Seung Sahn was the first Korean Zen master to come to live and teach in the West. His style borrowed from a number of different Buddhist traditions, particularly Rinzai. The book, ‘Dropping Ashes on the Buddha’ is a collection of his teachings that happened both in person as well as through correspondence – a way of transmission that he was well known for. This excerpt from that book recounts a meeting between Seung Sahn and one of his students in which he is asked about death and responds by trying to break down the student’s fundamental construct of the concept itself.
One morning, during Yong Maeng Jong Jin at the Providence Zen Center, a student walked into the interview room and bowed to Seung Sahn Soen-sa.
Soen-sa said, “Do you have any questions?”
The student said, “Yes. What is death?”
Soen-sa said, “You are already dead.”
The student said, “I’m only dying. I haven’t really experienced death yet. I don’t even understand what that would mean.”
Soen-sa hit him.
The student became confused and couldn’t answer.
After a few moments, Soen-sa said, “When you think death, you make death. When you think life, you make life. When you are not thinking, there is no life and no death. In empty mind, is there a you? Is there an I?”
”You say No. You must understand No. This No is no self, no other, no body, no mind, no world. So it is no life and no death. This is true emptiness. True emptiness is before thinking. Before thinking is just like this. So life is only life; death is only death. You must not be attached to names and forms. It is like a clear mirror. In a clear mirror, all is nothing; there is only the clear mirror. Red comes, the mirror is red. Yellow comes, there is yellow. A woman comes, there is a woman. A man comes, there is a man. Death comes, there is death. Life comes, there is life. But all of these do not exist. The mirror does not hold on to anything. There is only the coming and the going. This is before thinking: all things are just as they are. The name for this mind is original pure mind. You must find your original face. Then you will not make life or death.”
The student bowed, and the interview continued.
The next morning, the same student walked into the interview room and bowed.
Soen-sa said, ”Do you have any questions?”
“Yes. What is death?”
“You are already dead.”
“Thank you very much. Now I understand.’
Soen-sa said, “You understand? Then what is death?” The student said, “You are already dead.” Soen-sa smiled and bowed.
Seung Sahn (1927-2004)