Zen Master Seung Sahn’s Great Dharani Practice (1)


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]

Mantra-Walking on the Danube [video]


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 Great Dharan/i/I/nfinite Loop

Ioannis thinks he has kidney stones or Stage IV pancreatic cancer. The Abbot thinks he has “The Great Dharani”. Who is correct? Who has the True Dharma? Both are most likely mistaken.

Let’s see why, in this spontaneous moment in a recent day of the Zen Center Regensburg’s Quarantine Retreat.

Here is a totally unplanned video at the MOMENT of inspiration, at the nanosecond of “Eureka!” — the fulfillment of a teaching-dream I have had for years. I knew it was significant, if just personally so, because something had finally “clicked,” and I didn’t want to lose the record of the moment: I needed to capture the “feel” of the chant and video coming together as best I could, as it was exploding in the head. (I don’t even remember clicking on the phone, to be perfectly honest.) This video was shot for personal purposes only, to capture the “feel” of the chant-married-with-video at the moment I started feeling it. But then several students who I shared it with as a gag urged me to share it forward, as teaching. So, here goes…

Background: We have recorded several versions of “The Great Dharani”, over the years, and I have circulated simple audio files of them. But nothing seemed to really satisfy the sense that this excellent, ancient mind-tech dharani could really penetrate much deeper into common-consciousness if only it had some extra “assist” to help it get carried into an ever-narrowing span-of-attention out there in Digital Land. Because we are so stimulated, optically, from the moment we open our eyes and check our phones to the last moment before sleep — even on the toilets (you know who you are!) — it has felt that, for pedagogical purposes, there needed to be an “optic” dimension functioning as a kind of “babysitter” for that stimulated craving, in the visual sphere.

On a recent Thursday after Morning Practice, I had a sudden and explosive insight: to pair the sonic throb of “The Great Dharani x3” with Matt Semke’s visionary “Have No Sphere,” to realize the dream of completing a truly effective pedagogical tool for people to learn “The Great Dharani” as a chant and a mantra and a way of life. What a great teaching-video this could be, marrying sight and sound that anyone could follow along with, and that could run as a continuous loop. People attend retreats here and experience the bright power of the Dharani when chanted in a group, and sometimes get inspiration to add it to their practicing arsenal. But then they get back home, and often find that they can’t muster the inspiration in their daily practice to plow on with the repetition and rhythm which can be so helpful for burning this clear-mind oscillation into their daily routine. I get asked often for “tips” on how to embed The Dharani into their everyday life.

EUREKA! The visionary terra nova of Matt Semke seems preternaturally suited to the clean, clear, cosmic undulation of “The Great Dharani” and its several-thousand-year-old before-thinking trance.

I jumped up from my desk and ran out of my room in Mun Su Am. I was practically flown over to the Dharma Room to reveal this inspiration to someone, to anyone who would listen and see. Even to a Cretan who thinks his overnight bellyache might really be kidney stones or pancreatic cancer (Stage IV), though possessing no previous family history of same and only feeling this bellyache since sleep last night. (Full disclosure: Ioannis’s suffering was being experienced after he had consumed a hearty lunch I had personally cooked up for our ZCR Team the previous day, which repast had been stuffed to the gills with copious amounts of feta cheese which I had thought — apparently mistakenly — that a Greek would love. Maybe it was the rich tomato-pesto sauce, slathered judiciously on top, which had driven him into a crouch. The thick slabs of omega-rich Irish butter on fresh-baked, rustic German bread? Who knows?

“…Namora da na dara yaya…”

For whatever it’s worth, here is the “EUREKA!”-moment where this new pedagogical tool was born.

The teaching-video is being designed to spec right now. I am benefitting enormously from a cross-Atlantic collaboration with Matt Semke (www.catswilleatyou.com), who has graciously permitted from the American Midwest the use of his video (and many other graphics) in my work; of Erik “Yogi” Moeller, up in Oslo, who designed the sound with me; of Jayoon Choi, of times3 in London, who helped with visual graphics, and Ioannis Papadopolous, from Heraklion/Thessaloniki/Regensburg, who helps with so much else indescribable. (Update: after a trip to the toilet, he is completely cured, a modern Lazarus for our times.)

The video will be released later this week, first to Patreon supporters. Stay tuned!