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Polishing a Tile

Part Nine in a Series of Talks on the Soto Zen Practice of Shikantaza:

Polishing a Tile, Making a Mirror

We are all unique individuals, yet part of the one humanity. We all express and live Buddha nature in our own unique ways when our humanness is fully and totally exerted. When we sit in shikantaza, we fully express our wholeness and naturalness in the most straightforward and simple way. This is gujin, or “total exertion,” fully being who we are with no part left out. Dōgen expresses this clearly and cogently in his commentary to the classic Zen koan, “Nangaku Polishes a Tile.

Nangaku compares Baso’s practice of zazen “to become a buddha” as useless and as futile as polishing a tile to make a mirror. In the Zen tradition the mirror serves as a symbol of enlightened mind. Here is the story:

Nangaku one day goes to Baso’s hut, where Baso stands waiting. Nangaku asks, “What are you doing these days?”

Baso says, “These days Dōitsu just sits.”

Nangaku says, “What is the aim of sitting in zazen?”

Baso says, “The aim of sitting in zazen is to become Buddha.”

Nangaku promptly fetches a tile and polishes it on a rock near Baso’s hut.

Baso, on seeing this, asks, “What is the master doing?”

Nangaku says, “Polishing a tile.”

Baso says, “What is the use of polishing a tile?”

Nangaku says, “I am polishing it into a mirror.”

 Baso says, “How can polishing a tile make it into a mirror?”

 Nangaku says, “How can sitting in zazen make you into a buddha?”[1]

This encounter dialog is a highly condensed, terse and deep teaching that goes to the heart of practice in the Soto Zen tradition. It reflects at once the core belief and basic practice of the Middle Way. Shikantaza, or simply sitting, only sitting, just sitting, is the central Soto Zen Buddhist practice. I’ve intentionally avoided the term “meditation” because, as I will describe, this practice, as Dōgen notes, is not meditation in the popular sense, although it may look, seem like, or described as meditation. Shikantaza is simply sitting period. Or, as Dōgen notes: “the dharma gate of ease and joy.”

This koan can be taken in two radically different ways. A popular view reflecting an immediate and naturalistic enlightenment orientation and a facilitative approach to practice interprets the dialog as critical of a gradualist orientation to zazen practice, at most, a temporary tool. Viewed from this perspective, this conversation between Nangaku and Baso seems to imply that Baso is wasting his time practicing zazen. However, Dōgen turns the meaning of the story around to support his radical non-dualism in terms of shusho ichinyo, practice/realization are one. He shifts the tile polishing metaphor around and characterizes both Baso’s zazen and Nangaku’s stone polishing as expressive of “practice in realization (shōjō no shu).”  He centers the emphasis on the activity of tile polishing. In this manner he verifies and validates Baso’s zazen as expressive of realization. That is, polishing a tile and zazen both become the activity of realization.

Dōgen’s interpretation is radically different from the popular view. He upholds the centrality of zazen and the necessity of continued practice. Dōgen notes that Nangaku is cautioning Baso against waiting for realization, but not against continued zazen practice. Thus, for Dōgen, becoming a Buddha by sitting in meditation is impossible because Buddhahood is not the end result but the starting point of spiritual endeavor. In this regard Dōgen points to the dynamic here and now of tile polishing (and sitting), not a final result. The mirror is the act of polishing; Buddha is the act of sitting. Viewed in this light, doing zazen becomes indispensable not so much as a means of seeking personal experiential verification of realization, but as an enactment and lived, in the moment expression of our already enlightened being. Further, we express this basic Buddha nature just being who we are. Hence, as Dōgen notes in his commentary:

“Clearly, in truth, when polishing a tile becomes a mirror, Baso becomes buddha. When Baso becomes Buddha, Baso immediately becomes Baso. When Baso becomes Baso, zazen immediately becomes zazen” [2]

In this regard zazen becomes the prototype expression of realized being. In other words, shikantaza practice has total and absolute meaning in and of itself.From the outside, shikantaza appears to be a quietist oriented contemplative practice geared toward a settled state of mind or that it sets as a goal the elimination of thought. The notion of zazen as “silent illumination” might reinforce such a view. However, Dōgen criticized quietist practices as nothing but “withered trees, dead wood and ashes” and he advocated an action-oriented relational and realizational practice. Dōgen’s terse expression, shusho ichinyo, “practice verification oneness,” points to his radically non-dualistic orientation through the act of zazen. That is, we practice realization and we realize when we practice. This is not a linear one-dimensional sequence of cause and effect. Dōgen is saying that when we practice, we express realization. That is, the activity of practice is already realization. So, just keep practicing no matter what!

Next Part: “Love’s Immediacy” Link


[1] Adapted from: Zazenshin, In: Master Dōgen’s Shobogenzo Book 2, G. Nishijima  & C. Cross, 1996, pp. 93-95.

[2] Kokyo, In: Master Dōgen’s Shobogenzo, Book One, G. Nishijima & C. Cross 1994, p. 259.

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