Kwan Um School of Zen Vienna

What is Zen?

One day a student from Chicago came to the Providence Zen Center and asked Seung Sahn Soen-Sa: "What is Zen?"  Soen-sa held his Zen stick above his head and said, "Do you understand?"  The student said, "I don't know." Soen-sa said, "This don't know mind is you. Zen is understanding yourself."

"What do you understand about me? Teach me."

Soen-sa said, "In a cookie factory, different cookies are baked in the shape of animals, cars, people, and airplanes. They all have different names and forms, but they are all made from the same dough, and they all taste the same. "In the same way, all things in the universe - the sun, the moon, the stars, mountains, rivers, people, and so forth - have different names and forms, but they are all made from the same substance. The universe is organized into pairs of opposites: light and darkness, man and woman, sound and silence, good and bad. But all these opposites are mutual, because they are made from the same substance. Their names and their forms are different, but their substance is the same. Names and forms are made by your thinking. If you are not thinking and have no attachment to name and form, then all substance is one. Your don't know mind cuts off all thinking. This is your substance. The substance of this Zen stick and your own substance are the same. You are this stick; this stick is you."

The student said, "Some philosophers say this substance is energy, or mind, or God, or matter.  Which is the truth?"

Soen-sa said, "Four blind men went to the zoo and visited the elephant. One blind man touched its side and said, The elephant is like a wall. The next blind man touched its trunk and said, The elephant is like a snake. The next blind man touched its leg and said, The elephant is like a column. The last blind man touched its tail and said, The elephant is like a broom. Then the four blind men started to fight, each one believing that his opinion was the right one. Each only understood the part he had touched; none of them understood the whole. "Substance has no name and no form. Energy, mind, God, and matter are all name and form. Substance is the Absolute. Having name and form is having opposites. So the whole world is like the blind men fighting among themselves. Not understanding yourself is not understanding the truth. That is why there is fighting among ourselves. If all the people in the world understood themselves, they would attain the Absolute. Then the world would be at peace. World peace is Zen."

The student said, "How can practicing Zen make world peace?"

Soen-sa said, "People desire money, fame, sex, food, and rest. All this desire is thinking. Thinking is suffering. Suffering means no world peace. Not thinking is not suffering. Not suffering means world peace. World peace is the Absolute. The Absolute is I."

The student said, "How can I understand the Absolute?"

Soen-sa said, "You must first understand yourself."

"How can I understand myself?"

Soen-sa held up the Zen stick and said, "Do you see this?" He then quickly hit the table with the stick and said, "Do you hear this? This stick, this sound, your mind - are they the same or different?"

The student said, "The same."

Soen-sa said, "If you say they are the same, I will hit you thirty times. If you say they are different, I will still hit you thirty times. Why?"

The student was silent.

Soen-sa shouted, "KAAATZ!!!" Then he said, "Spring comes, the grass grows by itself."


Formal Zen Meditation consists of:
- Sitting meditation (Jap: Zazen)
- Walking meditation
- Bows
- Chanting
- Kong-an (Jap: Koan) practice

Sitting meditation

We can differentiate between the mind posture (how to keep the mind) and the body posture:
Body posture: It's possible to sit in different positions: lotus, Burmese, Japanese style, using a little bench or in a chair. Keep your eyes half open, looking at the floor at a 45 degree angle keep your back straight keep your hands in meditation mudra with left hand over right and the thumbs lightly touching.

Mind posture (how to keep the mind): Breathing is important. The breathing should be relaxed, natural and quiet. One could say: the breath should breathe itself, i.e. it should not be consciously controlled. The attention is usually either on a big question (kor. Hwadu) like e.g. "What am I?" or on a repeating Mantra e.g. Kwan Seum Bosal or Om Mani Padme Hum. The Hwadu can be connected with the breathing, and breathing out should be approx. twice as long as the inhalation. However after some time thinking will appear. If this happens, simply return to the meditation-object, without judging or being annoyed of your lack of concentration.

Walking meditation

Walking meditation is a short break for our bones, not for our meditation practice. The hands are folded before the waist and the lower arms almost form a straight line. Walk in a row one behind the other with a distance of approx. 1 meter. The "mind posture" (see above) remains unchanged.


There are sitting bows and standing bows as well as full prostrations. According to Buddhist teachings everthins has Buddha nature. The Buddha represents the Buddha inside us and in every other being and in all appearances. If we bow in front of Buddha, it's as if we bow in front of us and all other beings. The "small I" bows in front of the "big I". The "mind posture" (see above) remains unchanged.


Chanting meditation means keeping a not-moving mind and perceiving the sound of your own voice. Perceiving your voice means perceiving your true self or true nature. Then you and the sound are never separate, which means that you and the whole universe are never separate. Thus, to perceive our true nature is to perceive universal substance. With regular chanting, our sense of being centered gets stronger and stronger. When we are strongly centered, we can control our feelings, and thus our condition and situation. In our Zen centers, people live together and practice together. At first, people come with strong opinions, strong likes and dislikes. For many people, chanting meditation is not easy: much confused thinking, many likes, many dislikes and so on. However, when we do chanting meditation correctly, perceiving the sound of our own voice and the voices all around us, our minds become clear. In clear mind, there is no like or dislike, only the sound of the voice. Ultimately, we learn that chanting meditation is not for our personal pleasure, to give us good feeling, but to make our direction clear. Our direction is to become clear and get enlightened, in order to save all beings from suffering. So when you are chanting, you must perceive the sound of your voice: you and the universe have already become one, suffering disappears, true happiness appears. This is called nirvana. If you keep nirvana, your mind is clear like space. Clear like space means clear like a mirror. Red comes, red. White comes, white. Someone is happy; I am happy. Someone is sad; I am sad. Someone is hungry; give them food. The name for this is great love, great compassion, the great bodhisattva way. That also means great wisdom. This is chanting meditation, chanting Zen.
Zen-Meister Seung Sahn

>  Chanting book incl. translation and temple rules (in German; pdf)

Kong-an Practice

Kong-an practice is an ancient form of question and answer. The actual word means "public record". So these are the public records of past Zen Masters. The answers are rooted in the reality that is beyond time and space, likes and dislikes, but is just-like-this. One of their functions is to give you a Great Question if you don't have one. Another is to help you eliminate the "hooks" from your mind. Each Kong-an has hooks (like mental fishhooks) and when you cannot solve it, it is because your mind has gotten caught on one of the hooks of the Kong-an. Sitting with the Kong-an as a question is one of the trademarks of Zen Practice.

Zen Articles

Zen Master Seung Sahn
=  Zen articles of Zen Master Seung Sahn

Zen Master Wu Bong
=  Zen articles of Zen Master Wu Bong

Zen Master Ji Kwang
=  Zen articles of Zen Master Ji Kwang


In English

The Compass of Zen
The essence of Zen Master Seung Sahn's teaching: the main points of Buddhism and Zen, the ten gates and temple rules.  New edition published by Shambhala.

Bone of Space
Poems by Zen Master Seung Sahn.  This collection captures a master's thoughts during everyday life while traveling, talking on the phone, attending a friend's funeral.

The Whole World is a Single Flower - 365 Kong-ans for Everyday Life
With questions and commentaries by Zen Master Seung Sahn. The first modern kong-an (koan) collection to appear in many years; it draws on Christian, Taoist and Buddhist sources. Compiled and edited by Zen Master Bon Yeon, and Paul Muenzen (now Hyon Gak Sunim).  267 pages. 

Dropping Ashes on the Buddha - The Teaching of Zen Master Seung Sahn
Compiled and edited by Stephen Mitchell.  A delightful, irreverent and often hilarious record of his interactions with Western students.  244 pages.

Only Don't Know - Teaching Letters of Zen Master Seung Sahn
Issues of work, relationships and suffering are discussed as they relate to meditation practice.  New expanded edition published by Shambhala.

Thousand Peaks - Korean Zen: Traditions and Teachers
by Mu Soeng.  The spirit of Zen's golden age survives in Korean Zen.  256 pages.

Open Mouth Already a Mistake
Talks by Zen Master Wu Kwang.  Teaching of a Zen Master who is also a husband, father, practicing Gestalt therapist and musician. 

A Gathering of Spirit - Women Teaching in American Buddhism
Edited by Ellen Sidor. Talks and discussions from three landmark conferences at Providence Zen Center. Third edition, 1992. 156 pages. 

In Deutsch

Der Kompass des Buddhismus
Orientierung auf dem Weg. Theseus (2002)  ‹bersetzung des "Compass of Zen" von Zen Meister Seung Sahn.

Buddha steht kopf
Die Lehre des Zen Meisters Seung Sahn.  Context (1990).
‹bersetzung des "Dropping Ashes on the Buddha" von Zen Meister Seung Sahn.

Last updated 25.9.2014