Using the Mind to Seek the Mind — Isn’t That a Great Mistake? A Talk by Leland Shields – November 14, 2021

Posted by on Nov 28, 2021 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on Using the Mind to Seek the Mind — Isn’t That a Great Mistake? A Talk by Leland Shields – November 14, 2021

(This is taken from a passage in…) Verse of the Faith-Mind

…Using the mind to seek the mind —

isn’t that a great mistake?

(Attributed to Chien-Chih Seng-ts’an], d. 606)

Case 37 of the Gateless Barrier:      The Oak Tree in Front of the Garden

A monk asked Chao-Chou in all earnestness, “What is the meaning of the patriarch’s coming from the West?” Chao-Chou said, “The oak tree in the front of the garden.”

(Robert Aitken, The Gateless Barrier, page 226)

Case 43 of the Gateless Barrier:      Shou-shan’s Short Bamboo Staff

The priest Shou-shan held up his short bamboo staff before his assembly and said, “You monks, if you call this a staff, you are entangled. If you do not call this a staff, you ignore the fact. Tell me, what will you call it?”

(Robert Aitken, The Gateless Barrier, page 261)

(From) Han-shan Te-ch’ing, Twenty-Eight Mountain Poems

Deep among 10,000 peaks I sit alone cross legged

a solitary thought fills my empty mind

my body is the moon that lights the winter sky

and rivers and lakes are only as reflections


(Translation by Red Pine, The Clouds Should Know Me by Now, Page 129)

In saying, “using the mind to seek the mind –isn’t that a great mistake?” Seng-ts’an cautions us against relying on our usual perspectives when seeking to see the world as it is. Chao-Chou cuts through both using mind and not using mind to recognize directly the undeniable oak tree inviting our attention. Not satisfied with recognition alone, Shou-shan calls for a response from us regarding the staff he holds. How do you respond without limiting or denying the staff?

Lastly, for Han-shan, seeing anew is helped by quieting the mind. When quiet enough to see it, the moon is unmediated by one who is seeing. I can find no words to help describe the empty-mind moon, reflected everywhere. Perhaps you can.

Each story is a surprise, pointing somewhere we are not accustomed to looking. Together they are coherent. We make ourselves available with intentional practice. Look here. Look differently. Use effort differently. Make mistakes. Try again. Do so persistently.

We all know what it is these worthies are pointing to. We know it in the extremes when someone close to us dies and our hearts are rent. We know that feeling when we see the mountains and an unmediated ripple through body and mind breaks through something of the chatter of evaluation. We know it in laughter and tears, love and loss. Words are not enough, not complete.

It’s easier to see anew when we’re stunned by awe. When sun breaks through clouds and distinct rays illuminate the mountains, we are stopped, and we see. After being splashed with rainwater by a noisy passing bus it’s harder to see anew. Though “harder,” may not be the right word – to stop is not effort.

Nothing of this is unique to Zen. Artists sometimes draw an object upside down so they can see it freshly. Publishers proofing a quote in a book will have one person read the quote to another backwards to avoid the mind filling in the expected, and missing the error in what’s written. I find comedians particularly brilliant in getting us to stop and see the unwritten we’ve assumed, as in this from Steven Wright.

I went to a restaurant that serves ‘breakfast at any time’. So I ordered French Toast during the Renaissance.


Another by Wright fitting to those of us sitting in meditation:

I was trying to daydream, but my mind kept wandering.


Comedians, artists, writers, are all masters at seeing the everyday anew. Newton and Einstein left out nothing of what came before them, and had to see the science of their days anew to recognize what was left out, incomplete. We all benefit from their work, like fresh air in a musty room.

In Zen we’re looking to refresh this experience, at all times, no matter how unremarkable, without leaving behind the world that exists as it is before us. So too in disciplines such as art, comedy, science, and other religions. Every one of us is Moses and everything we see, the burning bush. Everything is a chance to see anew. To call the table before you a burning bush is too grand: it distracts us from the immediacy of the table. Perhaps we should instead say “the burning bush is this table, here.”

Without a doubt it is essential that we use our minds. In the introduction to a book about cognitive science research and how learning begins even before birth, the author describes our perception before thought in this way:

“All that really reaches us from the outside world is a play of colors and shapes, light and sound. Take the people around the table. We seem to be husbands and wives and friends and little brothers. But what we really see are bags of skin, stuffed into pieces of cloth and draped over chairs. There are small restless black spots that move at the top of these bags of skin, and a hole underneath that irregularly makes noises.

The Scientist in the Crib, Alison Gopnik, 1999, p. 4

Researchers found the remarkable infant brain at birth can distinguish faces and voices from other sights and sounds, and prefer them. Within days babies recognize familiar faces and voices, and prefer them (p. 27). These pattern-matching functions of our brain are necessary for survival, and they show up everywhere throughout our day.

This incredible talent of our brains is astounding. But if misdirected, it entices attention away from that which cannot be measured, leaving no room for awe. We might comment on the diameter and age of an oak tree and compare it to another, but in so doing we lose touch with wonder that it stands at all, and that we have eyes to see.

Nothing here is inconsistent with understanding, or use of the rational mind. We fall into mu, not through figuring anything out, not by trying to get to mu, but by coming back to where it all begins. The world’s mystic traditions all advise us: start here. Separate from all expectations of self or other; start with what is in your hand right now.

A few lines after saying, “Using the mind to seek the mind — isn’t that a great mistake?”, Seng-ts’an said:

All dualistic views come

from your own mistaken deductions.

They are dreams, fantasies, spots before your eyes;

why do you try to grasp them?

Gain and loss, right and wrong —

let go of them once and for all!

To ask whether I’m using the mind to seek the mind, is using the mind. Using and not using are dualistic views coming from mistaken deductions. Letting go and not letting go are both mistaken deductions as well, and yet, we are told to let go once and for all.

Whether doing so once and for all or not, can you let go now?

Chao-chou offered the oak tree to the monk in his temple, jumping clear of mind/not mind. Stop. Oak tree, right here. The story is ancient, but he is pointing to what is right before you, at this moment, and what is before me.

We can listen again to a familiar piece of music, hearing the same notes as in all music. It was enjoyable as I wrote this to listen with Ave Maria in the background. And different when setting aside all else, rising and falling with high and low notes of the piano. I lean in and back with a change in volume. It all changes again when the soprano softly enters the room, carrying me as she builds. In the dynamic range, soft is enriched by strong, and slow by fast.

The Lady Julian was a strict recluse in 14th century Norwich, England. There is record of her describing an experience fitting to our topic.

Also in this He shewed me a little thing, the quantity of an hazel-nut, in the palm of my hand; and it was as round as a ball. I looked thereupon with eye of my understanding, and thought: What may this be? And it was answered generally thus: it is all that is made.

Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love (Kindle Locations 1043-1047).

If Lady Julian looked at the nut and had known it, there would be no story to tell of her day so long ago. In receptivity she instead wondered, “What may this be?” There is no space between Lady Julian and Han-shan, as he found [his body] “… is the moon that lights the winter sky.”

Even as we meet together today, can you stop here and now, and engage before thought? We need not evaluate our engagement; it’s enough to mu, to engage each sound now. If Jewish, would you meet the world differently if everything you saw was a burning bush? If Christian, would it be different to embrace each person, place, and thing as a presentation of God?

There is no need to identify with any of these categories of belief to engage – how about now?

I can’t say what it means to engage, I don’t know; I don’t understand. Looking again, we can not-understand together.

Standing in the line at Safeway, the oak tree arises as five people in line ahead of me. Oak tree becomes, “Damn I hope I get out of here in time to put away groceries and get to my next appointment.” Perhaps similar thoughts run through the minds of the person in front of me and behind me as well.

I can stand in line agitated, checking my watch, timing the checker in my line versus the one in the line to my right, watching for a way out. Or, I can stop. Seeing differently is invisible. It is experiential to me, even as it affects others as well.

I stand in the vortex of life here in Safeway with a myriad of beings walking around, living their own lives, choosing almond milk off the shelf and a pumpkin pie from the bakery. I stand in the vortex of the season. The fall days darkening for everyone in the store, changing the tone of the world for each of us and all of us.

Meet the world before the idea of World, and who could possibly be there to meet it?

For its own sake, we have a formal practice as we’ve been doing this weekend. We can sit down with no agenda, and see, and hear, and mu. We have no other goal beyond that. If breathing is a goal, we tangle up our own feet.

Zazen is an opportunity for quiet receptivity to the simplicity of a breath, to the sound of the furnace blower, of a squirrel running across the deck. So we sit quietly, sometimes together, sometimes alone. It can seem austere from the outside; it does feel austere sometimes, though that need not be a problem. Carlos rings three bells and a period begins. And there is bong…bong…bong… – not as three bells, but just bell, just bell, just bell. Without conflict, the form contains the signal of bells, and nothing but bong

In cognitive research on newborns, Adam Gopnik  found that we are hardwired to bring attention to what is novel, and that attentions drifts with what is repeated. When the sound of a bell is all there is, the sound is novel. When the sound of the second bell is solitary, filling an empty mind, the sound pervades rivers and lakes.

Does it matter that we do this, that we look differently? No more than it matters that butterflies migrate. We don’t have to know why to recognize they do, and no logic seems to be required.

On a good day we rest in the fact of misunderstandings with those closest to us, with the news of a shooting, of tragic deaths. It is laughter and tears with abandon. Free, unconstrained by ideas, what we see is more than the list of characteristics we can name. I am not my resume. You are more than I know of you. I am more than I know of me.

If now can we see differently it won’t change the laughter to something other than laughter, or tears to something other than tears. As Shou-shan asked the assembly to respond to the question of his staff, we respond to what is before us with laughter and with tears. There is no passivity implied by seeing anew. Driving in the rain, the streaks on our windshield are as it is. A response to replace windshield wiper blades is as it is.

If all these words serve to strengthen any system of beliefs, then they have missed their mark. I offer each word and this set of words as the cedar tree in your garden, as reminder that there is something more to see than our necessary strategic response to the many things of our lives. The stories of Zen are reminders of what we already know.

In the spirit of seeing fresh here, and here, I should give the same talk again next month. And the month after. If I did can I speak freshly next month? Could you hear it for the first time next month?

I’ll end with a haiku by Shiki, translated by Sam Hamill:

Just when the sermon
Has finally dirtied my ears
The cuckoo

(Shiki, trans. Sam Hamill, The pocket haiku, P 115 d. 1902)