Dark Empty Sky

Ordinary Mind: Open, Peaceful, Like The Sky

Where do our everyday thoughts come from? Where do they go when they’re spent? You can know.  You can settle down quietly and look and see for yourself. What you’ll eventually see, with practice, is Ordinary Mind, as open and as peaceful as the sky.

The Sky is Always the Sky

In talking about how we wake up to the sky like nature of mind, Zen teachers and Buddhist teachers from other traditions emphasize the central place of meditation, mindfulness and continuous practice.

“[Constancy] is our continuous practice. We should always live in the dark empty sky. The sky is always the sky. Even though clouds and lightning come, the sky is not disturbed. Even if the flashing of enlightenment comes, our practice forgets all about it. Then it is ready for another enlightenment. It is necessary for us to have enlightenments one after another, if possible, moment after moment.” ~Shunryu Suzuki Roshi

Here, Shunryu Suzuki encourages continuous practice, and mixes his encouragement with metaphors about the nature of mind, thoughts and emotions.  Mind is “the dark empty sky.”  Thoughts and emotions are the “clouds,” and “lightning,” and even the “enlightenment” experiences that easily pass through the mind. The dark empty sky lets go of everything that moves through it.  Suzuki Roshi talks this way because what we practice in Zen is this letting go of everything—even enlightenment.  If the Ordinary Mind did not naturally let go, we could never let go.

“There is nothing worth clinging to as me, myself, or mine.” ~Shakyamuni Buddha

So if the dark empty sky is a good metaphor for the Mind at the heart of our being, why isn’t this open, sky-like quality a much bigger part of our everyday experience? Why does it seem like everything other than peace, wisdom, and compassion is at the heart of my being?

Of course, metaphors are imperfect and there are important and obvious differences between the sky and the normal state of our minds before practice.

For one thing, the sky does not know what passes through it. It is inert and unfeeling. We, on the other hand, feel and know. Because we feel and know we have likes and dislikes. We distinguish between what we love and hate, want and avoid.Therefore we can, and do, resist or crave our own experiences, our own thoughts, emotions, memories and imaginings.

In this light it’s perhaps easier to understand that for Zen, and Buddhism in general, it is what we call the natural mind or the ordinary mind free from clinging, aversion, and attachment that’s best reflected in the dark empty sky metaphor.

What is the Way?

Joshu asked Nansen, “What is the Way?” With these words Joshu was asking something like, “What is the goal of Buddhist practice and how can I reach it?” Nansen said, “Ordinary mind is the Way.”

“Ordinary mind” can also be translated “everyday mind.” That means Nansen’s answer could also be, “Everyday mind is the Way.”

Puzzled, Joshu then asked a follow up, “How can this ordinary, everyday mind with it’s confusions and frustrations be the way to Awakening, much less Awakening itself?”

In response, Nansen clarified his meaning with a question of his own.  He asked Joshu, “Why do you insist on reducing everyday mind to opposites: confusion and understanding, frustration and happiness, good and bad? Ordinary mind is vast, open, and empty like space, how can it be reduced to thoughts, judgments, activities, and feelings?”

It’s not that confusion and understanding or sadness and happiness are separate and distinct from the vast, space-like nature of everyday mind.

Confusion and understanding, sadness and happiness are  just not the whole story.

Things and experiences, emotional states and states of mind, all arise in awareness.  And in awareness they last for a while, and then cease.  These experiences, emotional states and states of mind are like waves on the vast ocean of Ordinary Mind. Waves are not separate from the ocean.

They’re like the clouds that appear in the open playground of the sky. The clouds reveal the nature of the sky.

These impermanent, everyday waves point to the ocean-like qualities of mind. These ordinary clouds reveal the sky-like, unbiased, vastness of everyday awareness.

What meeting the various things and activities of everyday life with attention and care shows us is that ordinary mind is always unbiased and flexible. It is always fresh, open, and up to the task.  It’s the ocean-like source, inseparable from the waves.

Ordinary mind is the vast, open potential we experience whenever we learn something new, whenever we imagine, create, discover, solve a problem, think or feel. The fresh, unfixed and open potential of everyday mind makes growth, learning, letting go, and change possible.  It’s alive and forever undefiled!

Ordinary Mind makes a life free from craving, indifference, ill will, and cruelty possible.  Yet, to know it fully we have to practice.

If you wish to realize the Buddha’s Wisdom, you should begin training immediately.” Dogen Zenji, Fukanzazengi, translated by Yokoi & Victoria

The photo at the top of this post is by Johannes Plenio.


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