Ahead or Behind?

The following is an excerpt from an interview with Chong Hae Sunim JDPS that appeared in a recent issue of Modern Buddhism, a Korean language magazine.

MB: You are a musician who became a monk. As I understand it, one becomes a monk or nun to get out of worldly business and concentrate on practice. However, at first you had to work outside the Zen Center. I think that would be too tough for a monk. How did you accept the situation? How long did you have to work? And does that happen often to monks in the Kwan Um School?

CHSN: Being a Zen monk means to perceive any situation clearly and do what you need to do to be helpful while keeping a clear mind. When I talked to Zen Master Seung Sahn after my ordination I explained about the situation in Seattle and he said "No problem, just do it." That was very wonderful teaching that I still remind myself of often. It is so simple and clear. Whatever you're doing, just do it! Wonderful! As far as getting out of worldly business and concentrating on practicing, I don't think we can ever get out of worldly business. This world is a suffering place and we are in it no matter where we go. Our job as human beings is to become clear and help. Sometimes that means doing a retreat and practicing meditation, becoming clear. Sometimes it means being involved in "worldly business" as you call it and helping others in our everyday encounters with our families, friends and co-workers. My life is a combination of both?sometimes in retreat, sometimes in the "world," but I always just try to help. The great Zen Master Lin-Chi said, "One person is sitting on top of a lonely mountain peak yet he has not removed himself from the world. One person is in the middle of the city streets yet he has no likes and dislikes. Now which one is ahead? Which one is behind?" He also said "One person is eternally on the road but has never left home. One person has left home but is not on the road. Which one is worthy to receive the alms of human and heavenly beings?" So you see, how we keep our minds moment-to-moment is much more important than the environment we find ourselves in.

MB: You said there are monks and lay people living together at the Providence Zen Center. Such residential Zen centers are not common in Korea. What is the merit of this system?

CHSN: Zen Master Seung Sahn has always encouraged his students to live together and practice together. He says it's like putting many potatoes together in a big pot and stirring them all around. They bump into one another and all get clean together instead of having to wash each one individually. When we practice and live together we can see our karma very clearly. In this way we help each other become strong and clear. We learn how to put our I-my-me opinion aside and join together in harmonious action. This might not be so easy to do if we live by ourselves and aren't challenged to bring our clarity into everyday life. It is very helpful for young monastics to be exposed to the influence of dedicated lay practitioners. This helps us to gain insight into the difficulties, challenges, successes and triumphs that become the wealth of wisdom for all people. Many of the lay students in our school have been practicing very sincerely for many years. They have great wisdom to share with monks. As we live and practice together we can all learn from each other.

MB: Many people expect that the Kwan Um School will change a lot after Seung Sahn Sunim's time. Korean Buddhists are worried that there will be only a weak link between the Kwan Um School and Korean Buddhism. What do you think of these concerns?

CHSN: Shakyamuni Buddha didn't teach "Indian Buddhism." He taught the four truths of suffering, its cause, and the cessation of suffering by means of the eightfold path. Likewise Zen Master Seung Sahn doesn't teach us "Korean Buddhism," he only teaches us to practice keeping a don't know mind, attain our true selves and help this world. Our don't know mind is what links us together. When we attain that we will see that in Korea the sky is blue and in America the sky is also blue.