Ordinary Mind Is the Way

Most Zen students are familiar with Master Nansen’s “Ordinary Mind is the Way.” Joshu, his student, asked the master, “What is the Way?” and Nansen said, “Ordinary mind is the way.” Joshu then asked if it makes sense to go after it, and Nansen said that if you run after it you stumble past, and if you don’t, you stagnate. So how do you practice with that?

We have the two terms “ordinary” and “special,” or “extra-ordinary.”  We tend to think of “ordinary” as something less than “special.” Ordinary refers to something routine, like the mechanics of making it through the day.  In the morning I get up and pee, brush my teeth, and go about my ordinary routine. Special is something extra-ordinary, something beyond ordinary, like Enlightened maybe. Although we are taught, like Joshu, that ordinary mind is the way, it is easy to remain doubtful. It is a special event in a sense when we come to the zendo, because the zendo contains the atmosphere of Zen practice. The formal set-up and procedures help create that atmosphere, so when I enter the space I know what I am supposed to do. “This is where we sit zazen and this is where we practice Zen.” And it is very special. Dogen says that one minute of zazen is one minute of enlightenment. And when we leave the zendo, we return to the ordinary. It is like when you light a match in a closet it lights up the entire space, but when you light a match outside in the daytime it has almost no effect on the surroundings.

One of Suzuki Roshi’s most quotable sayings was “Nothing special.” Don’t think that because you are sitting zazen early in the morning that you are doing something special or that what everyone else is doing is ordinary. The whole universe is sitting zazen with you and you are sitting with the universe. It is very special because it is the most ordinary thing.

When we seek the extraordinary we stumble past because we miss the truly extraordinary right beneath our feet. The truly extraordinary is found within the so-called ordinary. The beautiful geode is found within the lump of rock. The doorway of enlightenment, the gateless gate, is open right in front of us, but it is so obvious and ordinary that it is only visible to the selfless. The selfless see the extra-ordinary quality of life in the dharmas of our ordinary world, and others suffer trying to be special while missing the special qualities of their ordinariness. The Way is practice, and practice is nonstagnating, but living each moment fully, one moment at a time, without creating too much difficult karma, while offering ourselves unselfishly to the support of other beings while walking freely through the open gate.