What is freedom? — Answered by a Zen Master

One afternoon, a young student came to tea at the Cambridge Zen Center and asked Seung Sahn Soen-sa, “What is freedom?“
Soen-sa said, “Freedom means no hindrance. If your parents tell you to do something and you think that you are a free person so you will not listen to them, this is not true freedom. True freedom is freedom from thinking, freedom from all attachments, freedom even from life and death. If I want life, I have life; if I want death, I have death.”
The student said, “So if you wanted to die right now, you could die?”
Soen-sa said, “What is death?”
“I don’t know.”
“If you make death, there is death. If you make life, there is life. Do you understand?” This is freedom. Freedom thinking is freedom. Attachment thinking is hindrance. Suppose your parents say, ‘Your shirt is dirty; you must change it!’ If you say, ‘No, I won’t change; I am free!’, then you are attached to your dirty shirt or to your freedom itself. So you are not free. If you are really free, then dirty is good and clean is good. It doesn’t matter. Not changing my shirt is good; changing my shirt is good. If my parents want me to change, then I change. I don’t do it for my own sake, only for theirs. This is freedom. No desire for myself, only for all people.”
The student said, “If you have no desire, why do you eat?”
Soen-sa said, “When I am hungry, I eat.”
“But why do you eat, if you say you have no desire?”
“I eat for you.”
“What do you mean?”
“’When I am hungry, I eat’ means ‘just like this.’ This means that there is no attachment to food. There is no ‘I want this’ or ‘I don’t want this.’ If I didn’t eat, I couldn’t teach you. So I eat for you.”
“I don’t really understand.”
Soen-sa hit him and said, “Do you understand now?”
“I don’t know.”
“You must understand this don’t-know. Then you will not be attached to anything. So always keep don’t-know mind. This is true freedom.”

(This is a short story from a book I’m currently reading - Dropping Ashes on the Buddha. I bolded the text passages that I think are most relevant.)

Do what people tell you. This is true freedom.

Right or wrong?

I don’t know.

I guess you can argue both ways.

Let’s say your parents tell you to change your shirt every day. And you personally think that changing the shirt every other day would be enough. But then you change your shirt only once a week because you want to be a free rebel and do the opposite (or kind of the opposite) of what your parents tell you to do.

Then, what is true freedom?

  • Do what your parents tell you?
  • Do the opposite of what your parents tell you?
  • Do what you think is right?

We can all agree that the middle one, doing the opposite of what your parents tell you, is not freedom. Because what you’re doing has its origin in what they told you. So if they told you to only change your shirt once a week, then you’d change it every day. So that’s definitely not freedom.

What about changing your shirt when you think is right?

Zen Master Seung Sahn would argue that you are not free because you give a fuck. Change it or don’t change it, it doesn’t matter. So you are only free when you don’t mind changing it for your parents’ sake.

When you change it for your parents’ sake, you could say that you are free, but your parents are not. Because they don’t take it “just like this” but they want it their way.

If you want to understand the truth, you must let go of your situation, your condition, and all your opinions. Then your mind will be before thinking. “Before thinking” is clear mind. Clear mind has no inside and no outside. It is just like this. “Just like this” is the truth. — Seung Sahn Soen-sa

Here’s what I like about this freedom story: I used to think that I am free when I do what I think is the right thing to do. I thought:

You are free when you do what you want to do.

But are you?