Thursday, 22 June 2017


123. Anyone who tries zazen soon comes to experience the problem of intrusive thoughts. And so we quickly learn the importance of developing our powers of concentration, that is, our samadhi power. There is nothing strange or esoteric about this concentration. It is something we all employ in carrying out our daily tasks. It is part and parcel of Nansen's 'Ordinary Mind'. There is nothing extraordinary here. Learning to develop our powers of concentration represents a first movement towards touching or unifying or realizing the heart-mind of our practice. We move towards re-collecting the heart-mind by directing our attention to what we are doing right now. Zazen, as a ritualised practice, is designed to help us concentrate the heart-mind.Bowing as we enter the meditation hall, bowing to our cushion and then to the sangha, adopting the formal meditation posture -  all these actions require concentration on what we are doing. Already we are practising, and so developing, concentration. 


122. Zazen is the pre-eminent practice for the realization of Nansen's 'Ordinary Mind'. For this practice we adopt a stable upright sitting posture. However, in the stillness and silence of this posture we soon become aware of the mind's activity, the activity of what we tend to think of  as our ordinary mind. Many of us will find it to be unruly and learn to appreciate why it is sometimes referred to as 'monkey mind'. It seems to be up to all sorts of tricks and won't be silenced or stilled. We will feel a certain kinship with Eka (Hui-k'o), the Second Patriarch, who went to Bodhidharma and begged him to pacify his mind. Or we might recall the story of Eno (Hui-neng) who, on encountering two monks arguing about whether it was the wind or the flag that moved, remarked 'It is neither the wind nor the flag but only your mind that is moving'. We might also remember the line from the Kanseon which says 'thought after thought arises in the heart-mind'. And so we come to feel that we cannot concentrate. Our mind, it seems, is all over the place.
     What can we do? Deliberately trying to stop the thoughts, to turn off the radio in our head, just doesn't work and simply leads to feelings of frustration. As Nansen warns us: 'If you try for it, you will become separated from it'.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017


121. The heart-mind that Nansen describes as 'ordinary', the heart-mind that Eka could not take hold of, this is the heart-mind that we must touch, must awaken to, in our practice of zazen. Like Joshu we will find ourselves asking, 'Shall I try to seek after it?' Taking note of Nansen's response 'If you try for it, you will become separated from it', we might find ourselves suddenly confused and doubting. If trying for it only separates us from it, why are we devoting ourselves to such a demanding practice as zazen? With Joshu we will ask, 'How can I know the Way unless I try for it?' Nansen answers that it is 'not a matter of knowing or not knowing'. In other words, it is not a matter of conceptual knowledge, a knowledge that can be expressed in the language of logical discourse. He adds: 'When you have really reached the true Way beyond doubt, you will find it vast and boundless as outer space'. The True Way of Nansen's Ordinary Mind cannot be 'talked about on the level of right and wrong', cannot be discussed in a language that is underpinned by dualistic assumptions. Joshu, we are told, came to understand this with 'a sudden realization'.
     Encouraged by the claim that Joshu 'came to a sudden realization' while listening to Nansen's words, let us see if there is any way we can seek after the Way of  Nansen's Ordinary Mind without separating ourselves from it. Let us see if we can try without trying for it.


120. When Joshu was a young monk he asked his master Nansen, 'What is the Way?' Nansen simply replied, 'Ordinary mind is the Way'. Then Joshu had another question, asking, 'Shall I try to seek after it?' This might leave us wondering why he didn't inquire about the nature of ordinary mind. Anyway, Nansen's response to Joshu's second question is to tell him that trying for it would separate him from it. But still Joshu's questions kept coming: 'How can I know the Way unless I try for it?' At this point Nansen gives a final, if somewhat wordy, response. He says: '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 is vast and boundless as outer space. How can it be talked about at the level of right and wrong?'
     There is a lot to unpack in this koan story. However, our interest here has to do with the question that Joshu did not ask, namely, 'What is ordinary mind?' Perhaps what Joshu is pointing to with the expression 'ordinary mind' is something so ordinary, so familiar, that the very fact that one might feel the need to start looking for it simply serves to demonstrate that one has already missed it by a thousand miles. This is the very heart-mind of which Eka, the Second Chinese Patriarch, said, 'I have searched for my mind, and I cannot take hold of it'.

Sunday, 11 June 2017


119. Sesshin is the word that refers to the period of intensive meditative practice undertaken by Zen practitioners at certain times during the year. This word can be translated as 'touching the mind' or 'collecting the mind'. Sesshin, then, provides us with the opportunity to engage in a range of exercises that facilitate the practice of collecting or unifying the self in such a way that we can touch, in the sense of awaken to, our Buddha Mind, our True Self. But while this might be a helpful way initially to approach sesshin, we need to take care about what it is that we are attempting to collect, unify, awaken to. We need to ask ourselves about what it is that we are referring to with this word 'mind'. Like numberless Zen practitioners throughout the centuries we must face, at some point, the question 'What is mind?' And there's the rub. For in the context of Western thought the word 'mind' usually connotes something cerebral, something to do with the brain, something that has to do with our mental activities. But the 'shin' in 'sesshin', usually translated into English as 'mind', should rather be rendered as 'heart-mind' in that it is the seat not only of mental and intellectual activities but also of intuitive, emotional and spiritual acts.Touching, awakening to, the heart-mind, this is what we are about in sesshin.

Sunday, 4 June 2017


118. The story of man's inhumanity to man seems to  be unending. And the story of the violence perpetrated by men against women and children seems also to go on and on. Wise heads down through the years have looked for causes and offered solutions. Philosophers talk of 'the problem of evil' and are misled by their terminology. For a problem is something that in principle can be solved. But the horrors of war and the exploitation of the weak by the uncaring strong are as with us today as they have ever been. This suggests that we here face something that is more than a problem. Recognition of this led the philosopher Martin Heidegger to exclaim that 'only a god can save us'. But the Zen practitioner has no 'god'. Still, he or she must come to realise something of the mysterious fullness of emptiness. That is, the Zen practitioner must enter into the experience of mystery. This mystery must be acknowledged and accepted. Only in surrendering to the mystery that envelops all our living can one catch a glimmer of light at what hopefully is the end of this endless tunnel of human misery.    

Thursday, 1 June 2017


117. Kanseon is the bodhisattva with the many hands and eyes. She listens to the cries of the world. Not only does she listen but she responds to those cries. In our global village the cries of the world can seem to be overwhelming. What to do? Someone asked 'How does Kanseon use those many hands?' A master answered that it is like a man using his hand to adjust his pillow in the middle of the night. We might ask, 'Who is this Kanseon?' and "Where is she?' How we respond to these questions will have a bearing on our understanding of the hand adjusting our pillow in the dead of night.