The Way Revisited

Zhaozhou asked Nanquan, “What is Way?”
Nanquan said, “Ordinary mind is Way.”
#19, No Gate Gateway, trans. David Hinton

Koans Pay a Visit

I have learned not to worry much if I misplace or lose something. I subscribe to the Little Bo Peep School of Lost Things, “leave them alone and they’ll come home, wagging their tales behind them.” Wait long enough and things find you. Same with koans — when I seem to need them, specific koans show up. They are trustworthy like that.

This summer two koans have come back repeatedly: a koan about a fox and one that I commented upon earlier, “Ordinary Mind is the Way.” The fox koan is quite lengthy and we can avail ourselves of its magic later in the year. I would like to return to the “ordinary mind” koan. This week we will take the first part, next week its conclusion. Also, we will take this koan up as we enter retreat on August 4. In other words lets slow things a bit and and move into the depths of this koan (for my remarks on the koan as a whole, consult the June 27th edition of this eletter).

Take a Second Look

Last night I awoke at 3:30, and stayed awake until I finally got out of bed at 5 to meditate. As I sat on the cushion, at first my first glance inward, I was seething, angry about the thought that was keeping me awake and, then, on top of that, frustrated by my sleeplessness. Sitting became another sort of impossible and then Zhaozhou and Nanquan returned with their koan: “What is Way?” “Ordinary Mind is Way.”


What is more ordinary than being wide-eyed in the middle of the night? With this, I became curious. Time to take a second look.

The Part You Throw Away (or not!)

We have been taught that if you do not like it, like soggy French fries you can throw it away. Anger, Sleeplessness? This can’t be about spirit, sometimes folks teach, and, because you would rather not go, sometimes you believe. This koan, pretty much all koans, point in the other direction. The part you would throw away? Koans offer the contrary view: that is it too. What you would rather take out with the garbage also belongs to the shape of things. In another koan, Yunmen is asked, “What is Buddha?” He responds “Dried shit-stick!” Zhaozhou, the student in the “Ordinary Mind” koan, years later as master, responds to his student, “That cypress in our courtyard.” Linji? “You are that solitary brightness,” and then he might hit you, as if to say, “that’s It too.” The part you would throw away — that is precisely It! My anger, my sleeplessness, your sadness, your lonely feeling, the pain you feel in your legs after a half hour of meditation, changing the diaper, cleaning the stalls, all of it — nothing is hidden, and nothing is left out. It is all right here.

Coming Round

About twenty years ago I spent a month in a hermitage in upstate New York. Adjacent the hermitage property was a garbage dump. This is where human beings put such things — garbage dumps and hermitages — out on the margins. In the hermitage I had a daily routine of prayer, meditation, yoga, writing — you know, stuff you might do in a hermitage, spiritual stuff. And then there was the dump, you know, filled with garbage. I was drawn, compelled, to examine the dump. There were old TVs and kitchen appliances, washers and driers, blenders, mattresses and dressers, an old plow blade and a 50’s era Chevy, rusted through with flecks of red paint. Soon my visits to the dump became a daily occurrence. Inner and outer worlds converged. Here they were, the parts I had thrown away — loneliness and fear, a lack of confidence, a clinging torelationship even in my forties. My inner landscape mirrored the outer — now, which is in and which is out? Which garbage which? One day, I found a bowling ball and began smashing things — mirrors, glass tables, TVs, their thick glass screens. “I love the sound of breaking glass,” New Wave singer Nick Lowe sang in the seventies, “especially when I’m lonely,” he would add. The more I smashed, the more I felt like smashing, anger then tears, then falling to the ground sobbing. Somehow I had dared to tred upon forbidden ground. The parts I had thrown away, that scared me, rose to the light of day as they rose in my heart. I was surprised, shaken. I’d like to say all was resolved. What I can say is that this experience belonged to me, that I had extended the frontier, visited where I had been afraid to go. And somehow felt better for it.

There it is, the Little Bo Peep School of Lost things — they will come round and as they do life opens, maybe a taste, a glimpse of freedom, an ability now to respond to life as she comes to you, the boundaries extended out beyond what had before been allowed. After all, it is all ordinary, all part of life.


So the teacher is met by his student, “What is Way?” “Ordinary Mind is Way.” Ordinary Mind. How are you now? What is up for you? What rises to meet you, calls for your attention? Last night I was sleepless, worried about life. Last night I was not satisfied with this sleeplessness. Right now, I yawn, missing last night’s sleep, hands on the keyboard. And I am hungry. And the cat says she is hungry. Funny I just fed her. I laugh out loud. She finished eating a half hour ago. The dehumidifier needs to be emptied. All this. Ordinary, the Way. When first questioned by the emperor, “what is the first principle of the Holy Teachings? Bodhidharma answered, “Vast emptiness, nothing holy.” Yep, ordinary not holy. Just this. Right here. How is it for you?