What is Zen? A clean plate

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A monk told Joshu, “I have just entered this monastery. I beg you to teach me.”

Joshu asked, “Have you eaten your rice porridge?”

The monk replied, “I have.”

“Then,” said Joshu, “Go and wash your bowl.”

At that moment the monk was enlightened.

AP: Nothing except this is needed. Go and clean your plate, go and wash your utensils. Go and clean the dishes, that’s all is needed. What else is Zen? A clean slate. What else is Zen? A clean plate. You must be totally done with it. If you are done with eating, why is your plate still carrying food? Even if it is traces of food. You must be totally done with it. That complete closure is Zen.

We live lives of continuity where the past keeps carrying itself forward. Zen, is a total dissociation, every moment. Every moment is complete in itself, leaves no residue behind. I have no obsession with the past because the past is, complete and closed. I have nothing to give to the future because right now, I have no fear. I am not living in incompleteness. There is nothing that would get rolled over to the future.

A dirty plate is a dirty mind. It is carrying traces. It is carrying stuff from somewhere else. Go clean the plate. And since this happens to be the one and only thing, hence it is more surprise that the monk gets instantly enlightened. After all, what remains after this? If your plate is clean, if your mind is clean, what is left to be done? What is left to be done?

But this is one thing that is so straight-forward and yet does not happen. Filling up the plate is so easy, emptying the plate is so difficult. Fifteen readings, wonderful! I’ll have a good time. My already overloaded mind would get further overloaded! So I feel attracted, enthused, fifteen readings, nice! But the moment, the teacher strikes, and content in your mind starts getting off-loaded, you shiver and try to run away. Gathering knowledge is so pleasant, right? It makes the ego feel bloated, inflated and bigger. But cleaning the mind, making it lighter, unburdening it, unloading it comes like a threat. “Oh something in me is getting reduced. I am under attack! My notions are getting shaken up!” That’s what Zen is all about, a total shake up! Such a shakeup that clears away all the rubbish. Have you had your dinner?

Listener 1: Yes.

AP: (Smilingly) are the plates clean?

Listener 2: How to complete the stuff?

AP: How does stuff remain incomplete? We said there are these three ways in which stuff remains incomplete. What are these three ways? Planning, effort, expectations.

Listener 2: Basically fear?

AP: (Nods in consent)

Listener 2: And satisfaction also deals with this?

AP: (Nods in consent) Contentment is the word.

Listener 2: If these three words are there…

AP: Even now you are saying that if these three are there then contentment is there. That’s not the way. When contentment is there then these three are not there! When contentment is there, what is the point in expecting? When contentment is there, what is the point in planning? Contentment comes first. Contentment is Buddha nature, contentment is Atman.

Listener 2: Like you said just now. So what should be the quality of this moment? When we go to bed then memories of this moment doesn’t flash or the images of this must not be there…?

AP: No great quality is needed here. All that is needed is that you do not come here carrying a dirty plate. Do not bring the remnants of your dinner to this room. If you’ve had your dinner then everything about the dinner should be left clean and outside. But what do we do? The dinner carries forward to this room. And then you feel sleepy! Do you get it? No special quality is needed. All that is needed that you come here clean, come clean!

Listener 3: Sir, one thing that is coming in mind is that in these eleven-twelve stories, each one of them, people were like they got enlightened from such a short story. But I am reading so many stories and practically that part is not coming in me. So what is it that is being left in me?

AP: First of all these are not history. These are not historical stories. When it is said that someone got instantly enlightened, at just a small gesture of the Guru. What is meant is that potentially every word of the monk, the teacher, the Guru, is potent enough to tell you everything, provided you are ready to listen. If you are ready to listen then any single word is enough to give you everything. That is what is meant by saying that in this small way, he got enlightened! In this ordinary symbol, he got?

Listeners: (In unison) Enlightened.

AP: In saying this, what is being said is, do not expect great things. Pay attention to the small things that are happening right now. To every small indication of the teacher. To every ordinary word that is coming to you. And if you can give yourself totally to it, then you are home. No great words, no greater words are going to ever come to you. What is coming to you is the final thing. Nothing higher than this can be said or has ever been said. Still, if it doesn’t bring you there, the reason is just that you keep on expecting something even grander, even more miraculous.

Zen is not about giving you grandeur on miracles. In Zen, things like these happen. Somebody asks, “What is the Buddha nature?” Somebody says, “Oh! Look at that tree.” And the fellow gets enlightened. No great answers! Somebody asks, “Which of these is the best piece in your shop?” and the shopkeeper replies, “All the pieces in my shop are best pieces.” And the fellow gets enlightened. So in the ordinary events of life, and in the ordinary replies of the teacher, lies the potential to give you the highest that you have ever demanded, provided you do not keep on dreaming that something bigger than this can still happen. Nothing bigger than this will ever happen! This is That! The ultimate! What more can be said? And if this does not suffice, nothing else would ever do. If this does not bring you there then nothing else ever would.

Kyogen said, “Zen is like a monk

Hanging by his teeth in a tree over a precipice.

His hands grasp no branch, his feet rest on no limb,

And under the tree another man asks him,

“Why did Bodhidharma come to China from India?”

If the man in the tree does not answer, he misses the question

And if he answers, he falls and loses his life,

Now what shall he do?”

AP: For us, there is either an action or the opposite of that action, right? For us, whenever we are faced with choices, it is always about either doing this or doing that. Either yes or no, either right or left. A pair of opposites. But whether we do this or whether we do that, one thing is certain that we, do! That we remain the doer. Kyogen says, “Please understand Zen. Zen is not about doing ‘this’ and Zen is neither about doing the opposite of ‘this’.” Because whether you do this or whether you do that, whether you say yes or whether you say no, in either case, you miss, you lose.

Zen is about forsaking both, yes and no, together. And that is forsaken when you are not the doer at all. Zen is about letting the happening happen. Zen is about not bringing your own personal self in between. Action that is not preceded by planning, not involved with effort, and not followed by expectations. That is Zen.

In our case, all three are present. Before the action, there is plan. During the action there is effort. And after the action there is expectation. Zen is about not having any of these. No planning before action, no effort during action and no expectation after action. Which essentially means that there is no role left for the actor.  What would he do? These are the three things that the actor could have done, and if all three are struck out, what would he do? So, Zen gives us beautiful, energetic action, sans the actor.



-Excerpts from a ‘Shabd-Yoga’ session. Edited for clarity

Watch the session: Acharya Prashant on Zen: What is Zen? A clean plate

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2 thoughts on “What is Zen? A clean plate

  1. “We live lives of continuity where the past keeps carrying itself forward. Zen, is a total dissociation, every moment. Every moment is complete in itself, leaves no residue behind. I have no obsession with the past because the past is, complete and closed. I have nothing to give to the future because right now, I have no fear. I am not living in incompleteness. There is nothing that would get rolled over to the future.”

    Having come across many articles, this gives much more clarity about Zen.

    Like

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