How is your life supposed to go? Barry Magid February 1st 2020

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Miscellaneous Koans Zuigan’s Permanent Principle


Even though you try to call it thus, it quickly changes. At the place where knowledge fails to reach, it should not be talked about. Here: Is there something to penetrate?

The Main Case

Zuigan asked Ganto: “What is the original, permanent principle?”
Ganto replied, “Moving.”
Zuigan asked, “How about when it moves?”
Ganto said, “You don’t see the original, permanent principle.”
Zuigan was flabbergasted.
Ganto remarked, “When you agree, you are not liberated from the senses and their dust; when you don’t agree, you sink into life and death forever.”


Perfect jewel without flaw: a great gemstone needs no polish.
Where the person of the Way is praiseworthy, she has no sharp edges.
When the path of agreement is forgotten, senses and dust are empty.
Liberated body without dependence. Alive and frisky!

To ask about an original permanent principle may seem to be very abstract. Yet one way or another we all operate on some individual idiosyncratic idea of where we’re supposed to be headed, what practice is supposed to be like, what we imagine enlightenment to be, what we imagine delusion to be. Another koan with more down to earth imagery asks, How do you go straight on a twisting mountain road? While it’s easy to mime an answer to that, bending with all the curves, in a way what’s more important is to pay attention to your own notion of what going straight means. How is your life supposed to go? Of course everybody wants to be young and healthy, well off, in love, have a great job, nice place to live, lots of things you can add to a list of how it’s supposed to go. If in some sense we hold as tightly to that image of those things as what it means to go straight, then most of our life is going to be lived in a ditch or going off some cliff because one way or another life is not conforming to any of those pictures of how it’s supposed to go.

We may not think when we have some abstract idea of the original permanent principle of practice, but everybody almost inevitably differentiates between what they think is a good sitting period and a bad sitting period. There’s some principle it should conform to, and when it doesn’t, we think it’s not going well, or we’re not doing it right, or something about this practice is all wrong for us. It just doesn’t feel like we’re going straight ahead the way we want to.

Ganto says that the original principle is moving itself. He’s saying impermanence moves itself. Yet it’s very hard to allow ourselves to simply go with the flow of impermanence, to see ourselves as inseparable from that. We want something that feels settled, that feels clear. Very often in the context of meditation we imagine some particular state even beyond that of what counts as a good sitting, some state of clarity or equanimity of being free from thought or emotion that we think underlies the moving mind of our moment-to-moment consciousness. And there we get into this notion of Buddha-nature or our original face or our true self as something other than or behind all this movement of consciousness, moment after moment. We think of our moving mind as something we need to push through or calm down so that we’ll get to this place behind it.

So you have lots of koans about that kind of thing, particularly the koan of our original face, as if the one we have on our head isn’t the real thing, that there’s something purer that we’re supposed to be able to finally access, that there’s going to be a reality behind all these appearances, because the appearances sure aren’t very satisfactory. Yet in our daily chant, “A dream within a dream,” we often call delusion a dream. And what does it mean to wake from it? And what’s the nature of the thing that’s deluded? Well, what we wake up to are these basic principles of impermanence and interdependence. That’s the reality of everything.

Things that are impermanent have no solid nature, are constantly shifting according to circumstance, are dream-like, ephemeral, with no solid basis. We wake up to this ephemeral dream-like reality. The delusion that we wake up from is a delusion of permanence, of solidity, of something more solid than a dream of this daily life. See, daily life as it is, as it already is, is constantly manifesting impermanence and interdependence. This is why Joko can say, Life is the only teacher. Life is constantly teaching these lessons. Yet we have a persistent kind of fantasy of a reality behind appearances, where in fact appearances have all the qualities that we ascribe to Buddha-nature, and there’s nothing behind them after all -- nothing. It’s just this.

Ganto says, When it moves, you don’t see the original permanent principle. You just see movement. And when you agree, you’re not liberated from the senses and dust. To agree means that you are simply non-separate from the moment-after-moment movement of the senses and dust, thought, and feelings. To be in accord with reality is to be non-separate from that reality. But it means that there is no pristine place to settle that’s going to allow you to be free from the dust of everyday existence. You would like to imagine the pristine mirror of clear, perfect awareness that we will polish to a dust-free finish. But although we can buff up our consciousness like that some of the time, the reality of our mind and our life is dust and movement and change, nothing permanent, nothing pristine. It’s when we’re afraid that the dust and the mud are as permanent as we wish the mirror was, that we become frightened and we think we have to get rid of it.

But he says, When the path of agreement is forgotten, senses and dust are empty. The path of agreement is forgotten when you’re not standing separate from it. You're just immersed in your life as it is, this constantly moving life. But when senses and dust are empty, seeing them as empty means you don’t have to do anything about them at all. They’re going to change all on their own. Everything does. Delusions are inexhaustible. How to put an end to them? You don’t put an end to them by making them all go away. You put an end to them by seeing them as already empty. They have no substance. There’s nothing to get rid of. From the very beginning. A perfect jewel without flaw, a great gemstone, needs no polish. In a sense, with all of this practicing we are trying to learn to stop polishing, trying to leave everything just as it already is. That’s what ego is, what self is: this kind of compulsive dust-rag attitude towards life, that everything is a little bit dirty, a little bit cloudy. We think we need to buff it up. How do we put down the dust-rag? Just leave everything just as it is. Moving.

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Barry Magid February 8th 2020 February -08 2020

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