Is a Big

Teachings of
Zen Master
Seung Sahn

Hyon Gak,

Wandering into Enlightment is a Big Mistake is like wandering into one of the old Olson & Johnson's stage shows called Hellzapoppin'. This guy isn't playing games, or rather, he is playing endless games to force us to see the light, his light --- that particularly spare out-of-the-mountains hard faith known as Korean Buddhism.

The idea is that you and I know nothing, or rather, by pretending to know something, we are hiding from the truth that nothing is everything and that everything is nothing ... or something like that. Thus know-nothing.

This "know-nothing" school is tough. Seung Sang tells the story of one of his students who stated, excitedly, "I am completely free!"

    "You have attained nothing-I?"

    "Yes, I have completely attained! There is no I! Ha ha ha ha!"

    "So I ask you, Who has attained nothing-I?"

    The monk said, "I have attained nothing-I."

    Dae Soen Sa Nim hit him.

    "Ouch!" Dae Soen Sa Nim said, "If you have completely attained nothing, who said 'Ouch?'"

There are fifty chapters here, some running two or three pages, some less than one. They are what we might call mini-koans, stories of questions, answers, false answers, true answers, paradoxes, fables, on such subjects as abortion, robots, sleeping, vows, frogs, rice-pots, clothes, "Shoot the Buddha!," "Zen Masters in Love," "Attaining Nothing," "What is God?" "Zen and World Peace."

One student dares to ask Master Seung Sahn if he has ever been "deeply in love with a woman." He replies, "Of course!" Who was she? Kwan Seum Bosal (the Bodhisattva of Compassion, "usually depicted in female form.") "She's a very beautiful lady! Beautiful face, beautiful necklace, beautiful clothes. Beautiful lady! ... Do you like her too?"

This is a master who is witty, curious, sometimes insulting, sometimes base, many times cutting, never at a loss for words, sometimes --- at least for some of us --- almost too harsh on his students.

His theme is: shut up the mind; you know nothing ... so stop pretending. If you want to learn the way, go off in the mountains, eat pine needles for a year, purge the ego, know that you don't know, have never known, will never know.

Some students come up with questions that make the reader admiring (such courage against such a feisty master):

"I've been told that you might be able to perform something that my thinking-mind would consider to be magical ... something my thinking mind would feel was not following the accepted laws of physics and nature."

    "I ask you, what is your thinking mind? Please give it to me. Then I'll show you magic..."

    "Well, I can't really do that."

    "So you don't understand my magic. If you want to understand my magic, first you must understand your thinking. So what is your thinking?"

    "The student replied, "My thinking mind can understand magic."

    "'My thinking mind'? What is 'my thinking mind'? Who asked me the question? Who are you?! Show me please."

    The student persisted, waving his hands. "No, no. I asked you first."

    "So I hit you thirty times, OK? What can you do?"

    The student was silent for a moment, then said weakly, "I don't know."

    "I hit you; you don't know. That's my magic."

And there you have it: the intersection of power and paradox, which takes one over (on the stage, on the page). The first few pages of Wanting Enlightment Is a Big Mistake make one uneasy. Is this all a mistake? Who is this big fraud? But by Chapter Twenty one is seeing a pattern, that grievous western patter (and pattern) of thought and logic.

The master repeats "stop thinking so much," and one starts thinking maybe this thinking business is a trap, one gets to be half-tempted to seek out this Seung Sahn, ask, maybe, what is the meaning of life, why are we here, who is running this show, what does it all mean --- those nagging gotta-know questions that have been driving us nuts all these years, thinking that Seung Sahn would have the answers we think (thinking again!)...

...but all we would get from him is "Show me your mind!" and we couldn't, we think again, but what would it be like to spend some time with him, until we learn, on page 163, that he died, in Seoul.

In those last days he insisted, despite the pain, on taking turns about the hospital grounds. A Zen nun Dae Kwan Sunim was with him, and asked if the master would give his pain to her. "No, no no, no! It's enough only I experience this. Never give to you --- only I keep!"

The nun insisted, but the master said, "My pain is very expensive!"

"How much, sir?" I asked him. "We will buy it from you."

"My pain is so expensive, you cannot buy it!"

Dae Kwan Sunim leaned into his ear and said, "Then maybe I will sell the Su Bon Zen Monastery, and get lots of money, and give it to you. Then you give us your pain! ... If we give you all this money, then what will you do with it?"

"I take your money, then rent another Zen center, save all beings from suffering!" ... At these words, we all burst out laughing. Then he just as suddenly said, "That's not a bad business deal, yah?"

§     §     §

For some reason, this set us to thinking on the death of another religious heavy, Pope John Paul II. His dying days were filled with PR notices, press conferences, much secrecy ... but the word leaked out that those who tended to him had chosen to have his doctors perform "assisted suicide." This was the end of the man who had issued "the first clear and explicit papal statement on the obligation to provide food and water for patients in a 'persistent vegetative state.'" No laughter in Rome 2 April 2005. Only a well-disguised sea-change.

A huge contrast between the man of Rome and another, out of Korea, who, with no little laughter, pledged himself to a commitment of consistent joy and faith.

--- Pier Leonelli
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