Can a Buddha be created by doing zazen? What do you think you're doing? Barry Magid May 2nd 2009

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The Gateless Gate, Case 30 Ma Tsu's "This very mind is Buddha"


Ta-mei asked Ma-tsu: "What is Buddha?"
Ma-tsu said: "This very mind is Buddha."

The Main Case

If you can grasp the point directly, you wear Buddha's robe, eat Buddha's food, speak Buddha's words, take Buddha's role. That is, you yourself are Buddha. Ta-mei however, misled quite a few people into trusting a broken scale. Don't you know you should rinse out your mouth for three days when you utter the name Buddha? If you are genuine, you'll run away holding your ears upon just hearing the words, 'This very mind is Buddha'.


The blue sky and bright day -
no more searching around.
'What is Buddha?' you ask.
Hiding loot, you declare your innocence.

This case just goes to the heart of practice and realization, and we wonder, really, in confronting it, what it must be like to really believe this very mind is Buddha. That every nook and cranny of our mind, of this very mind, is Buddha. The case always has, as part of a commentary, it seems, the story of Ma-tsu’s enlightenment (Ma-tsu or Baso). When he was an earnest young monk sitting zazen all the time, his teacher, Nangaku, came to him and said, What is your purpose in doing zazen? Ma-tsu answered, I seek to become a Buddha. Nangaku took up a piece of tile and began rubbing it with a stone. Ma-tsu asked, What are you doing, venerable teacher? Nangaku said, I want to polish this roofing tile and make a mirror. And Ma-tsu asked, Can a piece of roofing tile be made into a mirror? And Nangaku asked in return, Can a Buddha be created by doing zazen? Ma-tsu is dumbfounded and cannot reply. It’s a basic question: Can a Buddha be created by doing zazen? What do you think you’re doing? This is really the one question I ask everybody who wants to be my student. I ask them when they come and I keep asking it over and over and over again, for years. What do you think you’re doing?

See, Ma-tsu cannot reply, and Nangaku goes on: It’s like hitching an ox to a cart. When the cart doesn’t move do you beat the ox or the cart? That didn’t work. Ma-tsu didn’t get that either. Nangaku tried to explain further: Are you doing zazen or are you sitting as a Buddha? Zazen is not a matter of sitting or lying down. Sitting as Buddha reveals that Buddha has no fixed form. In the midst of transitory things, don’t grasp or reject. If you keep the Buddha seated, this is murdering the Buddha. If you cling to the form of sitting, you don’t adhere to its inner principle.

Well, Ma-tsu finally realizes that he cannot attain anything by sitting, and yet that realization itself becomes a great attainment and he becomes a great Master. And that’s the paradox we bump into over and over again, that to realize that zazen is not a means to an end, that it is not a way of becoming anything or a way of not being something we don’t want to be. To really experience that is perhaps just another way of describing enlightenment, to say that nothing is on the way to becoming anything else.

I feel the spirit of Nangaku and Ma-tsu’s exchange has a very deep sense of its grounding in no gain, that sitting is not something that makes us become a Buddha. But what is it? It’s the expression of already being Buddha. And Dogen devotes a very long chapter in "Shobogenzo" to this story. I’ll just read a little bit of his commentary on it to convey something of his take on it. This chapter is called “Kokyo,” which means ancient mirror. And the ancient mirror, we might say, is what the tile is being polished into. This is how Dogen begins:

“That which all the Buddhas and patriarchs transmit to each other is the ancient mirror. The ancient mirror and the Buddha are one body. Outside the mirror there are no Buddhas and outside the Buddhas there is no mirror. The seer and the seen, the reflector and the reflected, are one. Practice and enlightenment are one. Everyone can become the ancient mirror and can perceive the ancient mirror. It is the truth of all things.”

You can substitute the word mind for ancient mirror. The mind and Buddha are one body. Outside the mind there are no Buddhas. Outside the Buddhas there is no mind. He quotes another exchange with another teacher and student:

“When the ancient mirror is not polished, what is it like? The Master answered, The ancient mirror. The monk continued, What’s it like after it’s polished? The Master answered, The ancient mirror.” And he speaks about Nangaku and Baso: “We must understand when the polished tile is the mirror, Baso is Buddha. When Baso is Buddha, Baso directly becomes Baso. When Baso is Baso, his zazen directly becomes zazen. So polishing the tile to make the mirror is the essence of the Buddhas and patriarchs. Accordingly, the tile becomes the ancient mirror when we polish the mirror. And when we polish the mirror we find untainted and pure practice. This is done not because there is dust on the tile, but simply to polish the tile for its own sake.

Now all these are just very elaborate metaphors for what it means to fully occupy, rest in, dwell, manifest, our own mind, our own experience every moment, without comparison, without any sense of practice as a means to an end. Zen is the form of Buddhism that has no stages. We don’t go stepwise from here to there. I think that that is the great koan, the great conundrum that’s the basis of what we mean by just sitting. I said that to sit facing the wall is to face the mirror. Your face automatically appears. This happens over and over again without any effort. You can’t do it right and you can’t do it wrong.

What happens, though, when we sit? What difference does it make that we sit rather than not sit? See, for Dogen, sitting itself is the manifestation of the Buddha, the same way that a musician becomes a musician by playing and composing music. It’s not a means to an end. It’s what a musician is. What a Buddha is. It’s the one who does zazen. But a Buddha is also the one that eats, drinks, sleeps, gets angry, gets horny, gets tired. All those things. Every nook and cranny of the mind. What isn’t a Buddha? A person who believes that one nook or cranny or other of the mind is somehow, as they said, defiled or deluded or needs changing or fixing. And this great gap opens up of our own creation. They say the difference between the mind of the deluded person and the Master is the deluded person believes there’s a difference. In our sitting, when I say, Just sit, don’t think that just sitting has any content at all. There’s no way to just sit. Just sitting is just sitting. It can contain anything. Your mind can take any shape whatsoever as you just sit. It can be full of peace, it can be full of fear. It’s all just sitting.

When we don’t run away from our mind and we don’t try to improve our mind, when we don’t turn our practice into a means to an end, something does generally happen to our mind over time. The mind that is not endlessly at war with itself, is not endlessly trying to fix itself or extirpate some part of itself, does change over time. No one can predict how or what it will look like along the way, or ten or twenty or thirty years down the line, but when things are left alone they settle down, unless you turn leaving it alone into yet another technique. So I wanted to begin the new year with this koan, this reminder that we have to look at what we think we’re doing when we’re practicing. What kind of Buddha do you think you’re turning into? What kind of Buddha are you already?

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