"Like two arrows meeting in the air, this extraordinary book meets the mind point. Please relax and enjoy it."—Joan Halifax, author of The Fruitful Darkness
The Compass of Zenby Seung Sahn, Stephen Mitchell, Hyon Gak
The Compass of Zen is a simple, exhaustive—and often hilarious—presentation of the essence of Zen by a modern Zen Master of considerable renown. In his many years of teaching throughout the world, the Korean-born Zen Master Seung Sahn has become known for his ability to cut to the heart of Buddhist teaching in a way that is strikingly clear, yet free of esoteric and academic language. In this book, based largely on his talks, he presents the basic teachings of Buddhism and Zen in a way that is wonderfully accessible for beginners—yet so rich with stories, insights, and personal experiences that long-time meditation students will also find it a source of inspiration and a resource for study.
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Read an Excerpt
Chapter 1: The Purposes of Buddhism
instruct all beings.
centuries ago, the Greek philosopher Socrates used to walk through the streets
and marketplaces of Athens, teaching his students. He would say to them, "You
must understand yourself! You must understand yourself! You must understand
yourself." Then one day a student said, "Sir, you always say we must understand
ourselves. But do you understand yourself?"
"No, I don't know myself," Socrates replied. "But I understand this 'don't
know.'" This is a very interesting teaching. Buddhist practice points at the
same experience, because most human beings pass through their lives without the
slightest sense of what they are.
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
questions, 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 out who they are, how can they ever be truly
The Buddha came from a royal family in India some twenty-five hundred years
ago. He was a prince, named Siddhartha Gautama. He had a very good situation.
In the palace he had everything he wanted: good food, good clothes, many
beautiful women, a high seat, and a very good position. He was the son of the
king, and someday he would inherit a powerful kingdom. That's very wonderful!
But inside, Siddhartha was very unhappy, because he could not understand who he
was. He could not understand life or death. He was deeply saddened that all
beings must eventually get sick, grow old, and die. This gave him a big
question about his own nature and the nature of all beings. "What am I? I
don't know. . . ." At that time in India, the Brahmin religion of Hinduism
was followed by nearly everyone. But Brahmanism could not give the young prince
the correct answer to his burning question. So he was even more unhappy.
"Why do human beings come into this world? Why do we eat every day? What
am I?" He ate food, but there was no taste. Heard music, but it gave him
no pleasure. The beautiful palace became like a prison.
One night, Siddhartha left the palace. He left his family, his beautiful
wife, and his infant child, cut off all his hair, and became a monk. Then he
went to the mountains. For six years he practiced very, very hard. "What
am I? Don't know . . ." He courageously kept this question with
one-pointed determination. Then one morning, while sitting in meditation under
the Bodhi tree, he saw the morning star in the eastern sky. At that
moment—BOOM—Siddhartha and this star completely became one. He realized his
true substance. He realized that his mind was the universe—infinite in time
and space—and the whole universe was nothing other than his own mind. He
realized there is no life and no death. Nothing ever comes or goes. We say that
he woke up and attained his true nature. He completely attained human
consciousness: he saw that when ignorance appears, mind appears. When mind
appears, desire appears. When any kind of desire appears, life and death,
coming and going, happiness and sadness all appear. By completely keeping a
don't-know mind one hundred percent—only go straight, don't know—the Buddha
saw how to completely stop this endless cycle. He attained complete liberation
from the eternal round of birth and death in which all beings trap themselves.
He completely attained his correct way, he attained truth, and he attained the
correct kind of life he should lead. The name for that is enlightenment.
But this truth that the Buddha attained was a very high-class realization.
How could he make it function to help this suffering world? When he got
enlightenment, the Buddha perceived all sentient beings being born, suffering,
and dying; being born again, suffering, and dying; being born, again suffering,
and again dying in an endless round of torment. He saw billions upon billions
of beings caught in the beginningless cycle of birth, old age, sickness, and
death, wandering around and around and around and around, nonstop, only
following their desire, anger, and ignorance. The name for this is samsara.
"I want this. I want that. I like this. I don't like that." When he
attained enlightenment, the Buddha perceived every sentient being in a terrible
state of suffering. It was a condition to which they had become so accustomed
that it seemed normal. How would anyone ever believe what he had seen?
"How can I teach this to other people?" he thought. It was like a
man with a very high-class Ph.D. trying to teach little children what he'd
learned: how would they ever understand? Sentient beings were so controlled by
their desire minds, and so attached to their suffering way, he wondered if
anyone would ever connect with this teaching. Sutras say that for several
moments the Buddha doubted whether he should attempt to teach this. Perhaps
people would have laughed at him, or worse, killed him for his heretical
insight. The Buddha saw all this too. He could have stayed in this nirvana, his
enlightenment, a state of infinite stillness and bliss, and never come out.
But the Buddha had profound compassion for sentient beings. He got up from
his seat under the Bodhi tree, he left the stillness and bliss of nirvana, and
he went into the contentious cities and towns to teach human beings. He left
his "good situation." He did not attach to stillness and quiet. He
did not attach to his bliss. He did not stay in nirvana, a state where there is
no suffering or life or death. The Buddha returned to the noisy, fractious
world to save all beings from suffering by showing them that it was possible to
completely attain their own original nature, just as he had done. His
enlightenment experience was not for him alone. That is a very important point.
The characters for that are
ja, dae bi:
Great Love and Great Compassion. The Buddha attained enlightenment, which means
that he attained his great function and the function of all beings. This was
the beginning of Buddhism in this world.
Meet the Author
Zen Master Seung Sahn (1927–2004) was the first teacher to bring Korean Zen Buddhism to America, having already established temples in Japan and Hong Kong. In 1972 he came to the United States and started what became the Providence Zen Center, the first center in what is now the Kwan Um School of Zen, which now includes more than eighty centers and groups worldwide. His students called him Dae Soen Sa Nim, "Great Honored Zen Teacher," and he was the 78th Zen master in his line of dharma transmission in the Chogye order of Korean Buddhism. His books include The Compass of Zen, Dropping Ashes on the Buddha, Only Don't Know, and The Whole World Is a Single Flower: 365 Kong-ans for Everyday Life.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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This book always makes me think of the Laughing Buddha! Sahn brings humor to a practice that many seem to find solemn today. This reinforced my learnings from much admired teacher many years ago. Highly recommend. -Jim
As a member of the KUSZ (founded by Seung Sahn) this book meant even more to me. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and it opened my eyes to new things. You wont be dissapointed!