Chong An Sunim - Zen Buddhism lectures

My notes on a 12 part series of introductory lectures by Chong An Sunim on Zen Buddhism. Broken into three sections: Theravada, Mahayana, Zen (Warning: quoting is mixed with my paraphrasing/editorialising without distinction. Hopefully I've kept editorialising minimal, but reader beware)


  1. Theravada (01 - 04)

  2. Zen Buddhism 01 by Chong An Sunim
  3. 01 - Introduction

    Buddha nature - When Buddha attained enlightenment, he saw that all beings are enlightened at their deepest nature.  All names/forms/sentient beings inherently capable of attaining enlightenment/liberation.  Nature of what you attain in practice does not matter so much, name, what people say about it etc.  What matters is how it does it works, what you attain; but  how you function in your family, neighbourhood, society…

    Conditioned existence - Nothing exists by itself, independently of causes and conditions.  Everything caused by another factor. Buddha saw it's not necessary to suffer, be deluded, produce anger/desire/ignore.  Same goes for sense of self/ego/I; is all feelings, perceptions, impulses, memories, judgements, etc “held together by string of attachment”. 

    Importance of meditation - Attainment not religious, depended on personal practice (ie. meditation).  After attainment, next job is to help all beings. Meditation always relevant, because gives you direct insight to what we are as human beings.  Not some kind of philosophy, psychology; not scientific.  Much deeper.  Attain iff you practice, not from books.

    Buddhist traditions - proposed grouping:

    * Theravada (only accept what was written down as Buddha's own speech), 

    * Mahayana (accepted also what was later added), 

    * Zen (independent route/way, no dependence on scriptures, direct pointing)

    Buddha, Dharma, Sangha.  Parallel: individual (Buddha), world around you (Dharma), group share practice with (Sangha).  Need balance on all three for harmonious tradition.  Eg, in West, over-emphasis on Dharma at expense of others (lots of books, intellectual understanding, individual practice, etc, but hard time connecting with others)

    Questions from the audience

    Q: difference between seriously disappointed man, and one attached to nothing. 

    Q: how can you help? suffering in this world by meditation?

  4. Zen Buddhism 02 by Chong An Sunim
  5. 02 - Three basic insights

    1. Impermanence - eg. mustard seed story. Humans seem to lack recognition that impermanence applies to them too.  Buddha gifted in that picked up on this despite sheltered life.  Something we all have to come to terms with (eg. small kids separated from parents), neither good nor bad, eg. suffering also impermanent).  What the Buddha practised/attained:

    What is it that sees impermanence? What is it that perceives coming and going?

    Liberation from suffering: still have to die, but impermanence perceived, and not a problem.  Unclear mind (avidyā, Sanskrit)

    2. Emptiness of Purity vs Impurity - distinctions like/dislike pleasant/unpleasant are empty, created by our mind (eg. reaction to foreign foods), can give rise to false distinction between pure/impure.  But also conditioned, also created by mind, also empty, also dependent on other things

    3. Non-self - all phenomenon/things lack independent existence, are a sum of their parts, eg. a watch doesn't have a watch-ego, watch-self, nor a tree, etc.  Whole universe is same way.  Sense of a distinct self is similarly a mistake.  No need to fear: “of course you will disappear, but you will feel better without your ego, much much better”

    Questions from the audience

    Q: impermanence vs Buddha Nature?
    Q: difference between “I don't want anything” and true liberation? 
    Q: have you reached attainment?
  6. Zen Buddhism 03 by Chong An Sunim
  7. 03 - Suffering and 12 links

    4 major sufferings: birth, old age, sickness, death
    4 smaller sufferings: not getting what you want, getting what you don't want, being in presence of those you dislike, being separated from those you love

    And so much more!

    Chain of dependent origination (particularly steps 1-3)

    How suffering happens:

    1. ignorance, avidyā (Sanskrit), aka dualistic thinking - not seeing things as they are (due to ideas…)
    2. mental formation - classifying things, good bad, etc, 
    3. consciousness - (entrenched) views about other,
    4. name and form - blindness to the movement of (cf Biblical Tree of Knowledge, strong emphasis on the need for practice to gain insight, else just these are just ideas) 

    The rest of the chain is only very lightly touched on, for completeness:

    5. the 6 sense realms (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body thinking) - as existing by themselves, though not created in your mind, not knowing how they operate
    6. direct contact - with something already alienated from you
    7. sensation
    8. desire
    9. clinging
    10. existence
    11. life
    12. old age, suffering, death

    Stressed importance of the first 3 steps, particularly that of ignorance (not same as lack of knowledge, eg. “many clever people very ignorant”).   You create this karma!

    Questions from the audience

    Q: how to work with words and speech? 
    Q: how to break bad habits of speech/behaviour? 
    Q: I don't like my thinking, so I started I do some crochet…
  8. Zen Buddhism 04 by Chong An Sunim
  9. 04 - Four Noble Truths and the Eight Fold Path

    Emphasis again on practice over theory (understand basics, then practise, else no ripening into wisdom, just dry cognition).  

    4 Noble Truths

    1. Suffering: Practise and see clearly that there is suffering in you (“this major discomfort”).   Most people don't even realise this; just blame the world instead.
    2. Cause of suffering: Seeing suffering, can see the cause of suffering (see 12 links, chain of dependent origination).  Major fundamental root cause: ignorance (not-seeing)
    3. End of suffering: Stop holding, attaching, wanting, judging, then the suffering stops
    4. Way to end suffering (8-fold path).  Correct view, correct meditation, etc.  Notice how unlike other religions, Buddhism specify  what constitutes “correct”.  Moment to moment.  End of suffering: before birth, before death.

    The Buddha did not start with the 4 Noble Truths!  He first started with what we now know as the  Avatamsaka Sūtra (if you want to understand nature of this universe, perceive it as created by mind alone), but “too short, too simple, too clear” to be understood.  Had to be back off and start with something people could work with, teaching as though cause/effect some exterior thing.  Practice allows you to see that you create your own suffering, its cause, its end, you go on the path… Originally, suffering, cause, end don't exist.  But you have to start with something you directly understand.

    Intellectual understanding just an intermediary phase.  Concepts, you need them, but they're just expedient means.  Don't deny correct function of mind (that needs, uses concepts).  If the teaching is correct, you don't stop at the conceptual level.  Mature human being means: perceive directly.  This all helps you go beyond thinking.

    Questions from the audience

    Q: How to cultivate compassion, instead of self-serving pity, especially when faced with lack of appreciation;
    Q: How do you deal with pain? (example: Mazu's venerable health),
    Q: What about people who want death?
  10. Mahayana (05 - 08)

  11. Zen Buddhism 05 by Chong An Sunim
  12. 05 - Mahayana

    No substantial difference between Theravada/Mahayana, merely style, methods, some historical events.  Common basic goals: attain enlightenment, save all sentient beings from suffering.

    About Mahayana 

    1. Mutual interdependence - everything interlinked, supporting each other, eg. water/cup/hand/body/earth, all together. Forgetting this, thinking it doesn't apply to you → suffering. Fundamental insight into existence/non-existence of the dharmas
    (Sanskrit: धर्म, dharmas = phenomena, aka “name and form“, cf Dharma, “the way names and forms interconnect and operate” aka, the Law”). 

    2. Middle way  - tathatā (Sanskrit + Pali:  तथता, thusness).   Eg. this building “just like this, not high, not low…”.  All phenomena “just like this”.  Qualities of objects/phenomena (eg. hot, cold) not intrinsic, but assigned by our consciousness.  Mahayana is not just about the extra scriptures, or the methodological innovations: Essence of Mahayana is resolution of dualism between suffering and nirvana.  

    3. Buddha nature - totally empty, void of characteristics, void of opposites, ie. thusness applied to sentient beings.  Every sentient being is Buddha.

    Questions from the audience

    Q: elaboration on how forgetting relativity causes suffering,
    Q: compassion v. emotion, compassion more vast than emotion: compassion is being one with other, when they sad, you sad etc, eg: if you hate somebody, compassion overrides emotion lest you stab them
  13. Zen Buddhism 06 by Chong An Sunim
  14. 06 - How the mind operates

    Six primary consciousnesses:

    1-5) physical senses (/consciousnesses): eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body
    6) conceptual thinking (Sanskrit: vijñāna): creates concepts, relates concepts, makes systems of concepts, names things, remembers things, analyses them…

    Plus two more:

    7)  manas (Sanskrit): makes distinctions/discriminates: good/bad, like/don't like, me/not-me.  “As long as you keep your opposites machine going, you can never go beyond name and form…”; “don't think” doesn't mean “blow your brain to pieces”; just attain one moment *SMACK* of no thinking, then the movement of 6th/7th stops) 
    8) ālāya-vijñāna (Sanskrit), “the big storehouse”, contains/combines everything from consciousnesses 1-7 (example of 8th at work: déjà vu)

    Seems to be hub and spoke model (6 senses feed into 7 which outputs to 8?).  “None of this is your true self, none of this is your Buddha Nature”.  

    What is it that perceives all of these things?  Called many things (clear mirror consciousness, Buddha nature, before life/death, etc), but properly speaking, no name.  This is what makes us human. All animals have 1-8 to an extent (eg. picky dogs/cats also discriminate); but only humans the capacity to reflect/change your karma (EYK: I'm sure this can be updated for a modern understanding of other animals, if needed), not that we seem to do much about it (because avidya)…

    Questions from the audience

    Q: what exactly do you mean by “save all beings?”
    Q: what is not-moving mind as alluded to the Compass of Zen? pretty inspirational story at the end about being appropriate in each moment
  15. Zen Buddhism 07 by Chong An Sunim
  16. 07 - more on the 8 consciousnesses
    Chong An Sunim started by taking more questions, then continued at 12:30 with one more aspect…

    Karma body (7th and 8th consciousnesses), persists even past physical body (EYK: do I understand correctly that the “what kind of body do you get if you were to die tomorrow” poem comes  from Baizhang? Or was it the karma body concept?).  Practice enables you to observe how this functions and know it will carry over to next lifetime…

    Our real job is attain the true self
    do not identify with or attach to anything
    Then we can function correctly.

    Re: reincarnation and repeated lives

    * Theravada - fundamental distinctions between ignorant mindstream enterer (Sanskrit: Srotāpanna) (very soon after starting meditation), once-returner (just one more lifetime left before nirvana!), non-returner (Anagami, the big no-reward)

    * Mahayana -  but if you enter Nirvana, how do you help this world? Lifetime after lifetime, be born in human body, meet the dharma, meet your teacher, get enlightenment.  You vow to come back! Enlightenment yes, but escaping, not until everybody else is liberated first (see ya suckers = selfish).  Bodhisattva path (job security forever…).  Driver/software = 7-8th consciousness, Car/hardware = 1-6th…

    * Zen - ”no repetition”; every single moment whether have body or not, the same, keep clear 

    Questions from the audience

    Q: dualism generated by 7th stage of consciousness? 
    Q: I heard you have to get rid of dualistic ideas, of your 7th level of consciousness? [notion of transcending all the 8 levels, then they begin to “function correctly”] 
    Q: how do your dreams relate to your karma? what about something that feels real, but you can't tell if dream or not
    Q: all things the same substance?! (EYK: not sure if that's what was asked, but some persistent not understanding of something Chong An Sunim already explained)
    Q: compassion, distinction between suffering-with-other/feeling-with-other (Swedish uses two different concepts)
  17. Zen Buddhism 08 by Chong An Sunim
  18. 08 - Heart Sutra (Prajña Paramita Sutra)

    Heart Sutra (Sanskrit: Prajñāpāramitā, प्रज्ञापारमिता).  Authorship disputed, but who cares?  Incomprehensible at first.

    Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva in the state of practising perfect wisdom (or could be you) perceives that…

    1. all 5 skandas empty (form, body, feelings, perceptions, impulses, forms of consciousness; building blocks of our ego) originally empty of inherent existence, do not have control over our existence or our buddha nature…

    2. form is emptiness; emptiness is form - all 5 skandas, removable, creatable, non-essential, non-intrinsic (comparison putting Newtonian and Einsteinian physics).  Universal law.

    3. no eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, mind (in this state of transcendental wisdom)- nothing appears, nothing disappears.  No dualistic quality, no enlightenment, no suffering.  Not attached to anything.  Just what you really are.

    4. bodhisattva when depending on this has no fear because no hindrance - having fear means you have some hindrance, either in body, feeling, consciousness, etc; because some attachment/duality still exists

    5. the greatest, most perfect; this is true, not false - from pov of the “old people”, really venerated/respected this sutra, used this sort of language.  “is true not false” expression of what they experienced of this first hand

    6. mantra: gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā - go, go, go to the other shore (go through this gate), become Buddha… (Sanskrit gate = English gate?!).  Sutras, mantras, etc “only a means to an end”, mechanism to return “before thinking”.  Mantra is protection of mind against its own harmful influence.  Talking about sutras “actually very bad thing”, adding words onto words for talking about ineffable.  But serves as food for the intellect (like mantra).  Suddenly you realise where your stomach is.  Point in all traditions is the same.  Become clear, help this world.

    Questions from the audience

    Q: difference between don't-know mind and ignorance/avidyā?  (don't-know mind = seeing (vidyā); ignorance (avidyā) is attachment to thoughts, not seeing your thinking)
    Q: punishment in schools OK? (asker is teacher, punishes his students… some commentary on skilfully getting discipline in classroom)
  19. Zen (09 - 12)

  20. Zen Buddhism 09 by Chong An Sunim
  21. 09 - Zen Historical Background

    When did Zen start? Perspectives:

    1. Even before the Buddha's time (notion of pre-Gautama Buddhas)

    2. Historical/traditional start of Zen

    A. Buddha flower sermon: what was transmitted to Mahākāśyapa?
    B. Buddha sharing his cushion with Mahākāśyapa; unprecedented breaking of hierarchy, our Buddha nature, capacity to attain enlightenment is equal
    C. After Buddha's passing, Mahākāśyapa walks around coffin thrice, bows thrice, hits coffin thrice.  Buddha's bare feet shoot through coffin walls. Body dies, but mind never dies.

    3. Bodhidharma to China (28 generations later) with Buddha's mind seal.  China had been seeping into China for years (since ca < 100 AD)  “So far, we've had only the baggage; now we have the owner”.  Chinese knew he was coming.  Emperor Wu exchange (no merit… no holiness; only clear, vast, empty space… no mind).  Bodhidharma to Shaolin for 6-9 years before starting teaching.

    ”Meditation school of Buddhism” a bit contradiction in terms cos originally Buddha taught practising, together-action of Sangha, plus answering students' questions (hence “thus have I heard…”).  So why dhyāna school?  Because contrast with later traditions where learning/reciting sutras, memorising Buddha's words, etc; gained lots more prominence.  Bodhidharma returns to original priorities via

    Four Principles (in logical progression):

    1. do not depend on scriptures
    2. pointing directly to human mind
    3. attain your true self; become Buddha
    4. transmission outside scriptures, independent of sutras

    About word Zen:  dhyana (India) → channa (China) → chán 禪→ sŏn (Korea), zen (Japan)  → zen (West via Japan)

    Questions from the audience

    Q: what does finishing your karma with somebody mean?
  22. Zen Buddhism 10 by Chong An Sunim
  23. 10 - the Zen Circle

    Devised by Zen Master Seung Sahn for teaching:

    0 (closed/selfish mind) - you have no questions, no doubts, no problems… except problems with the world.  You are you (fixed identity), angry when you don't what you want, happy when you do.  You believe your thinking is real.  Nobody can stay at zero.  Sooner or later, you see impermanence…

    90 (sufficient understanding) - conceptual understanding how names/forms operate, but no attainment.  You know about Buddha Nature, but haven't attained enlightenment. As you start looking inside, you creep up to 91, 92…

    180 (cessation of dualities) - you and world become one.  No form, no emptiness, no words, no speech, only SMACK.   Called Buddha Nature, aka substance, aka the Absolute, aka, the Great Way.  Just this moment.

    270 (area of magic/miracle) - absolute freedom, totally no-hindrance mind. Understanding that you can do everything.  You could perform miracles, but it's useless because you haven't solved the basic human karma of anger, desire, ignorance…

    360 (overlapping w 0) - mountains become just mountain, water just water.  All karmic debts clear. Finished; ditch the circle.  What's left? Our human duty: “How may I help you?” “How can I help this world?”.  Can't help other humans unless you first complete the circle (road to hell paved with good intentions).  Do internal job, then the external job.  Having resolved man-made suffering (eg. wars, harming nature), still have 4 major misfortunes to deal with (birth, old age, sickness, death). But there's overwhelming man-made suffering to deal with first…

    Questions from the audience

    Q. where did first karma start? (introduces “where does my thinking come from” hwadu)
    Q. ego, can see it, what is it? (Nargajuna gives us solid philosophical foundation for Middle Way, cradle of Zen, made it possible for Daoists to understand Buddhists.  Unparalleled to this day. Example of intellect + wisdom, grounded in practice)
  24. Zen Buddhism 11 by Chong An Sunim
  25. 11 - Meditation methods

    Chong An Sunim seems to accept the Buddhist/Daoist hybridisation view of Zen, “very simple, very clear, very efficient; best of both worlds”

    Meditation: return to the mind before thinking, before birth/death.  Zen eschews use of particular mental formations (eg. sights, sounds) as objects of meditation, but as tools, means to an end.  Tools primarily used: bowing (body), chanting (speech), (mind)

    Body meditation: bowing (Westerners instinctively react negatively) - you raise the Buddha above yourself, leave your karma behind.  Does not mean that you worship something separate.  Perfectly natural to bow to somebody more respectable, advanced, accomplished, than we are.  After culture shock, becomes second nature. You and this world become one.  That's all it means.  Other forms of meditation, martial arts, flower arranging.  Bowing a bit different because no creation/destruction.

    Speech meditation: chanting (A) Cleansing your speech karma (just as bowing cleanses your physical karma). Speech can cause problems, but also create good. When we chant, our minds join.  (B) Emotional cleansing. People tend to feel lighter/better after chanting.   (C) Self-conditioning (reprogramming?), your mind becomes what you're chanting (eg. name of the Buddha).  Don't look for any special meaning/mantra. Your mind does the whole job.  Notion of realms (eg. deity realm, human realm) becoming one, taking away opposites-mind.  

    Mind meditation (sitting):  

    A. Hwadu.  Keeping Great Question in your mind (eg. what am I).  After a while, the words naturally disappear, only the question remains. Perceiving everything as it is, moment to moment. 
    B. For some, question too cold/icy/sharp, so use a mantra.  Mind moves, but in a wee circle.  Just like the hwadu, if wander off, non-judgementally immediately return to your practice, moment to moment.  Reference to huineng no-mirror poem.  No name, no form BUT BE CAREFUL, if you attach to Nothing, is also a trap! (not nihilism, Western existentialists offing themselves used as cautionary tale)
    C. perceiving the sound (aka Kwan-Um), aka Shikantaza in Japanese Zen. Shikantaza style is not paying special attention to sound, but to everything.  OTOH, Kwan Um focus on perceiving the sound.  Moment to moment.  What is it that hears the sound?  Bit too direct for some folks.

    Many methods, appropriate for different personalities. Kwan-Um uses methodological progression. Ice analogy - bowing breaks the ice, chanting melts it, just sitting blows the clouds (vapour) away.  Westerners tend to want to go straight to sitting, but tends to be induce craziness, Zen sickness, too much/too soon “like an avalanche” opening floodgates on unfinished karma. Traditional progression: years of physical work, chanting, and bowing (to break the ice) as mental preparation for sitting.  Doesn't mean you shouldn't sit as a beginner, just that must keep balance… sitting not enough by itself, chanting not alone by itself…

    Questions from the audience

    Q: can I do sitting meditation as just a newbie?