Using Kong-ans to Make Our Lives Correct

By Zen Master Seung Sahn

Our teaching is kong-an practicing. In the past, kong-an practice meant checking attainment, checking someone’s enlightenment. Now we use kong-ans to make our lives correct. This is a different way of using kong-ans than the traditional Zen way. In the light of our teaching, some of the kong-ans are correct and helpful, some are not. Whether they are correct or not doesn’t matter.

We use kong ans to make our direction, our practice and our life correct. That is the teaching of the Kwan Um School of Zen. “Kwan Um” means perceive sound. It means perceive your true self. At the same time, perceive inside and outside. Perceiving this world’s sound means perceiving that many, many people are suffering. If you can hear this sound of suffering, then helping is both possible and necessary. That is the bodhisattva way. How to help other people is our practice and our job. It’s not only attaining enlightenment, it’s enlightenment’s job. Enlightenment is a monk’s job, but only someone like a Zen monk has the circumstances to do it: no family, no job, everyone giving support.


Lay practice is not like a monk’s job — it is how to help other people. First your family, then your friends, then your country and all beings: helping them is your obligation. If you want to help correctly, put down your opinion, your condition, your situation. If you do not put down these things, you cannot help. If you put them down, then true love appears. This means not special. Just keeping your moment to moment correct situation is very simple. The name for that is love, compassion. That is the practice of the Kwan Um School of Zen today.


It’s a change in Zen practice and teaching. In order to do that, we need a school that both parents and schoolchildren can attend. This is not the old style. Korean Zen has not come here without changing. Many changes have been necessary. We do kong-an practice, but some Korean monks looking at our Zen style have said, “That’s not Zen.” Yes, it’s not Zen. Zen doesn’t matter. Original Zen is not Zen. Nothing is Zen. In fact, we don’t understand what Zen is.


Ever since its beginning, Zen has undergone many changes. It started with Bodhidharma, then after the Sixth Patriarch, it changed. Five schools of Zen appeared, all different. Many sickness appeared, Zen sickness. The five schools in China died. Why? Because they could not connect with everyday life, with society. If we do not correct this, today’s Zen will also die. If it is only monastic Zen, it will soon die. In China, Korea, and Japan there are no groups of lay people staying in Zen centers, doing together action, meditation and practice. This has begun in America. It has never happened before — it’s new, a new Zen.


So it is necessary to have a new direction and new practices. We don’t call it American style, it’s just everyday life and correct direction. Zen is a kind of revolution. In the future, what will happen? This kind of practicing will be very important: how does your practice connect with your life? How does your practice help other people? If it helps you, it will help other people, help this world. Then your practice will connect with world peace. There are many opinions in this world. Americans have American opinion. Russians have Russian opinion. All religions have their own opinion. They are attached to something. That is this world’s sickness. In the future, it will be necessary to teach this kind of practice: “You must wake up!”


What does being human mean? Being human means no meaning, no reason, no choice. But if you attain no meaning, you get great meaning. That is: put down any kind of opinion, any condition, any situation, then your life becomes complete. This will help your family, your country and this world. This teaching means that if we practice sincerely and share our wisdom and teach correctly, there will be no more fighting among religions, among countries, no more atom bombs. If we take away the weapons, this money can go to India and Cambodia. Then world peace is possible. That’s the Kwan Um School of Zen’s future.