Filed in Zen (Chan)

Return to Your Original State!


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Teachers of Zen have a favorite saying, “Return to your original state!” To return to the original state means, in a word, “Go back home!” “Original state” signifies “original state of mind.”

What is this original state of mind? Buddha spoke of the original state of mind, calling it avidya—original darkness. Of course Buddha did not say, “Return to your original darkness!” He said, “Emancipate yourself from original darkness! Come forth from original darkness to the enlightened state!” And he taught that this emancipation was to be attained by attaining Nirvana.

The state of original darkness and the state of enlightened Nirvana are one and the same. It is like looking at a bronze gong. From the bottom it appears to be a bell; from the top it seems to be a gong. In reality, however, it is only one gong.

Nirvana is a reaching-point, a goal. But Nirvana is also the home to which we are returning. We use the words “original state of mind” to denote both our home and our destination.

The teacher says, “Go back to your original state!”

The student puzzles over the words, saying, “What is this original state? Man’s original state was idiocy. Do the Zen teachers mean that I must go back to the state of idiocy? How can I? I must attain enlightenment!”

The next day the student returns to the temple. “How can I be an idiot?” he asks.

“Don’t speak! Be dumb!” his teacher cries.

“But teacher, my teacher...”

The teacher loses his temper and strikes the student. “Go back home, you idiot!”

And the student does not know what to do.

Today our state of mind is that of civilized man. But once we were primitive men, living in caves. If we trace back through more and more primitive states, we shall reach the period of inorganic life, when we were air, fire, water, earth, empty sky. In the most primitive state of all, however, there is no motion, no time, no space; there is no existence of any kind. That is the truly primitive state. Do you think that to go back to that state you must first become a caveman, then an amoeba, then ether? If you think thus you are indeed an idiot.

When a Zen teacher says, “Go back to your original state!” he does not ask you to become a caveman, an amoeba or ether. He asks you to become mind by itself, without words, without images, without any kind of notion. He asks you to root out from your mind all thoughts and the many names of many things. He asks you to get rid of all padding, to clear away all debris, to make your mind pure as pure water. This is the mind’s original state.

Keep only this pure mind in the "four dignities" of your daily life: sitting, lying, standing, walking. To sustain it you will come naturally to the practice of correct meditation. Dismiss all the thoughts which bother your mind. Train yourself during many days, many months, many years, to retain this pure mind. One day, when your empty mind has become crystallized, suddenly it will be illumined by its own intrinsic wisdom. At that instant you will realize the state of pure awakening.

“Intrinsic wisdom” I have said, for wisdom is intrinsic. It is intrinsic to us, it does not come from without. Keeping our mind pure like pure water all of a sudden we awaken to the fact that mind by itself is pure intrinsic wisdom. Then the entire world shines, all the universe is enlightened. In that moment we attain the state of "Nirvana with No Remainder."

Image courtesy of First Zen Center of America. 

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melcher's picture

Part of the appeal that Zen has (for me) is that it doesn't allow me to take refuge in the common discourse of 'polite' society. Instead, it enters the temple and overturns the tables on which I display my collection of comfortable assumptions. Lost in expectations and wishful thinking, so stubborn am I...

jackelope65's picture

Let me see; am I idiot, normal, bright, or genius? Is that quadrality and does that surpass duality? When I arrived in the USA people actually threw garbage out car windows. Should I do that? My mom always said when I acted like an idiot: " if your friend jumped off a building, would you follow him?" Actually now I will not. Nor will I call anyone an idiot, not even if I look in the mirror and see perfection.

barry.wharton's picture

The recorded history of Zen is littered with examples of the use of harsh appearing, even cruel language and actions aimed at jolting the mind out of its deluded state and nudging it towards enlightenment. Think of the story of Gutei's finger for example. There is a danger here of missing the moon due to a preoccupation with the pointer.

mralexander99's picture

....and I thought that "Nirvana" is a verb...???

monicamierster's picture

what other word would you suggest to bring the message home?

wickhamjp's picture

In 2011 raymondtovo pointed out in his post to this article that the term idiot is degrading and unkind. Three years later, and the problem persists. Perhaps the difficulty lies in the translation or maybe the term idiot was selected on purpose. Either way, please know that the language we use has a major impact on all people as individuals and on society more broadly. In this case the word idiot evokes intellectual disability, with the unfortunate consequence of accentuating differences among people and perpetuating stereotypes. Many other writers have found useful ways to express the original human condition described in this article. My understanding of the concept in question is perhaps best represented by Bankei's interpretation of the Unborn.

lschaden's picture

I agree that words have power but in this case I think the word idiot needs to be taken in context. It is not intended to degrade anyone but to help us wake up. We can get carried away with worrying about the feelings others will have in response to words we use.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Stupid is as stupid does. Enlightened is as enlightened does.

wsking's picture

Idiot! Idiot! Idiot! Idiocy, Idiotic! All good juicy words.

In my opinion: If you dare to rewrite history, literature, and zen translations because you want to quibble about words, I can think of no rape more idiotic or vicious. That is pure idiocy! Is Big Brother watching us? Then strike a blow for freedom!

People are often so stupid and idiotic that they cannot see their noses in front of their faces. Me included! Do not deny me the truth! Zen masters tell you the truth, wake you up, and do not prostitute themselves to what you think is politically correct. Neither will I.

Whether a zen master calls me "Sweet Kitty!" or "Idiot!" I am mature enough to deal with that. I am definitely an idiot sometimes. I am definitely a Sweet Kitty sometimes. Can I stand unmoved between two extremes in perfect equanimity, hearing sound as pure sound, silence as pure silence? Without mental projection positive or negative? The original state of experience without mental projection.
The deeper state of no-experience and no mental projection. This zen master is as kind as your old grandmother. Spoon feeding you!

If you attack the hand that feeds you, small wonder if you starve to death. If that is a problem, Zen training is definitely not the right place to be.

janetmartha's picture

Thank you! This helps me be a clearer idiot.

raymondtovo's picture

choice of word idiot CAN BE DEGRADING, UNKIND.

wsking's picture

as in " My little idiot! "? I thot it was a love-nip.