Seeing his disciple Ma Zu Dao Yi (馬祖道一) sitting all day long in meditation, Chan Master Nan Yue Huai Rang (南嶽懷讓) asked him what he was sitting for. Dao Yi replied, “In order to become a buddha.” Hearing this, Huai Rang started to polish a piece of brick in front of Dao Yi. When Dao Yi asked why his master was polishing the brick. Huai Rang answered, “To make a mirror.” Before Dao Yi could make sense of how such polishing could turn a piece of brick into a mirror, Huai Rang said to him, “Just like polishing cannot turn the brick into a mirror, how can sitting make you a buddha?”
Dao Yi was still puzzled. Huai Rang then asked him, “If the bullock cart stops moving, would you hit the bull or push the cart?” Actually, he was asking whether one should train the body or the mind if one wishes to become a buddha. Since buddha does not have any fixed form, how can sitting make one a buddha? Dao Yi then asked his master, “What is the Way?” In answering this question, Huai Rang gave the reply that is renowned in the literature of Chan history: “Ordinary mind is the Way!”
This famous saying reveals the core or essence of Chan practice, and it puts an end to the fantasy of many Chan practitioners. Many practitioners think of Chan as mysterious and exotic. They read about some Chan practitioners who go to the mountains or the forests, wandering around by a river, living like hermits and without concern about their manner and appearance… Some vain and arrogant “Chan Masters” will then act strangely like that and thus make people confused about Chan practice.
There is certainly no lack of practitioners who have such impressions about Chan and try to follow these examples. Many of the “hippies” of year past thought that they were “Chan Masters”, or that they had been “enlightened”. Some people say that “Chan Masters” seemed to be “free” and unrestrained. They mistakenly think that following one’s own desires or doing whatever one wishes is a form of “enlightenment”. Consequently, they believe that Chan practice does not require moral conduct and sitting meditation. They think erroneously to themselves, “Didn’t the koān (kung’an or gong-an, public case) story say so?” or “Doesn’t ‘Ordinary mind is the Way’ mean letting loose of the six senses and enjoying freely what the external world offers?” or “Perhaps Chan is about taking what the mind thinks as reality, fluctuating with the changing phenomena, and following one’s habitual tendencies?”
In reality, because of all of this confusion and fantasy, instead of being grounded and taking up a solid study and practice, many people fall into the extremes. Some people wish to find a middle way by trying to stand on both ends, which makes them inevitably lose balance and totally miss the right view of what true Chan is about.
It is incorrect to see Chan as mysterious or exotic. It is also incorrect to follow one’s karmic tendencies and act without restraint.
The word “ordinary” is not simply ordinary. Also, “ordinary mind” is not “ordinary” as we usually define this word….
(12/26/2006 Written at Yi Bao 怡保, Malaysia. Published in Chinese in the book《日日好日》”Everyday Is A Good Day” by Dharma Drum Publications)