Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

Dropping Ashes On the Buddha

The Teaching of Zen Master Seung Sahn

by Stephen Mitchell Edited by Stephen Mitchell

‘somebody comes into the Zen center with a lighted cigarette, walks up to the Buddha statue, blows smoke in its face, and drops ashes on its lap. You are standing there. What can you do?”

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 256
  • Publication Date July 01, 1976
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-3052-5
  • Dimensions 5.38" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $16.00

About The Book

‘somebody comes into the Zen center with a lighted cigarette, walks up to the Buddha statue, blows smoke in its face, and drops ashes on its lap. You are standing there. What can you do?”

This is a problem which Zen Master Seung Sahn is fond of posing to his American students who attend his Zen centers. Like much of Zen literature which encourages flashes of instinctive understanding of the true way by showing the classical Zen Masters in interaction with their students, Dropping Ashes on the Buddha is a record of a Zen Master’s way with his students. What makes this book different and unique, however, is that Master Seung Sahn is very much alive, that his students are young Americans, and that the dialogues set down here took place in the U.S. Thus, for the first time, the kong-an method may be seen applied within a thoroughly modern context, in place of the more familiar ancient Chinese setting customary in traditional literature.

Dropping Ashes on the Buddha is a delightful, irreverent, and often hilariously funny living record of the dialogue between Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn and his American students. Consisting of dialogues, stories, formal Zen interviews, Dharma speeches, and letters using the Zen Master’s actual words in spontaneous, living interaction with his students, this book is a fresh presentation of the Zen teaching method of “instant dialogue” between Master and student which, through the use of astonishment and paradox, leads to an understanding of ultimate reality.

Ven. Seung Sahn is the first Korean Zen Master to teach in the West. He attained enlightenment at the age of twenty-two. After five years in the army, he served as chairman of the committee to reform the Chogye order of Korean Buddhism and was abbot of five temples in Seoul. He spent nine years teaching in Japan, founding temples in Tokyo and Hong Kong. In 1972 he came to America with no money and no English, and supported himself for a few months by repairing washing machines in a Laundromat. He is now the director of growing Zen communities in Providence, Cambridge, New Haven, New York, and Los Angeles.


1. Zen Is Understanding Yourself

One day a student from Chicago came to the Providence Zen Center and asked Seung Sahn Soen-sa, “What is Zen?”
Soen-sa held his Zen stick above his head and said, ‘do you understand?”
The student said, “I don’t know.”
Soen-sa said, “This don’t-know mind is you. Zen is understanding yourself.”
“What do you understand about me? Teach me.”
Soen-sa said, “In a cookie factory, different cookies are baked in the shape of animals, cars, people, and airplanes. They all have different names and forms, but they are all made from the same dough, and they all taste the same.
“In the same way, all things in the universe–the sun, the moon, the stars, mountains, rivers, people, and so forth–have different names and forms, but they are all made from the same substance. 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. Your don’t-know mind cuts off all thinking. This is your substance. The substance of this Zen stick and your own substance are the same. You are this stick; this stick is you.”
The student said, ‘some philosophers say this substance is energy, or mind, or God, or matter. Which is the truth?”
Soen-sa said, “Four blind men went to the zoo and visited the elephant. One blind man touched its side and said, “The elephant is like a wall.” The next blind man touched its trunk and said, “The elephant is like a snake.” The next blind man touched its leg and said, “The elephant is like a column.” The last blind man touched its tail and said, “The elephant is like a broom.” Then the four blind men started to fight, each one believing that his opinion was the right one. Each only understood the part he had touched; none of them understood the whole.
‘substance has no name and no form. Energy, mind, God, and matter are all name and form. Substance is the Absolute. Having name and form is having opposites. So the whole world is like the blind men fighting among themselves. Not understanding yourself is not understanding the truth. That is why there is fighting among ourselves. If all the people in the world understood themselves, they would attain the Absolute. Then the world would be at peace. World peace is Zen.”
The student said, “How can practicing Zen make world peace?”
Soen-sa said, “People desire money, fame, sex, food, and rest. All this desire is thinking. Thinking is suffering. Suffering means no world peace. Not thinking is not suffering. Not suffering means world peace. World peace is the Absolute. The Absolute is I.”
The student said, “How can I understand the Absolute?”
Soen-sa said, “You must understand yourself.”
“How can I understand myself?”
Soen-sa held up the Zen stick and said, ‘do you see this?”
He then quickly hit the table with the stick and said, ‘do you hear this? This stick, this sound, and your mind–are they the same or different?
The student said, “The same.”
Soen-sa said, “If you say they are the same, I will hit you thirty times. If you say they are different, I will still hit you thirty times. Why?”
The student was silent.
Soen-sa shouted “KATZ!!!”* Then he said, ‘spring comes, the grass grows by itself.”

*This is the famous Zen belly-shout. Its transcription (KATZ in Korean and Japanese, HO in Chinese) hardly does it justice.