Ordinary Mind is the Way – Thoughts on Chapter 19 of the Mumonkan


-A 19th century woodcut of the great Zen Master Joshu

Joshu asked Nansen, “What is the Way?” “Ordinary mind is the Way,” Nansen replied. “Shall I try to seek after it?” Joshu asked.  “If you try for it, you will become separated from it,” responded Nansen.  How can I know the Way unless I try for it?” persisted Joshu.  Nansen said, “The Way is not a matter of knowing or not knowing. Knowing is delusion; not knowing is confusion. When you have really reached the true Way beyond doubt, you will find it as vast and boundless as space. How can it be talked about on the level of right and wrong?” With those words, Joshu came to a sudden realization.

– Chapter 19 of the Mumonkan

Introduction:  Where is the Place of Enlightenment?

I grew up surrounded by what is sometimes called “Churchianity” in Oklahoma.  I certainly learned some important lessons from my experiences in church-most notably a deep appreciation for the original teachings of Jesus – but eventually I grew jaded with the traditional Christian worldview as time went by.  There were many complicated reasons for my frustration, but perhaps the primary reason was the inaccessibility of God.  God was always something separate from us; He was always in a faraway realm that was far superior to this world, and the only hope we had of experiencing Him fully was in the afterlife. And even then there was always a separation-we were mere humans, and God was God, end of story.

In Zen Buddhism I found a tradition that, among other things, taught the (for me) revolutionary teaching that the Buddha Nature, a term which for me is functionally synonymous with God, is not separate from this very world.  In fact, we would see that we ourselves and all things are It if we could see clearly. As I practiced Zen meditation and studied more about the tradition my ordinary life, with all its usual maddening frustrations, became infused with a glow of supreme sacredness, a point of view that the story I am about to comment on expresses with powerful clarity.  For in Zen our ordinary life is itself the life of the Buddha.  And as it says in the Lotus Sutra, this very world is the “Place of enlightenment.”

A koan is a typically paradoxical Zen story or saying that is sometimes used as a meditation object and is also frequently used as sermon material. This koan from chapter 19 of the Mumonkan (or “Gateless Gate”), the most famous collection of Zen koans, centers around the life question of Joshu, a future Zen master who taught in 8th century China and who in this koan appears as the student.  As with all commentary, my thoughts are not the “correct” way to see the story but merely reflect my own personal thoughts and understanding at this moment.  I also am admittedly interposing my own biases and feelings into the story, but this itself is the very nature of commentary. Please reflect for yourself and discover what it means to you!

Joshu asked Nansen, “What is the Way?”

Joshu, the student, approaches Nansen the master and asks what I interpret to be his life question.  The Way is a traditional Taoist term referring to the Highest Principal or the Absolute.  In our spiritual dialect he is approaching a great spiritual teacher and humbly asking, “What is God?” or “What is the Buddha?”  To me, Joshu’s question demonstrates a divine curiosity that is the foundation of the spiritual path.  The power and importance of divine curiosity is often unfortunately ignored by many traditional religions that remain stuck in a dogmatism that lacks almost any experiential value. The spirit of Joshu’s question demonstrates why I myself feel such an affinity with Zen, a tradition based on inquiry, curiosity, and direct experience rather than blind faith in an intellectual dogma.

Joshu has always known that there is something beyond what he currently understands to be his “self.”   Like most of us, he has a premonition that there is more to life than he is currently experiencing.  And the root of his inquiry is a profound and burning curiosity about the nature of existence.  This curiosity is something almost anyone can relate to.  For atheists, theists, and everyone in between can all appreciate the mysterious miracle of the present moment.  Where did this astoundingly complex and unfathomably massive universe come from?  Who are we really?  What is it that is aware of this moment, and where is this moment coming from? These questions are the burning fire at the core of religion, a fire that is all too often put out by formulaic theological answers that are merely intellectual.  The intellectual approach of systematic theology may be impressive as a literary device but it is often divorced from the transforming mystical experiences that all our great religions merely point to symbolically.

The path of awakening often begins as a response to something we read, but then ideally takes the form of a passionate quest to actually experience the Divine that the teachings are merely hinting at.  This quest is not based on “shoulds” but on curiosity and the common feeling that there must be more to life than the transient material world.  Sometimes the spiritual path begins as a way to escape from suffering, but ideally it then mushrooms into an all consuming spiritual adventure.  For deep down most of us have the premonition that there must be something deeper to our life than our constantly morphing desires, our perpetual dissatisfactions, and our habitual routines.  Joshu too had this premonition, and as a result left his home and sought a Zen master to help him experience this deeper truth for himself.

By asking “What is the Way?” he is not asking, “What is the philosophy of Buddhism?”  “How can I be a good Buddhist?”  or “What do Buddhists believe?”  He is getting straight to the heart of the spiritual path and seeking to experience the Way, or God, for himself in this very life.  In asking “what is the Way?” he is asking about the source of this very moment, of our very life, of what is seeing out of your eyes and hearing with your ears as you read this. He is not seeking to learn about a tradition or a philosophy, but to experientially realize his own nature, and he will be satisfied with nothing less.  We can memorize a thousand scriptures and it will only be like memorizing a menu at a restaurant.  We will get nowhere until, like Joshu, we become dissatisfied with mere hearsay, develop a burning curiosity to experience what all religions and teachings are merely pointing to, and taste the Food for ourselves through the power of deep meditation.

“Ordinary mind is the Way,” Nansen replied.

With a mere flicker of his illumined tongue, the great master Nansen smashes through thousands of years of delusion and the false assumption afflicting most of humanity that the Divine and the mundane are separate.  Like a powerful bolt of thunder after eons of silence, he utters a simple statement that to our Western ears is nothing short of a spiritual revolution.  He encapsulates the priceless wisdom of the East in a single common utterance, and declares effortlessly what entire tomes of theology so hopelessly miss.  For he makes it abundantly clear to Joshu that the Way, or God, is in fact our very life, and that, in reality, there is no separation between us and It.

Yet Joshu was probably a little disappointed by Nansen’s reply.  For, like Joshu, when we think of God or Buddha Nature we all secretly want to see a spiritual fireworks show:  we want visions of multidimensional angels playing Jimi Hendrix guitar solos in a time vortex.  Like Moses, we want to hear a booming voice from heaven and see fire descend on a river of divine zeal from God’s own mind.  We habitually want something other than this moment as it is, a fact about the human mind that the historical Buddha pointed out with singular genius in his Four Noble Truths.  But can we really believe that our “ordinary mind,” with all its absurd imperfections and petty struggles, is really one with the Way we have always been seeking?

Joshu wanted a spiritual fireworks show but could not see that his ordinary life was the activity of Enlightenment Itself.  Ordinary life is something we all know well: cleaning our room, doing the dishes, going to work, going to the bathroom, feeling sad, feeling happy, eating, sleeping, wins, losses, etc.  And ordinary mind is something we know all too well:  endlessly thinking about the past, worrying about the future, fantasizing about what we like and dislike, thinking we are a failure in one moment, a success in another, etc.  Could this very mind itself be the manifestation of the deathless Buddha Mind?  When we stop to ask, “What is aware of thought?” what do we notice?

By pointing to our inseparable union with the Absolute, Nansen is not saying that we don’t need to work on ourselves and constantly deepen our meditation practice.  Rather, he is pointing to That which all Zen teachings ultimately are pointing to: our own Awareness.  And the great secret of Zen is that our own Awareness, which cannot be gained or lost, is the Buddha. Nansen is pointing to the direct awareness that right now is seeing with your eyes and hearing with your ears.  And he is pointing out that there is absolutely no separation between this Awareness and our ordinary life.  For the profound insight of Zen that our western world so desperately needs to hear is that this very life is the manifestation of God, and that we are all various forms of God Itself.  This God-Nature cannot be acquired through effort because it is originally present in all moments as pure Awareness.  Its expression of Itself is the universe, and all of this is naturally occurring apart from effort.  Thus it is said that sages merely realize, but do not gain, awakening.

This idea that ordinary mind is the Way is very good news!  For to experience our own blissful and eternal nature we do not need to wait until we die.  We do not need to become a Christian or a Buddhist or a Hindu to gain it, and in this very body we all have the capacity to see it for ourselves.  If Nansen’s statement were understood en mass in the Western World we would have a spiritual revolution.  Then we would no longer only worship a transcendent God above, but, like Jesus, we would realize that “I and God are one.”  Instead of waiting for Heaven as if the Earth were some sort of dreary pregame, we would see that this very world is the Kingdom of Heaven when seen clearly.  In realizing this truth we still have the same ordinary problems of before, but are empowered to experience them from the viewpoint of our own deathless True Nature that does not change based on circumstance and is the essence of peace itself.

“Shall I try to seek after it?” Joshu asked.  “If you try for it, you will become separated from it,” responded Nansen.

Do you have to “try” to see sights in this moment?  Do you have to strain to be aware of sounds?  The awareness which right now is present and perfectly natural to all is the very Way that Joshu first inquired about.  Rather than trying, the process of awakening simply involves letter go of fixed views and habits of separation.  As Lao Tzu says in the Tao Te Ching, “in worldly learning, everyday something is added.  In the Way, everyday something is removed.”  For even though our own original nature is already the Buddha, our human mind mysteriously and habitually separates from the present moment and causes us untold suffering.  Additionally, we have all inherited false views about who we are that must be let go of to see the Real Us.  Anyone who has tried to still their wandering mind in meditation for even a few breaths, and who has seen the intimidating unconscious depths of false views, knows how often astoundingly difficult it can be to realize one’s nature experientially.

Yet when we use a form of “effort” (e.g. meditation) to let go of the thinking mind we should not be deluded that we are gaining anything. Ironically, practicing with the idea that we are gaining something further perpetuates our suffering because it re-enforces the idea that we are the ego.  If we could see clearly we would understand, as the great 12th century Zen teacher Ehei Dogen pointed out, that “practice (or meditation) is itself enlightenment.”  The path of meditation is not “us” awakening to God but rather God awakening to God.  In “finding God” we thus do not actually find God.  Rather, God simply remembers that He has always been God.  All Zen teachings point, again and again, back to our most basic awareness and proclaim that It Itself is the Divine.  And if we “try” to gain It we therefore lose it, as Nansen compassionately points out to Joshu.

How can I know the Way unless I try for it?” persisted Joshu.  Nansen said, “The Way is not a matter of knowing or not knowing. Knowing is delusion; not knowing is confusion. When you have really reached the true Way beyond doubt, you will find it as vast and boundless as space. How can it be talked about on the level of right and wrong?” With those words, Joshu came to a sudden realization.

Joshu essentially is asking how he can experience enlightenment if he does not practice meditation. Nansen immediately corrects him.  The teacher does not recommend that he stop practicing, but merely points out that his practice has been shallow.  Nansen, like all the great teachers in many traditions, is not negating the importance of the relative perspective-rather, he is pointing to the Absolute which contains the relative and is also beyond it.  All the great teachers (Buddha and Jesus, for instance) laid down a code of ethics and implied that one must live an ethical life to understand their higher teachings.  The Buddha and all the great Zen masters also almost unanimously claimed that without practicing rigorous meditation the Way could not be seen.

Yet all the various practices are mere Upaya (skillful means, in Sanskrit) and do not have an ultimate effect.  They are all pointing back in various ways to our own Enlightened Awareness that is unaffected by change and is already present.  Like a movie screen which can project light images and dark images but itself does not alter, or a mirror which can reflect any image but remain intrinsically itself, so our own Enlightened Awareness reflects the various forms of reality but is not changed by them.  A person who truly sees this cannot talk about It on the level of “right and wrong,” as Nansen points out, because it is fundamentally unaffected by either.

It should be said that harming others always leads to harm, and we should never cause harm intentionally and should heed the great moral precepts that the great teachers like the Buddha and Jesus have revealed to humankind.  But viewing these precepts as external edicts leading to beneficial outcomes is only the first step; Enlightened Awareness perceives a more ultimate morality that springs from the direct realization that everyone is actually a different form of God or own own Higher Self.  Then, as the prophets in the Bible put it, the “Law is written on our hearts,” and we no longer need a written code.  The natural manifestation of enlightenment is what we call “goodness” because It sees that there is no separation between us and the world.

In this koan Nansen is not negating the importance of ethical living and concentrative meditation, but is pointing beyond the first stages of the spiritual path to the very nature of Awareness itself, which reflects all things but is unaffected by them and is always at peace. To see that we ourselves are It is a bliss beyond all comparison.  The goal of the spiritual path is to realize this for ourselves, and all practices, expedient teachings, and religions are –in my view- mere paths to that universal goal.

The Practical Perspective – Mediation in Activity

Nansen does not necessarily give a straightforward answer to Joshu’s question, but he does point out a new way of relating to our life.  One practical application of this koan is simply to view our life as meditation and to practice mindful awareness in each moment. One thing I particularly appreciate about Zen is its emphasis that every single moment of life is an expression of the Divine.  There is a saying that “there is no waiting in Zen.”  To me, this saying means that every moment is an opportunity to practice mindfulness and see our True Nature.  When eating, we can feel the sensations in our mouth instead of idly thinking.  When taking a walk, we can actually fully experience the walk instead of fruitlessly thinking about the past or the future.  When we view our entire life as meditation, everything is important and nothing, even the minutest detail, is un-interesting.

Every moment is a “dharma gate” into the Divine, for the present moment is where life is found, where love is found, where peace is found, where God is found.  This world is not a hindrance to experiencing God, but is rather something like God’s movie wherein He experiences various aspects of Himself.   In response to this perspective we should view our daily life as meditation rather than as some means to an end.  And what indescribable joy is contained in the realization that our very life is the One Mind’s priceless expression of Itself, and that each present moment is the doorway to God!


It is so easy to let teachings like this slip by us and think, “that may be true for a Zen master, but what about poor little me?”  The truth is that every person who attains spiritual understanding was first an imperfect human being like us.  In fact, we do a great disservice to the masters by overly lionizing them.  What encouragement can we gain if Jesus, for instance, was more one with God than we are-if that was the case, we can always have the secret excuse, “well, he was Jesus.”  But if all the great masters were themselves only human, but yet operated from an exalted state of awakening, we can all take courage and know that we ourselves all have the capacity to realize exactly what they realized.

People like Nansen, like the Buddha and Jesus, were not untouchable demigods but human beings like us who fully realized their own True Nature.  They saw that their ordinary human life, with all its problems, its contradictions, and its manifold desires was itself “the Way.”  They realized that this world is the manifestation of the Divine, and that they themselves were deathless.

When more and more of humanity wakes up to the truth of their teachings we will have a spiritual revolution.   Instead of waiting for an afterlife to find God, we will see that the “Kingdom of Heaven” is a state of awakening that anyone can realize on Earth.  Paradoxically, I believe that for this realization to be experientially realized great efforts are required in both ethical living and deep meditation.  Yet the sages assure us that all rivers lead to the Ocean, and all practices, paths, and teachings always lead back to the Enlightened Awareness which, right now, we ourselves already are.

Thank you for reading.  With love,







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