Dropping Ashes on the Buddha: The Teachings of Zen Master Seung Sahn

Dropping Ashes on the Buddha: The Teachings of Zen Master Seung Sahn

by Stephen Mitchell


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“Somebody comes into the Zen center with a lighted cigarette, walks up to the Buddha statue, blows smoke in its face, and drops ashes on its lap. You are standing there. What can you do?” This is a problem that Zen Master Seung Sahn is fond of posing to his American students who attend his Zen centers. Dropping Ashes on the Buddha is a delightful, irreverent, and often hilariously funny living record of the dialogue between Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn and his American students. Consisting of dialogues, stories, formal Zen interviews, Dharma speeches, and letters using the Zen Master’s actual words in spontaneous, living interaction with his students, this book is a fresh presentation of the Zen teaching method of “instant dialogue” between Master and student which, through the use of astonishment and paradox, leads to an understanding of ultimate reality.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802130525
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 02/18/1994
Edition description: Reissue
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 204,181
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Stephen Mitchell's many books include The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, The Book of Job, Tao Te Ching, Parables and Portraits, The Gospel According to Jesus, Meetings with the Archangel, and The Frog Prince.

Read an Excerpt


Zen Is Understanding Yourself

One day a student from Chicago came to the Providence Zen Center and asked Seung Sahn Soen-sa, "What is Zen?"

Soen-sa held his Zen stick above his head and said, "Do you understand?"

The student said, "I don't know."

Soen-sa said, "This don't-know mind is you. Zen is understanding yourself."

"What do you understand about me? Teach me."

Soen-sa said, "In a cookie factory, different cookies are baked in the shape of animals, cars, people, and airplanes. They all have different names and forms, but they are all made from the same dough, and they all taste the same.

"In the same way, all things in the universe — the sun, the moon, the stars, mountains, rivers, people, and so forth — have different names and forms, but they are all made from the same substance. The universe is organized into pairs of opposites: light and darkness, man and woman, sound and silence, good and bad. But all these opposites are mutual, because they are made from the same substance. Their names and their forms are different, but their substance is the same. Names and forms are made by your thinking. If you are not thinking and have no attachment to name and form, then all substance is one. Your don't-know mind cuts off all thinking. This is your substance. The substance of this Zen stick and your own substance are the same. You are this stick; this stick is you."

The student said, "Some philosophers say this substance is energy, or mind, or God, or matter. Which is the truth?"

Soen-sa said, "Four blind men went to the zoo and visited the elephant. One blind man touched its side and said, 'The elephant is like a wall.' The next blind man touched its trunk and said, 'The elephant is like a snake.' The next blind man touched its leg and said, 'The elephant is like a column.' The last blind man touched its tail and said, 'The elephant is like a broom.' Then the four blind men started to fight, each one believing that his opinion was the right one. Each only understood the part he had touched; none of them understood the whole.

"Substance has no name and no form. Energy, mind, God, and matter are all name and form. Substance is the Absolute. Having name and form is having opposites. So the whole world is like the blind men fighting among themselves. Not understanding yourself is not understanding the truth. That is why there is fighting among ourselves. If all the people in the world understood themselves, they would attain the Absolute. Then the world would be at peace. World peace is Zen."

The student said, "How can practicing Zen make world peace?"

Soen-sa said, "People desire money, fame, sex, food, and rest. All this desire is thinking. Thinking is suffering. Suffering means no world peace. Not thinking is not suffering. Not suffering means world peace. World peace is the Absolute. The Absolute is I."

The student said, "How can I understand the Absolute?"

Soen-sa said, "You must understand yourself."

"How can I understand myself?"

Soen-sa held up the Zen stick and said, "Do you see this?"

He then quickly hit the table with the stick and said, "Do you hear this? This stick, this sound, and your mind — are they the same or different?

The student said, "The same."

Soen-sa said, "If you say they are the same, I will hit you thirty times. If you say they are different, I will still hit you thirty times. Why?"

The student was silent.

Soen-sa shouted "KATZ!!!" Then he said, "Spring comes, the grass grows by itself."


The Zen Circle

One evening, at the Providence Zen Center, Seung Sahn Soen-sa gave the following Dharma Speech:

"What is Zen? Zen is understanding myself. What am I?

"I explain Zen by means of a circle. There are five points marked on the circle: zero degrees, ninety degrees, one-hundred-eighty degrees, two-hundred-seventy degrees, and three-hundred-sixty degrees. 360° is exactly the same point as 0°.

"We begin from 0° to 90°. This is the area of thinking and attachment. Thinking is desire, desire is suffering. All things are separated into opposites: good and bad, beautiful and ugly, mine and yours. I like this; I don't like that. I try to get happiness and avoid suffering. So life here is suffering, and suffering is life.

"Past 90° is the area of the Consciousness or Karma I. Below 90° there is attachment to name and form. Here there is attachment to thinking. Before you were born, you were zero; now you are one; in the future, you will die and again become zero. So zero equals one, one equals zero. All things here are the same, because they are of the same substance. All things have name and form, but their names and forms come from emptiness and will return to emptiness. This is still thinking.

"At 180° there is no thinking at all. This is the experience of true emptiness. Before thinking, there are no words and no speech. So there are no mountains, no rivers, no God, no Buddha, nothing at all. There is only ..." At this point Soen-sa hit the table.

"Next is the area up to 270°, the area of magic and miracles. Here, there is complete freedom, with no hindrance in space or time. This is called live thinking. I can change my body into a snake's. I can ride a cloud to the Western Heaven. I can walk on water. If I want life, I have life; if I want death, I have death. In this area, a statue can cry; the ground is not dark or light; the tree has no roots; the valley has no echo.

"If you stay at 180°, you become attached to emptiness. If you stay at 270°, you become attached to freedom.

"At 360°, all things are just as they are; the truth is just like this. 'Like this' means that there is no attachment to anything. This point is exactly the same as the zero point: we arrive where we began, where we have always been. The difference is that 0° is attachment thinking, while 360° is no-attachment thinking.

"For example, if you drive a car with attachment thinking, your mind will be somewhere else and you will go through the red light. No-attachment thinking means that your mind is clear all the time. When you drive, you aren't thinking; you are just driving. So the truth is just like this. Red light means Stop; green light means Go. It is intuitive action. Intuitive action means acting without any desire or attachment. My mind is like a clear mirror, reflecting everything just as it is. Red comes, and the mirror becomes red; yellow comes, and the mirror becomes yellow. This is how a Bodhisattva lives. I have no desires for myself. My actions are for all people.

"0° is Small I. 90° is Karma I. 180° is Nothing I. 270° is Freedom I. 360° is Big I. Big I is infinite time, infinite space. So there is no life and no death. I only wish to save all people. If people are happy, I am happy; if people are sad, I am sad.

"Zen is reaching 360°. When you reach 360°, all degrees on the circle disappear. The circle is just a Zen teaching-device. It doesn't really exist. We use it to simplify thinking and to test a student's understanding."

Soen-sa then held up a book and a pencil and said, "This book and this pencil — are they the same or different? At 0°, they are different. At 90°, since all things are one, the book is the pencil, the pencil is the book. At 180°, all thinking is cut off, so there are no words and no speech. The answer is only ..." Here Soen-sa hit the table. "At 270°, there is perfect freedom, so a good answer is: the book is angry, the pencil laughs. Finally, at 360°, the truth is just like this. Spring comes, the grass grows by itself. Inside it is light, outside it is dark. Three times three equals nine. Everything is as it is. So the answer here is: the book is the book, the pencil is the pencil.

"So at each point the answer is different. Which one is the correct answer? Do you understand?

"Now here is an answer for you: all five answers are wrong.


After waiting a few moments, Soen-sa shouted "KATZ!!!" and then said, "The book is blue, the pencil is yellow. If you understand this, you will understand yourself.

"But if you understand yourself, I will hit you thirty times. And if you don't understand yourself, I will still hit you thirty times.


After again waiting a few moments, Soen-sa said, "It is very cold today."


My Dharma Is Too Expensive

Once a student came to Zen Master Hyang Bong and said, "Master, please teach me the Dharma."

Hyang Bong said, "I'm sorry, but my Dharma is very expensive."

"How much does it cost?"

"How much can you pay?"

The student put his hand into his pocket and took out some coins. "This is all the money I have."

"Even if you offered me a pile of gold as big as a mountain," said Hyang Bong, "my Dharma would still be too expensive."

So the student went off to practice Zen. After a few months of hard training, he returned to Hyang Bong and said, "Master, I will give you my life, I will do anything for you, I will be your slave. Please teach me."

Hyang Bong said, "Even if you offered me a thousand lives, my Dharma would still be too expensive."

Quite dejected, the student went off again. After several more months of hard training, he returned and said, "I will give you my mind. Will you teach me now?"

Hyang Bong said, "Your mind is a pail of stinking garbage. I have no use for it. And even if you offered me ten thousand minds, my Dharma would still be too expensive."

Again the student left to do hard training. After some time he came to an understanding that the whole universe is empty. So he returned to the Master and said, "Now I understand how expensive your Dharma is."

Hyang Bong said, "How expensive is it?"

The student shouted "KATZ!!!"

Hyang Bong said, "No, it's more expensive than that."

This time, when he left, the student was thoroughly confused and in deep despair. He vowed not to see the Master again until he had attained the supreme awakening. Eventually that day came, and he returned. "Master, now I truly understand: the sky is blue, the grass is green."

"No no no," said Hyang Bong. "My Dharma is even more expensive than that."

At this, the student grew furious. "I already understand, I don't need your Dharma, you can take it and shove it up your ass!"

Hyang Bong laughed. That made the student even angrier. He wheeled around and stomped out of the room. Just as he was going out the door, Hyang Bong called to him, "Wait a minute!"

The student turned his head.

"Don't lose my Dharma," said Hyang Bong.

Upon hearing these words, the student was enlightened.


Advice to a Beginner

February 16, 1975

Dear Soen-sa-nim,

Wednesday evening I attended a discussion you presented at Yale with the assistance of two students. I was keenly interested in merely seeing you and in hearing your words and in seeing other interested people, because my interest in Zen has so far developed solely through my own efforts, and my knowledge of it has come only through books. And this approach has made Zen seem remote and inapplicable to this time and life. This has, in turn, generated some feelings that my interest in Zen is an unhealthy attempt to escape this world that I do not understand. Seeing other live people, functioning with ease in this world, relieves some of those feelings and encourages my interest in Zen. This direct experience with Zen also releases a flood of questions about Zen practice. And, finally, we arrive at the point of this letter.

Can you recommend a specific method of zazen for a beginner? I have been practicing about one month, sitting, counting exhalations to ten. Do you recommend I continue this method or change? Also, can you give advice on the way to function day-to-day prior to a final understanding? I try doing what has to be done without discursive thinking, with some success; but I have not dispelled a conviction that there is or should be a more concrete guideline for action. I think, particularly, about certain precepts I've read, sixteen in all. Are these precepts just for those who have attained understanding — ways of acting that come only from that understanding? Or can they be applied externally to one without the final understanding, serving as a reference point for actions along the way to attaining understanding?

I have also read of an event termed sesshin in which lay people spend a week or so at a temple or center to practice and speak with a Master. Do your centers have such events? If so, please forward specific details.

I am also encountering some confusion in the relation of actual practice to the verbal history of Zen, verbal examples and explanations of the final understanding, etc. I have read histories, examples, and explanations enough to feel I agree intellectually and can comprehend with my reason. But I do not understand in my bones, because there has been no direct experience. So, I agree with those who say that we can't reach understanding through words; it must come through practice. But you use words to help students understand. And I don't understand. In reading, I have thought and thought and always come to that brick wall beyond which words cannot go. So I've pretty much stopped trying to reason out what the words may indicate and try only to practice, sitting zazen and thinking about who or what writes these words, eats, sleeps, etc. But I wonder if I am giving up on words without truly exhausting them? I fear this is a confused accounting of confused thoughts, but perhaps you can see through all my delusions.

I have taken enough of your time and greatly appreciate your attention to my questions.

Sincerely, Patricia

February 23, 1975

Dear Patricia,

Thank you for your letter. How are you?

In your letter, you said that you have read many books about Zen. That's good. But if you are thinking, you can't understand Zen. Anything that can be written in a book, anything that can be said — all this is thinking. If you are thinking, then all Zen books, all Buddhist sutras, all Bibles are demons' words. But if you read with a mind that has cut off all thinking, then Zen books, sutras, and Bibles are all the truth. So is the barking of a dog or the crowing of a rooster: all things are teaching you at every moment, and these sounds are even better teaching than Zen books. So Zen is keeping the mind which is before thinking. Sciences and academic studies are after thinking. We must return to before thinking. Then we will attain our true self.

In your letter you said that your practice has been counting exhalations to ten. This method is not good, not bad. It is possible to practice in this way when you are sitting. But when you are driving, when you are talking, when you are watching television, when you are playing tennis — how is it possible to count your breaths then? Sitting is only a small part of practicing Zen. The true meaning of sitting Zen is to cut off all thinking and to keep not-moving mind. So I ask you: What are you? You don't know; there is only "I don't know." Always keep this don't-know mind. When this don't-know mind becomes clear, then you will understand. So if you keep don't-know mind when you are driving, this is driving Zen. If you keep it when you are talking, this is talking Zen. If you keep it when you are watching television, this is television Zen. You must keep don't-know mind always and everywhere. This is the true practice of Zen.

The Great Way is not difficult if you do not make distinctions.
Only throw away likes and dislikes,
and everything will be perfectly clear.

So throw away all opinions, all likes and dislikes, and only keep the mind that doesn't know. This is very important. Don't-know mind is the mind that cuts off all thinking. When all thinking has been cut off, you become empty mind. This is before thinking. Your before-thinking mind, my before-thinking mind, all people's before-thinking minds are the same. This is your substance. Your substance, my substance, and the substance of the whole universe become one. So the tree, the mountain, the cloud, and you become one. Then I ask you: Are the mountain and you the same or different? If you say "the same," I will hit you thirty times. If you say "different," I will still hit you thirty times. Why?

The mind that becomes one with the universe is before thinking. Before thinking there are no words. "Same" and "different" are opposites words; they are from the mind that separates all things. That is why I will hit you if you say either one. So what would be a good answer? If you don't understand, only keep don't-know mind for a while, and you will soon have a good answer. If you do, please send it to me.

You asked why I use words to teach, if understanding through words is impossible. Words are not necessary. But they are very necessary. If you are attached to words, you cannot return to your true self. If you are not attached to words, soon you will attain enlightenment. So if you are thinking, words are very bad. But if you are not thinking, all words and all things that you can see or hear or smell or taste or touch will help you. So it is very important for you to cut off your thinking and your attachment to words.


Excerpted from "Dropping Ashes on the Buddha"
by .
Copyright © 1976 The Providence Zen Center, Inc..
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1. Zen Is Understanding Yourself,
2. The Zen Circle,
3. My Dharma Is Too Expensive,
4. Advice to a Beginner,
5. Inside, Outside,
6. A Child Asks About Death,
7. Who Needs a Zen Master,
8. You Are Attached!,
9. About the Heart Sutra,
10. Not Difficult, Not Easy,
11. A Dharma Speech,
12. What Is One Plus Two?,
13. What To Do About Noise,
14. You Must Become Completely Crazy,
15. The Story of Ko Bong,
16. How Can the Buddha Be Smiling?,
17. Apples and Oranges,
18. Kong-an Blues,
19. The 84,000 Levels of Enlightenment,
20. What Is Freedom?,
21. The Great Treasure,
22. The Moon of Clear Mind,
23. What Have You Brought Here?,
24. Enlightened and Unenlightened Are Empty Names,
25. Why We Chant,
26. A Dharma Speech,
27. The Story of Won Hyo,
28. Porcupines in Rat-Holes,
29. Practicing Zen,
30. It Is Your Mind That Is Moving,
31. Bodhisattva Attachment,
32. Five Kinds of Zen,
33. The Color of Snow,
34. Don't-Know Mind, Continued,
35. Zen and Tantra,
36. The 10,000 Questions Are One Question,
37. Buddha Is Grass Shoes,
38. Three Interviews,
39. When the Lights Go Off, What?,
40. Testing the Mind,
41. What Is Death?,
42. Wanting Enlightenment,
43. The True Way for Women,
44. Can You See Your Eyes?,
45. Special Medicine and Big Business,
46. Miracles,
47. A Dharma Speech,
48. A Little Thinking, A Little Sparring,
49. No-Attainment Is Attainment,
50. True Sitting Zen,
51. Samadhi vs. Satori,
52. Lin-Chi's KATZ,
53. Nirvana and Anuttara Samyak Sambodhi,
54. Zen and the Arts,
55. Plastic Flowers, Plastic Mind,
56. True Emptiness,
57. You Must Wake Up!,
58. More Ashes on the Buddha,
59. The Story of Su Tung-p'o,
60. What Nature Is Saying to You,
61. It,
62. Small Love and Big Love,
63. Does the Cat Have Buddha-Nature?,
64. Out of the Depths,
65. Funny,
66. The Story of Kyong Ho,
67. Bodhisattva Sin,
68. A Dharma Speech,
69. The True Way,
70. Sex Mind=Zen Mind?,
71. Keen-Eyed Lions and Blind Dogs,
72. Original Sound, Original Body,
73. The Story of Mang Gong,
74. Mang Gong Explains His KATZ,
75. The Transmission of No-Mind,
76. Inside the Cow's Belly,
77. Today Is Buddha's Birthday. The Sun Is Shining.,
78. Dok Sahn and His Stick,
79. All Things Are Your Teachers,
80. Who Makes One?,
81. What Is Your Star?,
82. The Story of Sul,
83. Dialogue with Swami X,
84. Big Mistake,
85. Language-Route and Dharma-Route,
86. The Tathagata,
87. Bodhidharma and I,
88. Correspondence with an Ordained American Lawyer,
89. Saving All People,
90. Dialogue at Tal Mah Sah,
91. The Boat Monk,
92. When the Bell Is Rung, Stand Up,
93. The Story of Mun Ik,
94. What Did You Say?,
95. Much Ado About Nothing,
96. An Ambush in the Fields of Dharma,
97. Un-Mun's Short-Answer Zen,
98. Ko Bong Explains a Poem,
99. The Story of Seung Sahn Soen-Sa,
100. What Is Love?,

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