From a talk given during Winter Kyol Che at Providence Zen Center
Question: Do you think there is overlap between the altered states people might experience in Zen practice, and mental illness?
Zen Master Dae Kwang: Yes... 100% overlap! In fact, everybody is mentally ill, and not just during so-called "altered states." Mental illness is our attachment to thinking. Everybody has it to some degree. People with the same attachments and opinions will get together and call that "sane." Then another group gets together with a different idea and that's their "sanity." Then they fight. Doing a Zen retreat is taking the Zen "pill" to make our mental illness go away.
You've all been sitting the winter retreat for quite a while now, so maybe you don't know what's been going on in Serbia. The Albanians living in Serbian Kosovo think they should be independent of Serbia. The Serbs, on the other hand, have very strong ideas about ethnic purity and keeping Kosovo as part of Serbia. Of course they are at each other's throats, creating a lot of suffering for the common people on both sides. So the Kosovans think that they are right; the Serbians think they are right; and the NATO alliance thinks that they are both a little insane. So NATO is trying to knock some sense into them by locking them up in a room at a French chalet and holding their feet against the fire until they agree to what we consider to be sane, or we will bomb them all!
All of life is some version of that. However, true sanity comes from being in touch with your original mind. That is the mind before attachment to thinking appears. In original mind, everything is already complete; there is no desire or anger. We call that enough-mind. Enough-mind doesn't have this and that. If you look closely at your mind, when does it ever think that everything is complete? Everyone wants something. Everyone thinks that insanity is sanity. That's why we get into so much trouble.
The cure is practice. Our Zen teaching words are like a sugar pill or placebo. This pill helps relieve our attachment thinking. The Buddha's teaching is very simple: human suffering comes from like and dislike. Taking the "Zen pill" gives us a strong dose of: "What is a human being really--what am I?" Unfortunately, many of us get attached to our idea of Zen, a bad side-effect. We start to think the placebo is an actual medicine for a real disease. Actually, there isn't even a disease, we just think there is! That idea is just more of the disease. Zen is very interesting, because it is always slicing itself up and feeding itself to the dogs. That way, you can't get attached to the placebo talk and start thinking that it is the medicine: "Zen is what is going to cure me!" No way.
Am Du (Ch. Yen T'ou) was one of Duk Sahn Zen Master's top students. Of all the Zen masters during the T'ang Dynasty, Am Du had the reputation for being the smartest. However, there was one thing that bothered people about Am Du: the way he died. As the story goes, one day Am Du was traveling between temples. As he passed through one particularly wild and mountainous area, robbers descended upon him. They stripped him naked, took all his money and then proceeded to slowly torture him to death. He screamed so loud that he could be heard five miles away. People started thinking, "That's not a true Zen Master! A real Zen Master should have said something clever to those brigands to help them realize their Buddha nature; or, at least he could have died without a whimper." This incident became a problem for those with an idea about Zen. The original mind is like flowing water--it only follows its situation: sad time--sad; crying time--cry; happy time--ha ha ha! Somebody else is sad, you are sad and want to help; somebody is happy, you are happy. This mind has no hindrance and becomes one with any situation. That's what we call together action. We practice together so you can become one with any situation. When Am Du died, he screeeeeeamed!
If you just do it, moment to moment, then everything is flowing. This is not just another Zen theory about how to run your life, it is your life, moment to moment, if you wake up. Then the craziness doesn't grab you, and you are able to help all the people who are "insane." As a famous poem says, "Only, without thinking, just like this is Buddha." Am Du's action was complete. But what was his meaning?