- A Classic Dharma Debate
between Kalu Rinpoche and Seung Sahn,
taken from "Thoughts without a Thinker" by Mark Epstein,
a Buddhist psychiatrist and contributing editor of Tricycle.
Some friends of mine had arranged for an encounter between two
prominent visiting Buddhist teachers at the house of a Harvard
University psychology professor. These were teachers from two
distinctly different Buddhist traditions who had never met and whose
traditions had in fact had very little contact over the past thousand
years. Before the worlds of Buddhism and Western psychology could
come together, the various strands of Buddhism would have to
encounter one another. We were to witness the first such dialogue.
The teachers, seventy-year-old Kalu Rinpoche of Tibet, a veteran of
years of solitary retreat, and the Zen master Seung Sahn, the first
Korean Zen master to teach in the United States, were to test each
other's understanding of the Buddha's teachings for the benefit of
the onlooking Western students. This was to be a high form of what
was being called "dharma combat," (the clashing of great minds
sharpened by years of study and meditation), and we were waiting with
all the anticipation that such a historic encounter deserved.
The two monks entered with swirling robes maroon and yellow for the
Tibetan, austere grey and black for the Korean and were followed by
retinues of younger monks and translators with shaven heads. They
settled onto cushions in the familiar cross-legged positions, and the
host made it clear that the younger Zen master was to begin. The
Tibetan lama sat very still, fingering a wooden rosary (mala) with
one hand while murmuring, "Om mani padme hum," continuously under his
The Zen master, who was already gaining renown for his method of
hurling questions at his students until they were forced to admit
their ignorance and then bellowing, "Keep that don't know mind!" at
them, reached deep inside his robes and drew out an orange. "What is
this?" he demanded of the lama. "What is this?" This was a typical
opening question, and we could feel him ready to pounce on whatever
response he was given.
The Tibetan sat quietly fingering his mala and made no move to
"What is this?" the Zen master insisted, holding the orange up to the
Tibetan's nose. Kalu Rinpoche bent very slowly to the Tibetan monk
near to him who was serving as the translator, and they whispered
back and forth for several minutes.
Finally the translator addressed the room: "Rinpoche says, 'What is
the matter with him? Don't they have oranges where he comes from?' "
The dialog progressed no further.