Book Review: The Compass of Zen by Zen Master Seung Sahn

 I’ve had a copy of The Compass of Zen by Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn (1927-2004) sitting on my bookshelf for 10 years! Finally I’ve read it and I’m glad I did because it’s a great introduction to the ‘bones’ of Buddhism.

WHO WAS ZEN MASTER SEUNG SAHN?

‘first attain enlightenment and then instruct others, this is the purpose of Buddhism’.

Zen master Seung Sahn was a member of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism and the Founder of the Kwam Un International School of Zen which has its HQ at Seoul International Zen Centre at Hwa Gye Sah Temple to the north of Seoul. Meditation sessions and talks are still held here every week in English.

Seung Sahn was Korean, but lived in the States for many years where he taught Buddhism in a way that was easy to understand for his western students. And this book is a collection of transcripts of some of the talks that he gave in English. His distinct voice comes through the text. I like that. (although he says that we should not form attachments of ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ as this causes suffering. But if I follow this rule it’s going to be hard to write a review ...)

Another thing that I like is that the transcript includes notes on actions and reactions during the talks. He (bangs his stick on the table) to emphasize a point and there is (loud laughter) from the audience when he tells a funny story which remind us that he is talking to a live audience.

The book is also filled with comic ‘pride comes before a fall’ stories of monks who think they have reached enlightenment and so they get a bit cocky or try to show off. But then they are made to realise that they are not enlightened at all.

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OVERVIEW OF THE COMPASS OF ZEN

The book is divided into 3 main sections where he explains about the 3 main schools of Buddhism: Hinayana, Mahayana, and Zen. But although he is a Zen master he urges his students to keep an open mind to all schools of Buddhism.

Hinayana (or Theravada) early Buddhism is the first step to understanding Buddhist teaching. He describes Hinayana as getting to nirvana by bicycle – because you work on meditation to reach a state of emptiness or nirvana by yourself.

Mahayana Buddhism continues on where Hinayana leaves off and asks What is our function in the world? Practicing Mahana Buddhism is like getting to nirvana by bus because you want to save others from suffering too and everyone arrives on the bus at enlightenment on the same day.

Zen Buddhism has no actual road so he says it is like traveling by airplane. (This is where things get trickier to understand!!) Zen means understanding one’s true self. But it can’t be obtained through books because it is ‘before’ speech and thinking. So it doesn’t put emphasis on words or explaining anything. (That’s why meditation is so important)

 

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MEDITATION

In the introduction he begins by stating that life has become more complicated because there are more humans on the planet. This causes more suffering as we hurt each other, animals, and even the planet itself. And even though humans are supposed to be clever animals we don’t know where we come from or why we are here. And this causes suffering. Attachments such as desire for fame, sex, or social approval cause suffering.

But actually the mind is the universe. There is no time. There is no life and death but through our own thinking we are in a constant cycle of samsara – the circle of suffering going from birth to old age and to death. By practising meditation we can find our true self and leave this circle of suffering.

So how do we do this?

Well, I wouldn’t call this a how-to book because he doesn’t actually give specifics on how to meditate apart from saying that meditation is not special. And that it can be done anytime and anywhere. It’s about emptying the mind. So maybe there is no need for a how-to explanation, you just DO it.

He does clear up some misconceptions about meditation. He says that some people think that meditation is all about simply reaching a place of peace and happiness. (Yes, I thought that) Or that if you meditate you can get something – a good feeling or a clear mind to improve your martial arts or creativity for instance. But whilst he acknowledges that meditation can help you achieve something, this is only ‘common people’s meditation’. This way you can’t find your true self. True meditation is done not wanting anything.

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ATTACHMENT

One of his main messages throughout the book is that we should not form ‘attachments’ because attachments cause suffering. Attachment to property, other people, desires, feelings, the list goes on. Even attachments to the words of the Dharma talks can bring suffering if people start to argue over the meaning of the words.

But I realise it’s SO EASY to form attachments and I have lots. (I definitely have an attachment to alcohol for starters…) So I’m trying to be more aware of the attachments that I’m creating in my mind.

He says we can even form attachments to meditating. Some people want to meditate because they want to experience the happy and calm feeling that meditation can bring. But then they become attached to this feeling of happiness! But everything is impermanent and always changing so we can’t keep the happy feeling all day long. So when the happy feelings disappears this can bring misery and suffering!

There are 84 thousand sutras to read which can help us to understand the teachings of Buddha but we are told many times throughout the book that only practising meditation will allow us to truly experience and understand them because ‘showing a hungry man a picture of a banana will not cure his hunger’! I’m not going to say that I fully understood everything that I read. But Rome wasn’t built in a day. And I am left wanting to learn more.

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