The Case (abbreviated and adapted):

One day Master Nangaku saw Master Baso practicing zazen and asked him, "What is your intention doing zazen?"

Baso said, "My intention is to become a Buddha"

Nangaku picked up a tile and started to polish it on a rock. Baso, astonished, asked what he was doing.

Nangaku said, " I am polishing the tile to make a mirror"

Baso said " How can polishing a tile make it a mirror?"

Nangaku said, " How can sitting make you a Buddha?"


This is a very significant story, covering a mass of issues: intention, original enlightenment, time, cause and effect, and many others, but I would like to comment simply on Nangaku's action.

A mirror is often used in Chinese Buddhism as a symbol of dependent origination. Just as when we look in the mirror and see lots of apparently distinct and separate things, when really it's all the wholeness of the mirror, so it is with reality.

Nangaku doesn't say he's making the tile into a mirror, he says that he is making a mirror. The wholehearted act of polishing, or sitting, makes the mirror. Is the mirror. The static nature of the symbol is made dynamic. The tile stays a tile, yet the mirror is actualised, even although the tile can't see it.

The tile can never see it. Other than with the mute eyes of the heart.


Hyakujo is asked by a monk, "What is the most wonderful thing in the universe?" and responds "Sitting here".

Nyojo re-writes the response as "Eating rice here"

Dogen comments "I would answer by raising high my staff here"

Hyakujo doesn't mean that his temple is the best place to do zazen, or that zazen is the most special activity, which Nyojo underscores in his reformulation.

The important word is 'here'. Something rather than nothing. Fully alive. The great miracle.

We call buddhism wondrous dharma because it can't be grasped by the mind. That being so, it is completely immaterial if your mind is empty or full, pregnant with wisdom or stagnant with the familiar idiocy. The East Mountain walking isn't perturbed by the clouds at all.


Delusion isn't quite located where we think it is. We imagine that it's the apparently ceaseless thoughts and emotions which come up during sitting, but it isn't. It's our response. Uchiyama likened it to an ignorant person watching a play, mistaking it for reality, seeing a villain on stage, jumping up on the stage to remonstrate with the villain.

This is the practice. We keep finding ourselves up on the stage, realising what we're doing, and leaving the stage, to sit with all beings.

That's why an emphasis on consciousness is harmful, because we're focused on the wrong thing. Whether we turn the mind from lead to gold, it's still a headstone, weighing down on the body of the world.

Practice Intructions


For a long time, I've given this instruction to people coming to Zen for the first time:


"When you sit just try your very best to maintain a present awareness. Your mind will wander. If it does, don't be harsh on yourself. Just bring yourself back to this moment. Sometimes, it's helpful to focus on the breath, or on the various aspects of your posture.."


I'm not sure if these instructions, although they might appear helpful, actually are. They might suit someone who is prone to distraction or dissociation, but are less useful for someone prone to strong feelings or sensations. But more generally, I think the instructions match up with a 'mindfulness' perspective, giving great weight to 'presence' and 'awareness', setting that up as a kind of standard [against which practitioners will tend to judge themselves, and judge badly] but without really encapsulating what buddhism is about.


So I now prefer to say something like:


When you sit, just allow your experience to completely be. Don't judge it. Don't interpret it, Don't make a story of it, just allow it to be. You'll notice that your mind always wants to do something with this moment to moment experience. It wants to define it ['now I'm feeling sad']. It wants to locate it ['I'm doing zazen looking at a wall']. It wants to interpret it ['I'm feeling sad because..']. It wants to judge it ['I'm very distracted']. Your experience does not come to you packaged as thoughts and emotions. This is construction too.


This endless activity of the mind is what buddhists call samskara, which is often -and clumsily- translated as 'mental fabrication'. Nirvana is, moment to moment, ceasing to do that, allowing something other than the constructed world and self to swing open and shut



The three prerequisites for practice are great faith, great doubt and great courage. I've tried to explain how faith and doubt are two facets of the one thing, but what is great courage? Is it simply the willingness to remain in this place of not knowing?

How do we become disconnected from our basic state of feeling being? It starts by judging our experience. Say that when we are little, we intuit that our mother can't bear our distress. We learn that our experience isn't simply a given, it's something we can manipulate, explain, evade, build thoughts and stories around, appropriate to the self, and so on. A whole ego structure forms on top of the simple state of being feeling.

But there's always a gap, a way back into this simple state, but there's a catch. The gap is the feeling we judged unacceptable in the first place. We can always find it, but it's very hard for us to just stay with it, without going into the mechanism - I almost said demon- that we created to escape it. And this simply staying with is great courage.

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