the art of ordinary mind

joshu is a famous zen teacher in my lineage, famous for dropping some of the most profound and fruitful  one liners in our history. the terse expressions have become a core part of our koan system. the following koan is the story of joshu’s enlightenment experience, so it could be considered quite special since it is THE awakening of one of the greatest zen teachers. but there is nothing special about it.

“Joshu asked Nansen, “What is the Way?”
“Ordinary mind is the Way,” Nansen replied.
“Shall I try to seek after it?” Joshu asked.
“If you try for it, you will become separated from it,” responded Nansen.
How can I know the Way unless I try for it?” persisted Joshu.
Nansen said, “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 as vast and boundless as outer space. How can it be talked about on the level of right and wrong?”
With those words, Joshu came to a sudden realization.”(Mumonkan, case 19)

students today are showing up to zendos all over the world and sitting zazen and studying with teachers and working on koans or counting their breath or any number of diligent practices.

are they are looking for something special, something extra-ordinary? i certainly was when i started.

my ordinary life meant feeling bored, missing something, needing more stimulation or excitement or drama. ordinary was not interesting. little did i know that all the excitement i was trying to find was just a distraction i used to keep from being intimate with my life. intimacy was what happened when i was still, and sober, and feeling all the crap and pain that went with being ‘ordinary’.

so what is the way to enlightenment? feeling tired, getting angry, being scared, running from intimacy, pushing others away, clinging desperately, leg pain, back pain, dirty laundry, dirty kids, washing clothes, washing cars, etc? or perhaps just sitting with someone, a friend or a stranger, glancing at each other from across the table, quietly?

this koan brings to my mind one of the most powerful art pieces i have seen. Maria Abramovic  started her career as a performance artist in the 70’s and is now the “grandmother of performance art”. I watched her documentary The Artist Is Present about her life and current work, particularly a piece she did at the Museum of Modern Art  in 2010, which lasted over 2.5 months. from the 9th of March through May 31st. she sat in a wooden chair at a table with another chair across from her. she sat there during all the open hours of the museum, present to the stream of people who lined up to sit across from her one at a time, for a few minutes each. they would make eye contact, silently, often crying.

 “This was far more gruelling than it might sound: Abramović says that, physically and psychologically, ‘The hardest thing to do is something that is close to nothing’.

this is the most ordinary expression of one of the most basic activities we do in the world, simply looking at another human being.and yet, making eye contact in her context, it becomes an art form creating an extraordinarily intimate act of presence. perhaps the most intimate, since there is no chance to cover or cloud or distract the presence that becomes available in  her safe container. nothing to know or hide, nothing to learn or teach, nothing to give or take.

she was not seeking intimacy, and she was not avoiding it. and so she was intimacy. she was not trying to find the ordinary or the extraordinary, and so she became both.

this is what we zen practitioners can only hope to achieve in our lifetime. the presence of mind to simply sit still and be completely available for anyone who happens to show up in our space. we can strive for this with every ounce of effort and never reach a place beyond the ordinary life we get to live everyday.

to expect something extraordinary in practice is to miss this precious gift we have, if we are chasing after something more than our ordinarily life we write, act and direct our own tragedy.

how can it be talked about on the level of right and wrong?

when the artist is present, the present is art!





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