Are you whipping the ox or the cart?

June 28, 2018 § Leave a comment

In the koan, “Nanyue Polishes a Tile,” Nanyue asked Mazu why he was sitting zazen. Mazu replied that he sat to become a Buddha. Hearing this Nanyue picked up a tile and started to polish it. When asked what he was doing Nanyue said that he was trying to make a mirror.

“How can you make a mirror by polishing a tile?” asked Mazu.

“How can you become a Buddha by doing zazen?” replied Nanyue.

“What do you mean by that?” said Mazu.

Nanyue said, “Think about driving a cart. When it stops moving, do you whip the cart or the ox?”


Commenting upon this koan Zen Master Dogen said, “Although it is not the custom among worldly people, the Buddha Way has the custom of whipping the cart.”

The worldly people that Master Dogen referred to are those who, as noted in Section 25 of the Diamond Sutra, “…partake in the idea of selfhood, personality entity, and separate individuality.” They are those who are greatly attached to the ego-self. Believing it to be the real self they grasp and hold onto their egos as hard as they can, wholly believing in its reality and what it tells them. In the  koan, the ox is the ego. The cart is the `bodhisattva-vehicle’ upon which a bodhisattva sits with unwavering attention during the practice of perfecting wisdom.

I am defining the ego-self simply as a collection of physical and mental aggregates (e.g., the physical body, thought, emotion) that are mistaken to be one’s true nature. A key thought in this collection is the “I am” thought that, through grasping at things, creates the illusion of an independent, self-existence entity. To ensure its survival this entity (i.e., the ego) must continuously grasp at the things that define it in order to maintain itself ‘as it is.’

In the koan we are presented with a man who believes that he is someone called “Mazu” who is practicing zazen to become a Buddha. No doubt the man had heard that Buddhahood was something that cannot be attained but only realized. Nevertheless he had bought into the ego’s story that enlightenment is attainable only by perfecting “Mazu” and so he sat zazen to become a Buddha.

Believing that enlightenment comes from improving yourself is the main obstacle to Realization. This is the worldly custom of whipping the ox. It is the obstacle Nanyue was pointing to when he pretended to polish the tile to make it a mirror. It shows itself in the belief that enlightenment comes through acquisition, through gaining more knowledge, becoming more spiritual, becoming wiser or in some way ‘better.’

The custom of the Buddha Way has little if anything to do with self-improvement. It is just sitting on the `bodhisattva-vehicle’ with alert watching. Watching without following or acting upon the ego’s prompting, any more than you’d jump out of your seat in a movie theatre to change what is happening on the theatre screen.

As you sit, just watching, your impulse to follow the ego into its world is revealed, as is your strong belief in the reality of that world. You see how the ego grasps at what it desires and how it moves to protect itself from even the smallest of slights. You see how tightly it holds on, trying to maintain things just as they are and itself, just as it is. You see how attention pulls away from what is unpleasant and how it dims through that act of denial. You see all your resistance to knowing yourself, not as the watcher but as watching itself. Pure awareness.

Just watching creates a space in which the deep attachment to the ego begins to unravel. This mostly occurs in the unconscious; so it is important to resist the urge to do something in a vain attempt to polish the ego up a bit. All the time it must be remembered that the custom of the Buddha Way is just sitting, fully aware in the present moment, accepting ‘what is’ without trying to change it, attach to it or identify with it. It is being fully alive in the now of life. That! Is beating the cart.

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