A fascinating snippet about Dae Soen Sa Nim’s (Zen Master Seung Sahn) personal practice in the midst of his busy, daily life, as told by the Kwan Um School of Zen teacher Zen Master Hae Kwang (Stanley Lombardo):
Once, before a retreat in Boulder, I asked him what he did when he sat. He told me he recited the Great Dharani over and over, very fast, one repetition per breath. “Then your mind is like a washing machine on spin cycle, moving very fast. All the dirty water goes out, but the center is not moving.” The Great Dharani (or Dharani of Great Compassion) is a very long mantra—about 450 syllables. I asked him if he actually pronounced, sub-vocally, every syllable. He said he perceived each syllable, moment to moment. He was fond of the notion that in Buddhist psychology moments of perception go by at about the same fraction-per-second rate that frames of film must be projected in order to create the illusion of motion.Quoted in https://www.lionsroar.com/spring-comes-the-grass-grows-by-itself-remembering-zen-master-seung-sahn-1927-2004/ [emphasis mine]
Dae Soen Sa Nim used to often say, “Don’t make anything!“ It took years and years for the full depth and dimension of this to really sink in. The activity and go-go nature of teaching in Korea for 20 years didn’t really give space to appreciate that, when I was with him. But it’s really so incredibly effing true: Don’t make ANYthing. In original stillness, that place before thinking arises, there is absolutely nothing needed. Nothing effective or helpful can be “made” or “done.”
I guess this was something resembling the dilemma of the Buddha, sitting under the Bodhi Tree in the first hours of his fully awakened condition: “There’s no way anyone will ‘get’ this,” tradition tells us he thought to himself. “It would be pointless to teach or to even try: sentient beings’ eyes are completely full of dust. How can this infinite depth and boundlessness be transmitted to others?” Fortunately, according to tradition, the god Indra appeared and spoke to him, saying, “Go and teach. There are beings out there who have only a little dust in their eyes. You should teach for them. Help them to make their final step to liberation.”
So, I put out these teaching-videos, create teachings for social media spreading of seeds of Dharma, and write this blog — all of it so reluctantly (hence the many long gaps between posts that can appear). There are certainly days when I seriously contemplate deleting the whole mess (and I almost carry it out!).
But maybe… Maybe — out there in the digital wilderness — there might be people who can find some useful breadcrumbs in these “mistakes“, and they can be skilled and patient enough to employ them for returning to their True Self/ our True Self. So, when I receive letters from people in Iran and Turkey and Pakistan — where it would not be possible for Dharma teachers to visit to guide people — or even people in Israel, or Canada, Australia, and Malaysia — who say they have been helped by something that they have seen in one of our videos or on this blog, then the finger relents: I do not push the “delete” key.
Every single time I post something, the sense of Dae Soen Sa Nim‘s words ring in my mind. it is so much so that I often mutter to myself, right after pushing the “post” button, “This is the last post. Too many words and concepts and ideas. Stop polluting! Shut your mouth – – keep it as simple as possible. Don’t make anything, anymore!” (Plus, from a more selfish point of view, there is all of the web and digital stuff that I must always keep up on, update, download, upgrade to, etc., in order to function in this constantly changing digital world. Without the resources to pay for staff support, to have others use their better talents on these matters, it falls on my shoulders to constantly learn new computer things and be involved deeply there.)
I’m not so sure if it is Indra or not, but if something occurs from this practice that I feel might be helpful, for someone, somewhere, some time, I digest the possibilities and often will post something again. “… for those who have only a little dust in their eyes…” Maybe I am kidding myself as to the value of these things! But I return to posting and sharing with a lingering awareness that I am not being so faithful to my Teacher’s insight — MY insight! — and especially to his passionate efforts.
And so I do reproach myself for that, and try always to keep it limited and essential.
Sometimes people want to add mantra to their everyday practice. You get asked about mantras and how to do them. Some people come from traditions where the mantra is supposed to be some secret thing with the guru.
I always do mantra in the way it was practiced and taught to me by Dae Soen Sa Nim. While he offered the opportunity for various mantras (depending on the person and their condition), the mantra I trained with was “The Great Dharani,” though it could have maybe been anything else, but it is the way it was done that perhaps made this practice so powerful to him and to me. Running through this mantra, every syllable, remaining consciousness enough to perceive and yet turn — continuously turn, turn, turn — attention to the “doer” of this mantra, the sayer or mumbler or hummer — the “witness” of all of this happening, “What is this?”
I know that Osho Rajneesh roundly criticized many types of mantra practice. And for his time and his place, especially when he started — as an upstart professor against priestly elites, challenging their false secrecies and empty sorcery — he railed against mantra. I would have done the same thing, in the mantra-teaching of the times in which he began his iconoclastic rise. It was a vague and pointless form of bending in to the false religion of the corrupt elites, corrupted teachers among them.
Anyway, we went out for a walk recently to test some equipment that had been donated. We were just enjoying a rare night out, our first right after the first strong imposition of lockdown in Regensburg, in Germany, in Europe. It felt like an illegal delight just to walk along the Danube again (and later, after this segment, we were, in fact, cleaned off politely by flashlight police from sitting on the rocks by the edge of the Danube and watching the huddled groups, the twos- and threes-only, in this new quarantine.)
We had been inside the Zen Center walls for some 6 weeks without venturing out (save for food once or twice). After Evening Practice, this walkout to stretch the legs began a little furtively. There was palpable suspicion, especially when passing people in shortened spaces, waiting at a light together. Everyone was still learning the reflexes to guarantee their space, especially if they were older and more frightened. (I had already received one or two “Back up!” growls from Bavarian grandmothers in the Saturday farmer’s market in the Kornmarkt by the Alte Kapell.)
One thing that Dae Soen Sa Nim says
There is one important point about mantra practice you must understand. With mantra, getting “one-mind” and samadhi are very easy. But you cannot find your True Way if you are attached to just mantra. Such only-mantra practice has no direction. However, “Who is doing the mantra?” means having a direction. Having a direction means keeping a question and letting your cognition become clear so you can perceive your correct situation. This is Great Love, Great Compassion, and the Great Bodhisattva Way. So, only-mantra is “one mind”, but if you keep the great question while practicing mantra, that is “clear mind”.
-Zen Master Seung Sahn
Now, for what it’s worth
And it must be said that my Dharma brother, Andrjez Stec (AnJay Stec) JDPSN, has done much to popularize a great practice for people, something he calls “mantra walk”. It seems to be a practical Dharma-inspired meditation/well-being movement of body, breath, mantra-movement. I think he has a very excellent teaching on this — the first one publicly in my tradition. It was amazing to see him promoting this so much: I had also been miss ionizing about this, beginning back in Korea. I had also been urging students, for years and years, to treat their constant daily errands as “mantra walks” and to treat long drives (when traveling alone) and commuting time into a chanting temple. “Why not?” I turned several “followers” at the time, in Korea, and later in Germany, into avid car-chanters. I used to give out tapes of famous Korean chanting monks, chanting the chants, so that these followers would feel confident enough to do this together as they drove, or remained stuck in endless traffic.
Chanting and driving created one fantastic experience: I was chanting the Great Dharani for a long time stuck in traffic one night in Seoul, when the heavens opened an ocean of downpour on the highway, and I experienced that wild accident which nearly destroyed the car, but I experienced such infinite calm in, in the midst of these ricocheting coins and pens and objects from the dashboard. It was a freaky stillness and roundedness in chaos. I have always believed that it is essential for us to practice mantra whenever possible, when moving through the world, and then learning when to let it go in sitting and when Moment is attained and stabilizes, my connection in it stabilizes.
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)
A Zen poem is not merely an aesthetic exercise. It is not an expression of “art,” design, or thinking. A Zen poem is a teaching tool: it begins in opposites’-world thinking, through the Great Question, perhaps a stopover in the realm of emptiness or freedom-consciousness, to bring the reader to a view of “truth just-like-this.”
Here is a video of some words of commentary I recently offered on perhaps Zen Master Seung Sahn‘s most recognized poem. This talk was delivered at Zen Center Regensburg during the Quarantine Retreat, April 2020.
Here is a video of Dae Soen Sa Nim giving a TV interview in Korea, recorded in 1997 — seven years before his death. In his own words, without the halting English, in a well-produced production, you can feel his energy and his Great Compassion. His energy is still strong and very clear. The subtitles have been prepared by capable native English speakers, so there is a natural feel to his expression.
In the video, Dae Soen Sa Nim tells some private stories of his early life. He discusses how he became a monk in the first place, in the turmoil of Japanese occupation and the Korean War. He also shares some stories of his free-spirited Teacher, the wild-wisdom figure named (Park) Ko Bong Sunim — known for his rule-breaking and sharp speech. In this way, it is a precious record, quite unlike the usual films which are more of formal Dharma talks.
The interview was filmed on the little hill inside our temple — Hwa Gye Sah. From about 1:40 in the video, you can hear the sound of the meal “moktak” being struck, or else the special “work period” moktak, if it is just before Buddha’s Birthday, and we are called into making the thousands of lotus lanterns which will be sold on the holiday, to support the temple. (I couldn’t imagine him giving an interview during an official mealtime.)
I was probably in the temple, at that time, when the video was filmed. Surely I was living there, if I was not outside the temple walls for a few hours for some important business. But in that year, I was living with him at Hwa Gye Sah.
Every morning in the Zen Center, the very first thing we do before starting 108 bows, is to recite the Four Great Vows. The first vow is “Sentient beings are numberless, we vow to save them all.” Our practice is not for us, not for “me.” It’s for all beings.
Sometimes people ask: “What is this point about ‘…we vow to save them all’. Is that really possible, or necessary?” And the answer that I give is that this vow is not something we measure or estimate or analyze in terms of possible/not possible. This vow is aspirational, a compass just to clarify and reinforce the direction of our practice so strongly, that we should also have the mind to help even those beings who are trapped in the deepest hell of mental suffering. “We vow to save them all.” This is the soul of the Mahayana way, and it is the soul of Mahayana’s radical, wayward child, Zen meditation.
Yes, it is true that we do not “save” others. This speech is just an expedient means, a toy to train us, a medicine for our minds, mere training wheels on the vehicle of our practice. As the Buddha dialogues with his student, Subhuti, in the Diamond Sutra:
Subhūti, what do you think? You should not claim that the Tathāgata [Buddha] thinks ‘I will save sentient beings.’ Subhūti, do not think such a thing. Why? There are in fact no sentient beings for the Tathāgata to save. If there were sentient beings for the Tathāgata to save, it would mean that the Tathāgata holds the notions of self, person, sentient being, and life span.Chapter 25
Subhūti, when the Tathāgata says ‘I,’ there is actually no ‘ I.’ Yet common people take this to be an I. Subhūti, as far as common people are concerned, the Tathāgata says that they are not common people.
So, doing this vow (any and all of these vows) every day is not some claim or goal or even belief: It is all about creating unshakeable direction for our practice, for our lives, no matter what the condition or situation.
There is a powerful teaching-story about the importance of other-oriented practice. It concerns the Buddha and a person named Kandata with very heavy karma who is lost in the deepest Hell. This is an excellent story — very simple and clear. And because its content is not “religious” in nature (not specifically “buddhist”), but ethical, moral, I know that some people in Asia read it to their children, in the manner of Aesop’s fables, as a guide for setting one’s ethical compass for how we live our lives — with direction to help others.
Here is an excellent translation of the original story, by one of Japan’s greatest short story writers, Ryuunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927). He is regarded as one of the greatest writers in the Japanese language, often known as “the father of the Japanese short story” (two of his stories were made into Rashomon, the classic 1950 film by Akira Kurosawa).
The Spider’s Thread
It was a normal day in Heaven. It was morning, and Buddha was standing beside a pool. In the pool there were many flowers. The flowers sat on the top of the water, and they were very beautiful. Buddha began to walk. He walked around the pool and looked at the flowers. The flowers had a beautiful smell. The smell grew inside the flowers and moved into the air. All the air around Buddha smelled amazing.quoted from https://easystoriesinenglish.com/spider/
Buddha stopped walking, and looked hard at the pool. Between the flowers there was water, and under the water, there was Hell.
The water was like a piece of glass. Above, there was Heaven, beautiful and lovely. Below, there was Hell, ugly and horrible. The water stood between the two places.
Through the water, Buddha could see all the horrible things in Hell.
First, there was the Sanzu river. It was a river full of dragons, and it had a bridge going over it. Only good people could walk across the bridge. There were demons standing in the water, and if a bad person walked across the bridge, the demons would take them and throw them into the water, so that they would be eaten by the dragons.
Then, there was the Mountain of Needles. It was a huge mountain made of sharp needles. When a truly bad person came to Hell, they had to climb the Mountain of Needles.
There was also the Lake of Blood. The Lake was made of very, very hot water, and it smelled horrible. Bad people in Hell had to swim in the boiling water, and their blood filled the Lake. And of course, there were many other horrible things in Hell, but Buddha did not like to look at them.
Among the groups of bad people in Hell, there was one man called Kandata. Kandata had been a very evil man. He had killed people, stolen from people, and even burned houses with people in them. He was truly an enemy of all good people. But once in his life, he had done something good, and Buddha remembered this.
One time, Kandata was walking through a thick forest. He was going to steal from a man who lived in the forest. As he was walking, he saw a spider beside him. Kandata raised his foot, and was about to stand on the spider and kill it, but then he stopped.
‘No, no. Even something this small has a reason to live. It would be truly evil to take its life away.’
So he let the spider live, and went to steal from the man.
As Buddha looked down into Hell, he thought of how Kandata had saved the spider. He decided that Kandata was actually not that evil. Because he had saved the spider, Buddha thought he should give Kandata a chance to leave Hell.
Luckily, next to the pool of beautiful flowers, a spider was walking. It was a spider of Heaven. It was an amazing green colour, and it was making a beautiful gold thread. Usually, spiders only made weak, white threads, but this spider’s golden thread was strong and made of shining gold. So Buddha took the spider’s golden thread and dropped it into Hell deep below him.
At the bottom of Hell, Kandata was swimming in the Lake of Blood, along with many other bad people. Occasionally, he saw something bright, and he thought it was something that could save him. But when he looked harder, he saw that it was just the needles on the Mountain of Needles, shining in the light. All around him, people cried in pain and sadness. Kandata had stopped crying, because he was too tired. He felt truly awful, because he knew he would never leave Hell. He swam in the Lake of Blood, quiet and sad.
Kandata saw something shine, but he knew it was only a needle, so he did not look up. But it kept shining, so eventually he raised his head. Above him, in the darkness of Hell’s sky, there was something bright and gold. It was a long thread that was slowly coming down into Hell.
Kandata couldn’t believe his eyes. His chance to leave Hell was coming down to him like a present. He would climb onto the thread, and climb out of Hell! If he was lucky, he might even be able to climb into Heaven. He no longer had to swim in the Lake of Blood, and climb the Mountain of Needles. He would be free!
So Kandata climbed out of the Lake and ran to the golden thread. He took it in his hands. The thread was thin, and easy to hold onto. Kandata climbed up and up and up. Because he used to steal so much, he was very good at climbing, so it was no problem to climb up the golden thread. However, between Heaven and Hell were thousands and thousands of miles, so even for a great climber like Kandata, it was a difficult journey.
After climbing for a long time, Kandata was tired, so he decided to take a break. He looked below him to see how far he had climbed. He saw that the Lake of Blood was far, far away, and that he had climbed many miles. Even the Mountain of Needles was far below him. If he kept climbing, he would leave Hell. He felt a great happiness inside of him.
‘I’ve done it! I’ve done it!’ he shouted, and laughed.
But then he felt something below him on the thread. He looked down, and saw that lots of other bad people in Hell had seen the thread. They were now following him, climbing up and up and up.
Kandata saw this, and he was surprised, and sad. He hung there, looking down at the other evil people. The thread was not thick, so he was surprised that it could take so many people without breaking. But if too many people climbed onto the thread, it might break, and they would all fall back down into Hell. More and more people climbed out of the Lake of Blood, and started climbing up the thread.
Kandata shouted at the people below, ‘Hey, you terrible people! You awful people down there! This spider’s thread is mine. It belongs to me, and only me! Who told you you could all climb up? Get off, get off!’
Then, suddenly, the spider’s thread broke. It made a SNAP, and Kandata fell. He fell down and down and down. Finally, he landed in the Lake of Blood with a SPLASH, along with all the other bad people. The spider’s thread hung in the air, shining bright like the needles on the Mountain of Needles, while all the bad people sat below.
Buddha stood by the side of the pool in Heaven, and watched all of this happen. He had a sad expression on his face. He started to walk around the pool again. He had given Kandata a chance to get out of Hell, but Kandata showed that he was a truly bad person, and so Buddha could not prevent him from falling back to Hell. Buddha seemed very sad at this.
Meanwhile, the flowers in the pool continued to smell lovely. They continued to make their beautiful smell all throughout Heaven, and they did not think of Kandata. The green spider continued to make its golden thread, and it did not think of Kandata. It was a normal day in Heaven, and soon it would be noon.
Sadly, the author of this excellent story, Ryuunosuke Akutagawa, was the son of a woman who suffered from very serious mental illnesses. It had a profound effect on him. He constantly agonized over the fear that he might eventually inherit these problems from his mother. As it turns out, though he climbed the thin thread of his art to great heights, the accumulated weight of this affliction snapped the thread before he could pull himself up to Paradise. Overcome with years of visual hallucinations and fear that he could not escape inheriting his mother’s condition, and as a result always feeling a “vague insecurity about the future” (his words), he killed himself at age 35. Japan’s most prestigious literary award, the Akutagawa Prize, is named after him.
So, like the Kandata of the story, the author himself faced the strong force of karma, or “mind habits.” I wonder if he had the technology of meditation practice, what he could have done to free himself, at least somewhat, from this Hell. If we practice, with consistency and courage, we can melt through these strong “mind habits” to begin to taste freedom from the created force of our delusive mental tendencies (i.e., karma). Finding the Dharma is important. Having a clear practice-technology is important. Having a clear Teacher is also important, and it is also extremely important to connect with a Sangha which practices regularly (even if not often) together.
But having direction is key: As Dae Soen Sa Nim always emphasized, “Having clear direction is very important. Why do you eat every day? Only for you? Only for your mouth, for your body? Even animals only live like that — their eating is only for themselves. Why living in this world? Why practicing? Only for you? Or for all beings? Having a clear direction is very important for your life.”
And his words are not just some spiritual wishfulness or ethics: The effects of helping others — being “other-centered” — are also grounded in empirical research. This is common knowledge in psychotherapy and the medical sciences.
Stephen G. Post, PhD, is a highly-regarded professor of preventive medicine and the director and founder of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care and Bioethics at Stony Brook University. He is widely known for his research and public speaking on the ways in which giving can enhance the health and happiness of the giver, how empathy and compassionate care contribute to patient outcomes, ethical issues in caring for people with dementia, medical professionalism and the virtues, and positive psychology in relation to health and well-being. (Wikipedia)
Post emphasizes that helping others — volunteering, aiding those in need, even simple acts of charity among friends — is just as important to maintaining health as avoiding alcohol, tobacco and obesity. In his bestselling book, Why Good Things Happen to Good People: How to Live a Longer, Healthier, Happier Life by the Simple Act of Giving, he writes, “The startling findings from our many studies demonstrate that if you engage in helping activities as a teen, you will still be reaping health benefits 60 or 70 years later. Generous behavior is closely associated with reduced risk of illness and mortality and lower rates of depression.”
The benefits of altruism are even hyped on websites for health care plans, like this one: “In one 2006 study, neuroscientist Jorge Moll and his colleagues at the National Institutes of Health found that when people give to charities, it activates regions of the brain associated with pleasure and trust, creating a ‘warm glow’ effect – that fuzzy feeling.”
“Further evidence of the positive effects of volunteerism was found in a study from Carnegie Mellon University, published in 2013 in Psychology and Aging. Researchers discovered that adults over age 50 who volunteered on a regular basis were less likely to develop high blood pressure than non-volunteers.”
“But adults aren’t the only ones to benefit from volunteering. Researchers have found that adolescents who give their time to help others also benefit by developing a sense of purpose and a healthy connection to their community.”
Having the GPS of the Four Great Vows is essential for that. It is the golden Spider’s Thread that we can all use together to climb out of the Ocean of Suffering. Most folks we know wish one day to get out of this vast suffering condition. But what “The Spider’s Thread” shows is that it is important to bring others along with us, to share with others the effort, to give to others even as we climb our way to liberation. Dr. Post points directly to those remaining in the Pool of Blood when he says, “We can be anywhere, so long as we are helping others and caring for them. This is probably the one source of stability in our lives that we can truly depend on, and so in the end we are never really out of place.”
Correct direction, indeed. Too bad Kandata could not get that email.
(Here is an excellent short video treatment of the “The Spider’s Thread,” done by a young American artist.)