One of the grand old men of American Zen and founder of the Kwan Um School of Zen, Seung Sahn Soen Sa Nim (1927-2004), was a Korean Zen master of the Chogye Order of Korean Zen, who after establishing temples in Japan and China, began to turn his head towards the West with its undeveloped fields of struggling mindstreams. As a major part of the initial wave of Zen teachers in the West, his teachings have become as iconic to Seon (Korean Zen) as Suzuki-roshi’s teachings to Soto Zen and Chogyum Trungpa’s to the Vajrayana – each line developing differently with the three lineages having crossed over each other during the years hence and have created what many view as a standard for “American” practice.
Seung Sahn’s enlightenment was recognized by the Korean Zen Master Ko Bong Su Nim at the very young age of 22. An exacting and fierce tiger-eyed master, Ko Bong was well-known to be suspicious of teaching monks, considering them arrogant and lazy thus he focused his efforts mainly upon nuns and laypersons. A legacy that Seung Sahn will continue in his own future interactions, teachings and correspondence.
After getting enlightenment, Seung Sahn Sunim went to check his attainment with Zen Master Ko Bong. Ko Bong Sunim tested him with many difficult Kong-Ans, all of which the young Seung Sahn Sunim passed with ease. Zen Master Ko Bong finally stumped him with the Kong-An “The mouse eats cat food, but the cat bowl is broken.” The two sat facing each other, eyes locked, for close to an hour, when suddenly Seung Sahn Sunim had a breakthrough and gave him the correct answer. Zen Master Ko Bong then said “You are the flower and I am the bee” and soon after gave Dharma transmission to the young Seung Sahn Sunim. Ko Bong Sunim spent his final days at Hwa Gye Sa temple in Seoul, being cared for by his only Dharma heir, and eventually he passed away in 1962. [full reference here]
Although this tiger-eyed master recognized the nature of Seung Sahn’s realizations, there was definitely a roguish streak according in Sahn’s mentor. In a dharma talk following koan instruction, this story was relayed to his students…
At Jong Hae Sah Temple in Korea they had three months of sitting, three months vacation. During vacation, everybody had to collect money or food and bring it back for the sitting period. At that time Zen Master Mang Gong was just beginning the temple and had no money. So the students would go around to the homes of lay people, recite the Heart Sutra, get rice or money and bring it back to the monastery. But when my teacher Ko Bong got rice, he’d sell it at the end of the day and go out drinking – laughing and singing. Everybody else came back at the end of vacation with sacks of rice. All he ever brought back was alcohol. Then he’d be drinking and shouting all night, “This temple’s no good! Buddhism is full of shit! Mang Gong doesn’t understand Dharma! He’s a low class master!”
Once Mang Gong showed up during one of Ko Bong’s rampages and screamed at him, “What do you understand?” Everybody was waiting to see what would happen. “KO BONG!” “Yes!” “Why are you always insulting me behind my back?” Ko Bong looked completely surprised and offended. “Zen Master, I never said anything about you! I was talking about this good-for-nothing Mang Gong!” “Mang Gong? What do you mean, Mang Gong? I’M MANG GONG! What’s the difference between me and Mang Gong?” “KAAAATZ!” Ko Bong yelled, loud enough to split your ears. “Go sleep it off,” Mang Gong said, and left the room.
With this explosive teacher Sueng Sahn continued his practice, he became well-established and was well-known and dynamic in Korea as abbot of the Hwa Gye Sa temple is Seoul until the death of his master in 1962. His only Dharma-heir Seung Sahn provided a progressive model of Zen practice that sat in stark contrast to the current orthodoxy of the Chogye Order by not forcing vows of celibacy on monks and nuns of his order while still providing a very strict and tried program of silent sitting and koan practice combined with compassionately engaged civic action. Seung Sahn also appealed to Westerners by his insistence on placing women in positions of organizational leadership that were usually reserved for males. Perhaps it is partly for these reasons, a combination of the conservative with the progressive, that the Kwan Um School of Zen is so prevalent in the US as well as in Europe (centers are also established in Africa and Israel).
Seung Sahn’s energy and indomitable presence left a foundational mark on how Western palates understand Korean Zen (Seon) practice. His exuberant and expressive manner in presenting the dharma is clear in any of the late Zen Master’s writing with one student expressed that even his silence was “so energetic, that he looked like a wound up spring, ready to leap and talk or yell some more.”
Excerpt from a dharma talk of Seung Sahn:
I decide, then I don’t do. This means I don’t believe in myself. Ask a child, “What is one plus two?” “Three.” “Is that correct?” “Sure, it’s correct.” He believes in himself, so he doesn’t think about it. “One plus two doesn’t equal three…” “It does too! My teacher said so!” A child’s mind doesn’t shake so easily. But Zen students! They cling to words and thinking.
Your mind is always one of these three: lost mind, empty mind, or clear mind. On the street, a thief comes up. “Give me your money!” How is your mind then? Somebody says sex mind is Zen mind, but if you suddenly found a gun in your face while you’re making love, would your mind move? If you’re afraid you’ll lose your life, you have lost your mind.
Empty mind won’t move. “This is a hold up!” “Om mani padme hum. Om mani padme hum. Om mani padme hum.” “You want some lead in your head?” “Om mani padme hum. Om mani padme hum…” “Are you crazy?” “Om mani padme hum…” Crazy/sane, alive/dead. It is all one to empty mind.
And clear mind? “Give me money!” “How much do you want?” “Shut up, you… give me all of it!” No fear. Just check the mind behind the gun.
A coiled spring seems to be a good analogy for the madness that many experience when they begin to explore Buddhism and Buddhist practice after a lifetime of learning to worship and value materials with a skandha-lous view of the world. With no control over the coiling but an ability to blithely ignore our own coiled nature, we became kinked and trapped within our nature without ever realizing it.
The same student remarked that you could never get Seung Sahn to move away from constantly speaking in “Zen-talk” (personally, for me, this is as annoying as someone constantly speaking in tongues) but his purpose was that the constant exposure would lead a student to have a firm understanding of her practice and ability. This style of teaching may have been the premeditating factors in the following reaction of a student as documented by Sean Murphy in his book “One Bird One Stone.”
A senior student who had been practicing with Seung Sahn for many years was walking with his teacher along a hallway. When the master, in response to some item in the conversation, advised his for the umpteenth time, “Only don’t know,” something in the student snapped.
Grabbing his teacher and shoving him up against the wall, the student shouted “If I hear you say that one more time I’m going to scream!”
Seung Sahn looked at him and nodded. “Very good dharma demonstration!” he said.
So I wonder…are we just coiled springs without direction or momentum? It is just a matter of time before we spring. Seung Sahn would spring at students with a resounding “Katz!” to spur on realization. We learn towards a speaker when the words engage us – lurching at openings between words. The student above released his spring at the insistent teachings of a great and intuned master.
The only factor that we practice towards is whether we move in the correct direction or break apart and fall into a mess of kinks. A slinkee goes nowhere until pushed and even then the situation dictates whether it continues with momentum or sits still and stagnates. But the energy is always there. Is meditation the epicenter of our practice? Or does it barely shine a light upon the realization of our potential coiled spring; a spring that can lurch towards the benefit of others or towards the detriment. It is still a spring and it vibrates with energy. Meditation just helps us realize and direct that energy. That is what practice is – a constant interaction of energy and direction.
In these two poems by Seung Sahn this concept of potentiality is expressed well…
one sword which replenishes,
one sword which takes away.
illuminated by lightning flash,
momentary objects come into view.
Lions pounce and claw,
the dog runs after the bone.
original face is clear,
manifest in the green pine
as well as in the white rocks.
if you wish to understand
the meaning of,
the mouse eats cat food,
and the cat’s bowl is broken;
you must attain
that a quarter is also
twenty five cents.
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