Mar 16, 2023
Martin Goodson

We use it every day but are not aware of it

A Zen Teaching

Buddha Nature is closer than you think!

afternoon tea sandwich sweet



There is a story about Master Gensha who was having tea and cakes with a general. The general asked the Master “What is it that we use every day but are unaware of it?”

The Master passed him a plate of cakes and the general took one. The Master then said “He uses it every day but is not aware of it.”

A more recent Zen Master, Hakuin, also said “The peasant in the field uses it every day but is not aware of it”. So, we have something that sounds very similar going on here.

When I first started Zen training at The Buddhist Society in London, one of the phrases that was continually used in answer to the question ‘How do I practice Zen?’ was ‘Just give yourself wholeheartedly into what at this moment is being done anyway”. I was very keen to start Zen training, having read a few books about it, been to some talks on Buddhism and was keen to get to the bottom of some of those enigmatic sayings of the Zen masters, like the one above by Master Gensha.

This practice instruction ‘to give myself wholeheartedly into what is being done anyway’ was also sometimes given in Master Daiyu’s accented English as ‘… into the doing’. In fact, despite English not being her first language she was very careful in choosing her words. So, despite ‘doing’ not being ‘correct’ English in the sentence, this mistake I knew was on purpose.

‘Doing’ is a word that denotes activity that is ongoing in the present - ‘What are you doing?’ Is about now, not the past or what is to come. However, the ‘doing’ in the practice instruction is not being done by ‘I’. The instruction is to give I/myself wholly into this ongoing doing. So, what is it right now that is doing? Is this the same as Master Gensha’s pointer to that which is used every day but of which we are unaware? In the Buddha’s teaching, we know that because of the delusion of ‘I’ the true nature is obscured. What is referred to as ‘I’ is the bundle of thoughts that have ‘I’ at their centre:

What must I do next?

I’m not sure I can face that right now!

How will that affect me?

These are the thoughts that buzz around when I’m walking down the street, but, simultaneously, who is doing the walking? If I am thinking, or more accurately, if thinking is bringing the notion of ‘I’ into existence, who or what is looking both ways before crossing the main street? Stopping to buy a cup of coffee, the plastic cover is removed from the cardboard cup and a couple of sips of steaming coffee are taken and the warm liquid fills the mouth with its aroma - Ahhh! What is it that moves the arm and fingers, mouth and tongue, feels the warmth, smells the aroma and responds?

Maybe it doesn’t need a subject at all to stand apart and comment. This one, who sees, hears, feels and responds, who is there whether awake or asleep is present always. This instruction of ‘giving myself’ is therefore to give myself away and become ‘at one’ with this flow of ‘doings’. Flowing without clinging, like the cat who laps up the milk and then climbs on his cushion and falls asleep, with no thought of the next meal. Maybe this insight is also present in that New Testament saying:

Consider the ravens: They do not sow nor reap, they have no storehouse or barn; yet God feeds them.” (Luke 12:24)

Of course, the ravens have to go and forage, build nests, court and raise a brood, but there is no ‘I’ in that speculating about tomorrow or judging the past. It is just this ‘doing’, and our practice is to, once more, whenever it becomes apparent that ‘I’ am there, that ‘I’, this delusion of separateness from all that is appears, just give myself wholeheartedly into what at this moment is being done.. doing anyway.

What then?

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