Zen Master Seung Sahn (Part 1: Dark Night of the Seoul)

In 1994, I was having a “dark night of the soul” in the midst of college at UC Santa Barbara.  I didn’t know who I was, but I knew the answer must lie somewhere very far away.  I saw a flier advertising study abroad in China, and I signed right up.  On the way, we stopped in Korea for a week, and on a jet-lagged evening stroll, I wandered the streets of Seoul.  I made my way through a dark alley to Chogye Sah Temple, where there was a large crowd gathered.

The temple abbot approached me aggressively saying “You!” then pointed into the temple building saying “Zen Master Seung Sahn!” and shoved me inside.  I couldn’t understand a word of the Korean Dharma speech, but I watched as the master raised his stick above his head and shouted with the utmost confidence and energy, bringing the stick slamming down with a loud THUD!  I was hooked.

Afterward, as the master was blessing his fans at the gate, the abbot introduced us, and the master turned around and shot his eyes into mine, shouting, “Where you come from?!”  I experienced his question, his direction – that was transmission of Zen mind.  Emerging from that spacious moment that lasted forever, I muddled some weeny response, “uh, California”.  He shook his head and turned around, resuming his blessings.

Thus began my practice of Korean Zen.

Taking Refuge: The Three Treasures of Ritual Daoism

As ritual Daoism developed over the past few thousand years – blending ancient shamanic practices with Laozi’s insights and coming into contact with Buddhism – the concept of “Three Treasures” or San Bao (三寶) emerged.  As with any three-fold concept in Daoism, these relate to Heaven, Earth, & Humankind – or yang, yin, & the union thereof, respectively.

The Three Treasures of ritual Daoism are Dao, Jing, & Shi.  These roughly translate as way, scripture, & mastery.  (Note there are also Three Treasures of alchemical Daoism and Three Treasures of Laozi – I’m not talking about those).

Dao (道) or way refers to the primordial origin – the hidden wellspring that gives birth to myriad worlds & creatures.  Where we come from and where we go.  It also refers to the eternal procession of birth, growth, maturation, decline, & death.  The character implies grass growing by itself – the spontaneous emergence of worlds & creatures.

Jing (經) or scripture refers to the teachings of Dao – the views & methods that our lineage ancestors have passed down to us as guidance on how to encounter & embody Dao.  The character implies woven thread, referring to written teachings and also implying fundamental principle – the common thread running through the fabric of Daoist practice.

Shi (師) or mastery refers to our resulting experience when we practice and conduct ourselves according to the teachings of Dao.  It often refers to our teachers or practice community, or even hidden immortals who bring us insights.  The character implies accumulation and exaltation.  In the view of Laozi’s Daoism, mastery is abiding continuously in the wellspring amidst myriad phenomena.  Laozi sees such abiding as our natural condition.

Dao-Jing-Shi correspond respectively to Buddha-Dharma-Sangha, and the notion of taking refuge (拜) probably comes from Buddhism.  The starting point of Buddhism is the recognition that life brings discomfort (dukkha) so let’s find a way out.  Laozi doesn’t suggest we need any refuge from reality – we’re just there, perpetually, ever-embraced and supported by the primordial origin.  But he does acknowledge that human beings have a tendency to lose our way – so the Daoist approach to the Three Treasures is, to the extent that we lose touch with reality (Dao), it’s nice to have guidance (Jing) pointing us back to our natural condition (Shi).  The character for taking refuge or paying homage shows a hand placing crops on an altar – a sacrificial offering.  Giving to receive.  Daoists don’t worship deities but in ritual practice do place Dao-Jing-Shi on a pedestal to sanctify them and place ourselves in a position to receive energy and inspiration.

A traditional ritual gesture for taking refuge is to light three sticks of incense at our altar, hold them up, and recite: “I take refuge in Dao; I take refuge in Jing; I take refuge in Shi”, then bow three times and place the incense in our burner.

Real stuff comes through when we take refuge in Dao, Jing, & Shi.