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Ordinary Mind


Ordinary Mind is the Way Gateless Gate, Case # 19

The Main Case

Joshu earnestly asked Nansen, “What is the Way?” Nansen answered: “Ordinary Mind is the Way.” Joshu asked: “Should I direct myself towards it, or not?” Nansen said: “If you try to turn toward it, you go against it.” Joshu asked: “If I do not try to turn toward it, how can I know that it is the Way?” Nansen answered: “The Way does not belong to knowing, or not knowing. Knowing is delusion. Not knowing is blank consciousness. When you have really reached the Way beyond all doubt, you will find it is as vast and boundless as the great empty sky. How can it be talked about on the level of right and wrong?” At these words, Joshu was suddenly enlightened.

Mumon’s Commentary

Nansen was asked a question by Joshu, and Nansen’s base was shattered and melted away. He could not justify himself. Even though Joshu has come to realization, he will have to delve into it for another 30 years before he can fully realize it.

Mumon’s Verse

The spring flowers, the moon in autumn.

The cool breezes of summer, the winter’s snow.

If idle concerns do not cloud the mind,

This is man’s happiest season.


Tenshin Sensei’s Commentary

“Ordinary mind is the Way.” Definitely, ordinary mind is a koan in itself. Many teachers have talked about this ordinary mind. Master Rinzai said: “Just be yourself, with nothing further to do.” Then he added, “To make work on the outside is being a blockhead.” Master Dogen wrote, “The mind of the Buddhas and Ancestors is drinking tea and eating rice. This drinking tea and eating rice has been transmitted down to the present day, and therefore the Buddha’s activity is alive and well.” Master Gensha in the 9th century said, “Shakyamuni Buddha and I practiced together.” A monk asked, “Then, who did you two study with?” Gensha said, “I studied with the third son of Zay on a fishing boat,” which, of course, was himself.

This is the ordinary mind. “Shakyamuni Buddha and I practiced together.” You have to see what this Shakyamuni Buddha is. Keizan Zenji said, “Shakyamuni Buddha is not this I, and yet Shakyamuni Buddha is in this I. Not only is he in this I, but the mountains, rivers, and great earth are also in this I.” This is the life of Shakyamuni Buddha, this is what you realize. The sound of the wind penetrates thoroughly through this Zendo.

Another saying of Dogen Zenji is, “In the Buddhadharma we do not consider deep or shallow. What is most important is your sincere practice.” This sincere practice becomes more and more important to me as I go along and practice. It is not a matter of seeing something or having something called ordinary mind. But rather, how do we use this ordinary mind? How do we fully appreciate it? How do we fully live? I remember as a kid playing soccer that sometimes six or eight hours would pass, and it would be just like the blink of an eye. I am sure you have all experienced that. But what is this practice that we talk about? It is not about seeing something, standing apart from the way, but it is to live it fully.

I would like to read something from the Bendowa, Dogen’s Wholehearted Endeavor in the Way. “All Buddha Tathagatas who directly transmit inconceivable dharma, and actualize supreme, perfect enlightenment have a wondrous way, unsurpassed and unconditioned. Only Buddhas transmitted to Buddhas without veering off. Self-fulfilling samadhi is its standard.Sitting upright, practicing zazen is the authentic gate to the unconfined realm of this samadhi. Although this inconceivable dharma is abundant in each person, it is not actualized without practice, and it is not experienced without realization. When you release it, it fills your hand. How could it be limited to one, or many? When you speak it, it fills your mouth. It is not bound by length or width. All Buddhas continuously abide in it, but do not leave traces of consciousness in their illumination. Sentient beings continuously move about in it, but illumination is not manifested in their consciousness. The concentrated endeavor of the way I am speaking of allows all things to come forth in enlightenment and practice, all-inclusiveness without detachment.”

This is Shakyamuni Buddha’s eye. The mountains, rivers and earth are our body. Allow that to come up. It is not about my way, it is not about my self-concern.

“Passing through the barrier and dropping off limitations, how could you be hindered by nodes in bamboo, or knots in wood?” Dogen aks how could this Way be hindered by our thoughts, ideas, and notions? It can’t be. Thoughts, ideas and notions do not stop the sun from rising or the wind from blowing. But we allow ourselves to be deluded by thinking it is otherwise. If we want this great way which we already have, what’s the problem? It is right beneath our feet.

What is the turning point on that? What will help us appreciate life to its fullest? We may get confused since we hear two conflicting messages in practice. The first one is that you should really make an effort and put everything into it. Die on the cushion. Then you hear statements like, “All you have to do is just really be yourself.” How do you reconcile those two things? You have to do what Master Eka did: If effort is there, then you exhaust it, you use it. Then through applying effort you learn a few things. You learn where to put effort. For many years I gritted my teeth and aimed for this thing called enlightenment. I was always disappointed, extremely disappointed. I’d be in tears. I remember Genpo Roshi sending me some pizza one day. I felt so bad this enlightenment wouldn’t happen, I wouldn’t come out of my room. I was mortified. After a while, that changed somewhat. I finally began to let Maezumi Roshi’s words in, like: “Appreciate your life. Appreciate the dharma. Your life is the Buddha treasure.” But then I would tend to do nothing. I would sit there and do nothing, and just wait for something to happen. That’s not it, either.

Towards the end of his life Shakyamuni Buddha changed his Eightfold Path into the Eight Awarenesses of the Enlightened Person. Instead of “Have right thought,” he said, “Remember right thought,” or “Remember who you are.” We know who we are. We know deep down inside and I’m not talking about knowing intellectually. It’s a gut level feeling. We know that we are Buddha nature. Even if it is really obscure, that’s why we practice. Remember that fact, bring that up to the surface.

Then Shakyamuni Buddha said of right effort, “Exert meticulous effort.” Apply your efforts on a momentary basis, surrender to this place. Our tendency is to create some other place, some other way of being, even on an energetic level. We think this can’t be it. This can’t be what life is. There’s got to be “enlightenment.” We constantly move away from this present moment. We never thoroughly penetrate it because we are afraid of really standing alone, having nothing. But having nothing is not a problem. You still have the sun, the moon, and the stars, everything you ever had. As Dogen Zenji says, “When you release it, it fills your hand.” But, we want it so bad that we can’t let go of it.

Uchiyama Roshi talks about opening the hand of thought: Let it go and experience your life unreservedly. You don’t need to conjure it up in your mind. You don’t need to conjure up this enlightenment. Life goes on. When you let go of the crutch, you may find that you can walk, wonderful. “Ordinary mind is the way.”

This ordinary mind that we have, or that we are, and that is always apparent, is different to different people. Dogen Zenji in his ‘Mountains and Waters Sutra’ says, “To a dragon water is like a palace. To a fish, water is like a home. To a hungry ghost water is like fire.” That’s how our life is. We may see this ordinary life that we have now as hell. For many people this is definitely hell. For others it is home, it is a wonderful thing The world is always like this, but there are probably five billion ordinary minds. It depends on what you hold onto, what is your criteria of viewing the world. It is up to each one of us to really make that clear, to really see this eye of Shakyamuni Buddha.

So, how should I direct myself toward it? In the Bendowa it says, “Only Buddhas transmitted to Buddhas without veering off. Self- fulfilling samadhi is its standard.” What does that really mean? Self-fulfilling samadhi basically means no separation. Be this whole universe. There is nothing outside of this. Kuryo Roshi would say about mu, make the whole universe mu and put it right in your hara. There is nothing to be gained on the outside, just be it, thoroughly. It is the same with shikantaza, self-fulfilling samadhi is its criteria. That ‘shikan’ is just nothing outside of this universe, nothing out of sight of this just sitting.

One of the things that I’ve been looking at with shikantaza when I’m really honest about it, is this sense of boredom that I’ve had ever since I first started practice. The tremendous boredom of sitting there. But the more I practice, the more I appreciate boredom. I always used to try and escape it. I would create all kinds of fantasies and of course, life would never match up to those fantasies. But boredom is also a hidden treasure. If you really sit down and be bored, what happens? You see the tremendous stillness of life, its tremendous groundedness. The thing that stops us from experiencing boredom is our expectations, our desire to move the mind, to look for something else. But if you open-heartedly enter into boredom, let go of your preconceptions of how it is, tremendous stillness is there moment by moment. Just this. No need to move anywhere else. Be really bored, let it penetrate to every single part of you.

Master Rinzai had a phrase that I use over and over, “The six rays of divine light never cease to shine. If you see it this way, you are no different than Shakya.” Seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, smelling, thinking, these never cease to shine. How often do we really look and appreciate this life that is our ordinary mind? How is seeing deluded? It’s not. We see directly. We hear directly. Smell directly. There is no defilement there whatsoever. It’s divine in that we can not grasp it, and it’s a tremendous gift. This is ordinary mind. What is there to direct toward? It possesses us and embraces us. Sight embraces all things. Each one of these six senses is a gate in itself, is this ordinary mind. Isn’t it crazy that we look for something else? It’s nuts!

It is not a matter of method. Don’t set up a criteria that if you do something, something will happen. It is not about directing yourself towards anything, it is allowing the “Six rays of divine light” to shine. Illumining that fact. Chinul, the great Korean master, said, “Trace back the radiance.” That’s right effort. See what’s here, experience it, absorb yourself in that.

Confucius says, “The way is at hand, but people look for it far away. Farmers use it every day, without being aware of it. We cannot be separated from the way, even for an instant. What we can be separated from is not the way.” Similarly Dogen Zenji says, “Be blocked by the way.” Everywhere you look, this is the way, you cannot escape it. There is no place that it doesn’t reach. But we impose all kinds of conditions, “I can’t be practicing right, because I’ve run out of money.” The Way is difficult, the Way is beautiful, the Way is ugly.


Deep down we want to know, want to be. We want to have something. We want to hold onto it. We want to be somebody. We want to have something that will comfort us, any time, every day. We do all kinds of things that will make ourselves feel that we have something.

Joshu asked, “How can I know it is the way if I don’t turn toward it?”. Nansen replied, “The Way does not belong to knowing or not knowing.” That’s what it means to stand alone. You don’t need something called enlightenment. In some stage you have to throw away everything extra, any boundary that you have set up. What is important is living your life always in this moment. Not on your terms, but wholeheartedly absorbed in this Way, this great Way of the Buddha and the ancestors. It is not a matter of not knowing either. It is not a matter of trying to blank things out. Things arise, you think you know something, but you don’t. Throw it away. Really stand on your own two feet. Experience life unreservedly. Feel this true knowing in your bones, blood and marrow. That’s the knowledge that you will gain, the wisdom of this momentary experience. You will know it beyond all doubt. And then, as Mumon says in his verse, “The spring flowers, the moon in water. The cool breezes of summer, the winter’s snow. If idle concerns do not concern the mind, this is man’s happiest season.”


Thank you.

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