One day, Zen Master Seung Sahn decided that he wouldn’t be able to help people through his political activities or his academic studies and instead, shaved his head and went into the mountains, vowing never to return until he had attained the absolute truth. In 1947, a friend gave him a copy of the Diamond Sutra. This was his first encounter with Buddhism. “All appearance is delusion. If you view all appearance as non-appearance, then that view is your true nature.” While Zen Master was reading the scripture, his mind became clear.
In October 1947, he was ordained as a monk and soon began a rigorous 100-day solo retreat at Won Gak Mountain (the Mountain of Perfect Enlightenment). He ate only pine needles which had been dried and ground into powder. He chanted the Great Dharani 20 hours a day and took ice cold baths several times a day. Despite its intensity, Zen Master Seung Sahn persisted in his hard practice. On the final day of the retreat, as he was chanting and hitting the moktak, suddenly, his body disappeared into infinite space, and from far away he could hear the sound of the moktak and his own voice. He remained in this state for some time. When he returned to his body, he understood that the rocks, the river, everything he could see, everything he could hear, everything was his true self. All things are exactly as they are. The truth is just like this. When he woke up the next morning, he saw a man walking up the mountain, some crows flying out from a tree and wrote the following poem:
The road at the bottom of Won Gak Mountain is not the present road.
The man climbing with his backpack is not a man of the past.
Tok, tok, tok - his footsteps transfix past and present.
Crows out of a tree.
Caw, caw, caw.
Now, I have no doubt that Master Seung Sahn actually had these experiences -- his mind suddenly becoming clear on reading the words from the Diamond Sutra (ken-sho), then the experience of disappearing into infinite space and returning to find that everything he saw was really his true self (satori, which in Japanese breaks down into the kanji "I" and "mind," the real Mind of the living person).
However, there are various ways of looking at this experience. For example: Is it really worth anything? Does it really change anything? Couldn't it just be a psycho-physical response to extreme stress (such as starving and exhausting yourself for a long time)?
If people feel hesitant to describe this type of experience they shouldn't. I respect that. But if you read through the Chinese and Japanese Zen literature, every "great" Zen figure has had an experience very similar to this. Here are a few examples:
In the Sûrangama Sûtra, which has had a significant influence upon the Zen Buddhist tradition, the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (Jap. Kannon 観音, literally 'Seeing Sound'), the 'One Who Hears the Sounds of the World', describes how she attained enlightenment by initially meditating on hearing and sound. Zen master Xiangyan Zhixian (香厳智閑, J. Kyôgen Chikan, ca. 9th C.) attained enlightenment upon hearing the sound of a pebble hitting a bamboo while sweeping the ground. Wumen Huikai (無門慧開, J. Mumon Ekai, 1183-1260) was awakened as he heard the sound of the drum that announced mealtimes. Hakuin Ekaku (白隠慧鶴, 1686-1769), was enlightened by the sound of the temple bell announcing dawn as he was meditating through a winter's night. One monk experienced awakening with the clattering of a tile breaking on the ground.
Actually, I had an experience like this. And some of my friends have had experiences like this, too. But I'd be the first to admit it can't be objectively verified, and not only that but the experience doesn't necessarily mean anything. I didn't become a Buddhist after having the experience. Maybe this Zen experience really has nothing at all to do with the so-called Buddhist Way? It's possible.
I ask these questions because I'm interested in honest responses. Please don't tell me to "go ask my teacher." My teacher has quite cruelly told me that now I'm the teacher, so I have to answer all questions by myself. Anyhow, This doesn't seem to be a matter of knowledge that one person can give to another. Who is qualified to pronounce on an experience like this anyway? What adequate pigeonhole exists into which one can insert "Tok, tok, tok . . . Caw, caw, caw?"