Probing and Polishing
By Mary Jaksch

This essay is about practice. A perennial question of people on the Zen path is: why do we have to practise when we are perfect and complete as we are? To embark on this theme I start with a well-known dialogue between Nanyue and Mazu:

Mazu was a monk in a large monastery with several hundred monks. One day a senior monk noticed this young man who would sit zazen deep into the night with total diligence and mentioned him to Master Nanyue.
Nanyue decided to check him out and found him in the Zendo doing zazen.
Nanyue asked, 'Reverend Sir, what is your purpose in doing zazen?'
Mazu answered, 'I seek to become a Buddha.' Nanyue then took a piece of roofing tile and began rubbing it with a stone.
Mazu said, 'What are you doing, Venerable Teacher?'
Nanyue said, 'I want to polish this roofing tile and make a mirror.'
Mazu asked, 'Can a piece of roofing tile be made into a mirror?'
Nanyue asked in return, 'Can a Buddha be created by doing zazen?'
Mazu was dumbfounded and could not reply.

The great Master Ma lived at the beginning of the 8th century CE. Here, in this story, we meet him when he was a student. You can sense his dedication and his strong aspiration as he sits deep into the night. Many years later Mazu received Transmission from his teacher Nanyue and went on to become one of the greatest teachers of Chan. It is said that he produced 128 successors and with this the ground was laid for the flowering of Chan in the Tang Dynasty.

When Mazu saw Nanyue polish a roofing tile to make a mirror he was taken aback. It seemed ridiculous! After all, in those times mirrors were made by carefully polishing bronze to a high shine. What was Nanyue's meaning? Some scholars and students have taken this koan to imply that zazen isn't necessary. But this is not the meaning of Mazu's reply. You need to look carefully into why a Buddha cannot be created by doing zazen. In fact a Buddha can't be made by any means at all! After all, what is Buddha? The Buddha is not someone long ago and far away. Just look at the one drinking tea in the afternoon, driving the car in the rush-hour, stroking the cat on the veranda, or agonizing over their tax returns. Not far away at all!

When Nanyue asked, 'Can a Buddha be created by doing zazen?', Mazu was dumbfounded and could not reply. To be dumbfounded is a common experience when you are working with koans. When you sit with Mu or another koan, at first there is just a vague darkness and you poke around in that darkness, trying to find something. When the teacher asks you, 'What is Mu?', you grope around in your mind without being able to rustle up a single response. And then, maybe there is a brief moment of light but it is not yet enough, it slips by and you can't find words to express it. Ch'en Ts'ao, an ardent student of the Way in ancient China said, 'When the mouth wishes to speak of it, words flee; when the mind seeks affinity with it, thought vanishes.'

Well, Mazu was dumbfounded - what about you? Why can't you become a Buddha by doing zazen? In the following story Mazu responds to this point. We see him as a ripe teacher in his first meeting with Dazhu (Great Pearl) Huihai:

Dazhu comes to see Mazu for the first time.
Mazu asked him, 'Where are you coming from?'
'I am coming from Dayuen Monastery in Yuezhou.'
Mazu asks him, 'What is your intention of coming here?'
Dazhu says, 'I have come here to seek the Buddha-dharma.'
Mazu said, 'Without looking at your own treasure, for what purpose are you leaving home and walking around? Here I do not have a single thing. What Buddha-dharma are you looking for?'
Dazhu bowed, and asked, 'What is Dazhu's own treasure?'
Mazu said, 'That which is asking me right now is your own treasure—perfectly complete, it lacks nothing. You are free to use it; why are your seeking outside?'

Mazu's questions seem innocuous, but he is like a fisherman letting down a hook to catch a fish. Dazhu's answer, 'I have come here to seek the Buddha-dharma' shows that he is an ardent student of the Way. Mazu immediately sets about demolishing Dazhu's concepts of Buddha-dharma and 'self': 'Without looking at your own treasure, for what purpose are you leaving home and walking around?'
Dazhu is shaken to the core and he bows, surrendering his ideas and concepts. Then, with an open and malleable mind he asks: 'what is my own treasure?' Although this story seems to be condensed down to one interchange in a single point of time, it is also possible that the actual time-frame may have covered many week, months or even years before Dazhu finally realized his treasure. You can imagine Dazhu waking, eating, and sleeping while the question 'What is my own treasure?' ran ceaselessly in his bloodstream until Mazu's words finally brought him to awakening.

As Mazu points out, what is the use of seeking for your treasure elsewhere when it is so close' Closer than close! Your treasure is right here from the very beginning. It has never been lost. When you see into your own treasure, there is liberation and joy. But to get to this point of insight is a struggle; it's not just a matter of sitting quietly. It is hard work and persistent dedication. Here is Aiken Roshi on this point:

I get quite exercised by the Rousseauian view that can be found in some Zen settings. This is the notion that we are born enlightened, and that somehow family influences and bad schooling divert us into delusion. If we just sit quietly and let thoughts and feelings die down, then our true nature will manifest of itself. It's not that easy and it's not self-taught.

So what is the process that we have to go through? Linchi, one of the great masters to whom we trace back our lineage, spoke to his students about his struggle for the Way. He said:

I encountered an excellent friend and teacher, and then my Dharma eye at last became keen and bright, and for the first time I could judge the old priests of the world and tell who was crooked and who was straight. But this understanding was not with me when my mother gave birth to me. I had to probe and polish and undergo experiences until one morning I could see clearly for myself.

As Robert Aitken Roshi says, 'Probing and polishing are the way of zazen, under the guidance of a good teacher.' He goes on to express very clearly that though we are born with the potential of awakening, we still have to struggle to attain clarity. So there are two sides to the matter, on one hand we need to keep polishing this tile and on the other hand, when we sit on our cushion, we sit as the Buddha—with nothing to add and nothing to take away.

How then can we approach practice' What is the work of practice? Here is Mazu again, as a student, asking his teacher Nanyue:

'How shall I do zazen in order to merge with the formless?
Nanyue said, 'Your study of the mind-ground is like planting the seeds. My expounding the essence of reality is like moisture from the sky. Circumstances have come together for you, so you shall see the Way.'

Our practice is planting seeds. We plant the seeds of awakening through patient and consistent practice on our cushion and in everyday life. We plant the seeds through studying the teachings of the Buddha and reading Dharma books. We plant seeds through struggling with koans. We plant seeds through thoroughly investigating our experience of existence. And as the seeds grow we let go of our tight grip on ideas and concepts.

As we let go of concepts around the 'self', we begin to inhabit ourselves more fully and this changes our life. The New Zealand poet Kevin Ireland said:

I think at decisive moments in your life, you do actually change dramatically if you decide to? you realize that you haven't actually lived inside your real self, that you've been floating around, and you've never really inhabited yourself.

When we inhabit ourselves fully, we let go of our preoccupation with 'I', 'me', 'myself'. There is an inspiring Haiku by Bassho touches on this:

Song of a cicada

It sung itself away


We can dance ourselves away completely, we can love ourselves away completely. We can grieve and cry ourselves away completely. At such a moment, all preoccupation with 'I' ceases for a while and there is no 'self' to be found. Who then is dancing? Who is singing? Who is hearing?

When we relinquish ourselves completely in the experience of a single moment, we awaken to who we truly are. However, even before such an experience, through practice and study, we gradually stop clinging hard to our idea of a separate self. This slow process of letting go manifests in the way compassion arises in us. After all, in a life that is caught in the idea and experience of a separate self, compassion finds only a slender foothold. But through practice, the heart gradually awakens to compassion and kindness and our actions spring more and more from the multi-centred 'self' that includes the whole world. Your intimate circle will notice a change in you, and babies and animals will respond to you differently. So, along the way, the teachings flow into our life and from there into the lives of those around us. We practise, study, and struggle, polishing that tile. And with this our life changes. But does our life transform?

To be truly transformed we have to awaken to our own treasure. What is that treasure? As Mazu says: 'That which is asking me right now is your own treasure—perfectly complete, it lacks nothing. You are free to use it; why are your seeking outside?' Nearly two centuries later Yunmen picks up this thread and said: 'Within heaven and earth, in the midst of the cosmos, there is one treasure, hidden in the body.' He was quoting from Master Zhou's Jewel Treasury Treatise. In The Blue Cliff Record, Yuan-wu comments on this koan:

The great meaning of this is to show that everyone is fully endowed, each individual perfectly complete'Some people can acknowledge this radiant spirituality as a jewel; but they cannot make use of it and they have not realized its wondrousness. Therefore they cannot set it in motion and cannot bring it out in action.

To realize this treasure is a blessing; the greatest blessing you could experience. It sets you free. It sets free the clouds, the rain, the mist in the valley. And there is no way you can force this freedom, no way in which you can manipulate circumstances for awakening to happen. You ripen and one day circumstances come together for you to see the treasure. And all the while you sow the seeds and polish that tile, bringing clarity, peacefulness and kindness to your life and the lives around you. No one can give you the treasure. It is yours from the very beginning. Only you can realize and use this treasure!

Look! Look!
On the ancient embankment, who holds the fishing pole;
Clouds roll on.
The water, vast and boundless -
The white flowers in the moonlight, you must see for yourself.