Zen Master Dok Sahn and The Starr Report

Excerpt from a dharma speech September-October 1999

There is an ancient tradition in the monasteries in Asia at mealtime: three times a day, a great bell is rung and a big drum is struck, signalling to all the monks and nuns that it is time to come to the dharma room and eat. Even today it is still done this way, like clockwork. One famous story says that a long time ago in China, Zen Master Dok Sahn walked into the dharma room carrying his bowls. The only problem was the bell had not been rung, the drum had not been struck! It was simply the middle of the day, no food was ready, and one one else was around to eat.

You can imagine the confusion on Housemaster Seol Bong's face when he accidentally bumped into his old teacher, walking around an empty room with his four bowls. He probably thought to himself, "What in the world is going on here?" Or... "Is this a special Zen teaching? I don't understand!" So he said to the teacher, "Master! The bell has not yet rung, the drum has not yet been struck--where are you going carrying your bowls?"

Dok Sahn never said a word in response. He simply turned around and went back to his room. Then, of course, Seol Bong was mystified. We can imagine how strange that would be if it happened today with Zen Master Seung Sahn --it wouldn't be at all like him to be walking around the dharma room with his bowls in the middle of the day! And it would be stranger if he just left without answering the question. Naturally, Seol Bong went to the Head Monk, Am Du, for his opinion on this matter.

"Am Du! Am Du! You wouldn't believe what just happened!" Then he started relating the preceding incident to Am Du, who replied in a loud voice, "Great Master Dok Sahn does not understand the word!" Well, those rice paper wall in the temple can be very thin! Who do you think was in the next room listening? That's right! Sok Sahn heard that and became furious! He called Am Du to his room and shouted at him. "You don't approve of me?!" Then Am Du whispered something in his master's ear. Dok Sahn was immediately relieved.

The next day on the high stand, Dok Sahn was really different from the day before. Am Du saw that, and from the back of the room clapped his hands said, "Great Joy! The old master has finally understood the last word. From now on, no one can check him."

Even though this story is almost three thousand years old, we can still learn a lot from it. It's all about being clear. What is our correct situation? What are the relationships in the story? What is each person's job? What would we have said if we were Dok Sahn? How about Am Du? What is the last word anyway ("last word" is an old Chinese way of saying: correct situation, relationship, function)?

If Zen Master Dok Sahn had just answered this young boy and addressed his mistake, there would be no story at all. But he wasn't clear, he left him dangling, not knowing what to think. This lack of clarity had a ripple effect around the temple community and caused confusion for several people.

Now fast forward to today and the situation with our President Clinton. It all kind of came to a head this week with the Starr Report being posted on the Internet! Everyone all over the world is talking about this one mistake that wasn't clear, except today, instead of the news spreading around a monastery, it's spread all over the world! Too bad Clinton hadn't met with the simple teaching of our teacher: moment to moment keep your correct situation, relationship, and function, and if you can't (which happens to us all...), then after you make a mistake, just make it correct! That's all. It doesn't matter if you are a modern world leader or in an ancient mountain temple, the principle is exactly the same.

So these three things are extremely important. Also, why do we do something? If all of that is clear, I promise you, your life in the moment is clear. If even one of them is off, then you must fix it. Very simple, isn't it?