Is the Normal Mind the Way?

In Case 19 of the Mumonkan, one reads: "The normal (or ordinary) mind is the Way."

This pithy statement by Master Nanquan is often misunderstood. Such a misunderstanding can have devastating effects on true Zen practice, cutting off entry into the Great Way. 

The Chinese actually says:
平常心是道
平 = calm, level, peaceful 常 = general, common as dust 心 = mind-heart 是 = right, correct 道 = Dao, Way (path, road, head).

"Normal" is an unfortunate mis-translation, since normally people do not behave in an uncontrived, calm, level, peaceful way. Nobody in our world wants to be 常, "general, common as dust." Do they?

So, as you can see, Nanquan really meant something less like the English term "normal" and more like "straight," "direct," or "uncontrived" like the Taoist "uncarved block," or the Indian Mahasiddhas' "Sahaja Samadhi."

Recall Lao-Tzu's remark that the great sage looks to "normal" people like an idiot or simpleton.

Note also that even after experiencing an enlightenment at hearing Master Nanquan's words, Master Joshu still had to study for thirty years in order to realize the Way. Why? Because ordinary human life is precisely not "direct" and "uncontrived."

To attain the direct mind of a Taoist or Zen sage is the rarest possible attainment, one sometimes requiring great commitment and costing much difficulty.

Just look at what Master Nanquan says just a few sentences later in the same dialogue:

若眞達不擬之道、猶如太虚廓然洞豁。

When you have really reached the true Way beyond doubt, you will find it as vast and boundless as outer space.

豈可強是非也。

How can it be talked about on the level of right and wrong?

See also Master Mumon's verse on this Case:

春有百花秋有月 The spring flowers, the autumn moon;
夏有涼風冬有雪 Summer breezes, winter snow.
若無閑事挂心頭 If useless things do not clutter your mind,
更是人間好時節 You have the best days of your life.

How will you get rid of the useless things that clutter your mind, such as endless petty considerations of right and wrong? Truly, the English words "normal" and "ordinary" are not adequate translations of Nanquan's remark, given that the Way is found by the sage to be as vast as boundless space.

I see no reason to translate 平 = calm, level, peaceful + 常 = general, common as dust, as "normal" or even as "ordinary." "Natural" strikes me as a better translation. One might even be bolder and, drawing on Chuang-Tzu's image of the Tao as being present in ants, broken tiles, grass and dung, say, "despised," "rejected," or "lowly." Maybe "The base mind is the Way" would be even better!

One might also say,

"The unadulterated First Person Realization is the Way."

White clouds billowing up into the blue of space;
The pure straight body of a bristling pine.
A thrush sings out into the clear afternoon -- grace!
How will you get such a tranquil, responsive & empty mind?

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