A testimony by Kathy Park, Buddhist teacher at Kwan Um School of Zen. Kathy currently lives in Seoul, Korea, so we spoke virtually on several occasions. Dialogue between Kathy and me is woven throughout as well. These are Kathy's words—I just wrote them down.
Your life is like a floating cloud: you stay for some time, and we all die. So, what’s the meaning? I think all of us have this question: What is my life for? What is all this about?
I was walking during a break in the garden, and I had this sudden feeling I might run into something. Then, there was a field mouse—dead in front of me. It was a tiny little mouse, and rodents... they die with their legs flat out. When I saw it, it was on my path. I thought somebody could step on it, so I decided I should pick him up and put him in the bushes—somewhere he could naturally disappear.
I took a leaf, wrapped the mouse, and grabbed it. The hardness of the body—you could feel it through my fingers. An electric feeling, and as it came up my arm, I started to cry. It was the recognition of death. This small life, but it was so symbolic of life itself. When you die, you just become this little hard mass, like a piece of wood. I looked at this little mouse and thought, Even this mouse has suffering. All sentient beings experience suffering, and then you die.
I had no idea what I was doing until I realized I suffered a lot. I had a real problem with relationships, my life—I had no idea what was happening. I hit rock bottom emotionally, like Shit, what is going on? On [my] first retreat, I had a glimpse of my own experience, being just where time stops. Where your thinking stops. Where you're not attaching to all of those things that you normally go to for security to have some meaning in life. Like if I buy another pair of shoes, or win another game, or go see another movie, or get another “A” in school. Temporary satisfaction, and then there would still be this question, and this question would just get bigger, and bigger.
“What am I?” We call that “The Great Question.” We say 10,000 questions return to one. What am I? What are you? What is life? What is death? They’re all the same question. So, we call it a Great Question because this curiosity about our own existence is when it’s alive. But in daily life, we have lots of thinking, emotions, opinions, and distractions.
Mind does not exist. There’s no form, no color, no shape. We use the word “mind,” but its expression is clarity. It’s always pure and clear, so you have to return to this place which is pure and clear. We all have different opinions... we say “opposites”—that’s the nature of all suffering in the world. But if you return to this place *clap* before thinking where your mind stops, and you don’t have an answer to anything... if you return to “don’t know,” then your don’t-know-mind, my don’t-know-mind, and somebody else’s don’t-know-mind [are] the same. Everybody has “don’t know”—it’s the same place, same experience. In that moment *clap*, you return to what we say is “absolute.” Substance is the same but [appears] in different name and form. So, if you stop thinking, your mind, my mind—they become One. Everything has the same substance.
Kathy: The substance of your hand and the substance of the table in front of you: are they same or different?
Nathalie: I would say different.
Kathy: No. Same or different are opposites. So how could you answer: The substance of your hand and the substance of the table in front of you: are they same or different?
Nathalie: Neither. Or both?
Kathy: You’re still touching opposites. Zen is going beyond opposites.
Nathalie: Can you just say, “No”?
Kathy: If you open your mouth, that’s already opposites. So, what can you do?
We use a mantra. You can use “Coca Cola”—it doesn’t actually matter—but if you decide your mind’s gonna be really focused like a laser… you say, Coca Cola, Coca Cola, and you focus, focus… then you become one-pointed. There’s no fear, no love, no life or death—true emptiness. If you’re really in the zone, your sense of ego drops off. That’s interesting—that’s wonderful. You and the activity become one *clap*—you’re in the flow. You take away any distraction that’s checking; your consciousness completely becomes empty. Like a windshield wiper: it’s raining, and you have a wiper to see clearly. Mantra is a tool, a tool you need to return to this *clap* clear moment where your mind is empty of distractions taking your energy. They can be there, and you’re aware of them, but they don’t control you. And, sometimes, you can ask, Who is repeating this mantra? What am I? So, this question helps you wake up in this moment.
[My first retreat] was a five-day retreat, and basically, we had to sit—sitting meditation. 50-minute periods, and we sat for ten hours a day. Woke up [at] 5 AM. Sit 50 minutes, walk ten minutes. Meals are silent, everything is silent—can’t talk. Imagine you’re in this long room: two rows, men on one side, women on the other, we face each other, not moving, hour after hour. I wanted to run away. It was so painful—you can’t move when you sit—[but] the intensity of everyone's group effort gives you courage. That’s the beauty of Zen.
If you eat chocolate three times a day but don’t get chocolate on retreat, then you understand what happens to you when [you] don’t get chocolate: craving, desire, frustration. Retreat is where you cut off all crutches in life that distract us. That’s why we call it retreat—it means you pull back in to step back and investigate, What am I doing? When you do that, an incredible awareness appears. You start to get lots of energy ‘cause you’re saving energy by not going for things that take our attention, especially through [the] eyes and mouth.
On the third day, I had these electric shocks coming up my leg ‘cause they were starting to cramp from sitting all day, and I thought, I think I’m just gonna die. You sort of panic. But the instruction is to constantly ask yourself, What am I? So, you start really looking at this question every moment.
Then, this little voice from the pit of my belly. It just came up like a bubble, almost like a child’s voice, and his voice said: Well, there’s nowhere else to be but here. It just came out of my belly, this voice. As soon as I heard that, everything fell away. All the pain disappeared. Like a waterfall showered over me—all these tears started coming out. And I realized: I needed to be exactly here, where I was supposed to be. I chose this, to sit at a retreat to discover, What am I?
Kathy: You ask me the same question.
Nathalie: The substance of your hand and the substance of the table in front of you: are they same or different?
Kathy: ★.* (*smacks table)
In this moment, the substance of your hand, the substance of the table in front of you, your before-thinking mind, and the substance of sound, all become one ★. It’s an experience ★. There are no words or speech in it. It’s just ★. For a split second, your mind just ★—experience. So, I’m gonna ask you again: The substance of your hand and the substance of the table in front of you: are they same or different?
In this moment, your mind became empty. You might not believe it because it’s not yours yet. One day, this thing has to become yours—completely yours. Never leave you. This experience means ★ your mind returns to before thinking—we call it “primary point.” In this place ★, there’s no opposites, no thinking ★, no emotion ★, no life ★, no death, no coming and going—it’s just ★. Some people call this experience Buddha, primary point ★, don’t know ★, God, substance, absolute ★, everything ★, nothing, energy… many names, but all names are already opposites because you’re using language. All those names are wrong. So, true primary point is ★.
Kathy: After you die, where will you go, Nathalie?
Kathy: What are you?
Kathy: We say, in Buddhism, 10,000 teachings return to one. What is this One?
If you return here, ★ that’s your master. ★ It’s my master. ★ Buddha’s master. It’s return to your original ★ nature. That’s inside you—you already have it. It’s pure, clear, complete, and perfect. But if [you] cannot access it, you cannot use it. In Buddhism, we say, “Attain your substance ★, truth, and function.” Those are three [of the] same things. If you attain your true nature ★, that’s your original, perfect, clear, and complete entity. The nature of your existence. But when you get there, then you have to use it. That means become like a mirror and reflect. Use your eyes, ears, nose, all of your senses, and see: What is this world that you’re in?
When you experience death, you truly experience life. The preciousness of being reborn as a human being—it’s one in a billion, billion, billion chances. It’s as if, in the vast oceans, there is a turtle that only comes up to breathe once in a hundred years. And then a wooden ring—a life ring—and you throw this ring into the oceans of the universe. The chance of being reborn as a human being is if this turtle came up to the surface, popped its head into this ring *bloop*, and took a breath. What are the chances of that?