Zen and the Ordinary
Short essay by Henry Shukman
Zen training is almost entirely gradual and slow, punctuated by rare flashes of illumination, in spite of Zen being known as the “sudden school.” The real gift of Zen is gratitude for the ordinary. As Master Unmon (864-949) said: “It might even be better never to have known the best things.”
Zen is not so interested in the special. It’s unimpressed by miracles. An old master once met a miracle-worker who walked on water for him. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “For me the miracle is walking on the ground.”
The practitioner known as Layman Pang, who lived in ninth-century China, said: my miracles are drawing water and carrying wood.
In Zen, making a cup of tea, fetching milk from the fridge, standing outside on the front step looking at the remains of a storm drift across the dawn sky, hearing the drip-drip of rainwater into a puddle from the roof, are all miracles. The miraculous, in the end, is the fact of anything existing at all.
If Zen had a purpose it might be just to see this moment as it is, in the fullness of its creation. Zen is the opposite of withdrawal from the world. It is a radical acceptance of what life offers, the pain and suffering no less than the dawn skies, the sea in rain, the mountain dark under morning clouds, and the shopping list.
A farmer came to Buddha complaining of his many problems.
“My children don’t respect me, the harvest was awful, my farm-workers are lazy, my wife despises
Buddha interrupted: “I’m sorry, I can’t help you.”
The farmer was shocked. “The great teacher, and you can’t help?”
“No. You have 83 problems.”
“Yes. Everyone has 83 problems. I can do nothing for you.”
“So what good is your teaching?”
“Well, you have an 84th problem too, and that I can help you with.”
“What is it?”
“That you don’t want any problems.”
Zen does not have a purpose. But one of its purposeless fruits is appreciation for our lives just as they are. It’s all fleeting. The Diamond Sutra says: “You should see all this fleeting world as a bubble on a stream, a flicker of lightning in a summer cloud, a phantom, a dream.” The universe may have another dozen billion years: one blink in the time-scale of Zen. Not just the earth under our feet, not just all our friends and family, but all the stars and gas clouds and wandering comets and planets fertile and infertile of the 300 billion galaxies—all will be gone. What kind of attitude other than appreciation could possibly be right, Zen asks. Who needs anything more than the ordinary?
Dogen (1200-1253) said: “To what shall I liken this world? To moonlight reflected in dewdrops shaken from a crane’s bill.”
The vastness of space no bigger than a dewdrop; the earth itself no more substantial than a gleam of moonlight: that’s the ordinary, right here, right now.
Henry Shukman is an English poet, writer, and an associate Zen master in the Sanbo Zen lineage, with the teaching name Ryu’un. His fiction has won an Arts Council Award and has been a finalist for the O. Henry Award. His first poetry collection, In Dr. No’s Garden, won the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize and was a Book of the Year in The Times and The Guardian.