“Dogen is saying that the act is polishing the tile, doing zazen, polishing the mirror. It's a particular use of of the idea of polishing, and he says "We don't polish it because there is dust on the mirror." This is our usual way of thinking about what we do in practice. Again, it's almost unavoidable that we create a contrast between clarity and confusion in our sitting. We want at some basic level our mind to settle down, to quiet down, retreat, with thoughts as noise and emotion as dust, as if they’re clouding the mirror with a contaminant that practice is going to wipe away, so that once and for all there will be clarity, silence, emptiness, whatever you say to yourself. Yet the basic work of practice is not eliminating dust, but eliminating the dichotomy between dust and clarity. To see the dust as empty, to see the content of our mind as empty is to eliminate the very notion the very idea of dust as something that can soil, contaminate our mind.
For Dogen, polishing the tile or polishing the mirror in doing zazen is an act of expression, not an act of transformation. In a certain sense, he's saying we polish the tile the way we polish the old silver. We polish the tile the way we might polish that old 1957 Corvette we wish we had in the driveway. We would just keep it clean and polished and in perfect shape all the time, not because we were going to turn it into something else by all that care or polish, but the activity of cleaning it will reveal it for what it is, will allow us, even as polish it, to enjoy, appreciate and know it's nature.
I think it's probably very basic in Japanese Zen that when they talk about appreciating something for its own sake, they usually manifest that by cleaning it. I mean the basic activity of work practice in a zendo is cleaning something. It's wiping down the floors and the walls in the kitchen and the bathroom, just endless, endless cleaning. And it's not really the kind of cleaning that is to be contrasted with things being dirty, because very often when they wipe down the floor in the zendo, it's already as shiny and clean as you can imagine, and yet we clean it one more time. The cleaning is an act of appreciation and attention that means we're getting down there on our hands and knees and touching and feeling, stroking, caressing the floor in our cleaning. We're really appreciating the feel, the texture, the substance of the floor. We're appreciating it's floor-ness, we're not just getting rid of the dirt.
Zazen is analogous to that. It's an act of appreciation. It's a kind of polishing the car, because we have enormous love and respect for the craftsmanship and the style of this old piece of machinery, and all we want to do is show it reverence in the intention we give it. This is something like the notion of polishing in zazen. It's an expression of appreciation for who and what we are, who and what this moment is, dissolving of any kind of dichotomy between our ordinary mind and Buddha nature and enlightenment. In that very act of sitting and appreciating and being, practice and enlightenment become one thing. In the action itself of polishing, the realization of Buddha and the actualization of the mirror, these become what they are through our participation and engagement.
So Baso, when he hears Nangaku say, "How can you become Buddha by practicing zazen? How can you make a mirror by polishing a tile?" he achieves great enlightenment, and then what does he do? He sits down again in zazen, continues to polish the tile, and continues to polish the mirror.”
We think so often of a kind of verticality, of a mask on the outside, a false self on the outside, a true self deep inside, but as Merton is saying here, it wants to go back against all this fantasy of oh, I've got this precious true self deep inside. True self is moment after moment after moment. Instead of cultivating the fantasy that your true self is identified with some special state we cultivate in zazen, maybe your true self is the way you treated your partner this morning. Maybe your true self is how you were to the person next to you on the subway. We don't really want that to be our true self. That's our basic dilemma and in a certain sense, it's why we create a lot of metaphysical and transcendental stuff to believe in. We want to create this curative fantasy of purity and perfection and we treat our practice as if it is a purification project but it's not that at all. If anything, it's the opposite: it's allowing us to really stay with all the things we came here to avoid. To want to find your true self, your original face, you don't have to go farther than the bathroom mirror.
From Zen Teacher Barry Magid:
PM) AEN: "Being one with our moment-to-moment experience, as we are in
the bottom-up practice of just sitting, gives us a taste of
nonseparation that is more continuous with our daily lives. Being one
with chopping vegetables may sound less glamorous than being one with
the universe, but gradually we come to realize the whole universe is
contained in that act of chopping.
(11:56 PM) Thusness: that's good
and until it becomes natural
(11:57 PM) Thusness: that is the fruition of deep insight and practice
PM) AEN: ..."Our usual way of thinking is to think about something - we
sit and think about something out there that our thoughts are
describing or imagining. This kind of thinking is characterized by its
descriptive content - what it's about. But what if instead of focusing
on the content of thought, we see thought as an activity on its own
(11:58 PM) AEN:
As something that we, or our body, does? Our foot itches, our knee
hurts, our head thinks. It is just this perspective that labelling our
thoughts come about. When we repeat the thought "thinking about 'the cat
on the mat,'" our attention is no longer on the cat but on ourselves
having a thought, engaging in the activity of thinking. Often in Zen
literature we find the words not-doing used to refer to a not-separate
mode of functioning. No thinker having a thought. Just the activity of
AEN: And what Dogen means here by "think not-thinking" is that
not-separate activity of thinking - a thinking that is just the activity
of thinking itself, as he says, beyond thinking about anything.
AM) AEN: "According to the Buddha, all dharmas (things or moments of
experience) are empty of any fixed or essential nature. This lack of any
individual essential nature can also be seen as another consequence of
oneness - all dharmas are aspects of a constantly changing,
co-determined, interdependent whole. To speak of the self as empty is to
remark on the transience of all experience, without positing any
permanent experiencer or observer set up in the background who watches
it all go by.
(12:02 AM) Thusness: very well said
AM) AEN: When emptiness is used to convey impermanence, there is no one
psychological state that corresponds to the "feeling" of emptiness, any
more than there is a state of experiencing pure being. If I say an
apple is round and red, how many attributes am I listing? Does it
possesses being as an attribute in the same way it possesses redness and
roundness? Could it have just the roundness and redness but not the
Thusness: it is to correctly understand this non-dual experience as
action without the actor so that the insight of anatta can arise.
AM) AEN: To posit some intrinsic being or appleness alongside the
apple's physical qualities of color, shape, and texture (and their
constant, if ever so slight, physical changes) is to posit the sort of
fixed, unchanging essence that the Buddha's teaching denies. Likewise,
the emptiness of the self is not an additional attribute in any way on
top of, behind, or between the gaps of moment-to-moment experience. It
is not the silence between or behind our thoughts. It is just a way of
saying that this moment-to-moment experience is all there is.
(12:04 AM) Thusness: it is a realization that moment to moment of experience is just so.
(12:04 AM) AEN: icic..
(12:12 AM) AEN: anyway thats by an author "Barry Magid" who is also a psychiatrist and zen teacher
i borrowed the book from a library just now to take a look
(12:13 AM) Thusness: ic...well written
AM) AEN: the book is called "Ordinary Mind"... now i realise zen is
really all about that.. i remember his teacher charlotte joko beck also
wrote about daily lives practice "Everyday Zen" and "Nothing Special:
Living Zen". he wrote alot about distinguishing peak experiences from
"just doing the dishes, just taking out the trash"
“Yes Zen is about ordinary experience, yet you must understand what is meant by ordinary mind.
The ordinary mind is the mind of anatta. If we pretend to be ordinary
and try to 'look' for expression of ordinariness then we are deluded. If
we fail to realize that true ordinariness comes from the realization of
anatta and mistaken the finger for the moon, we are deluded. Without
the insight of anatta, how could we ever understand the essence of being
natural, effortless and ordinary? This is what Buddhism meant by
I have seen people going after 'ordinariness', trying to be 'nothing
special', attempting to look for expression of ordinariness. That is
why for (Soh: I believe he meant certain misguided/deluded) zen
practitioners, they will not understand the seven phases of experience.
They are caught up by 'forms', by the stages of the ox herding and
missed the insight.
practitioners realize clearly how these insights lead to the ordinary
and natural state, there is no meaning in looking for 'sweep floor and
washing dishes' or 'chop wood carry water'. This is the next disease of
Zen. These practitioners are actively looking for such expressions. They
do not have the wisdom to discern. What you have to awaken is the
insights into our empty yet luminous nature, then talk about
ordinariness and the natural state. That is why I told you, don't talk
about natural state or spontaneous arising. However people just like to
talk about that. Once you realized anatta, ordinariness and the natural
state mean something very different. You can breathe hard, you can
breathe soft, yet both are considered natural and ordinary. You can take
a deep breath or short breath, still as non-dual, natural and ordinary.
Sincere practitioners can take many years to come to this natural state
even after the initial glimpse of insight of anatta.” - John Tan, 2009