Dropping Ashes on the Buddha: A Review and Answer Key

The Teachings of Zen Master Seung Sahn, compiled by Stephen Mitchell, published in 1994.

This might be the best book on Zen I have ever read in my life. And I don’t read a lot of them. 

I once explained to someone that this was because they all say the same thing; you could pick up any of them and it would have the same instructions. This was obviously an oversimplification–but what’s not simple about Zen?–and might have sounded like the same zen-master vagueness that I complained about in the same conversation. But it’s true! Zen is Zen! Why do we need so many different books saying practice this way, practice that way, meditate, don’t meditate, sit, stand, walk, eat?

Well, because sometimes a volume like this comes up.

This book is repetitive within itself. When I first opened it, this drove me nuts, but it’s a short volume so I kept on. It’s also repetitive in cycles: it’s a collection of talks, lessons, and letters, so sometimes a student will show up in a later letter to say “What about that thing you said a few chapters ago?” and Sueng Sahn will repeat it, with a new layer of awareness or sometimes even a straight up explanation. 

And besides, humans need repetition to learn in the first place. Relaxing into a book being repetitive is a lesson in Zen in itself.

What do you think of when you think of Zen? Do you know how many different branches and schools there are? Do you know how it relates and doesn’t relate to Buddhism? Students would come up to Seung Sahn constantly to say, “Which method of practice should I use?” and “Can you tell me about the different levels of enlightenment?” and he would respond: Don’t worry about it! “Put it down!

When I was in Los Angeles last month, many people asked me about the difference between Soto and Rinzai Zen. I answered, ‘They are the same.’ Only the externals are different. Soto uses awareness of breathing to cut off thinking. Kong-an Zen uses the kong-an [koan] to cut off thinking. Only the method is different. Cutting off thinking and becoming clear mind is the same. They are two doors into the same room.

Or, because you cannot be a Zen master without being funny:

[S]omeone asked him “What’s the difference between Bodhidharma’s sitting in Sorim for nine years and your sitting here now?” 

The Dharma teacher said, “About five thousand miles.” 

[Later] “What’s the difference between Bodhidharma’s sitting in Sorim for nine years and your sitting here now?” 

“Don’t you know?” 

“I’m listening.” 

“Bodhidharma sat in Sorim for nine years. I am sitting here now.”

Humor is absolutely essential to understanding Zen. (Unfortunately, if you try to tell this to someone without a sense of humor, they think you’re being a smug jackass and Zen is for stupid people.) 

Think about the last time someone told you a truly awful pun. The worst one you can think of. Do you remember how it felt in your brain? If you need to go find a kid and ask them to tell you a joke right now, you can.

Did you feel the space that opened up between the word you thought the punster meant and the meaning they actually meant? Did you feel the shock when you had the realization that makes us reflexively laugh or groan? Were you able to think of anything else during that time?

Imagine if you had that space, that shock, that realizing, all the time.

There are many, many Zen teaching stories in which a student asks a question and the master hits him or shouts loudly, surprising him. Think about how surprised you would be, how the rest of your mind would just go blank, and you would have no choice but to deal with the reality in front of you, before you began attaching emotions and associations to it.

There are stories where a student has been working to understand a koan for many years, until one day he is working in the temple garden and, say, a stick falls to the ground, and upon hearing the sound, he is enlightened. There it is.

Koans, too. We’ve built up layers of meaning around them, obscuring their true use. You’re thinking of one hand clapping, maybe a tree falling in the woods right now, right? There’s hundreds of other ones. There’s one answer to all of them. (Not to say some don’t have other answers, but I’m gonna give you the key for free.) The answer is not knowing.

Go find a sci-fi story with a computer-killing paradox in it. It’ll have fewer associations in your mind than trees, temples, hands do. Now believe both parts of the paradox at the same time. Practice it. Feel the space in your brain between the two answers and pry it open. Now feel that way all the time. Congratulations! Wait, no–

[B]e very careful about wanting enlightenment. This is a bad Zen sickness. When you keep a clear mind, the whole universe is you, you are the universe. So you have already attained enlightenment. Wanting enlightenment is only thinking. It is something extra, like painting legs on the picture of a snake. Already the snake is complete as it is.

So, enlightenment isn’t the goal. The goal is only to keep that delicate state of mind at all times. To acknowledge reality as it is, including the fact that, on a long enough time scale, everything is so fleeting as to be considered not-real in the first place; and that anything your brain has attached to reality also is not real. It’s in your brain.

The universe is organized into pairs of opposites: light and darkness, man and woman, sound and silence, good and bad. But all these opposites are mutual, because they are made from the same substance. Their names and their forms are different, but their substance is the same. Names and forms are made by your thinking. If you are not thinking and have no attachment to name and form, then all substance is one.

And the old, “If you ask a cat what it is, it does not say ‘I am a cat’. It just lies there, being a cat.”

One of my other problems with Zen books, aside from the repetition, is that they’re all about sitting, usually in the monastery or Zen center, and rarely about keeping Zen mind in real life. Or they say that there is nothing to actually do, just sit and the world will open up to you. This one still refuses to go very far into it–and yes, I can admit that the more you sit, the more practice you have, the easier it can be to hold Zen mind when you’re not sitting–but touches on it a couple of times at least.

A lawyer writes to Seung Sahn, saying that his real practice comes when he has to deal with people and their actions. But he always stays vigilant to notice when he is desiring that things be other than as they are, and “I swing my axe!” to stop those feelings. Zen is about letting things be as they are!

Seung Sahn writes back and says, sure, but that means you need to allow those feelings of desire to be as they are, too!

At another point, he teaches this lesson about Boddhisattva action, and about having no desire to do things for oneself:

“If you have no desire, why do you eat?” 

Soen-sa said, “When I am hungry, I eat.” 

“But why do you eat, if you say you have no desire?” 

“I eat for you.” 

“What do you mean?” 

“‘When I am hungry, I eat’ means ‘just like this.’ This means that there is no attachment to food. There is no ‘I want this’ or ‘I don’t want this.’ If I didn’t eat, I couldn’t teach you. So I eat for you.”

So, there is having no desire to do things, but there is also recognizing with a clear mind what needs to be done. One of my “mantras” from Terry Pratchett applies: “Do the work that is in front of you.” If you are in a position to help all people directly, help all people directly. If you are in a position to eat a meal so you will be healthy enough to teach later, eat your meal.

But perhaps you feel that “enlightenment” means true freedom from having to do anything that is not leisurely meditating. Well, first of all, you haven’t ever meditated. Second:

If your parents tell you to do something and you think that you are a free person so you will not listen to them, this is not true freedom.

Suppose your parents say, ‘Your shirt is dirty; you must change it!’ If you say, ‘No, I won’t change; I am free!’, then you are attached to your dirty shirt or to your freedom itself. So you are not free. If you are really free, then dirty is good and clean is good. It doesn’t matter. Not changing my shirt is good; changing my shirt is good. If my parents want me to change, then I change. I don’t do it for my own sake, only for theirs. This is freedom. No desire for myself, only for all people.”

Because of the pressure of “what should I do at this moment, what is right action” being off–you’re just letting right action present itself–and because you are just dealing with reality as it is, without listening to the associations your brain makes with it, Zen is very good for anxiety. It also helps to remember that the thing or person that is making you feel panic is impermanent to the point of not being real, and that your panic was never real in the first place. (For a certain value of “real”–I’m not saying you’re faking, I’m saying your brain made it up and you’re not actually obligated to listen.)

Having the still, clear, expansive Zen mind also feels wonderful if you have anxiety or restlessness or any other disorder that makes your brain move too fast and all the time. Try it. Try it every day for two minutes and then when that feels easy move up to five minutes, then ten, and so on.

Here’s how you do it:

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. 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.

How do you get into Zen mind? What’s the worst pun you’ve ever heard? Let’s talk in the comments!

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