Every day is a good day, even the miserable ones Barry Magid March 28th 2010

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The Blue Cliff Record, Case 6 Ummon's every day is a good day

The Main Case

Ummon said, "I don't ask you about before the fifteenth day, try to make a statement about after the fifteenth day." He himself replied, "Every day is a good day"


Tenkei's comment on the case: Before the fifteenth of the month, theres the bright sun and the blue sky with nothing to ask and nothing to say. After the fifteenth too, theres also the bright sun and the blue sky with nothing to ask and nothing to say. Even so, if that were all there is to it, our heritage would end, the way of Zen would be destroyed and this is what is meant by the stagnant water of transcendence.


Throwing away one, he picks up seven.
Above, below, in the four directions, none can match.
Placidly walking along he treads down the sound of the flowing stream.
His relaxed gaze decries the tracks of flying birds.
Grasses grow thick. Mists overhang.
Round Zibutti's cliff, the flowers make a mess.
Voidness is lamentable.
Don't make a move.
If you move you get thirty blows.

Now I’d like to read Tenkei’s comment on the case, which begins, “Before the fifteenth of the month, there is the bright sun in the blue sky, with nothing to ask and nothing to say. After the fifteenth, too, there is also the bright sun in the blue sky, with nothing to ask and nothing to say. Even so, if that were all there is to it, our heritage would end, the way of Zen would be destroyed; this is what is meant by the expression, ‘the stagnant water of transcendence.’”

It’s a good case for today because so far it seems to me, this has been a thoroughly miserable day. It’s a funny kind of day in which the air is dank, this room is too hot, the other room is drafty and it’s cold. Every joint seems to ache in this weather: my knees, my ankles, my toes. I can’t find a comfortable place to sit. It seems like everything we did in oryoki we’re getting all sloppy. We’re making mistakes. I was making mistakes. So it’s just very interesting to think in what sense all of that takes place within the context of “Every day is a good day.” Clearly good is not being used exactly in contrast to bad. We’re not talking about the content of the day, and we’re not having a little smiley Buddha face that we’re going to paste on every day, as the equivalent of “Have a good day!” I don’t think that is what Ummon is talking about.

It says, I don’t ask you about before the fifteenth, but try to make a statement about after the fifteenth. Maybe we can relate the calendar to the phases of the moon where the phases of the moon are often symbols of enlightenment: the full moon of enlightenment versus the new moon of our general daily ignorance. So in one sense he’s asking about before and after realization, or perhaps even first about realization and then what comes after realization. These guys didn’t fool around. They were talking about just before realization. They said, I’m not asking you about kensho but what happens after kensho? That’s probably more what he’s talking about.

He has another koan where he says, there are two kinds of sicknesses, when the light doesn’t penetrate thoroughly. In a sense he says, one is that we think that there is nothing to grasp. There is just nothing. And the second is when you think you’ve grasped it you’ve got ahold of something. So in many ways, both his parables and his koans that make some kind of distinction are asking us to look at the distinctions we typically make, a before and after and good and bad, realization and delusion, and what we think the difference is. Fortunately for us, Ummon was Chinese and he makes the distinction before the fifteenth and after the fifteenth. If he was Indian, he would ask something about every day of the month and every day of the year. There would be 350 days and 9 different sicknesses, not 2. Indians love lists. Thank God the Chinese simplified it.

When we sit, we say, We just sit. And that Just Sitting is a broad path that we follow, that includes everything and takes us everywhere. On each side of that path there are two deep ditches, and I suppose that one way to think about what happens over the course of practice is how much time do you feel like you’re spending on the path and how much time do you feel like you’re in the ditch. But the ditches very typically are something like, you know, there’s one side of doing it wrong and on the other side I’m doing it right. Or you’ve got it and I don’t. Or I’ve got it and you don’t. There are ditches in which we create some kind of dualism, some kind of separation. And so many of the koans that we study are stories that first attempt to use an image, like before and after here, to heighten our sense of separation, of things divided into two, and then to challenge us to say something that heals the separation, that restores the unity that is underlying, so in response to his own question of what’s the difference between before the fifteenth and after the fifteenth, he comes back with “Every day is a good day.”

Tenkei’s comment says that before realization there’s nothing to gain and nothing to say, and after realization there’s nothing to gain and nothing to say. And yet we can’t rest in either place. Before realization we can’t allow ourselves the resignation of not practicing, the hopelessness of not practicing, the feeling of “I'll never get there, why bother?” In a sense our suffering is the great engine that drives us forward and we need to be thankful for that because it’s what keeps us from complacency. Our suffering, Joko would always say, Life is the teacher and what it teaches is all the ways in which we create separation between ourself and life, and as long as we have that separation, life will constantly offer us challenges to remind us of the way we’re creating those moments of separation.

But Tenkei reminds us that it’s not simply a matter of experiencing some moment of oneness or emptiness or transcendence. That would be a very stagnant place, and one also that typically gets reified into, “Well, now I’ve got it!” Or -- “You poor people haven’t got it, but I’ve got it!” There’s a lot of that in spiritual practice. Certainly any kind of so-called realization that separates you further from everybody else, that is a pretty strange kind of realization of oneness. I’m one with all beings! Don’t you wish you were? Pretty strange, right?

“Every day is a good day,” like Ummon would say, is a challenge to wipe out the distinctions we think we’re making between having and not having. And it’s not wiping out into obliviousness. That’s why I started this by saying that in many ways, for me, this is a miserable day. My joints hurt, the temperature’s bad, and so forth and so on. We’re not talking about eliminating distinction by getting into a state of samadhi or something else where everything is reduced to some featureless void. We’re not concentrating so much that we get into an endorphin rush where, you know, like being shot full of morphine, where everything feels good, even the pain. Right? You can crank yourself into that sometimes. I’m not sure I’d particularly call that a spiritual experience anymore. Intense absorption can obliterate distinction from one kind of direction.

But I think the kind of non-separation that makes a difference in our actual lives is the one where we really let things be just as they are, even with our reactions to them. We let our reactions be what they are. But we’re not always in a position of complaining or fixing or controlling. We’re just in the mode of experiencing, and that experience will have a flavor, a valence. We’re not here to endlessly change the negative to the positive, to get from here to there. It’s very tempting to turn meditation into a technique to make the bad days into good days. And that almost works. And that’s the problem with it. But we’re not here to turn bad days into good days. We’re here to be present, right now, right now.

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