I had the opportunity to be Head Trainee (Shuso) in the Lakes this year. I don’t normally work on koans. My usual practice is just sitting (shikantaza). I chose this koan because of its ordinariness. It felt relevant to my everyday life. It involved Joshu and Nansen. Two of the great figures in Zen history. This koan is a mondo, or question and answer between Master Nansen and his disciple Joshu. Both attained their first enlightenment at eighteen. At the time of this koan Joshu is a very young monk, a little over twenty. He has given up his academic studies in Buddhism and is training with Master Nansen who is supposedly about fifty and at the peak of great enlightenment. To understand this koan I split it into intellectual and experiential. In the first part Joshu is seeking and trying everything to figure it out. In the second part Nansen is out of his head and describing ordinary to Joshu as vast and boundless as outer space. Joshu has a profound experience; a sudden realization. But this suddenness doesn’t mention his deep inner struggle or his hard work and discipline. I learned this koan off by heart. Allowing it to seep into my skin and bones. Repeating the word ordinary like a mantra again and again. Asking the question, ‘What is it?’ again and again. Stopping and starting and not knowing what to do. The whole thing not doing anything. Not knowing anything but trusting that I didn’t know. Then beginning to experience ordinary. Everything ordinary. I kept going. And this ordinary got bigger and more spacious.
The last two lines in Mumon’s verse (for me) revealed the essence of ordinary.
If there is no vain cloud in your mind
For you it is a good season.
It’s nothing but our ordinary consciousness, our ordinary everyday life. It is getting up, washing your face, eating breakfast, going to work, walking, running, laughing, crying, leaves on the trees, the flowers in the field, it is birth, it is death. That is the way. We do not even have to use the word “mind”. The ordinary is the Way! Koun Yamada
Also at some point a fresh and unexpected word appeared. The word was love. When you have really reached the true way beyond doubt you will find it as vast and boundless as outer space. It included I, me and mine but it also went out the shed door, into the garden and field, down to the river, towards the mountains and sky. Vast and beyond. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to work on this koan. My head may feel like a prison when thoughts get messy and busy and life isn’t going my way but ‘ordinary’ (without vain cloud or doubt) is brushing my teeth.
Next step is thirty years of more hard work (Mumon’s suggestion). Crikey! I’ll be eighty-four.