You Already Understand!

There’s no better example of Zen’s direct, penetrating spirit than these exchanges between the late Zen master Seung Sahn and his students.

Seung Sahn
8 October 2015
Photo: ZM Dae Gak

Bodhidharma, founder of the Zen lineage, is said to have described Zen this way: “A special transmission outside the scriptures / Not depending on words and letters / Pointing directly to the human mind / Seeing into one’s nature and attaining buddhahood.” There’s no better example of Zen’s direct, penetrating spirit than these exchanges between the late Seung Sahn—one of the great Zen masters to have lived and taught in the United States—and his students.

Someone asked Zen Master Seung Sahn,

“What do you think about the beginning of this world?”

“The beginning of this world came from your mouth. Ha ha ha ha! Do you understand?”

The student was silent.

“Then I will explain: what is this world? You must understand that point first. You make time, space, cause and effect. In three seconds, when you asked that question, you made this whole world. Physics used to teach that time and space, and cause and effect, are absolutes. But modern physics teaches that time, space, and cause and effect are subjective. So you make this whole world, and you make your time and space.”

The student said, “I still don’t understand.”

Zen Master Seung Sahn replied, “OK, so first you must understand, what is time? One unit of time is an hour. But my thinking sometimes makes this hour very long, or very short. You go to the airport to pick up your girlfriend. You haven’t seen her in a long time. You wait at the airport, and the airplane is very late. Five, ten, twenty, thirty minutes—waiting, waiting, waiting. Even another half hour passes. Ten minutes seems like a whole day. So this one hour feels like a very, very long time because you want to see her very much, and you sit there saying, ‘Where is the plane? Why hasn’t it arrived yet?’ But yet some other time, you go dancing with friends, and dance all night, and even one hour seems to pass by very quickly. Now that same amount of time measured as ‘one hour’ seems very short. ‘A whole hour has already passed? It seems like only a minute!’ So mind makes one hour very long or very short. Time depends on thinking, because time is created by thinking. The Buddha taught this, and we can test it in our everyday life. ‘Everything is created by mind alone.’

“It is the same with space: Spain is here, and New York is there, Korea is over there, and Japan is over here. People in Spain say, ‘This way is north, that’s south, east, and west.’ But on the opposite side of the earth, Korean people say that north is here, south is over there, and east and west are here and here. If I stay here, my north, south, east, and west are like this. If I am not here, my north, south, east, and west disappear. Cause and effect are also the same: if I do some good action, I go to heaven; bad action, go to hell. That’s cause and effect. But if I don’t make anything, where do I go?

“So I make time, and space, and cause and effect. I make my world; you make your world. A cat makes a cat’s world. The dog makes the dog’s world. God makes God’s world. Buddha makes Buddha’s world. If you believe in God 100 percent, then when you die, and your world disappears, you go to God’s world. If you believe in Buddha 100 percent, then when your world disappears, you will go to Buddha’s world. But if you believe in your true self 100 percent, then you make your world, and that’s complete freedom: heaven or hell, coming and going anywhere with no hindrance.”

Zen Master Seung Sahn looked at the questioner. “So I ask you, which one do you like?”

The student was silent.

“Anytime you open your mouth, your world appears.”

The student asked, “So, who was the first person to open his mouth?”

“You already understand!”

Amid general laughter, the student was silent for a few moments. Then he bowed deeply.


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?”

Zen Master Seung Sahn 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?” Zen Master Seung Sahn 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 Zen Master Seung Sahn 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]

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.”

Seung Sahn replied, “A toy gun is necessary! [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. 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! If anything appears, 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 something: only for ‘me,’ or for all beings? That is the most important point to consider.”

Crazy Mind

After a Dharma talk at the Cambridge Zen Center, a student asked Zen Master Seung Sahn, “Is there such a thing as a clean mind?”

“If you have mind, then you must clean your mind. If you have no mind, cleaning is not necessary. So I ask you, do you have a mind?”

“Do I?”

“Do you?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Where is it?”

The student looked puzzled for a moment. “Where is it?”

“Yes, where is it? How big is your mind?”

“Uhhh …”

“This much [holding arms open wide] or this much [narrowing them together]?”

The student tilted his head back and stretched his arms open wide. “This much right now.”

“Ooohh, only that? That’s very small! [Much laughter from the assembly.] That’s not your original mind. Originally, your mind is the whole universe; the whole universe and your mind are the same. Why do you make just ‘this much’? So that is a problem. Since you make ‘this-much’ mind, now you must dry-clean your mind. Use don’t-know soap. If you clean, clean, clean your mind, it will become bigger, bigger, and bigger—as big as the whole universe. But if there is any taint, it becomes smaller, smaller, smaller. But actually, you have no mind, I think.”

“You think I have no mind?”

“Yes, no mind.”

The student was silent.

“You don’t understand, yah? Do you have mind?”

“Well, I don’t understand a lot of … I don’t understand a lot … umm … I …” [Laughter.]

“The Sixth Patriarch said, ‘Originally nothing: where can dust alight?’ So maybe you have no mind.”

After a long silence, the student brightened a bit. “OK, you talk about right livelihood, you talk about having monk karma and wanting to practice Zen … umm … and my question is … not to live in a Zen center … to live in the world it’s very difficult to practice, umm … to coincide practice and livelihood, umm …. So the mind that meets the mind that’s conflicted is the mind I’m speaking with … from … umm …”

“Yah, your mind is a strange mind,” Seung Sahn said.

“A strange mind?”

“Yah, strange mind. Nowadays everybody has a strange mind, because inside it’s not correct, not meticulous, not clear. This strange mind is like an animal’s mind, not really a human being’s mind. It is maybe eighty percent animal mind, twenty percent human mind. So that is strange, that’s crazy. Nowadays there are many, many crazy people. But everybody is crazy, so this crazy is not special. Even a Zen master’s speech is crazy. Yesterday I said in a dharma speech, ‘The sun rises in the east and sets in the west.’ Those are crazy words. The sun never rises in the east nor sets in the west. The sun never moves! Only the earth moves, around and around the sun, so why make this speech about the sun rising in the east and setting in the west? That’s crazy! [Laughter.] So that means: crazy is not crazy. Not crazy is crazy. [He looks at the questioner’s face.] Do you understand that? Crazy is not crazy; not crazy is crazy.”

The student started to say something, but stopped.

“Ha, ha, ha! Now complicated! That’s no problem. Zen teaches that if you have mind, you have a problem. If you don’t have mind, then everything is no hindrance. But everybody makes mind, so there are many problems in this world. Say you own a hotel. Mind is like this hotel’s manager, who should be working for you. Usually, everything is OK in the hotel, but this manager is always causing problems: ‘I want this, I want that.’ ‘I like this, I don’t like that.’ ‘I want to be free, go here, do that …’ That is mind, OK? The Buddha taught, ‘When mind appears, dharma appears. When dharma appears, form appears. When form appears, then like/dislike, coming/going, life and death, everything appears.’ So if you have mind, you have a problem; no mind, no problem. Here are some very popular words: ‘Everything is created by mind alone.’ These are good words; they have a good taste. Your mind makes something, and something hinders you. So don’t make anything! Take your mind and throw it into the garbage. Only don’t know!”

The student sat, expressionless.

“So Zen practice means you fire this low-class hotel manager, because he’s doing a bad job in your high-class hotel. You must take control of your hotel, which means you control your eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind. The owner must be strong. If the manager doesn’t do his job correctly, the owner must say, ‘You are no good! Why didn’t you fix these things?! That’s your job! Why did you take all the money?! I’m going to fire you!’ Then this manager will be afraid, ‘Oh, please don’t fire me! Please!’ Then the owner must say, ‘You listen to me, OK?’ ‘OK, OK, I’ll only follow you from now on!’

“You must hit your mind, OK? Tell your mind, ‘You must listen to me!’ If your mind says ‘OK,’ then no problem. If not, you must cut this mind. How? You must use your don’t-know sword. Always hold on to this don’t-know sword: mind is very afraid of it. If you keep this don’t-know sword, then everything is no problem.”

Brightening up considerably, the student bowed and said, “Thank you very much for your teaching.”

Why Zen Seems Difficult

After a dharma talk at the Cambridge Zen Center, someone asked Zen Master Seung Sahn, “Why does Zen seem so difficult?”


“Yes,” the man said. “Why does it seem so difficult? I didn’t say it was, but why does it seem so difficult?”

“Seem difficult? Zen is very easy; why make difficult?”

The man persisted, “All right, I’ll ask you as a psychologist: why do I make it difficult?”

“A psychologist said that? Who said what?”

“Why do I or anybody make Zen difficult?”

“You say ‘difficult,’ so it’s difficult. A long time ago in China there lived a famous man named Layman Pang. His whole family was a Zen family. Layman Pang used to be rich, but then he realized that many people don’t have enough food to eat. So he gave all of his land to the farmers. He had many precious jewels and other possessions, but he thought, ‘If I give things away, they’ll only create desire-mind in other people.’ So he took a boat out to the middle of a very deep lake and dumped all his priceless possessions overboard. Then he and his daughter went and lived in a cave; meanwhile, his wife and son moved into a very small house. Sometimes the Pangs would visit Zen temples to have dharma combat with the monks. They had a very simple life, and practiced very hard.

“One day, someone asked Layman Pang, ‘Is Zen difficult or easy?’

“He replied, ‘It’s like trying to hit the moon with a stick. Very difficult!’

“Then this man thought, ‘Oh, Zen is very difficult.’ So he asked Layman Pang’s wife, ‘Your husband said Zen is difficult. I ask you, then, is Zen difficult or easy?’

“She said, ‘Oh, Zen is very easy! It’s like touching your nose when you wash your face in the morning!’

“The man could not understand. He thought to himself, ‘Hmmm … Layman Pang says Zen is difficult; his wife says it is very easy. Which one is correct?’ So he went to their son and said, ‘Your father said Zen is very difficult; your mother said it is very easy. Which one is correct?’

“The son replied, ‘If you think it’s difficult, then it’s difficult. If you think it’s easy, then it’s easy. Don’t make difficult and easy!’

“But the man was still not satisfied, so he went to the daughter. ‘Everyone in your whole family has a different answer to my question. Your mother said Zen is easy. Your father said Zen is difficult. And your brother said don’t make difficult and easy. So I ask you, is Zen difficult or easy?’

“‘Go drink tea.’”

Seung Sahn Sunim looked at the student who asked the question and said, “So, go drink tea, OK? Don’t make ‘difficult.’ Don’t make ‘easy.’ Don’t make anything. From moment to moment, just do it!”

Tollbooth Bodhisattva

One afternoon, Zen Master Seung Sahn and several of his students were driving down Route I-95, from Providence, Rhode Island, to New York City. They chatted from time to time as they drove, with the students asking him questions about various things. At one point they stopped at a tollbooth. The driver handed the tollbooth operator some money, and was waiting for his change. One of the students said to her through the open window, “Nice day, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” she replied. “But, my goodness, where did all this wind come from?” After she gave them their change, they drove off.

The car was quiet for several miles. Then Zen Master Seung Sahn turned to his students and said, “That was no ordinary woman at the tollbooth. That was Kwan Seum Bosal [the bodhisattva of compassion] asking you a great question: ‘Where did all this wind come from?’ What a wonderful koan! You must always be alert to the teaching that comes your way, all the time. Let go of your mind and then you can see what’s actually in front of you. So I ask you, where did all this wind come from?”

No one could answer.

“OK. I’ll give you a hint. Zen Master Man Gong wrote a poem that will help you:

Everything is born by following the wind;
    everything dies by following the wind.
When you find out where the wind comes from,
there is no life, no death.

When you have an answer ‘like-this,’
You see nature through spiritual eyes.”

© 2006 by the Kwan Um School of Zen. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. This article is excerpted from a new book of Seung Sahn’s teachings, “Wanting Enlightenment Is a Big Mistake,” published by Shambhala. 

Seung Sahn

Seung Sahn

Seung Sahn was the first Korean Zen master to live and teach in the West. He was founding teacher of the Kwan Um School of Zen, an international organization of more than one hundred centers and groups.  Seung Sahn died in 2005.