Among the cryptic sayings associated with the Zen tradition, none is better known than that of Ummon Bun’en (862-949), who famously declared that “every day is a good day.” Yeah, right, the weary, seasoned mind replies. Tell that to the commuter caught in gridlock or the stressed-out parent nursing a sick child. Superficially construed, Ummon’s remark sounds both naive and culpably aloof.
Yet, if examined in the light of Zen teachings, this adage is neither foolish nor untrue. The key component of Case 6 of the Blue Cliff Record, a classic collection of Zen koans, Ummon’s pronouncement is a fiction that points to an underlying reality, a construct that discloses a deeper truth. If we wish to probe that truth, we can consult the host of commentaries Case 6 has accrued, beginning with that of Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1768), compiler of Zen koans, who called this particular koan “cold,” meaning austere and challenging to contemplate. But if we wish to explore Ummon’s saying in a warmer light, we can begin by reflecting on how we know, or think we know, the things of this world, and how we determine whether a given day is good or bad.
Picture two-and-a-half-year-old Carter sitting on the living-room rug, accompanied by his great-aunt Robin, a sketch pad before them. Carter chooses a marker from the box of markers, and with a vigorous tug he pulls off the cap. It’s a skill he’s recently acquired, and it gives him satisfaction. Employing the same force with which he sends his toy cars racing across our hardwood floors and crashing into the baseboards (no harm done), Carter presses the tip of his chosen marker on the blank page of the sketch pad, inscribing a robust line.
“What a nice line!” exclaims Aunt Robin. ” Fuchsia!”
“Fuchsia,” replies Carter, adding another line, “is a kind of pink.”
It has taken only a few seconds, this process of cognition. First came raw sensation: the feel of the felt tip pressing the paper, the sudden arrival of vivid color on the page. Next, with a little help from his great-aunt, came the name of the color. And last came the definition, category, and subcategory, which he had heard and absorbed the previous day. Carter is now in possession of a new grain of knowledge–knowledge that will help him navigate the world and perhaps to compete in a complex culture.
In years to come, Carter may discover more about the color fuchsia. From his Uncle Ben he may learn that fuchsia refers to a kind of flower, which grows wild in the West of Ireland. When his great-uncle lived on the Beara Peninsula, he saw wild fuchsia cascading down a cliff to the sea. From his classmates Carter may learn that pink, the genus of which fuchsia is a species, is considered a girl’s color. If he harbors a fondness for that color, he would do well to keep it to himself. Meanwhile, the beauty and mystery of the color and his own excitement in first encountering it will have diminished or vanished altogether. Knowledge and social conditioning will have subsumed his sense of wonder.
But let us now imagine that Carter, advanced in his middle years, decides to take up the practice of Zen, having read one of his late great-uncle’s books on the subject. He will begin by learning to sit still, in a relaxed, upright posture, following his breath. In a few months’ time, he may develop enough stability to look directly and deeply into his present experience. And after a few years of practice, during which he will have become ever more intimate with his inner life, he may discover that there is a gap of awareness between his raw sensations and his ensuing perceptions, and that with diligent practice he can learn to prolong that gap and to rest in the openness of awareness. Within that sky-like space, his most anxious thoughts will be seen for what they are: empty, impermanent forms, which arise, endure for a while, then disappear. Likewise his layers of social conditioning, which include the dualistic constructions of “self” and “other,” “beautiful” and “ugly,” “good” and “bad,” may begin to fall away, and he may find that the forms and colors of this world, including the color fuchsia, will have become fresh once again, as though he were encountering them for the first time. In this exalted state, which Zen calls positive samadhi, he will find his mind clear and his sense of wonder restored. And should he come to abide in samadhi, day in and day out, every day will indeed become a good day, irrespective of the season, the weather, or whatever sorrows life might throw his way.
Photo: Yunmen (Ummon)
For more on “positive samadhi,” see Katsuki Sekida, Zen Training (Shambhala, 2005).