The Great Way — A classic teaching by John Daido Loori

A classic commentary on this seminal Zen text by the American roshi, John Daido Loori, who died this morning at the age of 78.

John Daido Loori
9 October 2009
Buddha in darkness.
Photo by David Gabriel Fischer.

It’s perhaps the greatest single-sentence summary of Buddhist practice: “The Great Way is not difficult, it only avoids picking and choosing.” If we transcend all preferences, distinctions, and opinions, the true nature is revealed and “everything becomes clear and undisguised.” So easy—yet of course it overturns every conventional principle by which we so often lead our lives.

The Great Way is not difficult;

It only avoids picking and choosing.

When love and hate are both absent,

Everything becomes clear and undisguised.

Make the smallest distinction, however,

And heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.

If you wish to see the truth,

Then hold no opinions for or against anything.

To set up what you like against what you dislike

Is a disease of the mind.

When the deep meaning of things is not understood,

The mind’s essential peace is disturbed to no avail.

The Way is perfect like vast space,

Where nothing is lacking and nothing is in excess.

Indeed, it is due to our choosing to accept or reject

That we do not see the true nature of things.

Live neither in the entanglements of outer things

Nor in inner feelings of emptiness.

Be serene in the oneness of things

And such erroneous views will disappear by themselves.

To deny the reality of things

Is to miss their reality;

To assert the emptiness of things

Is to miss their reality.

The more you talk and think about it,

The further astray you wander from the truth.

Stop talking and thinking

And there is nothing that you will not be able to know.

This passage is from The Faith Mind Sutra: Verses on the Unfailing Source of Life by Master Sengcan (J. Sozan). It deals with faith in mind, faith in how the mind really functions. Later in the sutra, Master Sengcan says:

One thing, all things,

Move among and intermingle without distinction.

To live in this realization,

Is to be without anxiety about nonperfection;

To live in this faith is the road to nonduality,

Because the nondual is one with a trusting mind.

One thing, all things, move among and intermingle without distinction points to the unfailing source of life that Sengcan mentions in the subtitle. It refers to the metaphor of the Diamond Net of Indra. Everything throughout space and time is interconnected, and at each connection—at each point—is a diamond that reflects every other diamond, so that in this vast net, each diamond contains every other diamond. This is one thing, all things, moving among and intermingling without distinction. The diamond net is “the unfailing source of life.” Indeed, it is life itself, your life itself. We separate ourselves from this unfailing source of life with our mind, our thoughts, our ideas. But the only way you can separate yourself is mentally, because one thing, all things, move among and intermingle is the way it is, whether we realize it or not. Regardless of whether we live our lives according to this understanding or not, the fact remains that it is the way things are. With our minds we separate ourselves and immediately create all the dualities of life. On one side we create pain, greed, anger—fundamental ignorance. We also create the other side—joy, compassion, wisdom, and enlightenment.

When love and hate are both absent, everything becomes clear and undisguised. When duality is absent, everything becomes clear. But we shouldn’t cling to this “clarity” either. The other side of clarity is confusion; both are diseases of the mind. All of the dualities are mutually arising; they are all codependent. You can’t have one without the other: good and bad, heads and tails, heaven and earth. That is why it is said, Make the smallest distinction . . . and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart. They are not set apart until we separate them in our minds (and by “we” I do not mean only Westerners—the same thing holds true of people in China, Japan, India, and everyplace else). Civilization itself is founded on the dualistic use of the mind. The Buddha went beyond dualism, beyond the distinction between this and that, to show that there is no self, that what we call the “self” is a creation of our own consciousness, which separates us from everything else.

Picking and choosing, coming and going, love and hate, inside and outside, having and not having, accepting and rejecting, asserting and denying, form and emptiness, right and wrong— they all begin with making the smallest distinction. They all begin with the idea of a separate self, a boundary between the self and the rest of reality, an inside and an outside. Coming and going is such a difficult and painful process. Our lives are filled with the pains of coming and going: coming into a relationship, a marriage, a new job, a new place; leaving a relationship, a marriage, a job, the place where you live. We do not seem to understand how to execute these life functions without creating pain, anger, or confusion. We are tearing ourselves away from some imaginary thing that we stick to—that by its very nature cannot be stuck to or torn away from. Coming is always right here and right now. Going is always right here and right now. It is because there is no coming and no going that we can speak of coming and going.

Because of that illusion of separateness, we find it hard to come and go. We find it difficult to come together, difficult to part. I know many people who have had wonderful relationships, but because of the time, the circumstances, or various changes in their lives, they have had to go their separate ways. To be able to do that, somehow the creation of anger is usually necessary. There is that need to feel justified, to have a reason to separate. Since love is what brings us together—that is our rationale—then hate must be what will drive us apart. So we create anger. It is unnecessary, and so poisonous. Coming and going is a functioning of life, like waves rising and falling. We can learn to come and go without coming and going. We can learn to avoid picking and choosing. So how can we avoid picking and choosing, coming and going? Just to open our mouths to speak is picking and choosing. Just to say “avoid picking and choosing” is picking and choosing. What kind of practice avoids picking and choosing? Avoids coming and going?

This suffering, this picking and choosing, this painful coming and going, is related to ignorance. Master Sengcan says, It is due to our choosing to accept or reject that we do not see the true nature of things. Later in the sutra, he tells us, The changes that appear to occur in the empty world we call real only because of our ignorance. Ignorance means not knowing what is real. It is very easy to get totally lost in the confusion between the apparent and real. In a way, our lives are based on that confusion, on our fundamental assumption of a separate self, an assumption that is simply false. The consequence of this basic premise, and all the delusive thoughts that arise from it, is suffering in its multitude of forms. The practice that avoids picking and choosing, coming and going, is the practice that avoids dualism, that brings us back to the ground of our being.

The great Master Joshu very often used this Faith Mind Sutra of Master Sozan to teach his monks. One day a monk asked him: “It is said that the Great Way is not difficult; it only avoids picking and choosing. Now, what is not picking and choosing?” Zhaozhou said, “I alone am holy throughout heaven and earth.” The monk responded, “That is still picking and choosing.” And Zhaozhou said: “Asshole! Where’s the picking and choosing?” The monk was speechless.

Zhaozhou answered him with the words of the Buddha: “I alone am the Honored One between heaven and earth.” He is saying there is nothing outside of me; I am the Diamond Net of Indra. In a sense, that is picking and choosing, but only when you are coming from a position other than the position Zhaozhou was standing in. The monk was standing outside of that, and from his point of view he was justified in saying “that is still picking and choosing.” Position is everything. Everything changes, even when the circumstances remain identical, when you shift your position. Try it sometime with someone who is an adversary. Shift your position. Be that person, and the adversary disappears. Shift positions with whatever barrier you are facing in zazen, in your life. Be the barrier, and it is no longer there. It is only there because we pull back, separate ourselves from it. The more we pull back, the bigger and more overwhelming it gets, and the angrier or the more frightened we become. If we really look at the anger that makes us crazy, or the fear that stops us cold, we see that it develops step by step from our thought process. And the starting point of that thought process is separation. Is the cause of the fear something that might be lurking in a dark alley? The possibility of falling down and breaking your neck? Losing your job? No, it is yourself. When you really acknowledge that it is nothing but yourself, when you realize this fact, you can not live your life in the old way. You’ve suddenly taken responsibility for it. Before, the problem was outside—your bad luck, what others did to you, the circumstances you could do nothing about.

When you realize that the cause is you, you empower yourself. You suddenly become a ten thousand-foot-high buddha—you fill the universe. There is no picking and choosing, coming or going—no place to go, no place to come from. Zhaozhou was trying to show the monk that ten-thousand-foot-high buddha. But the monk was standing in a different position. So Zhaozhou yelled, “Asshole!” Actually the Chinese word is usually translated as “country bumpkin” or “stupid oaf,” but this sounds too tame for our ears. It was meant to shock, to stun the monk into experiencing the reality of what the Buddha said: “I alone am the Honored One between heaven and earth!” Nothing is outside of you.

Joshu was coming from the position of the absolute, which would become a kind of blindness if he stuck there. But when the monk said, “That is still picking and choosing,” Joshu shouted, “Asshole! Where’s the picking and choosing?” immediately shifting positions, slamming right into that monk from the relativistic standpoint. He was showing him: you and I are the same thing, but I am not you and you are not me. We should not stick anywhere—not in the relative, not in the absolute.

To deny the reality of things

Is to miss their reality;

To assert the emptiness of things

Is to miss their reality.

Sticking to clarity, to enlightenment, is the worst kind of delusion. In Zen there is going beyond clarity. As Zen Master Dogen says, “No trace of enlightenment remains and this traceless enlightenment continues endlessly.” Going beyond clarity, not abiding in it, is very ordinary. There is no stink of Zen about it, no holiness to hold on to.

In the vast Diamond Net of Indra, each thing contains everything, and each thing is separate and distinct from everything else. Thinking, talking, and doing are the ways we create our lives, the ways we create our karma. We can see how our actions create causes, and we can see that every cause has consequences. The same is true for our thought. It is because of our interconnectedness, our intermingling and moving among this one thing, that it works in that way. Because of that, talking and thinking and doing can create karma. We can use karma to poison or to nourish, depending upon how we manifest it. How do we manifest it so that it nourishes, so that it heals? By nontalking, nonthinking, nondoing. How do you do nonthinking and nondoing? How can you possibly avoid picking and choosing?

The more you talk and think about it,

The further astray you wander from the truth.

Stop talking and thinking

And there is nothing that you will not be able to know.

Stop knowing and not-knowing. Knowing is another kind of holding on, of separation; not-knowing is blank consciousness, emptiness. How do we avoid these extremes of form and emptiness, enlightenment and delusion? By learning to be ourselves, but not self-consciously, not passively. Be serene in the oneness of things does not mean “Watch the world go by” or “Do not do anything.” That is not what Sozan is talking about, and it is not what our practice is. Being yourself means giving yourself permission to be who and what you are. That is “faith mind,” having faith in your true self, trusting yourself. Until that happens, you cannot really trust anything or anybody. When you have that trust, your defensiveness disappears. You don’t need to be arrogant or to put yourself down, to hide, or to withdraw. These two extremes are the same thing, different ways of protecting that idea of a separate self. Being yourself, being intimate with yourself, is the beginning of intimacy with all things. Being yourself is “no separation.”

The Great Way is not difficult:

Direct word, direct speech.

In one, there are many phrases:

In two, there is one.

Difficult, difficult,

Picking and choosing, coming and going.

Be still, watch,

See for yourself.

From Finding the Still Point: A Beginner’s Guide to Zen Meditation, by John Daido Loori. © 2007. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications Inc., Boston, MA. Also published in The Best Buddhist Writing 2008.

John Daido Loori

John Daido Loori

John Daido Loori, Roshi (1939-2009) was the founder and director of the Mountains and Rivers Order and abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery in Mt. Tremper, New York.