Seung Sahns Twelve Gates
These kong-ans (Japanese: koan) are among the principle ones used by Zen Master Seung Sahn and the other teachers of the Kwan Um School. In terms of Dae Soen Sa Nim’s published teaching, two of them originally appeared in print in Dropping Ashes on the Buddha, and the original complete set of ten first appeared in the appendix “Mind Meal” of his book Only Don’t Know. They are also the subject of his book Ten Gates. An eleventh gate was added as an epilogue to Ten Gates and, more recently, a twelfth gate was added. All of these kong-ans appear as part of the collection The Whole World is a Single Flower – 365 Kong-ans for Everyday Life. His short commentaries are all taken from this last collection.
First Gate: Jo Ju’s Dog
A monk once asked Jo Ju, “Does a dog have Buddha-nature?”
Jo Ju answered, “Mu!” (No)
1. Buddha said everything has Buddha-nature. Jo Ju said a dog has no Buddha-nature. Which one is correct?
2. Jo Ju said, “Mu!” What does this mean?
3. I ask you, does a dog have Buddha-nature?
Commentary: Silence is better than holiness, so opening your mouth is a big mistake. But if you use this mistake to save all beings, this is Zen.
Second Gate: Jo Ju’s Washing the Bowls
A monk once asked Jo Ju, “I have just entered the monastery. Please teach me, Master.”
Jo Ju said, “Have you had breakfast?”
“Yes, I have,” replied the monk.
“Then,” said Jo Ju, “wash your bowls.”
The monk was enlightened.
1. What did the monk attain?
2. If you were the monk, what could you say to Jo Ju?
Commentary: Breakfast in the morning, lunch at noon, dinner in the evening. After the meal, do you understand your job? Then do it.
Third Gate: Seong Am Calls Master
Master Seong Am Eon used to call to himself every day, “Master!” and would answer, “Yes?”
“You must keep clear!”
“Never be deceived by others, any day, any time!”
1. What is the meaning of “Master!”?
2. Seong Am Eon used to call himself, and answer himself, two minds. Which one is the correct Master?
Commentary: Stupid, stupid! Woman’s face, man’s face, who understands? Wash your face, then it appears clearly.
Fourth Gate: Hok Am’s Bodhidharma Has No Beard
Master Hok Am asked, “Why does Bodhidharma have no beard?”
1. What is Bodhidharma’s original face?
2. I ask you, why does Bodhidharma have no beard?
Commentary: Three years after his death, Bodhidharma returned to India, carrying a stick and a shoe. He never died. Where is he now? Watch you step!
Fifth Gate: Hyang Eom’s Up A Tree
Master Hyang Eom said, “It is like a man up a tree who is hanging from a branch by his teeth; his hands cannot grasp a bough, his feet cannot touch the tree; he is tied and bound. Another man under the tree asks him, ‘Why did Bodhidharma come to China?’ If he does not answer, he evades his duty and will be killed. If he answers, he will lose his life.
1. If you are in the tree, how do you stay alive?
Commentary: “Aigo, aigo, aigo!” Who died? Your mother or your son? It appears clearly in front of you.
Sixth Gate: Seung Sahn’s Dropping Ashes on the Buddha
A man came into the Zen Center smoking a cigarette, blowing smoke in the Buddha-statue’s face and dropping ashes on its lap. The abbot came in, saw the man, and said, “Are you crazy? Why are you dropping ashes on the Buddha?”
The man answered, “Buddha is everything. Why not?”
The abbot couldn’t answer and went away.
1. “Buddha is everything.” What does that mean?
2. Why did the man drop ashes on the Buddha?
3. If you had been the abbot, how could you have fixed this man’s mind?
Commentary: How do you meet the Buddha? Where do you throw away ashes? Its all very clear. Your correct function is always in front of you.
NOTE: There is an important factor in this case that has apparently never been explicitly included in its print versions. Zen Master Seung Sahn has always told his students that the man with the cigarette is also very strong and that he will hit you if he doesn’t approve of your response to his actions.
Seventh Gate: Ko Bong’s Three Gates
1. The sun in the sky shines everywhere. Why does a cloud obscure it?
2. Everyone has a shadow following them. How can you not step on your shadow?
3. The whole universe is on fire. Through what kind of samadhi can you escape being burned?
Commentary: The sun, the moon, the stars, the mountains and waters – everything is complete. One mind appears, big mistake. One mind disappears, then seeing and hearing become the truth. Don’t make anything. Just see, just hear, just do it.
Eighth Gate: Duk Sahn Carrying his Bowls
One day Duk Sahn came into the Dharma Room carrying his bowls. The Housemaster, Seol Bong, said, “Old Master, the bell has not yet been rung and the drum has not yet been struck. Where are you going, carrying your bowls?” At this, Duk Sahn returned to the Master’s room. Seol Bong told the Head Monk, Am Du, what had happened.
Am Du said, “Great Master Duk Sahn does not understand the last word.”
Duk Sahn heard this and sent for Am Du. “Do you not approve of me?” he demanded. Then Am Du whispered in the Master’s ear. Duk Sahn was relieved.
The next day on the rostrum, making his Dharma Speech, Duk Sahn was really different from before. Am Du went to the front of the Dharma Room, laughed loudly, clapped his hands and said, “Great joy! The old Master has understood the last word! From now on, no one can check him.”
1. What was the last word?
2. What did Am Du whisper in the Master’s ear?
3. How was the Master’s speech different from before?
4. If you were Duk Sahn, and Seol Bong asked you, “Where are you going, carrying your bowls?” how would you answer?
Commentary: Three dogs chase each other’s tails in a circle, following the smell, looking for food.
Ninth Gate: Nam Cheon Kills a Cat
Once morning, the monks of the Eastern and Western halls were arguing about a cat. Hearing the loud dispute as he passed, Master Nam Cheon held up the cat in one hand and a knife in the other and shouted, “You! Give me one word and I will save this cat! If you cannot, I will kill it!” No one could answer. Finally, Nam Cheon cut the cat in two.
In the evening, when Jo Ju returned from outside, Nam Cheon told him of the incident. Jo Ju took off his shoes, put them on his head, and walked away. Nam Cheon said, “Alas, if you had been there, I could have saved the cat.”
1. Nam Cheon said, “Give me one word!” At that time, what can you do?
2. Jo Ju put his shoe on his head. What does this mean?
3. Why did Nam Choen kill the cat?
Commentary: Nam Choen, Jo Ju and all students are already dead. The cat says, “Meow, meow.”
Tenth Gate: Ko Bong’s “Mouse Eats Cat Food”
Seung Sahn visited his teacher, Zen Master Ko Bong, who asked him many difficult kong-ans which Seung Sahn answered easily. After many exchanges, Ko Bong said, “Alright, one last question. The mouse eats cat food, but the cat bowl is broken. What does this mean?”
Seung gave many answers, but to each Ko Bong only said, “No.” Seung Sahn became angry and frustrated, completely stuck. After staring into Ko Bong’s eyes for 50 minutes, his mind broke open like lightning striking.
1. What is “kong-an”?
2. What is “completely stuck”?
3. The mouse eats cat food, but the cat bowl is broken. What does this mean?
Commentary: Mouse eats cat food, cat bowl is broken, then what? A quarter is 25 cents, 25 cents buys ice cream; ice cream into the stomach, very good feeling. Ah, wonderful!
Eleventh Gate: Seung Sahn’s Three Men Walking
From the Epilogue in Ten Gates:
Zen Master Seung Sahn wrote: “If you pass all Ten Gates, then this world will become yours. Becoming yours means you will attain the function of freedom from life or death. Then correct function, correct relationship, correct situation are possible. If you pass these Ten Gates, I will give you a present of an Eleventh Gate.”
Three men are walking. The first man makes a sword sound; the next man takes out a handkerchief; the third man waves his hand.
1. What is the relationship?
2. What is the function?
3. What is the situation?
Commentary: The function is all different, but the situation is the same.
Twelfth Gate: Man Gong’s Net
From the Summer 1999 issue of Primary Point:
One day, Zen Master Man Gong sat on the high rostrum and gave the speech to mark the end of the three month winter retreat. “All winter long you monks practiced very hard. That’s wonderful! As for me, I had nothing to do, so I made a net. This net is made out of a special cord. It is very strong and can catch all Buddhas, Patriarchs and human beings. It catches everything. How do you get out of this net?
Some students shouted, “KATZ!” Others hit the floor or raised a fist. One said, “The sky is blue, the grass is green.” Another said, “Already got out; how are you, great Zen Master?” From the back of the room a monk shouted, “Don’t make net!”
Many answers were given, but to each Man Gong only replied, “Aha! I’ve caught a BIG fish!”
1. How do you get out of Man Gong’s net?
Seung Sahn, Only Don’t Know, Primary Point Press, originally published in 1982, latest edition 1999. Copyright (c) Providence Zen Center. Appendix I, “Mind Meal.” ORDER THIS BOOK NOW through our association with Amazon.com
Seung Sahn, Ten Gates, Shambhala, 2007.
Seung Sahn, The Whole World is a Single Flower – 365 Kong-ans for Everyday Life, edited by Jane McLaughlin, JDPSN, (now Zen Master Bon Yeon) and Paul Muenzen, Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1992. Copyright (c) Providence Zen Center. Cases #280 (gate 1), #286 (gate 2), #291 (gate 3), #283 (gate 4), #284 (gate 5), #362 (gate 6), #46(gate 7), #292 (gate 8), #293 (gate 9), #363 (gate 10), #364 (gate 11), and #12 (gate 12).
Dropping Ashes on the Buddha – The Teaching of Zen Master Seung Sahn, compiled and edited by Stephen Mitchell, Grove Press, New York, Copyright (c) Providence Zen Center. Dae Soen Sa Nim addresses the 6th and 10th gates in Chapter 58.