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Ordinary Mind is the Way:  A Zen Discourse

By

Given at Mount Baldy Zen Center, February, 1998.

Joshu asked Nansen, “What is the Way?”

“Ordinary mind is the Way,” Nansen replied.

“Shall I try to seek after it?” Joshu asked.

“If you try for it, you will become separated from it,” responded Nansen.

“How can I know the Way unless I try for it?” persisted Joshu. Nansen said, “The Way is not a matter of knowing or not knowing. Knowing is delusion; not knowing is confusion. When you have really reached the true Way beyond doubt, you will find it vast and boundless as outer space. How can it be talked about on the level of right and wrong?”

With these words, Joshu came to a sudden realization.

—“Ordinary Mind is the Way,” translated by Katsuki Sekida

This koan called “Ordinary Mind is the Way” is a beginner's koan, a koan made for beginners to study. For the old students just reading it once, immediately you should know exactly what’s going on.

As I always say, there is nothing other than activity of mind. And when we ask what mind is, it is the very activity which forms all of our selves, and it is also the activity which forms the entire cosmos which is the home of the self. When we talk about this activity which forms the very way of being of the self and of the entire cosmos, and we give it a character, we personify this activity—we call it the activity of mind, or the activity of heart.

But in Zen we ask you very severely, “Okay, you’ve personified this activity which forms the entire cosmos and called it the activity of mind, but who is it that is doing that calling?” In Tathagata Zen we say it is the enlightened person who calls it this. This enlightened person is the one who has manifested for themselves the wisdom which clearly sees into this very activity which forms the cosmos. If it weren’t for the appearance of enlightened people there would be no need to think about things such as “Why did the cosmos come into being?” and “Why did all of us come in to being?” Without understanding and investigating deeply the condition of the origin itself, then you won’t be able to understand this “Ordinary mind is the Way” koan.

So when you ask “What kind of things did enlightened people say?”, what enlightened people talked about was the story of how a long, long time ago—countless, numberless kalpas ago—there were two activities called plus and minus that were mutually opposing one another, and repetitively unifying and facing one another. The Enlightened One said that these activities, plus and minus, are doing this cyclic, repetitive activity of facing one another and unifying with one another, and other than that, there is nothing else.

When we ask where this activity of alternating facing and unifying over and over again came from, it came from this very activity of plus and minus unifying and facing one another over and over again. From the world of the result comes the world of the origin. The world of result will be manifest from this activity of unifying and facing, and finally, the absolute expanse, the greatest cosmos, will be manifest. Then, taking this result as a new cause, as a new origin, the absolute expanse ends up arriving at the absolute contraction, the smallest point. This activity which forms the universe repeats, manifesting the absolute expanse and the absolute contraction over and over again.

Even though you don’t understand this, you are clearly manifesting the cause and you are also clearly manifesting the result. Whether we want to call this condition the source, the cause or the origin, this is the condition in which plus and minus are repetitively unifying and facing, and there is nothing more obvious, nothing more clear than this condition. And within the process of going from the smallest to the biggest, an uncountable, numberless number of different universes are manifest until finally the greatest universe is manifest.

There is an uncountable number of different universes existing, and all of these different universes are included in the content of the great cosmos. That is what we mean by the appearance of the great cosmos. But the great cosmos never tarries in itself; immediately it begins manifesting again, and arrives at the absolute small condition.

We are told in our tradition that the Enlightened One taught his disciples using this word “zero,” and he said the zero condition is this perfect complete condition in which plus and minus are unifying with one another and then facing one another over and over again. Plus and minus unify and face, unify and face, but there is no will—it’s a totally will-less activity. Of course human beings have will, but this activity of plus and minus is will-less. The Enlightened One taught his disciples that the activity which forms the universe is always acting will-lessly, and even though it makes many universes and then contracts all of those universes down to the smallest point, there is always simply one singular, unique cosmos.

Plus and minus doing their repetitive activity is the complete condition, and this appears at the smallest point, the very origin. But that smallest point is not fixated, and then again a new condition of the origin is manifest. The plus and minus activity without fail will cause the cosmos to develop, will cause the cosmos to expand, and manifest the zero condition at levels one, two, three, and so forth.

We are also told in our tradition that whether it’s level one, two, three, five or ninety, they are all the complete condition and therefore all zero. The disciples have traditionally been taught that the smallest universe, the absolute origin, is zero, and the greatest cosmos also is zero. The reason why we say “zero” is because in the complete condition there is no need to think. That’s why it is zero.

The activity of zero manifests new conditions of zero at levels two and three and so forth. So here’s the question: of what kind of activity, under what conditions, does the activity of zero give rise to the thinking self? In the process of the condition of the origin, the activity of zero going from level one to level two—within that process is when the world of thought appears. The in-between-level-one-and-two thinking-self does appear, but just as inevitably that self will disappear, and when it disappears the level two condition of zero, complete condition, complete cosmos, complete world, appears. And this is when everybody will realize for themselves that the problem is “I must do Zen practice for myself.”

Plus and minus are acting without will, and because they are acting will-lessly we call it the activity of emptiness. So if you are intending to study Zen, the first thing that you should place carefully in your head is that the activity of zero is the activity of emptiness, and the activity of emptiness is a will-less activity. The complete self is zero. The complete self is zero. The complete self is an activity of zero, and this zero activity has no will. This complete condition is the condition in which plus and minus are repetitively unifying and facing over and over again without will.

The activity of mind inevitably manifests the complete condition, but always within that process, selves—that is, existences—appear, and those existences not only do the activity of appearing, they also do the activity of hiding themselves, or disappearing. In this way the function of consciousness progresses and develops, and finally develops to the point where the function of consciousness attaches to itself—it recognizes a thing called a self. It’s okay. It’s okay for we existent things to do this activity of recognizing a self. But to fixate this way of knowing, this way of recognizing, that is what enlightened people have told us is the mistake.

The reason why this is a mistake is that if, for example, you fixate the activity of living, then you will fixate the self which has appeared, and you will never be able to do the activity of hiding or disappearing. Another way that we explain this in our teaching is to say that when you fixate the activity of living, then you begin to dislike the activity of dying. The activity of appearing can be called the activity of living; the activity of hiding can be called the activity of dying. Then you come to think in terms of only what is convenient for the appeared self, the living self, and you avoid the activity of dying. You simply want to exist eternally.

The activity which forms the cosmos is continually, one after the next, causing worlds to appear and then causing them to disappear. And every time a new world is manifest, all of the existent things which appear during this process, doing their activity of being born and dying, inevitably go one step towards maturation, towards developing and growing. Buddhism undoubtedly recognizes this condition and acknowledges as valid the activity we call evolving, this activity we call incarnating. Birds and animals and of course human beings—we all will meet up with the season in our lives when we manifest the complete self. Without fail you will meet the dharma activity.

Another way The Enlightened One taught his disciples is to personify the activity of time as the dharma activity, as the activity of mind. All of you have all been born into this human world, and as humans you have to learn the activities of appearing and disappearing. So finally it’s time to practice.


Joshu Sasaki Roshi was born in 1907. He began monastic training in Japan in 1921 and was ordained a priest and abbot before his arrival in America in 1962.

Ordinary Mind is the Way: A Zen Discourse, Joshu Sasaki-roshi, Shambhala Sun, September 1998.



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