Coming empty-handed, going empty-handed—that is human. When you are born, where do you come from? When you die, where do you go? Life is like a floating cloud which appears. Death is like a floating cloud which disappears. The floating cloud itself originally does not exist. Life and death, coming and going, are also like that. But there is one thing which always remains clear. It is pure and clear, not depending on life and death.

Master Seung Sahn, 1981. © JW Herrington
Master Seung Sahn, 1981. © JW Herrington

Then what is the one pure and clear thing?

 —From a favorite teaching verse of Zen Master Seung Sahn.

Zen Master Seung Sahn, the first teacher of Korean Zen in the United States and one of the most prominent and influential teachers in the West, died peacefully on November 30, 2004, at Hwa Gye Sah temple in Seoul, South Korea, surrounded by his students. He was seventy-seven.

A legendary figure in Korea, Seung Sahn received inka, or authentication of enlightenment and authority to teach, from three Zen masters while still in his early twenties. He served as abbott of various temples in Korea and Japan before moving to the United States in 1972. Having heard there was a great hunger among young Americans for the dharma, he arrived with little English and took employment at a laundromat in Providence, Rhode Island. “Within a very short time,” remembers Jane Dobisz, co-guiding teacher of the Cambridge Zen Center, “all these students were going to the laundromat to get his teachings. He lived his life from what he called ‘Don’t Know Mind,’ with the confidence that it would always work out—and it always did.”

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