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

A letter from jail

Atlanta, Georgia, June 8, 1978

Dear Sir:

One of your students suggested that I write directly to you and that you would be kind enough to offer some advice.

I am incarcerated at the Atlanta Penitentiary and would like to have a suggestion on how to practice Zen while I am in prison.

I have already read many books on Zen, including the essays by D. T. Suzuki.

Sometimes when I feel as though I have achieved satori, I seem to lose it and fall back to my old self again.  Why am I unable to maintain my gains in the area of Zen?

Thank you.



June 20, 1978

Dear Robert,

Thank you for your letter.  How are you?  It is wonderful that you wrote to me directly.

In your letter, you said that you are in jail.  That is a wonderful Zen center!  I also have been in jail.  Maybe that jail made me become a Zen master.  Perhaps jail will also make you become a Zen master!

You said you have read many books on Zen.  That is not good, not bad.  If your direction is clear, then all Zen books, the Bible, and all the sutras will help you find your true way.  But if you have no direction and you read many books about Zen, then your mind will be filled with thinking.  Thinking is desire, and desire is suffering.  So this thinking and understanding cannot help you. 

What is your correct direction?  Do you have one?  You must show me!  If you don't understand, throw away all your books!  I ask you, what are you?  When you were born, where did you come from?  When you die, where will you go?  What is your name?  How old are you?  These are all simple questions.  Maybe you say, "My name is Robert."  That is your body's name.  What is your true self's name?  Perhaps you say, "I am thirty-five years old."  But that is your body's age.  What is your true age?  Tell me, tell me!  If you don't understand, only go straight--don't know.  Don't check your feelings; don't check your mind; don't check your understanding.  

Next, you sometimes feel that you have experienced satori.  This is feeling satori; when this feeling disappears, satori disappears, so it is not correct satori.  True satori is unmoving, unchanging; it has no feeling, no thought.  It is no-satori.  The Heart Sutra says, "No attainment, with nothing to attain."  You must attain that.

I often talk about primary point.  What is primary point?  Imagine a simple scale.  When there is nothing on it, the indicator points to zero.  When you put something on the scale, the pointer swings to read the weight.  When you remove the weight, the pointer returns to zero.  This zero-point is primary point.  After you find your primary point, then good feelings may come or bad feelings may come, so your pointer swings in one direction or the other, but this doesn't matter.  When the feeling is over, the pointer will swing back to zero.

But if you haven't found your primary point, then it is like taking a heavy object off the scale with the pointer still indicating ten pounds, or only returning part of the way back towards zero.  Then you have a problem.  Your scale does not weigh accurately.  If you put another heavy object on it, it might break completely.  

So first you must find your primary point.  Then you must keep it strong.  A taxi has weak shock absorbers, so it bounces up and down when it hits a small bump.  A train has strong shock absorbers, so it is very steady, no matter what.  If you keep your primary point, your mindspring will become stronger and stronger.  A big problem will come and your mind will move, but it will soon return to primary point.  Finally your mind will be very strong, and it will be able to carry any load.  Then saving all beings from suffering is possible.

Zen is not special.  If you make something, if you make "special," then you have something: you have "special."  But this something, this "special" cannot help you.  Put it all down.  What are you doing right now?  When you are doing something, you must do it.  Most people only half-experience things, because their mind is still carrying the weight of some previous experience, thought, or feeling.  So they cannot connect with the other people and this world.  But when you put it all down and just do it, from moment to moment, then you are already complete.  Then you will find your primary point.  Then you will understand your correct situation and your correct job.  To do this you must only go straight -- don't know.  It doesn't matter if you are in jail or out of jail; already you will have freedom from life and death.  

Here is a kong-an for your homework:

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 he will be killed.  If he answers, he will lose his life.  If you are in the tree, how do you stay alive?"

I hope you only go straight--don't know, soon find your primary point, finish your homework, and save all beings from suffering.

Yours in the Dharma, 

S. S.