Our ordinary mind: the darkness of abandoned grasses Barry Magid March 10th 2012

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The Gateless Gate, Case 47

I will just take up the first of these three barriers, the one concerning our true nature: “Make your way through the darkness of abandoned grasses in a single-minded search for your self-nature. Now, honored one, where is your nature?”

The darkness of abandoned grasses we’re making our way through is also known as our ordinary mind. It’s what we come to practice to come to terms with. We come to practice because we’re entangled in our own mind in those abandoned grasses. Abandoned grasses give the image of something wild and unkempt, I suppose, in contrast to a nice, well-raked well-trimmed Japanese garden. That’s what our mind is supposed to look like. Right? How’s that working so far?

In this first barrier Tou-shuai sets up this dichotomy between these unruly abandoned grasses that we have to search through, we have to somehow disentangle, dig through, find our way until we find our true nature, our self nature. Now -- there are certain assumptions built into the question. One is that the self-nature is something hidden that we have to go looking for. And whatever it is, it is distinct from these abandoned grasses, and it’s somehow going to be uncovered only as the result of a diligent disciplined search. It presumes there is such a thing to find, and it’s deep inside, hidden, and we’ve got to uncover it.

In psychoanalysis, sometimes we talk about true nature or true self as opposed to a false self. The idea of a false self was popularized by an analyst named Winnicott, the British analyst who mostly was famous for treating children, adolescents, delinquents. He grew up in a typically straight-laced kind of way and I think he had a particular fondness if not envy for delinquents who were freer and broke the rules in a way he couldn’t when he was growing up. For Winnicott, a false self was particularly that kind of accommodating, compliant self that you imagine a child has to put on when talking to the teacher, the headmaster or his parents. There’s a kind of good-boy compliance there and the real kid is what happens outside of school down the ally way. The challenge in therapy was to find a way to get these two halves together so that when somebody got tired of being compliant and false, this wasn’t just considered pathology but some attempt to free up the real kid inside that was creative and playful and rebellious and all the things a kid is supposed to be other than compliant.

There certainly can be an analogy to Japanese Zen practice where there’s an enormous emphasis on doing everything just the way it’s supposed to be. First you have to learn to do things meticulously and then you have to go to the dokusan room and figure out how to be free in there after you’ve learned how to do everything properly after all these years of training. In Buddhism generally, the false thing is a redundancy, where the self is false, there’s no real essence to it. So what would it mean to find your true self?

One of the ways we often think about things is that there’s a kind of outward facade of appearance behind which there’s a reality, like in a Winnicottian false self. But if the self has no fixed essential nature, if nothing has any fixed essential nature, there’s no reality behind the scene of appearances. Appearances, which are ephemeral, are as real as it gets. There’s nothing behind the curtain.

There’s an image we often come across -- I don’t know where it comes from originally -- but they say, don’t mistake the moon for the finger pointing at the moon, the moon being some symbol of the “real thing,” “enlightenment.” And the finger is what? Our ideas about it, our conceptions, stories we tell, enlightenment stories, koans we read. The finger is pointing at something we have to see for ourselves. Well, interestingly this koan tells you the exact opposite. Forget about the moon. Pay attention to the finger. Stop looking past your finger, thinking there’s something up in the sky. Look at the finger. It doesn’t get any more real than the finger. Right? You think you’ve got to hunt through all these wild grasses for something underneath them all. Pay attention to the grasses.

Now I think a problem that happens to people in this business is that after they’ve sat for a while, they’ll have some experience of clarity where their mind will suddenly, or maybe gradually, become very free of thought, just completely wide open, transparent. Sometimes that feels very nice. And when people have that kind of experience, even sometimes just in a small way, feeling like they’ve had a sitting where suddenly all the things that are troubling them have gone away, or sometimes in a big way when they have this big moment that seems like realization, and they think that moment is seeing their true nature. And they say, Well That’s what it’s supposed to be like. That’s what my mind is supposed to feel like. That’s it! That clarity.

Most students, I think the majority of people, get stuck at that level pretty much permanently, if they’re lucky enough to get there in the first place. They get stuck with a sense of: This is the clarity that I want to achieve and then it goes away and they try to get it back. And then they get it back for a little while and it goes away again, and their practice pretty much for the rest of their life can be stuck on this plateau of getting it and losing it and trying to hold onto it and always feeling like it never really stayed. I got a glimpse of it, but I couldn’t hold onto it, and I really hope I get it again and it I sit a lot maybe it will come back more -- that whole cycle. And their practice becomes something that is forever tantalizing, something they’ve had a little taste of but things are endlessly out of reach and they feel like they never really got it.

See, what happens is that in that moment they’ve got a glimpse of the moon but they’ve forgotten their finger. They’ve created instead this big new kind of dichotomy or dualism. Something has to happen in practice where you just slip across a certain edge into seeing all the wild grasses of the mind in a different light, I suppose. Maybe that’s what happens when you see it by moonlight. They’re all there, and that may be the thing we don’t quite get or believe. The grasses never go away. We don’t clear out the field. We don’t manicure our mind and turn it into this well-raked, well-trimmed moss garden.

And we’re not doing this so we can just stare ga-ga at the moon all day. But there is something about seeing all those wild grasses by moonlight, by seeing our mind in the light of a kind of perspective that reveals its perfection just as it is, not something to remove, not something to change. Unless we get some feeling for that perspective, which I sum up as “no gain,” we’re endlessly in pursuit of something that’s always out of reach.

Now, for this koan, it’s sort of a joke, you know, like most of them. It’s a barrier until you get it and then it can just seem silly, but he asks you -- in the midst of looking through all that mess, where is your true nature? Stay right in the question. Don’t go looking somewhere else for it. Stay right in the question itself. If you can do that, then the second and the third barriers will be just completely obvious as well. In that moment, when the light falls from your eyes, where is your true nature? After the four elements decompose, where will you go? It’s the same question posed in three different forms. Don’t be blinded by the moon. Stay with your finger.

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