Not The Wind; Not The Flag Part 1
This koan consists of a brief exchange between a great Zen Master and two monks. I chose this koan because it explicitly mentions “mind” and helps us see how much more Zen includes in that word, when compared to our narrower Western concept of mind.
“The wind was flapping the temple flag. Two monks were arguing about it. One said the flag was moving; the other said the wind was moving. Arguing back and forth they could not agree on the truth. The Sixth Patriarch said, ‘It is neither the wind that is moving nor the flag that is moving. It is your mind that is moving’. The two monks were struck with awe” .
The Sixth Patriarch is none other than Huineng, who is credited with giving Chan (Zen) its distinctive Chinese character by finishing the splicing together of Chinese Daoism with the Indian Buddhism of Bodhidharma .
Let’s start by examining the two monks’ arguments. We might be tempted to reject both positions as one-sided by saying that both the wind and the flag are moving. Alternatively, we might choose to default to our notions of causation by saying that the wind is logically prior to the flag flapping because the flag would not flap without the wind.
In his commentary on this koan, the great twentieth-century Zen Master, Zenkei Shibayama, points out that even the monk who argues that the flag is moving has reason to do so . Wind is invisible unless we see its effects visualized by something that moves as a result. We customarily gauge the wind by seeing how much the outside foliage is moving. So we could say that from a subjective (i.e. human individual) point of view, the fact that things are being blown about is what is important at that moment.
Likewise, as to the wind having priority in an objective cause and effect relationship, we can reasonably object on subjective grounds that it is not really the question of causation that interests us; it is the question of what we should wear today. Besides, the wind is only what lawyers call the “proximate cause”, and begs the question of what causes the wind, which leads to a regress that we usually choose not to pursue 
This example should remind us that there are (at least) two perspectives from which to view any movement or action: one subjective, and the other objective.
It is also important to notice that, as used in our conventional speech, “subjective”, and “objective” map roughly onto the words “emotional” and “rational”, respectively. “Being subjective” connotes having an emotional, self-interested motive, while “being objective” connotes trying to assert a scientific or universal truth that eliminates emotional considerations .
For this reason, it would seem better to find a perspective that includes both subjective and objective perspectives without favoring one over the other. This is exactly what the Sixth Patriarch provides with his intervention. It is not just the wind moving, and it is not just the flag moving, it is your “mind” that is moving.
The “mind” that Huineng refers to has the virtue of including both emotional and rational perspectives without favoring either. We have said elsewhere that with this provision our minds are free to pragmatically use either perspective as called for in decision-making . (This view of mind also seems to match what we actually do!) .
By scooping up both the subjective/emotional aspect and the objective/rational aspect and lumping them together under the heading of “mind”, Huineng is saying that we can stop any analytic regress of our mental life at a point just one step above the objective/subjective fork of dualism [7 ].
This is because Huineng is using “mind” as an all-inclusive term that includes everything that we can ever experience. “Mind” even includes the “unknown unknowns” that we haven’t even conceived of yet, since in order to be experienced in the future, such as-yet-undiscovered concepts can only enter our experience through the mind.
Here, we must always remember that, for Zen, "mind" means the "heart-mind" or "body-mind" represented by a single Chinese character. Each pair of terms declares an identity. Thus, the Chinese word for mind represents both our emotional mind and our rational mind. As I have said previously, this accords with neuroscience and reminds us that "mind" is not a synonym for the brain or neocortex alone, but must include the entire nervous system throughout the body.
Described in this way, “mind” becomes synonymous with the universe as a container of all things that humans can ever experience about the place in which they live.
It is crucial at this point to notice that the mind thus described is, like the universe, conceived as a container uncontained by anything else. This notion is notoriously difficult for human beings to comprehend. It is first in Kant’s list of “antinomies”, i.e. questions that are undecidable by the human mind and mark the limits of human reason.
More to the point, the question whether the universe is finite or infinite in extent was one of the questions that philosophers asked of the Buddha that he answered by remaining silent. His silence was not an admission that he was baffled. Rather, it was a teaching that the human mind is capable of imprisoning itself, and that the path to wisdom and freedom was through seeing that asking that question is based on the delusion that our fundamental nature requires an answer. It does not.
I prefer to put this last point by saying that in our true nature, such questions simply “do not arise”. They do not arise because our true nature does not discriminate between subject and object and hence between inside and outside. Once we realize that we are everything we experience, all boundaries disappear. At that point, any questions based on boundaries and polarities have no fundamental basis .
From a Zen philosophical perspective, it is this antinomy of a container with nothing to contain it that conceals the shameful family secret of Western philosophy. Since both universe or mind are arguably our best candidates for an ultimate (or “complete”, or “final”, or “highest”, or “most general”, or “all-inclusive”) concept, this antinomy is an inherited genetic defect in every Western philosophical construct.
I believe that the Zen koan literature is one of the few collective human efforts to address this antinomy. Briefly stated, Zen does so by showing that the container metaphor (embedded even in set theory) is itself an anthropomorphic projection and delusion, or in Zen parlance, an “empty” trope that must “drop away” if we wish to enjoy true human freedom.
In the words of the Diamond Sutra that gave Huineng his initial insight into his true nature, true freedom requires us to “bring forth the mind that abides nowhere.” That is to say, there is no “final word” or ultimate concept on which to base a “God’s eye view of things”.
Succeeding blogs on this Not the Wind; Not the Flag koan will continue to fill out this distinctive Zen view of mind and universe.
 This text follows the translation used by Shibayama (see also Note 3). The use of the word “awe” here does not signify that the monks had an sudden insight into their true nature, or kensho. It does signify that the monks suddenly recognized that Huineng had said something profoundly true that they were incapable of grasping. For many Zen students, then and now, such an incident is the preconscious beginning of a vow to master the Buddha Way.
. For background on Huineng, see Bring Me Your Mind Part 2 and Original Face Part 2. The “sinification” of Indian Buddhism via Daoism began much earlier through the decisions of early translators to borrow Chinese Daoist terms in translating Sanskrit terms. Nevertheless, Huineng is rightly credited with finishing this process. His Platform Sutra remains a founding document of Zen and helps explain why he was the last Chan Patriarch.
 Once again, I can only recommend that you read Shibayama’s comments on this koan in his The Gateless Barrier – Zen Comments on the Mumonkan (Shambala).
 It is highly significant that we find it irrelevant to pursue causation backwards beyond a certain point. In everyday questions of right and wrong, it is usually sufficient to stop our regress at the most proximate cause of a dispute. As a result, we can’t claim to have complete knowledge of what we are discussing. For us, partial knowledge is effectively regarded as complete for a given context. This resembles the Second Law of Thermodynamics, in which we only measure the collective pressure of gases, while regarding the precise location of molecules within the container as “lost knowledge” deemed irrelevant to our purposes.
 This is the right time to remind readers that earlier posts pointed out that neuroscience has shown that separating the emotional from the rational may be impossible. See The Great Way Is Not Difficult Part 2 at Notes 1 and 2.
 See The Great Way Is Not Difficult Part 3 at Note 7.
 Because “Mind” thus defined includes both the subjective/emotional aspect and the objective/rational aspect it seems a more natural stopping point for human explanations than the infinite regress of the truth predicate required by Tarski’s infinite hierarchy of metalanguages.
 I have previously pointed out that we can reach the point of realizing that we are everything we can ever experience through either “meditation only” (Soto Zen), or meditation combined with koan training (Rinzai Zen). As I said then, either path will ultimately cause us to drop our ceaseless efforts to defend our egos when we realize that we embody the universe and that the universe in all its diversity is our birthright.
The Great Way Is Not Difficult Part 3
This post is devoted to the exchange Zhaozhou had with a spirited member of his assembly. Here, I will use an expanded version of the dialogue based on elements from other translations of this koan (i.e. this version simply removes the square brackets I inserted in Part 1).
Part of that expanded version includes two intriguing sentences that precede the exchange itself: “As soon as words are present there is choosing – there is understanding. This understanding can take the delusive form of attraction and aversion, or can manifest in one’s clarity about our true nature.”
We have discussed the point of the first sentence many times before. For Zen, words can never completely express the complexity of something we experience. Nor can it say anything about the bare “presence” or “being” of a thing, event, or thought, other than to say that “it is”. The word “is”, in my view, is what philosophers call “a primitive”; it cannot be unpacked further except perhaps by adding, “it exists”, or “it is here and now”. These attempted expansions only compound the inscrutability of “is”, by adding the additional primitives “exists”, and “being here and “now”. From a Zen point of view, we could say that the meanings of “is”, “exists”, “here”, and “now” are cached in our bodies .
Next, let’s parse the second sentence. It says that understanding can either result in attraction or aversion – a superficial, delusive understanding, or in clarity about our true nature – a deeper, direct seeing into human nature.
The latter kind of understanding (“clarity”), seems at odds with the sentence that follows: “The Way is not to be found in understanding”.
The second sentence is also at variance with the equivalence implied in the preceding sentence: “As soon as words are present there is choosing – there is understanding”.
Taken together, these two surrounding statements seem to say that “understanding” is not to be trusted because it is equivalent to the prohibited “choosing”. So, how can understanding sometimes lead to “clarity” which I interpret as the clarity produced by the sudden insight that Zen calls kensho?
A quick answer is that anything can trigger kensho if the conditions are right. It can happen on suddenly seeing a scarlet blossom, and it can happen on suddenly seeing a deeper meaning in someone else’s words. The latter is what we have previously called “turning words”.
Whether it is a blossom or words, however, experiencing clarity is a rare occurrence relative to our everyday words and thoughts. The latter normally express explicit or implicit value judgments of the “things” we encounter. As such, they pre-consciously limit our thinking to a particular human use or purpose of the thing in question .
Thus, in encountering the things of this world, we can either see one or more human use-values, or we can see in them a revelation of the fundamental nature of all things, including ourselves.
We are now in position to discuss the exchange between Zhaozhou and his outspoken student. It begins with Zhaozhou saying, “This old monk does not remain in a state of clarity”. Is understanding the thing you uphold and sustain?”  A monk in the assembly then stepped forward and asked, “If you do not remain in clarity, what is it that you sustain and uphold?” Zhaozhou replied, “I don’t know that, either!’ The monk said, ‘If you don’t know that, how can you be sure you don’t remain in clarity?’ Zhaozhou said, ‘It’s fine to inquire into this matter, but now you should return to your seat’.
Zhaozhou’s final statement was that the student’s questioning was fine, but that it was time for him to sit down. Given that others may have perceived their fellow student as disrespectful, Zhaozhou’s rebuff seems mild, even sympathetic .
Be that as it may, let’s examine Zhaozhou’s question to his assembly, “Is understanding the thing you uphold and sustain?” I suggest that we read this as, “Are you attached to understanding things? Here, “understanding” refers to something that becomes a permanent part of our “knowledge” in the form of “facts”. In other words, Zhaozhou’s implication is, “if you believe you can reach a final understanding of things, you are mistaken".
Just before putting his question, Zhaozhou admitted that he himself did not remain in clarity. This was not an admission of personal failure. He was not confessing that he was not enlightened. Rather, given his recognized status as an enlightened teacher, he was saying that no enlightened person enjoys permanent clarity in daily life. Enlightened people are not faultless; they make mistakes.
Zhaozhou’s admission was meant to fundamentally shift his followers’ conceptions of enlightenment so as to free them from illusions of perfectibility. He is telling us that enlightenment does not guarantee the purity of our actions, and that attachment and aversion remain part of the terrain that an enlightened practitioner must navigate daily. This is our practice.
There is another important lesson here about not remaining in clarity. What we should take away from his “admission” is not simply that we often fall short of our ideals. Rather, he is saying we should not remain in clarity. This is because efforts to remain in permanent clarity miss the point of our practice entirely .
Let me explain. The part of Zhaozhou’s talk that disparages striving for understanding in the form of fixed “knowledge” was meant to address the most common form of delusion among Zen students. That delusion is the belief that enlightenment will bring absolute perfection of our behavior at all times. As we have seen, that is a trap for the unwary, who can end up convinced by their subsequent mistakes that they are somehow “not worthy” of enlightenment.
But there is a second, even more insidious kind of delusion that sometimes afflicts Zen students. It is what Zen Masters call the “Zen sickness” of students who have had a glimpse of their true nature and believe they are now fully enlightened and therefore incapable of making mistakes.
Such delusions of grandeur are common in the wake of a kensho experience. Fortunately, in less than a month the tribulations of life teach most students that they still have a long way to go in aligning their behavior with whatever wisdom they gained from their insight.
Unfortunately, some such students become hoarders of their kensho experience. In order to protect their treasured memory, they end up “hiding on their cushions” in a quietism that disappears as soon as they rise from their cushions to resume daily life. This part-time quietism is meant to shut out all the doubts that would naturally occur to any practitioner who lives a normal life. This is called being “trapped in the Cave of Mara” , and reminds me of Tolkien’s Gollum, who hides in sunless caves in order to protect his “precious” ring of power.
In saying that he does not remain in clarity, Zhaozhou is warning his students that they should not take permanent clarity as their goal, any more than they should make a goal of reaching some form of fixed “understanding”.
In Zen terms, a fixed understanding is a rigid attachment to the forms (ideas or concepts) generated by the mind, while permanent clarity is a mistaken attachment to the emptiness (i.e. the utter openness) that allows the mind to generate those forms as human needs require.
What Zhaozhou is saying, then, is that his students should somehow go beyond understanding and clarity. How does one do this? It is by not worrying about using either perspective to get a job done, as long as one remains fully aware that neither perspective represents the whole picture .
The gateless gate between the two perspectives is the realm of true freedom, according to Zen. Anxiety is fatally undermined when one has avoided picking and choosing by following one’s intuitions as we have described previously. This carefree passage back and forth between the two perspectives is the means by which Zen transcends (goes beyond) dualism.
We are now in a position to address two remaining questions. The first is to ask why Zhaozhou responds to the student’s first question by saying “I don’t know that either!” That first question was how Zhaozhou can “uphold and sustain” anything if he goes in and out of clarity.
What is the significance of the word “either” here? This “either” refers to the student himself and in effect says, “I, a Zen Master, am as much in the dark about how it works as you are!”
The point is that Zhaozhou doesn’t trouble himself about how this wisdom of not knowing works; it is enough to have learned through experience that it does. He does not know the precise source of this freedom – he just knows freedom is the fruit of practicing The Way. This wisdom is the only difference between him and the student . With this answer, his teaching is complete. There is nothing to be added. Attentive readers of this blog should recognize that with this comment, Zhaozhou has given us a perfect demonstration of the intimacy of not knowing .
And so, when the student asks his second question (about why Zhaozhou refuses to describe what he upholds and sustains as “understanding”), Zhaozhou terminates the exchange by saying that the first question was a natural one, given the student’s limited awareness, but that he has already been given the only answer he will ever find on his own. Sending him back to his seat at that point is saying, “Just ponder my first answer to confirm its truth for yourself”.
The remaining unaddressed question is how a koan student should present their understanding of this koan. Here, as elsewhere, I will only suggest a way to approach this question.
Imagine that it is time to order dessert in a restaurant. You ask what flavors of ice cream they have and the waiter says they only offer chocolate and vanilla. Given that choice, I would order chocolate without hesitation. Why? I don’t know, it is just that I “like” chocolate. Is there any picking and choosing involved? No, because I don’t need to “understand” why I like chocolate, I just do.
Now, what will you order?
 The expression “cached in the body” is my way of describing the sources of linguistic “meaning”. The philosopher Wittgenstein roused the philosophy of language from its slumbers by holding that words do not name “things” but refer to human “uses” that he called “forms of life”. These “forms” are whole networks of meaning that extend into the physical movements necessary to achieve the human purpose being addressed by a particular act of will. As such, we can say these meanings are “hidden” in the body to the extent they involve “muscle memory” at a pre-conscious level. In this sense, all meanings ultimately “disappear into the body”, i.e. become lost in the complexity of our nervous system. We can’t further specify any particular meaning because at that point we “lose its tracks”.
 All of our ideas and meanings of “things” are based on the use-values or purposes of those things for a particular person or group at a particular time. For example, landowners might see the trees on their property in terms of their commercial value for lumber. Other owners might see the value of their trees in the beauty they lend to their estates. Even when they cursorily happen to notice their trees, they pre-consciously activate a network of alternative (i.e. conflicting) values. Though philosophers starting with Hume tried to distinguish between facts and values, Many philosophers of science today argue that all “facts” are pre-consciously “value-laden” because they are derived from an individual or group perspective regarding human needs. Such facts are “empty” in Zen terms because they are relative only (i.e. they are not “total” or all-encompassing). As such, any decision about what to do with particular things is “self-ish”, and though necessary to carry on with our communal lives, effectively restricts our ability to see that thing in its totality (i.e. as representing the universe in all its relations). That latter ability, from the Zen perspective, is what we must experience at least once in order to ever truly understand who we are.
 I believe “uphold and sustain” was Andy Ferguson’s best effort to translate a polysemous pair of Chinese characters. Thomas Cleary translates Zhaozhou’s question as, “do you still preserve anything or not” [from what I said about not remaining in clarity]. Katsuki Sekida, to whom I generally defer, translates the question as, “Do you appreciate the meaning of this or not”, where this again refers to the preceding statement about clarity. Sekida then (correctly, in my opinion), adds by way of clarification: “Do you value the attitude of mind that does not stick to anything”. Ferguson’s translation may have been an attempt to get close to the literal meanings of the characters, which are [Do you] protect/defend | a favorite side [on this issue?]
 I have called the student “spirited” and “outspoken”. As a teacher, Zhaozhou was treated with customary reverence by his disciples. The way this monk stepped forward to cross-examine Zhaozhou may have struck the other students as disrespectful. Still, this bold student is asking Zhaozhou a question that most students would like to ask their teacher but for lack of courage: “What is it that you understand about The Way that I do not yet understand?” His questioning is therefore both brave and compassionate. It is compassionate because he risks being rebuked for impertinence in order that they all might learn more through his effort.
 The point of our practice is illuminated by Dogen Zenji in Actualizing the Fundamental Point (Genjo Koan): “Those who have great realization of delusion are buddhas; those who are greatly deluded about realization are [ordinary] sentient beings.” Buddhas greatly realize delusion when they stop trying escape it.
 Mara, whose name means “death” or “murder” is the Buddhist Satan who tried unsuccessfully to thwart Buddha’s enlightenment, and continues to tempt Buddhists to abandon their vows.
 This is why Zen should be considered a variety of pragmatism.
 Those with a background in philosophy will see this that this Zen view of wisdom coincides perfectly with that of Socrates.
 See the earlier posts: “Not Knowing Is Most Intimate” Parts 1-3.
The Great Way Is Not Difficult, Part 2
In Part 1, I said that our koan, The Great Way Is Not Difficult, “provides a revealing emotional context” for the preceding koan, Ordinary Mind Is The Way. It also provides further insight into our earlier koan, Not Knowing Is Most Intimate.
To reveal the relation between our present koan and those earlier koans, we must ask how the former deepens our appreciation of the latter. To put that question in terms that we have discussed previously, we can ask, “When Zhaozhou tells his assembled students, ‘Your old teacher does not remain in clarity’”, was this “not remaining in clarity” the “blankness” of Ordinary Mind Is The Way, or the “intimacy” of Not Knowing Is Most Intimate?
To answer that question, we must examine the role of emotions in all three koans. Among other things, this examination will help us see that Western philosophy of mind must be reset from an enterprise preoccupied with “rationality” and “objectivity”, to one that synthesizes the “rational” and the “irrational”. “Irrational” is the classification given by Western Enlightenment philosophers to the emotions they called “passions”, and “sentiments”.
The drive to unmoor philosophy of mind from its obsession with “pure reason” in its various versions is well underway due to the perturbing influence of neuroscience. The work of Joseph Ledoux and Michael Gazzaniga in the 1970’s initiated the growing popular, quasi-scientific belief that all of our higher cognitive functions are mediated by the amygdala, popularly dubbed “our fear center”.
This “fear center” is part of the limbic system (popularly dubbed our “reptilian brain”) that underlies our later-evolving neocortex . Our currently popular notion of the amygdala regards it as a repository of past experiences that evoked great fear or trauma, creating more deeply inscribed neuronal circuits that take precedence in both speed and influence over our slower-moving functions of abstract reasoning.
Note that this emerging popular notion of fear is in potential conflict with certain philosophical notions about fear. For instance, we call fears “rational” when they arise in situations where we believe fear is “warranted”. On the other hand, fears that are “excessive” or “unwarranted” are called “irrational”.
From a Zen point of view, separating “rational” fears from “irrational” fears only obscures our true nature. That separation creates a polarity of opposites that seems substantial but is not. Both kinds of fear exercise their power through a synthesis of emotion and reason.
I can’t resist observing here that the Yogacarin model of a “Storehouse Consciousness” that mediates all our actions, whether good or bad, rational or irrational, seems on its face to provide exactly the synthesis of the rational and irrational that we are looking for.
Returning to our question about the nature of Zhaozhou’s not remaining in clarity, our past discussions should have indicated that Zhaozhou’s statement reveals his “intimacy”, rather than his “blankness”.
As we saw, these two terms have markedly different emotional content. With “blankness”, there is a paralyzing confusion (e.g.“drawing a blank”) when suddenly confronted with an event or query that demands a response there and then. Anyone who has “choked” in such a situation knows that is both painful and embarrassing. The accompanying sense of impotence makes one feel like a failure, especially when that "failure of the will" is witnessed by others.
Koan students certainly feel this kind of shame when they cannot answer the teacher’s questions about a koan, even though they realize that no one can expect to “triumph” in every such encounter. Their embarrassment is keen because they believe that Zen practice should have made them unflappable in meeting challenges. They should realize that the challenge in the interview room is merely a ritual challenge (albeit potentially transformative) meant to build their capacity to meet more substantial challenges in real life. Yet their momentary failure still stings.
It may sound flippant, but I can assure you that their embarrassment is due to the fact that they still believe in their own egos. Long-term meditation and koan practice erodes this belief. Once a certain threshold is crossed – either suddenly or gradually  – they will realize that even feeling embarrassed is just a mark of being human; it is just the Great Dao at work, and no real “failure” at all.
As Dogen kindly reminds us, all of us are overwhelmed at times, and that this is what allows us to see our true nature: “Mind overwhelms mind, words overwhelm words. Overwhelming overwhelms overwhelming and sees overwhelming. Overwhelming is nothing but overwhelming”. In other words, being overwhelmed is just part of the human condition that helps us to see (realize and come to terms with) our true nature.
Even accepting that being overwhelmed is part of the human condition will not automatically eliminate the pain of feeling overwhelmed. However, to the extent that meditation and koan training allow us to see that the ego is an illusion, we will begin to empty the ego of its sting and this source of mental suffering will diminish. 
To those who find it hard to accept that the ego is an illusion, I offer the following metaphor. The ego – that persuasive sense of a personal self, separate from every other “thing” in the universe – is simply an illusion very much like the phantom limb phenomenon in amputees.
That an amputee feels pain is not an illusion; the pain is real. But fear that the missing limb is experiencing harm is an illusion. There is no limb so there is no real cause for alarm.
Because the specific neural causes of phantom limb pain are various, so are the modalities for treating them. Interestingly, in some cases, cognitive therapy and meditation help to reduce the condition .
Likewise, there is only an imagined ego and thus there is no real harm to our true nature. The causes of “ego pain” are likewise various, including the death of a loved one, a job loss, a divorce, or the failure of an important relationship through a sense of betrayal or abandonment. Yet in most cases we are beginning to recover a year or so after the trauma even without therapy or meditation.
Indeed, I attribute this natural healing process to our subconscious awareness that we are more than than the isolated ego we think we are. For that reason, I have no doubt that meditation and therapy can accelerate this spontaneous healing process.
Now, what has all this to do with Zhaozhou declaring that he does not remain in clarity? The answer in a word is, “everything”. His declaration is not that of someone who is admitting the sense of capitulation and defeat that we have classified as “blankness”. Instead, it is the declaration of an enlightened person who remains resolute, even when events overwhelm him. The enlightened person is also perfectly comfortable with experiences of yielding to the delusions of a normal human being (i.e. attachment and aversion). When their “mastery” of the Great Dao seems to fail them, they remain at ease because they can honestly say, as other Masters have said before and since, “I am perfectly intimate with this” (i.e. “I am perfectly all right with the way that I am right now”).
Hopefully, you will take encouragement from learning that Zen Masters do not always remain in a state of perfection. Rather, Zen "mastery" consists in rapidly recovering from the experience of failure or defeat. Again, my favorite quote regarding this particular fruit of our practice is that of the anonymous twentieth-century Japanese Master who, when asked to describe his attitude in hard times, answered, “Things are difficult right now, but I am doing pretty well!” That, in one sentence, is the attitude of an enlightened person facing difficulty.
On a deeper level, however, the notion of “recovery” from failure is itself a delusion, because the notion of personal "failure" is likewise a delusion of the ego. Zen Masters of every era know that the enlightened mind is a wide open bridge over which horses and donkeys (“the more desirable” and “the less desirable”) pass freely all day long. 
In Part 3, we will turn our attention to what we can learn from the exchange between Zhaozhou and his outspoken student.
 Joseph Ledoux has publicly apologized for inadvertently contributing to the popular view that all our emotions reside in our limbic system. See, for instance, his book, Anxious, or his podcast discussion at:
Ledoux believes that our neocortex participates with our limbic system in creating what he interestingly calls, "the experience of fear". This suggests to me that fear is a a hybrid product of our minds that Zen would regard as an ego-based "illusion". LeDoux also carefully distinguishes fear from anxiety, regarding the latter as a generalized reaction to deep-seated pessimism about the future, whereas fear is an alert to a present danger triggered by a specific object or event. (Pace LeDoux, from my own experience representing veterans with PTSD, I continue to believe that some traumas are encoded solely in limbic system, making them extremely difficult to reach through cognitive therapy.)
 Benjamin Libet, a university physiology professor, set off a firestorm in philosophy when he highlighted research implying that unconscious neuronal processes ready us to act before we have made any conscious decision to act. This could mean that our notions of free will are mistaken, or in need of serious retooling. Faced with anxious queries from philosophers, Libet pointed out that reason can override our unconscious (emotional?) predilections if we pause long enough to review and ratify our wishes with our slower neocortical circuitry. Along similar lines, see also Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow.
 And because the Yogacarin model rejects the concept of a personal self, it has the added virtue of providing something like Jung’s “collective consciousness of mankind”. We would likely entertain Jung’s hypothesis of archetypes more favorably if we put it in popular-scientific terms by pointing out that much of our behavior is, after all, genetically and epigenetically “hardwired” in our brains in a way that connects us to everyone equipped with the standard mental functionality of Homo Sapiens, past, present, or future.
 For those who know their Zen history, I am not referring here to the controversies regarding sudden vs. gradual enlightenment, the early Southern vs. Northern Schools of Chan, koan zen vs. "silent illumination", or Rinzai vs. Soto. As a practitioner belonging to a Soto reform lineage that stresses the importance of koan training, I long ago decided that enlightenment can come suddenly or gradually, since I have met people who were clearly enlightened, whether or not they ever had a sudden, "cosmic wow" experience. I of course also agree with the many Rinzai teachers who insist that insights that come suddenly must be followed by years of practice in which we gradually bring our behavior in line with those sudden insights. In my own experience, this process has been a real but grudgingly gradual one.
 The quoted language comes from Uji or The Time Being, in Section 17 of Tanahashi, Moon in a Dewdrop. Here, Dogen is saying that when the complexity and ambiguity of sense data overwhelm all our defenses based on concepts and words, we must cast away those concepts and words and simply see the true nature of things directly. We can see directly precisely because all our preconceptions have been swept away, leaving us clear-eyed to see who we really are.
 This statement about diminished "sting" is based on my own experience. The idea that failure allows us to see our true nature was beautifully expressed by my fellow koan practitioner, the late Leonard Cohen, in the last lines of his song "Anthem":
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in
That's how the light gets in.
 For an overview of the phantom limb phenomenon (PLP), see:
 This reference to horses and donkeys comes from the koan, "What Is The Bridge of Zhaozhou", that I will discuss in a future post.
DEAR READER: I am sorry to announce that personal issues of time and energy require me to slow down the publication of new posts from weekly to biweekly. I hope that those intrepid readers who have stuck with me thus far will understand.
The Great Way Is Not Difficult, Part 1
This week’s koan was intentionally chosen to follow the last series on “Ordinary Mind Is The Way”. In our new koan, the mature Zhaozhou, without ever referring to “ordinary mind”, remains consistent with Nanchuan’s position in that earlier exchange from his youth, but also provides a revealing emotional context for what Shibayama called “true ordinary mind” in our discussion of “Ordinary Mind Is The Way”.
Various English translations of our new koan differ significantly in rendering certain pivotal phrases. Here, I follow the terse translation of Andy Ferguson, but add some paraphrases in brackets to expand on selected phrases by incorporating elements from other translations 
Zhaozhou told his assembly, “Attaining the Way is not difficult. Just disdain choosing [just avoid preferring one thing over another, (i.e. thinking one thing is better than another)]. As soon as words are present there is choosing – there is understanding [this understanding can take the delusive form of attraction and aversion, or can manifest in one’s clarity about our true nature]. It [the Way] is not to be found in understanding. Is understanding the thing you uphold and sustain? [Do you make understanding your highest value? If so, know that this old monk does not remain in clarity. Now, what do make of what I have said?]
A monk asked, “Since it is not to be found in understanding, what is to be upheld and sustained […what do you think should have the highest value]?
Zhaozhou said, “I don’t know”.
The monk said, “Since the master doesn’t know what it [the Way] is, how can you say that it isn’t within understanding [since you don’t “remain in clarity”, how can you be sure that The Way can’t be understood]?
Zhaozhou said, “Ask and you have [received] an answer. Then bow and withdraw [“It was fine to ask that first question. I answered that, and now you should return to your seat”].
Now, the first two sentences above come from the poem Trust In Mind, attributed to Sengcan, the Third Chan Patriarch after Huike, who was featured in the post on “Bring Me Your Mind”.
That poem, consisting of 146 four-word lines, says everything that Zen has to say about “mind” (or “heart”, remembering that the same Chinese character stands for both). Accordingly, Zhaozhou’s own added words in this koan merely show rather than say what he learned from that poem!
So, what are we to learn from Zhaozhou quoting the lines: “Attaining the Way is not difficult. Just disdain choosing”?
These two quoted sentences say in effect, “Enlightenment is not difficult, it just requires showing no preferences among the things we encounter in life”. Of course, the irony here is that “having no preferences” might strike us as even more difficult to achieve then enlightenment! .
Who can deny that people express their preferences all day, every day? The idea that we could just stop having preferences seems to put enlightenment out of reach for everyone but people without normal human sentiments – a kind of person none of us would ever want to be.
But do these lines really mean that we must become robots that lack all human feeling to be enlightened? No. To find a way out of this apparent trap means finding a way to keep our full inventory of moral sentiments and yet somehow “have no preferences”.
Recall I said that Zen resulted from the influence of Chinese Daoism on the Indian Buddhism of Bodhidharma. And this is where the Daoist notion of Wei wu wei comes to our rescue. Wu wei literally means, “no action”, “no doing”, or “without effort". Wei wu wei means “acting without acting”, “doing without doing”, or “acting without effort”.
But how are we to understand this paradoxical “doing without doing”? This is where the Buddhist part of Zen comes to our rescue. Recall our previous discussions of selfish vs. selfless actions. Next, recall that I coined the neologism “self-ish” in order to include, not only “selfish” (morally unacceptable) actions, but any action that issued from a conscious or unconscious belief in a personal “self”.
As we said in those discussions, any action that is selfless is not self-ish because it comes from a source larger than the “self” of common sense. In fact, that source is as large as the universe because everything in the universe is interrelated and has an influence on what we do, however small.
Once we take the view that the only “self” is the whole universe, we see there is no self at all, since there is nothing left to be opposed to or distinguished from that universe-encompassing “self”. After all, the only use of the concept of a personal self is to distinguish it (and separate it) from the rest of the universe. As soon as “self” is understood as the universe (referred to in some texts as "Self"), the idea of a personal self loses its function, and is seen to be “empty" from a Zen point of view. This is why Zen Masters insist that what we call “self” is identical with what they call “not-self”.
In other words, because the one that is acting is the entire universe, the “you” of common sense is not acting. Again, this is because the conventional sense of “you” loses its function or "use" and becomes “empty” in the Zen sense. "You", of course has a function in daily speech by distinguishing between you and me. But if you are really the whole universe and I am really the whole universe, then there is no longer any need to distinguish between us from the absolute perspective of Zen that we take in koan work. Thus, that supposed “you” is actually just the "flow” of the universe. This is precisely the kind of harmonization with the universe that is praised in the Daodejing. Consider this description of from Chapter 48:
In pursuit of knowledge, every day some knowledge is gained
In pursuit of Dao, every day some knowledge is lost
The Sage does less and less
Until non-action is mastered
When nothing is done, nothing is left undone
The world is ruled by letting it take its course
It cannot be ruled by interfering
Understanding wei wu wei requires accepting the idea that belonging to the universe means that there is no personal “self” in the conventional sense. Only then can we see that our actions are not our actions but the labor of the entire universe. When we accept this, perhaps we can then accept that our actions are non-actions made with only imagined (albeit vividly felt) effort on our part.
All of this is likely to leave newcomers and non-meditators unconvinced. If so, they might want to read Endnote 6. It will not convince them either, but might help clear some underbrush and persuade them to keep an open mind on this topic.
In Part 2 of our discussion of “The Great Way Is Not Difficult”, we will turn to the meaning(s) of the line, “Your old teacher does not remain in a state of clarity".
 Warnings and Reminders: My choice of koans and their ordering in this series are influenced by my declared interest in how understanding koan training can suggest how to reform Western philosophy of mind to accommodate the disruptive onset of neuroscience. Also remember that each post is dependent on earlier posts that introduce Buddhist concepts to newcomers as needed to understand the posts that follow. Later posts refer to points made in earlier ones, and may be unintelligible without reading all the others in order.
 Other translations include (in my preferred order) those of Katsuki Sekida, in Two Zen Classics, James Green in The Recorded Sayings of Zen Master Joshu, and Thomas Cleary in The Blue Cliff Record.
 Others translate this line as, “I don’t know that, either! This is an interesting echo of an earlier dialogue between the great early master, Shih-tou and a student, who asked about the meaning of Buddhism, to which Shih-tou replied, “Ask the wooden post over there.” The student replied, “I do not understand”. Shih-tou said, “neither do I!” Both masters are saying that the Great Dao can’t be captured in words and phrases, but is to be found by each of us from an unknowable source we all possess. D.T. Suzuki, writing at the height of interest in Freudian psychodynamics, simply called this source “the Unconscious” to give Westerners an alternative sense of an unconscious that is active, ever-changing, and unanalyzable.
 Many modern scholars believe the poem was written well after the death of Sengcan (pron. “Seng-Tsan). Little is known of Sengcan, who lived in hiding during a period of persecution by an anti-Buddhist emperor. In fact, some argue that the entire list of Chinese Chan patriarchs is itself a later selection of notable teachers from each generation succeeding Bodhidharma, and that Sengcan may be a later “fill-in” for that purpose.
 Because of this equivalence, titles of the poem in English translation vary, including “Faith in Mind”, “Trust in Mind”, “On Trust in the Heart”, “Inscribed on the Believing Heart”, and “Have Faith in Your Heart”.
 Whoever wrote the line, “Attaining the Way is not difficult”, could assume their reader’s familiarity with Chapter 2 of the Daodejing: “Hard and easy produce each other” (trans. Red Pine). Such adjectives are illusory, or, in Zen terms, “empty”, because they are relative and depend on first answering the question, “Compared to what?”
 See “Ordinary Mind Is The Way, Part 2”. There I took the paradigm of the selfless subway rescuer and extended it to cover any ordinary act in which self-regard plays no part. See also the discussion of Yogacarin views of how both selfless and selfish actions are produced by the “Storehouse Consciousness”.
 First, note that the “loss of knowledge” in pursuit of the Dao should be understood in the sense we learned in our discussions of “Not Knowing Is Most Intimate”. Second, Buddhist social justice activists like myself refuse to interpret the description of wei wu wei in Chapter 48 as saying that the struggle against injustice must be abandoned. On the contrary, what the Daodejing says is that we must be completely clear and without illusions about what is happening and not make matters worse by taking a self-ish attitude of anger or moral superiority towards other people. It is the entire universe that is acting, and this is what allows Thich Nhat Hanh to say that “there are no enemies”, fundamentally speaking. Indeed, precisely because the entire universe is responsible, any efforts to make changes are themselves a completely natural, organic function of the Dao. Therefore, we are not “interfering” with the course of the world. Our actions for social justice are the course of the world at that moment and those actions thereby qualify as “non-actions” and as being made “without effort”.
Ordinary Mind Is The Way, Part 3
There is one more section of the koan that deserves special attention. It is: ““Dao does not belong to knowing or not-knowing. Knowing is delusion; not-knowing is confusion and indecision.”
You should know that Shibayama, whom I regard as the gold standard, translates this line as, “Dao does not belong to knowing or not-knowing. Knowing is delusion; not-knowing is blankness” (emphasis added).
Let’s parse this section carefully, since it launches the part of the koan that led to the youthful Zhaozhou’s first enlightenment experience under Nanchuan.
“Dao does not belong to knowing or not-knowing” is a validation by the great teacher Nanchuan of a point that I have been trying to make in every post before this one. That is, that Zen views words as inadequate to express the whole of our human experience, which includes feelings and intuitions that are subjectively “real” to us but cannot be fully expressed in words.
For that reason, I have argued that such “states of mind” are most fully expressed by the actions we perform when we are experiencing a specific feeling in that very moment. I have also argued that our response to a given koan must therefore be conveyed in a “bodily” fashion including movements, gestures and utterances of the kind philosophers call “speech acts”
In the case of koans, I have said that any verbal utterance is not important for its semantic content but only for what it directly conveys about your view of reality.
Now, why is it that this kind of “embodied” communication does not belong to knowing or not-knowing?
It is because knowledge is conventionally regarded as being expressible in words in the form of “facts”, such as “Charlemagne was King of the Franks”. Facts are typically in the form of propositions that, if fully expanded, would say, “x is true”, where x is the fact being stated.
In recent Western philosophy such statements are called “knowing that x”, and are to be distinguished from “knowing how knowledge”. The latter concerns how we do something – what we commonly call “know-how”. Riding a bicycle, for instance, requires knowing how to keep your balance, something that cannot be described in words, but must be learned in the body. This relatively recent distinction shows that Western philosophy is now edging toward a conclusion that Chinese Zen Masters made more than a thousand years ago: that a verb is more revelatory than a noun, and that a verb’s fuller content cannot be captured in a series of nouns or categories.
As I have said many times, Dao does not belong to knowing and not-knowing because it shows itself via actions, rather than says what it is via words. How our united body-mind acts moment to moment cannot be represented in words, which only speak indirectly about this living flow of action. As Dizang told Fayan, “from the point of view of Buddhism, everything directly presents itself”. This means that the only way you can present the “how” (or Dao) of action is to re-enact that action whole-heartedly with your own body-mind right now.
The mature Zhaozhou, when asked to say something about Dao, simply said, “It’s alive! It’s alive!” Such skillful means (upaya)! This says everything that has been said in this blog about our Way not being a “thing”, but rather a dynamic “working” or flow of action that cannot be exhaustively explained in words.
That is enough of our review. We must now to return to parsing the next challenging sentence, “Knowing is delusion; not-knowing is blankness.”
First, why is knowing “delusion”? We have just said that knowledge consists of “facts” stated in words (or in the mathematics of physics). Aren’t facts valid knowledge proven by the scientific method? Are we saying that even these proven scientific truths are delusions?
In the first centuries of “our common era” (i.e. the years A.D) Buddhism rendered this apparent denial of our common sense benign by declaring that there are two kinds of truth, each valid in its sphere: conventional truth and ultimate truth.
“Conventional truth” is the truth of “objective reality” as required by our linguistic and mathematical conventions. Such conventions are needed for human survival, human communication and society itself. This “two-truth theory” says that we may rely on conventional truth for all of our social objectives, including science and technology.
On the other hand, “ultimate truth” goes beyond objective reality to cover the reality of our subjective lives, including our feelings, desires, hopes, and fears. The ultimate truth of Zen is that all these subjective states are figments of our imagination insofar as they are based on belief in a “self”. Thus, the idea of an independent self that needs hypervigilance to protect itself from the rest of the universe is a delusion because it springs from ignorance of our true nature.
Realizing that our common sense view of self is an empty construct (a delusion) devoid of any real substance, is a seismic event that ultimately sweeps like a tsunami through our common sense views of objective reality as well. We see that all of our concepts of “things” are limited by the self-ish  purposes for which we want to use them. As such, they are suspect of being incomplete at best, and deceptive at worst.
This brings us to the second clause, “not-knowing is blankness.” Here you may have detected a dissonance between Shibayama’s “not-knowing is blankness” and the preceding three-part blog on “Not knowing is most intimate”. In those posts, not-knowing was described as a positive step on the path to enlightenment by leading to a nondual union of subject and object. Here in contrast, the word “blankness” seems to hint at a paralyzing inability to unite with anything whatsoever. Thus, both knowing and not knowing are incapable of leading us to enlightenment.
Is there a way to reconcile the “intimacy of not-knowing” with the “blankness of not-knowing” so that we can affirm them both? Yes, I see two ways, one obvious and one subtle.
The obvious way to reconcile intimacy and blankness is to assign them to two different states of mind. The intimacy of not-knowing, as we said in those earlier posts, consists of absolute acceptance of, and union with, what is before us, leading to a spontaneous and appropriate response.
On the other hand, the blankness of not-knowing is what happens when we have absolutely no idea of what to do in response to a question. It is the same as being “flummoxed”, “baffled” or “bewildered”. I believe this is why Sekida chooses to translate “blankness” as “confusion”.
This kind of blankness or confusion is familiar to koan students, who often don’t know what to say or do to answer the teacher’s questions during interviews. The student’s glum silence can be quite embarrassing to the student, but not to the teacher. The teacher responds by calmly ringing for the next student, but may also exhort the student to try harder, or briefly suggest a new way of looking at the problem. In any case, the student becomes increasingly motivated to say or do something – anything – in the next interview. This is as it should be.
Thus, the not-knowing that is intimate and the not-knowing that is blankness each have their own proper sphere. These two spheres can be described quite simply: “blankness” applies to people who have not yet had an insight into their true nature (kensho), while “intimacy” applies to people who have had at least an initial insight into that nature.
In Case 19, the youthful Zhaozhou still believes it is possible to “know” Dao. It is only when he is told that Dao is like an immaculate void, in which right and wrong serve no purpose and drop away, that he had an insight. Before those turning words, he was in a state of blankness as shown by his need to ask, “What is Dao?”
At that point, Zhoazhou’s blankness is that of someone who doesn’t have the insight needed to answer his own question. He is still confused and poses question after question based on that lack of insight until Nanchuan “shuts his yap for him”, as Zhaozhou himself said much later about his own technique with students.
In contrast, Fayan achieved an initial insight into, and intimacy with, his own true nature when he heard Dizang say, “Not knowing is most intimate”. As an expert in Buddhist philosophy, he was in a perfect position to suddenly see that his many writings could never fully exhaust human reality, and that the reality of being human could only be fully experienced by a person who puts no preconceptions in the way of that experience.
So what kind of presentation should a koan student make to demonstrate their understanding of “Ordinary Mind Is The Way”? I will only say that almost anything that shows you living your daily life will do. There is no need to for that demonstration to show that you have attained “true ordinary mind”; your presentation of your daily machinations will show the teacher that you understand that your true ordinary mind shines through everything you do.
Finally, I will add an extended comment that Buddhists with an interest in Buddhist thought might want to consider. This is the second, “subtle” way to reconcile opposites that I mentioned earlier.
In researching the two Chinese characters that were translated either as “blankness” or “confusion”, I found that they are a rare combination that was used to translate a Sanskrit epistemological term inherited from early Indian Buddhism. That term means “indeterminate”, or “unascertainable”, and it was applied to the series of thorny metaphysical questions that an Indian philosopher asked the Buddha and that he chose to answer by remaining silent.
Clearly, the Buddha’s silence was “thundering”, as they say of Vimalakirti’s silence in answer to similar questions. Their silence meant that there was no need to ask such questions, and that they have already automatically "dropped away" because they never actually arise in our true nature. After all, once we understand the emptiness of our true nature, such questions will be seen as delusions resulting from our ignorance that should be cast away before they become impediments to our Buddhist Way.
For me, this stance indicates that we should see that any polarity, such as between blankness and intimacy or knowing and not knowing, is a form of dualism that must ultimately be cast away, no matter how helpful it is for pointing a student in the right direction (upaya).
Even more significantly, it means that all polarities of opposites and all resulting dualisms are already eliminated, even for those without insight! For Buddhists, it is settled that we are already enlightened, even when we don’t realize it. As I said above, your true ordinary mind underlies everything you do and shines through those actions even if you don’t notice it!
But how is that possible? It is possible in the same way that “form is already emptiness and emptiness is already form” is possible. It is possible in the same way as “samsara is already nirvana and nirvana is already samsara” is possible. Fundamentally, every polarity vaporizes because the two poles regarded as “opposites” by common sense are ultimately seen as being totally interdependent and interpenetrating. This applies to our notions of good and bad as well, meaning that our true ordinary mind spans both like a bridge.
This may strike the reader as “a bridge too far” to cross. Don’t worry about this addendum; just keep an open mind about its possible implications. Does this addendum mean that you must alter your presentation of “Ordinary Mind Is The Way”? No. If you have understood these added comments at all, you will see that no change is needed. The same true ordinary mind will shine through your actions.
 Many translators use the words, “the Dao”, in contexts like this. I follow Shibayama who I believe drops the “the” because it encourages the unschooled reader to think Dao is a “thing” or some separate realm.
 As I admitted in the endnotes to Part 1, this was my own preferred reading for pedagogical reasons. I took the word “confusion” from the translation of Katsuki Sekida. I then added the word “indecision” to describe the effect confusion has on someone facing a tough question.
 Throughout this Part 3, I have used Shibayama’s hyphenated version of “not knowing”. I believe he intended thereby to put our conventional term “not knowing” into the same category as “not-self” and “not-mind”, Zen terms that connote that, for those who have directly seen their true nature, self and mind are identical with the “not-self” and “not-mind”. This may be significant for reasons set out at the very end of this post. There, I believe that Shibayama would agree that all dualisms are already eliminated as implied by the identity of mind and not-mind.
 They are considered “acts” because they produce an intended effect on all listeners rather than conveying information. The classic example of a speech act is the utterance “I do” in a marriage ceremony; this utterance has major social effects beyond letting others know that the bride and groom are glad.
 This is why some koans consist of Masters answering a student’s question about Dharma by quoting from an ancient poem describing the flora of a beautiful locale that seemingly has nothing to do with the subject of the student’s question. The poem is the Master’s effort to get the student to drop their logic-chopping question and directly experience the sublime wholeness of reality.
 Readers with some knowledge of twentieth-century philosophy will be reminded of the show vs. say distinction made by the early Wittgenstein, who said that the words of a sentence are a “picture” of a logical reality. But he allowed for “mystical” statements that attempt to show rather than say the reality of the unsayable. The later Wittgenstein changed his view of linguistic meaning from one of “logical pictures” corresponding to “states of affairs” in the world, to a view in which meanings were the manifold human uses that human beings put to combinations of words. Thus in both the early and the late Wittgenstein, he gestured toward the unsayability of human actions that can only be shown in human actions. This similarity to Buddhism and Zen has been noted by several Western philosophers.
 The word “selfish” will not do here because it means being greedy or covetous to a morally unacceptable degree. I use the word “self-ish”, not to make any moral judgment, but to describe any action that springs from our egocentric belief in a self, whether or not it is selfish in the moral sense.
 Surprisingly (or not!), those questions were the same as Kant’s “antinomies” about whether space, time, and the universe, were finite or infinite or had a beginning or end. In Kant’s view, we need to postulate answers based on an intrinsic religious faith. In contrast, the Buddha’s silence covered all four possible answers to any question as recognized in Indian logic. These were: the answer is “yes”, the answer is “no”, the answer is “both”, the answer is “neither”. A seasoned Buddhist might be tempted to answer, “both” or “neither” – or even, “all of the above”! Buddha’s silence denies us such philosophical satisfaction, and forces us to discover our unsayable true nature.
 In the first century A.D. Vimalakirti Sutra, a prosperous and virtuous Buddhist layman is asked by the primordial Bodhisattva of Wisdom (Manjushri) to give his views on dualism and nondualism after first giving Vimalakirti his own view, which was that we fall immediately into dualism when we try to explain something in words. When it came time for Vimalakirti to give his view, he remained silent with a fierce expression. Manjushri conceded this was the better answer. Like the Buddha’s silence, even if we can argue that Manjushri’s view was true in some sense, it is still not as complete as Vimalakirti’s action.
 Zhaozhou took his name from his temple’s location in a town with a famous bridge. He was once asked by a monk, “What is the bridge of Zhaozhou?” This was a clever way of asking, “What is the mind of Zhaozhou?” or, “What is enlightenment?” He replied, “Horses and donkeys cross over it”. He meant that better and worse qualities cross though our minds freely. This was a consummately skillful metaphor for our true ordinary mind.
Ordinary Mind Is The Way, Part 2
After our brief attempt to sound the depth of the word “Dao”, let’s turn our attention to another key term of this koan: “Ordinary Mind”. In Part 1, I called this a “seemingly ambiguous phrase”. By this, I meant that this term might strike the reader as having two potential meanings.
The first refers to the common sense mind we employ in our daily affairs, including our ego-driven calculations of our own personal advantage. This meaning seems to violate our sense of what is proper for a Buddhist. This is why Zenkei Shibayama comments, “But who can simply and immediately accept this instruction (i.e. that using your common sense is Dao)?”
For that very reason, we might be tempted to take “Ordinary Mind” to refer to a mind that is somehow purged of the “three poisons” of greed, hatred, and ignorance. And so it seems we can only choose between these two possible meanings. But are these the only two meanings “ordinary mind” can have?
Zenkei Shibayama seems to invoke this “purified” sense of ordinary mind by expanding the term to mean, “Everyday mind as it is without any discrimination is Dao”. He says that if ordinary mind were “just our common sense mind which discriminates, no one would need meditation or koan training”. He adds that this koan “means we have to transcend our ordinary mind to attain our true ordinary mind, and in order actually to transcend our dualistic ordinary mind, sincere searching and hard discipline are required.”
But we must ask what he means by “transcend our dualistic ordinary mind to attain our true ordinary mind”? Is he saying we must purge all discriminating thoughts from our minds?
No, he is not saying that. Instead, we must study what Shibayama meant by “transcending” our dualistic mind. To a newcomer, “transcend” might seem to say we must “rise above” and “leave behind” all “bad” thoughts.
But can we live without discriminating thoughts? As I hope to show, the answer is both no and yes. First I will argue that the answer is no, and only afterward argue that there is also an exquisite sense in which we must answer yes. The latter argument is lengthy, but bear with me. For me, the everlasting beauty of Zen lies precisely in understanding how Zen allows us to transcend our discriminating mind.
The case for “no” is simple: we must all obtain the necessities of life, where considerations of self, family, community, country, and planet trigger the use of discriminating mind. Certainly, every decision involving the future or the past brings these factors into play. Even while shopping for food, we discriminate between good, better, and best, according to our tastes. And we are happy to justify our choices in words to anyone who questions them. I hope you will agree that the thought of forcefully banning any such thoughts from our minds is simply not something humans can do and still live our everyday lives. (You might be surprised to learn that Zen Masters cannot ban such thoughts either! Instead, they learn to ignore them in a way described in the last parts of this post.)
On the other hand, we all seem to recognize that human beings sometimes perform selfless acts for the sake of others without any moral deliberation. Such are the acts of those who leap to rescue a person on the subway tracks and later say they never even paused to consider the wisdom of doing so. Of course these are the most dramatic examples of selflessness, but their purpose here is to prove that this capacity is hard-wired into our brains; selfless actions are possible, so we must possess a selfless mind, along with our selfish mind.
What we fail to notice is that there are countless times in our daily lives when we “flow” through choices without conscious deliberation, without caring how they make us look, and without a single word passing through our heads. For Zen, this way of picking and choosing is selfless because concern about one’s “self” never rears its ugly head in the process.
In short, it seems that being fully human requires having two minds, one selfish and one selfless.
A philosophical question might occur to the reader at this point: “Does Buddhism have a “theory of mind” that allows both selfish and selfless minds to coexist in such a way that we can use one or the other as appropriate? The answer is yes.
What is this mind that allows us to switch from selfish to selfless as needed? I will spare you the details of the Yogacara Buddhist theory of mind, which was the last philosophical view to be incorporated into the emerging Daoist-oriented Chinese Zen of the fifth or sixth century.
For our purposes, it suffices to say that the Yogacarins posited a selfish mind that was ego-driven, but also a mind that incorporated that mind into a selfless mind. You could imagine this “overall” mind as “underlying” our selfish mind as its fundamental “basis”, or “above” it as the final arbiter of our actions. For our purposes, declaring it “above” or “below” simply doesn’t matter.
What matters is that this all-inclusive mind accepts all thoughts, whether we might later judge them as good or bad, positive or negative. Because it accepts all thoughts without discrimination as to good or bad, this is the mind Shibayama Roshi was referring to when he said, “Everyday mind as it is without any discrimination is Tao”.
Instead, Shibayama was pointing us to a mind that includes both selfish and selfless aspects of mind without discriminating between them. Now how does such a mind allow us to “transcend our dualistic ordinary mind to attain our true ordinary mind”?
Now we come face to face with the “everlasting beauty” I referred to earlier.
First, consider whether you can agree with the following. One essential characteristic of human beings is that we often feel obligated to make moral judgments (that is, unless we are narcissists or sociopaths). And it seems we spend a great deal of our mental lives vacillating between the selfish devil on one shoulder and the selfless angel on the other. To make matters worse, we often complicate things by asking how our choice will make us appear to others! The constant self-judgment required by moral deliberation can be a form of suffering, yet we regard it as a noble aspect of being human that (I hope) we would never choose to eliminate.
I think you will agree that all these complications amount to what Dogen called “just a mess of tangled vines”. The question is therefore, “How does Zen allow us to cut through these tangled vines and clear our path forward?”
Zen does this by simply asking us to proceed to the next thing that we feel is appropriate according to our mind at that very moment. It may be selfish or selfless, just as long as we do not stop the process to make judgments of ourselves as good or bad persons. In slang terms, we “transcend our dualistic ordinary mind to attain our true ordinary mind” by “following our gut” in the moment as much as possible.
It remains true, however, that making decisions about the future inevitably involves discriminating mind because you have to predict future conditions in order to achieve what you desire. Even here, though, there is a weighting of factors that is largely subjective, and ultimately decided by intuitions and instincts that don’t come from any book. Even here, then, there is a way of judging things that minimizes our vacillation and mental suffering by trusting our intuitions and making our best guess. This, too, is “true ordinary mind” in Shibayama’s sense.
In either case, any idea of “self” is minimized in the process. Meditation and Samadhi work naturally over time to take "self" out of even our most difficult deliberations. This is because meditation makes us aware of our stream of consciousness by watching thoughts come and go. We see just how wild and variable our thoughts are. With time, we realize that our thoughts are “just thoughts”, i.e. are just flashes from our subconscious that run the full range of human thoughts from beautiful to ugly. We see that they don’t pin down our character, but just reveal our full human potential for both good and for evil
It’s at this point that even the most selfish predatory thought loses its sting. It is just part of being human and we can let it pass through to oblivion. We then realize that we don’t have to constantly label our choices as good or bad in a neurotic way that only triggers redundant pain. Nor need we constantly judge ourselves as good or bad persons, something even more crippling.
It is the dropping out of this layer of redundant self-judgment that constitutes the “beauty” I referred to. This is what allows all of us, including Zen Masters, to be “human, all too human” at times. If you have studied with Zen Masters for any length of time, you will discover that they are fallible. As another koan asks, “Why does the perfectly enlightened person fall into the well?” Well, this is why, and it liberates you to understand this.
Thus a special alchemy occurs when you don’t judge your own thoughts as good or bad, but simply accept them as your reality of the moment. This may seem an anticlimax if you were hoping that enlightenment guaranteed ideal Buddhist behavior ever after. Still, this view of ordinary mind has invaluable rewards. For instance, this view implies we can do something completely opposite in the future. That is the freedom promised by Zen.
Western philosophers who have written about “free will” often question whether our feeling that we were free to choose differently than we did is just an illusion. It is not; it is true. Once we realize the truth that the self is an empty construct of our common sense minds, we realize that our true ordinary mind is completely open at all times to doing things differently. This is the deepest possible version of free will. It is absolute. We are not condemned to be trapped in a character we loathe. Addictions and compulsive behaviors are finally seen as habits that we can train ourselves to eliminate over time. In this way, we are free to overwrite any past decision, and any past characterization of ourselves.
 Zenkei Shibayama, Zen Comments on the Mumonkan (1974), a book I have praised before. Zen practitioners closely following this blog should own this book in order to get the best translations and comments regarding the koans I discuss.
 In this paragraph, I italicize seems because I will later argue that Shibayama means something quite different from a “purified mind”. Stay tuned.
 For instance, Fayan Wenyi, who was featured in the posts on “Not Knowing Is Most Intimate”, was influenced by the Yogacara (pron. yoga-chara) philosophy.
 The Yogacarins actually proposed a model with eight (!) “minds”, including the five senses, bare consciousness, an ego-driven mind to filter bare consciousness, and finally, a mind called “Storehouse Consciousness” that contains all the karma of humanity, both good and bad. It is from this mind, containing all human potentials, both good and bad, that all our actions flow.
 And this is why, when I first quoted this line, I said that it might seem that Shibayama was pointing us toward a mind that was “somehow purged of the ‘three poisons’” We now see that it includes them.
Ordinary Mind Is The Way Part 1
Case 19 of the Gateless Barrier (Jap. Mumonkan) is a treasure trove. Given the many connotations of its key words, the commentary on it by various Masters reveals a dazzling array of implications.
Here is a version of Case 19 that blends the translations of the original Chinese by Masters that I respect most.
Because the koan relies heavily on the word Dao, it assumes a familiarity with Chinese Daoism that most Americans lack. For our purposes it is adequate to translate Dao as, “The Way”, or “The Path”, taken in the sense of, “The way we should live”. It is equivalent, in this sense, to “The Zen Way”.
A young Zhaozhou crossed China on foot from north to south to study under Nanchuan. One day, he rolled all his questions into one ball and asked, “What is Dao?” Nanchuan replied “Ordinary Mind is Dao”. Zhaozhou asked, “Do I then need to search for this ‘ordinary’ mind?” Nanchuan replied, “The more you try to pin it down, the more you will veer away from its true nature.” Zhaozhou responded, “How can I ever know the Dao if I can’t pin it down?” Nanchuan answered, “Dao does not belong to knowing or not-knowing. Knowing is delusion; not-knowing is confusion and indecision. If you truly break through to the Dao of no-doubt, it is like a great void; it is so vast and boundless. How can it be talked about in terms of right and wrong?” With these turning words, Zhaozhou had a sudden insight.
There is a reason I chose this koan to directly follow the three-part series on “Not knowing is most intimate”. I chose it because I believe this koan can deepen our insight into the role of not-knowing in our mental and physical lives.
How so? For one thing, using the word Dao brings into play a large repertoire of notions with deep roots in ancient Chinese culture. An early Indian Buddhist translator chose to translate the ubiquitous Buddhist terms Bodhi (enlightenment), Prajna (wisdom), and Dharma (truth), with the Chinese word Dao that had the depth needed to carry the freight of these loaded Sanskrit terms. That is why, when Zhaozhou asked, “What is Dao?” I commented, “ he rolled all his questions into one”. In other words, answering that question is answering all other questions about the Zen Way at one time.
So what is Dao?“ In mercifully brief summary, “The Way” means living in harmony with the powers of the universe. How are we to learn about what the universe wants from us? It is definitely not through words, as is made clear by the Daode Jing (The Book of the Way and its Power) by the legendary Laozi (pron. “Lao-dzeh”). Its first verse declares that names and words can never reveal our true nature:
The tao that can be told
Is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named is not the eternal Name
The unnamable is the eternally real
Naming is the origin of all particular things.
The method and fruits of learning the Way are described in Verse 16:
Empty your mind of all thoughts
Let your heart be at peace
Watch the turmoil of beings but contemplate their return
Each separate being in the universe returns to the common source
Returning to the source is serenity
If you don’t realize the source
You stumble in confusion and sorrow
When you realize where you come from
You naturally become tolerant, disinterested, amused
Kindhearted as a grandmother, dignified as a king
Immersed in the wonder of the Tao
You can deal with whatever life brings you,
And when death comes, you are ready.
I hope the discerning reader will see that everything that we have discussed in this blog is completely consistent with these two verses. That is no accident. Aitken Roshi quotes his mentor Nyogen Senzaki as saying, “Taoism is the mother of Zen, and Dhyana Buddhism is the father”. Dhyana Buddhism is the Indian meditation school that Bodhidharma brought to China. As I have said, we can regard the conversion of this Indian Buddhism into Chan as having been completed by the Sixth Patriarch.
This incorporation of Daoism into Chan is what makes Zen different from other forms of Buddhism. The power of pre-Buddhist Daoism is manifested by many cultural forms in China, such as Tai-chi and Feng Shui. It manifests as well in the many “Do’s”(“Do” is the Japanese transliteration of Dao) of Japanese culture. These include Chado (the way of tea), Kendo (the way of the sword) and Kado (the way of flowers).
What all these cultural manifestations share with Daoism is the requirement that learning a “Way” involves learning by doing, not by naming or telling. It involves proceeding by intuition rather than by following rules. It means, “feeling your way along the wall” as described in our treatment of “Not knowing is most intimate.
In other words, the true nature of life (Dharma or Dao) cannot be captured in words, but must be learned in an embodied form. This is realizing the difference between knowledge and wisdom. Wisdom can and must be extracted from life without being “essentialized” in words or theories.
In Part 2, we will continue to parse the meanings of other key terms in this koan, including the seemingly ambiguous phrase, “Ordinary Mind”.
For the record, these are Masters associated with my own lineage such as Nyogen Senzaki, Katsuki Sekida, Koun Yamada, and Robert Aitken. The first two are from Rinzai lineages, while the last two are from the hybrid Harada-Yasutani Soto lineage in which I was trained. The list also includes Zenkei Shibayama, who had no association with my lineage, but whom both Yamada and Aitken regarded as (in the latter’s words), “the real deal”.
 For the most part, translators now follow the Chinese Government’s pinyin romanization of Chinese characters, so that Dao (pronounced “Dow”) has now replaced the older Wade-Giles system’s “Tao”.
 Readers familiar with the standard sources I’ve used will see that my version has my thumbprints all over it. I have put things in a way that I think will be most helpful to newcomers to Zen. I’ll attempt to justify these editorial interventions as we examine the key terms of the koan more closely.
 Kumarajiva (344-413 AD). His father was from Kashmir, his mother was from Kucha on the Silk Road.
I take the following verses from the translation by Stephen Mitchell in Tao Te Ching, A New English Version.
NOT KNOWING PART 3
In Part 3 we return to the question of what constitutes an adequate response to our koan.
In Part 2, I provided few suggestions about how to respond to this koan, except by proposing a description of Buddhist enlightenment that would help readers understand the transformative effect that Dizang’s turning words had on Fayan.
There I offered “total intimacy” as a useful metaphor for describing enlightenment. I chose “totally intimate” because “being intimate” has so many positive emotional overtones; we don’t feel intimate with someone unless we feel safe in letting down our guard. “Total intimacy” implies that we have let down our guard completely. This “guard” is our perpetual battle to protect our egos. The fragility of our ego is revealed by our ceaseless and often compulsive efforts to shore up our ego by the pursuit of fame and gain.
Our not knowing koan worked its magic on Fayan in a before-and-after fashion. After Dizang’s turning words, Fayan had an insight. Before those turning words he felt lost. This implies that if we are to merge with Fayan in the flesh, eliminating the time and space between him and us, we must somehow present him in both his “before” state of confusion and his “after” state of relief. Anything else would be one-sided and therefore incomplete.
In other words, I am suggesting that you try to imagine what it would be like to be on the cusp of this transformation. You should embody that moment in your presentation to the teacher.
To do this, you must be at the point where “not knowing” changes from a negative to a positive. I marvel at the number of idioms American English supplies for the negative state of confusion. “Clueless” is one, “Up the creek without a paddle” is another, as is “Twisting in the wind”. And there is always the venerable, “being at my wit’s end” (which I have used several times already), not to mention “being on the horns of a dilemma" (ouch!)
Zen has its own evocative metaphors for this state. One such is, “Facing towering iron cliffs”. Another – to be treated later – is [Needing to] “step off the top of a hundred-foot pole”
How will you show the teacher that you understand this state! It is a state of being so overwhelmed that you can only throw up your hands in surrender. If there is something to utter in emphasis, it may be something akin to “I give up!” Calling on your own most formative experiences, you must find the gestures authentic to you.
Perhaps you can find the cusp between confusion and liberation by the way you throw up you hands. We also have idioms for reaching a positive sense of surrender, including “Starting over from scratch”, or “Turning the page”. These idioms express a sense that the current situation offers the chance of a new beginning.
Under this positive view of surrender, we can better understand Dizang’s turning words. We can now hear him telling Fayan, “In your state of not knowing, you have no idea how close you are to self-liberation. Don’t you see that you are in the perfect position to take the leap that closes the gap?” In other words, Dizang’s words are deeply encouraging.
Accordingly, when I spoke earlier about Fayan’s “before state” being one of surrender or “giving up”, you should not infer that Fayan’s state was one of defeat or despair. Instead, he was in the most propitious state for having an insight, which Zen has forever described as a state of “Great Doubt, Great Faith, and Great Effort”.
Fayan’s Great Doubt was his fear of a spiritual failure from which he might never recover. His Great Faith was his intuitive trust that something within him would rally. His Great Effort came in response to Dizang telling him he was very close to breaking the stranglehold of Doubt.
This is when Fayan rediscovered his fighting spirit. In Chinese mythology, this is the moment when a carp at the bottom of towering falls becomes a dragon and ascends effortlessly into the heavens to cause rain, renewing the life of water.
To conjure up a sense of being on the brink of rebirth, it might help to remember a bitter experience in your own life. Perhaps it was a divorce, or a deep disappointment with a friend or business partner. These can be overwhelming and you may remain in mourning for a considerable period. This is entirely human and accords with Zen unless one becomes permanently fixated on grief. In most cases, however, we reach a stage where we will begin to pick up the pieces and move on. This is also completely human and completely Zen.
At that point, it is a necessary part of the cycle that you admit you don’t know what to do. You are clueless. And yet something is stirring, and green shoots are appearing out of the scorched earth. Precisely because you don’t know what to do, you are open to any sign or hint of a way forward. A creative urge animates you. Hope with no apparent basis returns as if by magic.
To test this for yourself, I recommend that whenever you find circumstances threatening to overwhelm you, you should find a broad vista point over the mountains, ocean, or cityscape and declare sincerely to yourself that you are overwhelmed and have no idea what to do. Curiously, you should feel a palpable lightening of your burden, even if only faintly. I assure you, if you make this a regular practice in crises great or small, you will slowly feel more relief each time. Why? As one of my teachers said, quoting a maxim from Alcoholics Anonymous, “You should fake it until you make it!”
Any koan practitioner with even a faint glimmering of how not knowing frees them to start afresh will be tempted to think this “I don’t know” is the answer to every koan. It is not, but it is the prologue to every koan. You must relinquish all your common sense beliefs and approach the koan empty-handed.
I should quickly add that sometimes “I don’t know” is the perfect answer to the deepest questions human beings can ask. When Emperor Wu demanded of Bodhidharma who it was that stood before him, Bodhidharma answered, “I don’t know”. When Bodhidharma said he didn’t know, he meant none of us know. This is not a negative judgment. Rather, he meant we have no idea what we are capable of. Hopefully, you will gain a sense of the freedom these turning words can produce.
In conclusion, your presentation to the teacher should reveal an incipient understanding that not knowing frees you to start over on your own terms. Even though you have been stripped of all your certainties, show that you trust that something good will arise from returning empty-handed to sincere practice.
In the holiday spirit that comes with the winter solstice, let me wish you the very best in the coming year. I hope that this discussion of the intimacy of not knowing will help you sense how uttering the words “I don’t know”, is the ultimate tribute that the universe can make to itself.
Not Knowing Part 2
Here are comments on the koan, “Not Knowing Is Most Intimate” that are meant especially for newcomers to Zen.
As I have said, this group includes many who will never pursue koan practice and may not even practice meditation. Still, many of them are sincere seekers who scour the world’s spiritual traditions in hopes of synthesizing a “personal philosophy” that will make them more resilient in the face of life’s insults.
To just such people, the suggestion that “not knowing” is a powerful tool in achieving that resiliency may strike them as outlandish or at least counterintuitive. To make our koan less outlandish, I feel I should say something about an element of koan practice that we have largely skirted so far: it is the whole notion of Buddhist enlightenment.
For non-Buddhists who follow this blog, Buddhist enlightenment may seem too “religious”, or at least more than they are willing to take on. Yet it always lurks in the background of any koan. After all, many, if not most, koans culminate in the disciple experiencing some transformative experience that remains undescribed. As I have said, newcomers can feel some resentment that they experience nothing transformative at all when they hear what, for the disciple, were “turning words”.
Here, I ask only that non-Buddhist readers keep an open mind on the topic of Buddhist enlightenment. Part of their resistance to the topic is because they have inflated ideas of what it is to be “enlightened”. They may regard it as gaining super powers that protect a person from ever having a bad day. In coming posts I will try to properly deflate the notion of enlightenment. For now, just know that the great Chinese Master Linji (Jap. Rinzai) commented when he suddenly experienced deep enlightenment, “Oh, there’s not much to it!”
I will start by discussing how the Western philosophical concept of “enlightenment” (as in, “The Enlightenment”) differs from the Buddhist conception of enlightenment. Now, the reason for comparing European with Buddhist enlightenment is to show that whereas the former produces knowledge, that latter is designed to produce wisdom. (Please excuse the following detour into Western intellectual history.)
The European Enlightenment marked the emergence of “modern” philosophy in the early seventeenth century. That “modernity” consisted of the emancipation of philosophy from the stagnant Aristotelian scholasticism of the Catholic Church. In general, The Enlightenment was a transition away from religious dogma, and arced slowly over the next two-plus centuries toward the scientific method as the sole means of establishing knowledge.
The Promethean power of science has intoxicated us ever since. Technologies enabled by science have benefited us so much that we forgive science’s failure so far to place the “human sciences” of psychology, sociology, and political science, on the same “covering law model” that underlies physics and chemistry.
One key difference, then, between The Enlightenment and Buddhist enlightenment, is that the former restricted itself to the material realm (i.e. the realm of objective, not subjective, “things”). In contrast, wisdom belongs to the subjective realm and represents the ability to decide what to do when knowledge fails to provide certainty.
Buddhist enlightenment is rigorous in calling for a new account of the subjective realm that does not depend on elusive linguistic constructs like “the self” and “objects”. Buddhism asks us to drop such concepts in favor of “Buddha Nature”, a name that implies no boundaries between inside and outside, or between self and other. Indeed, even the term “Buddha Nature” is misleading if it implies an unchanging “something”.
Perhaps it would be less confusing to newcomers if I said the Buddhist enlightenment is realizing Buddha Nature and that that realization is very aptly described as “total intimacy” between “you” and “your world” so that any opposition between them disappears.
To illustrate “total intimacy”, I will tell you how Fayan’s study under Dizang after his initial opening resulted in an even deeper enlightenment experience.
First, though, I should explain that initial opening experiences are usually not complete. Nevertheless, this partial insight starts the dominoes falling as it subconsciously erodes deeper and deeper layers of assumptions about “reality”. This slow process depends on meditation experience and skillful midwifery by the teacher. Wisdom may take a decade or so after the initial opening to reach critical mass.
When Fayan decided to stay with Dizang to learn more, what ensued was a long series of conversations. I can do no better than quote Katsuki Sekida’s summary of those conversations in his Two Zen Classics (another must-have for koan fans):
“In his interviews with Jizo [Dizang], Hogen [Fayan] often quoted from the Avatamsaka [Flower Garland] Sutra, or the philosophy of the Consciousness Only school [that I have elsewhere called the Imagination Only school]. Jizo always rejected Hogen’s answers, saying, ‘Buddhism is not that sort of thing’. Finally, Hogen broke down and said, ‘I can have no words, no reasoning’. Jizo said, ‘Speaking from the point of view of Buddhism, everything directly presents itself.’ At this, Hogen had a realization.”
What was this realization? It has to do with directness. Knowledge is about things; explanations are about things. They are indirect because they are not the things themselves.
Directness is “total intimacy” in which things directly present themselves and we respond reflexively. At that moment we are one with the thing that presents itself. There is not even time for an “I-Thou” moment in between. The I-Thou moment is a shamanic facsimile of true intimacy. It is a facsimile because it relies on viewing the thing presenting itself to us as having a soul. It is an effort to prolong an afterglow that has already faded. As such, it is only a halfway station to directness, because there is still an “I” and a “Thou”.
So what is “total intimacy” and what are the reflexive responses I’m referring to? The response is always the same. It is not an overt action, although it exhibits outward signs depending on context. It is simply alertness, or keen attention to what is happening. Total intimacy is just complete openness. It is signaled by a wariness indicating that, at that moment, all ideas and assumptions have disappeared in order to attend to the event. Dogen calls this “dropping body and mind”, because all awareness of body and mind drop away at that moment. If there were an outward sign, it might be an utterance like, “Hmmm, what is happening?” – yet leaving that question unanswered.
That is why Lao-tzu said the ancient Daoist masters were, “Alert as a winter way-farer crossing a snow bridge over a stream” or “Wary as a man in ambush”. In those situations there is no time for analysis. There is only open-minded alertness. There is only “feeling one’s way along the wall”.
That is why one ancient Master gave a lecture to his assembly that consisted only of the words, “Attention! Attention! Attention!”
And that is why Dogen tells us, “To carry yourself forward and experience myriad things is delusion. That the myriad things come forth and experience themselves is your awakening.”
Enlightenment is the union of you and all “things”, a union in which your body-mind accords instantly by opening up completely. This is your awakening. It is happening constantly, but that doesn’t mean we notice it before it gets papered over with our afterthoughts. It becomes total intimacy or enlightenment only when we reflexively drop all barriers and just “not know”.
Not Knowing Is Most Intimate - Part 1
This week’s koan comes from a story beloved by all seasoned Zen practitioners:
Master Dizang asked the visiting Buddhist philosopher Fayan, “Where are you going now?
Fayan answered, “I am resuming my pilgrimage.
Dizang asked, “Why do you go on pilgrimage?”
Fayan said, “I don’t know.”
Dizang said, “Not knowing is most intimate.”
Hearing these words, Fayan had an opening experience.
Here the koan student must demonstrate that they understand why “not knowing” is called “most intimate”, and why these words, taken together, allowed Fayan to get a glimpse of his true nature. The answer obviously depends of the meanings of “intimate” and “not knowing”.
This koan is especially appropriate for Westerners because our culture regards not knowing as ignorance, i.e. a negative state to be avoided at all costs. In this koan, however, “most intimate” clearly implies that not knowing is a positive state.
This koan illustrates par excellence the difference between the Western view of “objective knowledge” – including scientific learning – and the Zen view that wisdom is quite unlike such knowledge.
In a previous post, I admitted having a personal interest in how Zen might rejuvenate Western philosophy. In that regard, it might help to recall that the word “philosophy” comes from the Greek, “love of wisdom” (sophia), not “love of knowledge”.
A Chinese Buddhist scholar, Fayan (Jap. Hogen), who had made a name for himself among the intelligentsia of the dynastic capital, decided to tour the imperial hinterlands in order to bring the monks of remote monasteries up to date on Buddhist philosophy. He was joined by several other Buddhist scholars who set out together on a pilgrimage to visit a specific list of provincial temples.
At a certain point in their pilgrimage, snow, rain and flooding forced them to seek shelter in a small temple that was not on their itinerary. The temple’s Abbott came to greet them as they warmed their hands over a glowing brazier just inside the gate. The scholars barely acknowledged him. After hearing a description of their mission, the Abbott asked if he might pose a question to them. One of Fayan’s colleagues assented without lifting his gaze from the red-hot coals.
The Abbot, whose name was Dizang, asked, “Are the mountains, rivers, and earth identical with, or separate from, you scholars?” Fayan’s colleague tersely replied, “Separate”. At this, Dizang held up two fingers. The scholar, perhaps interpreting this as a criticism for dividing the world between inside and outside, quickly said, “Identical! Identical!” Dizang again held up two fingers, and left them.
Fayan asked the other scholar what he thought the Abbot meant by raising two fingers both times. His colleague, perhaps embarrassed by his own loss of composure, replied that there was no meaning other than contrariness on the Abbot’s part. Fayan protested there was no need to insult the Abbott. (I believe Fayan understood the Abbott was signaling in response to both answers that his colleague still hadn’t overcome the dualism of “the Many” and “the One”.)
In any case, Fayan had come to see that the Abbott was no country bumpkin. He also suspected that Dizang knew more than he did. This suspicion must have completely undermined his self-confidence. How could he present himself as an expert to numerous monasteries when he knew there was much he still didn’t understand?
Perhaps this was why, in a later conversation with Dizang, Fayan candidly admitted that he no longer knew why he persisted in his mission to bring the latest philosophical developments to remote monasteries.
Recognizing that Fayan was in what I have called an existential crisis, Dizang uttered the turning words, “Not knowing is most intimate”. This was enough to give Fayan an initial insight, or kensho. (This was not to be his final enlightenment experience under Dizang. In Part 2 on this koan, I will describe the conversations that led to a deeper awakening.)
Meanwhile, we must ask, “Why did Dizang’s use of the word “intimate” cause Fayan to have an initial insight?”
To give you a sense of what Dizang realized, I can think of no better prompt than a poem cited by Zenkei Shibayama Roshi, the revered twentieth century Rinzai master in his book, Zen Comments on the Mumonkan. (For what it’s worth, if I could take only one book with me into solitary confinement, it would be this one.)
There, in commenting on Case 10 about a monk who brags that he is "poverty-stricken" because he has rid himself of all conceptual understandings, Shibayama recites a poem by another Zen Master on how such poverty is actually a blessing:
Do not light a lamp: in the house is no oil.
How pitiable it is if you want a light
I myself have a means to bless poverty:
I will let you feel your way along the wall.
This poem imagines a host telling a guest that he must find his guest room for the night in the dark. He has no oil with which to provide him a lamp. The guest must proceed by feeling his way along the hall until he finds his destination.
The poem is a metaphor for Zen practice; we must feel our way forward as if blind – no conceptual understanding will get us to our destination. Instead, the host says he is providing his guest a priceless gift by letting him feel his way along the wall with his hands.
Here we get a hint of what “intimacy” means. When we are lost in the dark, we are forced become intimate with the wall through our hands. We learn much about the contours of the wall that we would have missed in daylight.
Now, how does this notion of intimacy apply to our koan about not knowing? Here, we can perhaps see how “not knowing” loses its negative connotation of ignorance and becomes a blessing in disguise. Ignorance, from a Buddhist point of view, is being stubbornly stuck in delusions about our true nature despite mounting evidence that those beliefs are not sustainable. For a person with enough meditation experience, this dissonance between our “common sense” assumptions, and our intuitions that there is something more we don’t yet understand will eventually result in an existential crisis.
Such a crisis occurs often in ordinary human lives, as when we feel that a friend or loved one has betrayed or abandoned us. At such a time, all of one’s longstanding assumptions are in question. A change in those assumptions is called for, but we find ourselves not knowing what to do.
Whether in ordinary life or in koan practice, not knowing what to do forces us to suspend our past assumptions and look for a solution “outside the box” of those beliefs. Luckily, we are blessed with an innate freedom that we call creativity. As with fine art painters, this search for a solution proceeds by intuitive means. Painters “feel their way along the wall” by applying a daub of color here or there. If it doesn’t “look right”, they apply other colors until it does. The point is, this process proceeds intuitively through feelings, not through a rigid set of written rules.
It is only in such a state that Zen practitioners, having newly discovered a willingness to consider new possibilities, realize that “not knowing what to do” is precisely the state where they are freed to discover those possibilities through trial and error guided by intuition. It is only in such a state that practitioners come nearest, or become “most intimate” with their true nature, which is one of inherent freedom guided by compassion.
Fayan reached such a state when he admitted he didn’t know what to do next. With Dizang’s turning words, he suddenly realized he was not imprisoned by not knowing, but freed by it. He was free to “feel his way along the wall” until he found his own authentic response.
Now, how will you choose to demonstrate this “intimacy of not knowing?” If you are still bewildered, don't despair. Part 2 will add a few more hints.
“A Course on Koans” is the delusion-riddled work of Chris Kufu (“Wind in the Void”) Wilson, who began practicing Zen in 1967. He regards Taizan Maezumi, Robert Aitken, and David Weinstein as his root teachers. Each of them pecked at his shell until he “completed” the never-ending koan curriculum of the Harada-Yasutani lineage.
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