Ice Cream and Stomachaches: Zen in Everyday Terms (3)

To see how all of this works out in an actual piece of the traditional Zen literature, let’s look at a koan from the most classic koan collection, The Gateless Barrier, also commonly known by its Japanese title, Mumonkan

“Koan” is the Japanese version of a Chinese word meaning “public case,” and in ancient China they were something like publicly distributed judges’ opinions. In the Zen world, they are examples nearly everyone recognizes of how the most admired Zen teachers worked with students or expressed their insights in classic form. They have a reputation for being very inscrutable. For example, these are taken from the great American late Zen teacher Robert Aitken’s translation, The Gateless Barrier

    Case 7:  Chao-chou: “Wash Your Bowl” 

                A monk said to Chao-chou, “I have just
                entered this monastery. Please teach me.” 

                Chao-chou said, “Have you eaten your rice

                The monk said “Yes, I have.” 

                Chao-chou said, “Wash your bowl.” The
                monk understood. 

    Case 18:  Tung-shan’s Three Pounds of Flax 

                A monk asked Tung-shan, “What is

                Tung-shan said, “Three pounds of flax.” 

    Case 24:  Feng-hsüeh: Equality and Differentiation 

                A monk asked the priest Feng-hsüeh, 
                “Speech and silence are concerned with
                equality and differentiation. How can I
                transcend equality and differentiation?” 

                Feng-hsüeh said: 

                “I always think of Chiang-nan in March; 

                partridges chirp among the many fragrant
                flowers.” [a quotation of a classic Chinese

There are many ways in which koans have been used in Zen practice over the centuries, but they are always vital to the growth of any serious student’s understanding. I want to discuss a koan, also from Aitken’s translation, which is rather atypical in that its meaning is not difficult to penetrate at all, at least at a preliminary level. But it does explain a great deal about Zen, and Buddhism in general. 

    Case 19:  Nan-ch’üan: “Ordinary Mind Is the Tao” 

            Chao-chou asked Nan-ch’üan, “What is the

            Nan-ch’üan said, “Ordinary mind is the Tao.” 

            Chao-chou asked, “Should I try to direct myself
            toward it?” 

            Nan-ch’üan said, “If you try to direct yourself
            you betray your own practice.” 

            Chao-chou asked, “How can I know the Tao if I
            don’t direct myself?” 

            Nan-ch’üan said, “The Tao is not subject to
            knowing or not knowing. Knowing is
            delusion; not knowing is blankness. If you truly
            reach the genuine Tao, you will find it as
            vast and boundless as outer space. How can    
            this be discussed at the level of affirmation
            and negation?” 

            With these words, Chao-chou had sudden

Nan-ch’üan (Japanese: “Nansen”) was one of the highest-regarded teachers in Zen history, and his student Chao-chou (Japanese: “Jōshū”) became an equally eminent teacher, although in this story he is obviously still quite wet behind the ears.  

Here, “Tao,” of course, is the well-known Chinese term for the “path” or the “way” to the highest truth or reality in itself, as a whole. The question “What is the path to the highest truth?” is naturally a question that any student of a religion or philosophy would ask right at the start: “I don’t want to waste time. Give me the Cliff’s Notes version of your school’s wisdom! I want the course outline in a couple of pages.”

Teacher Nan-ch’üan does just that, in two words: “Ordinary mind (or “everyday” or “nothing-special” mind) is the path you’re asking about.” But that completely baffles the student. One can imagine he thinks, “If what’s in my mind ordinarily, every day, is the famous Tao, I’m not going to learn anything from this famous teacher. I’ll just stay the way I am now.”

So, still thinking that there is some special secret he needs to learn, he asks if he should try to point his mind in some direction or other, work on some special discipline of meditation or one-pointed concentration. In other words, he takes the word “Tao” or “path” literally, as a kind of journey from where he is now to some sort of glorious enlightened state of mind. He wants a map for this path. “Here I am, in this confused, miserable condition; where should I look for the remedy?”

qedd© Jon Johanning 2011