After writing the last essay on deep association, I received as expected a reply containing Zen Master Seung Sahn’s teaching on reincarnation. He often talked about animals, particularly cows, and humans switching bodies. The answer to the math problem was the animals! To add to it, since we’re killing them, they come back as humans to get revenge—that’s why there’s so much trouble in the world. I remember talking to a student about this because it’s in the introduction to The Compass of Zen, one of Zen Master Seung Sahn’s seminal works. The student was put off by this strange theory at the beginning, but it’s old news. Although it’s been updated from a sheep to a cow, the same story was told in the Surangama:
“Since desire and love are tied so closely together no disengagement is possible and the result is an endless succession of the births of parents, children, and grandchildren. This comes mainly from sexual desire which is stimulated by love. Since passion cannot be destroyed, living beings… use their strength to kill each other for food. This comes mainly from their passion for killing. So, if a man kills a sheep to eat its meat, the sheep will be reborn as a human being and the man after his death will be reborn a sheep to repay his former debt.” – The Surangama Sutra – Charles Luk
If a man kills a sheep to eat its meat, the sheep will be reborn as a human being…
If you look at the animal kingdom, every animal has its own software. It’s all very specific. How could a cow utilize a human body? It would be comical. Also, the human population has increased rapidly, by the billions, has the cow population changed to reflect this incredible growth? Is anybody really looking at this?
As for Zen Master Seung Sahn, who I respect very highly, I can only say that he was right. He was a classic Buddhist, straight down the barrel. Since I’ve returned to Korea and had a chance to read some of the sutras and study Korean teaching firsthand, I can say for certain that he always stayed within the lines of the Buddhist canon and the teaching of the Chogye order. He had his own insight, his own dharma, but he never strayed from Buddhist dogma.
If you told him that you didn’t believe in reincarnation, he’d say, “no problem,” and teach cause and effect. He’d also say that you could look at reincarnation, not as something that occurs after death, but in the moment—that we’re constantly being reborn. He was an unusual man. He wasn’t attached to the teaching, had no problem using a different metaphor. More directly, he didn’t take the literal interpretation of it. That was very important to me, coming from a Bible Belt state. The children in my family, all five of us, had our go with religion and walked away clean from it. For the most part this had to do with science and modern society in direct conflict with a literal interpretation of dogma. Religion uses a poetic language, the texts are amalgams of all kinds of human things. We don’t know all of the sources, or the original situation the teachings addressed. They weren’t meant to be a reference, for anything.
Human society is constantly adapting, changing. It is not an impervious reality, but one that is constantly renewed. I recently read The Preacher, a comic book series by Garth Ennis that ran from 1995-2000. I was struck by its language. It was written at the height of the generation X pressure wave, a moment before the internet and the onslaught of social media. The dialogue had pop culture references embedded in it. These were repeated all through the text, the way people communicate during protests. I suggest, if you haven’t read it—it’s an interesting piece of work. You will definitely see cultural references that have no counterpart today. Communication has vastly changed. We don’t have these cliques because our identity isn’t so firmly embedded in our dialogue anymore. The communication is much more generic as the data no longer needs to be carried in it, it’s all online.
After my self-rejection from the church I found a great peace in the wilderness. It was only later that I realized this was also some kind of communication, that there was some information embedded there. This became evident after I finished writing The Zen Revolution. At the end I realized that I’d written a metaphor for the field of weeds that described the process of being in a field:
“I’ve always been attracted to abandoned fields, where the natural forces won against someone’s idea. No more clean lines and monotonous order, instead a swirling chaos of weeds and flowers, so beautifully arranged. A stand of trees, all the intersecting branches moving in the wind, the scattered light—there’s some meaning beyond the simple fact that it exists. It conveys something of its origin, the One.
It became alive in me. I first noticed when I had to do the morning bell chant, solo. I’m not a vocalist. I don’t have any natural ability with the voice. I could do it, but not clearly. Out of desperation, I recalled the sunlight through the trees, and I found my voice. It took a few years for me to understand this. My voice became the same as the sunlight through the trees. When I chanted from that place, it conveyed the same information. Then it slowly began to dawn on me that I should live this way.” – Of Human Bonding (unpublished) – Wonil
… the scattered light—there’s some meaning beyond the simple fact that it exists.
I wasn’t aware of this until I’d studied meditation for many years and this body of information gradually turned into wisdom (one of the great merits of meditation, burning things until they become refined). During my stay at Baekdamsa this became even brighter. I realized that it all revolved around a single word: thusness. When I was training at Diamond Hill Zen monastery in the early 90’s, a Zen master briefly appeared and said simply that thusness was his favorite word, implying some deep meaning. This word clung to me, perhaps because of my past experiences in the Bible Belt. Why was a modern Zen master using this old, forgotten word? It wasn’t until my fifties that I understood what he meant. Thusness is the only word that properly describes the spontaneous nature of reality.
The One appearing as all things is incredibly difficult for us to perceive, as our brain isn’t designed to investigate itself. We call the One, and by extension everything, our true self. Thusness is the true self as it appears in the moment—all things appear thus. It is the face of the One, per properties and conditions. It is pure science. In this instance before me the tree appears thus. The One mind reveals itself, the way it interacts with this patch of earth’s nutrients and moisture here in the sun and the wind, against the competition of other life, this particular combination of DNA produces exactly this result; every twist and turn and bump, exactly thus. The same for all things. Thusness describes more directly what we are than a chain of reincarnated lives incredibly cumbersome to describe, incredibly vague and dusty. Instead of faulting our plight to the actions of an obvious criminal from our distant past, we can fault our genealogy and the conditions of the society we grew up in, all of our wrong choices, and social media.