Question About Kong-ans (Koans)

Question: If you read to many books about kong-an practice, or kong-ans in general, do you run the risk of having your interviews tainted? 

Zen Master Bon Soeng: It's not the interviews you have to worry about, it's your own mind. Interviews will take care of themselves. But too much thinking about kong-ans only confuses the issue. Kong-ans about before thinking mind. So reading about it a little bit might help you get a feel for something, but a lot of thinking about it only gets you lost in the dream of what you think it's supposed to be. Kong-ans aren't really about the answers, kong-ans are about raising great doubt. Everybody comes into interviews, and it's a tricky situation because I ask you a question, and traditionally you're expected to know the answer. So of course you want to be able to give me the right answer. But that's just your ego-mind. "I want to be good". "I don't want to be bad". "I don't want him to think I'm stupid". Zen Master Seung Sahn used to tell us all the time, “More stupid is necessary!”  

Everything is turned on it's head. So, it's about not knowing. Kong-an practice can be very frustrating because you don't leave the room until you get one wrong. So don't worry about getting the answer. Kong-ans are about raising great doubt. Stopping the mind for a moment, and opening to wonder. You can read about them, but that wont help you. Back in the early 1900's, a Japanese monk published all the answers for all the kong-ans. That doesn't help. It's not about the answer, it's about the question. So, try to move away from the answer to the question. Then the answer will take care of itself. 

What is “I”?

What is this thing that I call, “I”.  What is it really? We think we know who we are—we have stories about ourselves. But what is it really?  We have our own limited human perception of things, and that's good, that helps us somewhat. But it's not the truth.

We create stories and ideas then we believe them and we get farther and farther away from the experience of the moment. This question, “What am I? What is this?”, brings us back to the moment. If we can stop the story for a moment, then we can actually experience, “What is this?”  

By Zen Master Bon Soeng

This Moment Is Our Life

If you go into the realm of metaphysics about life after life after life, you're in the world of supposition. But take everything about our past actions creating a future life and substitute the word “moment” for “life”. Our action in this moment creates our life in the next moment. Bring it down from the metaphysical to the very practical, “What am I doing right now?” because this moment, my action in this moment, brings about my life in the next moment. 

Whatever it is that you are facing in this moment, how you deal with it, creates how you are reborn into the next moment. So it's not metaphysical, it's very practical and down to earth. This relative self is the idea that you carry from moment to moment to moment. So your actions create your life. There's a saying that says, “You make, you get.” What you get is your life. You get to choose.

By Zen Master Bon Soeng

Great Effort

Great Effort, I think of as the hinge-point of our practice. If we don't have this great effort, then we really don't have a practice. Because unless we bring our practice to the difficult parts of our lives, it's not much of a practice. In fact, what often seems to happen is many people will practice when things get difficult in their life, but as soon as things start to get better, then they don't feel like they need it anymore.

So in a sense for a Zen practice, great effort really needs to be applied when things are going well because that's the time it's easy to fall asleep. When we're suffering it's easy to keep this great question, “What am I? What is this life about?” But when things are going well, we can get very complacent. 

Zen Master Seung Sahn used to say, “A good situation is really a bad situation, and a bad situation is really a good situation.” This is in a sense what that means. If things are going well, you can easily lose your direction. You can easily fall into selfishness and self-centeredness. But when things are difficult, then you have to call into question all your different assumptions, your different beliefs, and ideas.

By Zen Master Bon Soeng

Authentic Natural Self

"Before thinking" is easy to talk about but difficult to practice. Our desire, anger, and ignorance are so powerful, so encompassing and solid that we don’t even recognize their impact. Many people who first hear about before thinking find it absurd. Others feel that it is impossible to not attach to their thinking.

This leads us to the realm of Zen practice. Though our delusion seems enormous and our suffering feels so daunting and profound, Zen practice offers us a way to deconstruct our delusion. We can live a more centered and grounded life, in order to work with our desire and anger, so that we can reconnect with that authentic natural self which is always shining and free.

By Zen Master Bon Soeng

Cause and Effect

That combination of the cause and the action leads to a result. That result becomes the next cause. I remember Zen Master Seung Sahn pretending to hold a match in his hand, and he said, “This match is the cause. Fire is the result.” But you need to strike the match in order to create fire. So it's in the action that determines what the result will be. It's only by being awake that we can have some new impact on what that result will be. 

The wheel of samsara goes around and around. We're trapped in this cycle that's never ending and it always leads to misery. It's only by this awakeness that we have the possibility of changing the result of this moment. And if we change the result in this moment, that means the next cause is different, and we have a whole new life. The world, the whole universe, has now shifted on its axis because our action was different. But the only way to have that new action is to be awake in that moment. 

By Zen Master Bon Soeng

What Is The Answer?

We're actually more focused on the question than the answer because answers change. There's not one fixed answer. The point of questions is to open us up to the experience of our lives. So, this moment is the answer. Our practice is to open up to this moment. It's usually our ideas, our opinions, our beliefs, our fears, and all of the psychological commentary that goes on in our mind, that separates us from the moment. So we're inquiring and asking to open up to right now, just to be in the moment completely.

By Zen Master Bon Soeng

The Great Bodhisattva Way

One, two, three. Where do these numbers come from? You already understand. Children want candy; business people want money; scholars want to become famous. There are many kinds of people and many directions. Where do they finally go? If you attain this point, you attain human nature and universal substance. If you attain universal substance, you can see and hear clearly, and your emotions, will, and wisdom can function correctly. Then your life is correct and you can help all beings. This is called the Great Bodhisattva Way.

From the Whole World is a Single Flower by Zen Master Seung Sahn

The First Noble Truth

The First Noble Truth is "All things are suffering." Life is suffering. The word in Sanskrit is duhkha. Sometimes it is translated as "unsatisfactory". Situations, this world, and our lives are not what we want them to be. There's almost always a gap between what we want and what is. In as much as we cannot accept that gap, we suffer. 

Our inability to accept life as it is and want things to be different, creates the suffering in our lives. Out of that gap grows all the coping mechanisms that individually we create to try to heal the pain or the disappointment. We lose ourselves into a dream because we're hoping that will take away that fundamental pain. 

By Zen Master Bon Soeng

Self Doubt vs Great Doubt

Self Doubt is quite different than Great Doubt. Self Doubt is more like, "I am no good, what am I doing?  "I should be able to do this better." It’s centered on “I”.  This "I" is a construct. The fundamental concept of suffering is that attachment to "I". With this self image, this concept and idea of what I think I should be, we get disappointed and lose our way.

Great Doubt is “What is it?” So when we feel disappointment, we can hold it with a question, “What is it?” Then we look and pay attention to our experience. Pay attention to what is happening in the moment. Then we can see clearly, hear clearly, taste clearly, and think clearly. We are not lost in that commentary. 

By Zen Master Bon Soeng


The Doorway Into Liberation

So what am I?  We think we know, but we really don't. That not-knowing is the doorway into our liberation. When we walk through that doorway of not-knowing, we let go of the concept, we let go of the belief, we let go of the idea. We ask, “What is it?”  If we can let go of what we think we know, then it’s possible to see what’s actually going on. But as long as we hold on to our belief and hold on to our story, we will miss the truth. So it is that doorway of not-knowing that opens up the world to us.

By Zen Master Bon Soeng

Buddhism and Lust

Student: What’s wrong with lust?

Zen Master Bon Soeng: It takes you away from your true nature.

Student: Isn’t it a natural feeling?

ZMBS: Is it? How do we know what’s natural? We think we have an idea of naturalness, but we don’t know naturalness. Maybe we’ve been doing it for so long that we think it’s natural, but we don’t know. Lust is intense desire.
Student: Sexual desire, right?

ZMBS: You think of it as sexual desire, but it doesn’t have to be sexual. If you listen to the way I said the precept, the precept isn’t against sex, it’s against lust. Lust is when you use and abuse somebody else to satisfy your desire. It’s when you’re so full of desire that you’re not aware or concerned about its impact on the person you’re with. Buddhism tells us that it’s so easy to fall into delusion. I can make up a story to justify it, I can even pretend that it’s okay, but if I’m not aware and attentive to how my desire is impacting the other person, then usually I’m afflicting pain and suffering on that person. For some people it’s lust for food. For some it’s lust for power. Each of us has our different desire that grabs us. 

When The Dream Disappears

So we all have these dreams. We have the dreams of our likes, our dislikes, this story that we weave about ourselves. We carry this story of ourselves, but the story is not true. It’s factually not correct. We embellish, we make it up as we go along and then we protect it. "I am this."  "I don’t like that."  "I want this."

This is our dream. So the Buddha taught in the Diamond Sutra that our life is like a dream, like a phantom, like a bubble. Appearing and disappearing. What is it? If it’s not our dream, then what is it? That’s the realm of our Zen practice. 

Zen isn’t concerned very much about form. It’s not really concerned very much about ritual. It’s really not a religion. It doesn’t care about having some mystical experience. It’s not about getting a particular state of mind. It’s asking the question, What am I?  What is this?  Don’t-Know. Because if we don’t know, then the dream disappears. The dream is everything we know, everything we believe, the whole story we have about ourselves. But if we enter into not knowing, where is the dream then?  If I don’t know, then what? That’s the point of Zen practice.

By Zen Master Bon Soeng

Responding To Fear

Any stink of "I" perverts our view, because we make something and we shape it to fit our own personal idea. We respond to fear by trying to circle the wagons. We circle the wagons with our thoughts and our rejection of things. All of that is a response to fear of uncertainty. The fear of the unknown. 

When something happens that we don't like, we freak out. And often in that freakout, we make matters worse. We try to apply this skewed view, this perverted view to fix the situation. But in the process, very often we make it worse.
The first rule of falling into a hole is to stop digging. Our impulse is to keep digging, and we think if we just keep doing what we're used to doing, that will take care of it. But if we can stop digging, perceive the fear, rather than immediately relying on everything we've done before... Breathe....... Stop...... Actually Look. Actually let go of that view and just look. 

It's possible to actually see what's happening in this very moment. If we can see it clearly, it's possible to respond to it clearly. But if we cannot see it clearly, we'll never be able to respond to it clearly. So that's why in the Buddhist teaching, Right View is the doorway into everything else. Because as long as we stay stuck in that perverted view, we'll keep recreating the vision of our own experience rather than entering into what's real.

By Zen Master Bon Soeng

Don’t Know Mind

This basic teaching we have is Don’t-Know Mind. We want to know, we think we know, we think we’re supposed to know. There’s all of this bias toward knowing. But we don’t really know. We have this radical teaching – how about admitting the truth that we don’t know and go from there. If we really live that, it changes everything. 

Don’t-Know doesn't mean stupid. It means What Is It? Suddenly our eyes are open, we’re vibrating with energy because we wonder, “What?”… rather than, “Oh yeah, I know that!”

Suzuki Roshi’s quote was, “A beginner’s mind is wide open and questioning. An expert’s mind is closed.” So this Not-Knowing actually gives us life. It gives vibrancy and energy to the world we live in. This kind of I-Know shuts everything down and we get stuck. Yet all the signals from everything around us say we’re supposed to know. The competition is who knows the most, but look at the result.

We fill our minds up with all this stuff, and it gets stale and dead. Not knowing is what opens us up and comes alive. In Buddhism and in Zen, there are a lot of different ways to talk about this very same thing. Sometimes we call it Don’t-Know Mind, sometimes we call it Beginner’s Mind, sometimes we call it Before Thinking Mind.

It all comes down to this, (Zen Master hits the floor). Clear it away. Return to zero. What do we see, what do we smell, what do we taste, what do we touch? Everything is truth. What we know blocks the truth. Returning to not knowing opens us up.

By Zen Master Bon Soeng

True Way

Our job is to really discover what our experience is. Don’t worry too much about what Buddhism says. Use the practice to discover your own experience and use that experience to attain your true self and help all beings. That’s authentic. That’s real. The teachings will help guide you, but use your own experience to find your true way, and then you can use that true way to help this world. Become who you really are. Each one of us has a different karmic life. Use yours to help the world. Okay?

By Zen Master Bon Soeng

Don’t Be Fooled By What You Want

Don’t be fooled by what you want. Just keep practicing. If you are only after what you want, ultimately you are going to be disappointed. It's not that your practice or discipline leads to what you want; practice leads to some clarity which leaves you more open to what’s there for you. If you lose your clarity, then you lose your ability to move in the world that way.

Also, don’t be fooled that practice is only the formal sitting, which is important, but practice is meeting the moment with not-knowing. Our meditation practice, sitting Zen, is training the mind to return. Go back to the clarity, go back to the wisdom and the compassion.

By Zen Master Bon Soeng