Ma-Tsu 'This Very Mind is Buddha'

by Ross Bolleter Roshi

Wu-men Kuan Case 30

Ta-mei asked Ma-tsu: 'What is Buddha?'

Ma-tsu said: 'This very mind is Buddha.'

Wu-men's Comment

If you can grasp the point directly, you wear Buddha's robe, eat Buddha's food, speak Buddha's words, take Buddha's role. That is, you yourself are Buddha. Ta-mei however, misled quite a few people into trusting a broken scale. Don't you know you should rinse out your mouth for three days when you utter the name Buddha? If you are genuine, you'll run away holding your ears upon just hearing the words, 'This very mind is Buddha'.

Wu-men's Verse

The blue sky and bright day -

no more searching around.

'What is Buddha?' you ask.

Hiding loot, you declare your innocence. 1


Ma-tsu had a most striking appearance and bearing. He glared like a tiger, ambled like a cow. He could touch his nose with his tongue, and on the soles of his feet were wheel-shaped marks, two of the thirty-two signs of Buddhahood. And no wonder he was legendary; he lived long, taught prodigiously, one account claiming that he had one hundred and thirty-nine Dharma successors including great teachers like Pai-chang and Nan-ch'an. Ta-mei himself went on to become a teacher, one of his disciples being T'ien-lung who held up a finger to Ch'-chi and started a chain of karma that is not yet used up.1

'What is Buddha?' As soon as the question is raised there is confusion, and as soon as it is raised, that is already the matter itself. 'What is Buddha?' invites the teacher to respond from the ground of his or her realisation and for the student and the teacher to descend into the fire and to dance there together. The question is a challenge and the old teachers were most fertile and creative in responding to it. Yun-men came back with: 'Kanshiketsu!' (Dried shitstick). Tung-shan Shou-ch'u replied: 'Three pounds of flax!' Shou-shan responded: 'The new wife rides the donkey; the mother-in-law leads it by the bridle.' Infinite variety and freshness, sparing nothing.

At bottom it's a request for teaching, a cry from the heart, cutting through all formalities: 'I'm struggling, lost in distracting thoughts, full of pain and doubt. What am I doing here anyway? How can this doubting mind be Buddha-mind? What is Buddha anyway?'

Ma-tsu compassionately responded to Ta-mei with: 'This very mind is Buddha' pointing directly to the pain, the neediness, the deep questioning itself, to the rich darkness of Ta-mei's yearning, to the conceptions of realisation and delusion clouding his vision.

What are you thinking now? What image drifted through? What ancient story nudges at the edges of your awareness? That's it! The mind of walking about, the mind of being thirsty, these too.

Your own very mind is Buddha. Go into that! It's devastatingly simple, but cuts deep and points to where we're most blocked - with this very mind, with our thinking that sets us apart from the world, from the sources of life, that sets up self and other and locks us into exile. It's the bony structure, the defences we developed as little kids in the playground, in their hardened adult forms. We get better and better at defending this attitudinal emotional bone structure. We get so good at it that nothing or almost nothing can get through, and we lose our life energy defending it, if necessary to the death. This very mind is Buddha. This great dark submerged coral reef reflects the light of the moon (or as John Tarrant Roshi puts it so beautifully: 'Holds up the moon') - no less than the sound of the sweet ringing bell going right through you.

When you travel the Path, characteristically it's like walking. Left foot goes down - you return over and over to the koan, not getting caught up in passing fantasies, not getting distracted by the view. Right foot goes down - having no choice you turn and include the fire of anger and frustration that has been mounting and give it its home.

Maybe you find your shoulders are tense, your throat is constricted, or your crown chakra is on fire, or perhaps your chest feels like it's vaporising and your stomach is hot and tight with many currents surging there. You let your awareness go to the place where your anger lives and let the sensations rest in your awareness - as your awareness. Even if you can't attend to the whole body of your anger, just to touch the fingertip of it, just to be able to include that tiny bit gives release, awakens the body of the Buddha.

Including, including, including - until we do that we aren't quite real; even if we've had some opening - the night countryside seen in a lightning flash, the tiny hamlets with their flickering lights, the dark mane of the forest, the mountains poking up like knees - we aren't yet genuine.

Left foot goes down, right foot goes down - and after a while we don't care which is which - walking, walking. Unknowingly we deepen, obliviously we ripen.

Ta-mei asked Ma-tsu: 'What is Buddha?' Ma-tsu responded: 'This very mind is Buddha' and the way stood open to Ta-mei. The story goes that he went off to meditate with 'This very mind is Buddha' in a hermitage deep in the forest. He didn't feel it was all used up, or that he should abandon it because he'd opened up a little from hearing it. No doubt the privations of his new living style - the frustrations of having to gather his own food and cook it, the demons that arise during a long period of being alone provided rich fodder for his investigation of 'This very mind is Buddha'. This went on for some months. I think Ma-tsu got curious about what was happening to Ta-mei so he asked a monk to pay him a visit to see how he was going. The monk found Ta-mei who asked him, "What is Ma-tsu teaching these days?" "Not mind, not Buddha," replied the monk. Ta-mei said: "I still say: 'This very mind is Buddha". The monk returned to Ma-tsu and told him of the story. Ma-tsu said: 'Oh, the Great Plum is ripening' (Ta-mei's name means 'Great Plum'). Why did he say that?

Well, there's Ta-mei's confidence and integrity. He's standing on his own two feet now: 'This is how I see the matter. This is my Dharma'. 'This very mind is Buddha' has ripened him, a ripening born of deep brooding - sitting with it, suspending thought and letting something not in his grasp come to its time.2

The character fu (truth) which appears as part of the Chung-Fu (inner truth) hexagram in the I Ching, shows the picture of a bird's foot over a fledgling, suggesting to the author of the I Ching the idea of brooding. The account goes on: The egg is hollow. The light-giving power must work to quicken it from outside, but there must be a germ of life within, if life is to be awakened.

The germ of life is that deep pull that gets you onto your mat in the morning, that gets you to Sesshin against all odds - cars breaking down, your children deciding they need you far more deeply than the holiday you'd planned for them at the beach. It's also what keeps you coming back to your koan in the midst of your fatigue in the long Sesshin afternoon, brooding on 'Mu' or 'Who is hearing?' Like the hen, in that ancient Taoist saying, who can hatch her eggs because her heart is always listening.

What is the heart's listening? When the crow carks you find yourself smiling broadly without knowing why. You sing your chooks' song back to them, as them, without a trace of self-consciousness. You can feel down the taproot of your anger the movement of your fear and woundedness. And you can be with others, open to their suffering and the teaching that they convey from there. I remember being at Waikawa marae at Picton, sharing a room with the Kaumatua, John Haruru who is very sick. In the grey, misty, damp morning we went for a slow, slow walk together. "One day at a time," he said, and I thought of my friend and fellow teacher Een Kiera who tells of her mother, old and in terrible pain with arthritis, who says, "I love every step I take!" Every step we take is a huge, felt fact.

As we deepen in the Way all this begins its gathering and with it there comes an indefinable confidence and joy. You begin to experience the potency of Wu-men's words, in his commentary on 'This very mind is Buddha'. If you can grasp the point directly, you wear Buddha's robes, eat Buddha's food, speak Buddha's words, take Buddha's role. That is, you yourself are Buddha. Actually it's quite a journey from seeing into 'This very mind is Buddha' to being able to live 'You yourself are Buddha'. We see it in a flash but it has to be brooded, blooded, chewed and swallowed before it becomes genuine.

Wu-men continues his commentary in his ironic, debunking way: Ta-mei, however misled quite a few people into trusting a broken scale. Just his asking: 'What is Buddha?' brings with it a swarm of concepts. It also encourages others to ask the same question, or worse still go on dragging out Ma-tsu's response: 'This very mind is Buddha'. Bad news. Each time it's raised, the broken scale will give the same reading no matter what's placed on it. 'This very mind is Buddha' will be trotted out in all sorts of circumstances, to rescue a bad script, to cover ignorance.

Ta-mei, mountain-like in his new found confidence, insists on 'This very mind is Buddha'. Quite right! Ma-tsu has already moved on in his teaching. 'What is Buddha?' the student asks. 'Not mind, not Buddha' replies Ma-tsu - an antidote to the poison of 'This very mind is Buddha'. Like the great teacher he was, he found fresh means to show the Way. As soon as he sensed that 'This very mind is Buddha' was hardening into prejudice and unchangeable certainty in his Sangha, he hacked out the supports, ripped out the shackles with 'Not mind, not Buddha'.

All this is part of an old story which goes: A monk asked why Ma-tsu maintained 'This very mind is Buddha'. Ma-tsu answered: 'Because I want to stop the crying of a baby'. The monk persisted: 'When the crying has stopped, what is it then?' 'Not mind, not Buddha' was the answer. 'How do you touch a person who does not uphold either of these?' Ma-tsu said: 'I would tell him: 'Not things'. The monk again questioned: 'If you met a person free from attachment to all things, what would you tell him?' The Master replied: 'I would let him experience the great Tao.'3

The teacher having rocked this way and that way on the brink of delusion for the sake of the student, steps aside, and then! Nothing is greater than breakfast, nothing more profound than lunch! When a child is there you're there for that child. When your friends are fortunate you share their joy. One of the gifts of the Tao is that it enables us to allow the envy that arises along with the joy in our hearts. It gives us time to respond rather than react. Breathing time. So instead of shouting at your child you have a chance to register the anger that's there in your heart and find another means of dealing with the situation, like humour that's not sarcastic, arising from unknown depths.

'This very mind is Buddha' - you don't have to deserve the Way. You're perfectly formed for the Way exactly as you are, with exactly the upbringing you got, with precisely the character faults and crumbly edges you have. In the light of this we can get to know our anger, our violence, our cruelty, for it's only while we're unconscious of them that we harm others and are a danger to ourselves. And this is not some kind of weird perfectionism. You don't have to be perfect. How unbearable you'd be.

Don't you know you should rinse out your mouth for three days when you utter the name Buddha? If you're genuine, you'll run away holding your ears upon just hearing the words, 'This very mind is Buddha'. Uttering the name, hearing the words may set us on the Path, may open the Way for us, but if we get attached to them they block the light, obscure the clarity. So let go, move on and you can experience:

The blue sky and bright day -

no more searching around.

'What is Buddha' you ask.

Hiding loot you declare your innocence.

Where could you possibly search? What could that searching be? To even ask: 'What is Buddha?' reveals your infinite culpability.

A little girl telephoned Maureen Stuart Roshi and asked her:, 'Do Buddha's have painted toenails?' The teacher replied, 'Do you have painted toenails?' 'Yes' the girl replied and immediately hung up.

* * *


1. The Gateless Barrier, transl. Robert Aitken, North

Point Press, 1990.

2. Susan Murphy, 'The Pressure of the Unconscious upon the

Image: The Subjective Voice in Documentary' from Deveroux

and Hillman, Fields of Vision, University of California Press,

1995, p293.

3. Original Teachings of Ch'an Buddhism , Chang Chung-

Yuan, Vintage Books, 1971, p150.

© 1997 Ross Bolleter

No reproduction without the authors permission please.