A Zen Buddhist Teacher Explains Death to a Child and Explains That Names Are Not the Same as Things

I am currently working my way through Dropping Ashes on the Buddha: The Teachings of Zen Master Seung Sahn, ed. Stephen Mitchell.  Originally published in 1976, the book is a collection of correspondence, lectures, Zen interviews, between the Zen Master and his students in the West.  I do not recommend it as an introductory book on Zen Buddhism (look to Alan Watts for survey materials written for Western audiences for that), but for those with even a small bit of background understanding of Buddhism and the quirky nature of Zen teachings, Dropping Ashes is a treasure of insight and perspective, drawn from the Soen-Sa’s direct words, often hilariously shared.

Reading today, one particular anecdote caught my attention, both for its sweetness and for the broader lesson it contains.  Zen teaching often demonstrates an ability to reduce questions of overwhelming complexity to simple language and demonstrations.  Soen-sa gives an example of that propensity in recounting his talk with a seven-year old girl named Gita at the Cambridge Zen Center after the Center’s resident cat died after a long illness.  The girl was troubled by the cat’s death, even after watching the cat’s traditional Buddhist burial rituals.

Soen-sa said, “Do you have any questions?”

Gita said, “Yes.  What happened to Katzie? Where did he go?”

Soen-Sa said, “Where do you come from?”

“From my mother’s belly.”

“Where does your mother come from?”

Gita was silent.

Soen-sa then explains, “Everything in the world comes from the same one thing.”  He draws an analogy for Gita between a cookie factory and the universal nature of life force, explaining that all of the different cookies “have different shapes and different names, but they are all made form the same dough and they all taste the same. ”

“So all the different things that you see – a cat, a person, a tree, the sun, this floor – all these things are really the same.”

“What are they?”

“People give them many different names.  But in themselves, they have no names.  When you are thinking, all things have different names and different shapes.  But when you are not thinking, all things are the same.  There are no words for them.  People make the words.  A cat doesn’t say, ‘I am a cat.’  People say, ‘This is a cat.’  The sun doesn’t say, ‘My name is sun.’  People say, ‘This is the sun.’

We often have a tendency to confuse our names and labels for the things we encounter with the nature of the observed object itself.  “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” as we’ve all been taught.  Soen-sa applies this insight to show the little girl the difference between the way we label the world and the world’s true nature:

“So when someone asks you, ‘What is this?’ how should you answer?”

“I shouldn’t use words.”

Soen-sa said, “Very good! You shouldn’t use words.  So if someone asks you, ‘What is Buddha?’ what would be a good answer?”

Gita was silent.

Soen-sa said, “Now you ask me.

“What is Buddha?”

Soen-Sa hit the floor.

Gita laughed.

Soen-sa said, “Now I ask you: What is Buddha?”

Gita hit the floor.

“What is God.”

Gita hit the floor.

“What is your mother?”

Gita hit the floor.

“What are you?”

Gita hit the floor.

“Very good! This is what all things in the world are made of.  You and Buddha and God and your mother and the whole world are the same.”

Gita smiled.

Soen-sa said, “Do you have any more questions?”

“You still haven’t told me where Katz went.”

Soen-sa leaned over, looked into her eyes, and said, “You already understand.”

Gita said, “Oh!” and hit the floor very hard.  Then she laughed.

Soen-sa said, “Very very good! That is how you should answer any question.  That is the truth.”

Soen-sa ends the episode with a humorous observation by Gita that the wonderful Maria Popova described as “a tragic testament to contemporary Western education being a force of industrialized specialization, deliberately fragmenting the unity of all things and deconditioning our inner wholeness:”

“Gita bowed and left.  As she was opening the door, she turned to Soen-sa and said, “But I’m not going to answer that way when I’m in school.  I’m going to give regular answers!”

Soen-sa laughed.

Couple this with “A Child’s Advice on Life and Fear.

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