In the past, Kong-an (koan) practicing meant checking someone’s enlightenment. Now we use kong-ans to make our lives correct. . . . You must use kong-ans to take away your opinions. When you take away your opinions, your mind is clear like space, which means from moment to moment you can reflect any situation and respond correctly and meticulously.
Clear mind is like the full moon in the sky. Sometimes clouds come and cover it, but the moon is always behind them. Clouds go away, and then the moon shines brightly. So don’t worry about clear mind: it is always there. When thinking comes, behind it is clear mind. When thinking goes, there is only clear mind. Thinking comes and goes, comes and goes; you must not be attached to the coming or the going.
Birth: Seung Sahn Haeng Won Dae Soen-sa was born Dok-In Lee in Seun Choen, Korea (now North Korea) in 1927 to Presbyterian parents.
Realization: One day Soen-sa decided that he wouldn’t be able to help people through his political activities or his academic studies. So he shaved his head and went into the mountains, vowing never to return until he had attained the absolute truth. Seung Sahn then performed a one-hundred day solitary retreat in the mountains of Korea, living on a diet of pine needles and rain water. It is said he attained enlightenment on this retreat.
Death: Seung Sahn died shortly after on November 30, 2004 at age 77 in his homeland of Korea at Hwa Gae Sah, the first temple he served as abbot for starting in 1957.
Teaching Style: Seung Sahn implemented the use of simple phraseology to convey his messages, delivered with charisma, which helped make the teachings easier to consume for Western followers. Some of his more frequently employed phrases included “only go straight” or “only don’t know”. Seung Sahn used correspondences between himself and his students as teaching opportunities. Back-and-forth letters allowed for a kind of Dharma combat via the mail, and made him more available to the school’s students in his absence.
Fame: Known for his exuberant teaching style, boundless energy, and compassionate wisdom, Zen Master Seung Sahn was a Korean Jogye Seon master and founder of the international Kwan Um School of Zen—the largest school of Zen present in the Western world. He was the seventy-eighth teacher in his lineage. As one of the first Korean Zen masters to settle in the United States, he opened many temples and practice groups across the globe. He was known for his charismatic style and direct presentation of Zen, which was well tailored for the Western audience. He was conferred the honorific (Great honored Zen master) title of Dae Soen Sa Nim in June 2004 by the Jogye order for a lifetime of achievements.
Legacy: Seung Sahn received from Ko Bong (the 77th Korean Buddhist Partiarch) the Transmission of Dharma, thus becoming the Seventy-Eighth Patriarch in this line of succession. It was the only Transmission that Ko Bong ever gave. He takes over for Ko Bong as abbot of Hwa Gae Sah in Seoul, South Korea in 1957. He left behind a legacy of enlightened men and women from all over the world, as well as Zen centers around the globe.
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 dwelling in the realm “before thought” – and serving others.
In his teaching, Zen Master Seung Sahn emphasized sitting meditation, koan study and compassionate action.
He told that you must first make a firm decision to attain Enlightenment and help others. You already have the five or ten precepts. Know when to keep them and when to break them, when they are open and when they are closed. Let go of your small self and become your true self.
According to him human beings also kill animals not just for food. They take the animals’ skin to make shoes and hats and clothes. And even that is not enough. They take these animals’ bones to make necklaces or buttons or earrings. In short, they kill many, many animals in order to sell the animal parts for money. Because of these desires and this strong animal consciousness, human beings fight with each other, and destroy nature. They do not value life. So now this whole world has many problems; problems with the water, problems with the air, problems with the earth and food. Many new problems appear every day. These problems do not happen by accident. Human beings make each and every one of these problems. Dogs, cats, or lions, or snakes – no animal makes as many problems for this world as human beings do. Humans do not understand their true nature, so they use their thinking and desire to create so much suffering for this world. That is why some people say that human beings are the number one bad animal in this world. So human beings must soon wake up and find their original seeds, their original nature.