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Daily Zen -- Ordinary Mind

by Katsuki Sekida

Zen is not, in my view, philosophy or mysticism.
It is simply a practice of readjustment of
nervous activity. That is, it restores the distorted
nervous system to its normal functioning.

In ordinary daily life our consciousness works ceaselessly to protect and maintain our interests. It has acquired the habit of "utilitarian thinking" looking upon the things in the world as so many tools, looking at objects in the light of how they can be made use of. We call this attitude the habitual way of consciousness. This way of looking at things is the origin of our distorted view of the world.

We come to see ourselves, too, as objects to be made use of, and we fail to see into our own true nature. This way of treating oneself and the world leads to a mechanical way of thinking, which is the cause of so much of our suffering. Zen aims at overthrowing this distorted view of the world.

If you go climbing in the mountains, you were probably led to do so in the first place by the beauty of the mountains. When you start to climb, however, you find it is a matter of working one's way along patiently, step by step, progressing with great care and caution. Some knowledge of climbing technique is essential.

It is the same with Zen. We take it up in the search of the meaning of life, or in the hope of solving the problems of our existence, but once we actually start, we find we have to look down at our feet, and we are faced with practice followed by more practice. Beginners in Zen will usually be told to start by practicing counting their breaths that is, to count each exhalation up to ten, and then start again.

Try this for yourself. You may think you can do it without difficulty, but when you start you will soon find that wandering thoughts come into your head, perhaps when you have reached about "five" or "six," and the thread of counting is broken. The next moment you come to yourself and can't remember where you left off. You have to start again, saying "one" and so on.

How can we prevent our thoughts from wandering? How can we learn to focus our attention on one thing? The answer is that we cannot do it with our brain alone; the brain cannot control its thoughts by itself. The power to control the activity of our mind comes from the body, and it depends critically on posture and breathing.

With regard to posture, we need only say at this stage that stillness of body engenders stillness of mind. Immobility is a first essential. Traditionally, and for good reasons, we sit down to practice, because (among other reasons) it is in this position that we can keep our body still but our minds wakeful.

Immobility results in a diminution of the stimuli reaching the brain, until eventually there are almost none. This gives rise, in due course, to a condition in which you cease to be aware of the position of your body. It is not a state of numbness, for you can move your limbs and body if you want. But if you keep your body still, it is not felt.

We call this condition "off-sensation." In this state, the activity of the cortex of the brain becomes steadily less and less. We continue to breathe, of course, as we sit, and find that our ability to concentrate our attention, to remain wakeful, and ultimately to enter samadhi depends on our method of breathing.

Even those who have not practiced zazen (sitting Zen) know that it is possible to control the mind by manipulating the breathing. Quiet breathing brings about a quiet state of mind.

In zazen, we breathe almost entirely by means of our abdominal muscles and diaphragm. If the lower abdomen is allowed to fill out, the diaphragm is lowered, the thoracic cavity (between the neck and abdomen) is enlarged, and air is taken into the lungs. When the abdominal muscles contract, the diaphragm is pushed up, expelling air from the lungs.

The slow, sustained exhalation that we adopt in zazen is produced by keeping the diaphragm contracted so that it opposes the action of the abdominal muscles which are trying to push air out of the lungs. This opposition generates a state of tension in the abdominal muscles, and the maintenance of this state of tension is of utmost importance in the practice of zazen.

All other parts of the body are motionless, and their muscles are either relaxed or in a state of constant, moderate tension. Only the abdominal muscles are active. This activity is a vital part of the mechanism by which concentration and wakefulness of the brain are maintained.

Traditionally, in the East, the lower part of the abdomen (called the tanden) has been regarded as the seat of human spiritual power. Correct zazen ensures that the weight of the body is concentrated there, producing a strong tension.

The essential point we want to make is that it is the correct manipulation of the lower abdomen, as we sit and breathe, that enables us to control the activity of our mind. Posture and breathing are a key to concentration, to stilling the activity of the mind, and to entering samadhi.

When we put it so briefly, our conclusions may seem far-fetched. If they do not seem convincing on the page, the reader should experiment for him-or herself along the lines we indicate. Zen is above all a matter of personal experience. Students are asked to accept nothing as the truth that they cannot demonstrate for themselves, with their own mind and body.

In the state of "off-sensation," we lose the sense of the whereabouts of our body. Subsequently, by stilling the activity of the mind, a state is reached in which time, space, and causation, which constitute the framework of consciousness, drop away. We call this condition "body and mind fallen off."

In ordinary mental activity the cerebral cortex takes the major role, but in this state, it is hardly active at all. "Body and mind fallen off" may seem to be nothing but a condition of mere being, but this mere being is accompanied by a remarkable mental power, which we may characterize as a condition of extreme wakefulness.

To those who have not experienced it, this description may seem strange, yet the condition really does occur in samadhi. At the time, however, we are not aware of it, because there is no reflecting activity of consciousness, and so it is hard to describe. If we try to describe it, however, it would be as an extraordinary mental stillness. In this stillness, or emptiness, the source of all kinds of activity is latent. It is this state that we call pure existence.

If you catch hold of this state of pure existence, and then come back into the actual world of conscious activity, you will find that Being itself appears transformed. This is why Being is said to be "veiled in darkness" to the eyes of those who have not experienced pure existence. When mature in the practice of zazen, Being is seen with one's own eyes.

However, just as energy can be used for many different purposes, so can pure existence be experienced in relation to any phase of life anger, hatred, or jealousy as well as love and beauty. Every human action must be carried on through the ego, which plays a role comparable to that of a pipe or channel through which energy is conducted for different uses. We usually think of the ego as a kind of constant, unchanging entity. In fact, however, it is simply a succession of physical and mental events or pressures that appear momentarily and as quickly pass away.

So long as our mind operates subjectively, however, there must be a subject that functions as the ego. As there is normally no cessation of subjective activity, there can normally be no state in which we are devoid of an ego. However, the nature of this ego can change. Every time we succeed in banishing a mean or restricted ego a petty ego another ego with a broader outlook appears in its place, and eventually what we may call an "egoless ego" makes its appearance.

When you have acquired an egoless ego, there is no hatred, no jealousy, no fear; you experience a state in which you see everything in its true aspect. In this state you cling to or adhere to nothing. It is not that you are without desires, but that while desiring and adhering to things you are at the same time unattached to them.

The Diamond Sutra says, 'Abiding nowhere, let the mind work.' This means: Do not let your mind be bound by your desire, and let your desire occur in your mind. True freedom is freedom from your own desires.

When you have once experienced pure existence, you undergo a complete about-face in your view of the world. But unfortunately, as long as we are human beings, we cannot escape from the inevitability of living as individuals. We cannot leave the world of differentiation. And so we are placed in a new dilemma, one that we did not encounter before. Inevitably, this involves a certain internal conflict, and may cause much distress. To deal with this, further training of the mind has to be undertaken to learn how, while living in the world of differentiation, we can avoid discrimination.

We have to learn how to exercise the mind of nonattachment while working in attachment. This is called training after the attainment of realization, which constitutes an essential part of Zen.

There is a Zen saying, "Differentiation without equality is bad differentiation; equality without differentiation is bad equality." This is a common saying, but the level of understanding it refers to is not common, since it can be attained only in a mature state of Zen practice.


The mean or petty ego, which was thought to have been disposed of, is found once again to be secretly creeping back into one's mind. Long, chronic habits of consciousness are so firmly implanted in our minds that they haunt us perpetually, and it is impossible for us to inhibit them before they appear.

The longer we train ourselves, however, the more we are liberated from the petty ego. When the petty ego appears, do not be concerned with it. Simply ignore it. When a negative thought strikes you, acknowledge it, then drop it. The Zen saying goes, "The occurrence of an evil thought is an affliction; not to continue it is the remedy."

Zen talks about "emptiness." What is meant by this? When a thought appears in your mind, it is necessarily accompanied by internal pressure. Emptiness is a condition in which internal mental pressure is totally dissolved.

Even when you think, "It's fine today," a certain internal pressure is generated in your mind, and you feel you want to speak to someone else and say, "It's fine today, isn't it?" By doing this, you discharge the pressure.

We think every moment, and an internal pressure is generated, and we lose equilibrium. In Zen we train ourselves to recover equilibrium every moment. The ego is built up from a succession of internal pressures. When the pressures are dissolved, the ego vanishes, and there is true emptiness.

A student of Christianity, hearing that Zen talks of emptiness, offered for comparison a definition of holiness. Holiness, he said, means completeness, with nothing added to it.

The word holiness is found in Buddhism, too. A Buddha is holy. But in Buddhism, when you become a Buddha, you are supposed to forget you are a Buddha. When you are conscious of being a Buddha, you are not truly a Buddha, because you are ensnared by the idea. You are not empty. Every time that you think you are achieving something becoming a Buddha, attaining holiness, even emptiness you must cast it away.

In a famous zen episode, Joshu asked his teacher Nansen, "What is the way?" "Ordinary mind is the way," was Nansen's answer.

But how can we attain this ordinary mind? We could say, empty your mind, and there is ordinary mind. But this is to resort to exhortation, or to a merely verbal explanation of what Zen aims at. Students of Zen must realize it for themselves.

This article was excerpted from A Guide to Zen, 2003, by Katsuki Sekida.

Reprinted with permission of the publisher, New World Library.

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About the Author

Katsuki Sekida (19031987) began his Zen practice in 1915 and trained at the Empuku-ji Monastery in Kyoto and the Ryutaku-ji Monastery in Mishima, Japan, where he had deep experience of samadhi early in life. He became a high school teacher of English until his retirement, then he returned to a full-time study of Zen. He taught at the Honolulu Zendo and Maui Zendo from 1963 to 1970 and at the London Zen Society from 1970 to 1972. Then he produced his two great works, both published in America and Japan by Weatherhill, Inc., Zen Training in 1975 and Two Zen Classics in 1977.

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