Dropping Ashes on the Buddha
The Teaching of Zen Master Seung Sahn
Grove Press 1976
Dropping Ashes on the Buddha has become a classic guide for Zen students. Like much of Zen literature, it is a record of a Zen master’s way with his students. What makes this book unique, however, is that when it was written Master Seung Sahn is very much alive, that his students were young Americans, and that the dialogues set down here took place in the United States. Thus, for the first time, the kong-an [koan] method may be seen applied within a thoroughly modern context.
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, Dropping Ashes on the Buddha is a fresh presentation of the Zen teaching that leads to an understanding of ultimate reality.
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 think-ing. 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 un-derstood 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 Ab-solute. 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. Suffer-ing 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.”
Advice to a Beginner
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 be-fore thinking. Then we will attain our true.self.
In your letter you said that your practice has been count-ing 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 be-fore-thinking mind, all people’s before-thinking minds are the same. This is your substance. Your substance, my sub-stance, 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.
Here is a poem for you:
Buddha said all things have Buddha-nature.
Jo-ju said the dog has no Buddha-nature.
Which one is correct?
If you open your mouth, you fall into hell.
Clouds float up to the sky.
Rain falls down to the ground.
What Is Love?
One evening, after a Dharma talk at the Cambridge Zen Center, a student asked Seung Sahn Soen-sa, “What is love?”
Soen-sa said, “I ask you: what is love?”
The student was silent.
Soen-sa said, “This is love.”
The student was still silent.
Soen-sa said, “You ask me: I ask you. This is love.”