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 seven forms of Zen practice.
We sit usually 30 minutes in the classical posture: legs crossed, back straight, eyes half open, the hands in mudra and natural breathing. In the Kwan Um School, meditation is not really dependent on the form of the body, but rather on the way you keep your mind. That is why you can stand up or use a chair if your body hurts when sitting.
During meditation we ask ourselves without interruption a great question such as “What am I?” If this question is sincere, thinking stops and Don’t Know appears. Don’t Know is the name of the mind before thinking. You can call this point Mind, Buddha, God, Nature, the Absolute, Holiness, Energy or Consciousness, but originally this point has no name or form. Cutting all thinking and returning to Don’t Know mind, you return to your true nature. Our true nature is like a mirror: you become one with your situation. There is no I, my or me, no inside, no outside, and no wall around your self. Everything is Just Like This.
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.
Most practitioners of the Kwan Um school start their day with 108 bows. This practice gives you a lot of energy, a strong center and cleans your mind. Your ‘Small Self’ is prostrating itself before your ‘True Self’, until only the True Self remains. When bowing, we only bow. Then all things bow together with us.
Kong-ans are questions and answers with a master. During a retreat, all participants can have a personal interview with the teacher. ‘What am I?’ is considered as the original kong-an. But the Kwan Um School of Zen uses many other kong-ans coming from the Indian, Chinese, Korean and Japanese tradition. These questions can help you to attain a more profound insight, which is usually difficult to attain without this technique.
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