Ordinary Mind

Once a student asked the old master Nan Chuan,
‘What is the Way?’
and Nan Chuan replied,
‘Ordinary mind is the Way.’

This very simple exchange might need some explanation. That’s what these little stories are for; expansion and elaboration.

We hear a few words exchanged between master and disciple, that’s all. We haven’t heard anything of the conversations which must have preceded this one, but we know that Nan Chuan, also known as Nanquan Puyuan, is a Chinese Zen master of the 8th and 9th Centuries. His disciple, Chao Chou, a young man, would have been practicing meditation, pondering a koan or two and living the ashram life, away from social distractions.

Now, Chao Chou asks Nan Chuan “What is the way?”.

He is already meditating, he is on the path, but he must be frustrated. He doesn’t recognise that this is the path for him. He hasn’t made any progress yet, that he is aware of, hence his question. He is young and impatient and wants something to start happening, but he is only at the start of the journey.

Nan Chuan, the ‘old master’, can see all this and he can see that his student is looking for something more, something amazing, to justify the effort he is putting in and the loss of the life he has forgone to be with a master. He has to encourage his student to stay with his meditations and other spiritual practices, while imparting as much truth as he can in the circumstances.

Nan Chuan states a simple fact; only an ordinary mind is needed. In fact the mind is irrelevant, unless it gets in the way. An overblown, knowledgeable, spiritual ego is not needed, nor are flights of fancy about the amazing feats of the enlightened ones.

Whoever heard of any amazing feats of the enlightened ones? If you heard something it was made up by enthusiastic disciples to promote their particular master. No master has performed any miracles, written any symphonies, built great cities, or done anything much at all, with the notable exceptions of the poets Rumi and Basho, and a couple of others.

These myths are a distraction and they give the disciple false hopes and expectations, the kind that appeal to the ego and make meditation more elusive.

So Nan Chuan replies simply: “Ordinary mind is the way.”

Even if enlightenment comes to you, you will still look ordinary to others. The experience is an inner one, and it has nothing to do with the mind. Great learning and knowledge are not required. An ordinary mind is best because it is less likely to get in the way.

For further elaboration of this story, and another interpretation see here.

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