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Ordinary mind is the way. Barry Magid November 18th 2016

This sesshin marks the twentieth anniversary of the founding of ordinary mind zendo and Barry's beginning as a teacher. Here he discusses our eponymous koan. Your ordinary mind, as it is manifests the way. It's not something to seek. It doesn't need purificaiton or transofrmation this means to recognize it for what it is. Joshu's natural inclination in this koan is to make a project of his practice. He wants to direct himself towards something, away from the problems of his life, not seeing that that way of thinking is driving his suffering. What is ordinary mind?

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The Gateless Gate, Case 19 Ordinary mind is the Tao

The Main Case

Chao-chou asked Nan-ch'uan "What is the Tao?"
Nan-ch'uan said "Ordinary mind is the Tao."
Chao-chou asked "Should I try to direct myself toward it?"
Nan-ch'uan said "If you try to direct yourself you betray your own practice."
Chao-chou asked "How can I know the tao if I don't direct myself?"
Nan-ch'uan said "The tao is not subject to knowing or not knowing. Knowing is delusion. Not knowing is blankness. If you truly reach the genuine tao you will find it is vast and boundless as outer space. How can this be discussed at the level of affirmation and negation?"
With these words Chao-chou had sudden realization.


Questioned by Chao-chou Nan-ch'uan wasted no time in showing the smashed tile and the melted ice where no explanation is possible. Though Chao-chou had realization he could confirm it only after another thirty years of practice.


Spring comes with flowers,
Autumn with the moon,
Summer with breeze,
Winter with snow.
When idle concerns don't hang in your mind,
that is your best season.

This sesshin marks the twentieth anniversary of the founding of Ordinary Mind Zendo and my beginning as a teacher. So I thought it fitting to discuss our eponymous koan. Two decades ago we started out as a small group in the Village. Twenty years later we’ve become a small group on the Upper West Side. But somehow in those intervening years, Pat and Karen, Claire, Bob, Mark, and Andrew, have emerged as teachers and have spread the dharma and reached out to people, places, in all sorts of ways that would be beyond me, and so I’m continually gratified, proud, and surprised at all the ways this dharma continues to be spread by these wonderful people.

Too often in Zen we think in terms of a kind of linear narrative of transmission, handing down the family business from one generation to another. But in reality, it’s much messier than that. It spreads in all sorts of diverse and diffuse ways, from teacher to student and into the culture. It’s quite wonderful and quite unpredictable, not knowing what will bring about what, who will hear a turning word and have their life transformed.

This koan presents us with a kind of fundamental dichotomy between ordinary mind and the Tao, in a way that parallels the dog and buddha-nature, the koan of mu. Two things that would seem to be opposite are brought together to contemplate and resolve in apparent contradiction. As I’ve said many times in many ways, for most of us, our ordinary mind is the problem. We don’t think it’s the Tao. Our ordinary mind is the mind of confusion and anxiety and suffering, and we come to practice to do what? What do we imagine is going to transform it? And what do we imagine we are going to transform it into?

Here, Nan-ch’uan is telling Chao-chou that ordinary mind as it is manifests the way. It’s not something to seek, not something that needs transformation or purification, but rather it needs simply to recognize it for what it is. Chao-chou’s natural inclination is to make a project out of his practice: I want to direct myself towards what I’m aiming for, away from the parts of myself that are causing me pain, yet that whole project itself is perpetuating the very confusion, and the problem becomes the practice we try to resolve.

So often in Buddhist literature we hear talk about no self, and it’s a very seductive idea even when we don’t quite understand what it means. All of us come with the idea that in some way the self is the problem, the same way our ordinary mind is the problem, and no self seems to promise a way which is going to get rid of the damn thing, and just once and for all I won’t have to deal with it. And what’s going to be left? All our fantasies of realization inevitably are versions of the cloudless sky, the mind empty of thoughts, free from emotional reactivity, somehow impervious to sickness, old age and death, somehow completely autonomous and not dependent, emotionally attached, or needy of anything or anybody.

One way or another, these are the curative fantasies we all aspire to, and one way or another, practice has to deconstruct them and let us see what it is to actually simply stay with our mind as it is. This turns out to be a simple but difficult thing, because we don’t like it, we’re always avoiding it and always trying to fix it, and basically we enlist meditation as the mode we have of trying to lobotomize ourselves in the name of spirituality.

So what is the alternative, if we don’t enlist meditation as Chao-chou here, as a young man naturally is trying to do? What does it mean to see it as the Tao? Nan-ch’uan says, When you really see the Tao, it’s as empty and vast as outer space. But if the ordinary mind is the Tao, and you say that about your mind, that it’s vast and open as space, is it big enough to contain everything? Is it so big and so vast you can’t possibly control it or cut it down or package it or make it tame?

In his commentary on this case, Robert Aitken looks at this phrase, ordinary mind, and he says the original characters include the words “usual” or “normal,” but the etymology is “constant,” “eternal.” He says, “This constant ‘ordinary’ mind is not the commonplace mind of self-centered preoccupation. Selfish conduct, speech and thought obscure the vast, moonlit mind of Nan-ch’uan.”

Now we might want to challenge him a little bit on this on a number of counts. First of all, it’s very easy to romanticize ordinary mind as a simple and natural mind. Certainly in the Chinese literature, there’s a kind of romanticization of a noble savage. Think here of the sixth patriarch, an illiterate wood cutter who was spontaneously enlightened, and there’s a great vast complex literature about these supposedly illiterate, simple people who embody the Tao. It’s very easy to say the way to have the right kind of ordinary mind, is to have this mind of chop wood or carry water, the mind that is uncluttered by thought and conception and intellectualization, and so the goal of practice is somehow to get us out of our heads, often with something like work practice of endlessly sweeping the floor or wiping something down as though this brings us closer to our true selves through mindless labor.

It’s certainly true that people who seem to spend all their time in their heads might sometimes benefit from doing physical things, but we should also remember the Sandokai which says, “Reading words, you should grasp the great reality.” Reading words is usually presented as the opposite of the great reality, where reading words is being conceptual and intellectual and indirect. It doesn’t mean that by reading words you’ll intellectually understand the great reality. it means that even reading words is one manifestation of the great reality, that words and language are to you as a human being, as song is to birds. And reading and writing and thinking are just totally natural parts of being human. We’re not trying to get rid of them. We’re not trying to scrape them off the surface to get down to something pure underneath. We just want to see them as natural activities, and it’s not a problem with them.

It is very tempting, not just tempting, but almost impossible to avoid, the picture of practice as a purification process. No matter how much we hear “avoid picking and choosing,” we’re apt to think: Well, I guess I have to stop picking and choosing and get rid of that part of myself. There’s a way in which the mind as it is, this ordinary mind, is very hard to recognize as identical to the absolute we all say we’re seeking. Now, when Aitken says, this ordinary self-centered mind is not what Nan-ch’uan is talking about, it’s true that if you start from the position of self-centered reactivity, it’s not easy to find your way to see each moment as manifesting the absolute. Coming from that place, going to the absolute is like two arrows meeting in mid-air. It’s very unlikely these things are going to meet.

However, if we come from the other direction, from the perspective of the absolute, or the way, then it’s like a box and its lid. They just automatically fit together. We automatically see everything it manifests, the manifestation of the way. This was Joko’s basic way of teaching. She wanted people to just stay with each moment’s experience, including each moment of thought, of emotion, each moment of resistance, anxiety and anger. Just this. Just feel that. We’re not trying to get anywhere. We’re just not trying to avoid it. That’s it!

It’s a hard lesson and a hard practice. In the commentary, Wu-men says that even when Chao-chou realizes this, it took him another thirty years to fully mature in it. To my way of understanding, it’s quite common for people to have some momentary experience of “this is it,” a moment in which, for whatever reason, everything is just all right. The struggle stops, the search stops, the sense of having something wrong or being off balance just drops away, and for that moment everything is just it, it's just fine. And we don’t know what to make of that most of the time. But typically we become enamored of it as a state of consciousness, and we say That is very cool! I want more of that! And so we go from thinking that the moment regardless of its content is something we can just be with, and that’s it, to having the experience of a special state of consciousness that we try to cultivate and reproduce and hold onto. And that’s sort of one of the basic Zen sicknesses everybody catches in one sort or another in the course of this practice.

See, the maturing of Chao-chou’s realization, in a certain sense, means an end to that kind of dissociation, where it stops privileging some special state. When asked about enlightenment, Joko would explain it by asking, Well, would you be okay if you found out you had just a month to live? Would you be okay if you were publicly humiliated? Would you be okay if you had your arms and legs amputated? She had quite a list of things, all of which were designed to say: Enlightenment is not some special state of consciousness you get into and hold on to forever. Rather, it’s: Are you simply able to be present with the next thing in your life, regardless of its content, and be able to say, This is what’s happening, this is me! With no complaining, no comparison, just occupying this moment. This is it. That’s my life. That was her way of explaining enlightenment to people. But when she explained it, most people didn’t want to practice anymore.

One way or another, this practice has to wear down all those splits between what’s happening and what we want to happen, and our attempts to make practice into a purification project, like in our meal chant when we say at the end, “May we exist like a lotus at home in muddy water,” We really want to be at home in the muddy water. The muddy water is of course the muddy water of our mind. And the mind is all the nutrients, and the nutrients are our thoughts and our emotions and our attachments. We’re at home in that. We’re not here to be the one pure thing in an impure world. We’re not here to purify the world, to bring it into conformity with some vision of some kind of esoteric buddha-nature. It’s in the mind.

Well, no doubt, much of this is familiar to you. I’ve been saying the same damn thing for twenty years. The verse at the end, where Wu-men talks about the seasons: The spring comes with flowers, autumn with the moon, summer with the breeze, winter with snow. I think it’s easy enough to see those as stages in your life: Youth, old age, health, sickness. As Joko would ask: Are you all right with each one of those as they come? We can see each one of those seasons as self-states: the mind when it's calm, the mind when it's upset. Are we all right with each one of the states that our mind cycles through as we sit here? That’s what sesshin really does. It allows you to go through lots and lots of seasons in the course of one weekend.

If what you want is for your mind to be in a state of eternal sunshine, well, that’s not going to work so well in the course of a sesshin. The problem is that it will probably work a little bit, you’ll have moments of it. There will actually be times when things are looking pretty good, and then we have knees and ankles, and you're sleepy or you're tired, or you start daydreaming or God-forbid you start thinking about the election. See, all these things are the seasons, and it does no good to say Oh my God, I’ve got to stop thinking about that, and I’ve got to get back to here and think about a Zen retreat, and I’ve got to think about Zen things. Well, it’s time we got ourselves into all those states, not just get into one and hold on for dear life. Let me tell you, that won’t work.

I must say it’s been quite an experience and quite an honor to be a teacher here for twenty years. I can’t imagine what the next twenty will be like, but I couldn’t imagine the first twenty, so who knows? Good luck!

Next Talk

Gayle Maslow November 19th 2016 Gayle Maslow - Jukai

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