Ordinary Mind: Everyday Life and Death

In a recent Inquiry I asked a basic question regarding practice: "How simple are you willing to let this be?" I followed this question the very next week by including a few basic practice fundamentals: Curiosity and Patience, Intimacy and Care. By discussing practice in these everyday terms, dropping any excessive complexity and formality, I hoped to encourage students to see that profound practice is possible in our everyday lives. Interestingly, there is an old Zen story that points to the same attitude and these same basic attitudes regarding practice. The well known story to which I am referring is Case 19 in the Gateless Gate, one of the classic collections of koans or Ancestor stories of the Zen school. Remember, these koans are simply accounts of encounters between a student and a teacher in which something significant is at stake and an unexpected turn helps the student see their life in an entirely new way. This story is about Joshu who would later become one of the great masters of Chinese Chan meeting his teacher Nansen. Here is the story.

Joshu earnestly asked Nansen, “What is the Way?”
Nansen answered, “The ordinary mind is the Way.”
Joshu asked, “Should I direct myself toward it or not?”
Nansen said, “If you try to turn toward it, you go against it.”
Joshu asked, “If I do not turn toward it, how can I know that it is the Way?”
Nansen answered, “The Way does not belong to knowing or not-knowing. Knowing is delusion; not-knowing is a blank consciousness. When you have really reached the true Way beyond all doubt, you will find it as vast and boundless as the great, empty firmament. How can it be talked about on a level of right and wrong?”
At these words, Joshu was enlightened.

The Inquiry talk goes further into this koan, but suffice it to say that the phrase that is important here is Nansen's answer, "Ordinary mind is the Way." There are five Chinese or Japanese characters that make up this translation. The first two modify each other and could be translated as "ordinary, everyday, natural or usual." The the third character stands for "heart-mind, essence, existence or whole being." The fourth could be translated as "just" as in "justice" (not as in "simply") and the final character means "way, road or path" and modifies the previous character. So a crude translation might be something like "Everyday heart-mind is the true path." Of course, we think that everyday mind is the problem, not the solution. But practice shows us that whatever arises in our heart/mind is a potential gateway to freedom, not a barrier to liberation, if we meet the arising with patient curiosity and an intimacy expressed as care. This is simply another way of talking about the encounter between Joshu and Nansen.

I was prepared to speak about this old story because it reflected the more contemporary way I was talking about practice, and then something unexpected happened. A dear friend and sangha member suddenly and shockingly lost her husband. I knew she was going to be at Inquiry so I considered changing my topic. However, meeting the pain of unexpected loss and the attendant suffering, is ordinary life; life and death are everyday matters and the core of practice. I think you will hear in the Inquiry recording the ways in which the sangha supported each person as they sought to turn toward the shocking and incomprehensible fact that we are alive now and someday we will not be alive. Turning toward what we usually avoid with courage and gentleness is the "just" way of meeting our heart and mind. This is everyday mind. Ordinary mind.

Inquiry recording: