One afternoon many years ago, when my son and I were playing chess at our dining-room table, our conversation turned to a woman I’d recently met.
“She seems honest,” I cautiously observed.
“I would have said ‘straightforward,’ Dad,” Alexander replied, taking my rook with his knight. Although he was only thirteen at the time, he was even then a stickler for definitions.
As it happened, however, father and son were both close to the mark. The word straightforward is a relative newcomer to the English language. The first usage cited by the Oxford English Dictionary dates from 1806. Originally, the meaning of straightforward was primarily descriptive. The word meant “directly in front of or onwards; in direct order.” But by the end of the nineteenth century, straightforward had acquired a moral aura, as in the Rev. Griffith John’s characterization of one Mr. Wei as a “plain, honest, straightforward-looking man” (1875). If not quite synonyms, honest and straightforward had come to occupy the same moral universe.
In English translations of Zen texts, the word straightforward also has a positive moral valence. A famous Zen story recounts a chance meeting between a bodhisattva (enlightened monk) and the wise layman Vimalakirti, who is returning to the noisy city of Vaishali after some time away.
“Where are you coming from, Layman?” asks the monk.
“I am coming from the place of practice,” Vimalakirti replies.
“The place of practice—where is that?”
“A straightforward mind is the place of practice,” Vimalakirti declares. Rendered into Japanese as jikishin kore dojo, this remark has since become a proverb, closely associated with Zen, the tea ceremony, and the martial arts.
In Japanese, jiki can mean “direct,” “correct,” “repair,” or “looking straight ahead.” In his commentary on jikishin kore dojo, the scholar and translator William Scott Wilson notes that “one element of the archaic script depicts a decoration, or ornament, or possibly a tattoo above an eyebrow to strengthen a charm or incantation.”* This marking allows the viewer to adjust whatever is not straight or correct. As an analogue, Wilson quotes a line from the Book of the Later Han, wherein the “straightforward mind” is described as being “without hatred.” Such a mind perceives things as they are, uncolored by anger or other strong emotions.
To see things as they are is one of the central aims of Zen practice—and one of the most elusive. “As human beings,” writes Roshi Bernie Glassman, “each one of us is denying something. There are certain aspects of life we do not want to deal with, usually because we are afraid of them. Sometimes it is society itself that is in denial.”** How can we possibly see things as they are if we are sore afraid? If we are denying half of what we see? And by what means can we become aware, both of things as they really are and of our habitual denial?
The Zen tradition embraces a host of “skillful means,” including the chanting of the Second Great Vow, in which we acknowledge that “delusions are inexhaustible” and undertake to “extinguish them all.” But no method is more fundamental than the practice of zazen, or seated meditation, in which we endeavor to remove the “ego filter” erected by our likes and dislikes, our preferences and notions. Not for nothing is the practice symbolized by Manjusri, bodhisattva of wisdom, who wields a flaming sword. By practicing zazen we cut through the veils of dualistic thought, opening our minds and hearts to interdependent, undifferentiated reality. As Roshi Glassman puts it, we “bear witness to all of life.”
For those who practice in the Soto Zen tradition, the practice of zazen consists primarily of shikantaza, or “just sitting.” By sitting quietly in full awareness, the practitioner allows the lamp of mindfulness to thaw what the eighteenth-century Soto master Menzan Zuiho Zenji called the “frozen blockage of emotion-thought.” By contrast, the Rinzai school of Zen advocates brisk, energetic practice and fierce concentration, whether its object be the flow of the breath or the living heart of a classic koan. But whether one is inclined, for reasons of temperament or training, toward Soto, Rinzai, or some modern amalgam of the two, the objective is much the same. To perceive the indivisible oneness of all life, clearly and continuously, and to act accordingly for the good of others and oneself, are the guiding purposes of Zen practice. And toward those ends, no faculty is more essential than a truly straightforward mind.
* William Scott Wilson, The One Taste of Truth: Zen and the Art of Drinking Tea (Shambhala, 2013), Kindle edition, 1303. Wilson translates jikishin as the “straightforward mind.” In The Vimalakirti Sutra (Columbia University Press, 1997), Burton Watson translates the Chinese term chih-hsin (jikishin) as “upright mind,” but in a footnote he writes that chih-hsin “may also be translated as `straightforward mind’ or `direct mind.'”
** Roshi Bernie Glassman, “Bear Witness to All of Life” (Shambhala Sun, May 2013), 57
Photo by Xafran