Ordinary Mind is the Way

By Geoff Dawson

Chao-chou asked Nan-ch’uan “What is the Way?” Nan-ch’uan said “Ordinary mind is the Way.”

Thus begins one of the koans in the Zen tradition from which our school takes its name.

What is the ordinary mind that the teacher is referring to here? It is not referring to the ordinary mind clouded by self centred concerns that is driven by greed hatred and ignorance, but rather the mind of just driving the car and stopping at traffic lights, the mind of just picking up some children’s toys up and putting them away, the mind of just walking, just smiling, just playing in the surf. If our practice is not about attention and presence to these everyday occurrences that make up our life, then what is it? Where is it?

Most of us come to practice as spiritual romantics, enchanted by the stories and poetry of the old masters in far away exotic places of long ago. But if we do not personalise practice and bring it alive in the suburbs of Sydney in the year 2001 while we are buying a newspaper at the local shop as aircraft thunder overhead, then we are wasting our time.

The essence of training in Zen is sitting meditation, and lots of it. Zen is not discursive and intellectual, it is not a matter of trying to work out more elaborate philosophical or psychological ways of understanding life. All of Zen practice is directed towards “cutting off the mind road” and pointing directly to the Way that is right before our eyes right now. To paraphrase a contemporary political saying. “It’s the present moment stupid!”

What is sitting meditation? It is when we sit still and commit ourselves to being still and upright with a relaxed and attentive mind and body; when we commit ourselves to being quiet and not talking or distracting ourselves with background entertainment; when we let all other concerns go and focus the mind on the present moment as it comes and goes, noticing the pull of attraction to this and the aversion to that. It is being the natural mind that is not pushed and pulled by this and that but rests in the moment as it comes and goes. I don’t know of any better way to taste and experience life than to do this. It is like learning to swim by swimming, like learning to play a flute by playing a flute.

When the mind is no longer pushed and pulled around by grasping and avoiding, including the grasping at enlightenment or personal growth, then we fall into an appreciation of life as it is, we fall into an appreciation of ourselves as we are and our friends and family as they are, not what we would like it all to be. Zen is not about life becoming bigger and better, it is about appreciating our lives before the comparing mind of bigger and better or smaller and worse comes into play.

An old zen practitioner once said “How miraculous! Cutting wood and drawing water!” When we are no longer concerned with progress towards enlightenment and how good we will look when we get there, then the ordinary things and events of our life light up the mind. We find suddenly that we not only look up to the night sky to see into the wonder of infinity but we look down into infinity as well, into peeling potatoes and patting the dog. You exclaim, “How can anyone ever say they are bored when we are all living this miracle of seeing and hearing and smelling and tasting and feeling every moment of our lives!”

One of the things I appreciate about my teacher Charlotte Joko Beck who is the founder of the Ordinary Mind Zen School, is that she brought emotions and relationships into the sphere of practice rather than leaving them outside the gate, particularly at a time when it was unfashionable to do so within Western Zen. The struggle and the play of emotions and relationships, particularly intimate relationships, make up a lot of our lives. They are often the source of what upsets us the most in our lives. If we turn away from this then we turn away from our true teacher. What is it that upsets you most in your life? What happens when you meet the unexpected and it doesn’t turn out the way you wanted it to? If we see this as practice then what upsets us in life becomes the gateless barrier through which we must pass before we will find true freedom. When we turn away from our emotions and our relationships towards something which we think is spiritually grander then we turn away from our own life – we turn away from the Way. This applies equally to those who choose a monastic lifestyle as well as those who choose a domestic one.

In the koan “Ordinary Mind is the Way” Chau chou keeps pressing his teacher- “Should I try to direct myself towards it?” The teacher says “If you try to direct yourself you betray your own practice.” Chao chou says “How can I know the Way if I don’t direct myself?” His teacher says ” The way is not subject to knowing or not knowing. Knowing is delusion, not knowing is blankness. If you truly reach the genuine Way you will find it as vast and boundless as outer space. How can this be discussed at the level of affirmation and negation?”

Have you truly reached the genuine Way of your own life right here and now? Can you appreciate the full catastrophe of it? Can you appreciate it before grasping and avoiding arise? Can you appreciate the grasping and avoiding and smile at your own folly? If not I invite you to join us in sitting and living in the ordinary mind, appreciating the perfect imperfection that we all share.

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