top of page

Ordinary Mind is Dao by Annie Roshi

Case 19 Wumenguan

Here’s the case:

Ordinary Mind is Dao by Annie Roshi

Zhaozhou asks, “What is dao?”
Nanquan responds with: “Ordinary (or everyday) mind is dao”
“Should I direct myself toward it or not?” Zhaozhou asks.
“If you try to turn toward it, you go against it” is Nanquan’s reply.
“If I do not try to turn toward it, how can I know that it is dao?”
Nanquan answers: “Dao does not belong to knowing or not-knowing. Knowing is delusion, not-knowing is blank consciousness. When you have really reached the dao beyond doubt, you will find it vast and boundless as the great empty firmament. How can it be talked about on the level of right or wrong?”

Let’s take a look at this famous koan found in the Wumenguan (Gateless Gate). It involves Zhaozhou at a tender age, perhaps only 19 or 20. Traditional sources tell us he lived from 778-897-- during the Tang era--so in the dramatic frame of this story he is just beginning a Dharma journey that will last for another hundred years. He is known to many people by the Japanese name of Joshu. His teacher, Nanquan (748-834), is in his fifties. We might imagine them enjoying a close, familial relationship, playing distinctive but mutually supportive roles not unlike father and son. You may recognize Nanquan from other koan cases. He is known in Japan as Nansen.

Zhaozhou asks, “What is dao?”

Dao (道) is at the center of virtually all philosophies and traditions of self-cultivation in China. Asking about it shouldn’t be equated with asking abstract questions about Reality, Truth, or Being, as might be supposed in the cultural West. It’s really a where question. For millennia, the Chinese have taken pragmatic approaches to life, and dao carries a host of meanings associated with following or making a way that will help people be happy and effective and harmonious.

Zhaozhou’s question probably includes layers of nuanced and ancient associations with dao, for example: dao as life’s way of ceaselessly transforming and tending towards balance (dao as “how it goes”); dao as a way of human conduct transmitted from those who lived in the past (dao as “how it has been done”); and dao as the way or course we might innovate and establish as we live our lives (dao as "how we’re doing it now"). We are all prospective “way-makers,” but some people do it better than others. Certainly Zhaozhou’s question about dao has a prescriptive dimension: “Where do I find the optimal way of being human? Whose way should I emulate?”

Traditionally, people in China have looked to ancestral heroes or exemplars (ancient sage-kings and teachers like Confucius often play this role) for sources of transformative resonance. One looks to these cultural models to discern a way or dao, although the Daoists also looked to nature. In this case, Zhaozhou is probably hoping to learn the way of his Dharma ancestor, the Buddha, but he is also exploring his relationship with his new teacher, Nanquan. What is Nanquan’s dao?

Zhaozhou had travelled south from Northern China (present-day Shandong Province) to study with Nanquan in what is now southern Anhui Province. It couldn’t have been an easy trip to make around the year 800, and he was so young. Surely, he was looking to Nanquan to be an inspiring model, someone who could demonstrate an exemplary way. Zhaozhou is asking his teacher something that has deep existential and aesthetic/ethical importance: “How should I conduct my life? What kind of person should I be?”

Nanquan responds with: “Ordinary (or everyday) mind is dao”

Following his own teacher, Mazu, Nanquan proposes something that surprised and even offended many Buddhists of his day. This is the notion that all of life is dao. Nothing excluded. Being angry, building a fire, sleeping in the city dump, entertaining unwholesome thoughts, eating rice, going to work, acting on a generous impulse, being stingy, getting drunk, meditating. Wumen’s verse is suggestive of this inclusive notion of dao:

The spring flowers, the moon in autumn,
The cool breezes of summer, the winter’s snow
If idle concerns do not cloud the mind,
This is man’s happiest season

Every season, every phase, is the happiest, but it may matter from which perspective you enjoy its magnificence. Idle concerns are dao too, but they have to be fully seen through like everything else.

This inclusiveness was opposed and deemed offensive by Zongmi and other Buddhists of the time (and even today some scholars deny that Mazu and Nanquan could have taught such a notion) because it included even the traditional Buddhist defilements: anger, greed, ignorance. Some feared the ethical consequences of such a view.

You might wish to reflect on this for a moment. How does that resonate with you? Can you accept the notion that everything is the way? Is dao really everywhere?

It’s not surprising that Zhaozhou asks for some clarification:

“Should I direct myself toward it or not?” [seek after it] Zhaozhou asks.

Naturally, Zhaozhou wants some direction from Nanquan; he wants to know how to confirm this teaching rather than holding it as something he can only imitate or parrot. His cultural conditioning probably urged him to find confirmation by means of an ancestral model—Buddhist or otherwise. But Nanquan won’t let him go down a dualistic road:

“If you try to turn toward it, you go against it,” is Nanquan’s reply.

As a teacher, Nanquan had lots of options here, and this is why it is important that he had a good sense of Zhaozhou. For example, he could have responded the way Bodhidharma is said to have responded to Huike, who was seeking resolution to his own Dharma struggles. He could have said, “Sure, go towards it, and bring it back here and show it to me.” In other words, Nanquan could have encouraged Zhaozhou to take a dualistic path until he exhausted it and realized he had never been apart from dao, that even his seeking was dao. But perhaps Nanquan thought Zhaozhou wasn’t ready for that or that he would get caught up unhelpfully in an idea of “ordinary mind” and seeking for it as an object to be gained. Sure, having a gaining idea and getting all gnarled up is ordinary mind/dao, but it’s also getting lost in a dream. My bedroom closet is fully a part of my home, but I don’t want to spend too much of my time there.

Zhaozhou presses Nanquan on this:

“If I do not try to turn toward it, how can I know that it is dao?”

Zhaozhou wants to know (zhi). And it seems Nanquan takes zhi to indicate a process—whether cognitive, affective, or somatic—that is dualistic and reifying. Zhaozhou’s zhi is some sort of grasping at substantial objects with the usual subject/object dichotomy and hierarchical valuing: “I know dao.” “I have grasped the Buddha way and put it into action.” “I realize this way as superior to other ways.” To know is to reinforce the notion of a self who can attain something that is fixed, solid and separate. To know is not only to grasp something under a concept or category, it is to rehearse an identity.

Nanquan answers: “Dao does not belong to knowing or not-knowing. Knowing is delusion, not-knowing is blank consciousness. When you have really reached the dao beyond doubt, you will find it vast and boundless as the great empty firmament. How can it be talked about on the level of right or wrong?”

Nanquan says knowing is just delusion. It’s a kind of enchantment with names and objects that are abstracted from the ephemeral character of each moment, and with these names arises a corresponding “I” who would know it. Not-knowing (bu zhi) is not helpful either. It is possible that Nanquan is equating not-knowing with cutting off thoughts (something some people of the time advocated; it is strongly disdained in the Platform Sutra), but the resulting blankness or absorption isn’t helpful. Such a practice would be an attempt to cut off a natural function of life and source of realization.

It is true that the “ordinary mind” teachers resonated with a tathagatagarbha teaching that says we have a kind of luminous Buddha-tendency (foxing) that manifests as a way of functioning. This line of teaching holds that we all have the ability to non-discriminate, to simply open to life on its own terms, without forcing it through the thinking, grasping, judging, naming, conceptualizing, or differentiating process. Notice that if this is what Nanquan had in mind as reaching the dao beyond doubt, his view expresses a hierarchy that places non-discriminative awareness above the kind of thought that generates meaning and differences. It also places non-discrimination above not-thinking taken as some condition of body-mind that suspends or quiets thinking activity. We might re-think those hierarchies in light of our own experience.

In one of the sections of Appreciate Your Life, Maezumi Roshi talks about “openness,” and he basically equates openness with “forgetting the self.” It’s not a stance that “I” take; it’s a subtraction, a letting go. Does this mean there is no discrimination, no “thinking” going on? Consult your own experience. Perhaps it includes a different kind of thinking, a way of functioning that makes distinctions, but doesn’t make them into solid essences or objects with which we identify (e.g., “right” and “wrong”). Think, for example, of the kind of artistic discriminating you have experienced in the most creative moments of Practice of Immediacy in the Arts. This discrimination might take the form of poetic, imagistic, or playful movement with words, images or thoughts. This movement senses what is appropriate for the situation or artistic piece at hand, but that sense emerges from the activity instead of from a consultation with pre-determined standards. We have all tasted that, especially during retreats, but really, anytime we are truly curious and open to some situation instead of bringing a knowing and reifying stance to it, we may realize the dao beyond doubt. Perhaps this is what Nanquan is suggesting to his young student, but Zhaozhou will have to confirm this for himself, just as we must.

“Ordinary mind” is the wondrousness of our ordinary lives, including all defilements. We are never apart from this dao, and we accord with it experientially by coming from a place of non-knowing.(Notice the use of “We” here. It is simply a manner of speaking; no hard and fast identities or substantial selves are intended.) For Nanquan and his Chan predecessors, there is no need to cultivate that function. (But, indeed, they all meditated, something Peter Gregory has called “the house secret.”) Zhaozhou’s dao turns out to be what he—and we—are treading everyday. All of us together. There’s no need to climb to the top of a distant mountain. No need to turn towards anything. It’s your life. Enjoy!

bottom of page