Kwan Um School of Zen
Zen Master Seung Sahn, the first Korean Zen master to spread Zen Buddhism in the West:
“Deep in the mountains, the great temple bell is struck. You hear it reverberating in the morning air, and all thoughts disappear from your mind. There is nothing that is you; there is nothing that is not you. There is only the sound of the bell, filling the whole universe. This is Zen mind.
“Springtime comes. You see the flowers blossoming, the butterflies flitting about; you hear the birds singing, you breathe in the warm weather. And your mind is only springtime. It is nothing at all.
“You visit Niagara and take a boat to the bottom of the falls. The downpouring of the water is in front of you and around you and inside you, and suddenly you are shouting: YAAAAAA!
“In all these experiences, outside and inside have become one. This is Zen mind. Your mind is clear like space.
“Clear like space means clear like a mirror. When white comes, white. When red comes, red.
“But one more step is necessary. How does your mind function in everyday life? When somebody is hungry, just reflecting hunger is not enough. You have to give him food! This is called correct situation, correct relationship and correct function.
“This means that you can respond to every situation in a compassionate way.”
We follow the practice and teaching of Zen Master Seung Sahn, who founded the international Kwan Um School of Zen.
In 1949 Zen Master Seung Sahn received transmission from Zen Master Ko Bong, one of the most brilliant Zen Masters in Korea at that time. Later he was responsible for several temples in Korea, Hong Kong and Japan. In 1972 he created the Kwan Um School of Zen in the United States in order to provide Zen training to lay people and monks and nuns in the West.
Today we are represented in multiple Zen centers and groups in Europe, the United States and Asia.
The Western form of Korean Zen is based on sitting meditation, walking, chanting, bowing and kong-an training. The formal study of sutras is not pursued.
During our daily practice we follow a schedule that starts with bowing, then some traditional Buddhist chants, followed by formal sitting meditation.
Every few months we also have the opportunity to meet Zen teachers of our school from Europe, Asia or America in more formal intensive retreats. And every year our School offers retreats of three months in Poland, Korea and the United States.
Zen Master Seung Sahn, the founding teacher of our school, who first brought Korean Zen to the West.
“I hope you only go straight don’t know, practice hard for other people, attain Enlightenment, Great Love, Great Compassion, and the Great Bodhisattva Way, and save all people from suffering.”
— Zen Master Seung Sahn
In our school we use several forms of Zen practice.
Traditionally, in China and Korea, only monastics engaged in Zen meditation, usually spending at least six months each year in retreat. Today, most Zen practitioners are ordinary men and women with jobs, families, and community obligations. Because few lay practitioners can dedicate themselves to full-time Zen meditation, modern Zen teaches the importance of “mind-sitting.”
Mind-sitting means keeping a not-moving mind in our everyday life situation. What are you doing right now? In each moment, just let go of your opinion, condition and situation. Then you become clear. When you are doing something, just do it. This is everyday Zen.
When we return to clarity in this moment, we can help ourselves and others. In the Kwan Um School of Zen, we call that great love, great compassion and the Great Bodhisattva Way. For all of us, the teaching of great love, great compassion and the Great Bodhisattva Way is very important. By doing Zen meditation to become clear, we can see our correct situation, our correct relationship and then act accordingly for the benefit of ourselves and all beings.
Walking meditation is used between sessions of sitting, to relax the legs, knees and body, while maintaining the mind practice of the great question, Don’t Know mind and Just Like This. Whether walking slowly or faster, we remain 100% in the moment, acting together and keeping our correct situation, function, and relationship to each other.
At Bori Sa, when weather permits we may take longer walks together in the beautiful countryside of the mountains, keeping the forms of walking meditation.
Chanting meditation means keeping a not-moving mind and perceiving the sound of your voice.
Regular chanting makes our center stronger and stronger. With a strong center, we can control our feelings. When we are no longer a slave of our feelings and thoughts, we become free and independent.
For many people, chanting meditation is not easy: a lot of confused thinking can appear, likes and dislikes. Like and dislike create a lot of problems in our world. Every kind of conflict comes from this state of mind. However, when you practice correct chanting meditation, perceiving the sound of our own voice and the sound of the voice of the other people chanting, your mind becomes clear. In a clear mind, there is no like or dislike but only sound. Then you and the sound are never separate. You connect with everything.
Why We Bow
By Zen Master Dae Bong
Bowing practice means that your body and your mind become one very quickly. Also, it is a very good way to take away lazy mind, desire mind and angry mind.
When you’re sleeping, your body’s laying in your bed, but your mind flies around and goes somewhere. Maybe you go to Las Vegas or you go to the ocean or you go to New York, or some monster is chasing you. Your body’s in bed, but your consciousness already went somewhere. When we wake up, many times, our consciousness and our body don’t quickly connect. So you wander around your house, and drink coffee, you bump into things.
Then slowly, slowly your consciousness and your body again come together. So that’s why, first thing in the morning, we do one hundred and eight bows. Through these one hundred and eight bows, your body and your consciousness become one very quickly. In this way, being clear and functioning clearly is possible.
We always bow one hundred and eight times. One hundred and eight is a number from Hinduism and Buddhism. That means there are one hundred and eight defilements in the mind. Or, sometimes they say one hundred and eight compartments in the mind. Each bow takes away one defilement, cleans one compartment in your mind. So our bowing practice is like a repentance ceremony every morning. In the daytime, in our sleep, our consciousness flies around somewhere. Also, we make something, we make many things in our consciousness. Then, we repent! So we do one hundred and eight bows; that’s already repenting our foolish thinking, taking away our foolish thinking.
Some people cannot sit. Sometimes due to health limitations or they have too much thinking, and if they sit, they cannot control their consciousness. Then, bowing is very good. Using your body in this way is very important.
The direction of bowing is very important. I want to put down my small I, see my true nature and help all beings. So, any kind of exercise can help your body and mind become one, but with just exercise, the direction is often not clear. Sometimes it’s for my health, sometimes it’s for my good looks, sometimes it’s to win a competition, but in Buddhism, everything’s direction is the same point –how to perceive my true nature and save all beings from suffering.
Our bowing takes away our karma mind, our thinking mind, and return to this moment very clearly, want to find my true nature and save all beings from suffering. This is why bowing practice is so important. If somebody has much anger, or much desire, or lazy mind, then every day, 300 bows, or 500 bows, even 1,000 bows, every day. Then their center will become very strong, they can control their karma, take away their karma, and become clear. This helps the practitioner and this world.
Kong-ans (Ch.: kung-an, Jap.: koan, meaning “public case”) have their origin in the records of encounters between Zen practitioners in ancient China. An important part of kong-an practice is the private exchange between teacher and student wherein the teacher checks the student’s grasp of the point of the kong-an. Kong-ans are probably best known for the unusual, seemingly non-rational quality of their questions, language and dialogues, and are not meant to be studied, analyzed or approached conceptually. The kong-an is an experiential tool that helps us cut through our thinking so that we can just perceive and function clearly. It is an essential part of Zen practice.
Here’s a famous example:
A monk asked Joju, “Does a dog have Buddha nature?” Joju answered “Mu.”
That’s the kong-an. Then there are questions connected with the kong-an, for example: “Does a dog have Buddha nature?”
Sometimes the kong-an and the question are the same, for example: “The whole universe is on fire; through what kind of samadhi can you escape from being burned?”
Associated with kong-ans are short commentaries, sometimes in the form of poems.
Some kong-ans go back over 1500 years, others are created spontaneously by the teacher right there in the interview room.
Some Zen schools recommend using the kong-an as the single-pointed focus of meditation. This is not our style. Our kong-an practice has two functions: it helps us keep the correct direction of our practice—only don’t know—and it helps our wisdom to grow. The kong-an will often come up naturally during practice and in our life, so there is no need to make a special effort to hold it. Don’t worry about this. If we practice sincerely, the kong-an interview will take care of itself.
There is an interview room etiquette, involving bows and prostrations. The teacher will help you through it your first time, and as many times as you need afterward.
During intensive retreats, meals are eaten together in a traditional style derived from the formal meals of Korean Zen monks and nuns. Complex yet relaxed, the forms of these meals help us to attend carefully to what we are doing. They are another form of meditation together, helping us over years of practice to keep the mind of Just Like This in every situation in our life, however tricky or complex.
Every day spent with a Zen group includes a period of working Zen in which we act together to clean and maintain the house, the dharma room and gardens, prepare food, or build something. During retreats this is usually a short period of an hour or so, while outside retreats it may take up much of the day. These periods are used to practice Zen in every situation and every relationship, whatever we are doing.
“At our Zen Centers, we live together and practice together, and all of us abide by the Temple Rules. People come to us with many strong likes and dislikes, and gradually cut them all off. Everybody bows together 108 times at five-thirty in the morning, everybody sits together, everybody eats together, everybody works together. Sometimes you don’t feel like bowing; but this is a temple rule so you bow. Sometimes you don’t want to chant, but you chant.”
— Zen Master Seung Sahn
“Whatever we do in our practice, we learn from. If we keep a mind that can be a little open, we can learn from everything we do. Whether it’s a big mistake or a little one, correct or not correct action, we can learn something about ourselves and other people.”
— Zen Master Su Bong
“In Zen we say meditation means when you’re doing something, just do it. When you’re driving in the car, just drive. That’s driving meditation. When you play tennis, just play tennis; don’t think “How do I look?” When you eat, just eat. When you talk, just talk. When you wash dishes, just wash dishes. When you’re doing something, 100-percent just do it. Then your mind, your body and the situation all become one. The name for that is meditation. That’s a not-moving mind. Your mind and the situation completely become one. That’s meditation.”
— Zen Master Dae Bong
“When we bow together and chant together and eat together, our minds become one mind. It is like the sea. When the wind comes, there are many waves. When the wind dies down, the waves become smaller. When the wind stops, the water becomes a mirror, in which everything is reflected — mountains, trees, clouds. Our mind is the same. When we have many desires and many opinions, there are many big waves. But after we sit Zen and act together for some time, our opinions and desires disappear. The waves become smaller and smaller. Then our mind is like a clear mirror, and everything we see or hear or smell or taste or touch or think is the truth.”
— Zen Master Seung Sahn
“Keeping a “don’t know” mind means cutting off all thinking. Cutting off all discursive thoughts takes us to the wellspring of our true nature, and brings us to the present moment. What are you doing just now? Paying attention to this moment is what Zen practice is all about. … Any kind of formal practice is a simple situation in which it is easier to cut off thinking. As we do formal practice, it will start to affect our everyday life. Any moment in our life can be understood as a kong-an. As we are able to penetrate the simple situations of kong-ans without being confused by our discursive minds, our intuition starts to grow.”
— Zen Master Wu Bong