The Ox and the Cart



Tesshin continued our Shobogenzo study this week by focusing on Chapter 12 (chapter 27 in the public domain translation)  The full text is available HERE


The chapter is called Zazenshin which roughly translates as “the healing acupuncture needle of Zazen” or how Zazen can cure the human condition.  Tesshin described the chapter as Dogen’s explanation of the “heart of sitting.”  


Tesshin next cited Dogen’s story of Zen master Daijaku and Zen master Nangaku discussing the merits of Zazen.  Nangaku stated that we sit Zazen in order to “Become Buddha.”  What does this mean?  Do we mean that an already accomplished being is doing Buddha’s work?  Does this mean a delusional creature striving to become enlightened?  Does it mean that the instant we hit the mat we become Buddha?  Here, Tesshin was clear.  Becoming Buddha is all about our intention and this intention is what Dogen meant by “Becoming Buddha.”  So the minute we commit to the Buddha way – we are in fact manifesting Buddha!


The story continues that Nangaku picks up a tile and starts to polish it on a stone.  Daijaku asks him why he is doing this.  Is he just doing a simple task?  Is there anything deeper going on here?  Dogen states that you cannot simply rely on your own views when judging.  We see the Dharma – we know it is there even if we don’t fully understand it.  Dogen uses the metaphor of seeing water without knowing you are seeing water.  Tesshin explained this as building the skill of not jumping to hasty interpretations.  Again, this is why we sit – we want to slow the mind so that it does not “short circuit” every phenomena to the most obvious explanation.  It is the old saying that not everything is “black and white, but there are always shades of gray.”


Tesshin next mused about Fred Rodgers, host of the famous PBS children’s show Mr. Rodgers neighborhood.   He asked the group how they would think Mr. Rodgers would react to our highly polarized political climate.  Tesshin then answered that Rodgers would listen patiently to all points of view.  One of the true talents of Fred Rodgers is that he did not discount or suppress people’s most emotionally held opinions.  He dealt with everyone with compassion regardless of their age.  Tesshin next compared this attitude to the “Zazen Mind” which Dogen is describing.  It is not some simple relativism, but rather a state where we understand that all answers could potentially have some merit.


They story continues as Nangaku states that he is polishing the tile to make a mirror.  Of course, the metaphor of the mirror is the truly enlightened mind.  Needless to say, a clay tile is not the best item to begin with if our goal is a mirror.  It is the same with Zazen.  We are starting with our deluded mind and are slowly and diligently working to make a perfect mirror of enlightenment.  


Tesshin then continued with the story from Dogen.  Nangaku says if a person is riding in a cart and the cart does not move is it right to whip the cart or the ox?  Obviously, the ox and cart represent our practice.  So what is a person to do when stuck?  Our first reaction is to whip the ox to get it moving again.  If we are the ox, this obviously means we have to work harder – but is that always the right answer?  Here we need to be open to all possibilities.  Should we whip the cart?  Well, how silly is that?  Dogen states that most people do not have “methods” to whip a cart.  Tesshin interpreted this to mean that they have not fully considered all possibilities.  Commonly we call this “thinking outside of the box.”  Zazen mind allows us to start working this way.  


Tesshin also mentioned at this point when the mind is calm we begin to see that there are no boundaries.  We begin to see that the cart, the ox, our practice, and everything else are really just part of a unified reality.  There does not need to be a deep “back story” about why the cart is not moving.  What works to get it moving again?   It may not be the obvious answer.  Tesshin reminded the group that thinking outside the box has not been historically popular with “the powers that be.”  This may be one reason that until recently Zen has not been very popular around the world.  People in power are not exactly comfortable with the masses thinking creatively.  This also may explain why Zen is growing in the West where creative thought is prized and supported.


So what do we do when faced with the cart which is not moving?  Do we focus on the cart?  Do we focus on the ox?  Do we focus on both?  Neither?  Are all of these options equivalent and equally useful?  So how do we move forward?  Here Tesshin was clear – we consider everything and then we move forward in the most skillful way.  All answers are not equal – skillful means is choosing the correct answer for the particular situation.  What Dogen is telling us is that the best answer may not be the obvious one.  Our intent should always be to become the Buddha.  Our mandate is to be compassionate for all sentient beings and with Zazen Mind we can act spontaneously and correctly with no preconditions or no personal agendas.