Let Your Universe Become Large

by on Apr 1, 2002Zen Master Bon Haeng

Excerpts from a dharma speech in April 2002 at Cambridge Zen Center

It is amazing there is anything left to say. Fortunately, we can hear the same things over and over again, because we all forget. So the dharma is hearing the teaching, waking up to what we already know, and renewing our effort.

Tonight’s kong-an is: how do you clean dust?

Once a famous sutra master from Hong Kong gave a dharma talk at Zen Master Seung Sahn’s New York Zen Center. The sutra master’s name was Sae Jin and, like many sutra masters, had thoroughly studied and analyzed Buddhist teachings. However, he had never experienced the true meaning of Buddha’s teachings. This experience of Buddha’s teachings is the entire focus of Zen practice. We focus, not on understanding anything, but on experiencing the same insight the Buddha experienced.

After Sae Jin’s talk, he requested questions. Many were asked, to which he gave insightful answers. Then one student asked: “Your name is Sae Jin, which means ‘to clean dust.’ But the Sixth Patriarch said, ‘Originally, everything is empty.’ So where is the dust? And how can you clean it?”

Sae Jin was stuck. With all his great understanding, he only understood the sutras. Because he did not understand Zen, he was unable to respond.

Ouestion Number One: The Sixth Patriarch said, “Originally nothing” What does this mean?

Question Number Two: The student asked, “Your name is Sae Jin, which means to clean dust. How can you clean dust?” If you were Sae Jin, what could you do?

Commentary: The Sixth Patriarch wrote a poem, “Bodhi has no tree. Clear mirror has no stand. Originally, there is nothing. Where is the dust?” But if you attain the Sixth Patriarch’s mistake, then you attain the true meaning and these questions are no hindrance. But you must hit the Sixth Patriarch’s mistake. This is very important.

Zen Master Seung Sahn was so happy with this question, it appeared in his dharma talks for the next two years. And out of this question grew the kong-an: if everything is empty, if there is nothing, how can you clean dust? This is an attack-style koan. Just cleaning dust or saying something about dust can’t help you.

Koan practice means pulling the rug out from under your thinking. When you do this, it becomes starkly clear that thinking has nothing to do with your true nature. Your true nature is before thinking. Kong-ans can’t be approached with your thinking, they must be approached with your confidence. This means asking, “Do I believe in myself? Can I trust life’s experience this very moment?” We may think that confidence is an encyclopedia salesperson ringing a doorbell, confident in what she’s selling. This isn’t confidence, this is selling yourself something, selling yourself an idea and making it so strong, you can’t be open to the universe. True confidence is completely accepting your not-knowing. It’s accepting that no one knows and understanding that this is okay. When you do this, your universe becomes bigger. But when you take one idea, formulate something, and become attached to it, your universe shrinks. So let your universe become large. Let your sitting be without boundaries, and a good answer will appear all by itself.

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