We polish the tile to enjoy, appreciate, and know its tile-ness Barry Magid May 2nd 2015

Shobogenzo Kokyo

One day Nangaku visited Baso's hut. Baso stood and greeted him. Nangaku asked, "What have you been doing recently?" Baso replied, "I've done nothing but sit in zazen." Then Nangaku asked, "Why do you continually sit in zazen?" Baso answered "I sit in zazen in order to become a Buddha." Nangaku picked up a tile he found by the side of Basos hut and started to polish it. Baso watched what he was doing and asked "Master, what are you doing?" Nangaku answered, "I'm polishing this tile." Baso asked "Why are you polishing the tile?" Nangaku answered, "To make a mirror." Baso said, "How can you make a mirror by polishing a tile?" And Nangaku replied, "How can you become a Buddha by doing zazen?"
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We must understand that when the polished tile is the mirror, Baso is Buddha. When Baso is Buddha, Baso directly becomes Buddha. When Baso is Baso his zazen directly becomes zazen. So polishing the tile to make a mirror is the essence of the Buddhas and Patriarchs. Accordingly the tile becomes the ancient mirror. And when we polish the mirror we will 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. In this the virtue of becoming the mirror will be realized.

I'm just going to read a section of this chapter in which Dogen recounts what is probably a very familiar story. But then I'll discuss his particular take on it, which I think is not what we usually hear. This is Dogen recounting the case:

One day Nangaku visited Baso's hut. Baso stood and greeted him. Nangaku asked, "What have you been doing recently?" Baso replied, "I've done nothing but sit in zazen." Then Nangaku asked, "Why do you continually sit in zazen?" Baso answered, "I sit in zazen in order to become a Buddha." Nangaku picked up a tile he found by the side of Baso’s hut and started to polish it. Baso watched what he was doing and asked "Master, what are you doing?" Nangaku answered, "I'm polishing this tile." Baso asked "Why are you polishing the tile?" Nangaku answered, "To make a mirror." Baso said, "How can you make a mirror by polishing a tile?" And Nangaku replied, "How can you become Buddha by doing zazen?"

So, Nangaku's rejoinder, "How can you become Buddha by doing zazen?" goes right to the heart of what I've described as curative fantasies. We have discussed those in many, many forms, and we see here a kind of paradigmatic version of the dilemma -- Baso being a monk of great aspiration, great determination, devoting himself continually to zazen, and yet in a way that is completely imbued with this gaining idea. And with every gaining idea there is a kind of dichotomy or dualism that is deeply ingrained in a person's consciousness, an unacceptability of where they are and a projection of all idealizable values into some seemingly unreachable goal, something that is forever at the horizon no matter how hard we practice, or how long we practice.

Now, our traditional way of talking about this case usually just zeros in on the utility of practice with this kind of gaining idea, and Nangaku's polishing a tile to make a mirror is typically seen as a kind of irrefutable example of the kind of futility of a practice with that kind of fantasy behind it, that somehow we're going to fundamentally change our nature through practice.

Dogen's take on this, though, is somehow different, and basically he’s asking the question, "Well, if you're not practicing with that gaining idea, if you really see that polishing a tile will never turn it into a mirror, why are you sitting? What is the sitting actually doing?" Or "When you see that this is a futile activity, should you just give the whole damn thing up?” Needless to say, we're going to guess that he doesn't say, "Well, just give it all up." There's got to be a deep rationale for continuing a kind of concentrated, devoted, disciplined practice apart from a gaining idea. And so this is Dogen's description of that alternative.

We must understand that when the polished tile is the mirror, Baso is Buddha. When Baso is Buddha, Baso directly becomes Buddha. 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. And when we polish the mirror we will 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. In this the virtue of becoming the mirror will be realized.

See, certainly the line "polishing the tile for its own sake" will jump out at us, but also what he's doing is breaking down the dichotomy present in the story between the tile and the mirror in the way it's posed and broken down in the koan Mu, "Does a dog have a Buddha nature or not?" where it's posed as if "dog" and "Buddha nature" are millions of miles apart. Here, if the tile is our ordinary mind, the tile is our human nature and the mirror is our Buddha nature, are these two things or one thing? What do you have to do to make them into one thing? Well, nothing at all if they are already one thing. And yet, what is the act of recognizing that they are in fact one thing?

Dogen is saying that the act is polishing the tile, doing zazen, polishing the mirror. It's a particular use of of the idea of polishing, and he says "We don't polish it because there is dust on the mirror." This is our usual way of thinking about what we do in practice. Again, it's almost unavoidable that we create a contrast between clarity and confusion in our sitting. We want at some basic level our mind to settle down, to quiet down, retreat, with thoughts as noise and emotion as dust, as if they’re clouding the mirror with a contaminant that practice is going to wipe away, so that once and for all there will be clarity, silence, emptiness, whatever you say to yourself. Yet the basic work of practice is not eliminating dust, but eliminating the dichotomy between dust and clarity. To see the dust as empty, to see the content of our mind as empty is to eliminate the very notion the very idea of dust as something that can soil, contaminate our mind.

For Dogen, polishing the tile or polishing the mirror in doing zazen is an act of expression, not an act of transformation. In a certain sense, he's saying we polish the tile the way we polish the old silver. We polish the tile the way we might polish that old 1957 Corvette we wish we had in the driveway. We would just keep it clean and polished and in perfect shape all the time, not because we were going to turn it into something else by all that care or polish, but the activity of cleaning it will reveal it for what it is, will allow us, even as polish it, to enjoy, appreciate and know it's nature.

I think it's probably very basic in Japanese Zen that when they talk about appreciating something for its own sake, they usually manifest that by cleaning it. I mean the basic activity of work practice in a zendo is cleaning something. It's wiping down the floors and the walls in the kitchen and the bathroom, just endless, endless cleaning. And it's not really the kind of cleaning that is to be contrasted with things being dirty, because very often when they wipe down the floor in the zendo, it's already as shiny and clean as you can imagine, and yet we clean it one more time. The cleaning is an act of appreciation and attention that means we're getting down there on our hands and knees and touching and feeling, stroking, caressing the floor in our cleaning. We're really appreciating the feel, the texture, the substance of the floor. We're appreciating it's floor-ness, we're not just getting rid of the dirt.

Zazen is analogous to that. It's an act of appreciation. It's a kind of polishing the car, because we have enormous love and respect for the craftsmanship and the style of this old piece of machinery, and all we want to do is show it reverence in the intention we give it. This is something like the notion of polishing in zazen. It's an expression of appreciation for who and what we are, who and what this moment is, dissolving of any kind of dichotomy between our ordinary mind and Buddha nature and enlightenment. In that very act of sitting and appreciating and being, practice and enlightenment become one thing. In the action itself of polishing, the realization of Buddha and the actualization of the mirror, these become what they are through our participation and engagement.

So Baso, when he hears Nangaku say, "How can you become Buddha by practicing zazen? How can you make a mirror by polishing a tile?" he achieves great enlightenment, and then what does he do? He sits down again in zazen, continues to polish the tile, and continues to polish the mirror.

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