Poem, by Zen Master Seung Sahn

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(That first line was taken directly from his broken English: It should be refined as “Great softness is true strength.” It does make a difference in the medicine actually getting in or not, when people adhere too closely to his “Konglish” — Korean-English — out of undue affection or mere habit.)

Three Kinds of Killing

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Dae Soen Sa Nim sometimes talked about “three kinds of killing“ that every Zen student must do: 

First, you must kill your parents; then, you must kill Buddha (depending on the person he was addressing, sometimes he said “your Teacher”); then, you must kill yourself. People who look at this only on the surface can be shocked by it, and that is good. But when you look deeper, it has a liberation for the ages. 

1. Human beings have the longest gestation period inside their mother’s belly of any animal, and the most of any mammal. Not only that: Human beings remain physically and mentally dependent on their parents for 14, 16, 20 years, and sometimes more, even after they move out! (And many, many people remain tethered strongly to this connection well after they have had their own children!) More science: Human beings have the largest number of psychotherapists in the animal kingdom, the largest Prozac use in the animal kingdom, the highest suicide rate in the animal kingdom. (Also the highest opioid abuse, alcohol abuse, and gambling and pornography addiction, etc. etc. etc.) Those are just facts. Some incredibly compelling root attachment — begun naturally in our first hours, days, and years of life — are not functioning fully with our fullest growth in mind, and when we remain too strongly attached to them, they stunt and thwart and deform our development often for the entire course of our lives; 

2. Many people want a spiritual guide — a Buddha or guru or master or, in the saddest case, a “savior” — and then when they find that guide, they can become unhelpfully attached. They spend needless energy critiquing the “good” and “bad” of their particular Teacher. “My Teacher is great like this-this-this”, “My Teacher shouldn’t do this-this-this”, “Why does my Teacher do this-this-this”? Instead of pouring ourselves fully into the infinite “something” that our Teacher is pointing to, we point our energy at the Teacher (therapist, guide, Master) and her/his own human qualities, losing our practice, losing our Way. This is also a big error. (Dae Soen Sa Nim was especially helpful in this regard: As soon as he noticed someone becoming needlessly attached to or dependent on him, he found a way to push them away, back onto their own two feet. Like a momma-bird, nudging its chickie out of the nest into the open air to learn to find its own wings, not waiting for the worm always to be brought back to them, Dae Soen Sa Nim was not someone who cultivated any sort of “guru-attachment”, and he didn’t tolerate it, either.)

3. Human beings spend an inordinate amount of energy creating some false, socially acceptable or fashionable “self“, and then dedicate considerable resources throughout the day defending or promoting or trying to shield themselves through this illusory “self“. The artist “me“, the “progressive“ or “conservative“ me, the artist “me“, the spiritual “me“, the “yogi“ me, the “Zen“ me, the purer “vegan” me, the “gay“ me, the “woke“ me, the “monk“ me, the “Catholic” or “Muslim” me, the “well-liked me“, the “Instagram me”, etc. All of this valuable energy in a limited span of life invested into creating and sustaining this empty fiction, and holding it out against others in the world, in our country, in our company, in our family, in our sangha or marriage! All of these shadow-realities become an endless series of obstacles preventing us from arriving home – – home, our original nature, our true Self before our parents were born. Of course, some form of “identity” is helpful in this world, even necessary. “Identity” is, in itself, not good and not bad. But when we do not see into our true nature, we take our conditioned identity to be a reality, and this reality then shapes our world and may influence deeply the kinds of interactions we have, to the detriment of our infinitely free range of possible perceptions and interactions. This can be a major trap. And being so completely immersed in a world of social-media interconnectedness, this “false-self” I leads us further and further away from the truth of this world, just as it is;

The founding myth of western civilization is the story of Ulysses. A great warrior for some years, his most epic story is not one of someone who tried to conquer or possess or simply destroy things for his own ego. He had to battle many, many apparitions and temptations in order to return home — to arrive back at his love, at his home in Ithaca, his original “place”. This is a deeply natural impulse for all of us — to arrive “back” at origins we feel we have wandered too far from. (“Get back to where you once belonged” is one of its best-loved modern cultural iterations.) Like our work, it was a very, very hard effort, this “return” to where we belong, never certain of success. When we practice, we are all a little Ulysses – – trying to return to our true Self.

And when Ulysses finally arrived there, after much trial and tribulation? He was not finished, even after arriving home! There were 108 hungry suitors, all vying for his beloved wife’s attention. All of these delusions also needed to be slain. Ulysses only fully completed his long, arduous journey when he killed all of them. (So fascinating that, in the traditions of Asia, along with the number 3, the number 108 is the most important number in Buddhism, representing the 108 delusions/afflictions that cloud or block our access to our ever-present, true nature.) 

So, Dae Soen Sa Nim‘s “three kinds of killing“ have practical meaning for our lives. 

Now, how do you become a great killer? The most efficient gun in the world for true killing is simply “What am I?“ That’s all. Having an experienced guide will help you enormously — if anything else, it makes your efforts more efficient, offering you the chance to save any wasted effort by listening to their own path-making in this journey. And when you have killed your parents, what then? Sangha is the family that leads you back to the home that doesn’t belong to a social or political or ethnic tribe — “sangha” is the home of all sentient beings, right here, right now.

Bon voyage!