Reply to a Reader: On Zen and the Use of the “Why?”

Question:

Hello Hyon Gak Sunim, I wanted to ask you about the why questions. Up until recently I used to enjoy answering the why questions that would pop-up in my head, during unpleasant emotions and thoughts. When an unpleasant emotion appear, or unpleasant thought would appear, I would ask why. I would get an answer from which I learned a lot about me and a lot of my conditioning and beliefs that controlled my life. Lately I don’t like answering them. Answering is not interesting me. What should I do?

Reply:

Thank you very much for your letter.

In your letter, you say that you “used to enjoy answering the why questions that would pop up in my head.” You said that, from this way of practicing or watching, you were able to “get an answer from which I learned a lot of my conditioning and the beliefs that controlled my life.” 

So, this kind of practice is a kind of baseline mindfulness practice, a watching. It’s helpful to do this. But it is not Zen. It is an analysis or search for understanding new things about yourself, but it cannot really be said to be the practice of asking “What am I?” It is not full-on deep-question Zen. It will not lead to complete attainment of your True Nature.

Zen is not about understanding. It is not a form of analysis, nor should it produce any kind of better “understanding” about oneself. That understanding which comes is a by-product, if you will, of the search into don’t-know, the limitless, borderless place before “understanding” appears. But Zen is not there: Zen is looking into your before-thinking mind.

So, you can use one knife very different ways, and get very different results. Likewise, the way of looking into this existential “what?” (or, maybe, “why?”) can be used in various ways. Psychotherapy uses the “Why?” to dig at important strata or memory, and relationship, and emotional patterning. Certain forms of counselling also provide “understanding” by peeling away layers of ignorant or one-sided thinking. That’s wonderful.

In Zen, we should not use this “Why?” for understanding the memory-“I” or psychology-“I” or gender-“I” or social-“I”, but to attain our most fundamental nature. To sit there and attain that there is NOT a separate “I” or self, there is also nothing to understand — this is the eventual depth of effort in Zen meditation. “No attainment, with nothing to attain,” as the Heart Sutra says. Everything, right now, is moment: unmoving, eternal moment. This is the place of no-I. This is the point of Zen.

s the ancient kong-an (koan) urges, in Zen we are taking one more step off of a 100-meter flagpole. When one of my senior American monk brothers grew frustrated in a conversation with Dae Soen Sa Nim, and at his own failure to penetrate the master’s teaching, the young monk blurted out, “But I’m just trying to understand your teaching, that’s all.” To which Dae Soen Sa Nim answered, “My teaching is not about understanding. My teaching is only don’t know.”

So, this is a very important point. Perhaps I am overemphasising my own reading of your question, but it seems anyway like an good opportunity to emphasise to others that our practice is not about some search for understanding, the kind that can be bought in books or lectures or videos or through a therapist. Yes, we are all drawn to Dharma because we wish to understand our existence, our life and death, our lightning-flash brief appearance on this speck of dust hurtling through empty space. We practice in order to understand our constantly fractious minds. That is how and why I started.

But, once you begin practice, you have to let go of that wish or search to understand. It is only a habit to wish to understand. There is only, now, constant effort in serious practice. To attain my True Self – NOT to “understand” it, or find a way to describe it through my categories of logic and analysis and memory and comparison, etc., but through practice — to attain that, in truth, there is already nothing to attain: this is the nature of Zen.

So, when some phenomena, appears, we are one with it. When some thought appears, we reflect “back,” we “ask” “Where did that come from?” “What hears that?” “What sees that thought crossing this empty space of moment? What ‘sees’ that?” This is all just a way of keeping the Great Doubt that cuts off thinking and leads straight to don’t know. We reflect back, we “turn the light towards the source of the light.” (Of course, those who come to practice through tragedy or great suffering ordinarily do not need that “nudge” to turn the awareness to the source of awareness: Someone who has just been told that she has only three months to live just does not follow the extraneous thoughts, and rather dwells more reflectively inward. In meditation, we are practicing a kind of “little dying.”) We are returning to silence, ending social contacts and concerns, for a period, letting awareness settle out of the Six Gates [eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, thinking-mind], into don’t know.

But do not let the “questioning” get verbal or conceptual. Don’t use it to stir up memories or ideas for how to solve this or that “new” understanding that gets churned up. Do not weigh or compare anything that appears in your mind with anything else. All of this may provide refreshing feelings of insight, but they are all only temporary jewels. These little understandings about some aspect of ourself  pixilate and float away in minutes or hours or days, at most. They are not the real thing, but a flabby substitute. They are insights that come and go: it’s not taking you to don’t know, the ultimate ground. Arnold Schwarzenegger once said, “If it shakes, it’s not muscle.” If something moves in your mind, or comes and goes in your mind, it ain’t don’t know. It’s not your True Self.

You write, “Lately I don’t like answering [the questions]. Answering is not interesting to me.” That’s it! If you ask after understanding, it inevitably becomes tasteless, it is cheap and it does not remain or even repair anything significantly in your life.

But looking into “don’t know” is infinitely interesting. It never becomes “boring,” or something “repetitious” or rote. It is what is, and there is this immensity to it that is just impossible to put into words. It is very new, and yet absolutely the most familiar “thing”, even older than my understanding. You know it when you feel it. As I heard the American monk Su Bong Sunim once say, “Don’t-know recognizes don’t-know.”

Looking inward, “reflecting mind’s light back to the source,” simply don’t pause at things you might newly “understand” about yourself. Don’t touch anything; don’t hold anything. Just abide in this not-knowing, this “place” before thinking arises.

This is how we practice, this is how we look, this is how we question. This is how we attain our True Nature.

Reply to a Reader: Is There a Creator God?

Question:

Good morning, Shifu. I would like to know, is there really a God that created us? Thank you.

Reply:

No. Now, go look into your True Nature. Here is a better question for doing that: Just reflect inward on the matter, “Before my parents were born, what am I?” You will find there an answer that is way, way better than God, OK?

Photo by Jeon Jewoo (전제우 한국불교사진연구소장)

Reply to a Reader: “How Can I Become a Monk?” [video]

I get letters like this often: “How do I become a monk?” It’s one of the most consequential decisions that anyone can face, both for themselves and for their families.

Yet, it’s hard to reply when they don’t even provide their own name or reply address, much less a self-introduction!

So, the reply to this query had to come in the form of a public talk. Although I’ve addressed this matter on a number of other occasions, in different forums, and told many of the same stories retold here, this seemed like something that needed to be done again for the sake of this letter-writer. (Begin the video at 1:29:00. An edited version will appear in a few weeks, but I wanted the letter-writer to have their answer as soon as possible.)

Receiving novice monk precepts from the hand of Dae Soen Sa Nim (Zen Master Seung Sahn) on September 7, 1992, in the Main Buddha Hall of the Temple of the Sixth Patriarch, Nam Hwa Sah, on Chogye Sahn Mountain, Guangzhou, People’s Republic of China. Co-officiating was Do An Sunim, now known as Dae Kwang Sunim.

IN this World, not OF this World

Jesus Himself said, “The world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not pray that you should take them out of the world, but that you should keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world” (John 17:14-16).

A student recently asked about the hard experience she had when encountering friends again after being in nearly three months of coronavirus-lockdown. She had originally complained about the isolation of the lockdown period, especially even the lack of physical contact — hugging, embracing, kissing, being touched. And now, after meeting friends again, she came back feeling the terrible pain of their self-inflicted sufferings. It made her almost regret ever having a problem with the lockdown-isolation in the first place.

Practicing Zen means simply “meditating,” and meditating is observing, seeing, attaining our True Nature, which is Moment. And attaining moment happens nowhere else than right where we really are. It sounds too simple, maybe even New Agey. But this is the whole point.

Our practice happens in this world — in the midst of work and family and relationship, in the midst of busyness and the cares of life in the modern world. But as practitioners from the Buddha to Jesus see, those who strive to make such insight stable in their lives — while practicing in the here-and-now of our mundane lives — do not need to follow or be determined by the empty conventions, the mediocre value systems, and the endlessly unsatisfactory social needs of the human web to which we are linked by relation, by work or family or affiliation, by tribe or politics or thought or fashion. We ARE in this world, living out our practice; but we are not bound to remain “of” this world. It need not define us, prescribe us, or limit us in any way.

Here is the video where I give a shot at explaining this to a member of our community who reached out:

Here is the short teaser for that teaching-video. It was just something which Ioannis and I cranked out one afternoon, without any sort of plan:

What is Karma? [video]

Socrates did not only teach in the high temples and academies of ancient Athens. He also debated in the noisy, chaotic marketplaces and open spaces of the teeming city: in the agora, the public spaces and marketplaces filled with deal-making and shouts, with hard bargaining and the sour stench of animal piss, where fights could break out at a moment’s notice, where a group who disagreed with your point of view could mete out retributive justice for your philosophical challenge to them to “look deeper.”

In the same way, we cannot only teach Zen in the clean temples and Zen centers of the world. Social media is the new agora — the (often unclean) space where the mucky commerce and intercourse of human life are increasingly played out. Social media is the new social center — you will find debates taking place there far far more often than you will in the churches and in the academies (the latter especially less so, being policed by “woke” cancel-culture and political correctness).

As such, I am taking my students’ lead in offering perspectives on Zen and Buddhist teaching in the agora of social media. As inadequate as it might be, it is at least a shot at making some more constructive contribution.

Here is a reply to someone who recently asked about “karma,” on Instagram. The format of Instagram is given to super-short replies, which remain only for 24 hours; hence, the abbreviated nature of this. But maybe that is a blessing in disguise…

“What is karma?” Short and (hopefully) sweet. Complicated is not necessary.

Is “Feeling” True Attainment? [video]

It is common for beginners in meditation to mistake different mind-states for true attainment, true insight into their original nature. When the clouds of confusion and stress first start to clear during the development of our practice, we naturally experience a lightening, a calmness, and various states of bliss that feel markedly different than the way we experienced life before practice. And this is a wonderful thing!

What can be problematic is that often people to mistake this lightening of their mental burden to be true attainment or breakthrough. And students can become attached to these varying mind-states – – some of them exceedingly delicious! – – and then be disappointed when the next sitting, the next day, or the next retreat does not provide them with some similar “tastes.“ Or if they hit a “rough spot” of karma, it might seem to them that meditation does not “work,” or is not helping their life. But these are only transient states.

A couple of days ago, right after morning practice, while out shopping for bread for our Zen Center family, I got a DM from one of my students in The Netherlands. “Sunim,” he wrote, “I have a question!I know who I am…I even feel I know who I am before my parents were born, but what this I is, this I don t know. And this is what I investigate in my meditation. Am I walking in the right direction?”

An answer immediately appeared, and rather than carry it through the anxiety-filled experience which is today’s social-distance, no-contact shopping flow, I sat down in a park and attempted to explain how the experiencing of “feeling” — while part of the bodily sensations that we can experience when our mind calm, becomes clear, or even has a significant breakthrough — should not be taken as a substantial end-point, insight, or attainment in our practice. That sense of the dissolution of separateness of Self-and-other that you feel while dancing in trance in a club? Same situation, I point out — it’s still not “the real thing”. Maybe it might be a piece of scenery on the way, but it is not the substance of the way, and it is definitely not the destination or goal. We must let it go, and not let it become a hindrance for our practice.

Anyway, this video is a rough artifact of work showing the way that teachers are often called upon to “teach” in the modern world, in the midst of errands, down in the muck and movement of everyday life. Socrates taught not in the high temples of Athens, but in the “agora” — the public spaces and marketplaces. These days, our social media and digital realms are the “new agora,” I sometimes say. That’s why you might find me wandering around here, from time to time. Hopefully it does a little bit of good.