Mazu Daoyi’s Ordinary Mind – Alasdair Taisen Gordon-Finlayson

When I did my Shuso retreat and ceremony a couple of years ago, Tony Shinro presented me with a copy of Master Ma’s Ordinary Mind: The Sayings of Zen Master Mazu Daoyi. While I’d obviously heard of Mazu (also known as Ma-tsu or Baso who lived from 709-788 CE), I didn’t know all that much about him other than he was one of the early Chinese ancestors that I should probably know more about! The book is a collection of 36 sayings or encounters in the life of Mazu from a variety of sources, each with a commentary by Fumio Yamada – the sort of commentary that’s aimed at a practitioner rather than a scholar of Buddhism, and I quickly delved into it. How wonderful!

Yamada’s commentary kept bringing the sometimes rarefied tone of the individual cases back down to earth; relevant, accessible and… ordinary. So it came to me as something of a surprise, when I started actively trying to find out a bit more about Mazu, to come across a figure often portrayed as intimidating, larger-than-life, a towering influence on the Zen ancestry so important to the transmission of Zen that in a sentence name-checking the most important influences in Zen, D.T. Suzuki lists three: “Bodhidharma, the Sixth Patriarch [Huineng], Baso…”

The more I read from various sources, the more distant he became, and the more he reared up as a titan in an age of wonders, the “Golden Age” of Zen in old China. So with your indulgence, that’s where I’ll start…

The great flowering of Chinese Buddhism occurred during the 300-year period known as the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), a period that spans from the time of the Fifth Ancestor Daman Hongren, down to two generations past both Tozan Ryokai and Rinzai Gigen (founders of the Soto and Rinzai sects). Other great names from the period include Huineng, Nangaku, Sekito Kisen, Nansen, Joshu, Layman Pang, Hyakujo and Huangbo. The importance of this period cannot be overstated in the history of the development of Zen, and the figure of Mazu stands out as being one of the chief names of the time, and the modern Rinzai school of Zen traces its ancestry to him.

The life and times of Mazu

A fair bit is known about the life of Master Ma (Ma was his family name, and Mazu means ‘Ancestor Ma’ or ‘Master Ma’), though not so much about his early life. He was born in modern Sichuan, was perhaps classically educated, and ordained as a monk when he was twenty years old, the earliest age for ordination according to the rule of the time. His first teacher’s ‘grand teacher’ was the Fifth Ancestor, Hongren, and he quickly rose to prominence within the Ch’an school of the time. His eventual teacher was Huairang who had himself probably studied for a while at least under the Sixth Ancestor, Huineng. It is through Huairang that Mazu’s dharma lineage is traced back through Huineng, Hongren… Bodhidharma… and ultimately of course to Shakyamuni.

The first meeting between Mazu and Huairang is one of the most famous encounters of Zen history. The story goes that Huairang saw Mazu sitting in zazen at a temple on Nanyue mountain. He asked Mazu, “Why are you sitting in meditation?” to which Mazu replied that he wanted to become a Buddha. Determined to demonstrate the futility of this view, Huairang grabbed a roof tile, sat down and started polishing it. Mazu asked why he was doing that, and Huairang answered, “I’m polishing it to make a mirror.” “You what? That’s never gonna happen!” Mazu replied (OK so I’m paraphrasing a bit). Huairang chided him, “If I’m never going to polish this into a mirror, how is your sitting going to turn you into a Buddha?”

Most versions of the story stop there, and leave you to draw your own conclusion. Famously, Alan Watts was said to have interpreted this as “an excuse” (in Taigen Dan Leighton’s words) for not doing seated meditation, though actual Zen teachers wouldn’t accept this as a good enough reason to avoid your zazen!

Actually, the original story continues: “Er… so what should I be doing instead?” asked the baffled Mazu. “When the ox-cart stops, do you hit the cart or the ox?” Mazu looks at him, not knowing what to say. “Are you just sitting in meditation, or are you sitting in meditation in order to be a Buddha? If you do that, you kill the Buddha!” Upon hearing this, Mazu is said to feel ‘as if he had tasted ghee’. I can only think that ghee must taste better than I imagine…

He stayed with Huairang for about ten years before striking out as a teacher in his own right, and for thirty years lived in various temples before setting up his own community in Hongzhou, where he stayed for the last sixteen years of his life. He ordained hundreds of monks (my sources don’t mention nuns at all – not sure if this is a reflection on the Tang dynasty or on middle-class white men writing about Buddhism in the 21st century!), and possibly 800 people lived at Hongzhou at its peak. The monastery gave its name to the school of Zen that was recognised as being founded by Mazu (though not on purpose) and the Hongzhou School of Chan is recognised as being perhaps the most vital and important school of its day (this is prior to the “Five Schools” of the Song dynasty that included the Soto and Rinzai sects).

He was 80 when he died, and had in his lifetime become immensely well-known. He was thrown an colossal funeral (with people later claiming all sorts of supernatural events that thematically link Mazu’s death with that of the Buddha), and a grand memorial pagoda that was finished three years after his death.

Contemporary descriptions of Master Ma describe his as physically striking: “Stalwart like a standing mountain, deep and clear like a still river,” records one source, with “the walking gait of a bull, and the gaze of a tiger,” according to another. All in all, he cuts a magnificent figure in his physicality, his reputation during his own life and in his legacy.

All rather intimidating!

The Teachings of Master Ma

Mazu’s history serves an interesting function: he’s tied in very closely to the orthodoxy of the day even as he is acknowledged as being part of how that orthodoxy was set up. But at the time, he was something new to the Zen tradition, and much of what we take for granted nowadays as the flavour of Zen is very much down to his own inimitable style which was sometimes quite shocking to his contemporaries.

It is to Mazu that we owe the shouts of “Katsu!” to startle the Zen student out of their intellectual rut; the use of the keisaku (‘encouragement stick’); responding to questions with silence; even twisting Hyakujo’s nose so hard that it’s said he cried in pain… All of these serve to shock us out of complacency, out of the traps of our small selves, and out of any thought of a romanticised transcendent enlightened state to which we can aspire through our earnest practice.

I don’t know what the old men of his time must have thought about this young upstart initially: he certainly had his critics, conservative elders who were as freaked out by his teachings as his manner. It’s strange that we’ve become so habituated to the tactics of Mazu and his successors that they now feel like ‘proper Zen’.

Of course Mazu taught on many topics, but one of the main ideas he tackled was that of Buddha Nature. The Tathagatagharba doctrine had been around for a while – it’s one of the ideas that effectively separates Mahayana from earlier Buddhist traditions. It’s an idea that’s been long argued over, but at the time it was seen as something like a luminous essence of Buddhahood implicit in each of us, “originally pure and perfect” but misperceived by deluded beings.

The teaching that Mazu is best remembered for was in response to this doctrine. For Master Ma, “ordinary mind is the Way.” Many have said it since, but Mazu was the first:

If you want to directly know the Way, then know that ordinary mind is the Way. What is ordinary mind? It means no intentional creation and action, no right or wrong, no grasping or rejecting, no ending or permanent, no profane or sacred.

Perhaps the best-known formulation of this actually comes from Mazu’s disciple Nanquan (Nansen) in an encounter with Zhaozhou (Joshu), recorded as Case 19 of the Mumonkan:

Joshu earnestly asked Nansen, “What is the Way?” Nansen said, “Ordinary mind is the Way.” Joshu said, “Should I direct myself toward it or not?” Nansen said, “If you try to turn toward it, you go against it.” Joshu said, “If I do not try to turn toward it, how can I know that it is the Way?” Nansen said, “The Way does not belong to knowing or not knowing. Knowing is delusion; not knowing is a blank consciousness. When you have really reached the true Way beyond all doubt, you will find it as vast and boundless as the great empty firmament. How can it be talked about on a level of right and wrong?” At these words, Joshu was suddenly enlightened.

The notion that ordinary mind is the enlightened Way is startling (and at the time bordering on heresy!). Once, Mazu was questioned by someone who didn’t understand what “ordinary mind” referred to. Mazu responded that it was the very mind that didn’t understand that was ordinary mind. It’s that obvious, that close to us. Delusion is just not seeing this even though it’s right under our noses (instead of not having somehow done enough to attain some sort of spiritual superhero status).

Later ideas such as original enlightenment and Dogen’s practice-realisation obviously flow from this early and radical expression of enlightenment as something that’s totally within our reach right now. Ordinary mind. Day-to-day mind. Regular mind.

Do you see it? If not, that’s fine. Not seeing it: that’s it too.

If there’s something that Mazu rules out again and again, it’s striving to see it.

You are yourself. If you just keep from getting caught up over good and evil, you have already mastered the Way. Doing good and rejecting evil, discerning emptiness and working toward samadhi – this is all useless striving.  If you go about searching for the Way externally, the more you search the further away it grows. Give up trying to grasp the world with your mind. Striving with your mind is the root of suffering. Just keep from striving, and you’ll be able to remove all suffering.

Suddenly, what Mazu is saying seems closer at hand, and Mazu himself seems to be at my elbow, chivvying me along. Just get onto the cushion (or into work or to the kitchen sink as appropriate) and express your every moment wholeheartedly: there’s no way that this can be other than the Way. Aim and you miss. Though the mind that misses is also the Way!


Over the years, I’ve written about a few of our dharma ancestors now, and I often find the process a bit intimidating. Who on earth am I, a terrible “lay monk” in a smallish Western sangha who speaks no Asian languages and doesn’t even speak to my own teacher enough… who on earth am I to say what Keizan Jokin, Zenji or Huineng had to say about Zen?! And quite often, as I’ve got into reading about these ancestors, I’ve become less scared of them, and they’ve started to become more familiar to me, more like real humans.

On a couple of occasions, Mazu and Sekito (whose separate lineages end up as the Rinzai and Soto schools) send their students to each other because they think the other teacher might be able to get through to the student where they can’t. And it struck me: they knew each other. Their teachers were dharma brothers under Huineng. They’d visited the same places, eaten the same food, knew the same people. And I was strongly struck by just how like my own experience this is: chatting with sangha mates about other teachers or friends we’ve not seen in ages, dropping in to Liverpool for a retreat and catching up with people, remembering being in the Lakes with so-and-so… These giants of the Tang dynasty, they’re just like me. Just people. Ordinary, remarkable people.

Because of course that’s who they were, and if we don’t feel that the encounters between these ancient teachers and their students weren’t essentially human encounters as real as anything that happens in Liverpool or Northampton or London, then the teachings being propounded will never properly resonate in the nitty-gritty and hurly-burly of our own lives. They’ll always remain slightly Other: alien, foreign, exotic.

I think that Mazu would be horrified by this.

It’s just this ordinariness, this tea-and-toastishness of Mazu that he insists we come to grips with. There’s nothing missing, we lack for nothing. It’s right here.