A monk asked Unmon, “What is Buddha?” Unmon replied, “A dry shit stick.” Why? Where is Buddha in this regular, shitty, unsatisfactory experience? I’ve heard a thousand times that ordinary mind is Buddha. Here, I try to explain how to actually practice this truth.


Good Evening. I’m Jiryu.

The first thing I want to say is somebody is on my mind; Ravi Ragbir, who is an immigration rights activist. A lot of us at the Zendo have met him. He’s the director of the New Sanctuary Coalition, which stands up for the rights of undocumented immigrants when they are meeting with ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agents trying to protect themselves from being deported. Ravi himself is undocumented and a lot of undocumented immigrants are unknown to ICE and they check in with them regularly. There’s sort of a deal where if you go to the federal building downtown periodically and check in with them, they won’t deport you. But they can cancel that deal at any time. That seems to be what happened to Ravi this morning. He went in to the federal building and he hasn’t come out. And a number of us, through various mailing lists, got alerts about this. I called Carolyn Maloney’s office and anyone I could think of, but we can’t really do very much and we don’t know what’s going to happen. So, Ravi is on my mind right now. If he’s deported, it’s going to devastate him and his family here in New York, and the movement that he leads.

Luckily, we can get our minds off that with some comic relief. We’re going to do a koan tonight. One of my favorites. The Gateless Gate, Case 21.

A Monk asked Unmon, “What is Buddha?"
Unmon said, “A shit-stick!”

This is a Classical Chinese koan. It was originally published in 1228. Unmon was not that long dead at the time that this was published. He was the teacher of Mumon, who compiled the Gateless Gate. The Japanese term that is used for shit-stick is “kan-shiketsu” which—I don’t know Japanese or Chinese at all—some people have translated this as either, “useless shit-stick” or “dried shit-stick.” But whichever one it means, I do know why shit-sticks were on Unmon’s mind. Apparently at that time, monks did not have toilet paper and they would clean themselves with these smooth (I hope) flattened sticks of bamboo or some sort of polished wood that they would use to kind of scrape themselves clean after using the outhouse. I think that they are like the spatulas we use for oryoki, maybe not quite as fancy. But if you see monks in our sangha eating with their bowls, there’s this nice, lacquered, flattened stick covered with a piece of cloth and that forms a spatula which you can wash and reuse. The shit-sticks that Unmon would have dealt with would be a downmarket versions of that same idea.

There’s a little bit of dispute over this. The Vietnamese scholar and monk Thich Nhat Hanh commented on this koan. He said:

Scholars still aren’t sure if the phrase “a stick of dry fecal matter” means the fecal matter dries and becomes very hard like a stick, or that the monks there used sticks as toilet paper.

Thich Nhat Hanh is one of the scholars I respect most, but I think he’s being overly cautious here. It’s very clear. If you read the Wikipedia article for shit-stick, you will find that the enthusiasts have written down a lot of information about these instruments. You can even see photographs of shit-sticks that were dug up from an archeological site in the Japanese city of Nara, which has the greatest temples in Japan. They sticks are about 1,300 years old but they’re still pretty preserved. They’re flattened sticks, maybe not as smooth as you would have liked. And it’s very clear that monks were using this.

Now this isn’t necessarily an Asian thing, it’s more of a Buddhist thing. The Wikipedia entry says:

When monks and missionaries introduced Buddhism into China and Japan, they brought the Indian custom of using a salaka, which is the Sanskrit term for “a small stake, stick or rod for wiping away excrement.”

Translators into Chinese rendered this Sanskrit word into a number of new Chinese words. The custom of using shit-sticks became popular. They had advantages of being inexpensive, washable and reusable.

So, that must mean that there are actually Buddhist texts that mention shit-sticks that predate the Chinese mention of them and that turns out to be true. There are these monastic lists of rules called the Vinaya which come from India, from the very first Buddhist monasteries. There was one that was translated by the Indian monk named Buddhabhadra all the way back in 419. In the toilet etiquette section of these rules, it says that a monastery’s indoor toilets should be partitioned for privacy and that the shit-sticks should be placed at the side.

So, let’s focus.

A monk asked Unmon, “What is Buddha?"
Unmon said, “A shit-stick!”

This is short, ordinary, everyday life kind of banter that we see all the time in the koans. There’s another conversation with Unmon himself, where a monk says, “What is the talk that transcends Buddhism patriarchs?” Unmon says, “A rice cake.”

It wasn’t just Unmon’s personal style. In the Mumonkan alone, there’s a handful of very similar koans. A monk asks Joshu, “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma coming from the West?” Joshu says, “The oak tree in the garden.” A monk asks Tozan, “What is Buddha?” Tozan says, “Three pounds of flax.” A monk asks Baso, “What is Buddha?” Baso gives it away. He says: “This very mind is Buddha.”

What is this lesson, about this very mind? I’ve been kind of skimming it, nodding my head, thinking I know what we’re talking about for years. It’s such a simple lesson that I think I already know. What is Buddha? It’s this. Right? Very straight forward. I don’t have to explore that any more deeply, because it’s so obvious. And this problem, that I dismiss things as soon as I understand them intellectually, this is the problem that the koans are a method of solving. That’s why they use these metaphors. That’s why they don’t just say, “This very mind is Buddha” over and over again. They try different ways to startle me into realizing that I may understand it but I haven’t figured out how to practice it yet. That’s why koans are weird.

When I sit zazen, I’ve got two big compulsions. The first compulsion is to think. To plan my future, to review my memories of the past, to analyze, to refine my plans so that I will somehow succeed in the future. I’ll achieve something or I’ll avoid messing something up and being embarrassed.

There’s a second compulsion, which I think may be even more dangerous because it feels like zazen. This second compulsion I have is to just cut off the thoughts and go blank. Only pay attention to sound, smell, taste, touch, sight. And just really bear down on that concentration so much that it blanks out my thinking. Stops that compulsive planning and remembering in its tracks. And for a really long time, I actually thought that was the right answer. That that is Unmon’s shit-stick, that’s Tozan’s three pounds. Just stop thinking and just stare real hard at the floor. Clear the mind. And I can tell myself that this is what the old monks were telling me to do. After all, when Joshu was young, he asked his teacher, Nansen, “What is the way?” And Nansen said, “Ordinary mind is the way.” And for a really long time, I thought that this is what I was accessing by just suppressing thought. Like, “I suppress thought and there’s ordinary mind,” a blank, physical perception.

My idea of this ordinary mind was to cut off my anxious thoughts, not experience the sense of inadequacy, not allow my emotional sensations to appear at all. Just hammer them down with a mallet of concentration. It’s a comforting idea that that’s what we’re going for, because it feels momentarily peaceful, like a break from the difficulty of my life. I kind of wish that that were the goal, to be honest with you. But I have to admit that it is not. My ordinary mind is worried a lot of the time much more than I knew, until recently. Bypassing it by just paying attention to the five senses is not real zazen. It’s not real life; it’s not the ordinary mind that we were talking about.

I had a real breakthrough around this, this summer during sesshin. There’s a week long retreat—well, it’s a month long, I went for the final week of it—where our Zendo rents this nice big farmhouse upstate and we sit in silence and meditate for a whole week. And I went into it shocked by this crisis that happened, as I perceived it. I had been working with a couple of colleagues all summer long on a design for a piece of software that I was responsible for. We had worked hard, had a lot of difficult debates, come to a consensus, finished our design and turned it into our boss, days before the sesshin began. And hours before sesshin began, I checked my email on my phone and I saw that our boss had rejected it. He said, “Nope,” and he told us what we should do instead and told us that we had to rewrite it.

So I turned off my phone and started trying to meditate. And an incredible amount of anger and disappointment and the sense of embarrassment overwhelmed me. Like, I thought that my thoughts were worth something and it turned out that they weren’t, that my boss got to think and I just got to write down his ideas. That’s how my perception had changed. But I found that my regular technique for handling these sorts of thoughts, for blanking my mind, was absolutely insufficient compared to the strength of what I was feeling.

I found my way down through the thoughts, down the stem, to the root of them. The anger and anxiety that was driving them was down here in my body. And once I was willing to confront that feeling—a sort of sick tingling in my solar plexus, a sense that my body was on fire with that burning—once I met that feeling, the whole point of the thoughts was moot. The point of the thinking is to prevent myself from feeling that. Once I’ve confronted it, my thoughts just threw up their hands and said, “Well if you don’t want us to protect you, if you’re just going to go down into that cave alone like an idiot, then we quit.” And that breakthrough lasted through the rest of sesshin. It made the sesshin extremely unpleasant because I had to feel what I felt without my customary armor, throughout the rest of the week. But at the same time there was a joy in feeling that way because it’s real zazen and it’s real life. It’s the real shit-stick, to actually feel what I feel, without either trying to fix it by thinking my way out of the box, or trying to ignore it by suppressing that feeling. That’s the ordinary mind that we’re here to practice.

This inquiry is going on, it’s not just about work. It’s about every aspect of my life that I can name. These questions about the decisions that have brought me along so far and what’s going to happen next. I don’t know. But at the very least I have confronted it directly.

This is how I practice now. When I feel these obsessive thoughts come up, I think of them as the leaves at the top of the plant. And because these thoughts are here, I can follow them down. Down the stem, down to the root. And once I have touched the root, I no longer need to cover it over with the leaves as much. First, think, then, follow the feeling, feel it in my body, the thoughts subside, the feeling remains. A lot of times you’ll hear a teaching like, “If you truly experience your emotion, it will change and go away.” And that’s offered sometimes as a bit of candy in exchange for doing the hard thing. And for me that has not been the case. There’s a lot to get through and I haven’t gotten through it yet. But that’s not my goal. My goal is just to really be alive.

Do you know that hokey story about the poor man who wanders all around begging, when the whole time he has a jewel sewn into his robe that he didn’t know about in the Lotus Sutra? In the Lotus Sutra, it’s told weirdly. There’s a poor man, we don’t know his name. He has a rich friend. We don’t know the rich friend’s name either. So, I’m going to call them George and Preston.

George is very poor but he had a rich friend named Preston. One night he went over to Preston’s house for dinner. He ate so much fancy food and drank so much expensive port wine that he fell asleep in Preston’s house and Preston couldn’t wake him up. Now, Preston had a very important meeting early the next morning, so he had to get on a plane and leave. Preston has first class priority boarding, TSA Pre-Check; he wasn’t going to wait for anything. But before he left, he wanted to give George a gift. He couldn’t wake George up, he couldn’t wait for him, so he—and this is where things get weird—sewed a precious jewel that would grant any wish into George’s robe. And then he left.

George wakes up with a hangover and leaves Preston’s house. He has no idea he has this jewel. He goes wandering all over India and things start to go really bad for him. He gets swindled, he loses his money. Eventually, he’s penniless and hungry. He has to make a few rupees here and there by being a squeegee man. He’ll stand in front of cars when they’re stopped at traffic lights and wipe off their windshields and beg for a few rupees, just so that he can get enough to eat. Years go by, and he wanders back into his hometown and he runs into Preston.

Preston says, “George I haven’t seen you in years. You look terrible. Why are you here asking for a few rupees to wipe the windshield of my Maserati? What happened to you? Didn’t you get the gift I gave you?”

And George is like, “What gift?”

And Preston says, “It was sown into your robe the whole time.”

The Lotus Sutra doesn’t mention it, but I assume that George said, “Why didn’t you just put it somewhere where I would see it?” I don’t know. I think George learned more this way. First of all, he learned that he likes squeegee-ing. He likes the way that the water ripples down the windshield before he wipes it away. So he’s continued to do that pro bono.

But, the other thing that George learned, of course, is what we keep hearing but never believe. That the thing we are searching for is here. That it’s already the oak tree in the garden. It’s already the bucket full of used shit-sticks in the outhouse. We’re not here to improve ourselves so that we feel different and we like our lives more, so that then we can accept our lives. We are here to accept the lives that we have. This is the shit-stick. And only when we do that, can we really live the lives we have. I’ve heard this a million times over the course of fifteen years. I think all of us have. It’s time to practice it.

Now, this realization, it comes and goes. This is another thing you have to accept as well, everything about being human flickers. I review my memories and I construct a story where I was here the whole time, consistently myself, but it’s just a story I make up. One second to the next, I’m winking in and out of existence, and whatever understanding I have winks in and out as well. One second I’m appreciating my life with all of its worry and anxiety, but I’m really living it. Then the next second, I’m covering it over again with plans and memories and analysis. Like a candle that’s just barely lit, that is sputtering, that’s my consciousness. But for a second, whenever I want to, I can go back to my real life and appreciate it just the way it is. And so, it’s always here for me, my own personal shit-stick.

Mumon wrote a poem about Unmon’s shit-stick and he highlights how quick you’ve got to be to catch your life in the act. He said:

A flash of lightning!
Sparks struck from a piece of flint!
If you blink your eye
It is gone.