Every day is a good day – a talk by Leland Shields

Posted by on May 17, 2019 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on Every day is a good day – a talk by Leland Shields

Blue Cliff Record, Case 6

Yun Men said, “I don’t ask you about before the fifteenth day; try to say something about after the fifteenth day.”
Yun Men himself answered for everyone, “Every day is a good day.”


He throws away one, picks up seven.
Above, below, and in the four directions, there is no comparison.
Placidly walking along, he treads down the sound of the flowing stream;
His relaxed gaze decries the tracks of flying birds.
The grasses grow thick,
The mists overhang.
‘Round Suhuti’s cliff, the flowers make a mess;
I snap my fingers; how lamentable is Shunyata!
If you move, thirty blows!
(Cleary, The Blue Cliff Record)


Yun Men once again gifts us an elegant, concise, and comprehensive story. He draws us in, asking for the distinction between the days before the 15th of the month, and after the fifteenth, and then wipes all away with his own response. In his response he also hooks us with two words, “every,” and “good,” in “every day is a good day.” He could have pointed to something immediate. If in Seattle during May, he could have said, “the sun shines behind clouds of grey.” He could have said, like an old Zen teacher of mine was fond of saying, “This day could not be otherwise.” Instead, he said more by including generalizing with the word, “every,” and he added the seemingly evaluative word, “good.” All the translations I could find had basically the same language.

To what is Yun-Men pointing?

I was carrying this koan through my days last month, when in the middle of my path walking home from work was the mangled, roughly torn off wing of a bird with black feathers and exposed bone and sinew. By the next morning when I returned to work, flies had found it. In ordinary language, yesterday was a bad day for the bird. Today is a good day for flies. I considered and set down the thought of taking the torn wing of the bird for a place of rest, and left it instead to shrivel over days as I would had I encountered it in the forrest. Seeing the wing, a flood of images came easily, of the part of one of my beloved cats left in the yard by coyotes, traumatized and anguished faces of friends, family, clients. The Buddha left home for a reason. How do any of us with an open heart live in the world of suffering? Yun-Men offered a simple statement from his response. Every day is a good day.

Yun Men’s statement is as radical as its message is pervasive. Some commentators say that Yun Men was alluding to cultural references about the days before the 15th being before enlightenment. If so, “every day is a good day” smashes the distinction of before and after enlightenment. What are we doing here, for a day of retreat, if every day is a good day? In his commentary, Eido Roshi said that in Yun Men’s time in China, the lunar calendar had 30 days every month, and the 15th was the day of the full moon. But the moon is always full, whether we can see it as so or not.

I’m in awe of Yun Men’s expressiveness. I can’t find enough ways to say, to remind myself, of the simplicity of “just this,” “here, here, right here,” “look nowhere else.” It can be the easiest thing in the world to remember a better time, wait for a better time. Longing, too, is right here, here.

The week my path was graced by the wing of the bird, I was also present for the utterly anguished, contorted face of someone I loved. We all have moments when “good day” is not the descriptor that comes to mind. So what is Yun Men talking about?

In holding this story, I returned to one of Hotei, who walked the streets of Tang dynasty China with a sack of candy to give kids, and toys and games to play with. Paul Reps included this story of Hotei in his book, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones:

Once as he was about his play work another Zen master happened along and inquired: ‘What is the significance of Zen?’ Hotei immediately plopped his sack down on the ground in silent answer. ‘Then,’ asked the other, ‘what is the actualization of Zen?’ At once the Happy Chinaman swung the sack over his shoulder and continued on his way.

Hotei was one more generous ancestor pointing for us with great simplicity. Hotei today shows us that Zen is not about something to add to our lives, it is about putting something down. Even as we sit in this (relatively) quiet room, compelling burdens arise – addressing health concerns of loved ones, or our own, responding to threats to shelter and sustenance, now and in the future, for us or others. What are the times you can fittingly put the sack down and breathe this breath? We can put down the idea of the one breathing, and breathe. As we can release the idea of eyes seeing, and see, of ears hearing and hear. Of heart longing and we long. We can put down the idea of releasing burdens, and live.

To this last point, there is another story of Yun Men shared by Hsueh Tou Ch’ung Hsien (980-1052, pronounced Shway Toe Ch-ung Shien), the compiler of the Blue Cliff Record. Included in his commentary for this case is the following:

As the master was expounding the Dharma, the royal attendant Ju posed a question; “Is the fruit of the Ling Shu (Spiritual Tree) ripe yet or not?” Yun Men said, “When have you ever heard it said that it was unripe?”

Once again, we are reminded that every day is a good day no matter the measure we wish to use.

I’m afraid my phrase a moment ago, “compelling burdens arise,” does not do justice to our experience on some days, if not all days. I came across a folk tale once of a woman who was given a task for her hero’s journey to go from where she was to a castle far away without stepping off the path to right or left. “Easy,” she thought, until beginning the journey. As she walked, a stranger approached and asked her to come over here and help an elder to walk up steps. Ah, our hero thought, this is what the task entails. As she walked the needs of those asking for help became increasingly critical, stopping bleeding and holding the bereft. Those beckoning turned from strangers to acquaintances, friends, family, her own children. I don’t doubt you are familiar with those thoughts that beckon to you as you sit, drawing you off your path, as I am familiar with mine. There are so many good reasons to step off.

We can’t take those calls at face value. Offer yourself the permission to have times when you release everything to breath, to mu, to the sound of Seattle. Hotei also shows us that Zen is not passive; the actualization is picking up our sack and speaking, driving, working, playing. The time to lift the sack comes as well. As lay folk here, I suspect our tendency is too often to respond to the cries of the world; perhaps we can instead take a little more time to set the sack down.

Yun-Men was not alone in this message to us. In Tenkei’s commentary to this koan, he said:

…When he comes down from that fundamental position to make a statement, then both before and after the fifteenth of the month there is something to ask and something to say…before the fifteenth day cuts off a thousand differences and myriad distinctions; after the fifteenth day also cuts off a thousand differences and myriad distinctions…Today is a fine day, yesterday the fog cleared and it was also a fine day; how is it for you?
(Cleary, Secrets of the Blue Cliff Record)

A fine day, no matter the features of the day. And this from Dogen:

In the spring hundreds of flowers, in autumn the clear moon

In summer a cool breeze, and in winter the white snow,

If your mind is free of vanity, then every season is fine.

(Steven Heine, Zen Poetry of Dogen: Verses from the Mountain of Eternal Peace. All Dogen quotes below are also from this source.)

I love that line – “If your mind is free of vanity…” Dogen has other writings that clarify that he is not saying that “fine,” means we are forever in a state of ease and comfort.

A heart subdued,
Yet poignant sadness
Is so deeply felt:
A snipe flies over the marsh
As autumn dusk descends.

Sitting in a booth of an Irish pub in Fremont one Friday night I read these poems of Dogen. I had taken someone I cared about to an 11 pm NA meeting, and waited within the raucous Irish music and the cries of a baby up too late, and who had no choice about being there. The thought arose to say something to the parents of the baby, as if there were a chance in the world that could go well. I set it down. What better venue could there be to set off the poems, with my own longing for home and bed, primed for the reading. A disk-shaped Harp Lager logo rotating on a bracket in the corner of the room took the role of full moon. There is no other moon than this this one. No other mood than this one.

Dogen’s own words demonstrate the breadth of the human experience that can be called fine.

Drifting pitifully in the whirlwind of birth and death,
As if wandering in a dream,
In the midst of illusion I awaken to the true path;
There is one more matter I must not neglect,
But I need not bother now,
As I listen to the sound of the evening rain
Falling on the roof of my temple retreat
In the deep grass of Fukakusa.
(One of six kanshi on the “time of my retreat”)

(Repeat the above poem)

I suspect all of us in this room can find ourselves in this poem, and take the teaching offered by Dogen. “Drifting pitifully in the whirlwind of birth and death,” lost in our thoughts, feelings, daily activities, even as our intention is to release the burdens. Indeed, there are matters we must not neglect, but need not bother now. Here is the place for the intention of our practice, while setting down the idea of practice. The intention of practice is not as something more to do, but something to set on the ground until it is time to shoulder it again. The intention of practice is like the current in a river. If we try and hurry it along by paddling with our hands, we are too forceful. When our intention is persistent, it carries us toward release, even as we wander pitifully.

We can generalize further from Yun Men. Every breath is a good breath, every tear a good tear, and therefore no need to look anywhere else. So, why are we here today, in this place of practice?

We gather to encourage ourselves and each other to see through the distinctions that divide, and inclusively turn toward. Turning toward what is, abandoning concepts, which include what we wish were true or will be true, or what we think could or should be true. Each of these concepts are in the sack we can put down from time to time.

It can be in times intensely difficult, or not, to bow, sit down, arms in front of us, and just breathe. With no point of view to hold. With this breath – no problem to solve. No one to convince of anything. I know someone who when not properly medicated tended to believe a comprehensive view of the world through delusions. When new medication was loosening the delusions, the person used rituals and symbols placed around where regularly seen to remind and reinforce the holding of the personal world view. We are all like this. The thoughts that stay with us as we sit are like this. To do otherwise is to release even views of clarity as good, clarity as different than not clarity. This is putting down the sack.

When we sit when angry, offended, afraid, we have a chance to see that which was in the sack we are compelled to continue holding, even litigating in our minds. “Yes, but I am right because of my arguments 1, 2, 3, etc., that I will place in my mind to maintain my world view. Yun Men points beyond all these ideas.

Red Pine recently translated The Empty Bowl Sutra into English for the first time. In his introduction Red Pine associated this sutra with the Diamond sutra, identifying both as the words of the Buddha. To finish today, I’d like to read the story from the very beginning of the sutra that reiterates Yun Men’s point:

Thus have I heard: Once when the Bhagavan was dwelling near Sarvasti in the Anapindada Garden of Jeta Forest and expounding the Dharma to the assembly, Manjusri Bodhisattva put on his robe at dawn, picked up his bowl and proceeded slowly toward the city.

A bodhisattva named Nagasri saw him and asked, “Where are you going, Sir?”

Manjusri answered, “I’m going to Sravasti to beg for food in order to help uplift and benefit others, to show compassion to all beings, and to help and comfort devas as well as people.”

Nagasri asked, “if that is so, Sir, have you not yet gotten rid of the conception of food?”

Manjusri said, “As for the conception of food, I don’t see it as existing. What is there to get rid of? And how so? The fundamental nature of all things is empty. Like space, it contains nothing to put an end to. How could I get rid of it? Neither devas, Mara, Brahma, nor the monks and priests of this world can get rid of it. And why not? Because the essential nature of all things is like that of space: ultimately empty, immutable, and devoid of anything to get rid of. Moreover, since everything is like space, neither devas, Mara, Brahma, monks, nor any other being can get hold of anything. And how so? Because the essential nature of everything is ungraspable, there is nothing to get a hold of.”

Nagasri said, “If It is as you say, why then do bodhisattvas struggle against Mara?”

Manjusri said, “Bodhisattvas don’t struggle against the drum-beating forces of Mara, nor do they see the slightest thing real on which to meditate…

Nagasri said, “Can they realize enlightenment?”

Manjusri said, “Yes they can.”

Nagasri said, “Who realizes it?”

Manjusri said, “Those with no names, concepts, or anything to say, they can attain it.”

(Pages 1-2)

And several pages later, after Nagasri got what Manjusri was saying:

Nagasri said, “…As long as bodhisattvas cultivate a practice without any thought of practice, they cultivate a practice that leads to enlightenment.”
(page 9)

In this sutra, Manjusri and Nagasri offer the path, and the context that led to our gathering today. Together we sit, moment by moment setting down the sack of names and concepts – even those about practice, clarity, and effort. When we find the sack or something from it in hand again, moment by moment we set down that which was empty to begin with. There will be a time to pick it up and walk to town, like Manjusri picked up his begging bowl, and Hotei his sack. Holding or setting down is a good day. Each of us has a way to turn toward what is; doing so is both the expression of, and practice of, no distinction. Turning toward, or not turning toward are also both the expression of, and the practice of no distinction. And so, we share this good day now, as it is, under the moon that is always full.