350. Ordinary Mind is the Way

The Chinese Zen masters are particularly vulnerable to misinterpretation because they use apparently ordinary, down to earth language. A good example of that is Master Baso’s famous expression “ordinary mind is the way”. He doesn’t mean that your farting, meandering, karmic mind is the way, he doesn’t mean ‘everything is Zen’, or any of the other peculiar western formulations. 

To understand this expression we have to see that wrapped up within that expression is the whole golden age of Chinese Tang Dynasty Buddhism, and specifically the development of the Tiantai and Huayan schools, which in due course created Zen. 

When he says ‘mind’, we need to understand that mind means everything. It is not just your mind, it is everything. And that everything has two aspects: a phenomenal aspect, and a thusness aspect.

 The metaphor which the Chinese use to describe this, or at least one of the metaphors, is the metaphor of the waves and ocean. The ordinary fluctuating mind is seen as being like the waves, and if you are just at the level of the waves, if you are, as it were, perpetually drowning in your own waves, then that is all you are going to see. What we need to understand is that the waves –  individual phenomena – are not separate from the ocean – thusness – and in seeing that we can see that our ordinary mind is not something that we need to get rid of, but which needs to be reconfigured as part of a greater space. We don’t need to change our position, we just need to widen our view.

In meditation, if I am simply focused on my ruminating mind, that is entirely different from understanding the depth of the ocean and the height of the sky. It is entirely different from understanding that underlying my fluctuating ordinary mind is the depth of the ocean, the depth of my spine, the depth of this body, practicing. Underlying this fluctuating mind is the sense of this body practicing, this head without conscious effort reaching upwards, and this vast space of emptiness within above and around us, just like the ocean has great depth and the sky has great height. 

The Huayan school used the metaphor to show the interdependence of all things: there is no ‘ocean’ existing prior to or behind the waves, just as there is no emptiness apart from form. Each wave, extending everywhere, is the whole ocean. Because it is the whole ocean, each wave is all waves. Each wave is the pivot around which the whole ocean turns.

Your life is not nothing.