Understanding Human Nature

By Zen Master Dae Kwang

As soon as the war was over, Korea split into south and north. What everybody thought was going to bring happiness actually brought more conflicts and more suffering. It happened like that in Iraq. The war was supposed to bring peace, but what happened? So inside, Zen Master Seung Sahn had this big question: what can I do? Why is there so much suffering? He went to a temple and took some Western philosophy books with him, because he had an idea: he would read all these books, then he would understand what human beings are all about, and then he could help them.

For months, he read philosophy books. One day, an old monk who took care of the woods around the temple walked by his small hermitage. The monk saw this young man reading a book by Plato, the Greek philosopher, and was very surprised. So the monk asked him, “What are you doing?”

Zen Master Seung Sahn said, “I am reading these philosophy books so that I can understand what human beings are.”

The monk suddenly knocked the book out of Zen Master Seung Sahn’s hands and said, “That book will not help you understand human beings.”

But Zen Master Seung Sahn’s mind was very strong. He looked up at the old monk and asked, “Do you understand human beings?” Very clever. It is just like a story in the book by Plato. It was five hundred years before the modern era. A philosopher, Socrates, liked to ask everybody he met: do you understand yourself? One time a person asked him right back: Do you? And Socrates said, “No, I don’t. I don’t understand my self. But I understand this ‘don’t know’ very well.” Very interesting.

So, when Zen Master Seung Sahn asked the old monk, “Do you understand human beings?”, the old monk said, “No, I don’t, but I understand that the sky is blue and the trees are green.”

Then BOOM!

Zen Master Seung Sahn understood this man was not the usual style of monk. So he asked the old monk, “What should I do? What can I do to understand?” The old monk said, “You should do a hundred day solo retreat. Practice very hard and you will understand.” So it is just like the Buddha. He left his good situation and looked inside. Zen Master Seung Sahn did a long retreat and looked inside. You, too, can look inside. The outside situation is not so important. What is important is to look inside.

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