Polishing a Tile

In the "Fukanzazengi" or Universal Guidelines for the Practice of Zazen, Master Dogen wrote, "Have no designs on becoming a buddha." This refers to a story that Master Dogen also used and elaborated on in his text, "Zazenshin," between Master Huai-rang who was a disciple of the 6th Ancestor, Hui-neng, and Huai-rang's disciple Ma-tsu or Baso.

The story begins with Ma-tsu, who had been practicing in Master Huai-rang's community for some time, meditating very seriously and intensely, when one day Huai-rang came to Ma-tsu's hermitage while he was sitting zazen, and asked him, "What do you seek by doing zazen?" Ma-tsu replied, "I'm seeking to become a buddha [or I'm trying to wake up]." (Why else would he be meditating all day?)

So Huai-rang picked up a tile that had fallen off the roof and began rubbing it, which was meant to imitate Ma-tsu's activity of cultivating his practice. The Chinese character that is translated as polish also means effort and in a Buddhist context, it refers to practice. After awhile, Ma-tsu asked, "Master, what are you doing?" Huai-jang replied, "I'm polishing this tile to make it into a mirror." The mirror represents enlightenment, or the still, reflective quality of mind that reflects things just as they are when the mind is no longer distorted by delusion.

Ma-tsu then asked, "How can you make a mirror by polishing a tile?" Master Huai-rang came back immediately with, "How can you make a Buddha by sitting in meditation?" Ma-tsu asked, "Then, what shall I do?"[That is, if I don't meditate, how do I practice and awaken?] Huai-rang's next response seems to be a non sequitur, he said, "When you are driving a cart, if the cart doesn't go, should you beat the cart or beat the ox?" Ma-tsu didn't reply so Huai-rang continued, "Are you practicing sitting meditation, or are you practicing sitting Buddhahood?

If you are practicing sitting meditation, meditation is not sitting or lying down. If you are practicing sitting Buddhahood, 'Buddha' is not a fixed form.... If you keep the Buddha seated, this is killing the Buddha, if you cling to the form of sitting, you're not reaching its principle." At this point, Ma-tsu had realization and continued practicing with Huai-rang for ten more years, continuing to deepen his practice.

The common understanding of this story was that crossing your legs and sitting still, taking the posture of a buddha, doesn't make you into a buddha any more than polishing a tile will make it into a mirror. A buddha, or awakened mind has no fixed form and clinging to a form is a hindrance to liberation. Enlightenment is waking up to vast, limitless reality, not just holding still. It isn't developed gradually over time by refining zazen practice, nor is our practice limited to what happens when we cross our legs. If you leave your practice behind when you stand up after zazen, you are dividing your experience into practice by meditating and non-practice by doing your everyday life.

In Each Moment is the Universe, Katagiri Roshi wrote about this exchange. To Master Huai-jang's statement, "Buddha is not a fixed form or no solid form," Katagiri commented, "Dogen says that 'no solid form' is Buddha.... Your basic nature is no solid form." And Dogen's comment, "no solid form is buddha" characterizes the nature of reality. Katagiri said, "When no solid form appears in your gassho...you manifest the form of gassho and also something more — emptiness. At that time you cannot avoid Buddha and you manifest ...gassho as it really is."

Then Katagiri Roshi said something wonderful, "If one person manifests the whole universe, one person saves all sentient beings." He continued, "If you believe that saving all sentient beings is a ridiculous idea, your life is already rigid.... there is no space to be flexible, no space to manifest the unknown world through the form of your zazen...." "We have to manifest the unknown world simultaneously with the known world." which is another way of talking about the simultaneity of Difference and Unity, or diversity or differentiation and oneness.

To the phrase, "If you keep the Buddha seated, this is killing the Buddha, if you cling to the form of sitting, you're not reaching its principle," Katagiri Roshi said that the phrase, "killing the Buddha," was a favorite of Zen masters in China, but he said that this doesn't mean to really kill something. "It means total actualization and manifestation with no gap, no space to let something extra get in." He said, "If you sit zazen, you are melted into zazen." When I hear this, it reminds me of the way we make candles by taking the trimmings from many candles and melting them together to make a new candle so that the individual left-overs disappear into one candle. So, "If you sit zazen, you are melted into zazen," and the activity of zazen and you become one. Try to see if you can melt yourself into zazen, so there's no difference between you and zazen, no "you" trying to do zazen, there's just the experience of zazen, of openness, instant by instant, until you and your mental world return.

At the end of this exchange, Master Huai-rang said, "if you cling to the form of sitting or zazen posture, you're not reaching its principle." Katagiri Roshi commented that people think that not clinging to the form of sitting "means that you don't need to be concerned about the form or posture of zazen, because you cannot attain enlightenment that way. But this is a misunderstanding." Dogen meant that "we have to abandon our usual understanding of the zazen posture and touch the heart of zazen." Katagiri continued, "the zazen posture is really painful, creating lots of stiffness, just like climbing a mountain. But you love something that is at the heart of your life. In order to climb the mountain that is called life, you have to carry a form. It bothers you, but you do it anyway. Then you touch the heart of form..."

Katagiri Roshi went on, "Detachment does not mean you should ignore form; it means you have to attach to form through and through. A form may bother you but you need form because you love truth, you love peace, you love life itself." By joining ourselves to a form, or melting ourselves into a form like gassho, floor bows, or offering the Buddha tray, it's no longer "me" doing a particular movement. We actually move as the form, and the form and "me" are one, losing self-consciousness.

Returning to polishing the tile, and I know that this is a lot of words, the exchange between Mastser Huai-rang and Ma-tsu criticized systematic or methodical practice which is used in some Buddhist traditions where calming the mind and insight are developed in stages. Instead, this story supports the idea of sudden enlightenment — that enlightenment occurs instantaneously when we experience reality directly. At the beginning of the exchange, Dogen gives an alternate way to word this. According to Dogen, the question, "What do you seek by doing zazen?" is expressed more accurately when it is read as a statement, "Zazen is that seeking which is the Absolute." which expresses Dogen's view of the seamless unity of zazen practice and realization.

The foundation of Soto Zen is that we are already Buddha, there is nothing that we need that we don't already have, and it is actually the Buddha we are that enables us to practice in the first place. For Dogen, practice is a manifestation of ultimate reality-boundless reality—working through us. In his teaching, Dogen tended to use the terms "manifestation," "actualization," "authentication," and "verification" which connote an activity rather than the destination of enlightenment. Shohaku Okumura expressed practice as allowing zazen to

do zazen through me.

When Ma-tsu was asked, "What do you seek by doing zazen?" Dogen reworded the response, "I seek to become a buddha" to "Seeking is buddha-actualization" and Dogen commented saying, "...zazen is always that 'buddha-actualization' which is one with 'seeking;' zazen is always that 'seeking' which is none other than 'buddha-actualization'..."

The way the wording is changed equates seeking or practice with buddha-actualization. In this sense, the first period of zazen we sit, the zazen we do after years of practice, and our zazen during a long sesshin are all zazen. Whenever we sit whole-heartedly, we engage our whole being. Whole-hearted zazen is a complete act. Each time we totally engage in just sitting, we practice absolutely; and absolutely means completely, totally, with an all-inclusive quality. So there is nothing left over or left out of our zazen. Each point in time, our zazen is buddha-actualization; and there is no progress because there is nothing outside that moment of total engagement to compare it to. For Dogen, zazen practice and actualization are united and reaffirmed moment by moment.

When Huai-rang was polishing the tile and Ma-tsu asked," What are you doing?" Dogen commented, "Polishing a tile has been present in the Absolute," indicating that the activity of Absolute reality is "tile polishing" or practice, and "tile polishing never ceases," so there is no end to our practice. According to Dogen, practice is how we express and embody the Absolute or the non-dual, interdependent nature of reality. Dogen went on to say, that "tile polishing" or practice is not "mirror-making," because the practice of zazen is not a method for producing enlightenment.

For Dogen, practice is total and complete. When there is complete engagement, there is no anticipation of enlightenment. If we do zazen now, thinking about a future enlightenment, we aren't doing zazen. We are thinking about the future. In this practice, there isn't room for anything else, no room for future, no room for enlightenment, Buddha, or insight. There is only room for one activity: total engagement in immobile sitting, instant after instant; and total, non-dual engagement is itself realization. Again, there is no room for the two activities of total engagement and realization. Total engagement is realization. This total engagement is to throw our whole body and mind into our present activity without looking outside the present for a result or for anything to compare our experience to. Our practice, our very presence, is unique and non-repeatable, and each moment of being is complete just as it is.

Dogen taught that practice is how we manifest or express thusness or reality, not how we transform ourselves from a human being into a buddha. Likewise, the tile does not become the mirror because the tile already is the mirror. If you are practicing zazen in order to get something, a wonderful quality or state of mind, that you think you don't already have, that is delusion. By reaching out for it, you are reaching away from your own inherent completeness.

All we have to do is sit upright totally engaging in immobile sitting, engaging with our most fundamental, unembellished being. Try to melt yourself into zazen so there is no zazen, no you, there is only this ... just this.

© 2022 Taitaku Josho Pat Phelan