The Way

Zhaozhou asked Nanquan, “What is the Tao?”
Nanquan said, “Ordinary mind is the Tao.”
Zhaozhou asked, “Still, it’s something I can set out toward, isn’t it?”
Nanquan said, “To set out is to be distant from.”
Zhaozhou asked, “But if I don’t set out, how will I arrive at an understanding of Way?”
Nanquan said, “Way isn’t something you can understand, and it isn’t something you can not understand. Understanding is delusion, and not understanding is pure forgetfulness. “If you truly comprehend this Way that never sets out for somewhere else, if you enter into it absolutely, you realize it’s exactly like the vast expanses of this universe, all generative emptiness you can see through into boundless clarity. Now, how can you force that into coherence with the logic of yes this and no that?”
Hearing these words, Zhaozhou was suddenly awakened.

(modified from David Hinton’s, “No Gate Gateway”
What about the spiritual journey? It all begins with a question, a quest, an inquiry burning deep in the heart. Across the field, I hear the crow calling my name, leaves shudder in the wind, the sound of thunder rolls through the valley. This call resonates, opening. I take it to heart. It is the call beckoning me home, a place, my place. The call stirs me from my slumber. Questions rise. Like this one:  How do I fit in? Or, how can I know what there is to know, the deep wisdom, in life? Or it may simply be What is the way? How can I get home?
Do You Know the Way?
Zhaozhou had come to Nanquan after a time of scholastic study of Buddhism. Perhaps frustrated by the answers and explanations of formal sutra study, the time had come for Zhaozhou to see for himself, to taste the water of wisdom and know for himself whether it was hot or cold. So, leaving Northern China he journeyed to Southern China to study at Nanquan’s place. Today’s koan is an account of his awakening.

Zhaozhou is a willing and earnest student. He asks the teacher, “What is the Way?” He asks the essential question, what is the right path, what is the essential truth? He is picking up the Chinese word Tao (Way) in all its practicality, what is the way, which way do I go? There is activity in the Way.. The question becomes, “What is It, and how does it flow in life?” or simply, “What is the Way?”

Ordinary Mind
Nanquan answers, “Ordinary mind is the Way.”

You know about ordinary mind. Here I am, right now, typing these words. Here you are reading them. Ordinary mind: when I clean the stalls, feed the chickens, drive the car, race through the falling rain. Just this — ordinary mind. Layman Pang wrote this upon his awakening:

What I do every day
Is nothing special:
I simply stumble around.
What I do is not thought out,
Where I go is unplanned.
No matter who tries to leave their mark,
The hills and valleys are not impressed.
Collecting firewood and carrying water
Are prayers that reach the gods.

Gathering firewood. Carrying water. Washing dishes. Pulling weeds. Pouring a cup of coffee. Fixing athe jammed copy machine. Watching the World Cup. Ordinary Mind. Here, now, the fullness.
Trying to Get Somewhere, Find Something
We have what we need. The path on life’s way is the path you walk, no more, no less. As Pang says, “nothing special.” Yet, nothing special is hard. At least for me. There must be a deeper ordinary, a more profound way, an extraordinary ordinary. Maybe the real Way, the real ordinary, the WAY beyond the way.. So, life becomes a search for something, somewhere, as Judy Garland sings, “somewhere over the rainbow,” the real Oz. We take this and express it any number of ways:

  • When I get this…
  • When I can do that…
  • If I could just learn to be different — less sad, less angry, nice.
  • We accommodate our lives to stories that promise more — more happiness, more contentment — equanimity.

We operate as if there is another world, a better world, a happier existence apart from the life we are living, apart from what is here, now. Zhaozhou imagines this sort of “better world” as out there and possible when he says,

“Still, it’s something I can set out toward, isn’t it?”

This is the path we know — if we want something we set out, we go for it. We launch ourselves towards it, grasping as we go. Here the paradox of the Way becomes apparent as Nanquan says,

“If you more towards it, you become more distant.”

  • So, think about it — Love…set out to grasp it, you can’t find it.
  • If you strain towards grace, you miss it.

The Way? Set out, launch yourself towards it? It is like Hakuin in his Praise Song for Meditation:

 I keep setting out 
 on the dark roads of ignorance—

In a word, set out and you miss it.

What Then?
Zhaozhou is at a loss and through the words of the text you can feel his frustration rise. The old ways don’t work, the long pilgrimages to yet another teacher, the hours of yoga, Tai Chi and meditation, religious beliefs, astrology, enneagram, Myers-Briggs, the newest spiritual network, more reaching and setting out…

“But if I don’t set out, how will I arrive at an understanding of Way?” Zhaozhou blurts out.

Or Hakuin, hundreds of years later,

 dark road after dark road, 
 when will I be free from birth and death?

Can you hear the voice of desperation in the search? in the setting out? How is the desperation of Zhaozhou your desperation? Nanquan brings Zhaozhou back to his original question, “What is the Way?” But, now he has taken away his student’s premise — there is no setting out.

There is just right here. There is just right now.

This very moment we have what we need. Before we divide the world up — right and wrong, this and that, my life and not my life, understanding and not understanding — life abounds and is full. The abundant life is something that we discover, to which we awaken. And it has been here all along.

As his teacher points this out, Zhaozhou is moved to the marrow of his bones. He sees it.

You can too.