what is the way of zen?

If you had not already found me, you would not be seeking me. St. Augustine

Joshu asked Nansen, "What is the Way?" Nansen answered, "Everyday mind is the Way." (Your ordinary mind is the Way.) "How does one get on to it?" "The more you pursue it the more it runs away. How does one know that one is on the Way?" "The Way does not belong to knowing or not knowing. Knowing is illusion. Not knowing is lack of discrimination. It is like vast space. Where is there room for this and that, good and bad?" Upon this Joshu came to sudden awakening.

"Everyday mind is the Way!" Zen Master Nansen said this in reply to a monk, Joshu, who had asked him, "What is the Way?" Everyday mind is getting out of bed, eating breakfast, going to work, coming home, going to bed. It is laughing and crying, being anxious and joyful. Everyday mind is walking and talking, sitting down and standing up.

Nansen was a celebrated master of the T'ang dynasty, the period of Chinese history between about 600 and 900 C.E., a time when Zen flourished in China. Joshu was his student for about fifty years. After Nansen died, Joshu went on pilgrimage for twenty years until the age of eighty. He finally started teaching and became as famous as his teacher. He died at age 120.

Joshu's question was really, "What is Tao?" but it is usually translated as "What is the Way?" The word "Way" can have many different meanings. For example, if you were in Montréal and asked the way to Toronto you would probably be told to take route 40, which becomes the 401. "What is the way?" in this case means in what direction must I go? When you get the answer, "take the 40", you might then ask, "What is the best way to go there, by bus or by car?" What is the way to travel the Way? But Way means something more yet – it could also mean the destination. Early Christians were "Followers of the Way", and the same term is used of Buddhists.

All of these meanings were involved in Joshu's question. He asked this question while he was still a very young man and had just started out on the Way. He was undoubtedly confused, perhaps dumbfounded, by Nansen's reply. Many people have come to me over the years to ask to practise Zen at the centre. I always ask them, "Why do you want to do this; why do you want to follow this Way?" Most often they will say, in one way or another, that their life is confused, that they are unhappy. They will often ask such questions as, "What is the meaning of my life? Why must we suffer? What is death? What is really worthwhile?" It is because many people feel that something is missing in their lives, indeed because they feel that everyday mind is not the Way, that they come to Zen.

I too had Joshu's question, "What is the Way?", which came out of a nagging sense of the meaninglessness of life. Fifty years ago, just after leaving the British Navy, I was in deep despair and started asking these very questions. I happened to come across the book by Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous. The title appealed to me immensely, and much of what he said about the mysterious and somewhat miraculous man Gurdjieff awakened my interest, and I longed to encounter the miraculous in some way.

In the West the Way is closely associated with the miraculous, as it is in many parts of the East. We have been fed a steady diet of the wonders of the East, of the Tibetan masters who can fly, the masters who have uncanny occult powers, the superhuman control that some have over their own bodies, their capacity to heal, their unbounded love. We, in the West, have come to believe that the extraordinary and the spiritual are, in some way, the same. Christ, we are told, had the power to heal, to walk on water, to change water into wine. He could resurrect the dead and even die himself for three days and then get up and walk about. These miracles are the centrepiece of Christianity. To become a Christian saint one must have performed at least one miracle and preferably several more if possible. Everyday mind, we say, is too mundane, too ordinary, and so we want the opposite. We want the magical.

A story is told of a Zen master who, while on pilgrimage in China, met another pilgrim on the way. After a while they came to a wide river. The master stopped, but the other pilgrim continued by walking on water. When he was partway he turned to the master to beckon him across. The master called out, "You deceiver, I thought you were a man of value! If I had known that you would pull a stunt like that I would have cut you off at the ankles. "

Far from seeing the exotic or the marvellous as the Way, Zen says that even something as mundane as washing the dishes is the Way. Washing dishes, everyday mind is the direction to go in practice, the way to practice, and even the goal of practice itself. A monk came to Joshus temple and asked, I" am new here, could you please tell me what the essence of your teaching might be?" "Have you eaten?" asked Joshu. "Yes", replied the monk. "Then go and wash your dishes".

Why does Zen repudiate the magical and extol the mun-dane everyday life? A clue to the answer to this question lies in another saying, this time by a famous Zen layman, P'ang, who lived more or less at the same time as Joshu. He said, "My miraculous power and magical ability: drawing water and chopping wood." In other words, the mundane world is already miraculous and magical. The wonder is not that people walk on water, it is that they walk at all. Speaking in tongues is not marvelous; it is saying "Good morning!" and "Good afternoon!" wherein the miracle lies.

In the original conversation with Nansen, Joshu was, as I said, quite put out. In his confusion he stammered another question: "How do we get on the Way?" He is asking the most basic question, "How does one practise Zen?" Normally one is told that one must sit, preferably in one or other of the lotus postures with the back straight and a low centre of gravity and simply follow the breath. I usually emphasize the point that one must follow the breath and not control it. It is the simplest of all practices. One simply follows the breath, one simply allows the breath to breathe.

In this there is no "I" who breathes. However, although it is so simple, it is almost impossible to do except after many years' hard work. When Joshu asked "How does one get on to the Way?" he was asking, "What must I do?" If everyday mind is the Way, if simply blowing your nose is a miraculous power and a magical activity, what can there be to do? This is why Nansen replied, "If you try to get on to the Way you push it away." Anything that you do is already too much, even if it is just following the breath. A story which is one of my favourites is the following: A monk went to Joshu, after Joshu had begun teaching, made his bows, was about to speak when Joshu struck him. The monk recoiled in surprise and said, "Hey! Why are you hitting me? I haven't even opened my mouth yet!" "What is the good of waiting until you have opened your mouth?" growled Joshu. Nothing needs to be done; even to think of opening your mouth is already too much.

"From the beginning all beings are Buddha." This is the first line of a very famous chant that we chant at the Montréal Zen Centre. From the very beginning we are already home. All that we can ever seek is already accomplished. Before a step is taken the journey is complete. It is our very search, our lust for the miraculous and magical, that hides from us the truth. A miracle cannot be understood with our normal reason and logic – it is beyond the laws of the universe. A miracle cannot be defined, captured or contained. This can also be said of our true nature, of what we are originally.

Joshu's last question to Nansen was this: "How do we know we are on the Way?" It would seem that at least we should know that we are on the Way. But Nansen says, "Knowing is an illusion; not knowing is a blank. It is like vast space. Where is there room for good and evil?" All that we can know, no matter how sublime, is not the real, is not the truth. All that we know is an illusion. Jesus said, "I am the Truth, the Life and the Way." This is true of each of us. By this I do not mean that I, Albert Low, the personality, am the only reality, or the Truth or the Light of the world. The personality can be known. Yet what is it that knows but cannot be known? In this lies Nansen's final phrase, "It is like great space. Where is there room for the opposites?" In the very question "What is it that knows but cannot be known?" lies the subject of Zen practice.

Albert Low is the director of the Montréal Zen Centre. He is the author of many books on Zen, including the recently published Zen and the Sutras. For more information on Zen and zazen contact: The Montréal Zen Centre, 824 Park Stanley, Montral, QC Canada H2C 1A2 or call (514) 388-4518

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