Q: I have been reading Paul Reps’ book Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, it seems, all of my life. One of my favorite parts of his book is the 10 Bulls which is about the search for our true nature. So my question is this: Is the first picture, “The Search for the Bull” about the beginner’s mind?
A: Yes and no. Most beginners never make it to the first picture. The ox, representing our Buddha-nature or pure Mind, is not a subject often discussed in Zen centers. How to properly search for it, I am guessing, is even less discussed. The first picture really takes place in our mental world of thoughts, mental images, internal dialogues, emotions, pain, and so on. You can use the metaphor of a jungle, a forest or a pasture to describe such a mind. Most Zen beginners just take this mind for granted. They don’t really look into it. It is who they believe they are. It functions, at times, as a daydreaming machine. It’s where the mysterious first-person is located. It’s the bearer of the body’s pain and the enjoyer of the body’s pleasures. The task of a good Zen teacher is to get the beginner to look at their mind-jungle! But there is even more to it. It’s not just about examining our thoughts arising and then falling—just being an observer.
Q: That is what I have been taught. Just observe your thoughts. From what you’re saying the mind-jungle is where the search for our true nature begins. Beginner’s Zen starts when when a beginner looks for their true nature in the mind-jungle. You seem to be saying there is really something there to see.
A: Absolutely. You’re looking for pure Mind before it becomes waves, or the same, thoughts. When absolute Mind moves the universe appears along with thoughts and concepts. It is no less pure for moving, either. It just perfectly hides from itself when it is conditioned. So its a tricky and subtle search.
Q: So what did you do when you were searching for it?
A: I was obsessed with looking for it. I used what few Zen books I had to provide me with some clues. They helped, but not much. You still have to make a tremendous effort of looking into your mind-jungle to find that immaculate ox. When I cut firewood, I looked for the ox. When I split firewood, I looked for the ox. When I went down to the well to get a bucket of water, I looked for the ox. When I made rice or went to the pond looking for wild watercress, I was looking for the ox. When I sat in the mine, not far from the ranch house, I looked for the ox. In my case, I really wanted to find that ox. It was a matter of life and death. It was that real for me.
Q: Do you think most Zennists today are that dedicated?
A: I can’t speak for the average Zennist. But of Westerners who write books about Zen, I can’t imagine that they searched very much for the ox. These people have basically imitated their teachers; jumped through all the right hoops. They are clones. This may explain why Western Zennists don’t understand what koans are about. Koans are actually tests to see if you’ve seen the ox. If you have, the koans are almost like one big inside joke. Every koan is playing with the essence of Mind. If Zennists saw the ox they would know the real meaning behind why the Buddha held up a flower and blinked in front of Mahakashyapa. What did Mahakashyapa see that caused him to smile when others only saw a crazy old guy holding up a flower and blinking? The answer can be obvious or hidden if you’ve not seen, firsthand, pure Mind. You can’t bullshit your way through koans although Western Zennist are pretty good with their bullshit—or should I say, ox shit. This is also why they rely heavily on zazen. That’s all they have to teach; it’s all they know.
Q: I take it that you don’t believe zazen is the royal road to enlightenment. This is my impression since the idea of searching for the ox or pure Mind is a different kind of activity than just sitting. In what way does zazen help.
A: Zazen is basically sitting the Five Aggregates down on a zafu; trying to subdue Mara’s psychophysical body. Our body is the evil one’s property—every bit of it. We are stuck in his prison of flesh. The only means of escape we have is to transcend this prison by perceiving the ox. Mara’s world is really our unskilled states of mind which keep us in the dark about pure Mind. Before he awakened, the Buddha tried to subdue the Five Aggregates by means of asceticism. He didn’t succeed. It was only by realizing pure Mind by means of dhyâna that he succeeded. What I am trying to emphasize is zazen has its limitations. When Dogen said that sitting without attaining anything or understanding anything is the Way of Buddhas it was like he was saying, don’t search for the ox. Just sit down—do nothing. By reducing the search for the ox to the uncomplicated exercise of sitting—which is today’s Zen—Zen is essentially dead.
Q: But it’s okay to search for the ox from the posture of sitting, right?
A: Yes, of course. You can sit formally and search for it or sit on the crapper and look for it. Do whatever you need to do, but look for the ox wholeheartedly. When you find him the real journey of Buddhism begins. You’re just a baby Buddha—not yet a mature Buddha.