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The most wondrous experience in Zen Barry Magid May 1st 2021

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A monk asked Hyakujo, “What is the most wondrous experience of Zen?” Hyakujo replied, “Sitting alone on the peak of the sacred mountain.” The monk gave a little smile, bowed deeply. As he got up Hyakujo smacked him upside the head.

I’ve said that inevitably everyone comes to practice for the wrong reasons. That’s not a bad thing. That’s what practice is, to help us be clear about all our wrong reasons, all our curative fantasies and gaining ideas. We need a screen on which to display them and see them clearly. Just as long as they remain unconscious we’re going to remain in their grip. So we can say that’s what Hyakujo is offering to the monk in this story. The monk comes asking about wondrous experiences in Zen practice. He’s in search of those experiences. He thinks those experiences are the point of practice, to achieve some special state of consciousness, some transformative insight.

So Hyakujo joins the fantasy for a moment. He says, Well, if you’re asking about wondrous experiences, to be deep in samadhi, feel like you’re on top of a mountain, all alone, simply immersed in the bliss of your own consciousness, that’s the most wonderful possible experience. Right? And in a sense it’s just what the monk wants to hear. This is the carrot he’s been chasing. Hyakujo seems to confirm it for him. Yet as he bows at the end of the encounter, Hyakujo hits him, as if to knock the idea right out of his head. He says, Yes, indeed, there are wondrous experiences, but if you think that’s it, you’ve missed the whole point of practice. The monk in this koan does not have a name and the koan doesn’t end with “And then the monk was enlightened.” Apparently he needed many more slaps upside the head to disabuse him of his curative fantasies.

It is interesting, though, that the teacher in this story is Hyakujo. In some sense it’s the kind of lesson you can imagine many teachers giving, but Hyakujo in particular is the teacher who is said to have formulated the monastic life in China for the monks who had originally been part of an Indian tradition where monks did not work, but lived by alms. Hyakujo reordered the sangha to say that the monks shouldn’t be beggars. They should be workers. They should live the ordinary life of other simple people. They should become subsistence farmers, grow their own food, and while none of these monasteries were immune from patronage, basically they should be self-sufficient.

Hyakujo was known for the saying, “A day without work is a day without eating.” He wanted to bring the monk’s lives off that solitary peak of contemplation. He said the business of Zen is not something that’s going on privately in between your ears, developing special states of consciousness or insight, but it’s inseparable from this whole form of life, of living communally, of working, paying attention to the everyday things of life, how your food is grown, how it’s prepared, how it’s cleaned up. All these things are our practice, not just our zazen.

I think it’s important that as in the monk’s fantasy, Hyakujo’s first answer gives a kind of picture of solitude, of being all alone, on a mountain peak. This is equivalent to being all immersed in your private experience, your private inner consciousness, yet the thrust of Hyakujo’s reformation was to emphasize, we’re not doing this alone. It’s not a practice of hermits. It’s a communal practice. It’s something we’re doing together.

Now ironically, as I talk to you this morning, my wife has hired a couple of local workers to be outside digging holes and planting trees, so I’m sitting here doing zazen and talking to you while these people are out doing all this real work. Hyakujo might give me a slap upside the head if he saw that. And yet I think what we have learned is that we can no more romanticize a life of simple labor than we can romanticize sitting alone at the top of a sacred peak. Certainly we’ve come through phases in American Zen where work practice was fetishized just as much as samadhi. That’s the whole idea of: you gotta get people outside of their heads, into their bodies, get them doing manual labor, washing the dishes, mopping the floors. I remember the woman asking me about sesshin I did many years ago, and I told her how much of the time was spent cleaning, and she said, “I’ve got two kids at home. I don’t need to go away for a weekend to wash pots and clean the floor.”

I do think that there was, on the one hand, a way in which all that work practice did give many of us a kind of new respect for paying attention to the ordinary chores of daily life, to see making your bed and washing the dishes, and cooking and cleaning, as your practice, that paying attention to these things is as much practice as doing Mu. But it’s also the case that drudgery and the mindless work in a monastery can be just as soul-deadening as if it’s done in a factory, and there’s nothing necessarily enlightening about doing manual labor all day. We have to learn to practice with our work, but that woman with her two kids needed time off from her work. She needed a time of silence, contemplation, peace as much as she needed the sleep she wasn’t getting at night. These are part of the healthy life that can be squashed by too much labor, too many chores, whether in a family or in a monastery.

So as usual, there are two ditches on the side of the road. We can lose ourselves in contemplation and the cultivation of special inner states or we can romanticize the life of a simple peasant as if that is the way to be close to nature, be in our bodies, and be romantically disregarding the pain and drudgery, the dangers involved in the life of people who actually have to do that work full-time, and playing at it for a few hours in sesshin is something else entirely.

At the beginning of sesshin this morning I said, “Sesshin is a wonderful opportunity. What kind of opportunity is it?” In the koan we hear of the monk who thinks it’s an opportunity to have wonderful experiences. And there is a way in which that is true. In a sense it would be a shame if we never had any of them, if we didn’t allow ourselves to sink into the quiet and to allow our minds to quiet down and experience the peace and the joy that’s possible. Sometimes we need that kind of respite from the turmoil of our everyday life and our everyday thoughts. I don’t begrudge anybody the opportunity to find that kind of peace. But in a way that’s like working all year to be able to go on vacation. A vacation may be wonderful, but it’s not where we live and we can’t live that way 52 weeks of the year.

What we need is to discover something on that vacation that we actually bring back, that transforms the way we live and we work, so that attention, quiet, and peace will become integrated into our lives, not become retreats from our lives. And Joko of course never liked to use the word retreat as a synonym for sesshin. She always spoke of sesshin as an intensive, as an opportunity to push ourselves to our limits, really meaning to push our curative fantasies to their limits, whether it’s in the pursuit of a wondrous experience or pursuit of the kind of macho endurance that was sometimes cultivated in sesshins back in those days, that sense that I can handle everything. Just bring it on.

If we’re asked what is the most wondrous experience in Zen, it’s perhaps become something of a Zen cliche to just answer, Oh, the experience of this moment, whatever it is. What’s the most wondrous place? The place I’m in right now! We can all say that, but it’s hard to really mean that. It becomes again a kind of cliche of just being in the present moment. Well, most of us turn out to be a little fussy about the moment we’re willing to be one with, and it’s more important to be honest about that particular fussiness, what we judge, what we reject, and what we’re trying to control, than it is to try to lull ourselves into thinking we’re just being this moment. I think we do that sometimes when we talk about just sitting. We’re lulling ourselves into a kind of complacency about just leaving everything alone as it is, which is a way of denying our own unconscious, of trying to talk ourselves into a level of exception or equanimity that imagines we can more or less predict what’s going to happen next. We’ve been here, we’ve done that, we know what sitting is like.

Perhaps the most wondrous thing is the thing we can’t anticipate, the thing we don’t control, the thing that actually surprises us in our sitting. At a certain level, nobody, myself included, really wants to be surprised by what bubbles up in our mind, what bubbles up in our body, some pain or tension or sickness or signs of old age. And yet it’s all of these, and it’s our opportunity to transform our relationship to them that may turn out to be the most wondrous experience in Zen.

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