The Koan:

Zhaozhou said: The Supreme Way is not difficult; it simply refrains from picking and choosing. As soon as these words are spoken, you might judge that this is picking or choosing, or that it is clear. I do not dwell in clarity. Can you stand by this and give me a response.

A monk stepped forward and asked: If you don’t dwell in clarity, what do you stand by?

I don’t know that either.

If you don’t know, why do you say that you do not dwell in clarity?

It is enough to ask the question. Take your bows and step back.

Supreme Way

In the time of Emperor Wu and Bodhidharma the talk was First Principle and Holy Teaching. Now its Zhaozhou going on about some Supreme Way — Supreme like the highest way, the best way. Thinking of such things, the Supreme, the Best, the Highest, we think, “that’s hard.” When Zhaozhou says “not difficult,” we go, “That’s easy for him to say!” he is a Master.  Sometime we look at meditation and practice like this, maybe everyday when we sit down, “this is hard.” So thought Layman Pang:

One day, while the Layman was meditating in his sitting hut, he suddenly cried out, “It’s hard, hard, hard! And I’ve put two coats of linseed oil on this platform too!”

His wife said, “It’s easy, easy, easy! Just turn your eyes to the floor, lower your feet to it, and be on your way!”

Ling-zhao said, “It’s not hard or easy! The mind of the Patriarchs is in every blade of grass!”

I think Zhaozhou (and Bodhidharma for that matter) would agree with Lingzhao. The mind of the Patriarchs is in every blade of grass, every grain of sand, each needle on the tree. Yes, the patriarchs and matriarchs and my mind and your mind, the music playing in next room, the dog resting in hercrate, the horses in the cold barn, the dishes dirty in the dishpan. This Supreme Way reaches everywhere and touches everything — no inside or outside and no special way to be chosen over any other way. This Way is not easy or hard, not even Supreme. It is right here, in every action, every thought, every emotion. Zhaozhou says this is not difficult. I say that the Supreme Way is the Ordinary Way and that when I am thirsty I drink, when the snow covers the walkway, I look for the shovel. With that being the case…

How Could I Pick and Choose?

To be here is to smile at beauty, to meet absurdity with a hearty laugh. This morning, wind chill at 14 below, I bundle up for the barn chores. Here there is no picking or choosing — just response. When hungry, eat; thirsty drink. Cold? Bundle up. To live in each moment is to meet life with life, to respond to the vastness as a part of and in concert with what is here.


So Zhaozhou in just this way avoids picking and choosing, he avoids making special, better and best, one way better than any other way. That might seem clear, or enlightened even — Zhaozhou is, after all, a Zen Master, his lightning lips pointing to what matters. Those very lightning lips say, “That might sound like clarity, but I don’t dwell there.” “With that being the case, how might you respond?” he asks an earnest young monk. This is a call beckoning response. If it were me I might say, “When it rains, I put on my hat,” but the monk thinks there is something to figure out here, something to stand in, or hold on to. “Ah,” he thinks, “enlightenment.There’s something.” He asks his teacher, “If you don’t dwell in clarity, where do you stand?”

Not Knowing and Nothing Doing

“I don’t know that either,” says Zhaozhou, echoing Bodhidharma with his don’t know. There’s an answer for you. There is no thing to hold onto, no name, no special state to achieve, no thing called enlightenment. “Nothing to attain,” says the Heart Sutra. Just this! Right here. Life/meditation/getting up in the morning is nothing’s own doing. Something like this from David Hinton’s translation of the Tao Te Ching, poem 48:

To work at learning brings more each day.
To work at Way brings less each day,
less and still less

until you ‘re nothing’s own doing.
And when you’re nothing’s own doing, there’s nothing you don’t do.
To grasp all beneath heaven, leave it alone.

Leave it alone, that’s all,
And nothing in all beneath heaven will elude you.

Missing the Bodhiharma-like quality in Zhaozhou’s answer, the student says, “If you say you don’t know, why do you say you don’t dwell in clarity?” To which Zhaozhou says, in essence, “Good question, sit with that one for awhile.”

Life Itself

Limitless and vast. That’s life. And yet as I accumulate knowledge, gathering it and heaping it into piles of belief and opinion, heap upon heap, I separate myself from what is and with the illusion of control interfere with the ever-changing ebb and flow in life. As I seek to explain the world and myself to myself I make it all solid and graspable. This is to know, to gather a self solitary and destitute, cut off. The Supreme Way is to let go of it all, belief, ideals, attainment, even non-attainment, delusion and enlightenment. Zhaozhou’s Way? It is right here as I bundle up against the cold, worry about my family, feed myself when I get hungry. This is nothing doing as I notice what is here and joining the flow as things go their own way.

Zhaozhou’s contemporary Linji writes of this sort of thing noting that the “Way of the buddhas calls for no special undertakings. Just act ordinary without trying to do anything particular. Move your bowels, piss, get dressed, eat your rice and then, if you get tired, then lie down.”

The Supreme Way is not supreme for being special, it is quite ordinary, and it has always been here. As heart opens we begin to notice and willingly let go.