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Everyday is a good day. The nature of before and after. Barry Magid September 15th 2012

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The Blue Cliff Record, Case 6

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Ummon said, “I don’t ask you about before the fifteenth day; try to make a statement about after the fifteenth day.”
Ummon himself replied, “Every day is a good day.”

Throwing away one, he picks up seven:
Above, below, and in the four directions, none can match.
Placidly walking along, he treads down the sound of the flowing stream;
His relaxed gaze descries the tracks of flying birds.
The grasses grow thick, mists overhang;
‘Round Subhuti’s cliff, the flowers make a mess.
Voidness is lamentable. Don’t make a move.
If you move, you get thirty blows.

This saying of Ummon’s, Every day is a good day, has become famous and probably too famous. It’s in danger of becoming a Zen bumper sticker, the equivalent of a smiley face that people want to put on everything and we’ll try to rescue it from that fate in talking about it today.

It says, I don’t ask you about before the fifteenth day. Try saying something about after the fifteenth day. We can assume the reference to the fifteenth day is talking more or less about the conventional lunar calendar where the full moon is on the fifteenth of the month in that reckoning, and the full moon is the symbol of realization, so there’s some play here on the before and after realization. I think that we have to start just with the words before and after in our own life, our own practice. I think of all the ways in which we have our own pictures of what before and after look like or are supposed to look like. And these can be our pictures of what’s the matter now, and what's supposed to happen later? What are we supposed to get out of this? How many kinds of products are sold with before and after pictures? And Zen is certainly no different: Suffering on the left side of the smiley face, after on the right side, right? Just buy our practice and you too can have this “after” picture. Usually it’s the opposite of those commercials that offer to treat hair loss. There you’ve got the bald guy on one side and the big head of hair is the after. In Zen it’s the other way around.

Anyway, we really do have to be honest with ourselves about the before and after images we create, the idea of practice trying to get us from here to there. It’s very hard not to have some version of that. Just as we sit during the day, who doesn’t have some different feeling about before the bell rings and after the bell rings? Even if it’s not how you’re going to be different, it’s preferring one state to another and trying to get into it and then hold onto it.

So Ummon’s statement about Every day is a good day is an expression where it seems like it’s one-handed, eliminating difference, saying everything is the same, yet in a way it means the opposite. He’s really saying all the differences that we place between good days and bad days both do and don’t make a difference. If you say it won’t make any difference at all, you’re in danger of entering into a certain kind of oneness where all difference is blanked out. Maybe you think of that as acceptance, and the danger there is that you treat acceptance as a separate substance, something honey-like that you spread over the surface of things to make them all taste sweet no matter what they are. A lot of people try to practice that way, putting some kind of acceptance-mist into the air wherever they are, to give everything this room-deodorizing quality. It’s always a little sticky and overly sweet when someone does that.

See, acceptance really has no separate flavor of its own at all, except its willingness to let everything be just as it is, let sweet be sweet, salty be salty, and sour be sour. It’s not trying to give everything a good uniform flavor. And that’s the dilemma here in an expression like Every day is a good day. We can misconstrue that as saying everything will have the same uniform good flavor to it once we’re enlightened. And that’s just nonsense.

Now the verse helps clear some of this up in its imagery. Throwing away one, he picks up seven. We can say that you throw away oneness and go back to differentiation, go back to the world being made up of odd numbers of things. The danger here that he’s talking about is having any one state, emptiness, oneness, samadhi, as the thing that you think is the after-picture that you’re trying to hold onto. So the image of the verse is walking along in the woods, following the sound of the stream, watching the birds fly, the grasses are growing thick and the mists are rising. All these are images of thought and even delusions -- grasses and mists are often descriptions of things that obscure and entangle you. So there has to be some way in which you return to that world of thought and entanglement and feeling, especially feeling, and not imagine that it is all erased in some kind of oneness.

Around Subhuti’s cliff, the flowers make a mess, voidness is lamentable. Subhuti was one of Buddha’s disciples who supposedly was so adept at going into deep states of samadhi and emptiness that whenever he sat, flowers would just rain down on him from heaven, spontaneously, as some kind of heavenly acknowledgement of his wisdom . The verse says that gets messy after a while, all these flower petals underfoot, rotting. Gets a little stinky, and a little slippery, a little messy. At first it’s beautiful, but if that's all you can do, just this one trick pony of samadhi, it’s not going to cut it. You can’t really live that way. Voidness is lamentable. You get stuck there. See, when we think of the before and after the fifteenth day, we can think of it as if it’s a mountain hike or a trek in the mountains where you take fifteen days to go up and get to the peak then it’s fifteen days to come down. What are you going to do? Get up to the top and live there? Stay there and never come down?

Maybe some people go all the way up there and drop dead and think that’s a great place to live and die but in the normal course of things, if you go up you’ve got to come down. You can’t go up to that peak and say, well, it’s all supposed to feel like this. Going up is not going to feel the same as coming down. But to say Every day is a good day, is not to say -- I enjoy each one of these things as if they’re identical. It’s that you completely enter into their difference, really let up be up and down be down, and when you’re at the peak, that’s cool, but then there’s the next thing, right? This is how our practice has to function.

The last two lines of the verse really encapsulate the dilemma: Don’t make a move. If you move, you get thirty blows. See, we want to get someplace and not move. We want to think there’s something -- Don’t move. Sit right there! Don’t move a thing. Well, you’ve got to move and you’ve got to get the thirty blows. There’s no avoiding it. There’s no place where life isn’t going to give you a whack. You’ve got to be willing to make a move, to take your hits.

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