Think neither good nor evil

This is my first Dharma talk I gave prior to the Hossen ceremony I did at the dojo in Camberwell on the 12th of June 2022.

The Sixth Patriarch was pursued by the monk Myõ as far as Taiyu Mountain.

The patriarch, seeing Myõ coming, laid the robe and bowl on a rock and said, “This robe represents the faith; it should not be fought over. If you want to take it away, take it now.”

Myõ tried to move it, but it was as heavy as a mountain and would not budge. Faltering and trembling, he cried out, “I came for the Dharma, not for the robe. I beg you, please give me your instruction.”

The patriarch said, “Think neither good nor evil. At this very moment, what is the original self of the monk Myõ?”

At these words, Myõ was directly illuminated.…. 

In the Mumonkan, collection of Koans, this is case 23, Think Neither Good Nor Evil. 

2 people are running in the woods, in the mountains. As a lover of running and mountains myself, this Koan inspired me to use it for this talk. Of course, this is the more superficial reason for my choice as there are deeper motivations which I am going to illustrate. So, why the story of the 6th Patriarch Eno and Myõ? Who are they and why are they running? 

Eno was an illiterate woodcutter from the South of China. One day, he heard a monk reciting a passage from the Diamond Sutra. “Without abiding anywhere, let the mind work.” Instantly, Eno saw into the meaning of the verse and had a profound awakening. Eno experienced the original nature of the mind. When the mind doesn’t abide with every arising thought, it is able to work effectively, helping us to function in the world. No fixing on concepts, no fixing on ideas of good and evil, no fixing on the past and the future – as a result, having the clarity to stay in this present moment, here and now, as the moment really requires. Eno asked the monk, “Where can I find out more about this sutra?”

The monk replied, ‘from the Fifth Patriarch Gunin, based in the North of China’. Eno wants to meet Gunin and travels north. ‘Where are you from and what do you hope to accomplish by coming here?’ Gunin asks upon seeing Eno. ‘I come from the South and I come for one reason: to become a Buddha.’ Replies Eno. ‘But if you are from the South, how can you possibly become a Buddha?’ Gunin continues. In those days the South of China was considered backwards and barbarian by people in the North. Hence, Gunin’s remarks. But Eno replied, ‘People might be from the north or the south, but not their Buddha nature. Our bodies can appear to be different and separate from one another but how can our Buddha nature differ?’ Eno clearly saw how concepts such as north, south, backwards, barbarians, etc. are man-made and how in reality we all share the same nature. There is not a fundamental good or bad in being from north, south, east or west. Eno realised how all these concepts, this sense of belonging to South or North ‘distracts’ us into thinking that we are separate from each other. What lays deeper is our truest nature, and, kings, peasants, scholars, the rich or the poor, the educated or the illiterate, you and I have all the same Buddha nature. 

In the conventional way we refer to things, I share the same story with Eno. I, Riccardo, this body, comes from the South of Europe that can arguably be judged as backwards and barbarian compared to the north of Europe. However, these concepts are empty of a fixed independent nature and for that reason, they can’t be trusted when judging people. This is what we refer in Buddhism as emptiness. This doesn’t mean that things do not exist, but that things are empty of a fixed entity, they depend on other things, they are a continuous process. Concepts, ideas and thoughts depend on other concepts, ideas and thoughts. They are just a process in continuous evolution. When we treat them as fixed and absolute, we create the conditions for separation that can easily lead to conflict and suffering. Our Buddha nature is not a separating factor but a uniting one. It makes us all belong to the same reality, that same process which we experience moment after moment, simultaneously here and now, in this precise moment, in this one, in this exact one. 

After he spent some time working in the kitchen in Gunin’s monastery, Eno receives transmission by Gunin himself. The other monks considered this decision a bad decision. How an illiterate person from the south who is not even a monk can carry the Zen flame?  The monks want to re-establish what they thought was good for Zen and they organise a party to bring Eno back. Myõ, an ex-soldier, is the leader of this party. And here we have our pursue in the wood.

The Buddha, in the first Noble Truth, says that life is suffering. He goes on to say in the second Noble Truth that this is caused by our desire to want things different than they are. This can easily be seen in Myõ here. He suffers because he desires things to be different than they are. Myõ allows his mind to abide with his ideas of what he thinks to be good or evil. Myõ is not accepting Eno as the 6th Ancestor, he thinks it is a bad choice and chases him, blindly, as if guided by an inner monster who just wanted things to go his way. 

How many times have I found myself in this situation? How many times have I allowed my mind to abide with ideas or thoughts of what I considered good or evil? I can guarantee you, many! That person works too slowly, it is bad, I wish they could do things faster, the weather is cold, it is very bad, I wish I was in Italy, this climb is steep, very very bad, I wish I didn’t come this way. The list is endless! How about you? Do you happen to allow your mind to abide with ideas of good or evil? How does it make you feel?

The great realisation of the Buddha is in the Third Noble Truth, we can end suffering. Stop wanting things to be different than they are, stop following those cravings and desires, stop holding on to ideas of good or evil, allow space around these elements when they arise in the mind, allow them to arise and pass and suffering will not occur. This is what this Koan sparked in me, seeing for myself, clearly, when I hold on to ideas of good or evil; when I blindly act in accordance to these thoughts. When that holding on stops, reality arises, uncontaminated. With that, a different way to respond to the present moment also becomes clearer. 

And here the epilogue of this Koan.

Eno is inviting Myõ to be mindful of what is happening in his mind right now, at this very moment. Think neither good nor evilWhat is the original self of Myõ? That must have shown him the original nature of his own mind, beyond the thoughts that were passing through it. Myõ must have noticed how he was holding on to his ideas of good or evil. 

This seemingly natural way of engaging with thoughts resonates with me, a lot. I can have thoughts running through my mind of sunny days being good and rainy ones being bad, I can feed these thoughts, hold on to them and add stories to them, so easily. ‘No sun, no bike, stuck inside, boredom, unfair, I wish I was somewhere else’. Likewise, Myõ was entertaining his thoughts about Eno and his recently obtained transmission, ‘this is bad, unfair, will lead to disasters’. Myõ is not aware of what these thoughts are doing to him. But Eno now wins Myõ’s attention.  Now, think neither good nor evil, what happens to Myõ?  Is it disappearing with these thoughts? Or, does he still exist? Where is his original self? Is this dependent on these thoughts of good or bad or is it beyond that? 

Myõ was directly illuminated and we can realise what Myõ realised ourselves, here and now. What is left of this moment when we let go of those ideas of how this moment should or should not be? Beyond those thoughts that might arise in you about this talk, about these very words you just heard, are they good, are they bad? Pause for a second, what is left?