What is Zen?
Zen is very simple... What are you?
In this whole world everyone searches for happiness outside, but nobody
understands their true self inside.
Everybody says, "I" -- "I want this, I am like that..." But nobody
understands this "I." Before you were born, where did your I come from? When you
die, where will your I go? If you sincerely ask, "what am I?" sooner or later
you will run into a wall where all thinking is cut off. We call this "don't
Zen is keeping this "don't know" mind always and everywhere.
When walking, standing, sitting,
lying down, speaking, being
silent, moving, being still.
At all times, in all places, without
interruption -- what is this?
One mind is infinite kalpas.
Meditation in Zen means keeping don't-know mind when bowing, chanting and
sitting Zen. This is formal Zen practice. And when doing something, just do
it. When driving, just drive; when eating, just eat; when working, just work.
Finally, your don't-know mind will become clear. Then you can see the sky,
only blue. You can see the tree, only green. Your mind is like a clear mirror.
Red comes, the mirror is red; white comes the mirror is white. A hungry person
comes, you can give him food; a thirsty person comes, you can give her something
to drink. There is no desire for myself, only for all beings. That mind is
already enlightenment, what we call Great Love, Great Compassion, the Great
Bodhisattva Way. It's very simple, not difficult!
So Buddha said that all beings have Buddha-nature (enlightenment nature). But
Zen Master Joju said that a dog has no Buddha-nature. Which one is right? Which
one is wrong? If you find that, you find the true way.
Zen is Understanding Yourself
One day a student from Chicago came to the Providence Zen Center and asked
Seung Sahn Soen-Sa, "What is Zen?"
Soen-sa held his Zen stick above his head and said, "Do you understand?"
The student said, "I don't know."
Soen-sa said, "This don't know mind is you. Zen is understanding yourself."
"What do you understand about me? Teach me."
Soen-sa said, "In a cookie factory, different cookies are baked in the shape
of animals, cars, people, and airplanes. They all have different names and
forms, but they are all made from the same dough, and they all taste the same.
"In the same way, all things in the universe - the sun, the moon, the stars,
mountains, rivers, people, and so forth - have different names and forms, but
they are all made from the same substance. The universe is organized into pairs
of opposites: light and darkness, man and woman, sound and silence, good and
bad. But all these opposites are mutual, because they are made from the same
substance. Their names and their forms are different, but their substance is the
same. Names and forms are made by your thinking. If you are not thinking and
have no attachment to name and form, then all substance is one. Your don't know
mind cuts off all thinking. This is your substance. The substance of this Zen
stick and your own substance are the same. You are this stick; this stick is
The student said, "Some philosophers say this substance is energy, or mind,
or God, or matter. Which is the truth?"
Soen-sa said, "Four blind men went to the zoo and visited the elephant. One
blind man touched its side and said, 'The elephant is like a wall.' The next
blind man touched its trunk and said, 'The elephant is like a snake.' The next
blind man touched its leg and said, 'The elephant is like a column.' The last
blind man touched its tail and said, 'The elephant is like a broom.' Then the
four blind men started to fight, each one believing that his opinion was the
right one. Each only understood the part he had touched; none of them understood
"Substance has no name and no form. Energy, mind, God, and matter are all
name and form. Substance is the Absolute. Having name and form is having
opposites. So the whole world is like the blind men fighting among themselves.
Not understanding yourself is not understanding the truth. That is why there is
fighting among ourselves. If all the people in the world understood themselves,
they would attain the Absolute. Then the world would be at peace. World peace is
The student said, "How can practicing Zen make world peace?"
Soen-sa said, "People desire money, fame, sex, food, and rest. All this
desire is thinking. Thinking is suffering. Suffering means no world peace. Not
thinking is not suffering. Not suffering means world peace. World peace is the
Absolute. The Absolute is I."
The student said, "How can I understand the Absolute?"
Soen-sa said, "You must first understand yourself."
"How can I understand myself?"
Soen-sa held up the Zen stick and said, "Do you see this?"
He then quickly hit the table with the stick and said, "Do you hear this?
This stick, this sound, your mind - are they the same or different?"
The student said, "The same."
Soen-sa said, "If you say they are the same, I will hit you thirty times. If
you say they are different, I will still hit you thirty times. Why?"
The student was silent.
Soen-sa shouted, "KATZ!!!" Then he said, "Spring comes, the grass grows by
From Dropping Ashes On The Buddha: The Teaching of Zen Master Seung Sahn
edited by Stephen Mitchell (Grove Press, New York, NY, 1976)
Copyright © Providence Zen Center