Coming Empty Handed

Zen Master Seung Sahn in Ann Arbor

Reprinted from Cutting Edge, American Zen Arts Quarterly Volume 1, Number 1 (Spring 1985).

Zen Master Seung Sahn is a stocky Korean man with a round face, shaved head, and laughing eyes. He travels to many different countries each year, spreading the dharma of Zen Buddhism in an effort to "save all beings from suffering."

Zen Master Seung Sahn is the seventy-eighth patriarch in his line of succession in the Chogye order, the predominant Buddhist denomination in Korea. Raised in a Christian family, he studied Western philosophy and considered a career in politics before taking Buddhist monk's vows. In 1948 he embarked on a hundred day retreat alone in the mountains, spending his time in intense meditation and chanting. During his retreat he ate only pine needles, which turned his skin green. According to his book Dropping Ashes on the Buddha, he came to the understanding that "the rocks, the river, everything he could see, everything he could hear, all this was his true self. All things are exactly as they are. The truth is just like this." In 1949, at the age of twenty-two, he attained enlightenment. This was confirmed by the great Korean Zen Master Ko Bong, who gave Zen Master Seung Sahn "inka" or transmission of the dharma. Ko Bong's transmission publicly certified and authenticated Zen Master Seung Sahn's enlightenment experience, giving him the authority to teach and train students.

Following his enlightenment experience, Zen Master Seung Sahn spent three years in silence, strengthening his Zen practice. He then became active in the Chogye order, founding temples in Korea and Japan. In 1972 he came to the United States, but only as a tourist, as he did not believe teaching Zen to Americans was possible. When someone convinced him that university students might be interested in practicing Zen, he decided to stay. He took a job at a laundromat near Brown University, fixing washing machines and sweeping the floors. A professor from Brown recognized his robes and sent several students to him for instruction in Zen practice. "At first they didn't know if he was real or a fake," says Mu Sang Sunim, an American monk who sometimes travels with the Zen Master. "He used to cook big pots of soup for his students. He would chop up onions, and then kick the onion skins under the table. They thought a great Zen Master would not kick onion skins under the table."

His group eventually became the Providence Zen Center, now located in Cumberland, Rhode Island. This center houses Zen Master Seung Sahn's Kwan Um School of Zen, and is the head temple for more than sixty Zen centers and affiliates worldwide. Zen Master Seung Sahn spends much of his time visiting these centers, teaching, talking, and giving interviews.

On March 25, 1985, Zen Master Seung Sahn's itinerary brought him to Ann Arbor, Michigan. When he arrived at the Detroit Metro Airport, he was met by his host, Michael Elta, a dharma teacher of the Kwan Um School of Zen, and members of the Mu Mun Sa temple in Northville. He was accompanied an American monk, Mu Ryang Sunim, who was traveling as his secretary. Zen Master Seung Sahn's first stop in Ann Arbor was the Zen Buddhist Temple, where he visited with the abbot, Sanbul Sunim, and other residents.

That evening, Zen Master Seung Sahn gave a public talk at the Friends' Meeting House. He arrived with an entourage of fellow monks wearing formal long grey robes and brown kasas. First he sat in the foyer, smiling and holding a child in his lap, as his students greeted him with three full prostrations, a traditional sign of great respect. He made his way into the main meeting room, the noise of the crowd slowly halted, and the talk began.

The first speaker was Michael Elta, who provided the audience with a background of Zen Master Seung Sahn and his teaching. Next, Mu Ryang Sunim gave a short talk about his discovery of the Zen path. After thanking the previous speakers, Zen Master Seung Sahn asked for questions from the audience.

ZMSS: Does anybody have questions? Any kind of question, about your practice, your life, your problems?

Q: Sir, I was wondering what exactly is American Zen? How is it different from Korean Zen?

ZMSS: You take away American Zen, Korean Zen ? that is correct Zen. (laughter) Zen is not special, OK? Zen is everyday life. When Korean people are hungry, they eat. When American people are hungry, they also eat. That's all.

Q: I have been training very hard as an athlete for many years and have been studying very hard in graduate school, trying to get knowledge. But sometimes I felt an imbalance which I couldn't get a hold of until I started studying martial arts. My instructor gave me some books on Zen. Will this type of practice help me to deal with the amount of pressure and stress I put on myself, mentally and physically, as an athlete and student?

ZMSS: You have too much desire.

Q: Well, I enjoy doing a lot of things. I want?

ZMSS: Yes, you. "I want to understand, I want the martial arts, I want the teaching. I want that, I, I, I, I ? " Then it is "I." Who are you? I ask you, who are you? (laughs) You don't understand you, so you don't understand your direction. If you don't understand your direction, you cannot do anything. That's the wrong way. You cannot get balance.

The Bible says, "I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life." In Zen, I must understand my true self, and find the correct way, correct truth, correct life. The same way, but technically different. Christians believe in God. Zen means that you must believe in your true self.

How do you believe one hundred percent? That's very important. If you believe in your true self one hundred percent, then you can believe your hand, your eyes, your ears, your nose, your tongue, your body, your mind. Then you can believe one hundred percent that the sky is blue, trees are green, water is wet. You can believe everything. Also, you can believe in God, believe in Buddha ? it's possible.

So, I ask you again: who are you? (The questioner has been taking notes.) Put the pen down, OK? (Zen Master Seung Sahn laughs) Many thousands of lines written down cannot help you.

Q: That's hard for me to answer because I haven't thought about it.


Q: You get wrapped up in where you are and what you're doing, as opposed to who you are.

ZMSS: Make it simple, not complicated. I ask you, who are you? You don't understand, you only don't know. That's a very simple answer. What is an explanation? An explanation is your understanding. That only makes it more complicated.

Human beings come empty handed, go empty handed. 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 does not exist. A human being coming and going, life and death, are also like that. Our body is like the floating cloud. But there is one thing which always remains clear. It is pure and clear, not dependent on life and death. What is the one pure and clear thing? If you find it, you will have freedom from life and death. So, where do you come from? Don't know, right? I ask you, what is your name?

Q: Mark.

ZMSS: Mark. That's your body name. Not your true self name. How old are you? (Zen Master Seung Sahn laughs.) Maybe you understand body age, but you don't understand true age. When you die, where do you go? Don't know, right? So: coming, "don't know"; name, "don't know"; age, "don't know"; going, "don't know." So, you are "don't know," OK? That's "don't know mind." Very important.

A long time ago a famous Zen Master would say, "Understand your true self." One day, one of his students asked him, "Do you understand your true self?" He said, "I don't know. But I understand this 'don't know.'" That's a famous "don't know" classic (laughs). So this "don't know" mind is very important. Keep this "don't know" mind and listen to me, OK?

When you are thinking, your mind and my mind are different. When you cut off all thinking, then your mind and my mind are the same. If you keep "don't know" mind one hundred percent - don't know - at that time, your "don't know" mind, my "don't know" mind, everybody's "don't know" mind are the same. "Don't know" mind has already stopped thinking. Stopped thinking means no thinking. No thinking means empty mind. Empty mind means before thinking. Your before thinking is your substance. My before thinking is my substance (hits his chest). This stick's substance, universal substance, everything's substance, is the same substance.

So, when you keep "don't know" mind one hundred percent - don't know - at that time you are the universe, the universe is you. You and everything have become one. That is, as we say, primary point. So, "don't know" is not don't know, "don't know" is primary point. Primary point's name is "don't know." Some people say primary point's name is mind, or Buddha, or God, or nature, or substance, or absolute, or energy, or holy, or consciousness, or everything. But true primary point has no name, no form, no speech, no word, because it is before thinking. Only when you keep a "don't know" mind one hundred percent - don't know - at that time you and everything have already become one. So I ask you, when you keep "don't know," at that time, are this stick and you the same or different?

Q: The same.

ZMSS: Correct. But if you say, "the same," I will hit you. I have this Zen stick. If you say, "different," I will hit you. Because primary point is before thinking. Before thinking, there is no speech, no words. Open your mouth, and already it is a mistake. If you are thinking, already it is a mistake. So, to say "same" is thinking, to say "different" is also thinking. Close your mouth; how do you answer? The stick and you, are they the same or different? The same! But if you open your mouth it is already a mistake. That's a very important point. If you don't understand, come to the Zen center (laughs). I'll give you a hint.

A long time ago, Buddha spoke on a mountain. There were twelve hundred others there. Usually, Buddha opened his mouth and talked: "True self is this, our mind is this." But on this day, he did not open his mouth. A minute passed, then two, then three. Finally, everyone began to wonder, "Why won't Buddha speak?" Buddha only picked up one flower. (Zen Master Seung Sahn picks up a flower) No one understood - only Mahakashyapa, his number one student. Mahakashyapa smiled. The Buddha said, "My true dharma transmission goes to you." Buddha never opened his mouth. Mahakashyapa never opened his mouth. Buddha only picked up a flower. Mahakashyapa only smiled. They connected. My question is, a long time ago Buddha picked up a flower. Today, I pick up a flower. Buddha's flower, my flower, are they the same or different? Open your mouth, I will hit you. Close your mouth, I will hit you. What can you do? That is the point, OK?

That flower Buddha held up long ago is substance. Today, this flower is substance. Not different. Always, opposite thinking cannot help. Put down your understanding.

People have dust in their consciousness, their computers. It is necessary to clean this dust. If you have dust in your computer, it is necessary to clean it. For that we use special soap (laughter). If you cannot find this special soap, you cannot clean your computer (rubs his head). This is your head computer. That soap's name is "don't know" soap (laughter).

Always, only try "don't know," then clean, clean, clean. Clean your computer, then your computer is clear like space. Clear like space means clear like a mirror. Then red comes, that's red. White comes, that's white. Somebody is hungry, give them food. Somebody is thirsty, then give them a drink. That's not knowledge, that's wisdom. So, to have your mind clear like space is very important. If you want your mind clear like space, then your understanding and your mind must go into the garbage. That's very important.

This world has many problems. Why are there problems? There is much fighting, too much understanding and desire. Too much understanding means, "My way is correct. Your way is not correct. My opinion is correct. Your opinion is not correct." Russia says, "Only Russia's way is correct." America says, "Only America's way is correct." And desire: "I want to control this world." Everyone holds their opinion.

Two young people get married. The first year they love each other. No problem. The second year, "I don't like you." It begins. The third year, "I don't like you!" "I also don't like you!" They are holding their opinion, so they fight and separate. Putting down your opinion is very important. Put down your opinion, your condition, your situation. Then, correct opinion, correct condition, and correct situation appear. This is wisdom. Put it all down; that's very important.

Now, you are practicing "you cannot." Instead, practice "you can." That's all. You must choose.

Q: A while back I was reading that when people think of anything, they give words to it - labels. It occurred to me that enlightenment and the dharma are things without words, and that is why it's so hard for people to understand them. How do you get to "before thinking" mind?

ZMSS: (picks up a cup) This is a cup. If you say "cup," then you are attached to name and form. If you say "no cup," then you are attached to emptiness. This cup never says, "I am a cup." If you say "cup," that's wrong, OK? We say "cup." A dog would never say "cup." So if you say "cup," you are attached to name and form. Is it a cup or not?

Q: Don't know.

ZMSS: You ask me.

Q: Is that a cup?

ZMSS: (drinks from the cup) "Cup" or "not cup" doesn't matter. Correct function is what's necessary. That is Zen. Do it. Don't check, don't attach to name and form. Moment to moment, understand correct function, correct relationship. If you meet your parents, you must act from obligation to them. With your friends, correct relationship is necessary. You have your pen, your cup, your watch, your glasses, your robe - your correct function and correct relationship is very important. Your country, the whole world, all beings, must have correct relationship and correct function. How? Zen practice means putting down your opinion, your condition, your situation; then correct situation, correct function, is possible. Too many people seek understanding. They go to school, to universities, are called Masters or Doctors - too much understanding.

One man I stayed with had a Ph.D. He made lots of money. No problem. But inside, he had much suffering. Why? He kept saying, "more, more, more." So he had a problem. (laughs) That kind of person has a big problem.

So, digest. Digest, and understanding becomes wisdom. Wisdom means your understanding, your direction, and your actions become one. Understanding is this way, action is that way. Understanding is like a Buddha, or God, or Christ. But action is like a dog or a cat. (laughs) This is unbalanced. So, it is very important that you don't check anything. Moment to moment, what are you doing now? Just do it one hundred percent. Don't check anything, don't hold anything, Just do it. That is Zen practice. If your center is not strong, you cannot do it. If your center is strong, then you can do it. So it is very important that your center is strong.

If your center is strong, you can control your feelings, your condition, your situation. Then you can change your karma. Everything comes from primary cause, condition, and result. You take away primary cause - it is possible - you take away primary cause, then condition and result changes. That means you can change natural processes. That means you can change your life, which means you can do anything. So, we have two kinds of worlds: "I can" and "I can not." Which one do you like? (laughter) I can? Then you try. You try, then you can. Never say, "I cannot," OK? Very clear, OK?

Q: What you are saying, isn't that a concept as well? Aren't you denying a certain part of the person? Aren't you defining what is the basic person, the primary person; that center you were describing, isn't it a concept? Aren't you denying other forms, other realms of reality, in order to get to the one you're after? Why is this more true, more absolute, more "it" than something else? Everything that you are saying is defining a certain kind of being at the expense of another kind of being. I can define another kind of being that excludes yours. In other words, it seems like there are alternate realities from the one you are talking about. And one is not any more basic, primary, true, than another one. Why do we choose one over the other?

ZMSS: You understand too much. That is your sickness. This is only your talk about "outside." What is your inside? Consciousness this, consciousness that. You make that, OK? A dog does not make that. Stupid people do not make that. You are clever, so you make that. If I hit you, what do you say?

Q: Ouch.

ZMSS: Correct! Keep this mind, OK? (audience laughs with Zen Master Seung Sahn) That's all, just direct. That is, we say, an unconditional reflex.

Q: That is a simple response. If you hit me I feel pain. When I ?

ZMSS: Don't check! Why are you checking? What are you doing now? I ask you, what are you doing now?

Q: I am checking you.

ZMSS: So you have a problem. You ask me.

Q: What are you doing now?

ZMSS: Sitting on the chair, talking to you. That is all.

Q: Aren't you thinking when you're talking to me? You sound very coherent and clear.

ZMSS: Why are you checking me? Don't check me. What are you doing now?

Q: Checking you. (everyone laughs)

ZMSS: Don't check, don't hold, don't attach, don't want. If you are checking, holding, attached, wanting, you will always have a problem. If you want happiness, if you want peace, if you want love, don't check, don't hold, don't attach, don't want, OK? That's all. (laughs) OK, more questions.

Q: Isn't this where young infants are? They don't check.

ZMSS: Very good question. A young baby, we say, has "Buddha's mind." Very clear mind. But as it grows up, memory appears, then the mind becomes tainted. A baby only reflects: unhappy, cry; very happy, no problem. So they have no memory, they only just do it. Moment to moment, not checking anything, not checking mother, not checking father - only do it, do it, do it mind. That's child mind.

Child's mind is like a Zen Master's mind. But a child doesn't understand correct function. Child's mind is very pure and clear, but how do you have a correct pure and clear mind? They have no correct situation, correct function, correct relationships; they don't understand. But, if you have correct function, correct relationships, correct situation, that is called great love, great compassion, the great bodhisattva way. Only that is different.

Q: Can't a "don't know" mind, or "just doing it" be dangerous in some cases, like in the case of maybe a surgeon who just "does it" and doesn't think?

ZMSS: One of my students here is a professor. He teaches music. One day he said to me, "I have a problem."

"What kind of problem?"

"I teach music, but I want to keep 'don't know' mind strong while teaching. If I keep 'don't know' mind strong, I cannot teach music correctly. What should I do?"

"You have too much desire. You don't understand what is 'don't know.'"

"I understand 'don't know' mind."

"So I ask you, what is 'don't know' mind?"

Then he hit the floor. That is Zen interview style. "Only that?" Then water is wet and sky is blue. That's all. "Don't know" mind is not special, just "do it" mind.

One hundred percent teaching music, that name is "don't know." One hundred percent driving, that name is "don't know." One hundred percent sitting, that name is "don't know." A doctor who fixes a body, that is "don't know" one hundred percent. Moment to moment one hundred percent action. That is "don't know." Not special, OK?

Somebody is hungry; give them food. Somebody is thirsty; give them a drink. That is "don't know." So "don't know" means make correct situation, correct function, correct relationship. So that means great love, great compassion, the great bodhisattva way. Just do it, OK?

Many people understand love. What is love? Love means exact condition. "Don't know" means already cut off from your mind any condition, any situation, any opinion. So, if you keep "don't know" mind, then your mind is clear like space, and clear like a mirror. Just do correct action. We call this "love mind."

A long time ago in China, there was a famous Zen Master, Nam Cheon. One day as he was in his room, it grew very, very noisy outside. So he opened the door and looked out. There, over in the east, stood 250 people, and over in the west stood 250 people, all fighting about a cat. "That's my cat." "No, no, our cat." "My cat!" "Our cat!" These 500 people were fighting, so the Zen Master was very angry. He picked up the cat. "You! One moment! Tell me why you want this cat. If you cannot I will kill it." But out of 500 people nobody answered. The Zen Master was checking his students' minds. Did they truly love the cat or were they attached to the cat? Finally Zen Master Nam Cheon felt that killing was necessary, so KAH! he killed the cat. Then in the evening his number one student, Zen Master Joju, came in from outside. Zen Master Nam Cheon, still a little sad, talked to his disciple. "If you had been there, what would you have done?" Joju only took off his shoes, put them on his head, and went outside. Then Zen Master Nam Cheon said, "If you had been there, I could have saved the cat."

What does this mean? If you have true love inside, if everybody has true love, they would understand this kong-an. Only understanding love is not the answer. You must attain love. If you attain love, then you will understand this kong-an. So understanding love is very easy, attaining love is very difficult. That's an important point.

We are talking too much. In this world, many people have a problem. In Cambodia, Africa, India, South America, there are many hungry people. So how to help them? There are two kinds of hungry people: body hungry people and mind hungry people. Body hungry people are not so much of a problem.

Mind hungry people have many problems and make this world have many problems. Russia, America, China - all political people have strong opinions. "My way is correct!" "Your way is not correct!" Then they make nuclear weapons, much fighting, break this universe and kill many people. Many also kill animals and make more problems. That is mind hungry people; they have lots of problems.

So, first we take away mind hungry people, then world peace is no problem, and body hungry people disappear. How do mind hungry people make themselves full? They have lost their human nature. If everybody finds human nature - finds love mind, compassion mind, bodhisattva mind - then world peace is no problem. All over the world, they don't understand love. So how can they find love and human nature?

Meditation is very important. When we meditate, we find our true self, and understand correct way, correct truth, correct life. We make many dharma foods: dharma candy, dharma ice cream, dharma bananas, dharma apples, dharma rice cakes. We make much dharma food for these mind hungry people, and give it to them. Then they will eat this dharma food, make enough mind, then no more fighting. No more fighting, then all the nuclear weapons money can go to Africa and India, then also no body hunger problem. How can we make world peace? How can we help these body hungry people?

Human being is number one bad animal. Dogs are not so bad, tigers are not so bad, snakes are not so bad. Only human being is number one bad. They fight, hunt, fish, make bombs, make nuclear weapons, make pollution. They make many problems in this world. All human beings must understand their situation. Human beings must wake up.

All animals say, "Human beings are number one bad! If human beings all die, then world peace is possible." Yes, animals say that. So human beings have number one bad situation. Human beings must wake up, find human nature, understand the correct way and truth, and also attain this great love, great compassion, great bodhisattva way.

This world is not only a human being world; it's also a dog world, cat world, snake world, tree world, air world, mountain world. Every kind of world contributes to the whole world. So we must help human beings wake up.

I hope everybody will return to their homes, and practice every day for ten minutes. Ten minutes: "What am I? Only don't know." Lying down is OK, sitting on a cushion is OK, sitting on a chair is OK, walking is OK. Only try "don't know." Then your center becomes stronger, stronger, stronger. Finally you can control your feelings, your condition, your situation. Then you can believe in your true self one hundred percent.

Zen means not depending on anything. Depend on your true self. That means to become completely independent. Return to your homes, and only try "don't know." Try, try, try, soon get enlightenment and save all beings from suffering. Thank you.