One day Master Nangaku came upon his student, Baso, sitting outside in the monastery garden. Nangaku goes up to him and asks, “What are you doing?” Baso says, “I’m sitting zazen in order to become a Buddha.” Nangaku picks up a broken piece of roof tile lying around, sits down next to him, and starts polishing it with a stone. Baso looks over, “What are you doing, Teacher?” Nangaku says, “I’m polishing a tile in order to make it into a mirror.” Baso asks, “How can you make a mirror by polishing a tile?” Nangaku asks him in turn, “How can you become a Buddha by practicing zazen?”
We usually encounter this story in the Mumonkan as part of the background of the Case of Baso, a later teaching, when he says, “This very mind is Buddha,” Case 30 in the Mumonkan. Dogen has an extensive commentary on it in the Shobogenzo, in the lecture called Zazenshin, Admonitions for Zazen. I want to refer to his commentaries today because I think this story is one that we can go back to over and over again and use to examine our own ideas of what we think we’re doing when we sit zazen.
Dogen has very strong opinions about how zazen is taught and practiced at this time. He feels that true practice is rarely taught, rarely encountered, and he uses this case as a way to be clear about what he thinks are the pitfalls that he encountered in his own training in China. In this he gives a couple of very clear statements about what zazen is not. For instance, he says, “In recent years foolish people say the practice of zazen is to keep our minds free of thoughts. Once that is accomplished we attain the highest state.” There’s another one where he says, “It’s tragic that many pass their entire lives in monasteries without once practicing true zazen.” Their zazen is not really their own nor does their practice enable them to see their true nature. This practice of zazen does not mean that they dislike their own bodies and minds and it does not mean that they have no intention of practicing zazen. They’re simply in a stupor. The writings of these practitioners merely repeat the mechanics of zazen. That is, quiet the breath and calm the mind. Their method remains at the lowest level of observation, repetition, absorption and practice. Their understanding is quite rudimentary.”
It continues in the dialog between Nangaku and Baso. When Nangaku says, “How can you become a Buddha by practicing zazen?” Baso is simply speechless and doesn’t know how to respond. Next thing Nangaku says to him, “If a cart doesn’t move, you can whip either the cart or the ox.” So it’s a metaphor of what is the right effort? Where do we apply ourselves? What does it mean to whip the cart or whip the ox? Clearly there’s an idea here that we can go about this in entirely the wrong way.
Now Dogen helpfully provides an alternative dialog to explain what we should be doing. After Great Master Yakusan finished a period of zazen, a monk asked, “What do you think about when you sit so intensely?” The Master said, “I think not thinking.” The monk asked, “How can you think not thinking?” The Master replied, “Not thinking.” Now Dogen, of course, thinks the meaning of this is self-evident and he adds commentary to it: “Although the use of the expression of non-thinking is clear, to think non-thinking, one must always use non-thinking.” And it is the next sentence that is interesting: “There is a who in non-thinking -- a who that maintains the self. Even though I sit intensely, there is not just thinking, but total involvement and intensity.” So I think that gives us a better clue about how he sees the intensity of zazen as qualitatively different from the stupor that ordinary monks sit in when what they think what they’re doing is quieting the mind and clearing it of thought.
There is nothing in Dogen about simple practices like following the breath let alone counting the breath. It’s not about focusing or concentrating on generating any one state at all. What he wants is whole body, whole mind sitting, and in a paradoxical language that’s employed, it’s important, I think, that he calls sitting with whole body and mind, dropping off body and mind. See, if you drop off body and mind, it means it must have been in some way to you something you held or carried or had in some degree separate. If you can drop it, it’s separate from you. But the alternative to that is whole-hearted non-separation, with the whole of your body and mind, completely intensely occupied -- this breath, this posture, this way of being -- that we have to examine very carefully and I think psychologically find our own answers to the question: What are you doing when you sit zazen?
We can say that the stupor school is trying, in some way, to banish some aspect of mind or of emotion. They think in a way, implicitly or explicitly, there is a contaminant, the dust on the mirror, a defilement. There’s a way in which part of the emotion becomes synonymous with attachment and ego and desire. And it’s as if practice is intended to wipe away all these parts of our self, perhaps our self entirely, that in some way is clouding over our Buddha nature, however we imagine that, and usually we imagine it in very idealized terms. And I think, particularly in sesshin, at the beginning of sesshin, we have to pay close attention to what implicitly we think we are going to wipe away or what we’re going to intensely embody when we sit here. It’s very rare when we do not harbor some curative fantasy of banishing once and for all the thoughts that trouble us, the emotions that trouble us, the pain that intrudes. We all have our own version of that. But Dogen is trying to speak out very strongly against the lobotomy model of zazen, that we’re going to cut out the part of our mind that is giving us trouble. That’s not what this is about.
The expression that Nangako uses -- you can either whip the cart or whip the ox -- is curious. Certainly it would seem that the most advantageous thing is to whip the ox. That’s the one that’s going to do something. But what exactly is the ox and what exactly is the cart in our practice? See, what kind of effort are we supposed to be making? What’s the role of effort in all that? I remember reading Kenneth Rexroth, who was a wonderful translator of Japanese and Chinese poetry, but he was very critical of most of the Zen students that he encountered in his day. He was one of the mentors of the Beat generation, a father figure to folks like Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen and Alan Ginsberg, but he said, most Zen students sit there straining after satori like old men trying to pass a stool. So there’s a way in which we can make very intense effort but it can be effort pointed in the wrong direction. And if that effort is an effort at extirpation, if its an effort at trying to squeeze out the parts of ourselves that we don’t want to be in our consciousness, then we really are treating parts of our mind and emotion like shit that we’re trying to squeeze out and trying to get rid of and flush away. It’s a funny metaphor but I think a lot of people practice just like that.
We can say that whipping the cart, an inanimate object that can represent lifeless form, can be like putting all your effort, all your energy into the form of practice, into ritual, into getting it right or wrong, of becoming a model of posture, of formality and ritual. It takes a lot of effort to master some of these esoteric forms. As I’ve said in my opening remarks, it’s important at one level we pay attention to the things that we can do well or badly, things we can get right or wrong. We need to try to get them right, but if we think that our practice is going to be just a matter of finally getting them right, or finally getting beyond reproach, finally getting to that point where we’re not always self-conscious -- Did I just screw that up? -- well, that’s a dead end.
But it’s equally a dead end if you think all that’s just empty and I don’t need to bother with the form. I know that this stuff is really about something higher, it’s not just about knowing the rules and following them. I’m not going to bother myself with that stuff. That’s empty. That doesn’t work either. To me that’s like having a body with no bones in it. There’s nothing that’s going to hold it up, nothing that’s going to allow it to sit straight and function. You need the structure to make it work, and I think that’s very true in sesshin. We need the structure, the formality to make it work. We need the cart behind the ox if we’re actually going to carry anything. And Dogen, of course, is a great believer in the use of form in every aspect of daily life, to allow us to actualize our zazen in every nook and cranny of daily life, to carry this mind into our daily life. So if we’re going to whip the ox, the ox, I think, is not just a dumb beast. The ox is also the ox of the ox-herding pictures, a symbol of enlightenment, so we need to try to understand what is the right effort to make.
It’s not that the practice does not require effort. See, Nangaku is criticizing Baso for having a kind of means to an end notion of zazen: I’m going to do zazen in order to become a Buddha. How far along are you, about half-way yet? Three quarters? There are no steps to becoming a Buddha. See, it’s true that we practice zazen in order to become a Buddha, but when we practice zazen, we become a Buddha instantaneously, not as a matter of incremental progress over time. When we sit zazen intensely, when we fully are body, mind, breath, thought, self, we’re fully who we are, which is all a Buddha can be. And it’s not really a matter of progress, it’s a matter of really being what you already are.
Dogen has an interesting analogy. He says, in relation to the question of becoming Buddha, “It is like two close friends meeting each other. The fact that he is like my close friend, makes him my close friend.” It’s a curious thing to say, right? But one of the things you might say is that when I meet my close friend, we don’t have to get acquainted, make small talk, try to figure out what we have in common, reminisce, and become friends all over again. The idea is that when I meet my close friend we’re immediately back in that close conversation we had the last time we met. We’re already immediately right there, our friendship is manifest from the first moment. I think that is the kind of thing he’s trying to point to.
The other kind of analogy that is often used about this is that zazen expresses the fact of our Buddha mind in a way swimming expresses the fact of being a fish or flying expresses being a bird. A bird doesn’t fly in order to become a bird, a fish doesn’t swim in order to become a fish. Because they’re birds and fish, they can do these things. It’s not a matter of becoming, yet if they don’t do them, they’re not birds or fish, right?
But the other thing he wants to say is the one that Nangaku continues with here: When you study sitting Buddha, Buddha must be without fixed form. If you want to study sitting Buddha, you must kill Buddha, and if you’re attached to the form of sitting, you will not master this principle. So this is going on to say that even though zazen is the quintessential activity of being a Buddha, don’t ritualize or fetishize zazen itself as if that is the whole of our practice, as if it somehow stands apart from the rest of the activities of our life.
See, a bird may be a bird to us because it’s flying, but a bird also needs to catch worms, lay eggs, build nests. A bird has a whole life and a whole realm of activity, and no one of those things may be the thing where we say, well, if it builds a nest, it’s a bird. The whole thing, the whole behavior, the whole form of life is what makes a bird. In the same way, we would say the whole function of our life, the precepts, the ritual, the practice, how we treat each other, how we conduct our lives day to day, all this is the full form of our life as Buddhas. But zazen is at the center, the essence of our activity.
When we whip the ox, we’re not trying harder to concentrate when we sit, we’re not trying harder to just put in more hours or attend more sesshins, make a greater effort to get from here to there in some way. We’re really settling down in the faith and the understanding that this is it. This is what Buddha looks like. This is what Buddha feels like. Buddha's foot is asleep. We have to sit, we have to polish that stone, we have to have the intention of practice, of becoming, but all those things are fulfilling themselves right now. They’re not fulfilling themselves over time, incrementally, it’s not a matter of are we there yet or how are we doing? We sit realizing that this moment is the only moment there is. This life is the only life there is. We need to enter sesshin and enter our practice with a sense that that is the core understanding of what we’re about.
But there’s one point more that I think we have to be careful about. See, I talk a lot about curative fantasies and how we will all have notions of getting rid of our anger, getting rid of our worried thoughts or whatever it is. If we think that those things themselves are contaminants, and that we shouldn’t have them, we should sit without curative fantasies, then we’re sitting with another version of tile-polishing, we’re just kicking it up another level of what we’re trying to get rid of. Instead of thinking I’ve got to get rid of my thoughts, I’ve got to get rid of all these expectations and curative fantasies, I’ve got to get rid of all gaining ideas, you’ve just kicked the whole process up another level and you're trying to extirpate something else. You have to really see that the anger we wish to cure, the loneliness we wish to cure, the racing thoughts we wish to cure, they themselves are what is happening this moment, they are the body-mind we have to occupy right now.
Joko always brought us right back to: What are you feeling now? What is your whole experience in your body? The tension? The emotion? The longing? The desire? All those are it. Our fantasies of Buddhahood want to smooth it out, clear it up, but we have to start where we are, and where we are is going to include all these fantasies. So that’s where we go back to where Dogen says, Think non-thinking. We let them be there, not get caught up in the belief content of those thoughts, but seeing them as thoughts, as objects on the table, as part of who we are and what’s happening right in this moment. We’re not trying to banish them like dust on the mirror either.
Think not-thinking is a way to hold and respect and experience whatever is going on in our body-mind. And Dogen says, throughout all this there is an I that maintains a practice, a Who that’s doing it. We’re not going to wipe the slate clean except in a very stuporous kind of state which is really a lot easier to achieve through drugs. We don’t have to go to all this trouble for that. We really have to be willing to look in the mirror and say Yes to it all, moment after moment. This is me. This is me. This is me.