True God, True Buddha

True God, True Buddha

Zen Master Seung Sahn

Adapted from a talk during a retreat at Providence Zen Center in December, 1990.

Question: I’m a Christian, and I would like to know, is there anything you would like us to understand that we tend not to understand?

Zen Master Seung Sahn: Christianity says God made everything — good and bad, heaven and earth, human beings and animals and so on. He worked for six days, then rested.

But in Buddhism, there is no original cause or creator; there is no coming, no going, no existence, no nonexistence; all of these are opposites thinking. Sun and moon, light and dark, day and night — all these are names; the world of names is opposites thinking. “God” is also a name; it’s also opposite thinking. True God has no name, no form. In no name/no form, there is no coming, no going — no opposite thinking. That which is beyond all names and forms is always bright. That is True God.

The purpose of Buddhism is to find primary point. What is the primary point of this universe? The Bible says, “God made everything.” But what is the primary point of God? Where does God come from?

These days, not many young people are becoming monks or nuns. I was in Paris — a big Catholic university had closed its doors. No more students! Any society that has a “good situation” doesn’t have young monks, only old monks. This is a different age, a different mind, Old-style religion was to just believe in God. Now people check — what kind of religion will help me, help society? Monk or not monk is not important. They like new idea, new style religion, perhaps some meditation.

This is a time of great change and religions need to adapt; a change in teaching style is necessary. A simple belief in God is no longer enough for many people. They want to understand: What is God? What is my true self? In the Bible, it says, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” What is this “I”? Is this “I” God? Is this God separate from me? If this God is not separate from me, are God and I two or one? Through meditation practice these questions can be resolved on a deep level. Then one can truly understand religion, understand this world. In meditation all opposites become one point: mind, God, dharma, truth. You can call it many things, but this point is before all names and forms.

If you only talk about a belief in God, then there are many questions: Where is God? Inside the body or outside? Someone says God is in heaven; nowadays spaceships roam about in vast outer space, but don’t find any God because all is curved space. Here is God? Here is God? True God has no inside and outside, no name and form.

Nowadays many Christians like Thomas Merton’s books. He didn’t only analyze Biblical words. He understood and practiced Zen meditation, so he was able to connect with his true self, and wrote about this connection. That’s why his books are so popular.

Any kind of religion, any kind of style doesn’t matter. Why do this? Making this direction clear is very important; if this direction is clear, then your life is clear. If you only hold your religion, your idea, then you have a problem. If you are not holding “my religion,” not holding “my practice,” have a clear direction, and only try, try, try, then you attain something. Clear direction and try mind are most important.

Zen mind means put down any idea, any form. If your direction is clear and you completely put down everything, then you will attain something. When you attain something, you connect with everything else.

All religions are like different paths to the mountaintop. The top of the mountain is very clear; it’s the primary point. But there are many paths leading to this point; there is the eastern road, western road, southern road, and northern road. When people begin climbing the mountain, they are always fighting: “My way is correct, your way is not correct.” But from the bottom of the mountain, they cannot see the top, so they are very strongly attached to “my way.” Having clear direction and try mind means just going up, going up, one step after another. So you don’t spend energy in fighting other people or their ideas; you just practice. Then you can reach the mountaintop.

The different paths to the mountaintop are made by our mind. But what is mind? If you try to understand it intellectually, you will not find it. Our mind is very big, but it’s also small. A very sharp needle cannot touch this mind, because this mind is smaller than the tip of the needle. But our mind is also bigger than the whole universe. Sometimes our mind is very bright, sometimes very dark. If you make “my path,” you also make “my mind.” But if you let go of “my mind,” you become a Buddha. Then any path will lead you to the mountaintop.

If you control your mind, you control everything. But if you say, “I control my mind,” then what is this that controls the mind? Is it some other mind that controls the mind or is it no mind? Also, how do you control your mind? Where is your mind? Are you and your mind two things or one? Same or different? Big problem! That’s all thinking. POW! Put it all down, OK? Don’t think!

The Diamond Sutra says “All things are impermanent. A pure view is to see all appearances as non-appearances. When all appearances and non-appearances disappear, that’s complete stillness. Then you can see Buddha nature.” But if everything is impermanent, I am also impermanent; Buddha is also impermanent. Then how can I see Buddha? How can impermanence see impermanence?

If you check the words in the Bible or in the Diamond Sutra, then it’s all checking, all opposites thinking. But truth means there are no opposites. No opposites means the absolute. If you are checking, then everything is not correct. If you are not checking, everything is correct. That is Zen. The Diamond Sutra teaches that silence is better than holiness. And the Bible says “Be still and know that I am God.” This silent mind is very important. How do we transmit this silent mind from me to you? Buddha picked up a flower, and only Mahakashyapa smiled. Then Buddha said, “My true dharma, I transmit to you.” But that was a big mistake on Buddha’s part. If I was Mahakashyapa at that time, I would have said, “No, thank you, Buddha, I already have dharma.” Then Buddha would have a problem!!

So, already everybody has dharma, already everybody has truth, already everybody has the correct way and correct life. Already everybody has, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” So why does anyone need transmission from someone else? Open your mouth and it’s already a mistake. But our job is to help all beings. So, we only use this mouth to teach the dharma and help all beings. That, we say, is “tongue formula.”

If you only keep a try mind, a don’t-know mind, then your center becomes stronger, stronger, stronger. Then everything you hear, smell, see, taste, touch is better than the Buddha’s speech, better than the Bible’s speech. That’s enlightenment. Then you can save all beings from suffering.

© The Kwan Um School of Zen

And the follow-up post:

Reaction to Seung Sahn-the Buddha laughed!

In the same iconoclastic spirit, this post might also be of interest:

Freedom from Buddha nature


About Steven Goodheart

"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." Spinoza

26 Responses to “True God, True Buddha”

  1. Yến Lương a2 Reply 2011/06/16 at 7:43 PM

    Hi! thanks for ”TRUE GOD , TRUE BUDDHA”.

  2. wow, this is a very enlightening stumble.

    One of the best i’ve ever found.

    and i’ve said that a couple times today.

    “All religions are like different paths to the mountaintop. The top of the mountain is very clear; it’s the primary point. But there are many paths leading to this point; there is the eastern road, western road, southern road, and northern road.”

    This will be read most definitely a couple times, and most definitely thought on.

    • Hello my friend, and thanks for stopping by. I’m glad you found the post inspiring. It’s turned out to be one of my most popular posts of all, and I hope it’s led people to look further into the wisdom (and humor!) of Zen Master Seung Sahn.

      With all best wishes,

  3. Tastes even better in a second reading . . .

    All paths lead to the same place at the top of the mountain, only we can’t see it.

    Be still . . . and know that I am God.

    Yeah, second readings sometime pick up things your mind skips over on first glance.


    michael j

  4. Your post is well written and I have froward-ed it to my friends as the best explanation of God/Buddha I have ever run across.
    Thanks for being a light along the path.

  5. Thank you for a different perspective.

  6. Best view on God as the Great “Nothing” I have come across. I like this Zen approach.

    michael j

    • Hey Michael. Thanks; so glad you find it helpful.

      Your remark is interesting, because three of my very favorite Zen Masters, my own beloved Thich Nhat Hanh, Seung Sahn, and Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett (a woman, I might note, who lived in England, of the Soto Zen school) all seemed to have a way of pointing to what the human mind might call God, or Spirit, or the “Holy Ghost”, just not the “god” of our concepts. Jiyu-Kennett, especially, had a very religious, even devotional sense of Zen. They aren’t sneaking God in the back door, so to speak, either. I think they are seeing something wonderful that unites us all, whether we all know it yet or not.


  7. There is no God. There is no path. These are no words. There is no mind. So, why bother? Can I have another cup of tea, please?

  8. every way has his path, and every path has his travelers, every travelers has his/her believes, then why should a traveler have one (ore more, does not matter) path…. the path is the same the traveler changes. the mind changes, the thinking changes, anything related to I changes, everything but the path… the path stay’s the same… we see it different trough our own emotions and thought, but the path is yet the same…

    so my question is have we all reached enlightenment, but we haven realized it yet? or do we need to be so self aware to identify our self awareness about our enlightenment?

    • Hello alcosept! Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

      You offer an interesting perspective…the path never changes, we do, or at least, or perception of the path changes. (I assume that’s what you mean.) I’ll have to think about that. I can definitely see how one could look at it that way. With your definition, “path” becomes like a quantum particle, it seems to me—depends on the observer. Can be a particle, or a wave, or both, or neither—or a wavicle! LOL!

      Ah, and your last question—a pure koan, and a classic dharma debate “trap” (not that you’re trying to trip me, of course!) So, I won’t answer it’s “this or that” but think about the implications of your questions “out loud” with you.

      At one level, this question could be seen like asking, when we live in California, are we really in New York, we just haven’t realized it yet? (because we pre-assume the “New Yorkness” of every place.) At the level of relative truth, the practical level, the question doesn’t even make sense. If we are physically in California, we can’t “really” be in New York, right?

      At another level, the questions might be pointing to some absolute truth—Buddha-nature, or the ground of being, or the like. To me, that’d be like saying, “We think we are separate in underlying nature because I live in California, and you live in New York, but in fact, we are all part of the same continental tectonic plate. We are really one, in that sense of underlying geological foundation.” I think I could go with that.

      But to go any further with any of this, one would have to define terms, and spend endless hours trying to both define and agree what they mean. In Theravada Buddhism, and some Mahayana, too, some teachers would object to the statement “we are all enlightened; we just don’t know it.”

      The Theravadan would say that your use of “enlightenment” is incorrect, since “enlightenment” for them is not an essence, of something intrinsic, but “that” which simply is after all the skandhas have been unbound, extinguished. Most Theravadans would even object to the idea of a Buddha nature, or any inherent essence whatsoever.

      Mahayana Buddhism, including Zen, does have the idea of “Buddha-nature” but even some Mahayanans might object to saying we are “already enlightened” when clearly, we aren’t manifesting many of the “marks” of a Buddha, or fully enlightened one. They would want to point to, instead, your inherent Buddha-nature, but I don’t think most would equate “Buddha nature” with being manifestly utterly liberated.

      So, that’s my two-bits, as they say. I think a lot of confusion and debate about Buddhist ideas is purely semantical, and also, not noticing the wisdom of the Buddha on his silence about certain “metaphysical” questions. Myself, I tend to follow this path. Words and concepts about enlightenment, Buddha nature, and the like, make me crazy!

      Thanks for your thought-provoking remarks,

  9. Yes, I’ve seen it. It’s lovely–something so humble and sweet in it.

    Anyway, don’t whack yourself in the head TOO hard, dude–there’s enlightenment, and then there’s plain old serious brain trauma!


  10. Is that what they’re called? I saw that for the first time on Sparrow’s site.

    The post just made me happy…”any path will lead you to the mountain-top.”


    • I think I may have seen them there first, too. I like them!

      In Zen a “gasho” is a “Bow of Gratitude” –Palms together, finger tips even with nose; Used to enter/exit the zendo, bowing to place of mediation and bowing to each other.

      Meet you at the top, oh, wait, (whack) maybe we’re already there! 🙂

      With affection,

    • Dear Nancy,

      I’m with you. reading this reinforced my view and made me happy.


  11. 🙂

    _( )_

    (Not sure if I got the second one right…)



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