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Two moons in the sky Barry Magid May 6th 2023

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In the Book of Serenity, Case 21:

Yunyan was sweeping the ground outside the temple. Daowu saw him and said, “Too busy.” Yunyan replied, “You should know there’s one that’s not busy.” Daowu said, “Well, in that case, there are two moons in the sky.” Yunyan held up his broom, said, “Which moon is this?”

Yunyan sweeping the ground, sweeping away all the dust that is gathered in the temple courtyard, we can see as a metaphor for our practice. Wiping the dust off the mirror is a very common image we use for what happens in practice. But what is the dust? What is sweeping? What are we trying to achieve? Are we trying to achieve anything at all?

So often we hear that practice is motivated by some curative fantasy or some gaining idea, some notion of fixing or purifying, emptying the mind, clearing out all the dust, and as soon as we frame it this way, we are going in the wrong direction.

The sixth patriarch famously said that the mirror itself is empty, the dust is empty. What is there to clean off? So we can hear Yunyan's brother monk, Daowu, come and challenge him with that. “Too busy! What do you think you're accomplishing? What is all this activity?” Yunyan says, “You should know there’s one that’s not busy. You should know that in the midst of all this activity, there’s one that is still.” It’s a dangerous metaphor. And Daowu immediately jumps on that. Daowu says, “There’s another one inside of you?” There’s a still person? A still self? A true self that’s separate from all this sweeping activity?

If there’s one who’s still, that’s like saying there are two moons. And we counter that kind of split, that potential dilemma of framing a hundred different ways: our ordinary mind and the way, dogs and Buddha nature, little mind and big mind, deluded mind and true self. They’re all sorts of ways we metaphorically set up a contrast, a dichotomy between what seems to be on the surface and what we hope is in the depths. We think our practice is going to uncover or reveal it if only we can wipe away all the dust that is obscuring it, and then we can see down into the real thing.

All these are metaphors for what we imagine practice is about. Whenever we think this is the false self and we have to get to the true self, we’re already engaged in a certain kind of dualistic thinking that is setting up two moons in the sky, a good one and a bad one, or even sometimes just a matter of what we think is superficial versus what is deep.

But Yunyan answers Daowu’s challenge by simply holding up his broom and saying, “What moon is this?” Two moons just collapse into the activity itself. While sweeping the grounds, is this busy? Or is it still? We think sometimes that Zen is very profound, that it penetrates to the depths of our being, but in fact Zen is very superficial. Zen says it’s all right here on the surface. Nothing is hidden. There’s nothing behind this activity, this moment. There’s just this.

We go in pursuit of our true self. Where is that going to be found? Deep inside? Daowu might have come up to Yunyan and challenged him by asking, “Who is sweeping?” It’s a common enough koan for students. Who are you? Who is sitting zazen? Who is sweeping the courtyard? Who is thinking? Who is asking the question? When we’re asked Who am I? We somehow get all befuddled and we try to look deep inside and figure out who’s in there. What can I possibly do to answer?

But when I ask, “Who is the I of ‘I am thinking?’” is it any different than asking, “What’s the It in ‘It’s raining?’” When we say it’s raining, do we go looking for the It that’s raining? It’s just rain. It’s a strange quirk of our grammar that we put this pronoun in front of the verb. We make a split between subject and object. Instead of just thinking, we say, I am thinking. Instead of there just being sweeping, we wonder who is sweeping?

So much of what we do in practice is to try to bring ourselves back simply to an experience, a presence, of just this, just what’s happening, not who’s doing it, not who’s willing it, not the reason it’s being done, or the goal it’s being done for. Just this, over and over again. What we seek is hidden in plain sight, so we don’t see it.

I often go back to the little drawing of the duck and the rabbit to talk about a change in perspective, seeing things one way versus another way. We might say that the duck represents our ordinary way of seeing things and too often that ordinary way frames things in terms of what’s missing, what’s wrong, what we need to somehow discover or reveal. It separates the world into subjects and objects and then we ask, What is that subject? What is that I? The duck is just our ordinary mind doing what it does.

Somehow, sometimes, the perspective changes, and we look at the figure and we see the rabbit. From that point of view, nothing is hidden, nothing is missing, things are just as they are, and in a strange way, they are perfect just as they are, even as they go about setting up all these dualities. Oh – that’s just what thinking does. That’s just how grammar works. That’s just our language.

When that psychological shift happens, that change in perspective, we can suddenly imagine that we’re finally seeing something behind the curtain, behind appearances. We’re seeing how it really is, and we can get trapped by a whole new set of metaphors: Ah! This is big mind! This is true self! And then all over again we’re setting up a second moon in the sky. There’s ordinary mind and then, Now, there’s the way, the Tao! Now I see the real thing! But as soon as we begin to talk about that kind of real thing, that true self, we’ve split it off from our ordinary mind.

But when we go from seeing the duck to the rabbit, the figure hasn’t changed at all. There’s a little line on the paper, exactly the way it was before, nothing has been added to it, nothing has been taken away. We just see it differently. We feel it differently. But it’s exactly the same as it’s always been, and yet that change in perspective makes all the difference.

In the old days, when I started out, we always talked about the difference between the psychological and the spiritual, as if these were two separate realms. Therapy helped people work on their psychological problems, but Zen was going to operate on a whole different spiritual level. Two moons. It takes a long time to come back around to the idea, there’s only one mind, there’s only this mind. Perhaps we can see it from the perspective of problems or we can see it from the perspective of a koan. When we think in terms of problems, we think we need to have a solution, something needs to change, something needs to be fixed. Sometimes that’s fine. Sometimes that’s the way to look at things. When it rains I want to go look for my umbrella. But sometimes I just walk in the rain. Maybe it doesn’t seem so bad to get wet. Maybe that’s just another experience, not a bad one, just – Oh! Just out in the rain.

What makes it a problem? We have to find a way to always go back and forth between these perspectives. If we see everything as a problem, our life is endless fixing. We’ll always be a day late and a dollar short. We’ll never get there. But if we get too infatuated with the other side, everything is just this! Well, then why practice at all? Why sweep up any of that dust? Why sit a sesshin?

Somehow these two figures always have to go together. We’re not trying to replace the duck with the rabbit. There’s not a good one and a bad one. They are both part of our reality. Both are true perspectives. Each one by itself is incomplete yet at the same time they are always both present. It’s the great paradox of our practice. There’s nothing to gain but we throw ourselves into practice. We live our life whole-heartedly, even though we wonder: Where are we going? What are we accomplishing by that? Just the experience of the whole-hearted life. Just the satisfaction of sweeping the courtyard.

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