"Buddha is grass shoes"

Posted on: Wed, 08/31/2011 - 13:06 By: Tom Swiss

A Facebook post by a friend reminded me of one of my favorite Zen stories. This comes from the Korean "Kwan Um" school of Master Seung Sahn, and is told in his books The Compass of Zen and Dropping Ashes on the Buddha. Like many Zen stories, I think that it also has relevance for students of the martial arts and many other disciplines. It goes something like this (this is my gloss on it, not a direct quote from Seung Sahn):

Three centuries ago there was a monk called Sok Du, which means “Rock-head.” As that name indicates, he was not
the most intellectually brilliant fellow. But he had a great determination, and so even though the sutras were beyond him and even sitting meditation was too intellectually challenging, he stayed at the temple doing “working Zen” – laboring in the fields and in the kitchen.

When the master of the temple tried to help him out and asked if he had any questions, Sok Du said, “Well, Master, you are always talking about Buddha. What is Buddha?”

The Zen master answered, “Buddha is mind,” which is a fairly stock Zen answer. But in Korean, “Buddha is mind” sounds a little bit like “Buddha is grass shoes.” And that’s what Sok
Du heard.

Of course this puzzled him, but he was confused by this Zen stuff most of the time anyway. So he stuck with it. “Buddha is grass shoes. Buddha is grass shoes. What’s that mean? I don’t
know, but that’s what the master said. So Buddha is grass shoes.” This was his thought, his meditation, all the time for three years. Buddha is grass shoes.

Then one day, he was out in the hills gathering firewood. As he walked down the path, he slipped and his straw sandals – his “grass shoes” – tore loose and flew up in the air! In that
instant, he had an enlightenment experience.

He went rushing back to the master. “Master! Master! I understand!”

“Oh? Well then, what is Buddha?”

And Sok Du smacked the master on the head with his broken sandal!

“Is that all?” said the master (who was probably used to uppity monks trying to show enlightenment with outrageous behavior).

“My grass shoes are all broken!”

“Ah! Wonderful!” said the master, and burst out laughing.

Knowing that intention and determination are more important than fine points of method, we don’t have to wait for a perfect teacher or perfect circumstances or perfect understanding of technique; we can begin, right now.