The Three Minds of Zen

Zen teaches that we should maintain “a joyful mind, an elder’s mind, and a great mind.” According to Jisho Sara Siebert, they’re never far away.

Jisho Sara Siebert
21 September 2021
Joyful Mind (seal reads “Buddha’s Heart). Calligraphy by Yeachin Tsai. Copyright Yeachin Tsai.

An artist I work with in Haiti hadn’t communicated in a long while. Approaching the end of 2020, I asked him how he was, given the state of the world. He said, “The time is a difficult one for everyone. But you know, before we came to this world in this time, they prepared us for this.” It’s true—all the buddhas and ancestors do prepare us, and in spite of the difficulty, the bodhisattva chooses to be in this world to wake up together with all beings. Practically, though, amid systemic racism, mass sickness, and other hardship, what on earth does that choice look like?

Dogen Zenji taught that we should maintain “a joyful mind, an elder’s mind, and a great mind.” This instruction, a description of the internal world of the bodhisattva, is found in his teaching Instructions for the Cook. It is a practical teaching for anyone who cooks—or eats—and for all the positions within the monastery, or anywhere else. It is for us.

At the same time, it is helpful to remember that he wrote this for a community of people. In a monastic community (or in a more communal society like Haiti or Japan) it is more difficult to fall into the delusion that our practice is all about creating the perfect conditions in which we personally can feel happy. In community, someone else’s bright eyes, snoring sleep, or smelly clothes will prod our egos and remind us that no one of us is the only little frog croaking in this pond. Many of us right now, however, are in a place and time of unprecedented isolation from community; we are out of sync with the rhythms of the natural world. Finding creative ways to be in community with other humans (including a teacher), animals, plants, and minerals can be helpful as we continue to study “mind.” Awakening is a collective endeavor.

What is Mind?

In Zen, body, heart, mind, and the environment are not separate. The Chinese character Dogen used for “mind” actually includes both heart and mind; it’s heart–mind. Translators, however, typically drop the “heart.” It is important to be aware of the cultural values that led to this favoring of mind, and the implications they have for our lives and society.

In our lives, do we prioritize head over heart and body, creating false separations? Do we intellectualize the dharma instead of practicing it wholeheartedly? Does our body suffer while we sit for long hours in an armchair or at a desk with a juicy, philosophical idea?

In traditional Zen training, there really isn’t time to think about things you are not doing at the moment. You throw your whole body, heart, and mind fully into the task at hand. When you are sweeping, you just sweep; mind, heart, body, and the environment are in sync. The mind that thinks it is better than the task of sweeping—and thereby separates itself from the body, the heart, the broom, the dust, and every other being who has ever swept—is ego. Nothing is separate.

Joyful Heart–mind

I sat in the yard of a dear friend’s mother in rural Haiti, just after sunset. The young daughter of my friend Yolande had died of cholera the previous day, while staying with her grandmother. We had traveled to the family home to make arrangements for the funeral. We all sat there, wordless and heavy. On the road, Yolande’s best friend—a priestess of the traditional Haitian religion—had bought some crabmeat to share. Yolande and her friend wept together during the long car ride, and we did not eat. But as we sat on our hard, wooden chairs in the family yard, the priestess ate with increasing noise. Suddenly, in the near silence, she tilted to the side on her chair and passed gas so loudly that the earth shook. Unperturbed, she said only: “Crab! There was a stunned silence, and then everyone in the yard exploded into deep, collective, gut-bursting laughter. Tears streamed down Yolande’s face as she shook with it.

What does this have to do with joyful heart–mind? When we are told to feel joy, it does not simply arise. When we cling to particular sensations (if x happens, then I will be joyful), conditions are also never quite right for joy. Instead, we manifest joy—as the priestess did, as the Dalai Lama does despite living in exile—from our deepest core. Able to deeply sit with the impermanent, unsatisfactory, painful, and non-joyful elements of experience, a joyful heart–mind welcomes the moment as it is. Free of the static that comes when we are constantly comparing this moment to “perfection,” the joyful heart–mind is free to find ways to cultivate the conditions of joy for all beings.

In Instructions for the Cook, Dogen explores gratitude as an expression of joy. He points out that, if we lived in a heavenly realm, we may not even think to practice. If we lived in hell, then practice may be too difficult. We can be grateful for exactly where we are and treat each simple meal, as Dogen put it, as an opportunity to feed the three jewels of Buddha, dharma, and sangha.

Joyful heart–mind is a contentment that happens not after the floors are swept and the dishes are done, but as an integrated part of each activity.

Elder’s Heart–mind

I was making cookies with my grandmother on a trip back home from college many years ago. Her dementia had made her withdraw from all but the most familiar activities: folding laundry, praying the rosary, and making cookies. After a life on Iowa farms and rural towns, having lived through the Great Depression, she felt deeply the value of food. Things did not spoil in her refrigerator. When she still lived in her own home, she reused her aluminum foil for years. Raised in easier circumstances, I did not have this appreciation. When the cookie sheet was full, I popped it into the oven. Anxious to get on to my next activity, I grabbed the bowl with chunks of dough still stuck to the sides and the spoon, threw it into the sink, and ran water into it. My grandmother, eyes shocked, looked into my face, and gasped.

“Elder” in Dogen’s writing is also sometimes translated as “nurturing” or “parental.” He wrote, “When you handle water, rice, or anything else, you must have the affectionate and caring concern of a parent raising a child.” In this heart–mind, we take care of all beings as though they were our own children—from a grain of rice to the people we cook for, from our sandals to our own bodies.

As the mother of a small child, it is clear to me that loving all living beings as if each were our only child is not easy. There are moments of exhaustion with my son in which I shake with frustration or completely stop caring about the state of the kitchen floor. Such a vow is impossible, akin to freeing all beings from delusion, but we cannot let its impossibility stop us from doing it. With each new moment, we just aim again.

The moments in which we miss the mark are not merely deviations. They are critical and humbling, which can help deepen my compassion for others in similar or more difficult circumstances. Elder’s mind is not about having it all figured out; it is about drawing on all our wisdom as we launch ourselves into the moment and wholeheartedly give it a go. We keep sweeping, and together with the whole universe, we also notice the miracle of a crooked stick in the garden or the tiny hum of an impossibly fat bumble bee. In the ups and the downs, we smile and continue to nurture ourselves and others. The same heart–mind nurtures both, neither spoiling nor neglecting—turning wisdom and compassion inward and outward. What’s the difference, after all? “I” or “they” is not the issue; the bodhisattva heart–mind nurtures, regardless.

In elder’s heart–mind, we learn that when we are open to what the moment asks of us, instead of just what we feel like doing, our whole orientation shifts in an important way. Allowing this orientation to shift means expanding our circle infinitely. When we do, no moment, chunk of cookie dough, or other being sits outside. This brings us to great heart–mind.

Great Heart–mind

I was sitting in a restaurant with three Ugandan American truck drivers, one of whom I had met while living in Uganda years before. As we got settled with our food, his friend paused, looked at me, and said, “Well, welcome to the club!” Confused, I asked what club I had joined. He laughed and said, “You have been there, seen there. Now you have to try to find a way to explain it to people here who have never seen anything like it, because we need them to understand. But it’s like bats in a dark cave who have never seen the light. How can the one who wanders out and comes back in explain light to the others?” Describing Uganda—its beauty and its pain—to those who haven’t been there is like describing the full moon; it will never be the moon.

Great heart–mind—also translated as “big mind” or “magnanimous mind”—is nothing less than the full moon. We can describe its results, but can we describe it? Dogen encourages us in Instructions for the Cook to study the character “great,” just as other masters have. He makes reference to other famous stories of awakening between teacher and student and suggests great heart–mind as an entry point.

Part of this is how we think of body heart mind—if I am the thinker, or if the boundaries of this human body are the I, then I cannot see it. If I think I have seen it, it is gone. Body heart mind is all beings, ever shifting. Vast body. Vast heart. Vast mind. All beings are our community.

Shohaku Okumura, who named his Zen community Sanshinji (“Three Minds Temple”) after Dogen’s Three Minds, writes that “Magnanimous mind is like an ocean or a mountain: calm and steady, yet accepting and nourishing countless beings and situations without differentiation. The ocean is serene because it accepts the many rivers without resisting.” We all have it within us; as the scholar–monk Kodo Kurebayashi pointed out, in Buddhism, our fundamental nature is a pure, “magnanimous mind of limitless breadth.”

Yet for many people, the mention of a hot political issue or a short conversation with a difficult person is enough to unravel our magnanimity. Our generosity of spirit shatters in an instant and we want to divorce ourselves from that person, narrowing the circle to all beings except them. As one of my dharma brothers says, “the trick about the ‘all beings are one’ thing is that it includes even the beings you can’t stand.” Great heart–mind is our nature, and yet we have to practice it—enact it in each moment—in order to live it.

When we are confronted by racist ideas and policies, people who die of cholera or another preventable illness, or the abuse of a child, what happens to our magnanimity? This is deep, relevant practice. With magnanimous mind, we are, as Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, “the calm person on the rocky boat in the storm.” Internal noise dropped, our perspective vast, we can use all our energy to support and care for all beings, the same as we would if they were our own eyes. The calm person can protest, can speak out when words are needed, can shout. Sometimes, we must. The calm person can also offer a kind word or a joke in the right moment; they can also know when not to.

When our actions and nonactions flow from great heart–mind, we can offer what the moment asks. The ingredients of life are sometimes bitter and sometimes sweet. Dogen invites us to work with the ingredients we have been given, wholeheartedly, to make a meal.

One Heart–mind

These three heart–minds—joyful, elder’s, and great—support and reflect one another. They work together in concert. Accepting what is, caring for all beings as though they were our own child, we are naturally joyful. Offering gratitude for the opportunity to care for all beings, we manifest joy and great mind. Whatever our entry point, there are the others. And then, when we capture them with words, they are gone—the conditions change, and so does the way heart–mind manifests, in every moment. Awakening is slippery.

Fortunately, there are many practices that can be of benefit in cultivating the practice of the three heart–minds. One is daily chanting of the Metta Sutta, or “Discourse on Loving-Kindness.” Thich Nhat Hanh’s translation is a favorite in our Zen sangha, a simple text that weaves these three heart–minds into a single practice:

May everyone be happy and safe, and may their hearts be filled with joy. . . Just as a mother loves and protects her only child at the risk of her own life, so we should cultivate boundless love to offer to all living beings in the entire cosmos. Let our boundless love pervade the whole universe, above, below, and across. Our love will know no obstacles; our heart will be absolutely free from hatred and enmity. Whether standing or walking, sitting or lying, as long as we are awake, we should maintain this mindfulness of love in our own heart.

May our bodies, hearts, and minds work together for the benefit of all, in this moment, and the next, and the next. May we include each other, take care of each other, and bring each other joy. May our love know no obstacles.

Jisho Sara Siebert

Jisho Sara Siebert

Jisho Sara Siebert is a Soto Zen Buddhist priest and teacher at Zen Fields in Ames, Iowa. Led to Buddhism by the suffering she saw in her work to prevent domestic and sexual violence, she found her way to Los Angeles, where she first met her teacher, then to Papua New Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Uganda, monasteries in Japan, and Haiti. She now works for Beyond Borders, an organization committed to preventing violence against girls and women and ending child slavery.