Wanting Enlightenment Is a Big Mistake: Teachings of Zen Master Seung Sahn

Wanting Enlightenment Is a Big Mistake: Teachings of Zen Master Seung Sahn

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by Hyon Gak, Zen Master Seung Sahn

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A major figure in the transmission of Zen to the West, Zen Master Seung Sahn was known for his powerful teaching style, which was direct, surprising, and often humorous. He taught that Zen is not about achieving a goal, but about acting spontaneously from “don’t-know mind.” It is from this “before-thinking” nature, he taught, that true

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A major figure in the transmission of Zen to the West, Zen Master Seung Sahn was known for his powerful teaching style, which was direct, surprising, and often humorous. He taught that Zen is not about achieving a goal, but about acting spontaneously from “don’t-know mind.” It is from this “before-thinking” nature, he taught, that true compassion and the desire to serve others naturally arises. This collection of teaching stories, talks, and spontaneous dialogues with students offers readers a fresh and immediate encounter with one of the great Zen masters of the twentieth century.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The late Korean Zen Buddhist master Seung Sahn, who died in 2004, came from the "kill the Buddha" school of Buddhism that relishes paradox and shrewd foolishness. The playfulness of this teacher's challenges to his pupils is clearly conveyed in this compilation of short exchanges with students. These are dharma (teaching) encounters rather than the lengthier talks found in many teachers' books. When Seung Sahn is not teaching students that one plus two equals zero, he is sharply banging his Zen stick on the floor to remind them to stop thinking, or talking, in order to understand. These short pieces nicely communicate a forceful style, and they are almost philosophical for someone who reiterates the shortcomings of an intellectual understanding of things. "Primary point" is a term the master uses to explain something like an absolute, except that Buddhism constructs no absolutes. Some biographical material, including a letter the Zen Master wrote to former South Korean dictator Gen. Chun Du-Hwan, provides helpful context. Seung Sahn's students in the Kwan Um School will especially prize this collection, and its easy-to-read format should also pique the interest of students of other Zen masters. (Aug. 8) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher
“Now that Soen Sa Nim [Zen Master Seung Sahn] is gone, we have only the stories, and, thankfully, books such as this one, to help bring him alive to those who never had a chance to encounter him in the flesh. In these pages, if you linger in them long enough, and let them soak into you, you will indeed meet him in his inimitable suchness, and perhaps much more important, as would have been his hope, you will meet yourself.”—Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of Coming to Our Senses

“Zen Master Seung Sahn’s teachings will always bring great light into the world. His extraordinary wit, intelligence, courage, and compassion are brought to us in this wonderful and important book. Thousands of students have benefited from his great understanding. Now more will come to know the heart of this rare and profound human being.”—Joan Halifax, Abbot, Upaya Zen Center

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A student had the following exchange with Zen Master Seung Sahn:

‘‘What is enlightenment?’’

‘‘Enlightenment is only a name,’’ he replied. ‘‘If you make ‘enlightenment,’ then enlightenment exists. But if enlightenment exists, then ignorance exists, too. And that already makes an opposites-world. Good and bad, right and wrong, enlightened and ignorant—all of these are opposites. All opposites are just your own thinking. But truth is absolute, and is before any thinking or opposites appear. So if you make something, you will get something, and that something will be a hindrance. But if you don’t make anything, you will get everything, OK?’’

The student continued, ‘‘But is enlightenment really just a name? Doesn’t a Zen master have to attain the experience of enlightenment in order to become a Zen master?’’

‘‘The Heart Sutra says that there is ‘no attainment, with nothing to attain.’ If enlightenment is attained, it is not true enlightenment. Having enlightenment is already a big mistake.’’

‘‘Then is everyone already enlightened?’’

Dae Soen Sa Nim* laughed and said, ‘‘Do you understand ‘no attainment’ ’’?


‘‘ ‘No attainment’ is true attainment. So I already told you about the Heart Sutra. It says, ‘There is no attainment, with nothing to attain.’ You must attain ‘no attainment.’ ’’

The student rubbed his head. ‘‘I think I understand . . .’’

‘‘You understand? So I ask you, what is attainment? What is there to attain?’’

‘‘Emptiness,’’ the man replied.

‘‘Emptiness?’’ Dae Soen Sa Nim asked. ‘‘But in true emptiness, there is no name and no form. So there is also no attainment. Even opening your mouth to express it, you are already mistaken. If you say, ‘I have attained true emptiness,’ you are wrong.’’

‘‘Hmmm,’’ the student said. ‘‘I’m beginning to understand. At least I think I am.’’

‘‘The universe is always true emptiness, OK? Now you are living in a dream. Wake up! Then you will soon understand.’’

‘‘How can I wake up?’’

‘‘I hit you!’’ (Laughter from the audience.) ‘‘Very easy, yah?’’

The student was silent for a few moments, while Dae Soen Sa Nim eyed him intently. ‘‘I still don’t get it. Would you please explain a bit more?’’

‘‘OK. Can you see your eyes?’’

‘‘Yes, I can.’’

‘‘Oh? How?’’

‘‘By looking in a mirror.’’

‘‘That’s not your eyes! That is only a reflection of your eyes. So your eyes cannot see your eyes. If you try to see your eyes, it’s already a big mistake. Talking about enlightenment is also like that. It’s like your eyes trying to see your eyes.’’

‘‘But my question is, when you were a young monk, you had the actual experience of enlightenment. What was this experience?’’

‘‘I hit you! Ha ha ha ha!’’

The student was silent.

‘‘OK, one more try. Suppose we have before us some honey, some sugar, and a banana. All of them are sweet. Can you explain the difference between honey’s sweetness, sugar’s sweetness, and banana’s sweetness?’’

‘‘Hmmm . . .’’

‘‘But each has a different sweetness, yah? How can you explain it to me?’’

The student looked suddenly even more perplexed. ‘‘I don’t know . . .’’

The Zen master continued, ‘‘Well, you could say to me, ‘Open your mouth. This is honey, this is sugar, and this is banana!’ Ha ha ha ha! So if you want to understand enlightenment, it’s already making something. Don’t make anything. Moment to moment, just do it. That’s already enlightenment. So, first understand your true self. To understand your true self, you must understand the meaning of my hitting you. I have already put enlightenment into your mind. Ha ha ha ha!"
(Extended laughter from the audience)

*Dae Soen Sa Nim, meaning ‘‘Great Honored Zen Master,’’ is the title by which Zen Master Seung Sahn’s students refer to him in the West.

Shoot the Buddha!

After a Dharma talk at the Cambridge Zen Center, a young woman said to Zen Master Seung Sahn, ‘‘Tomorrow is my son’s birthday, and he told me he wants either a toy gun or money. But I have a problem: As a Zen student, I want to teach him not to hurt or crave things. So I don’t want to give him a toy gun or money. What should I do?’’

Dae Soen Sa Nim replied, ‘‘That’s very easy: buy him the toy gun! (Laughter from the audience.) If you give him money, he will only go out and buy a toy gun. (Laughter.) Today a few of us went to see a movie called Cobra, starring Sylvester Stallone. Do you know this movie? A very simple story: good guy versus bad guys. Other movies are very complicated, you know? But this movie had only two things: bad and good. Bad. Good. A very simple story.

‘‘Your son wants a toy gun. You think that that is not so good. But instead, you should view the problem as how do you use this correctly? Don’t make good or bad: how do you teach the correct function of this gun, OK? That’s very important—more important than just having a gun or not is having the wisdom to perceive the gun’s correct function. If you use this gun correctly, you can help many people, but if it is not used correctly, then maybe you will kill yourself, kill your country, kill other people. So the gun itself is originally not good, not bad. More important is: what is the correct function of this gun?

‘‘So you must teach your son: if Buddha appears, kill!! If the eminent teachers appear, kill!! If a Zen master appears, you must kill!! If demons appear, kill! This is another way of saying that if anything appears in your mind you must kill anything, OK? (Laughter.) Then you will become Buddha! (Much laughter.) So you must teach your son in this way. The gun itself is not good or bad, good or bad. These are only names. Most important is why do you do or use something: is it only for ‘me,’ or for all beings? That is the most important point to consider.’’


One day, a bookish young student of Zen Master Seung Sahn was sitting at the Providence Zen Center, diligently devouring a text, when suddenly, he felt someone patting him lightly on the shoulder. Startled, he looked back to see that the Zen master had come up quietly behind him.

‘‘You’re homesick, very homesick . . .’’ the Zen master said, continuing to pat him gently, his round face filled with soft compassion.

But this speech startled the student more than his teacher’s sudden appearance. ‘‘I do not miss my home, or my family,’’ he thought to himself. ‘‘How could he think I am homesick for those things?’’

Just as he thought this, the Zen master continued, ‘‘. . . homesick for your original home.’’

Shocked at such recognition of the sadness in his mind, the student bowed quietly.

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