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Avoid Picking and Choosing - Koans 2011 Second Case

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | May 11, 2011
Location: Community Congregational Church in Tiburon
In topic: Koan Studies
Norman gives the second talk in the Koans 2011 series on Avoid Picking and Choosing - Case 2 Blue Cliff Record "The Ultimate Path is Without Difficulty". Also found In Mana Shobogenzo Case 11.
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Avoid Picking and Choosing - Koans 2011 Second Case

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | May 22, 2011

Abridged and edited by Barbara Byrum

This week we have another story.  This story is based on a famous Zen poem by Sengcan called Hsin-hsin Mingon, "believing in mind" or "faith in mind."  The opening lines of that poem read:

The true way [or the ultimate way] is not difficult.

Just avoid picking and choosing.

When you don't grasp or reject,

The way enlightens itself.

This may be the basic point of Buddhism, Buddhism 101: All conditioned existence is suffering.  What is the cause of suffering?  Grasping and rejecting.  Trying to keep what you will inevitably lose, and trying to eliminate what you cannot cause to go away.  If you live like that, there is going to be a lot of irritation and suffering. 

Grasping and rejecting, it turns out, run really deep.  Maybe you think that somehow, with a lot of hard work and diligence, you can go beyond them.  You could work on your attachments and aversions.  You could train yourself to do without something you think you have to have.  You could learn to accept adversity without resistance or complaint. 

It seems like maybe we could get beyond grasping and rejecting; but then when we sit down on our cushions for a long time, and we observe our minds closely enough, we realize how subtle and constant grasping and rejecting actually are.  Deep within, we want to live, and we don't want to die.  Isn't that right?  Isn't that basic humanity?  So right there, that is the root of all your experience, and right there is grasping and rejecting. 

Then you realize that language itself is grasping and rejecting.  Every word is this word and not another word.  There is already some grasping and rejecting, right there.  Even below the level of language, in any discrimination, in any perception that depends on discrimination, there is already grasping and rejecting.  It's a tree.  It's not a stone.  In other words, there is discrimination in an act of seeing or hearing.  So it turns out that when you look, grasping and rejecting is foundational for human consciousness.  Letting go of grasping and rejecting is not such an easy thing to do, and it might not even be very advisable. 

So what is this poem talking about?  As the emptiness teachings say, in reality, there never was anything in the first place that you could grasp or reject.  Our discriminative consciousness is based on a fallacy.  It is based on the erroneous projection of separation.  Actually, things are empty of separation.  Things are without the boundaries that it looks like they have, which means that they are inherently both ungraspable and unrejectable.  This is the enlightenment that Sengcan is talking about in his poem.  When you see what is real, and go beyond grasping and rejecting, just that alone is enlightenment.  The peace and love and wisdom that we are seeking are right there.

We have this fairly serious human dilemma, because we seem to be hard-wired to discriminate; and yet this need to constantly discriminate is the root of all of our pain.  Somehow we feel this on some level, and we want to go beyond it.  But how would we do that?  Somehow we human beings have a dream that is a universal dream of some serenity, some clarity, some peace that we could imagine in the future.  All spiritual practice is an effort to go in that direction.  Yet, it seems as if you can't do it.  So what about that?

Anyway, this poem is background to today's story.  Actually, there are several stories in the Blue Cliff Record in which master Zhaozhou is talking about the lines of this poem.  The story I referenced for tonight's talk is the second case in the Blue Cliff Record, which goes like this:

Zhaozhou says, quoting the poem, "The true way is not difficult.  Just avoid picking and choosing, and enlightenment appears." And then he says, "As soon as there are words, there is picking and choosing, or there is enlightenment, but I don't abide in this enlightenment, so what should we do?" [So that is the question, right?]  A monastic asks him, "Since you don't abide in this enlightenment, what do you do?"  Zhaozhou says, "I don't know either."  The monastic says, "Since you don't know, how can you say that you don't abide in this enlightenment?"  Zhaozhou says, "It is enough to ask the question.  Just bow and go away."

As Dogen always stresses - and it seems like Zhaozhou is echoing the same teaching here - the peace, serenity, clarity that we imagine as enlightenment is not the goal of our practice. It is not what we are aiming for.  Enlightenment - or some kind of serenity or clarity beyond the pain of discrimination - is just a word.  It's just maybe a state of mind among many possible states of mind, and, as such, it is just another thing that we could grasp or reject.  Maybe we would like to grasp it, but maybe there are some other people somewhere else who think it is stupid, and they would reject it.  If we were to experience such a thing, and we would like it and affirm it, then we would want to grasp it.  We would want to have it all the time.  We would be upset when we didn't feel it.  Then we would be caught all over again.  Then we would become spiritual shoppers, constantly lusting after the latest teaching or product or wonderful state of mind that would bring us back to our "bliss" state, and would bring us out of our undesired state, which would become all the more painful, now that we are after something else.  We wouldn't even be able to tolerate our ordinary mind any longer, the more we lusted after some special mind. 

So Zhaozhou is really clear on this point.  He says, "I don't abide in, I am not interested in enlightenment.  I don't want to sit in quietude and blissfulness far beyond the world's dusts."  On the other hand, he doesn't want to be blown around by the winds of the world's dusts either.  So he keeps asking the question all the time. "Now what do we do?  What is this moment?  How do we live without being caught by either worldly grasping/rejecting on the one hand, or lust for peace on the other hand?  Just to accept and to enter this moment of our lives as it really is."  I think that is what Zhauzhou is implying.  "I am not looking for enlightenment.  I am not looking to grab a hold of picking and choosing.  I just want to enter this moment, whatever it is, come what may." 

When the monk presses Zhaozhou to explain his methodology, Zhaozhou is very resistant to this, and I don't think it is because he is being coy or holding back.  I think that he really doesn't know.  He really doesn't have a plan or a program. "Let's do this.  This is how you do it."  Zhaozhou is not an expert at being human.  He just is human.  He says, "I don't know either."  This expresses not only that he doesn't know, but that he doesn't know either.  In other words, he doesn't know, just like everybody else doesn't know.  He is living his life with willingness and with wonder and with humility, along with everybody else and exactly like everybody else.  He presents this in the most matter-of-fact way, not as some tremendous spiritual accomplishment, but simply as the ordinary, garden variety human experience that we like to call everyday Zen.  Nothing special or unique about it. 

Let's think a little more about this picking and choosing.  It is a really practical thing, you know, in everyday life.  How are you going to live in a world, and with a mind that is essentially requiring us, moment after moment, to pick and choose?  We make a billion decisions every day, large and small.  There is no way not to.  So what do we do about that?  How do we practice with that?

So there are two lines in Xuedou's poem about the case that caught my attention and are really a good clue.  The lines are:

           In one there are many. 

In many there is one.

It's not that there are two different possibilities - picking and choosing on the one side, and letting go of picking and choosing, or being enlightened on the other side.  That is a false dichotomy.  That's already confusion.  There is actually no such thing as enlightenment outside of the everyday life of picking and choosing.  But also, there is no everyday life of picking and choosing outside of enlightenment either.  Enlightened mind is built into every moment of deluded human experience.  It is right there, hiding in plain sight.  Buddha-nature is in every moment.  It is not a special moment.  It is not that it is here and not there.  Life is just like that.  So the only question for us is, do we allow that in, or do we close ourselves off to it?

"In the many, there is one."  In picking and choosing, the enlightenment is already there, beyond the picking and choosing.  "In the one, there are many."  In the serene moment of union, the whole world's multiplicity and confusion and violence are right there with you on your peaceful, morning cushion while the birds are singing at Muir Beach. 

So, practically speaking, how does this work?  It means that in every moment of ordinary activity and thought, I have to pick and choose.  And I do that.  I do it on the basis of my karma - in other words, my personal situation.  But not only that, I also do it on the basis of my training, my commitment, the precepts.  Every choice I make will be both right and wrong.  But the opposite is also true.  Everything that I pick up will have some benefit somewhere, and every moment that I live will be a moment of appreciation and learning.  So, whatever I get or lose on that moment, I have to accept.  Then, in the next moment, I will be in a radically new situation. 

So what if I could pick and choose with all that in my heart - because that is really what is going on for all of us - with a heart that knows that and feels that, and accepts that on each occasion?  It is not a matter of thinking about it, because we don't live our lives thinking these things.   We live our lives with our heart and soul.   But if I can have a sense that this is what is going on in my daily experience, then maybe I can have some depth and some happiness in my living.   

I have been studying these old cases for a long time, and I have gotten very used to them.  But, also, I never do really get used to them.  Every time that I study one of these stories, I have the same experience.  I read it, and I have no idea what it is talking about.  What is this saying?  I completely forget anything I might have previously known about it, because the story somehow resists my thinking that I understand it.  I think that in general, it is really a bad idea to get too familiar with religious teachings and to have the idea that you think you know what they mean.  Belief in doctrine is almost always a problem.  Even having values and principles could be a big problem, because we can be so easily blinded by these things, and we become lazy.  Even our good motivations and our positive intentions can be problems.  That is why I love Suzuki Roshi's saying, "Not always so."  Maybe it was so before, and maybe it is even so right now, but it won't always be so.