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Don't-Know Mind: The Spirit of Korean Zen

Don't-Know Mind: The Spirit of Korean Zen

by Richard Shrobe

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"Don't-know mind" is our enlightened mind before ideas, opinions, or concepts arise to create suffering. Practicing with don't-know mind has long been a central concern of Korean Zen. Here, an American Zen master in the Korean lineage brings the teaching to life by using stories about the Chinese and Korean Zen masters as jumping-off points for his own teaching.


"Don't-know mind" is our enlightened mind before ideas, opinions, or concepts arise to create suffering. Practicing with don't-know mind has long been a central concern of Korean Zen. Here, an American Zen master in the Korean lineage brings the teaching to life by using stories about the Chinese and Korean Zen masters as jumping-off points for his own teaching. Don't-Know Mind is a clear, direct, and heartfelt presentation of Zen teaching applicable to anyone, both for formal practice and for all the rest of life.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Shrobe, a therapist who heads a Korean Zen Buddhist center in New York, guides students lightly through the history of that branch of Zen. He cites major teachers and their teachings, including poems, other writings and kong-ans (koans, or logic-defying riddles), then comments on and interprets them. This sketch of lineage provides a grounding glimpse of a spiritual tradition that works by challenging practitioners about their attachment to whatever grounds them or makes them know with certainty. Zen is that most slippery body of teachings about human knowing, and Shrobe does a fine job of unpacking stories and words for meaning without getting lost in the conceptualization that Zen debunks. Because explanation through concepts can be misleading in Zen, he "explains" key Korean Zen teachings through examples and stories from past master practitioners rather than using abstract ideas. ("Not explaining, not understanding is the transcendence of ideas, concepts, words and speech.") As is often the case with Zen teachers, this book is a transcribed series of talks. Shrobe's words lack the lyrical quality that often graces the spare prose of such Zen masters as Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, but his language possesses the sharp-edged simple diction characteristic of Zen teaching. ("`Still not far off' that is called Zen faith.") The book is short, but will be particularly helpful for Korean Zen students deepening their practice. (May) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher
"Shrobe does a fine job of unpacking stories and words for meaning without getting lost in the conceptualization that Zen debunks."—Publishers Weekly

"Reading Richard Shrobe's Don't-Know Mind is like drinking a glass of cold water when you are thirsty. Clean, clear, and bright like the author himself, it brings fresh life to the teachings of Korean Zen. If you have ever grappled with how to bring the essence of traditional Zen into your everyday life, this is the book for you."—Jane Dobisz, author of The Wisdom of Solitude: A Zen Retreat in the Woods

"Wonderful! Wonderful! But too many words! How do you attain the point of these many words and speech? Go to the kitchen and drink a glass of cold water!"—Zen Master Seung Sahn, author of The Compass of Zen

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Chapter 1: Ma-Tsu's Four Words and One Hundred Negations

Can this matter of Zen be explained or not?

Can this matter of Zen be understood or not?

If you say that it can be explained and understood,

then you are attaching to words and concepts and

miss the basic fact. On the other hand, if you

say it cannot be understood, then how can the

Dharma be taught to all beings?

What can you do?

Look clearly!

crow's head is black.

crane's head is white.

koan) is a phrase from a Buddhist scripture or an episode from the life of an ancient Zen master that points to the nature of ultimate reality. Paradoxical in nature, kong-ans cannot be comprehended by the rational mind and require that one make a leap beyond conceptual thought to another level of understanding. ''Four Words and One Hundred Negations'' is an old Zen story and kong-an that appears both in
Blue Cliff Record
Book of Serenity
(two important collections of kong-ans accompanied by commentaries). This is how it goes:

A monk asked Great Master Ma, ''Please, Master, going beyond the 'four words and one hundred negations,' directly point out to me the meaning of the coming from the West.'' Master Ma said, ''I'm tired today and can't explain to you. Go ask Chih-tsang.'' When the monk asked Chih-tsang, Chih-tsang said, ''Why didn't you ask the Master? '' The monk replied, ''The Master had me come ask you.''
Tsang told him, ''I have a headache today. I can't explain to you. Go ask Elder
Brother Hai.'' So the monk then asked Elder Brother Hai (also known as
Pai-chang). Hai said, ''At this point, all the more I don't understand.'' When the monk related this to Great Master Ma, Master Ma said, ''Tsang's head is white, Hai's head is black.''

Before examining the case (kong-ans are often referred to as ''cases'' because the term originally referred to legal cases that constituted precedents), I
want to say a little about the cast of characters. The three monks named here have a strong connection not only to the Chinese Zen tradition, but also to the
Korean Zen tradition. Of these three, a lot has been written about Great Master
Ma, whose full name is Ma-tsu Tao-i (Jap., Baso Doitsu; Kor., Ma Jo). There is also a fair amount about Zen Master Pai-chang (Jap., Hyakujo; Kor., Baek Jang).
But there is little written about Chih-tsang of His-t'ang (Jap., Jizo; Kor., Ji

Chih-tsang, who was born in 735 CE, became a novice monk and began following a teacher when he was eight years old. When he was twenty-five, he took full monk's precepts. Later, hearing about the Zen teaching that Great Master Ma-tsu was giving in the mountains, Chih-tsang went to be his student and eventually became his successor.

Ma-tsu was well known and had hundreds of students, but only 139 earned his permission to teach and start Zen groups in different parts of China. Among those 139, Chih-tsang, Pai-chang, and Nan-ch'uan (Jap., Nansen; Kor., Nam
Cheon) were considered the greatest. When Ma-tsu died, the monks in his assembly asked Chih-tsang to teach in Ma-tsu's place. He taught for many years before passing away in 814.

A few other stories about Chih-tsang have survived. One tells of the time
Ma-tsu sent him to take a letter to the national teacher at the capital. When
Chih-tsang got there, the national teacher asked him, ''What kind of teaching is Ma-tsu giving these days?''

Chih-tsang, without opening his mouth, walked from the east side of the hall to the west side, then stood still. The national teacher asked, ''Only that? Or is there something else besides?''

Chih-tsang then walked from the west side of the hall back to the east and again stood still.

The national teacher then said, ''That's what you have learned from Ma-tsu, but what do you have that's your own?'' Chih-tsang replied, ''I've already shown you, Master.''

Chih-tsang makes
statement when he walks from east to west, west to east, and then stands still. When the national teacher says, ''
is your teacher's, but what is
Chih tsang replies, ''I've already shown you.'' Zen is not necessarily about developing some kind of originality. Zen is about digesting and assimilating clear perception and clear understanding. If originality emerges, then originality emerges.

When Chih-tsang first left Ma-tsu's temple, he established his own teaching center. Once a layman came for an interview and asked Chih-tsang, ''Is there heaven and hell?''

Chih-tsang answered, ''Yes, there is.''

The layman then asked, ''Do the three jewels of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha exist?''

''Yes, they do.''

The layman asked many more questions of a philosophical nature, and with each one, Chih-tsang answered in the affirmative. Finally the layman asked, ''Don't you make a mistake by answering this way?''

Chih-tsang replied, ''Have you called on other teachers before?"

The layman said he had called on Zen Master Ching-shan.

''What did Ching-shan have to say?'' Chih-tsang asked.

''Ching-shan said that none of these things exist.''

Chih-tsang then inquired, ''Do you have a wife?'' The layman said he did.
''Does Zen Master Ching-shan have a wife?''

''No, he doesn't.'' Then Chih-tsang commented, ''Well, for him it's appropriate to say none of these things exist.'' The layman bowed, thanked him for his teaching, then left.

Around this time, the late 700s to early 800s—long before Zen went into Japan or any of the countries of Southeast Asia—monks came to China from Korea and studied with a number of Great Master Ma-tsu's students. After returning to
Korea, they founded what became known as the Nine Mountains Schools, the earliest Zen tradition in Korea. The schools were not different in their teaching, but were located on nine different mountains. Three of the founding masters were students of Chih-tsang, including Zen Master Toui, who died in
825. He had gone to China in 784 and returned to Korea in 818. Actually, both
Chih-tsang and Pai-chang recognized his ability and sanctioned him as a teacher.

Meet the Author

Richard Shrobe (Zen Master Wu Kwang) is the guiding teacher of the Chogye International Zen Center in New York City. For more than twenty-five years he has been teaching in the Kwan Um School of Zen, the largest Zen organization in America. He is a musician, a social worker, and a certified Gestalt psychotherapist in private practice. He is also the author of Open Mouth Already a Mistake.

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