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on December 21, 2001
This early book of Stephen Mitchell's is still one of his best. Not only that, but in my own opinion (for whatever _that's_ worth) it belongs on a shortlist of genuinely helpful books on Zen -- next to Kapleau's _Three Pillars of Zen_, Reps's _Zen Flesh, Zen Bones_, Suzuki's _Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind_, and a very few others.
Seung Sahn is a hoot, and Mitchell does a wonderful job presenting his teachings (in 99 fairly short sections, mostly taken from Seung Sahn's Dharma talks and personal correspondence). This book will annoy you in all the right places.
For guidance on koans generally, I like Thomas Cleary's _No Barrier_, recently republished as _Unlocking the Zen Koan_.
(And as other readers have noted, you shouldn't buy this book for advice on sitting, because there isn't any in it.)
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on November 7, 2003
The first time I read this book I was stunned. I knew, I just knew, that it made sense somehow. But for the life of me, I could not figure out the "leaping logic" of ZMSS. However, I have kept it by my bedside for almost 5 years now, and a couple times a week, I pick it up, open to a story at random and again enjoy the wisdom contained within it. And believe it or not, after many years of this, I find that the stories all fit together.
This book is the perfect companion to "The Compass of Zen". (Also by ZMSS) Instead of theory, it presents various conversations and letters from the 1970's between the Zen master and his students. On more than one occasion I have found myself nodding in agreement with his students as they question and answer. Only to learn a new lesson from the master.
Now that ZMSS is no longer here in the flesh teaching us, this book is even more important, as the Zen master will be beside us always. Teaching, correcting and guiding. A must have for the serious student of Zen.
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on October 16, 2003
"Dropping Ashes on The Buddha" by Zen Master Seung Sahn is a truly unique gem in the boundless sea of Zen literature. It was one of the first books I read on Zen and it had a huge impact on me when I read it much like "Zen Flesh, Zen Bones" did. Like "Zen Flesh, Zen Bones" this book is filled to the brim with humor and compassion and wisdom, defying all logic that will truly awaken you. Seung Sahn was the first teacher to bring Korean Zen Buddhism to America and has since founded his own school. The book was compiled and edited by a student named Stephen Mitchell(whose translation of the "Tao Te Ching" I highly recommend.) The book is a collection of lectures, stories, letters, and stories(both modern and old) all by or having to do with Seung Sahn. It was also great to hear some great Zen stories from the Korean tradition and also a little bit about its lineage. Like koans and other Zen stories, this book shows a great account of buddha nature in action that is beyond words and thinking. Seung Sahn helped erase alot of misconceptions I had in my mind about Zen. I highly recommend this book. I am always re-reading certain stories every now and then and still finding them as fresh as the day I first read them.
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on October 28, 2011
Very interesting read indeed... I found the intermittent cursing to be quite humorous. It's without a doubt - an entertaining, and mind boggling adventure. It makes you feel as if you're right in the classroom, getting smacked with Seung Sahn's stick.

I'd be lying if I said I was able to figure out the various kong-ans, but I'm sure I'm not the only one (I wish there were answers to these riddles, BUT that's probably asking for way too much). However, I did notice that even though I didn't understand the kong-ans that certain things did make more sense as the chapters went on... So, by the end of the book, you have a slightly better understanding than you did at the beginning. This book definitely needs to be reread. Some stories are just plain funny, some are puzzling, and some have a story to tell. *It seems that every other page someone is getting hit hard, hahaha... It's a good thing that hitting is a sign of affection from student to teacher. I've never read a book even close to something like this - it makes you wonder how amazing this man was in person. I subsequently purchased another book from Soen-sa, "Wanting Enlightenment Is a Big Mistake". I want to see how this one fares as well.

I'm hesitant to take a stab at this BUT, if I had to write something that I learned through these pages:

Naturally scriptures, holy reading and their corresponding history are very important (so is growing up and learning all the necessary skills we need to survive in this crazy world). Additionally vital is at some point in our life, we have to stop thinking we know everything. Human beings today are at a point where we just think our way through life. We think we have an explanation for everything --- I think, I think, I think.... We forget our true nature of just feeling or experiencing `things as it is'. Instead of simply experiencing something right in front of our eyes --- we sit, stare, try to break it down and explain it all... With all of this going on, we fail to realize that this precious moment is fleeing from us... What should we do? We must drop everything - `put it all down' and realize these things staring us in the face, every second of every day. We have to lose our overactive mind, and just see with our eyes what is in front of us - appreciate it for what it is, and experience it for all it has to offer...

I can honestly say that after reading this book: what I thought I knew - I DON'T KNOW...
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on June 14, 1999
After reading this book about a year ago, I finally made the decision to really find out what all this zen stuff was all about. Though as someone "philosophically inclined" it took me some time to wrap my self around his "just don't know" and the like. But never for a moment was I anything but totally engrossed by his presentation. And he's funny too! What more could you want?!? A Stand-up Zen master...exactly what I've been waiting for! For a more complete presentation, check out Seung Sahn's "The Compass of Zen".
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on March 16, 2013
Echoing many other reviewers: this book is great. It's funny, it's. serious. It's the voice of a Korean Zen master who has just arrived in the US (written in 1977), just-learned English, who coins his own idioms to get things across. It does not at all read like a "spiritual" book, or like any other Zen book. It's as though the mind and spirit of Huck Finn were fused with a riddling chessmaster and used to present Zen.

When I first read this -in 1979 - it was like: I've never seen anything remotely like this. I had read 2 or 3 Zen books previously - they seemed interesting but "normal" - whereas this was anything but normal. Only decades later -helped by Seung Sahn's later "Compass of Zen" and some about the Chinese and Korean antecedents - do I see how this fits.

You can read this for the ideas, or the stories, or for the history (as a record of the arrival of a new religion from a very foreign shore). And for practise: his colorful:English expressions (only go straight-don't know) are like "seeds" for meditation, aids to "cut off all thinking". So I found this useful as a meditation guide even though it does not give anything like formal instruction (the group's web site does, though).

This is maybe more useful as a "second" book on eastern spirituality - after a "first" more conventional one. It also some tolerance for certain types of questions: when you see objects are they outside your mind or inside? (But these are meditation seeds, not philosophical treatises.). That's how I came to it - and found it fresh and compelling and unexpected.
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on March 15, 2000
I finally read this book in its entirety recently after a year of randomly reading the charming stories and koans comprising the book. I love the simplicity of Seung Sahn's teachings. The love he has for his student (you) truly shines through when reading. However, there are other books I would recommend to the beginner who knows little of Zen before this one -introductory books, otherwise the "methods" of zen teaching are easy misunderstood.
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If you say no, I will hit you thirty times" will repeat often. Here's the type of "dharma combat" as carried out by Sahn. This collection of dialogues, dharma talks, letters exchanged, and a bit of biography by Stephen Mitchell of Seung Sahn's valuable for its exposure of this type of training, taken from Korea and Japan westward.

An apple is red, an apple exists, but how to capture the essence of an apple in a world of impermanence, and how can non-thinking be realized by those caught up in categories, binary oppositions of form and emptiness, and step-by-step ways to enlightenment? People cited herein keep getting these breakthroughs it seems in the old days, but even if Sahn did nowadays, it appears the Western students at Cambridge and Providence and NYC and LA heard here asking Sahn for advice and dueling with him and often failing come away as baffled by his gnomic, stand-up routine, childlike, and plain puzzling responses as often as many readers, I reckon. Part of the point.

But, in the venerable tradition of iconoclast Bodhidharma, the riddling kong-an (he studied Rinzai Japanese Zen, which translates this as "koan") give-and-take with master and student is a way of forcing students off the "discriminating path." Zen requires a direction that leaves behind discursive thought, and language itself, as a way to grasp the meaning of Buddhism. I find it a welcome counterpart to the "just sitting" zazen approach of Soto Zen explained by Sahn's contemporary, Shunryu Suzuki, in a similar collection, "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind" (see my review).

If you've read earlier reviews, you can see how short they are. At first, I'd no idea how to sum up this collection. I thought it might defy commentary. Not the first place to start (I've reviewed David Fontana's "Discover Zen" which directed me), but a fine destination for those already meditating, I'd hazard.

It's difficult to write at length about a book that challenges linear thinking. The elliptical nature of much of the contents may tire readers. It may be opaque or infuriating to some; the dialogue here with "Swami X" shows well the frustrations a guru had with this enigmatic style. It may weary some readers for it returns to the same images and phrases, but in this repetition, one glimpses what it's like to hear a Zen master, day after day.

Mitchell does not step forward in these pages to interpose himself between Sahn and himself as the compiler and editor, so this means you feel as if witnessing student conversations, letters, and talks firsthand, with a transparent, hidden transcriber. This can be off-putting as the lack of a framework or preface sets you in his formidable presence right away. On reflection, however, this verisimilitude may best capture the uneasy, unsettling feeling of being there as an unpredictable, off-beat teacher starts challenging and testing you.

P.S. In light of subsequent revelations starting in 1988 of charges by some of Sahn's female followers that he engaged in secret relations with them despite his celibate status, this complicates the depiction of Sahn here. However, one of the hundred chapters presciently included (this book came out originally in 1976) has a well-known ancient monk learning by a night "on the town" at a bar-brothel how even the monastic precepts can be broken in the quest for meaning, so...enough said.
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on November 29, 2014
This book is not for those who seek enlightenment, it is for pure reading and enjoying. I discovered it by pure accident and am immensely grateful for it's existence and me finding it. It changed me without any deliberate input from me (other than a natural attempt to grasp what it is about). I guess it teaches you to think with your heart, it is almost the opposite of logic, and after reading it I've noticed several things: a) I became more mindful and aware of myself at any present moment, b) I am constantly questioning myself: "Who am I?", or rather, whenever I am feeling an emotion or making a decision: " WHO is feeling this emotion? WHO is making this decision? " and then realize that I really don't know that, and that is amusing and very calming. As a result, things don't bother me nearly as much anymore and I enjoy a peace of mind as long as I remember to keep asking that question and feeling that the answer is impossible to define. It is like dividing zero by zero. In fact, that is a pretty good way to describe it.
Do not expect similar (or any specific kind of) results from reading this book and, like I said, don't buy it because you want to be enlightened. Reserve all your expectations and simply read it. Your life might never be the same again.
The book's name is a reference to a Zen koan, which I will summarize here (spoiler alert!): You go to a Buddhist temple and see that a certain man is smoking a cigarette and dropping ashes on the Buddha statue. This man doesn't want to be attached to words, so he won't listen to any. He thinks he understands Zen: if everything is the same, then nothing has value, meaning anything is allowed. He is also very strong and might hit you if you tell him to stop, etc ( I just guessed that he will hit you no matter what you say or do since he thinks anything is allowed). How would you explain to him that he is deluded?

My answer: I would light a cigarette and drop ashes on him. If he then hits me, say, in the nose, I would rub his nose because he must be in pain. I tried giving this answer without utilizing logic or thought, using what my heart told me. Of course, this answer isn't right or wrong or inherently good or bad, but I am curious to know about other answers that people gave to this koan. Enjoy the book!

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on November 19, 2012
I read this book many years ago. It was probably the 2nd or 3rd book about Zen I read. Up to that point I had not practiced zazen. When reading this book the first time, I had no idea what most of it meant. But something in it made me think this Old Korean Guy knew something I didn't. I have read this book many times since the first. I still have no idea what it means, but it keeps me on the zafu. Buy this book and do not lose it.
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