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Not Mind, Not Buddha, Not Anything

By: Norman Fischer, Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 12/11/2001
In Topics: Buddhist Sutras, Zen Koans

Nanquan Puyuan (Nanchuan) responded to the monks request for further teaching “[This truth] is not mind, not Buddha, not anything.” Zoketsu discusses the Heart Sutra and daily practice in light of this teaching.The Case:
A monk asked Nanquan, “Is there a truth that has not yet been taught?”
Nanquan said, “There is.”
The monk said, “What is that truth?”
Nanquan said, “It is not mind, not Buddha, not anything.”

Wumen’s Comment:
Asked the question, Nanquan used up all his resources at once. How pathetic!

Wumen’s Verse:
An excess of scruples kills virtue
Non-words have the strongest effect
Even if the great ocean dries up
It will never be explained to you

I just got back from retreat in Mexico, where I go twice a year. I enjoy the retreats there because they are so basic and simple. Nobody knows about or cares about refined Zen practice, all the bells and whistles- they just want to practice because they think it will help them in their lives, help them to survive their troubles, bad husbands or political oppression, help them to be better family members and workers and citizens. They don’t know much about Buddhism and they don’t particularly care about it. I find it very moving to work with them. Their sincerity in practice is truly admirable.

Another thing I like about going to Mexico is that the retreats are bilingual. When I give a talk I speak a sentence or two and then my words have to be translated. The translator is quite fluent in English but she doesn’t know a lot of Buddhist terminology; also, since the talks go on for a while it is tiring for her. So I try to speak clearly and simply so as to make it as easy on her as possible. This is interesting for me because I usually don’t speak as simply or as clearly as that. I have to say fairly abstruse things in a simple way.

After the lectures there are many questions. The questions are also simple and clear. On this last retreat one of the people asked about the Heart Sutra that we chant in Spanish at every service. You all know the Heart Sutra. It says ‘No eyes, no ears, no nose’, and so on; it says ‘no suffering, no origination, no stopping no path.’ Most North American students hearing the Heart Sutra for the first time are baffled by it but they never say anything. I suppose they think it must express some profound Buddhist truth that they have not yet understood. They imagine it is very complicated so they don’t want to ask; maybe they also don’t ask because they don’t want to let on they they don’t understand. Maybe they imagine everyone else understands. So they wait until there is a class on the Heart Sutra and they go. I have often taught a six week class on it: six weeks to cover the one page of text. It takes at least that long, and you are rushing toward the end. At any rate, in Mexico last week someone simply said, “We are chanting this ‘El Sutra Del Corazon’ and it doesn’t make any sense to me. Can you explain it?”

Actually it isn’t difficult. The sutra is a list of the fundamental and basic teachings of Buddhism one by one, without any explanation. And it denies every item on the list. For example, the part about no eyes and so on, refers to, and denies, the Buddhist analysis of perception and thought. Although it says ‘no eyes’ and so on, it doesn’t mean that eyes and so on don’t exist. It just means that what we take to be eyes and so on is not what eyes and so on actually are. Eyes and so on appear to be organic material stuff, little pieces of perceptual machinery (which one one level they are); but, more deeply experienced, they are ungraspable, unexplainable, vast, and mysterious. Perception is. Thought is. All the various teachings of Buddhism- and the reality, this world, that they try to describe- actually defy our explanations and descriptions, which we so passionately believe that we suffer endlessly looking for an ultimately unfindable objective satisfaction based on those explanations and descriptions. So the sutra is trying to help us by pointing out that things are not the way we think they are, reality isn't what we think it is. We ourselves are not what we think we are. Our way of looking at and explaining things to ourselves is fundamentally flawed.

There’s a famous story told about Dongshan, a great Zen teacher. When he was a boy he heard the Heart Sutra being chanted and he felt his face. He said, “I feel my face and I know that I have eyes and ears. So what is the sutra talking about?” His teacher was so profoundly impressed by this question that he sent Dongshan on to a better teacher. Maybe it takes a child, or at least someone very innocent, to be able to appreciate the wonder of what the Heart Sutra is teaching.

Then there is the modern story of Kabori Roshi who was once asked by a Catholic priest, what is emptiness? Kabori said, “Oh I don’t know, it’s just a phrase from an old sutra.” I think that Kabori’s response is very mature, very quiet, and also much more expressive of what emptiness actually is than any other explanation he might have given. Explanations of emptiness only lead us away from emptiness.

Before we start practicing we are living in a state of naive unawareness, crashing around probably making extra trouble in our lives and not knowing it. The pain of that trouble drives us to the cushion – or if not pain, then maybe it’s the feeling that we are naive and that we don't really know what our life is really all about that makes us want to take up sitting practice. Then we do sit down, we study the teachings a little bit, we learn about mindfulness, about the suffering of clinging. Some teachings we hear about and then verify for ourselves; others we don’t even hear about, we just see them ourselves through our own experience on and off the cushion and then later when we hear about them we say, “Oh so that’s what that was.” And then we think “Oh this is what’s real, this is what’s true.” And then, holding onto our knowledge and experience, we take it as a fixed concept and soon it becomes a new source of suffering and confusion.

The Heart sutra says, Don’t do that. Let go of that too. There isn't anything that you can find that you can define and hold definite. And if you find a way to make even this into a definite truth – which is certainly possible- well, you will have to let go of that too.

This present case is actually closely related to several other koans that all play off of each other. Cases 30, 33, and 34 are all fairly similar, variations on a theme. Case 28 of the Blue Cliff Record is actually the same story as this one, only turned around a little bit and truncated. Here is the crux of all of these stories: someone asks, “What is Buddha?” and someone answers “This very mind is Buddha.” So far so good. This we can understand and appreciate. Buddha isn't some prior or future state; Buddha isn’t someone or something else, outside of our lives and experience. My own mind, my own heart- at bottom this is what Buddha is. I am only seeing it partially; I am only seeing it in a reduced state, reduced by my own mental habits and conditioning. If only I could see it as it is- then I would be seeing Buddha. This is a comforting and empowering truth.

This idea, that mind is Buddha, is probably the most important notion in the Zen teachings. One could cite probably scores of Zen stories that repeat this point over and over again. Mind is Buddha, Buddha is Mind. So we have to ask, What is this mind?

First of all, we note that the word for mind in Chinese means also heart. Mind does not refer only to our brain or our thinking mind; it includes all of our feeling, our emotion, as well as all sensation. But it is also bigger than all that. Mind means life, the spark of light within us that animates the body and turns us from hunks of meat into people. It means consciousness, that which is capable of cognizing, the big embracing space that makes any sentience possible. And the word mind even extends to mean all that isn't sentient- rocks and trees and roof tiles are also part of what’s meant by mind. All that is- that is inseparably connected- this is mind. In us and outside us. This is why it is hard to locate mind or talk about it too clearly; mind is inherently unspeakable and mysterious, and yet it is present in all of our thoughts and actions. Mind is not the same as the body but it’s also not different from the body. Self consciousness – the sense of “me” that arises endlessly in our life as long as we have a body- is at bottom nothing other than a manifestation of this limitless mind, nothing other than Buddha, but it gets mixed up, identifies itself exclusively with thoughts, feelings, and body, forgetting the endless dimension of itself, and so it always has yearning in the middle of it- it feels incomplete, estranged from its wholeness.

This is our problem isn’t it? We are convinced we are incomplete, convinced we are small and separate, convinced we are born and die. So we’re always looking for something and of course we’re not getting it and even if we were to get it it would not be what we are looking for. We’re looking for a lover, looking for job satisfaction, looking for spirituality- but really this is just mind looking for mind, Buddha looking for Buddha.

Dogen’s famous awakening experience came with the feeling, drop body and mind. What is body? What is mind? It’s just dropping. Which means stopping looking around for what is already there and just allowing yourself to be that. Dropping is not knowing anything, it’s a willingness to be in the dark. Clarity has desire in it- spiritual practice has desire in it. But mind is beyond clarity and beyond practice. Mind isn’t just inside us. It’s shared, is sharing, connection, the big togetherness. Mind is fearless. As Wumen’s poem says, “Even when the ocean’s dried up, it still abides, beyond all our explanations.”

This morning while I was sitting I was thinking about all of this. I was sitting for a long time just trying to be the feeling of the sitting there. Trying to let go of my body and mind and just be mind sitting there on the cushion, the feeling of breathing, the feeling of sitting, the feeling of cognition present with the feeling of breathing and the sound of the ocean waves, and then, after a while, the gathering dawn. Time passed I suppose – on the clock at least.

It’s so important to come back to this experience every day, to recognize that even when your mind is not directly resting in this feeling the feeling is still there, it is still the background feeling of your mind. If not, then your mind couldn't work, you couldn’t be conscious, you couldn't feel anything, couldn't cry tears at what’s sad, and laugh at what’s funny. To have the daily experience of this, and train in it, so that you realize it’s there all the time, and you have confidence in it, this is our practice.

The Buddha taught a lot of things. He was a brilliant teacher really. It’s hard to find anyone who knew more about the human mind and about what to do about it. But at the end of his life- after forty five years of teaching literally every day- he said “I never said a word.” This was not a cry of despair- “Oh no I’ve wasted my life.” It was not an expression of Buddha’s defeat. Quite the opposite- it was Buddha’s affirmation that in the middle of all that he had said, all his good suggestions and techniques, was this unsayable truth of mind itself, irreducible and inexpressible, and yet unmistakable and forever necessary for our lives. “Is there a truth that has not yet been taught?” Is there a truth that could never be taught because it is far too large- and far to intimate with us- to ever be taught? Yes, as Nanquan responds, of course there is. What is that truth? It is not Mind, not Buddha, not anything. As soon as you reduce it to something namable and graspable you kill it off. And yet, sometimes you say, as other Masters, like Nanquan’s teacher, Mazu said, “This very mind is Buddha.” When you say that you also know it’s not mind, it’s not Buddha, it’s not anything.

Unless we appreciate this we will never be able to live full and deep lives. We will be like ghosts clinging to bushes and grasses- forever restless inside. Mind is profoundly quiet. Mind is letting go of mind, just allowing everything to be and not be. The reason zazen is so profoundly satisfying – even when it is difficult, even when it is painful mentally emotionally or physically- is that in zazen we unfailingly meet mind, we merge with mind. We do not need to know that we are doing this in order to be transformed by it.

® 2002, Norman Fischer