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Just-Like-That Mind: A Great Zen Teacher on Navigating Loss and Grief

Just-Like-That Mind: A Great Zen Teacher on Navigating Loss and Grief

“To lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago,” Montaigne observed as he contemplated death and the art of living in the sixteenth century. And yet despite all that we celebrate as progress, we’ve remained just as unable to make sense of this inevitable cycle of life and death without grave existential terror. The more we learn about the universe, the more we see that chaos, flux, and impermanence are its ruling orders, and yet we continue to yearn for permanence and immortality in our own lives. The mismatch between the knowledge and the longing is perhaps the most anguishing of all human experiences. We live with it daily, this background awareness of our finitude and the mortality of those we love, but it is brought into sharp relief in moments of loss, when grief sinks its insatiate teeth into the flesh of being.

How to reconcile an acceptance of mortality with the unswallowable pain of grief is what the great Zen teacher Seung Sahn Soen-sa (August 1, 1927–November 30, 2004) explores in one of the many small doses of potent wisdom found in Only Don’t Know: Selected Teaching Letters of Zen Master Seung Sahn (public library) — the trove of enlightenment that gave us Soen-sa on the four types of anger and its paradoxical constructive side.

In August of 1977, shortly after explaining death and the life-force to a child, Soen-sa received a letter from a man named Sheldon, whose father had just died the day before. As Sheldon grapples with the universal and universally gutting experience of loss and grief, central to which is the paralyzing perplexity of how a self so beloved and so known can simply disappear into the unknown, he turns to the great teacher for insight and consolation. Soen-sa writes back:

Zen is the great work of life and death. What is life? What is death? When you attain this, then everything is clear, everything is complete, and everything is freedom.

Several years after Bruce Lee used water in his famous metaphor for resilience, Soen-sa turns to the liquid of life to illustrate Zen’s orientation to death:

Let’s say we have a glass of water. Now its temperature is about 60 degrees. If you reduce the temperature to 20 degrees, it becomes ice. If you raise the temperature above 212 degrees, it will become steam. As the temperature changes, H20 in the form of water appears and disappears, but H20 does not appears and does not disappear. Ice, water, and steam are only its form. Name and form change, but H20 does not change. If you understand the temperature, then you understand the form. Your true self is like this.

Soen-sa examines the paradox of the “true self” — an experience we have that feels so solid and concrete, yet remains utterly elusive as soon as we try to pinpoint its source. Our ideas about the self, he argues, are based mostly on attachments to the form of the body, generated in the mind. He writes:

Steam, ice, and water are all H20; but if you are attached to water, and the water becomes ice, then you say the water disappeared. So it is dead! Raise the temperature; the water is born again! Raise the temperature again; the water disappears and becomes steam, and the water is dead again!


But name and form are made by thinking. Water does not say, “I am water.” Steam does not say, “I am steam.” If you cut off all thinking, are you and the water the same or different? Same and different are made by your thinking. How can you answer? There is no form, no emptiness — no words.

Painting by Oliver Jeffers from his series Measuring Land and Sea
Painting by Oliver Jeffers from his series Measuring Land and Sea

Exactly half a century after the great Zen teacher D.T. Suzuki cautioned that “the ego-shell in which we live is the hardest thing to outgrow” in his foundational text on Zen Buddhism, Soen-sa considers the main obstacle to our ability to contact this formlessness of being:

If you cut off all thinking, you will see everything just as it is. Without thinking, water is water; ice is ice; steam is steam. No ideas hinder you. Then your correct relationship to H20 in any form appears by itself. We call this “just-like-this”… Just-like-this mind is clear mind. Clear mind has no I-my-me. Without I-my-me you can perceive your correct relationship to H20 and use it freely without desire for yourself. You will not suffer when water disappears and becomes ice or steam.

Your father’s original face has no death and no life… You must recognize that all things are in your own mind. Just this is finding your true self. Great love, great compassion, and the great bodhisattva [enlightenment] way come from this attainment.

Complement this particular portion of the immensely insightful Only Don’t Know with Oliver Sacks on death, destiny, and the radiance of a life fully lived and these unusual children’s books about making sense of loss, then revisit Soen-sa on the three principles of Zen mind.

Published September 14, 2016




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