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.
Excerpted from the BZC 50th Anniversary Commemorative Book.
What comes to mind when I reflect on the past fifty years of practice at the Berkeley Zen Center is deep gratitude. First and foremost for my teacher, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. His gentle but firm and nourishing example encouraged us, his disciples, to go beyond what we thought were our limitations. He once said to us, “I have nothing to offer you but my Zen spirit.” He always taught by example. He had thoroughly digested the essence of Dogen’s teaching and could express it in his own authentic way to make it accessible to our generation.
He was totally grounded in the Way. What he taught was selflessness, not acting from our ego, integrity, truthfulness, no arrogance, shikantaza (just doing), meeting each person right where they are with full attention: the world stops here. Living our life one moment at a time. He taught us the nature of determination and steadfastness: sit still and don’t give up. And the nature of compassion: if you need to change your position, you can do so without judgment. When we can accept ourselves just as we are, both good and bad, it makes it possible to identify with others and support them. One time I told Suzuki Roshi how bad I was, and he said that this was good, otherwise it is harder to help others.
He taught us what he knew, the Japanese style. His intention was not to turn us into Japanese, but to offer what he felt was the highest virtue of his culture. He didn’t have to tell us what it was. We could practice and find out for ourselves! He loved his American students because of our open-mindedness and willingness to adventure wholeheartedly into a totally foreign world. One of our virtues as Americans is our openness to accept the best that other cultures have to offer. That is what makes America great, again and again.
Suzuki was not attached to Buddhism or the Soto School. That doesn’t mean that he rejected it. His teaching of non-attachment was not based on rejection but on great respect for things in a world of constant transformation. To show respect for things and cling to nothing.
Back in the 60s, before his students were ordained, we recited the robe chant in the morning, but we didn’t know what it meant because it was in Japanese. So one day he and Katagiri Sensei were in his office, and I asked him about the meaning of the chant. Katagiri started shuffling through the desk to see what he could find, and Suzuki stopped him. Pointing to his heart, he said, “Love.”
I also wish to express my gratitude to the Japanese priests who were drawn to Suzuki and our practice. Katagiri Roshi, who came in ‘63, the year before me, and together with Suzuki modeled the practice. Then came Kobun Chino Roshi, the “mystic,” and then Yoshimura Sensei, the “friend.” Then when Suzuki was too ill to come to Tassajara in 1970, Tatsugami Roshi was invited to lead the practice period, and I was the shuso.
When we opened the zendo on Dwight Way, February 1, 1967, I had thought of our practice as a grassroots endeavor, served and maintained by the members. We had morning and evening zazen based on the SFZC model. Our first major work project was to refinish the splintery floor of the large, square attic to make a zendo. When we moved to Russell Street, the real work began. What is now the zendo was two apartments which we gutted and rebuilt as a sangha effort of both men and women, sangha members and carpenters. (When you need to build something interesting, the carpenters appear.) Then we raised the two-story house next to it where my office is and built the ground floor under it. To me it felt a bit like a community barn raising on a grand scale.
When I look back at all the dedicated work and contributions of our members that went into this entire building project over a two-year period, I am totally overwhelmed with gratitude. I doubt that we could do something like this today. All the conditions were in alignment, including my own naiveté.
And last but not least, I wish to extend my gratitude to all of you who have passed through this Buddha Hall and contributed time, effort, and financial support. And to everyone who has ever been a board member, a cook, a gardener, a resident, a president, a treasurer, a librarian, coordinator, Tenzo, dishwasher, bathroom cleaner, office manager, work leader, sesshin director, member of a committee, general labor, etc. There is so much more that can be said, but for now please know that I honor and respect you and all that you do, have done, and hopefully will do to make this practice place possible.
Today I was looking through a book for a spark to set off this talk and ran across an old note that said, ”The phrase ‘Nothing special’ keeps coming up for me. Could you please talk about its meaning?”
It is a good question, which is at the heart of our practice. Suzuki Roshi used this phrase a lot. At a time (the 60s) when young people were looking for profound experiences in psychedelics, some were investigating meditation. D.T. Suzuki was popularizing a side of Rinzai style that emphasized koan training leading up to kensho, or sudden awakening. Shunryu Suzuki Roshi’s training in the Soto school led him to understand that what brings us to practice is our inherently enlightened mind and that realization is like walking through a fog—unaware that through continuous daily zazen practice our clothes are becoming wet. Suzuki Roshi did not encourage attainment. He said that when we are always looking “over there” for something, it is harder to appreciate where we are right now. With this understanding, grasses, pebbles, and waters are always preaching the Dharma and teaching us how to act. So there is nothing special to achieve.
And yet, everything is special in its own unique form and way, and to be fully respected and appreciated as a form of Buddha nature.
Recently we were studying the Buddhist precepts of different schools. Some have 250, others have 16, and some have none. Suzuki Roshi respected them, but his understanding was that precepts are simply our way of navigating our life. When we pay attention to our surroundings and keep our senses and mind unassuming and open, everything we encounter brings us back to our compassionate, joyful, and harmonious practice. It is not that we ignore enlightening moments. But even when they are extraordinary, they are at the same time not more extraordinary than the ordinary sight of the divine light of a periwinkle by the side of the road.