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.
“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.
Get posts as they are published:
What We Read