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.
“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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