Autobiography Part 6a: "Smile"

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I've been describing my first Zen retreat. The previous blog post was about the the initial efforts of formal sitting and keeping the great question "What is this?" or "What am I?" This post will be about the daily private interviews with Zen Master Seung Sahn (ZMSS, aka Dae Soen Sa Nim). In the better-known Japanese-style Zen, these sessions are called koan practice. In Korean, the word is kong-an.

I'd read a lot about kong-ans, and had squeezed some info from the more senior students I'd talked to, so I had some idea of what I was supposed to say and do. ZMSS would ask these strange, pointed questions, and it was my challenge to respond from the direct, before-thinking experience of that moment. It was like pushing the Clear button of your mental calculator (ZMSS would say). First you return to zero. Then from there, respond to the just-now situation: 1+1=2.

I had a few things going for me. First, I was outrageously intimidated by ZMSS. The fear and adrenaline made it kind of hard to think anyway, allowing me to automatically answer with whatever popped up. Also, ZMSS' Korean accent and broken grammar forced me to use most of my mental energy to just understand what he said. That helped keep the conversation simple.

Following are some memories that have stuck with me from those early interviews.

After some preliminary explanation, ZMSS went right to the big guns. "What is God?" he asked. I knew that in Zen, this question was the same as asking about Truth, Buddha, Mind, Consciousness, etc. Those are all different words that point to the substance of everything.

I knew I shouldn't wax philosophical about how each and every thing is God. That may be a good idea, but it's just an idea, just thinking. (An ancient Zen master had famously said, "Even a good thing isn't as good as nothing.") I'd been told to respond to kong-ans not with explanations, but out of the truth of that moment. What did I perceive just now? "Your robe is grey," I answered. "Correct," said ZMSS. It was nice to get that little matter, God and Truth and all that, out of the way.

"What is your name?" ZMSS asked. "Stuart," I replied. "No, no, no," he scoffed. "That's just body's name." It was confusing. I'd given a clear, simple answer. His words, though, were a philosophical idea, the type of unnecessary thinking I'd been told to throw away. But what could I say? How could I question his teaching, when he was the Big Zen Master, and I was the new kid?

After some awkward silence, ZMSS explained, "Now you must say, 'You are incorrect, Zen Master.' When I make mistake, you must correct it." Wow. After all the years I'd spent meeting gurus who claimed perfection, here was ZMSS, right from the get-go, saying that I had to watch for his mistakes.

"How old are you?" ZMSS asked. "27," I shot back. "I don't believe you," he challenged. "You are incorrect!" I replied. "Wonderful," he said.

But wait, oops, I was actually 28 years old. I guess my before-thinking mind isn't that great with numbers. But it answered without waffling, so I passed. This must be like my poker game, where a confident bluff is sometimes good enough.

ZMSS put a mug of water between us. "What is this?" he asked. I replied that it was water. "That's just name," ZMSS said. "You're attached to name. What is it?" I had nothing, so ZMSS told me to ask the question back at him. When I did so, he immediately took a drink. I see. To be intimate with all things, just do it, moment to moment.

[As a courtesy to any readers who may someday want to try this practice themselves, I'll relate the rest of these memories without giving any more actual kong-an answers. The answers aren't the important thing anyway; it's all about questioning, about finding and using Don't Know Mind.]

ZMSS handed me a book and pointed to a paragraph for me to read aloud. It was about Buddha's Flower Sermon. All Zennies know this story. Buddha was set to give a discourse, and many hundreds had gathered to hear the Renowned Holy Teacher explain enlightenment 'n' stuff. But when he faced the assembly, Buddha said nothing. He just stood there a few minutes, and then held up a flower.

No one in the vast audience understood. Then a monk named Mahakashyapa looked at that flower and smiled. Buddha saw him smile and said, "I have got the Wondrous Dharma Seal of the Supremely Enlightened Mind, the Gateless Gate to Formless Nirvana. I now transmit it to Mahakashyapa."

All Zen schools and Masters trace their lineage back to that transmission incident. What was it about? What was transmitted? Damned if I knew. It was a puzzle, and I like puzzles. Maybe with intense contemplation and special experiences or something, I'd figure it out some day.

I finished the reading and waited for my question. "Buddha held up flower," said ZMSS. "Mahakashyapa smiled. Why did Mahakashyapa smile?"

Was he kidding? I'd been doing Zen for about 3 days, and he was asking me about the great fundamental secret? I wanted to understand... but my mind went blank. How the hell was I supposed to know?

I tried another poker technique, staring ZMSS right in the eyes, looking for a tell. My read on his expression was that he'd give up absolutely nothing. But he seemed supremely patient, ready to wait forever till I got it myself. And most bizarrely, he looked like he had every expectation that I could answer!

Uncomfortable seconds passed. Then out of nowhere, a response appeared, as if on its own. It wasn't like I knew the right answer. It was like the answer had come from a place before thinking, where there's no right and no wrong. It was only a moment later that I realized that I'd given an answer, and checked ZMSS for his response. "Ah," he said, "now you understand smile."

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