This koan is an exchange between Master Nansen and his student Joshu that would have taken place in China around the 9th century. Their dialog concerns the nature of the Way and how to attain it. Nansen advises his student that ordinary mind is the key, but that it is not something he can seek after and if he does, it’ll move further away from him. He then goes on to discuss the nature of knowing and truth. Taken from Wumen Huikai’s Mumonkan (The Gateless Gate), this case, #19, is featured here with the master’s comment and verse. For more Mumonkan koans, you can read about Gutei’s finger and the koan of Baso’s very mind.
Joshu asked Nansen, “What is the Way?”
“Ordinary mind is the Way,” Nansen replied.
“Shall I try to seek after it?” Joshu asked.
“If you try for it, you will become separated from it,” responded Nansen.
“How can I know the Way unless I try for it?” persisted Joshu.
Nansen said, “The Way is not a matter of knowing or not knowing. Knowing is delusion; not knowing is confusion. When you have really reached the true Way beyond doubt, you will find it as vast and boundless as outer space. How can it be talked about on the level of right and wrong?”
With these words, Joshu came to a sudden realization.
Nansen dissolved and melted away before Joshu’s questions, and could not offer a plausible explanation. Even though Joshu comes to a realization, he must delve into it for another thirty years before he can fully understand it.
The spring flowers, the autumn moon;
Summer breezes, winter snow.
If useless things do not clutter your mind,
You have the best days of your life.