One Sunday, while Zen Master Seung Sahn, who was called Daes?nsa-nim by his students, was staying at the Chogye International Zen Center of New York. At that time there was a formal ceremony marking the end of one hundred days of chanting Kwanseum Bosal and many Korean women arrived before the ceremony to help with decorations and goodies for after the ceremony, so they had brought with them shopping bags full of food and presents.
One woman had brought a large bouquet of plastic flowers, which she presented smilingly to an American student of Daes?nsa-nim’s. As soon as he was un-noticed by the mingling group, the student hid the flowers under a pile of coats in one of the guest rooms. Soon after that another woman found them and, with the greatest delight, walked into the Dharma Room and put them in a vase and placed them on the altar.
The student became upset and went to Daes?nsa-nim and said, “Those plastic flowers are awful. May I take them off the altar and dump them somewhere?”
Daes?nsa-nim said, “It is your mind that is plastic. The whole universe is plastic.” The student said, “What do you mean?” Daes?nsa-nim said, “Buddha said, ‘When one mind is pure, the whole universe is pure; when one mind is tainted, the whole universe is tainted.’ Every day we meet people who are unhappy. When their minds are sad, everything that they see, hear, smell, taste, and touch is sad, the whole universe is sad. When the mind is happy, the whole universe is happy. If you desire something, then you are attached to it. If you reject it, you are just as attached to it. Being attached to a thing means that it becomes a hindrance in your mind. So ‘I don’t like plastic’ is the same as ‘I like plastic’—both are attachments. You do not like plastic flowers, so your mind has become plastic, and the whole universe becomes plastic. Relinquish your opinion and you won’t be hindered by anything. You will not care whether the flowers are real or plastic, whether they are on the altar or in the garbage pail. This is true freedom. A plastic flower is just a plastic flower. A real flower is just a real flower. You mustn’t be attached to name and form.”
The student said, “But we are trying to make a beautiful Zen center here, for all people. How can I not care? Those flowers spoil the whole room.”
Daes?nsa-nim said, “If somebody gives real flowers to Buddha, Buddha is happy. If somebody else likes plastic flowers and gives them to Buddha, Buddha is also happy. Buddha is not attached to name and form, he does not care whether the flowers are real or plastic, and he only cares about the person’s mind. Those women who are offering plastic flowers have very pure minds, and their action is Bodhisattva action. Your mind rejects plastic flowers, so you have separated the universe into good and bad, beautiful and ugly. Therefore, your action is not Bodhisattva action.
Only keep Buddha’s mind. Then you will have no hindrance. Real flowers are no problem; plastic flowers are no problem. This mind is like the great ocean, into which all waters flow—the Hudson River, the Charles River, the Yellow River, Chinese water, American water, clean water, dirty water, salt water, clear water. The sea does not say, ‘Your water is dirty, you can’t flow into me.’ It accepts all waters and mixes them and all become ocean. Therefore, if you keep the Buddha mind, your mind will be like the great ocean. This is the great ocean of enlightenment.”
The student bowed and said, “I am very grateful for your teaching.”