What am I?
Student: What is the relationship between asking “What am I?” and the flow of thoughts, perceptions, etc.? For example, do you address the question to particular thoughts, pains in the knee when sitting, etc.? When a thought comes, do you ask whom this thought is coming to? How do you work with problems such as fear and anger? Should one acknowledge the fear and then ask who is experiencing the fear? Or should they just let it all happen and pour all their energy into the great question?
Zen Master Seung Sahn: True “What am I?” is the complete question—only don’t know mind. All your questions are thinking. If you keep the complete “What am I?”, then you don’t know “What am I?” All thinking has been cut off, so how can a question appear? Asking who is thinking is not the correct way. This is opposites thinking. These are opposites questions, not the complete question, the perfect question. Pain is pain, the question is the question. Why ask the question about pain? Actions such as anger and fear are made by past karma, so the result is actions done in anger, etc.
If a person sits Zen, they will make their karma disappear and will no longer be caught up in these actions. So when you are angry, that’s alright, don’t worry. “I want to cut off anger!”—that’s thinking. Anger is not good, not bad. Only don’t be attached to it. Only ask, “What am I?” and the action will soon disappear.
There are two kinds of hunger in this world: body hunger and mind hunger. Body hunger is easily solved: just feed people. But mind hungry people need food for their minds. People with mind hunger do not die. They want power, and then they want more power. They say things like “My way is correct, your way is not correct!” They want to control this world. They don’t want to lose their good situation.
Nowadays, many of the people who say they want world peace are afraid of nuclear weapons. What they want is not to die, not to lose their good situation. That is not correct world peace. Most of the politicians talk about world peace that way. Russia says, “We want world peace.” America says “We want world peace.” Which world peace is correct? These are mind hungry people, who make bombs and nuclear weapons. They talk about world peace, but it’s only a world peace of the tongue, not a true world peace. There are also many people in this world who don’t want world peace. They think the world is so evil that it should be destroyed. They also only want to keep their own good situation, so their world peace is only for themselves, not for other people. This is also not correct world peace.
“I want world peace only for myself’ — this kind of mind is unbalanced. Take away this mind hunger, and the problem of body hunger will also disappear. If we love each other, help each other, and become harmonious with each other, then world peace is possible.
By Zen Master Seung Sahn
We understand many things about this world, but we don’t understand ourselves. So why do human beings come into this world? Why do we live in this world? For love? For money? For respect or fame? Do you live for your wife, husband, or children? Why do you live in this world? If someone asked you these question, you might very well answer, “I live for my children. I live to earn enough money for them, or maybe just to have a good life.” Most people think like this. They live only for their family, for some fleeting social respectability, perhaps to enjoy art or to get some powerful position. Everyone wants to have a good situation for themselves. If you look at this world very closely, it is easy to see that most people eat and sleep and live merely for their own personal happiness. Yet these things are not the real purpose of human beings’ life. They are just temporary means for living in the world. If human beings cannot find who they are, how can they ever be truly happy?
—Zen Master Seung Sahn
Your family doesn't like your practicing Buddhism. Many people have that situation — that's not only your situation. Somebody doesn't like you to practice Buddhism; somebody else doesn't like you to study Confucianism; yet somebody else doesn't like you to become Catholic; and somebody doesn't like anybody to become anything. Why is that?
Because they love you. All human beings want to protect the people they love. Because all human beings have an idea of what is correct life and what is good for their family and their children. Everybody has that. So I am Buddhist, but my sister wants to become Catholic, but I know Buddhism is #1, so I say to her, "No, no, sister, don't do that, okay? Better for you to follow Buddhism—that's #1." Then she says, "No." Then I begin to worry, oh, maybe my sister will soon go to hell, soon get captured by demons — many kinds of thinking.
A teacher the other night said that all his family are Christians and many of them are Catholics. But he said, "They all like me". Why? Because Catholic or Buddhist or Taoist or Muslim or anything doesn't matter. That's only our outside name and form — I am Buddhist, I am Catholic, I am a man, I am a woman, I am a doctor, I am a garbage man. I am Buddha. But what is most important?
Most important is to return to correct human being. Correct human being means find your job in this world, which means "Who are you?" If you find "who are you", then you will find your original job. If you find your original job, then not only everybody, but this whole universe will love you.
We can get very metaphysical. You are the universe, the universe is you, but that's all speech. How many people hate the air? How many people hate the mountains? Or the water or the trees or the animals or the fish? All human beings have done many bad things to destroy the things we love. We do not intentionally destroy those things that help us, and we never dislike those things. So if you attain your true self, it means “you are the universe, the universe is you."
“You are the universe, the universe is you" has no love. But has what? Has correct relationship. So if you are practicing Buddhism, then you'll find your correct relationship to your family and this world. If you find out "who are you", then everything is no problem.
Song of the Grass-Roof Hermitage
I’ve built a grass hut where there’s nothing of value.
After eating, I relax and enjoy a nap.
When it was completed, fresh weeds appeared.
Now it’s been lived in – covered by weeds.
The person in the hut lives here calmly,
Not stuck to inside, outside, or in between.
Places worldly people live, he doesn’t live.
Realms worldly people love, he doesn’t love.
Though the hut is small, it includes the entire world.
In ten square feet, an old man illumines forms and their nature.
A Great Vehicle bodhisattva trusts without doubt.
The middling or lowly can’t help wondering;
Will this hut perish or not?
Perishable or not, the original master is present,
not dwelling south or north, east or west.
Firmly based on steadiness, it can’t be surpassed.
A shining window below the green pines —
Jade palaces or vermilion towers can’t compare with it.
Just sitting with head covered, all things are at rest.
Thus, this mountain monk doesn’t understand at all.
Living here he no longer works to get free.
Who would proudly arrange seats, trying to entice guests?
Turn around the light to shine within, then just return.
The vast inconceivable source can’t be faced or turned away from.
Meet the ancestral teachers, be familiar with their instruction,
Bind grasses to build a hut, and don’t give up.
Let go of hundreds of years and relax completely.
Open your hands and walk, innocent.
Thousands of words, myriad interpretations,
Are only to free you from obstructions.
If you want to know the undying person in the hut,
Don’t separate from this skin bag here and now.
Shitou Xiqian (700-790) translated by Dan Leighton and Kaz Tanahashi
At the River Clarion
I don’t know who God is exactly.
But I’ll tell you this.
I was sitting in the river named Clarion, on a
water splashed stone
and all afternoon I listened to the voices
of the river talking.
Whenever the water struck the stone it had
something to say,
and the water itself, and even the mosses trailing
under the water.
And slowly, very slowly, it became clear to me
what they were saying.
Said the river: I am part of holiness.
And I too, said the stone. And I too, whispered
the moss beneath the water. I’d been to the river before, a few times.
Don’t blame the river that nothing happened quickly.
You don’t hear such voices in an hour or a day.
You don’t hear them at all if selfhood has stuffed your ears.
And it’s difficult to hear anything anyway, through
all the traffic, and ambition.
Oliver, Mary. Evidence . Beacon Press.
Joni Mitchell Zen Mind
“Zen Master Seung Sahn said there are two central questions for every human being.
Number one: What are you doing right now?
Number two: Why do that?
These two questions point to how we live our life, moment to moment, and our great vow.”
By Zen Master Dae Kwang
In the quote above, these two questions essentially ask the great question of “What am I?” This question helps to keep our mind clear. We call this our ‘inside work’.
But there are two kinds of work: Inside work and outside work. Inside work is keeping a clear mind. Outside work is cutting off selfish desires and helping others. This is Zen.
Being concerned only about inside work is not correct Zen practice. Focusing only on inside work means trying to find peace of mind only for me.
Including outside work into our individual practice means living with a direction for others and not only for myself. How can we help others? What can each one of us do that is of service?
Loving-Kindness Of The Bodhisattva
Real kindness is not a sentiment that arises depending on the situation and the people we are dealing with. Nor is it a reciprocity with which we show our affection to those who are sympathetic to us. Nor is it a mood that is sometimes there and sometimes not there. Kindness is a fundamental attitude in life that is based on letting go. That means, even if I have opinions, judgments, and feelings, I do not hold on to them. The truth is, whenever this I-my-me loses its focus, the connection with all beings that is already there is expressed in kindness.
The first vow of four great vows in Zen reads: “Sentient beings are numberless, we vow to save them all.” Oddly enough, we often need to save innumerable living beings from our own ideas, opinions, and judgments rather than from their own misery. Seen in this way, the work of saving sentient beings begins with becoming aware of our own delusions.
Retreats help us to become aware of the cause of our inadequacy in this world, which is rooted in our self-centered belief that we are separate. In a retreat, all alone in seclusion from the world and undisturbed by everyday life, we have the opportunity to touch the deeply hidden layer of our being, which we call “don’t know.” This don’t know reveals the fundamental unity of all beings in every moment of what is. And so, it unveils the hidden wonder and the mystery of being alive in this world.
“Don’t know” is kindness, and from “don’t know” the loving-kindness of the bodhisattva is born: “How can I help you?”
Excerpt from "Are You Kind? A Story from a Solo Retreat" by Zen Master Gu Ja
Primary Point Spring 2022, Volume 39, Number 1
Dreams of Harada Roshi
In life we have dreams, we have hopes, we have ideals. But what does it mean to have a dream? Everything in this world is in flux. No matter how real we may think things are, everything passes. We all think our life is special, but no matter how happy we are or how much we achieve, we all die.
We live in a dream, in delusion. We can see the beautiful flowers and hear the birds’ lovely songs, but we don’t see what is alive inside that experience. We see a superficial layer of the world and acknowledge that as important. We don’t see that it’s all transient, a dream of a dream. Instead of realizing that we are living a dream, we take the superficial to be real and permanent. But in Buddhism we recognize it all as a dream and awaken to what is real.
It is not bad to have a dream. Because we dream, we can achieve things. But have humans become any better for all the things that have been discovered and created? Have our values improved? Is the world any more at peace? We chase dreams, but we forget to realize ourselves. We have to see the reality and value of who is alive right here and now. When we awaken to the splendid value of each person, we no longer need to depend on dreams and hopes and ideals. Instead, we can depend on our own life right at our very own feet.”
Seed Of Compassion And Wisdom
I don’t really think of Zen students or Zen teachers. I think of Zen practitioners. We are all practitioners, whether we practice a lot or a little. Whether as a student or a teacher, our job is to practice. For those of us who are laypeople, we will sometimes be able to practice a lot, and sometimes only a little. But we need to keep practicing. As students, that is the biggest gift we can give our sangha. As teachers, that is the bone of teaching. But how do we encourage each other?
I was going through the Kwan Um website and came across a letter that Zen Master Soeng Hyang (Barbara Rhodes) wrote to her sister in 1978, a year after receiving inka but long before she was Zen Master Soeng Hyang. She was about to sit a 100-day retreat, and her sister wanted to know why. Bobby wrote, “The world is full of suffering. How can it be stopped? Every human being has a seed of compassion and wisdom that must be very carefully nurtured. It is our responsibility to find this seed and do everything we can to make it grow.
“First, you must believe that you have this seed. Then you must ask yourself with all the strength you have, ‘What is this seed?’ If you truly search for it, you will understand that everyone is just like you. Everyone has it. You will have no more desire for yourself; you will only want to teach everyone how to find their seed.
“Enlightenment is believing in yourself. Enlightenment is finding your seed. But your job is not over yet. Your mind must become strong enough to be totally wise and compassionate moment to moment in any situation.”
So that’s what we need to do: find that seed and nourish it to flower into compassion. To see this seed in others so that, without our having to say anything directly, their own seed is encouraged to flower.
That’s what Zen Master Seung Sahn was like. He didn’t have to say it directly, but it was clear that he really believed in us. And that’s what we have to offer each other: to really believe in each other. To believe in our don’t-know mind, our strong center, our direction. To believe in our Buddha nature: yours, mine, everyone’s. To me, that’s the essence of being a Zen student: practicing and nourishing that seed in ourselves and in everyone else
By Zen Master Bon Hae