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Barbara O'Brien

Ordinary Mind

By September 19, 2012

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In the last post I mentioned the koan "Ordinary Mind Is the Tao," which is Case 19 of the Mumonkan. Let me toss out some qualifiers and warning flags -- I'm not a teacher, and anything I say about this koan should not be taken as the final word. Or even an intermediate word. Think of this as just easing one's bare toe into the shallow end of the pool.

The koan involves a dialogue between two great Chinese Chan masters, Zhaozhou (or Chao chou; 778-897) and his teacher Nanquan (or Nan-ch'uan; 748-835). These two often are called by the Japanese versions of their names, Joshu and Nansen.

So the monk Zhaozhou asked his teacher, Nanquan, "What is the Tao?"  In his commentary on this koan, the late Zenkei Shibayama Roshi said that Zhaozhou was asking "What is the essence?" or "What is the fundamental truth?"  And Nanquan said, "Ordinary mind is the Tao." Or, translated more literally, "Everyday mind as it is without any discrimination is Tao."

That "without any discrimination" is something of a catch, isn't it? Most of the time our internal chatter, our way of relating to the world, is discriminating nonstop. So "ordinary mind" doesn't mean we don't have work to do.

But "ordinary" tells us that we're not looking for the rare and elusive magic fairy of happiness, either. Ordinary means "unexceptional." So there is something unexceptional, already present, yet we may not see it.

The late Robert Aitken Roshi said (The Gateless Barrier, page 128):

"This constant 'ordinary' is not the commonplace mind of self-centered preoccupation. Selfish conduct, speech, and thought obscure the vast, moonlit mind of Nan-ch'uan.

"Nan-ch'uan is pointing to transformation here. Standing up before realization is the same as standing up after, yet they are not the same. Once you find intimacy with vast emptiness -- the genuine Tao -- your act of standing will be the act of the entire universe standing. And in the same act you will be standing alone."

In his commentary on this koan, Koun Yamada Roshi (1907--1989) said ,

"Ordinary mind, what is that? It is nothing but our ordinary consciousness, our ordinary everyday life. It is just getting up, washing your face, eating breakfast, going to work, walking, running, laughing, crying; the leaves on the trees, the flowers in the field, whether white, red, or purple; it is birth, it is death. That is the Way [Tao]. We do not even have to use the word 'mind.' The ordinary is the Way!

I'm also reading a new book by the not-deceased Zen teacher (and Unitarian Universalist minister) James Ford. In the first chapter of If You're Lucky, Your Heart Will Break, the Rev. Ford writes (page 13),

"The awakened person is one with the flow of cause and effect, is one with the play of life and death, is the same person who has longings and desires, who is hurt and who needs. With awakening we are in all respects the same person we have always been, woven out of the mess of genes and history, our stuff the stuff of the world. But with this truth we are awakened to the reality of our intimate connections."

The Rev. Ford writes that people get the wrong idea that "awakening/enlightenment somehow excuses us from life. It doesn't." This seems to me to be another way of understanding ordinary mind. Enlightenment doesn't lift us into the clouds on a giant flying lotus (I saw that in a movie once, though; it looked fun). After realization we will still catch colds and crave chocolate. Yet something is transformed.

So that's the intro to ordinary mind, and I haven't gotten into the juicy part of the koan yet. Next post.

September 19, 2012 at 4:27 am
(1) Hein says:

Looking forward to the next post. The thing that is bugging me lately about Buddhism (perhaps because our group is studying the Diamond Sutra) is the concepts of reality and this thing called ordinary mind. Are these two concepts not the same thing? Should the differentiation not being between the conditioned mind and unconditioned mind. But I suppose by doing that one falls into the unskillful thinking of dualism?

September 19, 2012 at 8:47 am
(2) Arun Kumar says:

All minds in this world are either ordinary minds or all the minds in this world are extra ordinary minds, There is no such thing as in-between.

September 19, 2012 at 11:28 am
(3) Barbara O'Brien says:

Arun — Wow, did you ever miss the point. In the context of the koan, “extra-ordinary” is a delusion.

September 19, 2012 at 9:40 pm
(4) Jason says:

What about Tibetan’s Bardo?
Aren’t that in-between mind?

September 20, 2012 at 7:16 am
(5) Barbara O'Brien says:

Arun and Jason — the problem with the English word “mind” is that we have just this one word for several phenomena. Arun is using the word “mind” to mean “intelligence” (which is not the mind in the koan) while Jason is using it to mean something like “consciousness.” Intelligence and consciousness are not the same things. Sean (in a comment to the next post) is talking about “cognition,” which doesn’t work for me, either. I think “consciousness” or “awareness” are closer to the mind in the koan, but I’d rather not label it at all.

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