Ice Cream and Stomachaches: Zen in Everyday Terms (4)

The inscrutable type of Zen teacher might just say, at this point, “Wash your bowl,” or recite an old poem about partridges and beautiful flowers. But Nan-ch’üan decides that this particular student is such a novice that he has to explain a little more clearly. He instructs that trying to direct your mind in some particular direction, whatever it may be, will be a waste of time. Another translation of this answer would be: “If you try to plot out some direction to follow, you’ll just get further and further from the Tao.”

Poor Chao-chou is still very puzzled. Still thinking of “the Way” as some kind of real path, a definite course of mental training, he protests that without some sort of definite idea of what he should be doing, there’s no guarantee that he will make any progress. He needs to know what he is supposed to do with his mind.

Here, Nan-ch’üan gives up throwing out vague hints of what he is talking about, and decides to be direct. The “way” we are talking about is not something you can know, he says. But equally importantly, it is not something you can fail to know. It is “not subject to knowing or not knowing.” If I gave you instructions about how to reach the great prize of Enlightenment, and you thought that then you knew what you were doing, you’d be deluded. Your mind is now, in some sense, in a deluded state, but trying to change its direction, its present mode of operation, in any way would leave you just as deluded.  

On the other hand, don’t react by saying, “OK, I give up. You say it’s ‘ordinary mind,’ so I’ll just keep my mind the way it is, with all its doubts and pains.” Another way of putting this is absolute skepticism, the sort of thing amateur undergraduate dorm-room Socrateses express as “I’ll refuse to accept anything, including the refusal to accept anything.” (As is well known, Descartes thought he had a way out of that, but what he came up with was far from Zen!) 

Nan-ch’üan does admit at this point that there is a true, genuine path, but explains that there is no way to say what it is. Lao-tse said the same thing long before Nan-ch’üan: “The way that can be named is not the true Way.” (There is a pun in the Chinese here: “way,” “Tao,” and “to name” or “say” are the same character). 

The Tao is as vast as the whole universe. Of course — what did you expect? You are asking about the Ultimate Truth; isn’t that just Everything? And how could you find a specific path to Everything? How could you say, “Yes, this is it,” or “No, that’s not it”? 

In the story, Chao-chou suddenly got the point. This could be called a sort of enlightenment, but it’s only the start. In the Mumonkan, each case ends with a comment and a verse by Mumon, the author. His comment in this case is: “Questioned by Chao-chu, Nan-ch’üan lost no time in showing the smashed tile and the melted ice, where no explanation is possible.” (In other words, Nan-ch’üan decided not to beat about the bush, and just destroyed all the mystery and reduced the matter to the most easily understood terms.) 

But then he adds: “Though Chao-chou had realization, he could confirm it only after another thirty years of practice.” Even though you begin to get it, you will need a very long practice to really get it, and every Zen person eventually sees this clearly. 

Mumon’s concluding verse to this case runs: 

     “Spring comes with flowers, autumn with the moon, 

    summer with breeze, winter with snow. 

    When idle concerns don’t hang in your mind, 

    that is your best season.” 

Or, as it could also be translated, 

     “When our minds are not cluttered up with useless
     things, 

    that is a good season for us." 

qedd© Jon Johanning 2011