“Buddha is Grass Shoes”

One of my favorite stories that Zen Master Seung Sahn used to tell is about a monk in Korea several hundred years ago named Sok Du, which means “Rock Head”.  Not the shiniest head in the monastery, but he had a very strong question.  He couldn’t understand sutras so he tried Zen, but even Zen was too difficult for him, so he just practiced working around the monastery.

One day he told the resident Zen master he was tired of being so dull and confused.  The master told him he needed to ask a good question.  So Sok Du asked “What is Buddha?”  The master answered “Juk shim shi bul” which means “Buddha is heart-mind”, but Sok Du heard “Jip shin shi bul” which means “Buddha is grass shoes”.

Huh?  Sok Du was stuck.  What could this mean?  He didn’t understand.  He didn’t bother asking the master for any explanation.  In his dim-witted sincerity, he only kept this question as he continued working around the monastery.  Three years later he had a major breakthrough and returned to his teacher, who verified his experience.

Zen Master Seung Sahn used this story to demonstrate how little conceptual understanding we need to wake up to our true nature.  He often said: “Understanding cannot help you.”

I like this story because it demonstrates the non-conceptual nature of paths like Zen.  This story would be ridiculous in conceptual schools, which require very meticulous understanding of the finer points of the teaching and very precise instruction on the correct methods of practice, often requiring many years if not decades of careful study.

Sok Du may not have realized it, but he was practicing the correct method of gong-an/hua-tou style Zen.  This isn’t the same practice as wuweidao – I don’t want to conflate them, however the view is quite similar even if the qi-posture is quite different.  Gong-an practice takes our aggressive energy and re-directs it toward awakening, whereas wuweidao relaxes aggression at the source.  But they are both non-conceptual practices that do not rely on a sophisticated understanding of sutras or scriptures.

Recall that Laozi distinguishes Dao from learning – they are not the same thing.  If our spiritual practice is based on adding layers of understanding, we are not practicing Laozi’s wuweidao.

I suppose this reads as a sort of manifesto for stupidity.  A better word is probably simplicity.  Laozi observes that our nature conceals itself from cleverness but reveals itself in simplicity.  What are we to do?


Eat, breath, move, rest.