By Nyogen Roshi
Ummon addressed the assembly and said, “I am not asking you about the days before the 15th of the month, but what about after the 15th? Come, and give me a word about those days.” And he himself gave the answer for them. “Every day is a good day.”
— Case 6, Blue Cliff Record
This is an interesting little koan. Ummon was the founder of one of the five major schools of Zen. He was known for the depth and the precision of his statements. He had 40 successors, and yet his line was dead in 200 years. He appears five times in the Mumonkon and 18 times in the Blue Cliff Record, the two major koan collections.
You might think this looks like a pretty simple koan. One of the problems we have, though, is with translations. If we ever have the opportunity to listen or read Maezumi Roshi’s talks, we should. He talked on all these koans. There is another translation that says, “I do not ask you about 15 days ago, but what about 15 days hence? Come, say a word about this.” This wording may be a little clearer.
What are we asking here? At some point, we have to grant that it is a waste of time to dwell in the imagination, or discriminating consciousness, pulling things along behind us. This kind of activity is the activity of the deluded mind. This is the activity where psychology works, dealing with unresolved complexes, problems, phobias and whatever else we might have from the past. “I do not ask you about that time,” Ummon says.
But, you might argue, do you understand all the problems I had with my parents when I was a teenager?
But you’re not a teenager now, you’re an adult. You’re here now, as you are. Show me the problem. Bring out this problem you had with your parents 30 years ago.
It has distorted my psychology, you say.
Show me this distorted psychology! You’re here, as you are.
Nobody has ever resolved that kind of problem with the past. What you can do is go over something time and again until you’re bored with it. Once you’re bored with it, you pretty much let the problem go. “I’m just so tired of talking about my unresolved problems with my parents when I was seven!” You’re not going to be seven again, and your parents are old, maybe even dead. Give it a rest. Where are you? You’re here, now.
Look at what we do to ourselves. If you look very carefully, our own reactions cause this “distorted psychology” to come into play. Let’s say I had my problem when I was seven. I’ll be an 81-year-old man in April and unless I drop my own distortion, my behavior is based on a memory of how I responded as a seven-year-old. You can see that’s grossly inappropriate. Besides, how much of this seemingly solid, psychological mass is real? I have to give it juice! I have to bring it to life by ruminating constantly! If I don’t ruminate on it, I will forget it. And lo and behold, we don’t want to forget it, do we?
I’m not being facetious. Part of the problem you’ll find as you dig deeper into this is that you really don’t want to give up your painful junk. That certainly has been true for me. We really treasure it, because somehow with the way ego functions, our pain gives us a sense of identity. It gives us a sense of security. “Well, if I have this familiar problem to work on, somehow this seems safe.” It’s not, and you know it’s not. But will you give it up? Will you risk being here now? To the degree that I cherish my problem or pain, I’ll hold myself away from the now.
It’s one thing to understand what you’re doing intellectually. But just understanding it intellectually will only compound the problems of life for you. That isn’t what it is to be a practicing Buddha.
This practice is a living practice. It’s not something you do inside your head. We can look at Ummon, genius that he was, with 40 successors. And within 200 years, Ummon’s line had died out because it had been intellectualized. When you take shiho, or transmission from the teacher, that’s part of the vow you make: that you will not allow this thin, red line to die out. Maezumi Roshi always told me that at a minimum, the student should see as clearly as the teacher. The teacher actually wants the student to rise up higher so that the Dharma will flourish.
We often use psychological terms to explain life around us. You’ll see the student-teacher relationship compared to a therapist-patient relationship. That’s not the relationship at all! You have to understand that the teacher wants the student to exceed and go beyond the teacher’s realization.
Why? Out of a selfish reason. When any one of us turns the Dharma wheel and rises to the surface, everyone is lifted. Because it’s all one thing. So it’s extremely important that we all appreciate and work toward that goal: raising the Dharma. Not pursuing a colored robe, a title or a position. A colored robe won’t mean anything to you or anyone else at the moment of your death. You will die alone, and if you haven’t taken care of your practice, it will be a frightening experience, tumbling to the bottom.
This is an amazing, exquisite practice. We all have this rich opportunity. And for us, we’re so wealthy! Look at this beautiful center that we’re sitting in. With the opportunity to do nothing but practice Dharma. I want every one of you to rise very high. Who holds you back?
It’s up to you. Are you going to live in the shadow world of the preceding 15 days? “But what about 15 days hence?” Hence? Hence what? What is he talking about? Here! Now! Don’t trivialize it. Dig deeply into the samadhi. Raise that bodhi mind of compassion. Absolute being, with nothing trailing behind.
Go into this samadhi and then judge whether it is trivial or not. You’ll see that it’s not. You’ll know that none of the old masters have lied or exaggerated. It’s at that point that we can begin to do good.
Why don’t you want to do good? All of you have sat many sesshins here. You have the faith. You couldn’t sit a sesshin if you didn’t. What’s holding you back? Why won’t you step from the top of a 100-foot pole? Are you afraid that you’re going to be taken advantage of? Are you afraid that you won’t get what is yours? I love what Dogen said, “Only the most foolish think that another gains at his expense.” He also said, “Not one thought is worth a second thought.”
What does it mean, “Every day is a good day?” We normally think in terms of the relative. This was a good day, that was a bad day, making the comparison. I remember working on this koan and that was my realization. What exactly does “a good day” mean? Compared to what? And then I realized that I cannot compare this day to any other day. All I can do is fantasize about what I think a good day is. Ego mind is never going to allow me to totally appreciate this day because it picks and chooses!
What are your options? Can you crawl out of this moment? Can you go someplace and hide from the now? No. You carry it with you, and to say it that way is even wrong. It’s eternal. What’s eternal? That’s what you have to see! That’s what you are!
That’s realization means: all of a sudden, realizing that you are totally responsible for the mandala of the universe that spins around you. Think about that. Do you suffer? Are you frightened? Are you angry? Do you feel cheated? You’re the only one who can change that. And you can change it instantly. Then, every day is a good day. Or, this eternal day is perfect as it is. There’s nothing lacking. Don’t use the conceptual mind to define “good.” When you have a rigidly fixed standard that you produce, who’s going to measure up to it? How are you going to enforce that standard for your own benefit? This is the standards that come from the egocentric mind: “I’ll burn you at the stake for your own good. I’ll torture you until you realize the truth.”
Do you want to know the truth? Look around you, wherever you are. This is the truth! This is a good day! And if I don’t pick and choose, it truly is a good day, even with a flat tire on the freeway. (How many times have you heard me talk about that flat tire on the freeway?) It can be hell, or it can be an adventure. Wow! Here I am. I’m going to miss that important business meeting. Cars are flying past me just like bullets. Cops will come by to hassle me. What an amazing adventure! How can I maintain this exquisite practice?
Can you imagine living your life like that? “Nyogen, you’re exaggerating.” No, Rinzai said he could be reborn in hell and turn it into paradise. It’s always right in front of you. Even when this body decays and drops away, it’s still right in front of you.
Ikkyu’s death poem goes, “I won’t die. I won’t go anywhere.” Where is there to go? Now is always here.
But I’ve had an experience!
When did it occur?
Six weeks ago.
But what’s your experience now? Not the experience you had six weeks ago. If you talk about that one, that’s 15 days ago, and it’s your delusion.
Simply step forward, here now, with no shadow. Turn the light inward. Maezumi always told me, “Always reflect back on yourself.” No matter what the circumstances. Make no excuse for yourself, and always see how you could have handled things better. Not by meeting your own expectations, but by meeting the Way. How could I have taken care of it? It doesn’t matter what’s happening here. How well can I take care of it?
The more fully I evolve in the path, the more successful I will be in doing it. Then you start entering the realm of absolutely wondrous practice. Then you can start to do good. Not my way. The Way.
What about 15 days hence? It’s always now. If I’m concerned with these 15 days hence, I take care of now. I have no other place to take care of it. There’s nothing else that can be done for it. It’s now.
Don’t worry about being lost or clueless by giving up all your unnecessary rumination. If somebody asks you for your social security number, you’ll remember it. You’ll know how to get home. You’re never lost. You can always maintain this.
This day is eternal. It’s never repeated, and it’s totally new. Think about it. That’s your sanctuary. You’re always just at the beginning. You don’t have to worry about how badly you screwed up a week ago, a day ago, an hour ago, a minute ago. Now, you have the opportunity to transform.
If you’ve heard this talk, I’m going to save you lots of psychiatric fees. Just be now, as you are. I’m an old monk practicing; there’s a young monk practicing; and we all fall somewhere in between. Just practice where you are. As you are. And then follow the path that the Buddha set for us.
You say, “I don’t know how to do that.”
Sure you do. Pick up the Eightfold Path and read it. And if that gets too cumbersome, just look around you. And rejoice in this. Every day is a good day. And you are the one with your hands on the controls. You’re not a victim. You are the eye of creation. You have total responsibility for how reality forms around you.
The old masters have told us it’s safe to step from the top of that 100-foot pole. Once you do that, every day will be a good day.