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Zen Master Seung Sahn (1927 - 2004)


Zen Master Seung Sahn Haeng Won Sunim (Dae Soen Sa Nim) was the first Korean Zen master to teach in the West. He was born in 1927 in south Pyeong An Province in what is now North Korea. After World War II and Korea’s liberation from Japanese occupation, he was disillusioned with politics and academic studies as a way to attain truth. He went to the mountains, did an arduous 100-day solo retreat chanting the Great Dharani, got enlightenment and later received Dharma transmission from the late Zen Master Ko Bong (link), the most famous Zen master of his time. Zen Master Seung Sahn was 22 years old.

After five years in the army, he served as chairman of the committee to reform the Chogye Order of Korean Buddhism and was abbot of five temples in Seoul. He spent nine years teaching in Japan, founding temples in Tokyo and Hong Kong. In 1972 he travelled to America with no money and no English, and supported himself for a few months by repairing washing machines in a laundromat in Providence, Rhode Island. It wasn't long before he met some Brown University students, who would come by his small apartment to ask him questions about life and Zen practice. From these beginnings the Providence Zen Center was formed, and the international Kwan Um School of Zen was thereby established with over 100 Zen centers, temples and groups now worldwide, continuing to practice with his teachings. He built Musangsa in Gyeryong Mountain in 2000 in South Korea, making it the head temple of the Kwan Um School of Zen in Asia.

Zen Master Seung Sahn entered Nirvana on November 30, 2004, at Hwa Gye Sah temple in Seoul. He died peacefully surrounded by his students. He was 77 years old and his monk age was 56 years. He is the 78th Patriarch in his lineage of Zen masters in Korea.

A selection of Dharma teachings from Zen Master Seung Sahn



Becoming Human

Becoming Human


Zen Master Seung Sahn

If you look closely at human beings in the world today, you notice that they are not human beings. They don't act like human beings. If a human being acts correctly, then he or she becomes a true human being. Moment to moment, what do you do? What is your correct direction? Moment to moment, what is your correct life? How do you find your correct way? How do you save all beings from suffering?

We come into this world empty-handed. What do we do in this world? Why did we come into this world? This body is an empty thing. What is the one thing that carries this body around? Where did it come from? You must understand that, you must find that. So, if you want to find that, you have to ask yourself, "What am I?" Always keep this big question. Thinking has to disappear. We have to take away all our thinking, cut off our thinking. Then our true self appears, then our true mind appears...

In this world, how many people really want practice? Many people don't practice at all, fight day and night, and all day exercise their desire, their anger, their ignorance. When you lose this body, then you have nothing you can take with you. When this body disappears, what will you take with you? What will you do? Where will you go? You don't know, right? If this "don't know" is clear, then your mind is clear, then also the place you go is clear. Then you understand your job, you understand why you were born into this world. Then you understand what you do in this world. When you understand that, then you can become a human being.
Your True Self

Your True Self


Zen Master Seung Sahn

Thank you very much for coming today. But what is it that brought your body here? Is it your mind? What is mind? Where is it? What is its shape? Mind is no mind. A mountain does not proclaim, "I am a mountain!" A river does not say, "I am a river!" All names and all forms are made by thinking. Thus, mind is no mind. All things have name and form. Names and forms come from emptiness. Thus, form is emptiness, emptiness is form.

When you are thinking, your mind, my mind, and all people's minds are different. If you cut through all thinking, your mind, my mind, and all people's minds are the same. The mind that cuts through all thinking is the true empty mind. The true empty mind is before thinking. Your substance is before thinking. Your substance is universal substance. Before thinking, there is no speech and no language. There is no God, no Buddha, no mountain, no river, nothing at all. Thus, no form, no emptiness.

But, before thinking is truly just like this. No form, no emptiness is itself a clinging to emptiness. Put it down! Then you will have no inside and no outside; you will attain the Absolute. Everything that you see, hear, taste, and smell is the truth. God is God, Buddha is Buddha, mountains are mountains, rivers are rivers. The truth is like this. Form is form, emptiness is emptiness.

If you cut through all thinking, your mind will become clear. Just that is your true self. Thinking is desire, desire is suffering. When the mind remains clear, there is no life and no death. You will find true freedom that has no hindrance.

Your body has life and death, but your true self transcends both life and death. What, then, is one's true self? Does it exist or not? If you say that it exists, where is it? If you say that it does not, what is hearing this speech? Both these answers are not complete. Why? (striking the table) KATZ! Put it down, put it all down! The Great Way is in front of the door.
Correct Meditation

Correct Meditation


Zen Master Seung Sahn

When I was in the hospital, the doctors checked my heart. The first time they checked, there were 23-25 mistakes (premature ventricular contractions) in one minute, out of about 80 beats.

Many people have read about research by a Harvard professor who checked people with bad hearts, diabetes, etc. He checked people who did meditation and people who didn't. People who didn't do meditation were O.K. with medicine, but not O.K. without their medicine. But people who tried concentration meditation got better more quickly, and were O.K. without their medicine. The Transcendental Meditation people advertised this: "Meditation can fix many sicknesses." So now many doctors like meditation. So my doctors said, "Soen Sa Nim, you are a Zen Master, so you try!" So I said, "O.K., I will try." So I tried this fix-your-body meditation. In three days my heart was making only five mistakes -- usually it takes about one month to recover like this, so my doctors understood this meditation was helping my body, so they were very happy.

After one week, my heart was only making one or two mistakes, and my doctors said, "This is wonderful! Most people take two or three months to come down to only one or two mistakes each minute!" So I said, "Thank you very much, you have helped me, so I can get better quickly. But this is only fix-your-body meditation. This is not correct meditation."

"Why isn't this correct meditation?" they asked.

"You can fix your body, your heart, your diabetes. In Korea, China, and India there are people who do yoga. They go to the mountains and do breath-in, breath-out meditation. They can live 500 years and not get sick. Keeping their bodies for a long time is possible; even flying in the sky is possible. Trying this style body meditation, anything is possible. A body is like a car. Use the car a lot, and in three years, it is broken. Only keep the car in the garage, then keeping it for a long time is possible. But finally after 500 years, then these yoga people die. Then what? Live a long time, then die; live a short time, then die -- it is the same! Dying is the same." The doctors understood. "What is correct meditation then?"

I told them, "I always try meditation. Meditation means always keeping one mind, not-moving mind." They thought meditation meant only concentration and keeping your body still. So I said, "Meditation means keeping one mind. You must understand -- what is life? What is death? If you keep one mind, there is no life, no death. Then if you die tomorrow, no problem; if you die in five minutes, no problem."

"What do you mean, 'no problem?'" they asked.

"Maybe you do fix-your-heart meditation. Then, 'My heart is good, my body is good.' It is very easy to become attached to this meditation. But when you get old, and your heart is not so good, then you try this meditation. Maybe it is still not so good. Then, 'Why doesn't my meditation work?' Then your body, your meditation, become hindrances. If your meditation cannot help your body, then you don't believe in your meditation. Then what? So this style meditation is no good."

"Correct meditation means correctly understanding your situation moment by moment -- what are you doing now? Only do it! Then each action is complete each action is enough. Then no thinking, so each moment I can perceive everything just like this. Just like this is truth. Sick-time, only be sick. Driving-time, only drive. Only go straight -- then any situation is no problem.

The doctors liked this; they wanted to hear more about Zen. So six doctors came to my room and I talked to them for two hours. One doctor asked me, "I am very busy, at the hospital, then going home to my family -- how can I keep a clear mind?"

""Clear mind," I told them, "means moment to moment, what are you doing now? When you are with your patients, only 100% keep doctor's mind. When you leave the hospital and you are driving home, 100% keep driver's mind. When you meet your wife, 100% keep husband's mind. This means each moment only go straight; don't make 'I, my, me.' If you make 'I, my, me,' then your opinion, your condition, your situation appear; then you have a problem."

"'If, when you are with your patients, you think, 'Where is my wife? Is she spending a lot of money?' Then this patient is talking to you and you only say, 'Uhm, yeah, mmm-hmm.' So the patient is thinking, 'What does the doctor think?' They don't believe you. If you are talking to your wife, and she is telling you something important, and you are thinking about the hospital, this is just your opinion, this is just thinking; it is not your just-now situation. So put it all down, only go straight."

"We say jeon il, completely become one. When you are doing an operation, you and this knife completely become one. When you are driving in your car, you and your car only become one. If you drive on a road with pebbles and you are not thinking, only driving, then you can feel these pebbles under your tires. Only become one means, you and your action completely become one, then you and the universe only-become one -- completely no-thinking mind. Inside and outside become one. The name for this is, 'only go straight,' or 'put it all down,' or 'don't make anything,' or 'keep clear mind.'"

"If you are only in the present, how can you plan for the future or choose a direction? I have to plan for my patients, and for myself, my family," one doctor said.

So I said, "What is the purpose of life? I asked many old people in the hospital this question, or 'What did you get out of life?' and many said, 'Nothing.' Maybe they have a good job, good family, good wife or husband, but these things cannot help them now. They want something they cannot have, and they understand this, so they say, 'Nothing.' This is understanding nothing. But understanding cannot help them, so they are suffering. Zen means attain this nothing mind. The Buddha said, 'If you keep clear mind moment by moment, then you will get happiness everywhere.'

"Zen is attaining this nothing mind, and using this nothing mind. How can you use it? Zen means making this nothing mind into big-love mind. Nothing mind means no 'I, my, me,' no hindrance. So this mind can change to Great Compassion mind, action-for-all-people mind. This is possible. Nothing mind does not appear, does not disappear. So moment by moment, it is possible to keep your correct situation. Then your mind is like a mirror -- when you are with your patients, only become one. Then helping them is possible. When you are with your family, only become one; then understanding what is best for them is clear. Just like this. The blue mountain does not move. The white clouds float back and forth."
Why We Chant

Why We Chant


Zen Master Seung Sahn

One Sunday evening, after a Dharma talk at the International Zen Center of New York, a student asked Seung Sahn Soen-sa, "Why do you chant? Isn't sitting Zen enough?"

Soen-sa said, "This is a very important matter. We bow together, chant together, eat together, sit together, and do many other things together here at the Zen Center. Why do we practice together?

"Everybody has different karma. So all people have different situations, different conditions, and different opinions. One person is a monk, another is a student, another works in a factory; one person always keeps a clear mind, another is often troubled or dissatisfied; one person likes the women's movement, another doesn't. But everybody thinks, 'My opinion is correct!' Even Zen Masters are like this. Ten Zen Masters will have ten different ways of teaching, and each Zen Master will think that his way is the best. Americans have an American opinion; Orientals have an Oriental opinion. Different opinions result in different actions, which make different karma. So, when you hold on to your own opinions, it is very difficult to control your karma, and your life will remain difficult. Your wrong opinions continue, so your bad karma continues. But at our Zen Centers, we live together and practice together, and all of us abide by the Temple Rules. People come to us with many strong likes and dislikes, and gradually cut them all off. Everybody bows together 108 times at five-thirty in the morning, everybody sits together, everybody eats together, everybody works together. Sometimes you don't feel like bowing; but this is a temple rule so you bow. Sometimes you don't want to chant, to sleep; but you chant. Sometimes you are tired and want to but you know that if you don't come to sitting, people will wonder why; so you sit.

"When we eat, we eat in ritual style, with four bowls; and after we finish eating, we wash out the bowls with tea, using our index finger to clean them. The first few times we ate this way, nobody liked it. One person from the Cambridge Zen Center came to me very upset. 'I can't stand this way of eating! The tea gets full of garbage! I can't drink it!' I said to him, 'Do you know the Heart Sutra?' 'Yes.' 'Doesn't it say that things are neither tainted nor pure?' 'Yes.' 'Then why can't you drink the tea?' 'Because it's filthy" " (Laughter from the audience.) "'Why is it filthy? These crumbs are from the food that you already ate. If you think the tea is dirty, it is dirty. If you think it is clean, it is clean.' He said, 'You're right. I will drink the tea.'" (Laughter.)

"So we live together and act together. Acting together means cutting off my opinions, cutting off my condition, cutting off my situation. Then we become empty mind. We return to white paper. Then our true opinion, our true condition, our true situation will appear. When we bow together and chant together and eat together, our minds become one mind. It is like on the sea. When the wind comes, there are many waves. When the wind dies down, the waves become smaller. When the wind stops, the water becomes a mirror, in which everything is reflected-mountains, trees, clouds. Our mind is the same. When we have many desires and many opinions, there are many big waves. But after we sit Zen and act together for some time, our opinions and desires disappear. The waves become smaller and smaller. Then our mind is like a clear mirror, and everything we see or hear or smell or taste or touch or think is the truth. Then it is very easy to understand other people's minds. Their minds are reflected in my mind.

"So chanting is very important. At first you won't understand. But after you chant regularly, you will understand. 'Ah, chanting-very good feeling!' It is the same with bowing 108 times. At first people don't like this. Why do we bow? We are not bowing to Buddha, we are bowing to ourselves. Small I is bowing to Big I. Then Small I disappears and becomes Big I This is true bowing. So come practice with us. You will soon understand." The student bowed and said, "Thank you very much."


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