Understanding Human Nature

Posted on Sep 21 , 2011 in Blog

By Zen Master Dae Kwang

As soon as the war was over, Korea split into south and north. What everybody thought was going to bring happiness actually brought more conflicts and more suffering. It happened like that in Iraq. The war was supposed to bring peace, but what happened? So inside, Zen Master Seung Sahn had this big question: what can I do? Why is there so much suffering? He went to a temple and took some Western philosophy books with him, because he had an idea: he would read all these books, then he would understand what human beings are all about, and then he could help them.

For months, he read philosophy books. One day, an old monk who took care of the woods around the temple walked by his small hermitage. The monk saw this young man reading a book by Plato, the Greek philosopher, and was very surprised. So the monk asked him, “What are you doing?”

Zen Master Seung Sahn said, “I am reading these philosophy books so that I can understand what human beings are.”

The monk suddenly knocked the book out of Zen Master Seung Sahn’s hands and said, “That book will not help you understand human beings.”

But Zen Master Seung Sahn’s mind was very strong. He looked up at the old monk and asked, “Do you understand human beings?” Very clever. It is just like a story in the book by Plato. It was five hundred years before the modern era. A philosopher, Socrates, liked to ask everybody he met: do you understand yourself? One time a person asked him right back: Do you? And Socrates said, “No, I don’t. I don’t understand my self. But I understand this ‘don’t know’ very well.” Very interesting.

So, when Zen Master Seung Sahn asked the old monk, “Do you understand human beings?”, the old monk said, “No, I don’t, but I understand that the sky is blue and the trees are green.”

Then BOOM!

Zen Master Seung Sahn understood this man was not the usual style of monk. So he asked the old monk, “What should I do? What can I do to understand?” The old monk said, “You should do a hundred day solo retreat. Practice very hard and you will understand.” So it is just like the Buddha. He left his good situation and looked inside. Zen Master Seung Sahn did a long retreat and looked inside. You, too, can look inside. The outside situation is not so important. What is important is to look inside.


Three Steps to the Left, Around the Front of the Car

Posted on Sep 13 , 2011 in Blog

by Zen Master Bon Haeng on Jan 1, 1992

A couple of years ago I was walking to to work, a walk which takes me through several busy intersections in Cambridge. My mind was filled with the day’s activities and plans. Consequently, my attention at that particular moment was not with the moment as it was unfolding.

I was crossing a particularly busy intersection; a blind man was walking beside me, waving his stick back and forth. As this man was walking, his stick hit a car parked right in the crosswalk. I glanced over and you could see an expression of “what is this?” on his face. He didn’t know how to overcome this obstacle in his path. Perhaps he thought he had lost his way or that he had not counted his steps correctly. As I watched, another man looked up and said: “Three steps to the left, around the front of the car.” And I said to myself, “That’s wonderful. But where was l?”

This is our practice. It is not some great, expanded commitment to the universe. It’s not some hope of how things can be in the future. It is not some longing for things to be as they were in the past. It is only in this moment, responding spontaneously: what can each one of us do that is of service?

Our task as we go through our daily lives is to cultivate this practice that we are already connected with. Only don’t know; how can I be of service? I often wish it were more complicated, but just can’t seem to find more to it. That’s all there is.


A Multifaith Collaboration of Clergy

Posted on Sep 07 , 2011 in Blog

The Office of the Chaplains and Religious Life at Brown University together with Rhode Island Voices of Faith, a multifaith collaboration of clergy sponsored the Rhode Island State Council of Churches will join with civic and community leaders, to host two events on Sunday, September 11, in commemoration of the tenth anniversary of 9/11. All are warmly invited.

At 2 p.m., the public is invited to take part in the ancient practice of walking a spiritual labyrinth that will be inscribed on the Main Green. Additional peace-building and wellness activities will also be available.

At 4 p.m., the community will gather for an outdoor multi-faith service: “Remembering 9.11 Together: A Rite of Remembrance,” held on the lawn of Manning Chapel, located just inside the Van Wickle Gates at the intersection of Prospect and College Streets. Beginning with the tolling of the University’s bells, the service will include musical offerings and readings led by both the Chaplains of the University and a statewide multi-faith delegation of clergy. Closing remarks will be given by Brown University President Ruth J. Simmons.


The Dog Runs Away with the Bone

Posted on Sep 06 , 2011 in Blog

An eminent teacher once said, “Original consciousness is always clear. Beyond the six roots and six consciousnesses and six dusts, it is not hindered by speech or words. True nature is not dyed. It is already round and clear. Put down all thinking: right now is your true self.”

You say that you were attached to emptiness. But a true attachment to emptiness is without words or speech. Just understanding emptiness is different from being truly attached to emptiness.

I am glad that your sitting is getting stronger. You say that your body and mind are still not integrated. This Is thinking. If you cut off all thinking, your mind becomes true emptiness. True emptiness is before thinking. Before thinking there are no words and no things. So where is there a body or a mind to be integrated?

You must always keep “What am I?” At first the question is very small, Then it grows and grows and grows until it fills the whole universe. And then, when it bursts, the great question itself becomes enlightenment.

Here is a poem for you:

Buddha said all things have Buddha-nature.
Jo-ju said the dog has no Buddha-nature.
But Buddha and Jo-ju don’t know Buddha-nature.
The dog runs away with the bone.

Yours sincerely,

S. S.


Living in a Dream

Posted on Aug 30 , 2011 in Blog

Once someone asked Buddha, “What are you? A god? A celestial being? A holy man? A human being?”

Buddha replied, “I am awake.”

A Hindu legend:

Once there was a holy man named Narada, whose great learning impressed the gods, even Vishnu who sleeps on a bed of cobras above the dark lake of infinity and whose very own dream is the universe.

One day Vishnu came to Narada and offered him a single wish; Narada answered that he would like to understand Maya, the illusion of the worlds dreamed by Vishnu. “Very well” said the god. “Let’s go for a walk.”

So Vishnu and Narada began a trek that would take them across the whole of Hindustan: through the teeming streets of Calcutta, along the banks of the holy Ganges, into the stifling forests that belonged to the Bengal tiger, and out across the plains of Uttar Pradesh, which grew hotter and hotter until the grass disappeared and their feet trod the burning desert of Rajasthan.

In the desert, Vishnu beckoned Narada to him: “My son, I am thirsty. There is an oasis around this dune. Please go and fetch me some water.” So Narada went. He found the oasis, where spring water greened the fields of a small village. Seeking permission to draw from the well, he knocked on the door of the first hut. A young woman answered, and at the moment that Narada’s eyes met hers he forgot his mission, forgot everything from before.

Narada stayed and married the beautiful young woman. They had two children. He was very happy, coaxing grain from the soil, working beside his loving wife and watching his children grow.

Twelve years went by, and one day an unusually dark storm rolled in from the north. Thunder boomed and rain came down in sheets. Narada tried to gather his family in his arms but the flood hit too quickly and plunged them into an inky swirl that separated them all. In a frenzy, he dove and thrashed and cried the names of his wife and children, but in the dark swirling water he could grasp nothing. Exhausted and heartbroken, he gave in to the raging current and the water swept him away.

Narada awoke face down in the sand under the blazing sun. He heard a voice: “My son, where is the drink you promised me? It’s been half an hour.” Narada looked into Vishnu’s face. After a moment the god said, “Now you understand my dream.”

Vishnu dreams the entire universe; his dream is the ten thousand things. Narada is also dreaming inside of Vishnu’s dream! You and I are also living in a dream. It might be a happy dream or a sad one, a prosperous dream or a poor dream; it might be a selfish dream or a selfless dream. Maybe we are having a Zen dream or a “practicing in order to help all beings” dream.

Buddha said, “I am awake.” This is the teaching of all the Buddhas and eminent teachers. Wake up! Whenever we wake up from our dream-even if only for a single moment-we attain our original job. When we attain our original job and just do it, we are using Vishnu’s dream to save all beings from suffering.

By Tim Lerch JDPSN





No Power but Plenty of Practice

Posted on Aug 29 , 2011 in Blog

Just a quick FYI that although Providence Zen Center is without power due to Tropical Storm Irene moving through the area yesterday, practice is continuing as scheduled. We have plenty of candles to keep the Dharma Room lit. Thank You!


Inka Speech, José Ramírez JDPSN

Posted on Aug 28 , 2011 in Blog

Jose Ramirez JDPSNby  on Apr 1, 2002

[Raises the Zen stick over his head, then hits the table with the stick.] 
If you think I have an accent, you’re attached to name and form.
[Raises the Zen stick over his head, then hits the table with the stick.] 
If you think I don’t have an accent, you’re attached to emptiness.
[Raises the Zen stick over his head, then hits the table with the stick.] 
What is the original accent?
Waaaaa! Waaaaaaa! Waaaaaaaaa!

A loose translation of a stanza in the third patriarch’s poem, “Trust in Mind,” reads:

We have the tendency to think that things

are right or wrong,

And we stick to the “idea” of right or wrong.

If we do not know the true meaning of this,

Only sitting, meditating quietly, is of no use.

Zen Master Seung Sahn used to say, “If you are thinking, your mind, my mind, all the people’s minds, are different. If you are thinking, then your checking mind appears.” Yes, when we are thinking, we make, “I like this, I don’t like that.” You hear my accent and think, “I don’t like people with accents. How come they cannot speak like us?” Or, you hear my accent and say, “Oh, I love that Spanish accent, it makes me think of Ricardo Montalban!” or for the younger people in the audience, Antonio Banderas. Isn’t that the human condition of picking and choosing?

Our Zen group practices in the sanctuary of a church, and every Wednesday night when we get there, there are lots of chairs to move. We have to set up the altar; we have to unpack boxes. And after all these years of practice, my mind still goes, “Why do we have to move all these chairs? If we only had our own place, then things would be better.” But the truth is, that the moment we stop making, “I don’t like moving all these chairs,” we just move the chairs and are done with it. All the meditation in the world is not going to help us if we don’t stop picking and choosing, and start functioning according to the situation.

I was involved in some diversity activities in the company I work for, and at a meeting one time someone said: “Because I speak with an accent, it doesn’t mean I think with an accent.” My reaction to that was, “Wow, that’s great! I wish I had said that!” But it also pointed me to the fact that the original accent has no this or that, that the original accent is not dependent on words or speech. A smile is a smile in any language. A baby’s cry does not depend on words. The great mime Marcel Marceau once said, “Isn’t it amazing that the most moving moments in our lives find us without words?”

The last two verses in the stanza read:

If we do not know the true meaning of this,

Only sitting, meditating quietly, is of no use.

That reminds me of the story of Zen Master Ma Tsu. Zen Master Ma Tsu was constantly sitting in meditation in his hut. One day, his teacher, Zen Master Nan Yue, came by and said, “What are you trying to accomplish with your sitting?” “Oh, I am trying to become a Buddha!” Ma Tsu said. At that moment, Nan Yue picked up a brick and started polishing it. Shhhhhrrrrp, shhhhhrrrrp, shhhhhrrrrp… So all this grinding noise got Ma Tsu out of his meditation. He got up and said, “What are you doing?” And Nan Yue said, “Oh, I am making a mirror.” Ma Tsu said, “A mirror? There is no way you can make a mirror out of polishing a brick.” Zen Master Nan Yue said, “There is no way you can become a Buddha by doing zazen.” At the end of the exchange, Zen Master Nan Yue said: “If you are attached to sitting you will not attain the true meaning.”

I want to thank the three women in my life that have always been a mirror for the things I cannot see in myself, or that I don’t want to see in myself. The three women that at this moment are probably asking, “You’re giving inka to who?!” My wife Brenda, who for the past fifteen years has unconditionally supported this practice, and that is a practice in itself. I love you. My daughter, Oriana, for whom, like Ikkyu’s daughter, “a Zen Master is no match for her!” She is always teaching me about correct function. Whenever I travel, she makes sure I call Bill, or I let the sangha know that I will not be at meditation. And my aunt Yaya, the woman who raised me, that even though she’s a little sad because she feels I have abandoned my religion, (I was raised Catholic,) she came several times to the Providence Zen Center, and saw me become a senior dharma teacher from the back of this room.

I also want to thank Zen Master Seung Sahn for his legacy, all of you sitting in front of me. My teacher Zen Master Dae Kwang, and all the teachers of the Kwan Um School of Zen who keep “pulling the rug from underneath my feet.” And the Delaware Valley Zen Center Sangha, represented here today by Bill and Denise, for their strong effort and for their strong practice.

[Raises the Zen stick over his head, then hits the table with the stick.] 
Buddha held up a flower. What was his accent?
[Raises the Zen stick over his head, then hits the table with the stick.] 
JoJu said, “Mu.” What was his accent?
[Raises Zen stick over his head, then hits table with stick.] 
Buddha used no words. JoJu used one word. What will you use?
The baby cries, and the father changes her diaper.

from The Kwan Um School of Zen website


Television Zen

Posted on Aug 23 , 2011 in Blog

(Response to a letter. From the book Dropping Ashes on the Buddha)

Dear Patricia,

Thank you for your letter. How are you?

You said in your letter that you have read many books about Zen. That’s good, but if you are thinking, you can’t understand Zen. Anything that can be written, anything that can be said – all this is thinking. If you are thinking, all Zen books, all Buddhist sutras, and all Bibles are demons’ words. But if you read with a mind that has cut off all thinking, then Zen books, sutras, and Bibles are all the truth. So is the barking of a dog or the crowing of a rooster. All things are teaching you at every moment, and these sounds are even better teaching than Zen books. So Zen is keeping the mind which is before thinking. Sciences and academic studies are after thinking. We must return to before thinking. Then we will attain our true self.

You said in your letter that your practice has been counting exhalations to ten. This method is not good, not bad. It is possible to practice in this way when you are sitting. But when you are driving, when you are talking, when you are watching television, when you are playing tennis, how is it possible to count your breaths then? Sitting is only a small part of practicing Zen. The true meaning of sitting Zen is to cut off all thinking and keep not-moving mind. So I ask you: what are you? You don’t know; there is only “I don’t know.” Always keep this don’t know mind. When this don’t know mind becomes clear, then you will understand. So if you keep it when you are talking, this is talking Zen. If you keep it when you are watching television, this is television Zen. You must keep don’t know mind always and everywhere. This is the true practice of Zen.

The Great Way is not difficult
if you don’t make distinctions.
Only throw away likes and dislikes
and everything will be perfectly clear.

So throw away all opinions, all likes and dislikes, and only keep the mind that doesn’t know. This is very important. Don’t know mind is the mind that cuts off all thinking. When all thinking has been cut off, you become empty mind. This is before thinking. Your before thinking mind, my before thinking mind, all people’s before thinking minds are the same. This is your substance. Your substance, my substance, and the substance of the whole universe become one. So the tree, the mountain, the cloud and you become one. Then I ask you: Are the mountain and you the same or different? If you say “the same,” I will hit you thirty times. If you say “different,” I will still hit you thirty times. Why?

The mind that becomes one with the universe is before thinking. Before thinking there are no words. “Same” and “different” are opposite words; they are from the mind that separates all things. That is why I will hit you if you say either one. So what would be a good answer? If you don’t understand, only keep don’t know mind for a while, and you will soon have a good answer. If you do, please send it to me.

You asked why I use words to teach, if understanding through words is impossible. Words are not necessary. But they are very necessary. If you are attached to words, you cannot return to your true self. If you are not attached to words, soon you will attain enlightenment. So if you are thinking, words are very bad. But if you are not thinking, all words and all things that you can see or hear or smell or taste or touch will help you. So it is very important for you to cut off your thinking and your attachments to words.

Here is a poem for you:

Buddha said all things have Buddha-nature.
Joju said the dog has no Buddha-nature.
Which one is correct?
If you open your mouth, you fall into hell.
Clouds float up to the sky;
rainfalls down to the ground.

Sincerely yours,

Seung Sahn


Summer Kyol Che 2011 Opening Ceremony Talk

Posted on Aug 21 , 2011 in Blog

Dharma Talk given by Zen Master Hae Kwang at Providence Zen Center, August 1, 2011.


A Free Gift for You!

Posted on Aug 16 , 2011 in Blog

Excerpted from a talk at Cambridge Zen Center on May 7, 1993

Question: What’s the relationship between karma and free will?

Zen Master Seung Sahn: Even if you decide, you cannot decide anything. When you are born, already everything has been determined. So, everything is already decided. Decide… something will happen. Don’t decide… something will happen. I ask you: Why were you born in this world? Why?

Q: I’m here talking to you so…

ZMSS: That’s just an idea. Talking, what kind of “talking to me”? “I” is not necessary. I ask you.

Q: You already know.

ZMSS: Ah, I don’t know. So, when you are born… we say “put it all down.” That means when you are born, already your karma appears. So, if you want to understand your past life, look at what you receive now. What do you get, now? If you want to understand your previous life… what do you do now?

Q: So, my question is: at this moment, is there something that I am deciding? Or is there no such thing as a decision? Am I deciding what will happen to me? Or maybe I don’t have to decide anything?

ZMSS: Decide anything?

Q: Do I have free will or don’t I?

ZMSS: Who said that?

Q: That’s the point. Is there something that decides or is there nothing that decides?

ZMSS: Of course. If you decide to come into this world, “you can decide” is possible. But even if you decide something, you cannot get anything.

Q: I was afraid of that. [laughter from the audience]

ZMSS: If I want a life that lasts a thousand years… it’s not possible! Before one thousand years, already you are dead. So, if you understand what human beings arewhat this world is really like-then you understand that you cannot decide anything. You only have this moment. If this moment is clear, then your whole life is clear. Also, your next life is clear. “This moment clear” means: “What are you doing now? Just do it!” Do not make a choice this way or that. Even with a choice you cannot get anything- that’s human beings! But if you attain this moment, you can do anything — that’s the point. You must attain this moment. Then you can do anything. If you lose this moment, you cannot do anything. I give you this as a present… very important. Also very expensive, but you don’t have to pay today. [laughter from audience] Free — good Zen Master, eh? [more laughter from audience]