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Only Don't Know: Selected Teaching Letters of Zen Master Seung Sahn Paperback – April 6, 1999
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The Amazon Book Review
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The Dear Abby of Zen, Seung Sahn must be one the most prolific letter writers in history, not to mention one of the most successful Zen masters. With more than 60 centers on six continents, Seung Sahn has inspired thousands of students to take up Zen practice and has managed the seemingly impossible task of nurturing a genuine monastic Zen tradition on Western soil. Many of these students write him letters with their questions, and he never fails to respond. Only Don't Know is a collection of some of these letter's and Seung Sahn's replies, the title being an abbreviation of his cryptic refrain, "If you don't know, only go straight--don't know." The inquirers range from beginners wanting to know what to expect of enlightenment to monastics seeking direction on their path. A man who works in a windowless office, a woman preparing for a chanting retreat, a professor of religion--the writers and the topics come from all corners, Seung Sahn cajoling, versifying, ranting, or telling stories as the situation requires. He even resorts to drawing, as demonstrated in a series of pictorial correspondence that is a priceless example of wordless communication. --Brian Bruya
About the Author
Zen Master Seung Sahn (1927–2004) was the first teacher to bring Korean Zen Buddhism to America, having already established temples in Japan and Hong Kong. In 1972 he came to the United States and started what became the Providence Zen Center, the first center in what is now the Kwan Um School of Zen, which now includes more than eighty centers and groups worldwide. His students called him Dae Soen Sa Nim, "Great Honored Zen Teacher," and he was the 78th Zen master in his line of dharma transmission in the Chogye order of Korean Buddhism. His books include The Compass of Zen, Dropping Ashes on the Buddha, Only Don't Know, and The Whole World Is a Single Flower: 365 Kong-ans for Everyday Life.
Top customer reviews
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The book was recommended by a colleague in the community of finance. The man appeared genuinely moved by the positive effect the book had on him, including his relationships with his wife and children. Still questioning the relevance of a Korean Zen master's writings to my life, I looked it up on Amazon to discover a number of positive reviews. So I decided to give it a try.
The book is a collection of letters to and from Seung Sahn—some from Zen practitioners, others not. A few are serious, others are funny. "I am a teacher and these kids are driving me crazy..."
What is particularly striking is how consistent Seung Sahn is in responding. This is a man clearly in touch with his purpose or calling. That alone makes the book worth a read. But there's more to offer. In each letter you discover a small piece of yourself asking a question. And more often than not, Seung Sahn's response provides practical advice, how to relate to the issue in a more positive way.
Admittedly, the advice is based on Zen practice, but it is not dogmatic—really, humanistic in nature. But if you can't separate the origin from the the advice, then consider adapting it to your brand of belief. The advice has value whatever your faith.
A few themes from the book for flavor:
1. Only Don't Know - Originally, there is not good and bad. But if you make good and bad in your mind, they you have good and bad... Before checking (filtering based on your biases and prejudices) is called go-straight mind - there is no problem. After checking, then feelings, I-my-me, and problems appear. A clear mind has no I-my-me.... If you keep clear mind, you will get happiness everywhere.
2. Love - If you cut off all thinking and keep this in mind: "How can I help?" the correct action will appear... That is great love.
3. Wisdom - Good and bad are our true teachers. If something has no opposite, then it has no meaning, no truth... Wisdom and practice are like two wheels of one cart.
Inspired by Only Don't Know, I read others by Seung Sahn, but cannot give them the same recommendation. The Compass of Zen is a dense guide to Buddhism and Dropping Ashes on the Buddha is a lesser work of teachings and letters. This is the one to read.
Hope this review helps you.