Many years later, when Chao-chou himself was a teacher, a young monk asked him, "Does a dog have Buddha nature?" and Chao-chou replied, "Mu."
Putting these very familiar stories together, we’ll try to discuss something about the nature of effort in Zen practice and how it's portrayed in these cases. We start with the juxtaposition of both of them: In the first case between the Tao and ordinary mind, and in the second between a dog and Buddha nature. And the challenge is how do we bridge the gap? Is there a gap to be bridged? If there is no gap, what do we do to rid ourselves of the illusion that there is a gap? These are the basic problems of these koans.
As a young monk, Chao-chou was asking about the Tao, something lofty he wishes could be in accord with the way, whatever that means, and we don't know what that means. We have an ideal, but it's out at the horizon. We don't know how to relate it to ourselves. And his teacher tells him, "Ordinary mind is the way." We're very comfortable with this phrase, ordinary mind, perhaps too comfortable in that we lose the paradoxical flavor of it. For most of us, ordinary mind, our starting place, is the problem. It's not the way; it's what we're trying to get away from. Our ordinary mind, what brings us to practice, is our mind that suffers. It’s the mind that is greedy, is grasping, is controlling, is fixing, is avoidant, is caught in likes and dislikes. At least that's one thing it seems ordinary mind is. It means your everyday mind. Your mind you've got right now. Or does it? You see, is that the problem or it the solution?
It's very easy for us, perhaps inevitable for us to all come to practice with a project of purification in one sense or another, a sense that our ordinary mind is contaminated. We may feel the contaminant is a different thing depending on our own idiosyncratic personality or history. Lots of different things over the centuries have been proposed as the primary contaminants. Some are abstract, things like dualistic thinking. Most people don't come in initially thinking their mind is contaminated by dualistic thinking, but something they’re told is that their thought pattern has something basically wrong with it. More typically people feel that their mind is contaminated by emotion, by anger, by vulnerability. Sometimes they feel it's contaminated by out-of-control desire or sexuality. These are very natural things to feel; everyone feels aspects of themselves that are in conflict or out of control, or simply just too painful to bear. It's very strange in some sense to say the ordinary mind of all those is the way.
As I've said many times, I think we all start with a kind of curative fantasy or purification project to try to rid our mind of these contaminants and I don't mean to imply that this is a foolish or improper project. It actually is one that is deeply embedded in Buddhist theory and practice. I was asked recently to review a book on dialogues between Buddhism and psychoanalysis, and a number of psychoanalysts involved picked one Buddhist teacher to represent Buddhist psychology, and the person they picked was a Theravadan teacher, a very eminent scholar, and I want to read you just a couple lines of what he said, describing Buddhist psychology:
Buddhism describes an underlying ethical dimension to emotion, and employs a metaphor of purification with regard to mental contents. Some emotions have intrinsically beneficial effects. Others are intrinsically toxic. The Buddhist tradition includes a host of exercises and practices that work to cleanse the mind and steer it away from states that are toxic, and at the same time, to guide in a direction of greater health by developing experiences that are healthy.
It's a very explicit endorsement of the purification model of practice. I think it characterizes a Theravadan approach as opposed to a Mahayana approach, which challenges this metaphor by claiming that the mind is in fact not defiled by its content.
Now, even within the Zen tradition, however, we sometimes get a kind of purification of the idea of ordinary mind, where we hear maxims like, "When I'm hungry, I eat, and when I'm tired, I sleep," or "The monk's life is a simple life of chopping wood and carrying water." This kind of ordinary mind is about just doing what comes naturally, after you're enlightened. That's the little catch, and Aitken Roshi, in fact, in his commentary on the case, says that the ordinary mind that Nan-ch’uan is referring to is not the commonplace mind of self-centered preoccupation: Selfish conduct, speech and thought obscure the vast moonlit mind of Nan-ch’uan. Again, there is a very strong temptation to treat, even hear, ordinary mind as the natural simple mind we'll have once all the contaminants are removed. I think this is an idea that runs very deep in our personality, our human character, and it's very hard for our practices not to take over that kind of metaphor.
There's a question, then, about what is it that we do in practice, and are we engaged in developing or cultivating something? if we're not engaged in purifying, that might be one kind of alternative. Purification is a certain eliminative process, but maybe we want to have a more developmental model, and have that be more positive. And so there we can see ways in which Zen training develops certain kinds of positive characteristics through discipline.
I was trying to think of what would be examples of traits that we cultivate in practice, and there are probably a lot of them, but I came up with three. The first was neatness [laughter], the second was endurance, and the third was compassion. Joko was particularly big on the first, on neatness, and it may seem that that is trivial compared to the others, but neatness is the habit of treating everything like it matters. When my son doesn't want to make his bed in the morning, he says "It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter if I don't make it." So part of what we practice, just at a behavioral or discipline level, is attention and care for things, a belief that neatness counts, because we're not always separating things out into what's trivial and what's important. We want to take care of each thing and give it attention that it deserves. Maybe after a while we even extend that to people. [laughter]
Endurance is certainly something we can practice or develop in Zen. When I sat with Joko for many years, there was very little emphasis that I heard from her on posture. A lot of Soto teachers, a lot of teachers really put a lot of emphasis on being upright, in a literal kind of way, maintaining correct posture and form in zazen. Joko explicitly or implicitly basically put much more emphasis on “Sit still!” and she had a specific kind of psychological sense on that, in which it was our practice to stay with experience, whatever it's content. And when we sit, sitting still means don't fidget. Don't move away from pain or restlessness, or an itch, or boredom. She wanted the “being still physically” to be a correlate to a psychological practice of not moving away from painful emotion. And there was an idea that if you could sit still in your physical pain, maybe you could learn to sit still in the midst of your emotional pain. That's unstated in most Zen practice; she tried to make it explicit. I think people often have trouble generalizing from one to the other, and endurance all too often was degraded into mastery.
Really staying still with experience does most good when it means staying with what's out of your control. It means staying with feelings and sensations and everything that's happening, regardless of it. You're not in charge, you're not steering it. Mastery, unfortunately, can be just the opposite. You cultivate a sense of control in every possible situation, so that you'll be able to have a strength and toughness that will never cause you to feel out of control no matter what they do to you. So the whole thing can be turned upside down with that attitude. But again, if we're talking about the nature of effort in Zen practice, it is something we can make an effort not to do: not move. There is some choice in that.
The last was compassion. Compassion I think is largely a byproduct of practice. It's hard to practice it directly. It's like telling a child "Be nice!" You can't instruct someone on how to feel. You can tell someone how to behave, and in a certain way it's much more important that we practice manners than that we try to make ourselves feel like we think a good Buddhist is supposed to feel. Manners in a sangha mean very basic forms of service and attention to other people, and other people's experience. It’s having some concern or empathy for the experience of newcomers.
There are places where newcomers are basically treated like fools, and the basic attitude of the place is "I've got it, you don't. See if you can ever become more like me." And there are other places that can be very welcoming and make sure newcomers are greeted by name, given instruction and so forth. In a certain way, I think the shift, which in our sangha comes formally with jukai, is to say that my practice is about serving the sangha. It's taking on different jobs and responsibilities, because my practice is basically part of a group practice. It's not something that's taking place inside my head, on my cushion and in my private experience. That's another thing in a sense we can make an effort for.
And all these things I think are valuable, but they have nothing to do with this koan. [laughter] They have nothing to do with the Tao, and doing all those things doesn't bring realization and doesn't bring accord with the Tao. But we need, in a certain sense, to specify what's the area where effort matters and where's the area that really has nothing to do with effort. And that's what Nan-ch’uan is telling Chau-chou here, that the real business of Zen has nothing to do with directing yourself towards anything or not. It's not about making a particular kind of effort.
I liken that realization to the figure ground shift that takes place when you look at the duck-rabbit drawing. It's a figure, a line drawing, that can be seen either as a duck or either as a rabbit. You may look at it for a very long time, but only see one or the other. What can you do to make that shift? I don't think anybody can say. It's very hard to try to specify the conditions that allow figure ground shifts to occur. Delusion and enlightenment are like that. One's the duck and one's the rabbit. There's just this one life, this one drawing. Sometimes we see it from the perspective of delusion, which is to see it from the perspective of "There's something lacking, there's something that needs fixing, there's something that I don't have, that I'm longing for." And there's the perspective of realization, which is the perspective of Buddha looking at the star and saying "That's me, just twinkling. It didn't take any effort at all to become what it was. It's just naturally being itself, and I am exactly like that. I don't have to do anything to become myself; I am." They are two perspectives that describe the same world, and in a way we have no idea what causes people to stay primarily on one side of that or the other.
The Tao here is, as the way, the figure that contains both. It's life as it is. We can see it from either perspective, and it contains either perspective. In the Sandokai, it says "If you do not see the way, you do not see it even if you walk on it." The way is not something you develop, train yourself into, or obtain. The way is what is already there, encompassing both delusion and enlightenment. Buddha nature is not something that's a little seed inside you that you water and hope grows into something. It's not like that. It's not a developmental project. If it was, it would be on the side of one of those three things we can do to have effort about. It’s a truly completely different business. Buddha nature is what's already there. It's what the star is exhibiting by just twinkling. And Buddha nature, in a sense, means nothing fancy. It means impermanence and interconnectedness. It's just the nature of things. Nothing missing and nothing to add.
The paradox of ordinary mind and effort, I think, is that our usual way of talking about this is if we start with something inert that we have to work on and turn into something else. And yet, I think for me it was a very important realization that the place we start from is one in which we're engaged in endless unconscious projects. We come to practice and we live our lives endlessly dissatisfied in trying to fix or control ourselves, or fix or control some aspect of our mind. We're never at rest. We’re always engaged in this kind of project of trying to get ourselves into the right state. Out of this “ordinary mind is the problem state,” and into something that we're going to call enlightened. The last thing we're capable of doing is leaving ourselves alone, so that the whole effort in Zen is deeply paradoxical. We have an elaborate, ritualized discipline that tries to teach us to do nothing. It's really a complicated way of getting very neurotic people to stop working on themselves and leave themselves alone. It's almost impossible. And teachers come up with some very strange ideas, and mostly the skillful means turn out to be some version or another of joining the neurotic project and pushing it to a breaking point.
And that's what Mumon or someone did with Chau-chou’s Mu. I put them together, because there's a certain irony in what happened with Mu. If you hear that story in the context of the story of ordinary mind, when Chau-chou tells the young monk, "Mu," in response to, "Does a dog have a Buddha nature?" he's in some way mimicking nonsense in saying that you framed the whole thing wrong. The point is not to get from here to there, it's not about has and has not. We want to cut that off. Going towards something or away from something is not the point. Does the dog have a Buddha nature is all about that kind of dichotomy. I'm over on this side, and I wish I was on that side, and I can't even believe I can get to that side, but how should I do it? That's the whole problem of that story. And he says, "Mu." I'm just going to give this one word as an eraser to wipe out that kind of sense of getting, that there's something to get.
Ironically, Mu, in later generations, becomes the single most goal-oriented effortful koan created. It's put to exactly the opposite use. I don't know where that happened in the middle. Wu-men is more or less a contemporary of Dogen in the 13th century. Chau-chou lives something like 400 years before. It's a long time before. It's like us and Shakespeare. So Wu-men is taking a very old story and putting it at the front of his collection of old stories and saying, "Just use this one word and break through the barrier of our ancestors." He is basically saying, "I know you people can't help trying to fix yourselves, so go for it." [laughter] Knock yourselves out. He knows that this whole thing is a paradox. The collection is called The Gateless Gate. There is no barrier here, but you think there is, so bang away, guys. But some place along the line, it becomes this skillful means to say, "You think there is something missing. I'm going to give you this big project to try to get it," and you have to, in that kind of practice, essentially exhaust yourself, until the project collapses of its own weight. And in your helplessness or exhaustion, you might leave yourself alone for a moment and actually realize something. That's more or less how that can work, if it does.
I think that our practice here works from the opposite direction and is focused more on trying to experience more directly the difficulty of doing nothing. We try not to make a sesshin a heroic project of endurance like they were when I started in the business. I try to create time during the day that's unstructured, not just unstructured sitting, but where you just walk around outside or sit on a bench, where there really is nothing to do. It's important that you look at how you handle yourselves during that time. Hopefully you do not all go to your room and get on your phone, but if you do, try to pay attention to that. Look at how hard it is to actually tolerate project-free time. We are very preoccupied and used to not staying with states that we'll call boredom, or downtime, or restlessness, or nothing to do. Those hours have their own texture and flavor, but we often never find out, because we're quick to fill them up with something, or maybe just go to sleep, because we don't know what else to do with it.
For me, sesshin is an elaborate mechanism to have people just leave themselves alone -- to put the project that they bring themselves to sesshin, put that into some relief. Pay attention to what you think you're up to. When people first come to the zendo, usually the first thing that I ask them is "What are you doing here?" And I really mean it. I really mean it. I want to know "What do you think you're doing? What do you think is the problem? What do you think the solution is supposed to look like? What's this going to do for you. Really?" Everybody's got an idea. One way or another, we want to just sit. Just sit, without doing anything to ourselves. This is not therapy. Some people find out I'm a psychoanalyst and they think I'm going to do therapy in the zendo. It's not exactly like that. It's much more just sit and see what it feels like to stay with who you are? To just stay with the things you probably came here to get rid of?
The last line or one of the last lines of the Sandokai says, "I respectfully say to those who wish to be awakened, 'Do not waste your time by night or day.'" On first reading, it sounds like, don't waste your time means, "You've got to work at this night and day. Don't waste a minute. Work hard. Big effort. Continual effort." That's one reading. But I think the subtler reading underneath it is, "If you wish to be awakened, realize you can't waste your time by night or day." That's like that first quality of neatness. Everything matters. You can't waste your time. All your time is your time. It's one moment after another. It's your life. Content is not so important, and it's not a matter of we're getting from here to there. We're here. It's not wasted. It's not wasted.
This talk was brought to you by the generosity of people like you. Ordinary Mind Zendo is a non profit organization that depends entirely on the generosity of people like you for its continued existence. If sitting with us, listening to our talks, or supporting a Zen center in New York City is in line with your values, you can make a donation here.