Early this morning (early evening South Korean time), Zen Master Seung Sahn, founder of the Kwan Um School of Zen, died peacefully of heart failure while surrounded by his students at Hwa Gye Sa temple in Seoul.
I, like many other practitioners in the Kwan Um School, heard the news via email and was stunned. Dae Soen Sa Nim (“Great Honored Zen Teacher,” a title by which he was known by his students) had battled diabetes, heart trouble, and various other serious health problems for years. The School would regularly distribute email updates on DSSN’s health: now he’s in the hospital, now he’s recovering, now the doctors are doing more tests. There had been several times in the past when we’d all expected the worst as DSSN faced a serious health problem that would have surely killed a weaker man, and in all those cases DSSN bounced back and continued teaching, an Energizer Bunny for the Dharma.
After this morning, though, Dae Soen Sa Nim is no more.
I can’t begin to explain the sense of loss I felt upon hearing the news. I was never close to DSSN; although I’d seen him give public Dharma talks on several occasions, I’d never been personally introduced to the man. Whenever he came to the Cambridge or Providence Zen Centers, he was surrounded by an entourage of monks and Zen teachers, and I was a lowly student entirely outside that loop. Although I’ve read and often recommend Seung Sahn’s books, I never directly studied with him: instead, I’ve been taught by American teachers he appointed, making DSSN my spiritual grandfather of sorts, the teacher of my teachers.
Given that I didn’t know DSSN personally, it seems odd that I’d be so saddened by his passing, but it is true. This was a man who singled handedly founded an international network of Zen Centers and groups, including branches in China, Singapore, South Africa, Australia, Poland, Israel, Brazil, and 20 U.S. states. If it weren’t for DSSN, there would be no Cambridge Zen Center, where I lived for 2 1/2 years, and no Providence Zen Center, where I’ve often gone on retreat. Without DSSN, there would be no Southern NH Zen Group; without DSSN, I probably wouldn’t be practicing Zen at all, for I would have probably been driven from the Dharma by my Christian leanings and personal discomfort with “breathy” New Age teachings.
A thoroughgoing sceptic, I’ve never had much patience for guru-worship. I appreciate the guidance of a wise teacher, but ultimately I recognize that my spiritual path is my own: no teacher can do my work for me. Although there are some folks who worship DSSN too reverently for my taste, DSSN himself never encouraged such personal adulation, keeping a firm boundary between himself and students who would let the cult of personality distract them from their practice.
When I first started practicing at the Cambridge Zen Center and as I became more deeply involved in the Kwan Um School, one of the things that impressed me was the variety of American teachers DSSN had appointed to spread his teaching. Rather than being yes-saying, imitative clones, these teachers are all very different from one another and from DSSN himself. Instead of trying to emulate DSSN and his personality, each of these teachers has used Zen practice to become more deeply and authentically themselves. The world is filled with copy-cats, and DSSN was that rarest of breeds: a true original who encouraged others to be originals as well.
The closest I ever came to interacting personally with DSSN occurred at a Dharma talk at the Cambridge Zen Center some years ago. During an introductory talk, a monk had mentioned how DSSN had been raised as a Presbyterian and had studied Western philosophy in college until a Buddhist monk encouraged him to study his own Eastern treasure. When the time for questions and answers came, I mustered the nerve to ask a question. If DSSN began studying Zen and Buddhism out of a desire to understand his own Eastern treasure, shouldn’t Western students study their own Christian treasure rather than dabbling in Eastern practices?
It took some “translating” of my question by DSSN’s attendant before the Zen Master understood what I was asking: “You study Eastern treasure; why not Western students study Christian treasure?” Once he comprehended the question, DSSN didn’t bat an eye; he simply uttered one in-your-face sentence:
“Christianity has no treasure!”
The assembled crowd and I burst out into raucous laughter. Here was a monk who had spent his adult life teaching people from all backgrounds, including cloistered Christian monks who had dedicated their lives to understanding their own Christian treasure. And yet DSSN’s answer struck to the heart of my question. Sitting on a meditation cushion in a Zen Center, I had no business worrying about Christian treasure; right there and then, Zen was the path where I found myself, so I should devote myself to that practice with no looking back.
(I later asked a Trappist monk a similar question during a Christian/Buddhist retreat at the Cambridge Zen Center, and he answered in nearly the same fashion. When I’d asked him what a good little Catholic girl like me was doing in a place like this, he’d replied that I was there because God put me there. “Don’t second guess what God has wrought,” he implored. “The Catholic church has lost sight of its contemplative tradition, so you have to find it where you can.”)
Christian or Buddhist, Eastern or Western, Dae Soen Sa Nim never lost sight of his treasure. My life would not be what it is today without the practice that he taught the teachers who taught me in turn, and countless people around the world are trying to find their true selves and save all beings because of the endeavors of this one particular man. When’s the last time you brushed elbows with greatness? When’s the last time you encountered a single person who changed the world? Dae Soen Sa Nim was a great man not because he signed a multi-million dollar sports contract, landed a hit single on the Billboard charts, or had his face plastered on magazine covers along with the rich and famous. No, Dae Soen Sa Nim was a great man because he believed that returning to the present moment and cultivating a mind free of preconception is a challenge worth a lifetime; he was a great man because he believed we all carry the seeds of greatness, a great potential waiting to be awakened. Today the world is sadder, emptier place because of his passing, but the torch he passed to his students, my teachers, continues to burn on regardless.