Syllable & Sound: A Small Meditation on Zen’s Great Middle Way

Syllable & Sound: A Small Meditation on Zen’s Great Middle Way November 19, 2021





In the Record of Zhaozhou there’s a lovely conversation.

Once when still studying with his master Zhaozhou asked Nanquan, “Mind is not Buddha; knowing is not the way. Is this correct or not? Naquan replied, “It is not correct.” Zhaozhou continued, “Then what is my error? I’m desperate to understand.” Nanquan replied, “Mind is not Buddha; knowing is not the way.”

A classic Zen response. And it easy is to see it as one more opaque encounter dialogue between Zen master and student. Small wonder people sometimes think Zen teaching is one non sequitur after another. But it isn’t. Rather it points to something. And with that pointing, there’s an invitation to come along.

Most of us like to think we come to our views rationally. Sadly, there is too much evidence to the contrary. People who appear to be of good will and similar intelligence are given facts on the ground and then come to diametrically opposed views. This can be distressing to notice. But this is no invitation to inaction. Because we see there are consequences to everything we do. In one way or another every action, every refraining from action has consequences.

Our ancestors on the Buddha way throw in that there are actual consequences to everything we think, even everything we intend. The rising of a thought, and before a fully formed thought, the rising of an intention has consequences. It points us to lives that include an astonishingly complex set of relationships where everything that is, is the result of a multitudinous gathering of conditions. Here that whole question of free will trots out. How can there be any freedom of movement when everything is the consequence of other things coming together?

Well, there is yet more to the mess that is our lives, that is this existence. Each moment as it arises within our human existence, there is an invitation to opening. And out of that opening, an opportunity to shift the flow of actions, the play of consequences.

This is the promise of the intimate way.

Why should this be so? The Buddha simply asserts how fortunate it is to be born human with this capacity to notice. Well, he does offer some theories of mind that attempt to explain it. At least in outline. And his admirers have run with his reflections to develop astonishingly sophisticated models, including what appears to be the first comprehensive psychological model in the Abhidharma.

But cutting to the chase, we can observe how our human ability to sort and predict has put us in charge of this planet. Okay, that and our opposable thumbs. Wonders that they are. But specifically, it is that ability to notice. There is some magical moment of human seeing, of human noticing. In our way the wonders of that moment are extolled with magical stories. Sometimes over the top. And always worthy.

You and me. There is no escape from the flow of cause and effect. And there are moments, fleeting, and usually occluded, where we see. We notice. And, however slightly, we can shift.

What is especially wondrous in this is that it has several faces. Its principal purpose in our way is to find who we are as we are in all our messiness and our glory. And the promise of the Zen way is that this sets the heart at ease, bringing a knowing of joy beyond words.

It is that.

But it also has what we can call “real world” consequences. There is no place to stand that does not have consequences. So. With whom are we going to stand? With whom am I going to stand? And, with that I bring pragmatic tastebuds, a visceral concern with how to actually achieve as much for the world, my neighbors, myself as I can while seeing actual constraints.

I feel a confidence in this view that leads me to choose my involvement within this broken oligarchic republic that promises so much and delivers so little. And it leads me to support one political party over another. And it leads me to look with interest and even excitement at some candidates and horror at others.

And. And. And. By throwing myself relentless onto the pillow, by bringing that perspective of interdependence and a certain freedom within it back to the front of consciousness, and then back again into the moments of my lived life, I find a space. There’s not a lot to that space. But, it includes a knowing that I don’t have the full picture. I don’t see it all. I am constrained.

And I see it is also the very place where I find my saving, my awakening, my life.

So, young Zhaozhou faces it all. And he comes up with a summary phrase of what he understands. And he asks his teacher, first by saying his summary. “Mind is not Buddha; knowing is not the way.” But, he then adds, “Is this correct or not?”

That little extra is both a problem and the gate.

Mind, Buddha, Way, and yes, Not, are words. Just words. But magical words, as well. Maybe especially “not.” But, all of them. And then along for the ride there’s that great longing to know, that great desire to be whole and healed.

His teacher the beloved Nanquan cuts through it all. He points for his student, and he points for me, and he points for you.

We must act. We have no choice but to be here and the very being here there are consequences. Action or no action each bring about consequences. As a citizen of a republic, however flawed, however much it betrays its ideals, I am still called into some sort of engagement. Engagement which will have consequences.

What do I do? And, of course, what do you do?

Wumen who took the conversation apart and simply presented the response, inviting you and me into the dance, then added a little hint of a sermon.

It should be said of old Nanquan that in his dotage he has lost all sense of shame. Opening his mouth in a cloud of bad breath he exposes the shame of our way. Few appreciate his generosity.

Zen rhetoric. Abuse as praise. And the hesitation it brings is a good thing. We’re invited to let go of our attachments to those words. Buddha. Mind. Way. Not. Politics. Conservative. Liberal. Radical. Capitalist. Socialist. Whatever our favorite word might be. And, that mess, that dirtiness, that bad breath not merely conveys the truth – it is the truth. Buddha. Mind. Way. Politics.

Here we are. Here I am. Here you are.

As that other ancient worthy sings to us

The Brain is just the weight of God –
For – Heft them – Pound for Pound –
And they will differ – if they do –
As Syllable from Sound –

There is no other place.

So, hold it gently, let it hold you gently.

The great middle way.

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