Only Don't Know: Selected Teaching Letters on Zen Master Sueng Sahn Paperback – 1 Jun 1999
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The book was recommended to me by a colleague in the world of finance. The man seemed genuinely moved in relaying the positive impact the book had on him, including his relationships with his wife and children. Still questioning how the writings of a Korean Zen master had any relevance to my own life, I looked it upon Amazon and found the reviews were positive, so decided to give it a try.
The book is a collection of letters to and from Seung Sahn. Some are from Zen practitioners, others are not. Some are serious, some are funny. "I am a teacher and these kids are driving me crazy..."
What is particularly striking is how consistent Seung Sahn is in his responses. This is a man who clearly found his purpose or his calling. That alone makes the book worth a read. But there is more being offered. In each of the letters you will hear a little piece of yourself asking a question. And more often than not Seung Sahn's response provides practical advice on a way to find a positive relationship to the issue in question.
Admittedly, the advice is based on Zen practice, but it is not dogmatic, being more humanistic in nature. And if you can't separate the idea of the advice being based on the Zen tradition, then you can co-opt it to your own brand of religion or spiritual belief. The advice has value whatever your faith.
A few themes from the book for flavor:
1. Only Don't Know - Originally, there is not good and bad. But if you make good and bad in your mind, they you have good and bad... Before checking (filtering based on your biases and prejudices) is called go-straight mind - there is no problem. After checking, then feelings, I-my-me, and problems appear. A clear mind has no I-my-me.... If you keep clear mind, you will get happiness everywhere.
2. Love - If you cut off all thinking and keep this in mind: "How can I help?" the correct action will appear... That is great love.
3. Wisdom - Good and bad are our true teachers. If something has no opposite, then it has no meaning, no truth... Wisdom and practice are like two wheels of one cart.
Inspired by Only Don't Know, I went on to read others by Seung Sahn, but cannot give them the same recommendation. The Compass of Zen is a dense guide to Buddhism and Dropping Ashes on the Buddha is a lesser work of teachings and letters. This is the one to read.
Hope this review helps you.
As far as Zen books go, it's good teaching with very little obscure dharma language. His talent was talking about Zen in a way non-scholarly Americans could understand and apply to their own lives. It's a lively collection of letters from a wide spectrum of students: from the sincere to the smart-aleck to the earnest and to the clueless. The teacher meets them all on their level, sometimes with very long letters including stories and koans.
Due to his concentrated, concise teaching style, the reader may find the letters repetitive. (When asked why he says the same thing over and over again, he has replied, "Did you hear it?") Some of the student letters may wear out their welcome, but they belong with the responses. Bear with it: there is good teaching throughout.
I was introduced to radical mindlessness almost thirty years ago—by the Korean Seon (Sŏn, 禪) (= Chan = Zen) teacher Seung Sahn and in this book in particular. Get your hands on it. Or just be hip and "mind-full"...like everyone else lately!