Mirror of Zen Blog

Close this search box.

On Attaining Zen


The last of three teaching-videos “explaining” an answer from someone in Norway about “How do we attain Zen?”

Attaining Zen requires eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, mind. It does not require miracles in order to “believe”.

[READY] Attain Zen 03 [Insta-bites]

[Excerpt from a Q&A in May 2019 in Haugesund, Norway — the “Bible Belt of Norway”.]

Leaving Summer Kyol Che at Su Dok Sah (’06)


I passed several retreat seasons at Jeong Hae Sah temple, on the high ridge way up above Su Dok Sah, which is my Teacher’s ancestral temple in Korea, and so my own. Su Dok Sah is the legendary home temple of Kyong Ho Sunim (鏡虛 禪師: 1849–1912) and Man Gong Sunim (滿空 禪師: 1871–1946), two of the most significant pillars of Korean Buddhism in the 20th century, and perhaps in its entire history.

On the last day of retreat, as the small community was dispersing in the ten directions until the next retreat season, a very humble and devout Korean man (and professional photographer), Jeon Jewoo, asked the temple if he could be permitted to document the end of the traditional retreat season, with his lens. After consulting with the community, the elder monk agreed. (It had never been permitted before, at least at Jeong Hae Sah.)

The man took shots of various aspects of the last day there. He later sent me these cuts, from his vast pile, documenting my leave-taking of the temple.

Man Gong Sunim’s memorial stupa, located on the mountain path down to the main temple from Jeong Hae Sah.

After this retreat, I never attended practice at Su Dok Sah ever again.

There is No Separate I


Why are all sane people changed, purified, transformed, or at least settled down from any disturbing mood, when they are out in “nature”? Why is this experience so medicinal, it appeals across cultures and times, and justly celebrated in every art that has ever been created?

Because, in nature, people sense that they are in the presence of “something” (even an experience, as “something”) which has no separate “I.” There is no ego there, whatsoever. After spending their day-to-day lives contending with the forces of other people and their compartmentalized “I”s, and constantly needing so much energy to navigate through that, nearly every hour of every single day of their lives, to be in the presence of “something” which has not one iota of anthropic mind, there is only great release, full letting go.

There is no “I” in the natural world.

And yet if you try to explain the Buddhist insight into the non-existence of “I,” people freak out or think it is some impossible concept to grasp. Something that needs retreat upon retreat stacked up to penetrate through.

But it’s as near as the front door to one’s own house. And yet — it’s even closer. It’s right where you are.

This is why, when someone would ask a persistent question, or refused to be guided toward finding an answer in themselves, in the depths of their own mind, Dae Soen Sa Nim would often say, “Go ask a tree. The tree will have a very wonderful answer for you!”

Rilke: You Must Change Your Life


Archaic Torso of Apollo

Rainer Maria Rilke

(translated by Stephen Mitchell)

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

No “Safe Spaces,” No “Trigger Warnings,” and “Micro-Aggressions” Abound


The way that Dae Soen Sa Nim used to teach would simply be impossible today. He was so direct, so striking, so cutting straight down to the point — I am sure he would have been “called out,” in the last few years, if he employed his usual laser to today’s minds as he had freedom to do with his post-6os first-generation (and Communist bloc) disciples. It would be total social/political suicide today to teach the ways he taught. He would definitely be cancelled.

The eminent meditation teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn was one of Dae Soen Sa Nim’s first Western disciples, some years before he developed the revolutionary method which has become known to us as “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction” (MBSR). Some years ago, I contacted him to ask if he would contribute a Foreword to the collection of Dae Soen Sa Nim’s teachings I was then working on, Wanting Enlightenment is a Big Mistake. Despite his very busy schedule (and a nasty cold, I remember), he readily agreed. Such was his love and gratitude for his first Dharma teacher.

The essay he submitted tells so much about the knife-edge style that Dae Soen Sa Nim employed, back in the 70s and 80s, which I fear might be far far too “dangerous,” even offensive, to employ in today’s politically hyper-sensitive environment:

He writes: “One night, with Soen Sa Nim sitting next to me, I gave the Wednesday evening public talk at the Cambridge Zen Center. When it was over, he answered the questions. It was his way of training his students to become teachers. It was a pretty interesting and challenging training regimen. The very first question came from a young man halfway back in the audience, on the right side of the room, who, in the way he asked the question (I forget entirely what the import of it was), demonstrated a degree of psychological disturbance and confusion that caused a ripple of concern and curiosity to pass through the audience. As usually happens in such situations, many necks craned, as discreetly as possible of course, to get a look at who was speaking. Soen Sa Nim gazed at this young man for a long time, peering over the rims of his glasses. Utter silence in the room. He massaged the top of his shaven head as he continued gazing at him. Then, with his hand still massaging his head, still peering over his glasses, with his body tilted slightly forward toward the speaker from his position sitting on the floor, Soen Sa Nim said, cutting to the chase as usual: ‘You craaazy!’ Sitting next to him, I gasped, as did the rest of the room. In an instant, the tension rose by several orders of magnitude. I wanted to lean over and whisper in his ear: ‘Listen, Soen Sa Nim, when somebody is really crazy, it’s not such a good idea to say it in public like that. Go easy on the poor guy, for God’s sake.’ I was mortified. All of that transpired in my mind and probably the minds of everybody else in the room in one momentary flash. The reverberations of what he had just said were hanging in the air. But he wasn’t finished. After a silence that seemed forever, Soen Sa Nim continued: ‘. . . but . . . [another long pause] . . . you not crazy ennuffff.’ Everybody breathed a sigh of relief, and a feeling of lightness spread through the room. This interchange didn’t follow a predictable script for meeting suffering with compassion, but I felt in that moment that everyone had participated in and witnessed an enormous embrace of compassion and loving-kindness, Soen Sa Nim-style.”

Quoted from Wanting Enlightenment is a Big Mistake (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2006)

Attain Zen 02 [video]

Screen Shot 2020-08-10 at 16.59.34

Attaining Zen is not difficult — unless we want some complicated explanation, some understanding for our heads.

[READY] Attain Zen 02 [Insta-bites}

The beautiful thing about posting teaching videos on Instagram is that you are forced to a 60-second limit. It temporizes you into a mindset that you need for haiku: extremely compressed form, so that every single word counts, every single gesture or pause.

[Excerpt from a Q&A in May 2019 in Haugesund, Norway — the “Bible Belt of Norway”.]