Natural, Vivid, Alive

· Teachings · ,

by Geoffrey Shugen Arnold, Sensei

Ordinary Mind is Tao
Gateless Gate, Case 19

Main Case
Chao-chou once asked Nanchuan, “What is Tao?” Nanchuan answered, “Ordinary mind is Tao.” “Then should we direct ourselves toward it or not?” asked Chao-chou. “If you try to direct yourself toward it, you go away from it,” answered Nanchuan. Chao-chou continued, “If we do not try, how can we know that it is Tao?” Nanchuan replied, “Tao does not belong to knowing or not-knowing. Knowing is illusion; not-knowing is blankness. If you really attain to Tao of no-doubt, it is like the great void, so vast and boundless. How, then, can there be right and wrong in the Tao?” At these words Chao-chou was suddenly enlightened.

Questioned by Chao-chou, Nanchuan immediately shows that the tile is disintegrating, the ice is dissolving, and no communication whatsoever is possible. Even though Chao-chou may be enlightened, he can truly get it only after studying for thirty more years.

Hundreds of flowers in spring, the moon in autumn,
A cool breeze in summer, and snow in winter;
If there is no vain cloud in your mind
For you it is a good season.

The question “What is Tao?” is at the very heart of Zen practice. Tao means a passage, a path, a way. It also means the essential truth, or the underlying principle of the universe. Within Buddhism, the path to awakening is not separate from enlightenment itself. As we travel on this path, we practice living as an awakened per- son. We tend to think of “practice” as preparation for a time that hasn’t arrived. But there is no future moment that we’re preparing for. Practice is living; cultivating virtue is being virtuous. Practice is life.

The Buddha said we should practice all that is good, cease from all that is harmful, and study, train, and master our mind. Yet, the mind of judgment is so strong; our attachments within love and hate can feel so right and true. How can we master the mind if we are at the mercy of our desire and aversion? If we want to be free of all clinging, we have to be more interested in liberation than in continuing our suffering. To do this, we have to see how burdensome our practice of judging is and experience the weariness of it. It just goes on and on—and there is no relief until we relieve ourselves. So within the many dreams we weave that occupy us and distract us from our real nature—we examine these dreams. Dogen said, “To study the Way is to study the self”; when dreaming, we study the dream.


When you sit down on the cushion, how do you use your mind? Do you shut everything off, trying to be tranquil and serene? Nanchuan says, “Not knowing is blankness,” there’s no life here. Do you just continue the fascination with your thoughts and call that zazen? Then we’ll just continue to reflect and daydream; samsara continues without end.

When we enter into practice enmeshed in our everyday mind, we assume that the point of zazen is to seek another mind, an enlightened mind. But the teachings continually point us back to a deeper examination of our present experience. And so Chao-chou asks this question, “What is Tao?” Nan-chuan responds, “Ordinary mind.” In Fukanzazengi Dogen says that “the Way is originally perfect and all-pervading.” Master Seng-Ts’an said, “The way is perfect like vast space. No excess, no lack.” Are they saying the same thing? Or are these different?

What is this “ordinary mind”? If it is the mind everybody experiences and calls “me” every day, then everyone would be living an enlightened life, which is clearly not the case. But if it’s a different mind, then how can we find this mind? If we don’t already have it, who could ever realize it? How many minds do we have?


A student once asked Chao-chou, “Can a person of ordinary mind be taught or not?” Chao-Chou said, “I don’t pass through their front door.” The wisdom that passes through the doors of the senses is not true wisdom. Chao-Chou doesn’t teach from a distance. The Tao can’t be defined by a sight, sound, or taste. But, there is a moment of pure experience before the thinking mind arises, before the self emerges. It’s that first moment of contact before there’s any sense of see- ing, hearing or tasting—in that flash of a moment, there’s pure contact. Yet within an instant our associating, judging mind defines the experience, and they seem to appear as one. The car alarm is irritating. That person at work does make you angry. Before practice, it can be hard to imagine experiencing our life free of judging and naming. With steady, sincere practice though, the thinking mind slows down and we realize there is space between the thoughts. This is tracing back the radiance, tracing it back to the moment before discrimination arises. This is the first taste of freedom from the tyranny of our effort to constantly domesticate reality. Instead, we can let reality just be reality, in all its natural, vivid truth.

In Zazenshin Dogen says, “Do not value what is far away and do not despise it; become completely familiar with it. Don’t despise what’s near at hand and don’t value it. Become completely familiar with it. Don’t take the eyes lightly and don’t give them weight. Don’t give weight to the ears, don’t take them lightly. Make your eyes and ears clear and sharp.” We don’t need to take what is naturally alive and free and put the harness of our judgments and opinions on it. This ceaseless management, the endless attempt to control our experience is exhausting, futile and robs us of our true life.


The Buddha taught that one of the characteristics of human life is adversity. No matter how privileged or how disadvantaged, we don’t always get what we want. Sometimes we’ll be with disagreeable people, sometimes we won’t be with the ones we love. When the mind is not at peace, the body is distressed and the world is distressed. When we give relief to the mind, the body finds peace and the world finds peace. Then, when challenges arise, they don’t create distress. This is the radical nature of reality: no greed, anger, and ignorance, even when immersed in greed, anger, and ignorance. Rather than try and control the world to get rid of all the confusion, Wu-men says, “Let your mind find peace, then the body will be at peace.”

The Buddha experienced adversity in his own life. He sometimes had conflicts within the sangha or with people in the local communities. As he got older he had back problems, and right before he died he got very sick. The question is: was he suffering?

We don’t need to take what is naturally alive and free and put the harness of our judgments and opinions on it.

The Buddha called his teaching “the Middle Way.” This is not giving weight to your eyes, but not taking them lightly, not indulging what we see and yet not ignoring it. This message comes through the dharma continually, like a drumbeat. Why? Because we are constantly moving from one extreme to the other. We know how to indulge, we know how to deny—those come easily. And yet, Dogen is saying, just “make your eyes and ears clear and sharp.” See into the dream. The dream is our confusion. It’s the confusion of looking at what creates suffering and seeing it as our salvation, or looking at what is impermanent and seeing it as everlasting. It is looking at something that is fundamentally without self-existence and infusing a self into it. When we see into the dream, we realize that the world is empty, like vast space.

We can hear the dharma and think the perfection that the teachings point to is our conventional sense of perfection. But “perfect” in our ordinary sense means managed, domesticated reality: everything lining up the way we think it should. Even if what we want is good—like no wars, no injustice, no poverty—that’s not what is meant by perfect within the dharma. Even those terrible kinds of suffering are not outside of Tao. In order to understand our experience, we have to under- stand its basic nature—its fundamental truth, before the first sign appears.

Photo by Glovis Dimitrios

Photo by Glovis Dimitrios

Ordinary mind is Tao. To understand ordinary mind, we have to understand Tao. To understand Tao we must go beyond all knowing. Nan-chuan is saying that if you want to understand Tao, look to your ordinary mind—they’re not different—but look with unconditioned eyes.


When the mind is filled with emotion, we sell our soul to that emotion, to that view. We not only believe that the feeling is true, we also believe that the feeling is me. In other words, we become lost. How do we find ourselves? In that moment of being lost and confused, don’t despise and don’t value. How? If we’re in the grips of despair, then we don’t give weight to that despair, but neither do we take it lightly. Our usual response is to react by trying to manage and control our experience—if we’re in pain, then avoid that pain. We think the way to resolve the problem is to have it disappear, to stop it. But that’s not what the dharma is teaching. If we want to walk the path, we will need to develop the courage to open to the raw truth of this present moment—free of judgment—and not move away. From that place of equanimity, come closer. Let your eyes and ears—the whole body—be clear and sharp; don’t turn away. Going beyond subject and object, realize that this very moment is not as it seems, nor is it otherwise. It’s not fixed and it’s not non-existent.

What is the Tao? Ordinary mind is the Tao. Shibayama’s commentary says this, “Every day mind just as it is, without any discrimination.” But the mind that is free of thought is not yet the ordinary mind Nan-chuan is speaking about. If this mind was dependent on no thought, then we couldn’t live in accord with the Tao when thinking or speaking—we would still be giving our thoughts the power to liberate or to confine us. But in fact, the thought itself is not discrimination; this can only occur in the conditioned mind. Chao-chou asks the necessary question, “Then should I direct myself toward it?” In other words, “How do I practice this?” Nan-chuan answers, “If you try to direct yourself toward it, you move away from it.”

Moving towards the real only creates more distance; rather “become completely familiar with it.” Don’t give it weight. Don’t take it lightly. Lose all sense of far away and near at hand. Let go of discriminating consciousness and you are, at that very moment, in accord with the Tao. How does water move toward wetness? How does fire get closer to heat? No one has ever moved closer to their original nature. But, Chao-chou says, “If I don’t try, then how do I know?”


Again and again we hear the teaching of having faith, of trusting practice. Recently I was thinking about the early years of my training and all the ways in which my faith in practice was contingent on getting my way. I figured I could have deep faith, but only after I had put my doubts to rest. I would give up my ego-driven striving once I’d realized myself through striving. We too often approach practice using our dualistic, judging, striving mind, because that seems to have worked for us in the past and it’s familiar. When we deeply yearn to be free of self-clinging and to understand this life, then real faith in this Dharma is alive and present.

What are we doing when we sit in zazen, in our study and practice of the dharma? Practice is not mechanical, it’s not a method or technique, and it’s not blank consciousness. That’s why Buddhist meditation emphasizes quieting and calming the mind and incisive insight. Ultimately, we realize they are inseparable. Wu-men’s commentary says, “Nan-chaun immediately shows that the tile is disintegrating, the ice is dissolving, no communication is possible.” This is true intimacy.

Hundreds of flowers in the spring,
the moon in autumn.
A cool breeze in summer, and snow in winter.
If there’s no vain cloud in your mind,
For you it is a good season.

Wu-men is not talking about a managed life. He’s talking about a life well-lived, a life that is full and free, in which we attend to what we need to take care of, but without a vain cloud in the mind. If we can deeply understand the power of mind, how we can both injure and benefit this world, we see that practice isn’t a luxury, but rather an imperative. It’s like food and water. It returns us to ourselves, to our sanity, to our true capacity.

Photo by Jenni Alexander

Photo by Jenni Alexander

If there’s no vain cloud in your mind / for you it is a good season. This good is not confined by our conventional notions of good and bad. It’s the simple, live joyful- ness that comes from not wanting to be somewhere else, not wanting to be some- one else, not waiting for a different time. The way is vast and boundless. The way is not apart from this mind. Study, train, realize your original mind, the mind of all beings, sentient and insentient.

Geoffrey Shugen Arnold Sensei is the Head of the Mountains and Rivers Order and the abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery and Zen Center of New York City: Fire Lotus Temple.

The Gateless Gate is a collection of 48 koans compiled in the early 13th century by the Chinese Zen master Wumen Huikai.

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