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Barbara O'Brien

Directing Ourselves

By September 20, 2012

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Here is the next installment of the series on "Ordinary Mind Is the Tao," a Zen koan. To recap the last post, the monk Zhaozhou asked his teacher, Nanquan, "What is the Tao?"  And Nanquan said, "Ordinary mind is the Tao."

Then Zhaozhou said, "Should we direct ourselves toward it, or not?" And Nanquan said, "If you try to direct yourself toward it, you go away from it."

I relate to this bit of the koan, because I stumbled around with "directing" myself for a long time. I wandered into Zen practice because I thought there was something "out there" I was missing, and maybe someone would give it to me, or at least tell me how to get it. Well, that isn't how it works.

But the next phase I went through was to think that the mysterious something was in here. So I practiced very intently, poking around inside myself for all I was worth, trying to find the whatever it was I already had (or so I was told). But that isn't how it works, either.

As long as there is direction, it's not right. Direction implies a duality, one thing moving toward or away from another thing. As the late Robert Aitken Roshi said, "Once you find intimacy with vast emptiness -- the genuine Tao -- your act of standing will be the act of the entire universe standing." Nothing is separate.

Aitken Roshi continued, "Nan-ch'uan [Nanquan] is saying, in effect, 'You are setting up a division here, one thing seeking the other. Zen practice is not a matter of grasping at something.'"

Zenkei Shibayama Roshi said, "Your very striving and trying to get it is already discrimination and contrivance that alienates you from Tao. Nansen [Nanquan] is kindly pointing out that if one tries to seek after Tao, in which he himself already is, his very searching alienates him from it."

Koun Yamada Roshi said,

"If you do not search for it, but truly identify yourself with one thing -- it could be Mu, or perhaps masagin ["three pounds of flax," a reference to another koan], or the famous sound of one hand -- you are in accordance with the Way. This is so, even if you are as yet unenlightened.... When you are truly one with something you are one with yourself, and the time will necessarily come when you will realize your own self nature."

Dogen Zenji said, in Genjokoan, "When you first seek dharma, you imagine you are far away from its environs. But dharma is already correctly transmitted; you are immediately your original self." He also said, "To carry yourself forward and experience myriad things is delusion. That myriad things come forth and experience themselves is awakening." This is another way to show us "ordinary mind," or "everyday mind as it is without any discrimination." It's the "without any discrimination" that requires practice.

Often I hear people engaged in some kind of spiritual practice talk about a "higher self" or an "oversoul" or some such thing, and it brings home to me what is unique about the Buddha dharma. We devote ourselves to non-seeking for what is already present.

So Nanquan said, "If you try to direct yourself toward it, you go away from it." Then Zhaozhou asked, "If we do not try, how do we know that it is Tao?" Wow, good question! We'll look at that in the next post.

September 20, 2012 at 3:23 am
(1) Sean Robsville says:

“This is another way to show us “ordinary mind,” or “everyday mind as it is without any discrimination.” It’s the “without any discrimination” that requires practice.”

That’s because delusions are the brain’s ‘biological default’ state and can only be dispelled by a cognitive rather than intellectual change… http://rational-buddhism.blogspot.com/2012/09/evolution-emptiness-and-delusions-of.html

September 20, 2012 at 6:55 am
(2) Barbara O'Brien says:

Sean, hmmm, what do you mean by “cognitive”? I took a look at the site you linked, and while I agree with what it says I’m not sure “cognitive” change is quite the right word here. “Cognitive” usually relates to thinking, and how we think about things isn’t exactly what we’re talking about here.

That’s going to be addressed in the next section, actually. There are lots of translations of the koan online, if you want to skip ahead and read it.

September 20, 2012 at 7:29 am
(3) ZenPresence says:

I find myself just lately coming out of the “mysterious something in here” phase myself. I’m interested to see what’s next.

Dan Garner


September 20, 2012 at 9:50 am
(4) Dunprofiere says:

Cognitive thought implies actual action of the brain.. Any thought the Self has, any “I”, is cognitive thought.

Cognitive thought may distill intellectual wisdom, or direct it. Such is my experience.

“Ordinary mind is the Tao”… we exist within this space, and without effort can not step outside its boundaries.

September 20, 2012 at 11:54 am
(5) Barbara O'Brien says:

Cognitive thought implies actual action of the brain.. Any thought the Self has, any ā€œIā€, is cognitive thought.

That’s fine, but it’s important to not think of realization as something that happens in your brain.

September 20, 2012 at 1:58 pm
(6) fran says:

nice piece Barbara!

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