Ma-tsu: “This Very Mind is Buddha”
Ta-mei asked Ma-tsu, “What is Buddha?”
Ma-tsu said, “This very mind is Buddha.”
If you can grasp the point directly, you wear Buddha’s robes, eat Buddha’s food, speak Buddha’s words, take Buddha’s role. That is, you yourself are Buddha. Ta-mei, however,
misled quite a few people into trusting a broken scale. Don’t you know you should rinse out your mouth for three days when you utter the name Buddha? If you are genuine, you’ll run away holding your ears just hearing the words, “This very mind is Buddha.”
The blue sky and bright day --
no more searching around.
“What is Buddha?” you ask.
Hiding loot, you declare your innocence.
Ma-tsu is a Chinese name for Baso, who we spoke about yesterday, when he was a young monk studying with his teacher, Nangaku. Aitken uses the Chinese names here -- Ma-tsu instead of Baso -- but one of the charms of these cases is to see the evolution of a young monk into an old teacher. He introduced the element of time into these stories, which is often missing.
What is Buddha? This very mind is Buddha. It may be that we’ve heard that too many times to have it convey its original force to us. So I’d like to suggest we change one word in the translation to make it come alive. What is Buddha? This very body is Buddha. If you grasp this point directly, you’ll wear Buddha’s jeans, getting a little tight in the middle, take Buddha’s medication for hypertension, anti-inflammatories for arthritis and gout, and sit in Buddha’s chair when your knees hurt too much.
See, it’s one thing for us to say this mind is Buddha. It’s another thing to say this body is Buddha, when our body is most clearly subject to imperfection and time and difficulty, pain, illness, death. It’s where all these facts of impermanence are most vividly displayed for us all the time. So in a way it’s a greater challenge to understand what it would mean to say, This body, just as it is, with all its afflictions, is Buddha. What would that mean to us?
The scroll hanging here today is by Japanese Master Hashimoto, and it says, “Don’t remove delusion, don’t even seek the truth,” and in a similar vein we could retranslate that and say, “Don’t even remove illness, don’t even seek health.” What kind of teaching would that be? See? That might restore some of the paradox of the original saying. We might not get too exercised about delusion and truth. They seem very abstract. But what does it mean to “Don’t even cure illness. Don’t try to seek good health.”
See, there’s obviously a level in which we want to take care of ourselves, treat illnesses, maintain our body, our health as best we can. That’s obvious, and no one is trying to take away that level of understanding. If you have a sick child you want more than anything else to make the child better. But there’s also another level which is apparent when you come to terms with the fact that childhood will include illnesses, will include hurts and pains, sprained ankles, sometimes broken bones, measles, chicken pox, maybe those things less with vaccines these days, but when I was growing up part of childhood was catching all these diseases.
So there’s some way in which we have to both do everything we can, take care of ourselves and treat illness, but this koan, that scroll, is asking us to look at another perspective as well, in which we imagine leaving everything just as it is, from the perspective that says, the blue sky and bright day, no more searching around, no more fixing, no more curing. We have to find a way to balance those two sides of our practice and our life, seeing the perfection on one hand, doing what we can on the other. Suzuki Roshi summed it up very nicely when he said, “You’re perfect just as you are, and you can use a little Prozac.” Maybe I’m paraphrasing slightly.
See, I think the main issue here is not to be in an endlessly losing struggle with life. We have to find a way to accept life whole, the whole course of life from birth to death, the cycle of which Baso, the young monk, ends up an old man. Our sesshin is designed to be a practice in taking experience whole. Sesshin is complicated and it’s difficult, and there will be many aspects of sesshin that bring you peace and joy, many times in sesshin when you’ll experience difficulty, pain, boredom, or just plain exasperation. Why the hell do they do it this way? But sesshin is an exercise in not picking and choosing. Taking these few days whole, whatever is on our plate, we eat that and we finish it.
Now it’s important that we try to practice the right way with the difficulty of sesshin, and particularly I think the physical difficulties of sesshin. Yesterday we read how Dogen was very critical of a practice of what he thought was sort of imitation zazen, that was nothing but trying to calm the mind and block thoughts, and he said monks that sit that way are just in a stupor, and this has nothing to do with the true Buddha dharma. Dogen wanted zazen to be intense sitting, with your whole body and mind. And just as we don’t want to have zazen simply be a way of going blank, the face of our mental process, we don’t want it to be a practice simply of endurance in the face of physical pain. I’ve spent a lot of time, and probably a lot of you have spent a lot of time, in sesshins or centers where it seemed that endurance was the main virtue being taught, where we learned to sit still no matter how much pain we were in.
Now if you’ve got someone who’s trained to endure a great deal of physical pain, who feels like, I’m going to be so tough I can endure anything, no matter what you throw at me, nothing will break me -- take that and combine it with what Dogen called the practice of stupor, blocking all thought, just emptying your mind -- and you’ve got a real winning combination there, right? You’ve got a training that says, Don’t think and don’t feel -- and we wonder why things go badly.
The point of sitting with difficulty is to realize how difficulty is unavoidable in our life, not that we will learn to master all difficulties and be tougher in whatever happens. We’re here to increase our vulnerability, not our endurance. That’s really the paradox of this difficult practice. It really should soften us, not harden us. It should allow us to open our hearts to our whole life, our whole emotional world of sadness, of grief, of love, because we’re willing to take our life whole, we’re willing to take all the parts of our life, including the losses, the inevitable ending that we will all come to.
This very body, this very mind, is Buddha. How is the wisdom and compassion of Buddha expressed here? There’s a wisdom to realize that we have to take life whole, with its impermanence, with its pain, and yet see the perfection of life. I think after 9-11, the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski wrote a poem in which he said, “Our task now is to love the mutilated world.” We have to love our mutilated life, our mutilated bodies, the bodies that will inevitably be ravaged by time.
And our compassion, Buddha’s compassion, is that we love each other in our imperfection. That we see ourselves as Buddha means that we are not forever falling short of some ideal, even though we can all get a little better, and that we treat each other as Buddhas, not as failing Buddhas, always falling short, always doing something wrong, but that we cherish the uniqueness and vulnerability of ourselves and each other. This is what our practice should bring us to. Not a calm likeness, not a hard capacity to endure, but an opening of our hearts.