Nansen's “Everyday Mind Is Dao

Monday Morning, March 10, 1969

—it was very, very cold. It was November? I don't remember exactly. I told him, “Don't wear so much clothing. Even if you wear many clothes, you will not be so warm. And if your practice is sincere enough, even though you do not wear so much, you will not be so cold. If you are involved in intense practice, actually you don't feel so cold.”

And so he appeared in the zendo with only one thin shirt [laughs, laughter]. And he practiced. I said to him, “It may be too thin. You have to wear a little bit more.” [laughs, laughter]

But he said, “It's all right.” And he sat with just one shirt on his body. I talked about his experience because I want to talk about one koan: the famous koan of Nansen1—between Nansen and Joshu,2 Nansen's disciple. “Everyday Mind Is Dao.”3 I think you may know that koan.

A koan is not something to explain. Why we talk about it is to give some suggestion about how you practice zazen. It is a suggestion. We don't talk about what a koan means directly. We give you just a suggestion, and, according to the introduction or suggestion, you work on the koan. That is how we explain a koan and how you listen to a koan.

So you must not think about if you remember what I said, or if you understand what I said. There is no need for you to solve the koan. I am not trying to explain what is everyday mind or what is dao, but through this koan I want to give you some suggestion about how you practice shikantaza.

Actually, shikantaza and koan practice are not exactly the same, but there is not much difference. Shikantaza is a more condensed practice, more essential practice, or fundamental practice than koan practice. The purpose of koan practice is the same as shikantaza. Anyway, I want you to understand how you practice our way by explaining this koan of “Everyday Mind Is Dao.”

You may think that if you practice well enough then you have power which could be extended in your everyday life. Actually it is so, but how you acquire this kind of power is a different matter. When you have power, then you can extend that power to everyday life. But, how you can obtain that power will be the next question. You may wonder what kind of experience you will have when you have acquired the power [laughs]. This kind of question will continue endlessly. How you will acquire that kind of power, or how to extend the power to everyday life.

So anyway I will explain, first of all, this koan:

Joshu asked his teacher Nansen, “What is dao?” What is dao?

And his teacher Nansen answered, “Everyday mind is dao.”

And Joshu4 asked his teacher again, “How to accord with the dao?” or “How to follow the dao? Tell me how to accord with the dao.” That was Joshu's question.

And Nansen said, “The more you try to follow the dao, the more you will lose the dao.” [Laughs.] That was his answer. And he continued, “The true power does not belong to the matter of attaining it,” or “the matter of being aware of it or not aware of it, or attaining it or not attaining it. If your practice goes beyond the matter of attaining it or not attaining it, your mind will be like a boundless blue sky. And, you will have no problem in your everyday life.” That was his answer.

Now I want to come back to the discussion between one of you students and me. He said he wanted to have a vacation or to go to see someone, and he wanted to leave Tassajara for one week. I wanted to know why he felt that way. And at last I found out. Before, he rigidly, strictly attached to or strictly observed the Tassajara way. But, now he feels that to observe his way strictly with the idea to observe Tassajara way is right, and not to practice even for one day is not good.

So, his practice in other words, involved right or wrong—right practice or wrong practice. And, he found out that our practice should go beyond right or wrong. “If so, what is wrong in my idea of leaving Tassajara for one week? [Laughs.] Before I saw things in that way, but now I don't understand our way in that way. I don't understand our way so rigidly. So, sometimes we can leave Tassajara. What is wrong if I leave Tassajara when I want to leave?” That was why he now wanted to leave Tassajara.

Before, as you see in the question and answer between Nansen and Joshu, Joshu asked him, “How can I follow the way if I don't try to observe it?” Or, in other words, “Is it possible for me to observe our way without trying to observe our way?” But Nansen said, “If you try to observe our way, that way is not the true way.” [Laughs.] How will you understand this point? It means that, until you have some power or some experience of real practice, you will not understand what is the true way.

Even if I explain what is the true way, and even if you understand what I say, that is not the true way. Only when actually you have that power to extend your experience to everyday life,  then, and without trying to observe our way, naturally, intuitively, you are able to observe our way. That is true. You understand?

To follow our way rigidly, to attain some power or some enlightenment experience may not be the true way. But while you are doing so, unexpectedly [laughs] your enlightenment will come to you. And, that enlightenment is not the enlightenment you expected [laughs, laughter]. That will be how you will experience our true way.

Dogen Zenji always says, “Don't try to attain enlightenment. Just [laughs, laughter] practice it, as though you have some idea of enlightenment—like a beautiful picture.” To attain, to realize, to actualize that idea, you practice zazen. What you get is a quite different thing. It will not be the painting of a rice cake. What you will get is something quite different. That is true.

So in koan practice, you try hard to attain enlightenment. In shikantaza we do not try to attain enlightenment. Or, in shikantaza we have no time [laughs] to expect something. We have pain in our legs, and sometimes it may be very cold [laughs]. To remain in the right posture is difficult. And if you are involved in our practice with right posture, with good breathing, you have no time even to try to have a beautiful picture of enlightenment [laughs]. It is already hard enough to sit, and you have no other idea of some imagination.

So actually, what we do is the same, and what we attain is the same. But what you attain is something completely different than you expected.

Nansen says if you try to follow the way, you will be far away from it. That is what he said. But what you will attain is something quite different. It is not something to describe. Maybe like—so we call it emptiness. Or, sometimes toilet paper. [Laughs, laughter.] Sometimes cats. Sometimes fox. Whatever it is, it is another name of something which cannot be described. That is true enlightenment. Only when you have it, then you may say, “Everyday life is the true way.” Even toilet paper is the true way [laughs]. Whatever you do, that is another name of the true way you have.

This morning I didn't explain so much, but even though I agreed with the student’s idea to leave for one week or two, it does not mean that is the true way [laughs]. The true way is not something like that. To sometimes observe our way, sometimes we don't. That is not the true way. But, even so, I don't mean that you should stay here. If someday he will realize the true way, then he may understand why I agreed with his idea of leaving Tassajara for a while. Or, sometimes don't wear so much clothing. Or you should practice rigidly and strictly enough.

To be completely involved in our practice, someday he may understand what I meant.  Right now I don't think he understood what I said. I didn't agree with his idea. Or, I didn't agree that his rigid practice is the true practice. True practice is not in the realm of  “This is true practice, and this is not true practice.” True practice is beyond the idea of right and wrong, and beyond experience, beyond human suggestion.

I think old students may have a very difficult time with me because I do not say anything definitely [laughter]. “Yeah, that is all right. That may be all right. Do whatever you like.” And, sometimes I don't feel so good, so old students will wonder if I didn’t feel so good when I said, “Oh, whatever you like. Do whatever you like.” Or without saying, “Do this. Do that.” [Sentence finished. Tape turned over.]

…“I don't feel so good.” So, he may understand, he doesn't feel so good. The true way is not something you can achieve in terms of right or wrong, or successful or not successful. The important point is to always have composure within ourselves whether we are successful or not. To have a deep mind, to include everything within ourselves—that is the true way or dao.

So every day when you accept even toilet-paper buddha, you have the true way. The point is that you can accept things as it is, as you accept Buddha as your teacher. That is the true way. And, as our patriarchs and buddhas did it, it is possible for us to attain that kind of true way.

There is no difference between everyday problems and koans. There is no difference between a bird's or fish's way and Buddha's way. And, there are many ways and various ways to attain that kind of true way experience which is your own, which could be your own, and which will be different from each other's way, and which is quite an independent way from each other's way—at the same time which is the universal way to everyone. That is the true way. If so, how can I explain [laughs] what is the true way?

Although the great teacher Nansen and his disciple Joshu have this kind of discussion, it does not mean anything to those who do not understand the true way. But it will give us some suggestion, and it will give us some encouragement to practice our way even though here may be some Rinzai students or Soto students.

You may think that it is nonsense for a Rinzai student [laughs] to come to Tassajara and practice shikantaza, but it isn't so. Koan practice could be shikantaza. Shikantaza could be koan practice. Actually, if you really practice koan practice with right understanding, under right instruction, that is shikantaza. If you practice shikantaza under the right teacher, it will be koan practice. If you understand our practice, there are not two practices. Your practices are pointing one way. It looks like various ways because you understand it in terms of “Rinzai or Soto,” “shikantaza or koan practice.” That is your fault [laughs], not the teacher's fault. Or, you may say I am a Soto priest, Soto teacher, but actually, my lineage is Soto lineage, but actually our way came directly from Buddha. They are set off in two ways.

[Brief whispered exchange with Suzuki off-mike.]

Did you understand? [Laughs, laughter.] Actually, what I meant is—you should practice zazen [laughs, laughter]. That is what I wanted to say. But you should practice it [1 word?]. You should be completely involved in your practice. That is what I meant in short. Then, everyone will attain enlightenment. That is what I said in short. You cannot waste your time. It is not possible to waste your time. You think, I am wasting time, that's all [laughs]. But you are not wasting your time.

Anyway, if you trust in words, it's better to practice zazen [laughs, laughter] without any doubt. And it's better to be completely involved in your practice, putting everything aside. That is what I mean.

And, we shouldn't be fooled by Nansen and Joshu, even though he said, “Everyday life is [laughs] the true way.” If you are fooled by them, you will say, “Whatever we do, that is the true way.” [Laughs.] “There will be no need to practice zazen. What is wrong to not practice zazen? Even though we do not sit in a cross-legged position, that is the true way.” [Laughs.]  When you understand in this way, you are trying to understand the koan literally without knowing what they really meant by that discussion.

I am so glad to see what you have experienced here in the last time period. So after you did it, you understand what you have done [laughs]. Before you do it, or when he is coming back to Tassajara, or it doesn't mean anything to sit with a teacher, but after you did it, you must have experienced what you have done.

Thank you very much.
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1 Nanquan Puyuan (Nansen Fugan): 748–835. Disciple of Baso Dōitsu.

2 Zhaozhou Congshen (Jōshū Jūshin): 778–897.

3 Case 19 of the Wu-Men Kuan (Jap. Mumonkan, Eng. Gateless Gate) kōan collection.

4Suzuki said "Nansen" but must have meant "Joshu."


Source: Original City Center tape transcribed by Dana Velden (6/26/00). Checked by Bill Redican (11/1/00). Lightly edited for readability by Wendy Pirsig and Peter Ford (12/2020).