The Way is not Difficult

The Way is not Difficult


Tesshin Roshi resumed our training this week by examining the second case from the Blue Cliff Record.  This case is commonly known as “The Real Way Is Not Difficult”.  Roshi mentioned that this case is based off of a famous sixth century Chinese poem by the third Zen Patriarch Jianzhi Sengcan.  Goroshi then proceed to read the first few lines of the poem…  (full version can be found HERE)  


There is nothing difficult about the Great Way,

But, avoid choosing!

Only when you neither love nor hate,

Does it appear in all clarity.

A hair’s breadth of deviation from it,

And a deep gulf is set between heaven and earth.

If you want to get hold of what it looks like,

Do not be anti- or pro- anything.

The conflict of longing and loathing,-

This is the disease of the mind.



It is noteworthy that this poem shows up multiple times in the Blue Cliff Record.  It first appears case #2 discussed today, but it also pops up again at least three other times in the collection.  Roshi noted that this was done on purpose as it will be apprehended differently by the student as they mature through the koan collection.    


Case #2 is brief and is provided here …

Zhaozhou (Jap:  Joshu) spoke to the assembly and said, “The real Way is not difficult. It only abhors choice and attachment. With but a single word there may arise choice and attachment or there may arise clarity. This old monastic does not have that clarity. Do you appreciate the meaning of this or not?”

Then a monastic asked, “If you do not have that clarity, what do you appreciate?”

Zhaozhou said, “I do not know that, either.”

The monastic said, “If you do not know, how can you say you do not have that clarity?”

Zhaozhou said, “Asking the question is good enough. Now make your bows and retire.”


Roshi asked the group to consider the meaning of this case.  At one level it is pretty clear, we all have our attachments and aversions.  We make choices – many of them.  Do I come to the center and sit Zazen today?  What should I have for breakfast?  What chores do I need to do today?  If we really think about it, even our practice is a choice and an attachment.  How “enlightened” am I today and am I more enlightened than the person on the next cushion?  Joshu is saying that the choices and answers we make in life form attachments and these attachments cause our suffering.  The way to eliminate suffering is actually quite simple – resist the urge to pick and choose.  Stop being so certain and stay open to all the possibilities.  


Roshi likened our practice to climbing a tree with ever higher branches of delusions and attachment to be worked on.  We may first start with obvious likes and dislikes.  For instance, someone may identify with a certain brand of product because of the messages in that product’s marketing campaign.  Does a product convey certain characteristics about you?  Perhaps your social standing, your political beliefs, your culture, or environmental virtue and sensitivity?  As we climb this tree of practice, we soon realize that these choices and simply attachments which generate suffering.  These are the lower branches.


As we climb higher, however, the attachments become more subtle.  What is the nature of our spiritual practice?  Why do we believe what we do?  Roshi compared an old Zen monk constantly questioning everything to a modern fundamentalist.  The fundamentalist will tell us that they have all the answers?  How should we be happy?  How should we behave?  What should we value and what should we eschew?  The fundamentalist’s doctrine tells us everything.  This can be very attractive as it consolidates everything into a neat package.  So, should we all join a fundamentalist/orthodox sect?  The question we must ask ourselves is whether this reduces suffering for all beings?  Roshi encouraged us to take a look around the world.  Unfortunately, the answer is pretty clear.  The questioning mind of Joshu does not give us any immediate neat package of answers – only an endless stream of questions.  However, this questioning is what allow us to climb ever higher on the tree slowly purging our attachments and eventually leading us to liberation from suffering.


Joshu is telling us that our practice is all about the process – not about any concrete destination.  Roshi noted that this is important for students to remember as we desire to plow through koans and achieve Nirvana on a very tight schedule!  There is no Nirvana, only more questions.  Our practice is always about the journey.  So we should slow down and thoroughly practice.


The way is easy to understand if we do not pick and choose.  We train the mind to be open to experience reality.  Reality generates in us an endless flow of questions.  That is fine.   We must make choices out of day-to-day necessity.  These choices may generate negative karma, but they may also generate positive karma.  Existence is existence and it goes on and on.  The law of karma tells us this.  The key is not to attach on simplistic answers and certainties.  That is truly a disease of the mind!