(From Only Don't Know, by Zen Master Seung Sahn)

How do I explain Zen practice to other people?

Cambridge, Massachussetts

March 17, 1978

Dear Soen Sa Nim,

Thank you very much for your letter. 

I’ve been having difficulty explaining Zen and my practice to my family and friends, and especially my parents. Most of them like the questions, “What is life? What is death? What is our correct job in life?” They say they have asked these questions themselves, but feel that we can never know the answers, that “Only God knows.”

Another thing people say is that to save all people from suffering is impossible. They feel that life is suffering and that we cannot change that. Also, they cannot understand how sitting Zen or chanting or bowing can help other people. It seems self-centered and selfish to them to be always “thinking about yourself” and “doing nothing” in a Zen Center away from other people. They feel that a person should be “out in the world” working with people who need help.

I would like to ask you what a good answer would be to these questions.

Thank you very much for your teaching.

Sincerely yours,


March 22, 1978

Dear Steve,

In your letter, you asked about the questions of saving all people from suffering and what life and death are. These questions are very easy.

Your friends and family have ideas about many things; they hold onto these ideas but don't understand that they are attached to them.  Originally there is nothing. If you make something, you have something. If you don’t make anything, then already, you are complete.  If you wish to understand God, then you must first understand your true self.  This is the first course.

How do you understand your true self?  So I ask you, What are you?  Do you know?  If you don't know, only go straight - don't know.  This don't-know mind cuts off all thinking, and your only-me situation, only-me condition, and only-me opinion disappear.  Then your correct situation, correct condition, and correct opinion appear - it's very simple!  An eminent teacher said, "You can understand yourself whether water is hot or cold."  Understanding yourself is not special.

Next course: if you are thinking, then your mind and my mind are different.  If you cut off all thinking, then your mind, my mind, all people's minds are the same.  An eminent teacher said, "One is many; many are one."  So if you cut off all thinking, there is no I-my-me.  Then you can keep your correct situation, correct condition and correct opinion from moment to moment.  This is already world peace; you have already saved all people.  

So first: how do you cut off all thinking?  Already I asked you, "What are you?"  If you don't know, only go straight - don't know.

Next: how do you keep don't-know mind from moment to moment?  You must try, try, try.  So every day at a Zen center, we bow, chant, sit, and work together.  Sometimes we do yong maeng jong jin [retreat]; sometimes we do a kido [chanting retreat].  These actions help us practice moment to moment: what are you doing now?  If your mind is not clear, then simply do not hold your ideas; only don't know.  Slowly your desire-thinking, your anger-thinking, your ignorance-thinking disappear, so your don't-know mind grows stronger and becomes clear.  

So when you sit, just sit.  When you chant, just chant.  When you bow, just bow.  That is most important.  If you practice this way, then when you teach other people, just teach.  Only teach; only help them.  Don't worry whether or not they understand; only try.  If you are trying 100 percent, then your teaching is complete and your mind-light will shine to them.  Some day they will understand this. 

So don't worry - just try.  Trying is better than a Zen master, better than Buddha, better than God.  It is already great love, great compassion, and the great bodhisattva way.  Don't check your feelings; don't check your mind; don't check your understanding; don't check outside.  Then there is no inside, no outside, no I, no you, no they: you are one with your situation.  That is very important.

I hope you only go straight - don't know, keep a mind that is clear like space, try, try, try for ten thousand years nonstop, attain enlightenment, and save all beings from suffering.

Yours in the Dharma, 

S. S.