Saturday, June 29, 2013

What is Zen? - According to Zen Master Seung Sahn

The class on Dropping Ashes on the Buddha is ready to go! If you click the link, it is BST517 under the Buddhist Studies heading. An earlier post mentions the ideas for coming up with the class. A short 6 months later and the class is done.

Putting together this class was a lot more involved than the other two classes I have prepared. This was because it is not a linear start on page one and go through to page 232 type of book study. Instead, a selection of readings has been chosen to illustrate Zen Master Seung Sahn's teachings and teaching style across several topics. Over the next few blog posts, the various topics will be highlighted. The class started by briefly looking at the Diamond and Heart Sutras as discussed by Zen Master Seung Sahn in another book of his called The Compass of Zen. This was done to put into context the Zen Master's teachings.

Following that, the next topic was Zen - as in, how does Zen Master Seugn Sahn answer the question: What is Zen? Ultimately, by combing through several sections in the book the following list was arrived at:
  • Zen is understanding your [true] self
  • Keeping Don't Know mind (Answer to the great question "What is This?")
  • Reaching 360 degrees on the Zen circle*
  • Keeping the mind that is before thinking
  • Everyday mind
  • To become clear
  • Understanding life and death

Once again it is a marvelous book if you are interested in Zen. And all of these answers are much more fleshed out in the book and the class. If you want to study it with us at Buddha Dharma University, the class will begin this quarter.

* - The Zen circle is a teaching device Zen Master Seung Sahn used for a while. It is covered in section 2 of Dropping Ashes on the Buddha.

Attachment to Emptiness

If a Zen teacher poses the following question (assuming he has a pen and a cup):

  This pen and this cup are they the same or different?

How can you answer?

Seems like such a silly question. Anybody who looks at the two objects can clearly see a pen and a cup. So why would a spiritual teacher ask this?

In an earlier post, the Heart Sutra and Sunyata were discussed. In the Heart Sutra it says "Form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form."

What is this emptiness? Also known as Sunyata, the short version is that life can be viewed as transitory and without independent existence. A simple example is me and the sound I am hearing now. The human ears don't exist in a vacuum. The inner ear needs contact from the sound's waves for the sound to make an impression.

With that simple example in mind. Are the pen and the cup the same or different? If you were to answer "the same", the teacher would likely say: "You are attached to emptiness." Because the student was stuck in the absolute where there is no difference between things. Difference is made by thinking. If you were to answer "different", the teacher would likely say: "You are attached to name and form." How can you win?

Different teachers have different styles. Zen Master Seung Sahn might have said something like "If you say the same, I will hit you 30 times. If you say different, I will hit you thirty times." I never heard of Seung Sahn actually hitting people. It was more of a teaching mechanism.

So back to the question. What answer would a Zen teacher accept?