Think Neither Good Nor Evil

Today’s teisho is on Case 23 in the Mumonkan:


The Sixth Patriarch was pursued by the monk Myõ as far as Taiyu Mountain. The patriarch, seeing Myõ coming, laid the robe and bowl on a rock and said, "This robe represents the faith; it should not be fought over. If you want to take it away, take it now."

Myõ tried to move it, but it was as heavy as a mountain and would not budge. Faltering and trembling, he cried out, "I came for the Dharma, not for the robe. I beg you, please give me your instruction."

The patriarch said, "Think neither good nor evil. At this very moment, what is the original self of the monk Myõ?"

At these words, Myõ was directly illuminated. His whole body was covered with sweat. He wept and bowed, saying, "Besides the secret words and the secret meaning you have just now revealed to me, is there anything else, deeper still?"

The patriarch said, "What I have told you is no secret at all. When you look into your own true self, whatever is deeper is found right there."

Myõ said, "I was with the monks under Õbai for many years but I could not realize my true self. But now, receiving your instruction, I know it is like a man drinking water and knowing whether it is cold or warm. My lay brother, you are now my teacher."

The patriarch said, "If you say so, but let us both call Õbai our teacher. Be mindful to treasure and hold fast to what you have attained."


The Sixth Patriarch was, so to speak, hurried into helping a man in an emergency, and he displayed a grandmotherly kindness. It is as though he peeled a fresh lichi, removed the seed, put it in your mouth, and asked you to swallow it down.


You cannot describe it; you cannot picture it;
You cannot admire it; don't try to eat it raw.
Your true self has nowhere to hide;
When the world is destroyed, it is not destroyed.

This translation of the koan uses the word “patriarch,” but the term is not at all appropriate. The word “patriarch” comes from the Greek version of the Bible, and it literally means “the ruler of a family.” The word is used in the Bible to describe the powerful male figures of the Old Testament, men with wives and children, slaves and servants, sheep and goats. Like tribal leaders everywhere in the world, the gained power through the property they owned, the alliances they maintained, and the fighters they commanded. They followed the laws laid down by their tribal god.

This has nothing to do with Zen. In fact, substituting the word “patriarch” for the Chinese word “Zu” greatly distorts Zen tradition. True, the character for “Zu” contains a masculine component, but the eminent Zen teachers weren’t patriarchs at all. They gave up family life in order to practice the Great Way. They were “home-leavers” who shunned wealth and power and tried to influence events through “grandmotherly kindness,” as Mumon’s comment suggests. They looked within themselves for guidance.

The word “patriarch” is also a problem because a related word, “patriarchy,” is commonly used to describe the system of male domination that has kept women down for so long. I would prefer to use the word “ancestor.”

When I was reading the koan aloud just now, I meant to substitute “ancestor” for “patriarch,” but I was trying to read without making mistakes, and so I said “patriarch” even though I didn’t mean to. I should go through my copy of the Mumonkan and cross out “patriarch” wherever I find it. This is a small detail but it’s important.

According to tradition, Zen was brought to China by an Indian monk named Bodhidharma. After a lot of amateur research, I’m convinced that there really was a Bodhidharma. He really did travel to China and he really was a meditation master of exceptional ability. A champion of the Lankavatara Sutra, with its teaching of Enlightened Mind or Buddha Nature, Bodhidharma left behind a number of writings that people can still study today.

When Bodhidharma came to China he brought with him an entirely new approach to Buddhist practice. He already had quite a reputation in India, and –according to the tradition--when he arrived in the strange land of China, Buddhist leaders there arranged an interview between him and the Emperor Wu of Liang. The Emperor was deeply interested in Buddhism, and was quite wealthy, of course. He was busily constructing temples, libraries, and the equivalent of Buddhist universities.

Bodhidharma’s meeting with the Emperor was a great opportunity for him, and if everything had gone well, the Emperor would have said, “This Zen school sounds great. Let me build you a huge new temple.” But the interview went very badly. The emperor didn’t understand at all what Bodhidharma was talking about. The Emperor asked, “How do you practice in the Zen school?” And Bodhidharma said, “We cultivate ‘vast emptiness.’” This baffled the emperor. “How can you cultivate emptiness, which doesn’t even exist?” Their communication broke down, and Bodhidharma left.

Then he supposedly went up into the mountains, near what is now known as Shaolin Temple. At that time, Shaolin was in a rather poor part of China. Bodhidharma went to the backwoods, we could say, and he lived in a cave. People in the area heard that a holy man was living in this cave and they brought him food. Because of their generosity, he was able to do zazen every day. He sat facing the wall of the cave doing zazen for nine years.

Now, if you come to China to spread your new approach to Buddhism, this would seem to be a self-defeating way to do it. Most people would assume the best way to spread Zen would be to ask for a second interview with the Emperor. Or, if the Emperor said no, Bodhidharma could have arranged for interviews with other rich and powerful Chinese people. If he were living today, he might write a book, do a promotional tour, and end up on the Today Show.

But Bodhidharma chose not to go that route. Instead he went into the remote mountains and practiced zazen. And one day, amazingly enough, a man—Hui K’o--showed up and became his first student. And after that, a woman showed up, and then another man. So Bodhidharma wound up with three students. After he died, his oldest student, Hui K’o, supposedly became the key figure in the lineage, though the other two also had students as well.

Later on, Hui K’o may have been executed by a government official during the time of an anti-Buddhist campaign. Other sources say he lived to be over a hundred. At any rate, after Hui K’o died, Seng T’san became the key figure. Seng T’san is the man with leprosy who wrote the Hsin hsin Ming, “Verses on the Heart Mind,” which we recite every morning. Then came Tao-hsin, then Hung-jen, and then Hui-neng.

Hung-jen, Zen ancestor number 5, is called Obi here in Japanese. Obi is the fifth ancestor in the lineage that starts with Bodhidharma. And the sixth ancestor in this lineage was a man named Hui-neng.

Originally Hui-neng was an illiterate woodcutter, and by the time he went to the temple run by Hung-jen or Obi, Zen had gained a great deal of popularity. What had started with a crazy Indian man sitting in a cave staring at the wall had become well known and respected. Obi had many, many students training under him, and he had a nice temple and so on. Then this illiterate woodcutter came to the monastery. He wasn’t admitted as a monk, however, probably because he couldn’t read. He was admitted to work in the kitchen, hulling rice, chopping wood, and doing other unglamorous chores.

And yet Hui-neng had already experienced deep awakening, and when Obi was dying, Obi decided to pass on his authority to Hui-neng. In the dead of night he called Hui-neng into his chambers to tell him of this radical decision.

The secrecy was necessary because the monks in the temple would have found Obi’s choice to be profoundly hurtful. After all, they had been doing zazen for 20 years and they had been going through koan training and all the rest. No money, no possessions, little sleep, little food. Now this nobody had come to the temple, working in the kitchen and chopping firewood. He wasn’t even a monk.

When Obi called Hui-neng into his room, he said, “Listen, I’m going to make you my dharma heir, but when I do, everybody is going to be pissed off at you, and they might even beat you up or kill you. I don’t know what’s going to happen, so I want you to take this robe and bowl and get out of here, ok? These were brought here to China by Bodhidharma and given to me by my teacher, Tao-hsin. You’ve got my seal of approval because you’re deeply awake. Now go--carry on the Zen tradition! But don’t stay here a minute longer, because these people will really hate your guts when they learn what I’ve done.” So, Hui-Neng left with the robe and the bowl, and went on many wanderings, and he eventually settled down years later and started teaching

Just as Obi predicted, when the monks heard about this, they were furious at him for giving the transmission to an outsider, and for not honoring their many years of hard work. Obi’s decision seemed totally unfair, even insane.

After Obi went public and said, “I’ve given my dharma transmission to Hui-Neng and he’s gone,” the monks couldn’t bring themselves to believe that Hui-neng hadn’t pulled off some kind of trick or swindle. They convinced themselves that Obi was old and vulnerable, and that Hui-neng must have stolen the robe and the bowl.

One of the monks at the temple, Myo, was an ex-general, a military man. He said, “I’m good at tracking. Let me go to find this guy and bring back the stolen symbols of our lineage.”

So Myo left the monastery and, after a long journey, he successfully tracked down Hui-neng. Hui-neng had chosen to stop and rest by a stream. He had set the robe and the bowl down on a rock, and he was washing his face when the general spied him from up above.

Myo, the general, rushed down hoping to take Hui-neng by surprise. His plan was to grab the robe and bowl before Hui-neng could even notice, but then Hui-neng saw him. Hui-neng said, “This robe and this bowl represent the Buddha dharma. We shouldn’t fight over them. If you want to take them, take them.”

But when Myo tried to grab the robe, it wouldn’t budge.

You can image that he was astounded and thought, “What the hell? How is this possible?” It wasn’t a miracle, however. Something deep in Myo’s psyche wouldn’t let him pick up the robe and bowl. That something made these objects as heavy as a mountain. It was a psychological crisis, with Myo’s small mind wanting to do one thing, while his big mind was holding him back. Myo became so alarmed that he realized the robe and the bowl didn’t actually matter: “I really don’t care about them,” he said. “They are just empty symbols of authority. I see now that what I really care about awakening. I don’t know what going on here, but you can help me?”

Then Hui-Neng said simply, “Think neither good nor evil. At this moment, where is the big mind of monk Myo?”

When the general heard these words he had an enlightenment experience. His whole body was covered with sweat! As he wept he said, “This is amazing, I had no idea enlightenment was like this. Do you have any other secret teachings you’d like to give me?”

To this Hui-neng replied, “There aren’t any secret teachings. Enlightened mind is right here, all the time.”

So that’s basically the koan, and the advice that triggers the actual kensho is, “Think neither good nor evil.”

This is a very, very important koan. When we talk about good and evil, we might be thinking of morals or ethics. We might expect Hui-neng to say, “Do good, avoid evil.” Or, “Think good thoughts, but shun evil thoughts.” Yet this isn’t what Hui-neng says. He says, “Don’t think of good, don’t think of evil.” What could he mean?

Sometime after I came here to New Jersey, I went to study with a teacher who was a dharma brother of my first teacher, Takabayashi Genki Roshi. I believe that Genki Roshi and this other teacher attended the same university and trained with some of the same teachers in the same Rinzai lineage. Genki Roshi’s’s dharma brother came to the U.S. in the ‘60’s with almost no money. Somehow he was able to make a little zendo in his apartment in New York. It wasn’t a very nice apartment, but he was a true sensei holding zazen, and word got around about this Japanese master and his group.

Little by little, individual students came to the apartment, just as they had come to Bodhidharma’s cave. Eventually, a married couple people arrived to do zazen there. Or rather, a woman came first and then she brought her husband. As it turned out, her husband was the CEO of a major corporation, one of the biggest in the United States. The CEO and his wife were very impressed with the new sensei, and they helped him to build a temple. It’s up in central New York State, in the Catskills. If you want to go there, it’s about three hours from here. You have to drive up to a town which is a very remote and rather shabby, if I may say so. When you pass through the town and keep going, you’ll see nothing but farms and forests, and eventually there will be a sign for the temple. You have to turn off the main road and drive for miles on the temple property. The property includes something like 1,400 acres.

Once you turn off the main road, you drive and you drive and it’s all very beautiful--the country road, the ferns, and the trees. Eventually you come to the temple and it’s a Japanese-style building on a clear mountain lake, beautiful and quiet. All you hear is the wind and the birds and sometimes there’s the sound of a beautiful loon in the water. Many members of their sangha live in New York, which is of course quite noisy. It’s wonderful for them to leave the craziness of Manhattan and drive up to the mountains.

When people from the city go up to the temple to do sesshin, it must seem to them like a magic land. It’s so beautiful, peaceful, and still. People from New York can leave behind all the pressure and noise and they can soak up the quiet and the stillness.

Doing this sort of thing—enjoying the silence and stillness--is quite beautiful as an experience, but it’s not necessarily Zen. There is something wrong with thinking that Zen is about stillness, peacefulness, and quiet. Please understand my meaning. The Zen community at the temple up there is quite extraordinary. They have deep practice. But it’s not because of the lake, the mountains, the trees, and so on.

Of course, if somebody wants to give our group 1,400 acres of remote forest, we would definitely accept it, but nevertheless, such a setting not necessarily the best training environment. I’m telling you the truth. Zen is not about going up to a quiet place and soaking up the stillness. Zen isn’t about silence, and it’s not about a peaceful ambiance. It’s not about listening to the wind. That’s a big mistake. If you cling to that sort of thing, you will create all kinds of new obstacles instead of taking obstacles away.

Even though I myself love the mountains with their peace and the stillness—don’t make the mistake of thinking that’s Zen. What might happen, after all, to people who leave such a place after staying there for a while? For a week they can sit listening to the loons calling and the rain falling. And then, when the sesshin’s over, they’ll get into their cars and wind up on the Cross Bronx Expressway. Then it’s HONK HONK HONK BEEP BEEP. GET OUTTA MY WAY! People talking--BLAH BLAH BLAH. Jackhammers breaking up the concrete. BANG BANG BANG BANG. And there’s the roar of the traffic itself.

After leaving sesshin, these people might think, “Oh no. I’m back in this noise and confusion. I’m back in this hell of discord.” For such people, the world might actually become heavier, more difficult. It might be almost too much to bear—paralyzing.

The world would be split in two between the beautiful stillness of sesshin and the noisy hell-realm of everyday, big city life. Such a split is produced by practicing in the wrong way. If you read stories about Zen, you will probably reach the conclusion that the great Zen temples were all up in the mountains, remote from the cities. You can find pictures of these beautiful temples, like enchanted castles in mythical mountains. In classical Chinese and Japanese art, there are many paintings of monks in the middle of the deep forests or in temples lost amid the clouds.

There’s nothing wrong with monasteries in the deep mountains or with monks and nuns living close to nature, but what is nature? Don’t be so sure that the answer is obvious.

The stories of the great Zen masters were set in the 8th century, and this is now, the 21st century. The unfolding of the universe is not the same from moment to moment. You can’t be an 8th century monk today. You have to be a 21st century Zen practitioner. If an 8th century monk should somehow turn up in our time, he couldn’t help anybody. What we need are enlightened people for a 21st century reality. This is very, very important.

Looking backward at the past while longing for its ancient wholeness is unhealthy and untruthful. What the world needs are enlightened people in this moment, at this time. My feeling is that Zen is not about going into the distant mountains and dwelling among the clouds. If you happen to be there, among the clouds and mountains, please enjoy them! I myself love to hike to such places. But the Zen mind is much deeper than the one that says, “This is peaceful, and this is noisy.” If you’re making that distinction, you’re not practicing Zen. You’re practicing something else. And if you go to Zen retreats and you cling to the stillness and the sound of the wind and the feeling of peacefulness, you’re going to create a split in your world which is the very opposite of enlightened mind.

Here, we’re practicing next to State Route 9, so we’re not up in the mountains. And it gets a lot of traffic. Indeed, a block from here they’re doing construction, and right now, you can hear the construction from sunup until sundown. We’re going have a Walmart next door. If you met someone from that beautiful temple up in New York, he might say, “Last week I was listening to the wind and the birds,” and you could say, “That’s wonderful. We were practicing Zen too, next to the Walmart. We were listening to dump trucks and earth movers.” Perhaps that person might feel sorry for you, but we have a wonderful opportunity to practice very deeply.

A person might come to sesshin thinking, “I’m going to sit on my cushion and enter samadhi. Everything is going to be still, and then I’ll hear the wind blowing through the trees.” That would indeed be beautiful, but what happens if you’re start to sit and then, instead of hearing the wind and the birds, you hear “BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BOOM!” You might think, “God dammit! My beautiful stillness is gone! This is no good! This isn’t Buddha mind.”

At that moment you would be divided in two, just like Myo. The moment would become too heavy to endure.

This is very important: Zen is not about being in the imaginary 8th century world. It’s about being in this world. Which world? The one we’re in right now, always. Always! Basically, if you’re practicing Zen desperately seeking stillness, you’re actually creating a kind of mental illness. It’s a mental illness because, of course, the world is never really still and silent. It can never really be quiet enough, or still enough, to provide you with the peace of mind you imagine and crave.

We could practice Zen in a soundproof chamber, right? But it would have to be totally soundproof. We could have white noise machines going. As some of you know, I sometimes actually use one of those machines at the university when the noise from other rooms might interfere with meditation. I use one because on that occasion most of the people in attendance are beginners, and it’s difficult for them to do zazen at all, let alone with a lot of noise. But for more advanced practitioners, it’s a different matter. All true masters will tell you the same thing: “You should be able to meditate next to a busy street.” People say, “Sure, sure—someday. But right now I want stillness.”

The truth is that you can’t achieve much if you are totally at peace. If you could go back in time to 8th century China or 13th century Japan, you might find a temple sequestered in a beautiful valley, and you might think, “At last, stillness, peace.” Then you might go in, get on your cushion, and start to meditate. But all of a sudden, you’d think, “Wait a minute, what’s the temperature in here?” There was no central heating in those days. If it was 25 degrees out there, it would be 25 degrees in the zendo. That’s how it was.

I don’t know if you’ve done that kind of sitting, but I have on occasion, and it’s really difficult. When it’s really, really cold, you have to sit down on the cushion and work intensely with your hara, squeezing the hara. As your breath goes out, your mind becomes blank, and you have a little peace--for a second. But as soon as you come back into your body, what do you notice? You’re freezing your ass off! And then you breathe out again and the whole thing starts over. Intense cold is very, very difficult to deal with. It’s actually painful, and it’s inescapable without deep concentration. So, it’s naïve to think that people in 8th century China were in this very beautiful environment free from disturbances . They didn’t have street noise but what they did have was piercing cold.

Little mind pulls in one direction, big mind in another. To have your dreams of peace and comfort smashed can be very disconcerting, and the cold is especially insidious. In Japanese temples in winter, you’re not warm all day. The one time you’re warm is when you take a bath once or twice a week. The Japanese like to take baths, and they take very hot ones. That’s the only moment of warmth, and then you’re not warm again even when you go to bed at night. It sounds terribly cruel, but it forces people to go to a deeper level of concentration, a deeper samadhi.

Something similar is happening here. You’re sitting on the cushion and thinking, “Ahh, now for the stillness,” but then, all the sudden, Beep Beep Beep Beep Beep Beep.” Then you think, “Oh dammit, where’s my stillness?” So then you have to drop down into a deeper mind.

When something bothers you, if you look carefully, you’ll see the event and your response to the event.

By the way, that beeping noise was designed to be annoying. Scientists conducted tests to identify the most annoying and piercing sound. The beeping was meant to alert people to a heavy machine backing up, so the sound can’t be too mellow or else people would screen it out. The scientists were looking for a sound you couldn’t easily screen out, something annoying and insistent.

As a result, when you hear the sound, you have the recognition most people were supposed to have, which is, “That breaks my concentration; that breaks my mental stillness.” Then you have your response, which is usually revulsion, recoiling, anger, or a sense of injury. And as soon as you see that response in yourself, you know you’re not in Seng T’san’s “unified mind in accord with the Way.”

This same pattern will recur in other settings also: event/ response, event/ response. Often the response takes the form of recoiling or pulling away, or agitation. But the problem is not actually the sensory input. The problem doesn’t lie in the event, but in the mental habits, the samskara, that shape your reactions to the event, even your physical reactions. This is crucial to recognize.

You might be freezing on the cushion or you might be struggling with noise. You could try to solve the problem by leaving, but that won’t solve the problem in the long run because even when you get home, you’ll find that something else annoys you.

Short of finding a soundproof room or a trouble-proof world, which fortunately doesn’t exist, you’ve got to get to a deeper mind, and this is perfect training. When you are irritated in some way, you need to be able to respond to the event with a mind as placid as a windless pond. And you can do it! You can do it, and you will do it. Just keep going.

When something bothers you, you just have to go back to your breath. You squeeze your dantien, your hara. You follow the breath out and at the end of your breath, your mind is blank. Everything will disappear. But then, as you start to breathe in, you’re going to become aware of your surroundings again, including whatever was troubling you. But then you go back to the breath and back to the blankness. Eventually you’ll stop feeling agitation or revulsion or annoyance. You might think of this as de-conditioning. Your mind will become very serene or still. In fact, your concentration will be very deep, very stable. This is how it’s done.

In some ways, annoying circumstances like a very cold room or a noisy environment are perfect for good training. Many people have a hard time getting out of their thoughts. If you’re too comfortable, or the setting is too relaxing, you can easily lose yourself in daydreams. But if it’s uncomfortable, you have to do the work. And that’s the best situation in the world. Zen masters in Japan used cold very skillfully to force people to enter the “unified mind in accord with the Way.” In freezing cold there’s nothing you can do but get out of your small self. Other irritants can be just as effective.

If something’s bothering you, you need to remember that the event itself is not the problem, it’s your conditioned response. In other words, it’s karma. To clear away your karma, you should go deeply into mu-shin. Eventually you will find that you have an imperturbable mind. You have an imperturbable mind. When you find it, it’s so wonderful.

Of course, once you find it, something else will perturb you and will have go deeper once again. Eventually, you will be able to reach that imperturbable mind with great regularity and for long periods of time. And when you’re there, the whole world could be going crazy around you, but your mind will be as still as a pond with no wind. The noisier it gets outside, the quieter you get inside.

This is what the general discovered when he encountered Hui-neng in the dispute over the robe and the bowl. The imperturbable mind of no-mind. The solution doesn’t lie in an object or in a setting. If you’re clinging to form, you can’t be liberated. In the Diamond Sutra, the Buddha says this directly:

He who seeks me by form,
He who seeks me by sound,
Wrongly turned are his footsteps.

The most beautiful shapes or sounds in the world can’t liberate you. When you look out the window and see beautiful trees, that won’t help you to awaken. Many people practice that kind of spirituality, however. They go seeking beautiful, spiritual vistas. I myself like to find beautiful places in nature. I go hiking and say to myself, “Wow, a beautiful mountainside! What a gorgeous lake!” When this happens, I feel very happy, but this is not the deepest mind. It’s still the discriminating mind, let’s face it. I like to go to museums too. I’ll see one painting and say, “Oh, exquisite!” Then I’ll see another and say to myself, “Not so good.” That’s not Buddha mind. On these occasions, I’m just playing around in small mind. It’s fun, but it’s not liberating. Unified mind doesn’t pick and choose. It doesn’t say, “I’ll unify with this but not that.” It doesn’t say, “This is a natural sound, this is an unnatural one.”

The desire to practice Zen as it was practiced in the 8th century on the distant mountaintops is also a small-mind desire, like preferring one artist to another. It’s very important to practice Zen in the world as it is right now, because the universe is unfolding, and we have to be one with it.

I don’t mean to suggest that the destruction of the natural world doesn’t matter. The American way of life is incredibly wasteful and destructive. I’m not saying that a Walmart is just as good as a mountain covered with trees. It’s not! What I mean is that we can’t deal with challenges of our time by holding onto fantasies, or retreating into dreams. We need to find the imperturbable, indestructible awareness, no matter where we are. “Think neither good nor evil.”

Zen is all about finding this imperturbable mind. If it doesn’t exist, we’re wasting our time here, and it’s all a fraud. If Zen is about going to a mountain where it’s quiet and listening to the wind, then it’s a fraud. If you offer me 1,400 acres, I’ll take them, but Zen is not about clinging to a beautiful mountain lake, clinging to the cry of the loons, clinging to the sound of the wind. The Buddha said the same thing in the Diamond Sutra: “He who seeks me through form, he who seeks me in sound, is going in the wrong direction.”

When something annoys you, you will feel a certain kind of pressure. The pressure could be coming from the sounds: “Beep beep beep.” Or it could be caused by pain in your legs, right? Pain too is very annoying. You think, “I don’t want to be in this moment, I want to be in another moment where there’s no pain.” But Zen is not about picking and choosing, it’s about being one with the universe as it unfolds right here in Lanoka Harbor, New Jersey, on the 22nd of October 2008, next to the Wal-Mart construction. That is Zen right here and now.

If Zen can’t be practiced deeply in such a setting, then it’s all a fraud. All of our talk about a unified mind is pure BS. If we want only to unify the mind with what’s nice and avoid what’s not nice, and that’s not Buddhism, and it’s certainly not sesshin. The word “sesshin” itself means “unifying the mind.” But unified with what?

Somebody came here to sesshin and had to leave, and I was sorry to see the person go. The person said to me, “I have circumstances that require me to leave.” Then the person said to me, “But I would like to have dokusan, even though I can’t stay now. Could we have dokusan, you and I, after a Saturday sit?” And at first I said yes, sure, but then I came in and sat down on the cushion and realized that I gave the wrong answer. So as the person was leaving I went back and said, “I’m sorry but I can’t do dokusan with you. I only do dokusan at sesshin.”

If you like, you can meditate once a week or twice a week, but that’s not really Zen practice. It’s some kind of practice, and your life belongs to you, but it’s not Zen. Zen practice is sesshin. This is why I don’t do dokusan outside of sesshin, because that’s not Zen. It’s some kind of practice, but it’s not Zen. The way of Zen is sesshin, and the way of sesshin is finding a unified mind in accord with the way.

I hope you don’t think I was unkind to that person. I was trying to communicate something about Zen as I understand it. It’s so important to see what makes sesshin special. Some people might say, “I don’t like sesshin because I never get enough sleep,” but that’s not a unified mind. When you’re tired, you should become one with the reality at that moment. When you’re in pain, you should become one with that. But such a state of mind can’t be achieved in an hour. We’re going to sit nine hours today, and we’re going to unify, unify, unify, unify. And the mind is going to become very deep and clear and still, even if everything around us goes totally crazy.

If you do that for five days, you will have this beautiful mind. There will be no obstacles in any direction. That’s the goal, at least for now. Please notice that I didn’t say we would have a perfect world, but a world where there are no obstacles.

Everybody here today is doing a wonderful job. You’re here at sesshin, and the universe is unfolding as it has to unfold. Everything is happening just as it has to happen. It can’t be different from this. An unhealthy mind says, “This is not the universe I want.” But everything is unfolding as it has to unfold. We can’t control what is happening but we can choose how we will respond. We can get angry, disappointed, bitter, frustrated. We can treat reality like a piece of chalk screeching across the blackboard. Or we can deal with things that frustrate us by going deep into blank mind, deep into mu-shin.

Linji—Rinzai--used to tell a story about a magical goose called a hamsa. In Indian culture, the hamsa is a magical goose or swan. Saraswati, the goddess of learning, rides the hamsa. In Vedic times, people believed that the hamsa could fly from the earth up to Surya, the sun god. In the Upanishads, the hamsa is a symbol of the highest awakening. Like the Chinese dragon, the hamsa can walk on the earth, swim in the sea, and fly to the heavens. Do you see how wonderful it is? At home everywhere.

According to Linji, the hamsa has another power as well, and it’s this. Let’s say I have a bowl of fresh milk, very nourishing. But then I take some poison and I put that poison in the bowl of milk. That’s our world today—we’ve poisoned the milk that was meant to nourish us. But the hamsa is able to put its beak into the milk, and it has the power to drink all the milk while leaving the poison safely behind in the bowl.

I love Linji, and I love his story of the hamsa, because that’s what Zen is like. Poison and milk are all mixed together in this world. But we can drink just the milk. Even in an unhealthy civilization, we can be healthy. Even in an unnatural society, we can be natural. This is Zen.

Don’t you want to be a hamsa? I do! A hamsa can be sitting on the edge of the New Jersey Turnpike and be as calm, happy, and compassionate as if it were nesting on the beach in Kauai. In fact, not much can be achieved on Kauai, but a great deal can be achieved here today. So please understand that this is a great opportunity to unify your mind. But with what? Unify with what?

You cannot describe it; you cannot picture it;
You cannot admire it; don't try to eat it raw.
Your true self has nowhere to hide;
When the world is destroyed, it is not destroyed.

The challenges that life presents you with, here and off the cushion, will become the most nutritious food if you just practice in the right way, and the key is mu-shin. The key is mu-shin. I don’t just mean the mu of inner stillness and quiet, although that stage is essential to reach. There's another aspect of mu you will encounter if you stay there long enough--the mu that pulses with life-energy. If you use mu-shin to clear away all obstacles—all your likes and dislikes--eventually you will feel something like the sun rising in own body, pulsing with life. When this happens you become what Linji called “the person of no rank.” Not “miss” or “mister,” not “doctor” or “professor,” not “president” or “Chief Executive Officer.” In the koan, Hui-neng calls it “the original self.” In his Verse, Mumon calls it "your true self." Of course, “person” and “self” are just metaphors.

Hui-neng says to Myo, "Think neither good nor evil. At this very moment, what is the original self of the monk Myõ?"

Who is the one that thinks “good” or thinks “evil”? Or rather, where does the thought of “good” or “evil” come from? The French philosopher Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.” But actually the “I” was not the source of his thinking, only one of its many projections. Where does this notion of the “I” itself come from? Please investigate. Zen is all about using mu-shin to investigate your own direct experience.

Just now, as I was droning on and on, I noticed somebody seated across from me doing zazen as they were listening, or not listening. I saw their hara, their dantien, their hara, going in and out, in and out, in and out, and I thought “Great! Real practice!” I was just so happy to see that. Keep going, you’re doing a wonderful job.