Case 19 of the Mumonkan
Nansen's "Ordinary Mind Is the Way"
Jõshû asked Nansen, "What is the Way?" "Ordinary mind is the Way,"
Nansen replied. "Shall I try to seek after it?" Jõshû asked. "If you
try for it, you will become separated from it," responded Nansen. "How
can I know the Way unless I try for it?" persisted Jõshû. Nansen said,
"The Way is not a matter of knowing or not knowing.
Knowing is delusion; not knowing is confusion. When you have really
reached the true Way beyond doubt, you will find it as vast and
boundless as outer space. How can it be talked about on the level of
right and wrong?"
With these words, Jõshû came to a sudden realization.
Nansen dissolved and melted away before Jõshû's question, and could
not offer a plausible explanation. Even though Jõshû comes to a
realization, he must delve into it for another thirty years before he
can fully understand it.
The spring flowers, the autumn moon;
Summer breezes, winter snow.
If useless things do not clutter your
You have the best days of your life.
One thing I really enjoy doing is sitting in the woods. I'll hike out to some spot, doesn't really matter where, throw down a poncho or, if it's dry, just plop my butt right down on the duff. I'll usually sit there for the better part of an hour, sometimes longer. It really depends on the day. It's really interesting to see what happens as you sit there for an extended period of time. At first, the woods are completely silent. No bird flits or animal stirs. I mean, let's be honest, you scared the bejesus out of them as you came barreling into their home with your heavy hiking boots. After about fifteen minutes, though, you'll start to hear a few chipmunks chirp and robins chatter. After twenty five minutes, the chickadees move back in. Soon after the squirrels and the nuthatches return. Sit there long enough, completely still, and after forty five minutes, it's not that uncommon to have birds start landing on you or to have a squirrel scurry over your foot. Sit there for an hour or longer and maybe you even see a bear or a fisher.
Your mind is a lot like the woods. Meditation is a lot like sitting in the forest. At first, there's just too much that's been churned up. All of that detritus clouds our senses. Just like the woods we see at first isn't the woods in its baseline state, so to is our day to day mind a completely divorced from our true, ordinary mind. Sit long enough, and all of that nonsense begins to fall away. (Oddly, it follows about the same schedule!) Sit long enough and there's no telling what you'll wind up seeing. That's half the fun. We don't know what will appear - in the woods or in our meditation.
What effort was there in my sitting in the woods? Did I lure the birds back in? Did I hunt them down and drag them into that glade with me? Was I doing some magical ritual that resulted in that junco landing on my boot? Of course not. If I did any of those things, those creatures would just run farther away. They were drawn in by my non-effort. They were attracted to my ordinary mind, plain and undisturbed. When we sit in meditation, we just sit. Our mind falls onto one spot like a leaf falls onto water. We do not press it there. It's held aloft by the calmness of the waters below. Any coming or going, goal, or destination will sink us.
Where is there any effort?