The Great Way

The Third Ancestor of Chan, Chien-chih Seng-ts'an said "The Great Way is not difficult; it just avoids picking and choosing." Picking and choosing is how we  create much of our suffering. The Buddha taught that the cause of suffering is grasping. When your waking consciousness is preoccupied with the push and pull of your preferences you're going to create suffering in your life. So how do preferences lead to suffering? You like some people. You dislike others. If you really like somebody, you will probably entertain pleasant thoughts about them. If you have fallen in love with this person, you will most certainly spend some time dreaming and fantasizing about them. How about somebody you dislike? When you think of this person, some unpleasant memories arise. You may try to avoid thinking about this person, but chances are if you have a "problem" with this person, you'll spend time obsessively thinking about them. But it doesn't end there. You also spend time constructing strategies for how to get what you want and avoid what you don't want. This leads to suffering, because what you want you are easily attached to, and may not often turn out as you expected. What you don't want you try to ignore or avoid, but often end up having to manage as a problem that needs to be solved.

The Buddha taught that the ultimate cure for suffering was realizing the nature of reality which he called emptiness. There are many words for this teaching, such as dharmakaya, big mind, no mind or "just this". "Just this" is useful because it doesn't point to anything. It invites you to open your awareness and rest in this unconditional spaciousness. So all of these words are words that point beyond words. It's possible to rest in this experience that is not conditioned by the bias of your likes and dislikes. "Just this" has no content. It has no structure. It's non-conceptual because your discriminating mind can't grasp it. When you remove your ideas, beliefs, opinions, judgments and points of view, you have what Buddha taught as "Right View" which is to have no view at all.

So let's say you are in a relationship with someone. The space you co-arise in is this unconditional awareness which is deeply and profoundly relational and interconnected. If you are unconscious of this you will easily pollute this space with a look, a word or a gesture. If you are feeling uncomfortable or anxious, you will project that into this space. Once you put something in this space, it's no longer unconditional. So now what you experience is whatever you put in the space. If it's your discomfort, you begin to react to that. And if you continue in this way, your relationship will begin to feel dangerous. And eventually, you will feel disconnected which is deeply painful. But you really don't know how this happened. So you try to solve the problem by adding more things to the space.

Being able to rest in this unconditional awareness is very important and practical, because here there is no problem. It's perfect, whole and complete. Nothing is missing. Nothing can be added.

There are many good stories about this teaching in Zen. For example, one day Joshu spoke to the assembly, saying "The Great Way is without difficulty, it just avoids picking and choosing. As soon as there are words spoken 'this' is picking and choosing 'that' is clarity. This old monk does not abide within clarity. Do you still preserve anything or not?" A monk asked him, "Since you do not abide within clarity, what do you preserve?" Joshu replied, "I don't know either." The monk said, "Since you don't know, Teacher, why do you nevertheless say that you do not abide within clarity?" Joshu said, "It is enough to ask, make your bows and withdraw."

So this is interesting, because even a great Zen teacher like Joshu is saying he doesn't abide in clarity. So he's saying, even clarity is picking and choosing. Even saying it's "just this" is picking and choosing. When the monk presses him on this point, Joshu's reply is very plain. He doesn't seem to engage the monk but just acknowledges the questions and says that's enough for now. This is a skillful response because he's not adding any fuel to the fire. His words are so bland, they give the monk nothing to hang onto.

Joshu was known as "lips and tongue" Joshu because his words were so skillful and simple. Once a monk asked Joshu about the way. Joshu replied, "It's just outside the fence." The monk said, "I'm not asking about that." Joshu said, "What 'way' are you asking about?" The monk said "The Great Way." Joshu said, "The great way leads all the way to the capital."

You can learn to trust the Great Way. It requires no effort. It's the water you swim in and the air you breath. And from this unconditioned place which is no place and no thing at all, arise a great freedom which is completely uncontrived. But I've already said too much, so I'll let Rumi have the last word.


"Inside this new love, die. Your way begins on the other side. Become the sky. Take an axe to the prison wall. Escape. Walk out like someone suddenly born into color. Do it now. You're covered with thick cloud. Slide out the side. Die, and be quiet. Quietness is the surest sign that you've died. Your old life was a frantic running from silence.

The speechless full moon comes out now."

by Robert Althouse