What Have We Got to Hold Onto in this Life?

This talk was given during a retreat at Providence Zen Center, October 1983.

Adeline: I have a friend named Terry who is missing. She was in a small plane that crashed in the sea. So everyone assumes she died. But if she is dead, where is she?

Zen Master Su Bong: What are you doing now?

Adeline: Sitting here talking to you.

ZMSB: So you know where your friend went.

Adeline: I don't understand.

ZMSB: So where did Terry go? Where did my father go? Don't know. Before this, Adeline talked about having some idea about our life that makes our life seem substantial. It gives us some reason for living, some direction. What am I doing here? Why am I a monk? Don't know. But when you have no idea, only one question appears: What is this? Why do I spend my time working? Right now it's the job that has to be done. But as for some deeper meaning than that? I only have an idea. Maybe her friend Terry went to heaven. Maybe she went to hell. Does it really matter what my idea is? If I hit you, what do you say?

Adeline: Ow! Do you hear something if I say "ouch"?

ZMSB: Say "ouch."

Adeline: Ouch! Did you hear that?

ZMSB: I don't know "anything." Today my speech comes from where? It comes from my heart, OK? It has no dharma; it has nothing at all. It cannot answer any question or do anything. It has no idea. It cannot see, hear, think, taste, touch. But I am only sitting here talking to you. About what? Who knows? I have no dharma. I have nothing at all. I can't figure out what I'm doing here. Can you? If you can, please tell me!

Question: But there is taste and touch and hearing, even if you say "I don't taste or touch or hear."

ZMSB: That's only naming, made by you, by me, by all of us. That's only an idea. I say I see you; you must attain that. That has no name or form. That's not dependent on hearing, on like or dislike, correct or incorrect, good or bad. It's not dependent on anything at all. "The wall is white" is not dependent on any philosophy. My eyes seeing you is not dependent on anything. Seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, thinking, feeling, and moving are not dependent on anything. We make it dependent on something. You go to a movie and it's a bad one. Your eyes don't like it. But your eyes didn't not like that movie, either. Your eyes have no opinion. Your eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind are not dependent on anything. You make it dependent on something; so it is dependent on something. If it depends on anything, then you have suffering.

Q: Recently a lot of us have been learning about the medical consequences of a nuclear war. My question is, if you have a friend who is drowning or if you're aware that a nuclear bomb can wipe out all your friends, what is the correct thing to do?

ZMSB: You must practice very hard.

Q: But if you are sitting on the shore, practicing very hard, then your friend will drown.

ZMSB: If you are practicing very hard, then you will be able to jump into the ocean and save your friend - no problem. This life is very funny. What do we want? We say we want to attain our true self. We say we want to attain freedom from life and death, to save all sentient beings. That's what we say we want as Zen students. Not only Zen students, but other people say this. But if you want to do that, then you must really do that.

In China there was a government official who later became a Zen Master, during the Tung dynasty. His name was Chi Su. He was in charge of handling all the money that came into the emperor's treasury. He was very smart, and everyone liked and trusted him. People valued his opinion. Then one day he took a huge amount of money out of the treasury and just gave it away to a lot of people. It was a great crime.

The other men in his department said, "We like Chi Su and trust him, but this is crazy! As honest men, what can we do?" So they told the emperor what Chi Su had done. The emperor said, "There must be some ulterior motive for this action, but it's our law that there are certain ways of appropriating money. This was a big mistake on his part. Take him to court."

Chi Su was tried and sentenced to execution. Nobody wanted to do it, but they had decided on their law, and he had broken it. The day of the execution came. The emperor called the executioner, a great swordsman, a man who could cut off your head so cleanly and quickly that there was no suffering. The emperor said to him, "When you raise your sword and are ready to cut off his head, first look at his face. If his face shows any signs of regret or remorse or puzzlement, cut off his head quickly. If not, don't cut."

On the appointed day, Chi Su put his head on the block. The swordsman lifted his sword, ready to cut off his head. He looked down and saw Chi Su smiling. Smiling! Chi Su, seeing the bewilderment on the swordsman's face, looked up at him and said, "I dedicate this next birth to all sentient beings."

So of course he didn't have his head cut off. A messenger ran and told the Emperor, who was very proud of Chi Su. He knew there had been some ulterior motive for Chi Su's action. So he called for Chi Su and said, "I am very happy. But we in the government want to understand why you gave all that money away."

Chi Su said, "For a long time now I've been thinking about quitting my government post, giving alms to the people, and only practicing Buddhism. So I decided that in my next life, if you killed me now, I would be reborn as a Zen student and only practice Buddhism."

At that time it was very difficult to get out of a government post, especially a high-ranking one. You couldn't just quit your job. It had to be approved by the emperor, and Chi Su didn't think that would happen. He did this action without any concern about whether he would get a reprieve or not.

The emperor said, "I will give you a new name, Yen Shu," which means "prolonged life." Yen Shu became a Zen student, and few years later a Zen Master.

Chi Su said, "I dedicate this next birth to all sentient beings." Because he had enough faith, he gave himself up. Because of his determination, he had faith that he would be born as a Zen student and not as a government official. He was willing to risk his life to find out: What is this? Just once you must want to give up on your life. Whether you do it or not doesn't matter.

Dogen Zenji says that if in this lifetime we have not once gotten that taste, we cannot enter Buddhism completely. Just one taste. We all hold our opinions and say we want that taste, but how much are we really willing to let go? How many of us are really willing to try for ten thousand years? So you see, it doesn't matter where Adeline's friend went. It doesn't matter what I'm doing now. All that matters is that we try completely.

At the top of a hundred foot pole Dogen Zenji says that you must even forget about saving all beings. You must walk past the place where there is no Buddha, no idea. At that time form is emptiness, and emptiness is form. In Zen books we read about how we must give up our body and our mind so that we can have freedom. What have we got to hold onto in this life? What people think or don't think about me? A girlfriend? My children? My parents? The words "dharma" or "Buddha"? I wish I could find out.

A lot of you saw the movie "Apocalypse Now." I saw it four times. I went to see it the fourth time because something caught me. I sat through the whole movie trying to figure out what it was. Finally at the end of the movie the executioner takes a big hatchet to Brando's headquarters and he's killing him. In all of this nightmarish scene, one word struck me. Brando says, "The horror of it all."

Some Zen students might think, "What kind of speech is that?" But look outdoors. Somebody might say, "Oh wonderful, the sky is blue, the tree is green. That's stillness and bliss." What is the difference between "stillness and bliss" and "the horror of it all?" We make that. Words are only words; they have no substance. Only what you do has substance. One second after that, what you were doing has no substance, no meaning, no choice.

Q: Why are we always more ready to believe what's outside of us, than what's inside? Why don't we trust our immediate perceptions?

ZMSB: Because we think we know something, we can't believe ourselves. We think we know the correct way, the correct life, or something, it doesn't matter what; we think we know it. Buddha said everything has Buddha nature. Why separate anything?

Q: The more I practice, it seems the more I become like litmus paper, absorbing the whole thing. A movie like "Apocalypse Now" or a martial arts movie just wipes me out.

ZMSB: Well, that's correct. If you go to a kung fu movie and feel like you got your head smashed against a wall, that's correct, because that's what they're doing in that movie. That's together action.

Q: Are all wants a mistake?

ZMSB: Also, "I don't want" is a mistake. What are we doing here now? Occupying our time. We call ourselves Zen students, other people call themselves executives. We all practice life and we feel comfortable doing it. So why not? But we must believe it. Executives have executive problems. Students have student problems. Executives think that when they reach the top and become president of the corporation, all their problems will disappear. We think when we become Zen Masters, all our problems will disappear. Are they the same or different?

You must only find your way. There are many different schools of Zen. Some sit hard. Some don't put so much stress on sitting, and do other things. All teachers, all Zen Masters - from what I've read in books - have their own style.

A Korean man in our school told me that his grandmother used to practice Buddhism in Korea, so he learned a lot about different Korean schools. Also he had studied the history of Korean Zen, out of his own curiosity. He told me, "You know, Zen Master Seung Sahn's mind is the craziest of them all, because his teachers - Kyong Ho Sunim, Man Gong Sunim, Ko Bong Sunim - all did some outrageous things.

Schools which grew from branches of the same transmission line went in different ways. In one school, they sat and did what we would call beneficial things for society. In another school at the same time, they lived as hermits in the mountains. So there are many different ways, but they all help people.

A long time ago in Korea, a sutra master was giving a speech and said you should always keep good company. Kyong Ho Sunim stood up in the audience and said, "Then who will save the whores? Who will save the robbers? If you only have good friends, what about all the other people?" When Man Gong heard that, he immediately became his student. So there is no good or bad.

Q: Some people drink alcohol and say it helps them practice. Do you agree?

ZMSB: Why not? I think sometimes it's necessary. Sometimes we must relax, or let it all hang out if it really doesn't harm anybody.

Q: I had a friend who stopped being a monk. Now he's very angry at our school. That upsets me.

ZMSB: It doesn't matter, because you said this person was once a monk. That means he's conscious of "try mind." His try mind was sincere at that time. But some karma appeared, and his try mind went away from his original idea. Once somebody spends that amount of time trying, they can't forget it. It will appear again, I think. More suffering is necessary before you can just give up your life.

You know, sometimes we have to take this as a joke. Sometimes it's very funny. We must still find our own way, not dependent on anything. Zen Master Seung Sahn is here to teach us and steer us, but the end point is for us to find our own way. The point of teaching is not to have you end up what he wants you to be, but to show you how to find your way.

I don't believe anything I said today - do you know that? It's only my job. So if you don't understand, only go straight, don't know, get enlightenment, and save all beings from suffering.