind is clear like space. Clear like space means clear like a mirror. A mirror reflects everything: the sky is blue, tree is green, sugar is sweet. Just be one with the truth—that’s Zen style. Only talking, talking no good. No truth.
Tricycle: Last night [during a dharma talk at the center], when a student asked you if reincarnation is dharma candy, you said, “No, not dharma candy, Buddhism candy.” What did you mean?
Seung Sahn: Sutra, mantra, yom bul—many kinds of Buddhism candy. Dharma is different.
Tricycle: How so?
Seung Sahn: Dharma is about how you keep Buddha’s mind. How do you put everything down and keep your mind clear like space? That is our goal—keeping mind clear like space. If your mind clear like space, then you see clearly, hear clearly, smell clearly—everything is clear. That is dharma. That is truth.
Tricycle: How does that work?
Seung Sahn: Help others. If hungry people come, give them food. If thirsty people come, give water. If suffering people come, help them. That is our job—life after life, just continue to help all beings. But to do that, you have to have mind which is clear like space. Otherwise, how do you help their suffering?
Tricycle: There’s a debate that’s going on among many Western Buddhists about reincarnation—about whether it’s essential to believe in it or not.
Seung Sahn: If you do good action, then you get happiness. If you do bad action, you get suffering. Very simple. But what if you ask, “What is your original face? Who are you?” That is Zen.
Tricycle: So then what?
Seung Sahn: Attain your true self. That’s it.
Tricycle: Then what happens to the idea of reincarnation?
Seung Sahn: Reincarnation? Doesn’t matter. Sometimes go to Heaven, sometimes go to Hell—no problem. You just follow situation—then any place, any kind of body you get, no problem. Only follow situation and help other people. That is the great Bodhisattva way.
Tricycle: So don’t attach to ideas—even reincarnation?
Seung Sahn: Yeah, any idea—throw it away! This moment important. Next life not so important. This moment is yours. Next life not yours. Past life, present life, future life are not yours. Because past, present, and future are made by thinking. Original face has no past, no present, no future. We only have moment. Moment is yours—infinite time, infinite space. If you make this moment clear, then your whole life is clear, also next life clear. If this moment is not clear, then everything not clear. So Zen practice is just moment to moment—become clear. That’s all.
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