How a Zen Master Responds to Hate Mail
By Maria Popova
Although the internet may have originated the notion of trolling as an act of aggression, the undergirding human impulse is an ancient one. Its pervasive manifestations drove Kierkegaard to ponder the psychological underpinnings of trolling and Benjamin Franklin to devise a brilliant strategy for handling haters. But because all acts of hate say more about the hater than about the hatee, this ugly primordial urge to transmute our inner pain into outward aggression often finds targets so unlikely as to border on the absurd — including, in one particularly colorful case, the great Korean-born Zen teacher Seung Sahn Soen-sa (August 1, 1927–November 30, 2004).
Among the many sympathetic and illuminating letters collected in Dropping Ashes on the Buddha: The Teachings of Zen Master Seung Sahn (public library) — the same 1976 gem in which Soen-sa explained death to a child — is his fantastic response to what modern language might describe as desperate hate mail from an ambivalent troll.
In March of 1975, Soen-sa received a series of letters from a student, expressing a great deal of confusion about the “don’t-know mind” aspect of Zen practice, demanding various clarifications, and ending thusly:
Please answer me soon, but you probably won’t, huh? Anyway, I’d like to tell you to go fuck yourself.
Respectfully, and hope to see you soon,
In a courageous counterpoint to the modern “don’t feed the trolls” ethos, Soen-sa responded with equal parts empathetic insight, helpful guidance, and warm wit. He writes:
You say that you are confused. If you keep a complete don’t-know mind, how can confusion appear? Complete don’t-know mind means cutting off all thinking. Cutting off all thinking means true emptiness. In true emptiness, there is no I to be confused and nothing to be confused about.
Addressing the student’s confusion about the purpose of kong-ans — stories and questions designed to incite “great doubt” in a Zen student in order to test his or her progress in the practice — Soen-sa adds:
A kong-an is like a finger pointing at the moon. If you are attached to the finger, you don’t understand the direction, so you cannot see the moon. If you are not attached to any kong-an, then you will understand the direction. The direction is the complete don’t-know mind.
You must keep only don’t-know, always and everywhere. Then you will soon get enlightenment. But be very careful not to want enlightenment. Only keep don’t-know mind. Your situation, your condition, your opinions — throw them all away.
Soen-sa ends with a most elegant and disarming wink at the situation:
At the end of your letter you say, “Go fuck yourself.” These are wonderful words that you have given me, and I thank you very much. If you attain enlightenment, I will give them back to you.
Dropping Ashes on the Buddha is immensely insightful in its totality, extending Zen practice to such perennial questions as why sanity requires befriending our insanity, how to attain true clarity of mind, and what freedom really means. Complement it with Zen master D.T. Suzuki — who mentored John Cage — on how Zen cultivates our character, then compare and contrast this particular letter with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s response to hate mail.
Published October 6, 2015