By all accounts Zen Master Seung Sahn was a funny guy, and that squares with my understanding of the way Buddhism and Zen specifically act as a liberating force on the personality. Dropping Ashes on the Buddha, likewise, is a funny book. Funny in a way that is unforced, because the best humor in most anything — whether it’s Zen Buddhism or trying to fry an egg or what the President said the other day — is something that comes directly out of the material without being forced. Much like Zen itself, I suppose.
Seung Sahn was a preeminent Zen master in his native Korea, but in the 1960s he moved to the United States and began the process of founding what would ultimately become several thriving centers of Zen study in New York, Providence, and many other places. He bootstrapped the whole thing more or less by hand. He didn’t even know English when he came to the U.S., and for a time supported himself as a repairman for a Laundromat. In time he accrued students, learned the language, ordained monks of his own, and created an explanatory body of literature and practice for Zen Buddhism that had the best sort of homespun simplicity about it. His advice was cheerful, direct and unadorned: “Only keep don’t-know mind, only go straight”, “Don’t make anything,” or “Put it all down!” — all of it revolving around the basic Zen practice of allowing the mind to receive things exactly as they are, to add nothing and take away nothing. I never met him — he died in 2004 — but I can say his work more directly influenced my willingness to delve that much more deeply into Zen than most any other single figure.
Dropping Ashes compiles one hundred short chapters — they could almost be called “skits” — derived from a whole slew of different aspects of Seung Sahn’s teachings. There are transcripts from dharma talks; letters to and from students (some of whom, I think, went on to become Zen masters of their own); snippets of on-the-spot conversation with walk-ins at the various Zen Centers; versions of different Zen stories; and many other bits and pieces. The book can be read front to back with some sense of progression — the penultimate chapter is Seung Sahn’s biography — but once read all the way through you can just as easily dip into it at random.
I preferred to read (and re-read) the book front to back, since over time I noticed there were good reasons for placing some chapters earlier on. The second chapter, for instance, gives a quick overview of Seung Sahn’s explanations for different stages of understanding or attainment in the mind of the student. One starts and ends up in the same place; it’s just the outlook that has changed. Along the way the student experiences a great many shocks and liberating experiences, but those things are not to be confused with the process itself. And Seung Sahn also makes it clear that the very teaching devices he is using are not the territory — they’re not even really the roadmap, either. Enlightenment is not a goal or even a direction, but a kind of procedural state — something to be embodied continually instead of resided in. And even that’s not the whole definition, because the definition is something you’re going to only know for real within yourself via your own practice.
The title requires an explanation. It comes from one of Seung Sahn’s own kong-ans (or koans, for those familiar with Japanese Zen), the “Sixth Gate”: A man comes into the Zen center with a cigarette, blows smoke in the Buddha’s face, and drops ashes into his lap. How do you teach him not to do this? The exercise comes up a number of times in various contexts during the book, with various students providing their own answers — all of which are rejected. The same thing happens with another of Seung Sahn’s kong-ans (“The mouse eats cat food but the cat-bowl is broken. What does this mean?”). It wasn’t until I came back to the book after having commenced my own practice that I saw some inkling of why those were wrong answers, but ultimately I know I will have to find my own solution. The point of the kong-ans is that there is no singular, canned solution — as there might be with a math problem — and that they each have to be discovered by the individual.
The book is funny, to be sure, but only because when dealing with something like the Quest for Insight, pretentious caps and all, laughs arise automatically from what unfolds. Some of his dialogues with students play out like two-man standup routines (“You are attached to color!” “You are attached to color!”). At one point when an embittered student ends a letter to Seung Sahn with “go fuck yourself”, he replies “These are wonderful words that you have given me. If you attain enlightenment, I will give them back to you.”
Something I did not expect to glean from the book, but which comes through almost accidentally, is some flavor of the nature of many people drawn to Zen in the U.S. during the early Seventies. A few details leak through here and there despite many of the names being only first names or being redacted entirely. In one letter to Seung Sahn, a student — a self-described economist — despairs of ever doing anything about the suffering in the world, and noting how this despair has impacted his practice. Seung Sahn’s answer is not to grapple with his despair or to debate his points about the state the world is in, but to simply lead him back to his “own great work”. His first job is not to worry, but to simply clear his own mind; from that, everything else will follow naturally. Throughout the book, here and there, are similar concerns about war, utopianism, remaking society, and so on — but they are not made into treatises of their own. The one subject that Seung Sahn wants most to matter to his students is an understanding of themselves; everything else is just commentary.
My own interpretations to the way this material is brought across, both in this book and elsewhere, have changed over time. The first time I read the book and came across the exchange I mentioned in the previous paragraph, I felt annoyed at the way the student’s concerns were being brushed off. Then later, after a certain amount of reflection on my part, I realized Seung Sahn was right. A correct worldview does not automatically make suffering vanish in the abstract, but it makes it that much more possible to engage with it and not be defeated automatically by it. Statements like that mean nothing to someone who only knows about such things as a mere idea, and so it’s the duty of any teacher to put his student in a situation where he can realize that truth for himself.
There is some irony in writing a book, any book, about Buddhism or Zen, when Buddhism in any of its incarnations is best approached as a practice and not a theoretical exercise. Talking about enlightenment is no more actual enlightenment than reading about it. That said, the value of any given book about Buddhism is not in how it substitutes for one’s own experiences but for how it can complement them. When I first read Dropping Ashes on the Buddha, it was at a point when my own experiences with Buddhism in general and Zen in particular were the product of casual intellectual curiosities, not personal experience with the subject. Now that I’m in a somewhat different place, the book is that much more insightful, that much more useful, and also — I’m sure this is no accident either — that much funnier.