In his essay “Zazen Yojinki,” or “Points to Keep in Mind When Practicing Zazen,” 13th-century Zen master Keizan Jokin presents “clarify[ing] the mind-ground and dwell[ing] comfortably in [your] original nature”[i] as our fundamental job as Buddhists if we’re seeking liberation. I explore the meaning of this phrase in this Dharma Talk, reflecting on a nondual experience beyond words, and why Zen and Mahayana so often use terms like “mind” or “actual nature” when pointing to it.
If you’re a non-Zen listener, I apologize – I know I’ve spent a fair amount of time recently on a Zen essay by Dogen! However, as I said, I’ll be covering other kinds of topics soon. I also think you’ll find this episode interesting, because rather than trying to analyze Keizan’s text as a whole, I’m going to focus on what he means by the phrase “clarify[ing] the mind-ground and dwell[ing] comfortably in [your] original nature”[i] – an activity he presents as being our fundamental job as Buddhists if we’re seeking liberation.
Alternative translations of Keizan’s phrase include “enlighten[ing] the primordial mind and abid[ing] peacefully in [our] original state,”[ii] and “directly realiz[ing] the Foundation of our minds and dwell[ing] content with our own Buddha Nature.”[iii] Exploring the meaning of this phrase leads us to several questions: What exactly is it we’re trying to do in Zen, or in Buddhism? What is it we hope to awaken to, and what’s good about it? Why does Mahayana Buddhism use the term “mind” to refer to such an ineffable goal, when we’re supposed to let go of, or transcend, our discriminating mind? Why does it teach about an “original nature” when everything is impermanent, and we’re supposed to awaken to the emptiness of self?
Unless I indicate otherwise, for my discussion I’ll be using a translation of “Zazen-Yojinki” posted on the website of Antaiji monastery. It seems that at least part of the translation is by Shohaku Okumura, as excerpts of the text were published under his name in 2002 in a booklet produced by the Japanese Soto Shu (Soto Zen school) called Soto Zen: An Introduction to Zazen. Strangely, parts of the Antaiji translation match another translation attributed to Yasuda Joshu Dainen and Anzen Hoshin, which is included in the book The Art of Just Sitting edited by Daido Loori.[iv] In any case, I like the Antaiji translation, but you can find a number of existing translations online here.
A Brief Overview of Keizan’s “Zazen-Yojinki”
Zen master Keizan Jokin lived in Japan from 1264 to 1325, and was a direct Dharma descendant of Dogen. His essay “Zazen-Yojinki” is fairly short and centers on the practice of zazen, or seated Zen meditation. Much of the essay is quite practical: “To practice sitting, find a quiet place and lay down a thick mat. Don’t let wind, smoke, rain or dew come in. Keep a clear space with enough room for your knees.” There are lots of instructions to monks about how to conduct their daily lives in a way conducive to practice, such as what to wear, frivolous activities to avoid, what to eat, and how to deal with various “unusual and strange” experiences in meditation.
Parts of Keizan’s essay, though, are pretty… well, you might say, dense? Poetic? Abstruse? (Meaning “difficult to understand” or “obscure.”) I’m talking about passages like, “Zazen includes no boundary between sentient beings and buddha.” Or, “Although we speak of ‘practice,’ it is not a practice that you can do.” Or, “Clear water has no back or front, space has no inside or outside. Completely clear, its own luminosity shines before form and emptiness were fabricated. Objects of mind and mind itself have no place to exist.”
I’m going to focus on the first couple sentences of “Zazen Yojinki,” along with a few references from the first quarter or so of the text, and these parts of the essay definitely qualify as abstruse because they’re trying to convey the deepest meaning and purpose of zazen. I won’t say much about how and why the method of zazen in particular is emphasized, because I’ve dealt with that in many other episodes. Instead, I’ll explore the nondual experience zazen is supposed to allow you to experience.
After all, zazen, from the Soto Zen point of view, is not a meditative technique at all, but rather – as Keizan puts it later in “Zazen Yojinki” – “entering directly into the ocean of buddha-nature and manifesting the body of the Buddha.” Obviously, this isn’t easy, or all we’d have to do to get enlightened is sit upright, still and silent, for a few minutes. But this identification of zazen with the very experience of “dwelling content within your own Buddha Nature” is why Soto Zen writings go on and on about zazen. It may sound like we’re being extremely sectarian, lauding our particular form of meditation over all others, but it’s really more of a celebration of a nondual experience – so, even if zazen is not your way, or even if Buddhism is not your way, I think you’ll recognize this experience as the goal of many mystical spiritual traditions.
Clarifying the Mind-Ground
“Zazen means to clarify the mind-ground and dwell comfortably in your actual nature. This is called revealing yourself and manifesting the original-ground.”
I’m going to spend some time comparing alternative translations when it comes to this passage, because it appears the important Japanese characters in them are open to varying interpretations. Unfortunately, I don’t have the Japanese characters for the text, and I couldn’t read or interpret them if I did – I’m just guessing they’re tough to translate because the different versions of this text vary so much.
All seven translations of this section of “Zazen Yojinki” that I had access to (see Keizan Study Material, compiled by Charlie Pokorny for the 2010 Soto Zen Buddhist Association Conference) say, more or less, that zazen, seated Zen meditation, allows something to be illuminated, clarified, or realized. That which is clarified is called “primordial mind” by Steven Heine; just “the mind” by Thomas Cleary; “the ground of experiences” by Yasuda Dainen and Anzan Hoshin; “the Foundation of our minds” by Hubert Nearman, and “the mind-ground” by Okumura.
What on earth is this thing, or experience, we aim to clarify? It’s not something we can grasp with our intellect. That is, we may want to understand what “the mind-ground” is – this elusive goal of practice, this experience that sounds so transcendent – but it can’t be fully explained in words or comprehended through philosophical speculation. The mind-ground, or the true nature of our experience as human beings, can be clearly and distinctly experienced with one’s body-and-mind, but it’s impossible to adequately describe. Just as words and concepts can’t convey the actual experience of perceiving the color green, or feeling love for someone, words and concepts can’t approach what it feels like to rest in a primordial moment of simply being alive.
Now, a mind clarified in a moment of zazen doesn’t feel like our ordinary mind, which is more or less constantly absorbed in evaluating, discriminating, planning, analyzing, or fantasizing. Still, our primordial mind isn’t separate from that ordinary mind, either. It’s like our habitual sense of our mind is the tip of an iceberg, and in a moment of “clarifying the mind-ground” we’re able to peer beneath the surface of the water and see how vast our mind really is. That’s why the various translations of this phrase talk about the “ground” or “foundation,” pointing us toward something underlying or supporting everything else.
Of course, what on earth do we mean by our primordial mind, or the mind-ground? What is the nature of that vast part of our mind, or experience, which is like the part of an iceberg submerged under the water? I’ve heard it called “awareness,” which isn’t bad, but any label invites us to make inappropriate conclusions about this ineffable aspect of being alive. For example, “awareness” makes us think this has something to do with self-consciously observing what’s going on, but our sense “I am aware” comes and goes, while our primordial mind does not. “Primordial mind” makes us think of some kind of essence or object we can identify separate from our body, “Oh, there’s my primordial mind,” or, “When I die, primordial mind will live on.” What we’re getting at, however, doesn’t exist separate from living beings, but is a quality of impermanent individual beings – no beings, no primordial mind.
Keizan comments on the impossibility of capturing the experience of clarifying the mind-ground, saying, “What is this? Its name is unknown. It cannot be called ‘body,’ it cannot be called ‘mind.’ Trying to think of it, the thought vanishes. Trying to speak of it, words die.” And yet Keizan himself goes on to call it “body” (“Between sky and earth, only this whole body is seen”) and “mind” (“This is symbolized by the full moon but it is this mind which is enlightenment itself”). He also quotes other teachers who use such words, saying, “The third patriarch, great teacher, temporarily called it ‘mind,’ and the venerable Nagarjuna once called it ‘body.’” In other words, what are you going to do? If we said nothing at all to one another, none of us would be able to find our way on the path of practice. “Mind” points to the role of our awareness in our experience of the nondual. “Body” points to the reality of our life that’s beyond words and concepts, but is always pervasive and present. No single word or concept captures the whole deal.
At the risk of further confusing things with words, having just discussed their limitations, there are two ways I personally like to describe our “mind-ground:” 1) Universal Liveliness, and 2) The Ineffable Fact of Being. No matter what we’re doing, or what we’re experiencing, we’re a manifestation of Universal Liveliness – the incorrigible appearance of order and life and beauty out of the chaos. Even when we’re distracted or obsessed with the mundane details of our lives, the Ineffable Fact of our Being remains. At times, though, our minds and hearts settle a little bit, and we’re able to recognize the precious miracle of sheer existence. A breath, a bird song, a beam of sunlight suddenly have inestimable value to us. At such a time, we also recognize this quality of Universal Liveliness or Ineffable Being is something we share with everything, and not just living beings: We share Being with rocks, trees, walls, mountains, molecules, and star dust.
Resting Comfortably in Your Actual Nature
While we’re a free-standing manifestation of Being, It is utterly unconcerned with boundaries. Universal Liveliness is something you are or participate in, not something you attain or own a little piece of. This is why awakening to it allows you to “rest comfortably in your actual nature.” To return to the opening sentences of Keizan’s “Zazen Yojinki,” alternative translations of this phrase include “abide peacefully in [your] original state,” “rest easy in [your] fundamental endowment,” and “dwell content within [y]our own Buddha Nature.” When we awaken to The Ineffable Fact of Being, we recognize how it’s been there all along, and can never be lost or defiled. It supports, surrounds, and contains us, which is why we talk about “abiding” or “dwelling” within it. Because it is not maintained by our effort or merit, we can rest.
What about the mind-ground makes it your actual nature? Putting it this way implies we often operate out of something that’s not our actual nature or “original state” – that our Buddha Nature is usually covered over, or we act out of accord with it. Again, trying to make sense of the words can make you crazy, or can lead you to a shallow interpretation. Instead, the concept of “actual nature” versus “how you usually act or think of yourself” reflects an actual, lived experience.
When we let go, for a moment, of our self-identification with all the “stuff” of our lives – our names, bodies, relationships, emotions, status, memories, ideas, opinions, hopes, everything – and appreciate the Ineffable Miracle of Simply Existing, all of our usual concerns seem as if a dream. You know how you might have an awful, anxiety-producing dream, and then you wake up, instantly relieved it isn’t real? That’s how our ordinary, daily human dramas appear when we manage to clarify the mind ground and, as Keizan says in the next sentence, “reveal ourselves.” Of course, our daily lives aren’t dreams – they have a certain kind of reality and we need to take care of them – but, from a larger perspective, our everyday miseries and longings don’t look nearly as all-important as they usually do. Just as things stop annoying you so much when you know you only have a short time to live, when we’re resting comfortably in our actual nature, we appreciate life too much to waste it getting all upset about relatively minor things.
To explore another aspect of the concept of “actual” or “original” nature: Why does Mahayana Buddhism talk about this “nature” that we are, or contain, or can clarify? Why does the second sentence of “Zazen Yojinki” talk about “revealing yourself?” Isn’t one of the main teachings of Buddhism that there is nothing to be found within you that’s permanent, nothing you can identify as “I, me, or mine” without consequently experiencing dukkha, or suffering? Why do Mahayana terms seem to suggest we have a “true” nature which is “actual,” “original,” or our “Buddha-nature?” Admittedly, “actual nature” talk in Mahayana does invite the conclusion we contain, or partake of, some everlasting essence akin to a soul – at least, an infinitely large, undifferentiated soul we’re part of or return to, kind of like the Brahman of the Upanishads. In fact, Theravadin Buddhists sometimes disparage Mahayana for exactly this reason: Essentially, proposing the existence of some kind of mystical, unchanging nature is contrary to the foundational teachings of the Buddha.
However, the truth Zen and Mahayana are pointing to with all their talk about “actual nature” is not meant to suggest the existence of some essence or nature you can point to or discover. Your actual nature doesn’t live inside of you. It’s not even a vast underwater iceberg part of you that’s lying hidden (this is another example of the limitation of words, because the iceberg metaphor was useful to a point but breaks down here). Your original nature isn’t something you’ll blast through to, using the power of meditation. All of these misunderstandings about your “actual nature” assume you are separate from it. You are it, and it is you. It’s been so all along: Universal Liveliness manifesting as your very body and mind.
Universal Liveliness is boundless and ungraspable, of course, and doesn’t belong to you. However, there’s still some truth pointed to by the word “self,” as in, “This is called revealing yourself and manifesting the original-ground.” The nondual experience zazen allows is intensely personal and intimate. This may be surprising. With all this talk about the Ineffable Fact of Being which you share with rocks and trees, you might imagine this experience-beyond-words is nonpersonal – transcendent, lofty, having nothing to do with your body, sensations, feelings, perceptions, or consciousness. Indeed, your Universal Liveliness is not dependent on or obstructed by any of the specifics of your manifestation in this lifetime, but it’s also not separate from them in any way. It lives through you as a person, with all of your quirks. There are many ways to define “self,” and the more you examine the definitions, the less clear the whole concept becomes, but the term does point to an actual, lived experience of being an individual – and that experience is intimately involved with the path of Buddhism.
The experience of a Zen Buddhist revealing her actual nature – and seeing how the details of her existence and personality don’t obstruct or produce it – must be akin to a Christian’s experience of the Grace of God: God embraces and loves you no matter what. Yes, even you. We don’t tend to sing hymns in celebration of this experience, but we do have our ways of expressing it, as Keizan puts it later in “Zazen Yojinki:” Zazen [and remember, this doesn’t just mean Zen meditation, it means “entering directly into the ocean of buddha-nature and manifesting the body of the Buddha”] “is like returning home and sitting in peace.” How do you feel when you return home and have a chance to sit in peace? Ideally, home is a place where we can drop our guard and pretenses, be who we really are, find refuge from demands and worries, feel supported, and truly relax and rejuvenate ourselves. When we clarify the mind-ground, remember, what happens? We “dwell comfortably in [our] original nature,” or – as other translators put it – we “abide peacefully” or “rest at ease” or “dwell content.” Isn’t this what we all want, in the end?
[i] Translation from Antaiji monastery website, corresponds in part to translation by Shohaku Okumura in a Soto-Shu produced booklet called Soto Zen: An Introduction to Zazen (2002), and in part to a translation by Ven. Anzan Hoshin roshi and Yasuda Joshu Dainen roshi, https://wwzc.org/dharma-text/zazen-yojinki-notes-what-be-aware-zazen
[ii] Translation of Zazen Yojinki by Steven Heine, in Zen Texts, Berkeley, Numata Center, 2005. As cited in a comparative study of Zazen Yojinki in Keizan Study Material, compiled by Charlie Pokorny for the 2010 Soto Zen Buddhist Association Conference.
[iii] Translation of Zazen Yojinki by Rev. Hubert Nearman, From Buddhist Writings on Meditation and Daily Practice, Shasta Abbey Press. As cited in a comparative study of Zazen Yojinki in Keizan Study Material, compiled by Charlie Pokorny for the 2010 Soto Zen Buddhist Association Conference.
[iv] Loori, John Daido (ed). The Art of Just Sitting: Essential Writings on the Zen Practice of Shikantaza. Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2004.