Zen and the Infinite Depth of the Ordinary

Alex Stein
20 min readJun 8


Zen gives us little to hold onto. While the tradition of Zen, like any religion, rests on a cultural, mythic, and scriptural foundation, the practice of Zen aims to see through all of these, and even subvert them. With the goal of sudden awakening, Zen aims for a nondual experience of life, free of crutches. Nonduality neither rejects nor embraces anything, and does not reveal itself in language, but only to experience. The logical mind can only find paradox here. Therefore, anything we say about Zen, either as scholars or as practitioners, is bound to at least partially mislead. Take for instance the “goal” of enlightenment. From the practical level, it is difficult not to see enlightenment as a goal, or spiritual work as a path; yet, as Shinzen Young (1998) writes: “If enlightenment means realizing where you’ve always been, then the distance between the starting point and the destination must be zero, contradicting the very concept of a path” (p. 24). In a nondual context, any goal is a logical contradiction. This is only one example of the kind of paradox that Zen embraces.

Zen invites us to see the world in a new way, reorienting our relationship to objects, concepts, and our very sense of self. It turns out that this radical shift of perspective reveals nothing other than what was there to begin with. Zen works with the stuff of everyday experience to show us our true nature. In this paper, I will explore some of the ways Zen uses some of the most basic elements of human experience — language and the natural world — to point directly to the mind, and show us the way back to ourselves. Anything, no matter how humble, can serve as the trigger for awakening: a line of scripture, a frog jumping into a pond, or an ordinary rock. But for this to occur, we need to pay attention — the right kind of attention. Zen teaching, poetry, and art all prepare the ground for awakening by invoking this kind of attention, so that we may notice things we usually miss.

The Flow of the Ordinary Mind

Anyone writing about Zen must contend with the challenge of using language to approach a practice meant to transcend language. As soon as we acknowledge the problems of language it is easy to fall into the dualistic trap of setting Zen against it. But, in Zen, things are neither black, nor white, nor shades of gray. Nonduality sees things as both black and white, simultaneously. Thus, any approach to Zen, from deep practice to mere curiosity, confronts us with paradox. Language is a fact of human experience, which we cannot escape. From one angle, language bars the path to realization; from another, it is the doorway. Lao-Tzu says, “Those who know do not speak/ Those who speak do not know” (Tao Te Ching Ch. 56), and yet he devotes eighty-one chapters of the Tao Te Ching to discussing what cannot be spoken.

In a similar fashion, Zen teaching relies on language, even as it proscribes the “setting up of words and letters” (Wu, 2003, p.67). The tales of the masters, koans, poetry, and scripture can all serve as triggers to awakening. John Wu (2003) writes:

The language used by Zen is. . . in some sense an anti-language, and the “logic” of Zen is a radical reversal of philosophical logic. . . The convenient tools of language enable us to decide beforehand what we think things mean and tempt us all too easily to see things only in a way that fits our logical preconceptions and our verbal formulas. Instead of seeing things and facts as they are, we see them as reflections and verifications of the sentences we have previously made up in our minds. . . Zen uses language against itself to blast out these preconceptions and to destroy the specious “reality” in our minds so that we can see directly. (pp.14–15)

Many of the central insights of Zen find their first expression in the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, Hui-neng. Hui-neng supposedly awakened upon hearing a phrase from the Diamond Sutra, “Let your mind function freely without abiding anywhere or in anything” (Wu, 2003, p.71). It is worth noting, in light of the discussion of language, that Hui-neng’s enlightenment, like that of many subsequent masters, came by way of language. But what is it that triggers the awakening? Another person might hear the same phrase and pass on by. The words in this case are not merely signifiers; they seem to carry a “special transmission” (Wu, 2003, p.67) for one who’s consciousness is ripe and ready to receive. Hui-neng’s readiness is evident in the gatha he composed at the behest of the Fifth Patriarch, who, seeking a successor, told his monks to compose a verse to demonstrate their insight. The monk Shen-hsiu, whom everybody expected to succeed as patriarch, composed these words:

The body is the tree of enlightenment.

The mind is the stand of a bright mirror.

Wipe it constantly and with ever-watchful diligence,

To keep it uncontaminated by the worldly dust. (Wu, 2003, p.54)

Shen-hsiu’s verse offers useful advice to aspirants on the path, suggesting good mental hygiene, but it does not demonstrate the realization of the Self-nature, the Buddha-nature, or the Tao, as it is variously called. It shows a mind still conditioned by concepts, and thus duality. Upon reading the gatha, the patriarch told Shen-hsiu:

Ordinary people, by conducting themselves according to your gatha, will be prevented from falling into a worse state. But, [. . .] to aspire to the highest wisdom, one must be able to recognize by direct intuition one’s own mind, and to perceive one’s self-nature as beyond birth and death. This self-perception is perpetual and pervades every thought, so that nothing in the world can ever obstruct it. The realization of a single truth is the realization of all truths. Then you will see that all the infinitely variable and shifting scenes of the world remain really in the state of suchness. (Wu, 2003, pp.54–55).

The patriarch sums up the essence of enlightenment, which in contrast to ordinary mental insights is a phase-change in consciousness. There is no more “this or that”, no effort, not even a path — there is simply the realization that “there is” (Wu, 2003, p.112). In contrast to Shen-hsui, Hui-neng’s gatha demonstrates this direct, unobstructed intuition of the self-nature — or at least his readiness for it:

Enlightenment is no tree,

Nor is the bright mirror a stand.

Since it is not a thing at all,

Where could it be contaminated by dust? (p.56)

Hui-neng’s gatha, being written in response to Shen-hsiu’s, still demonstrates some involvement in the world of duality. His full enlightenment came later, upon hearing the line from the Diamond Sutra, “let your mind function freely without abiding anywhere or in anything” (Wu, 2003, p.71). Hui-neng elaborates this basic idea in the Platform Sutra (verse 17) as the doctrine of no-thought:

No-form is to be free from form while in the midst of form. No-thought is not to think in regard to thoughts. Non-abiding (wuzhu) is the original nature of humans. Thoughts follow each other but do not abide (buzhu); past, present, and future thoughts follow one after the other without interruption. If a single moment of thought were interrupted, the dharma body would become detached from the physical body. As thoughts follow each other they do not abide (zhu) in any thing. If a single moment of thought abides (zhu) [in some thing], then successive thoughts will abide (zhu) — that is what is meant by bondage. If successive thoughts follow one another without abiding (wuzhu) in any thing, then you will be free from bonds. Therefore non-abiding (wuzhu) is the basis.

This subtle point is the key to instant awakening, distinguishing Zen from many other contemplative disciplines. We find it echoed in the oft-repeated statement, “the Tao is nothing but the ordinary mind”. The problem of thinking is the bane of meditators everywhere: what to do with a busy mind? Counterintuitively, Hui-neng tells us that no-thought does not mean the stoppage of thought. On the contrary, we allow the mind to flow on continuously, as is its nature. To stop thought would cause a rupture in our being, preventing us from nondual realization, for thought itself is integral to the whole. Instead of stopping thought, we simply do not allow it to “abide” anywhere; that is, we do not allow it to attach to objects. The distinction of subject and object, which we experience whenever thought abides, is the main engine of dualistic experience. As always, nonduality presents something that is neither “this” nor “that”, but “this-and-that-and-neither”.

No-thought brings what D.T. Suzuki (2015) called an “awakening of a new consciousness” (p.137), as we turn from the objective world to “pure subjectivity” (p.123), or suchness (tathata). But even the notion of subjectivity is not quite right:

Two ways are open: outward and inward. The outward may be called intellectual and objective, but the inward one cannot be called subjective or affective or conative. The “inward” is misleading, though it is difficult to designate it in any other way. For all designations are on the plane of intellection. [. . .] As long as the inward way is to be understood in opposition to the outward way. . . [it] turns to be an outward way. The really inward way is when no contrast exists between inward and outward. This is a logical contradiction. (p.138)

We can see this inward turn in Hui-neng’s doctrine — if we can call anything in Zen a doctrine — of no-thought. It forms the basis of a way of seeing that eventually becomes a way of being, of identifying with being in realization of the self-nature. It is this inward turn, where the mind no longer abides in objects, and yet does not reject them, that gives Zen its unique character, at once impenetrable and perfectly ordinary. It allows the ordinary to reveal the infinite. Unlike many other enlightenment-oriented traditions of both East and West, including Buddhist and Hindu Tantra, Neoplatonism, and Kabbalah, Zen eschews the esoteric. Though a Zen practitioner may encounter subtle beings and dimensions, or acquire special powers in the course of their practice, Zen ignores these, focusing instead on the ordinary mind and the natural world. As John Wu (2003) writes: “The self being beyond space and time, it is nowhere and yet it is manifested everywhere and in all things. Therefore, to try to find him only in the innermost recesses of your mind is to miss him” (p.193). So, ironically, the inward turn is less about turning inward to find some special state than it is about pure, unadulterated experience. Striving after something special, in fact, misses the point. One can have a pure experience in the subtle realms as well as in everyday life, but since everyday life is our natural environment, it is the preferred arena for awakening in Zen. The self-nature is equally present in the highest heaven, the lowest hell, and in the ground under one’s feet. As the Ch’an master Lin-chi said:

The true follower of Tao does not grasp at the Buddha, nor at Bodhisattvas, nor at the Arhats, nor at the exceeding glories in the three realms. . . [H]e sees the fundamental voidness of all things, which are real only to those still subject to change but not to the immutable. The three realms are only a manifestation of the mind, and the ten thousand things arise from consciousness. What then is the use of grasping at a dream, an illusion, a flower in the air? Only the one person who is right now before your very eyes listening to my discourse, is authentically real. (Wu, 2003, p. 180)

Poetry, Gardens, and Stones: Framing an Eternal Moment

Zen invites us to see the world and ourselves in a new way, so we can recognize our true nature, and it often uses art and poetry to do so. Art has the power to frame a particular image, which we might not otherwise bother to observe, and suggest new ways of engaging that image. In Zen art, a particular image may become a gateway to the universal. A certain moment or particular sensation, totally grounded in the ordinary world, can open to the infinite. Critically, without the particular object, we would have no experience of the infinite. They turn out to be two sides of the same reality. Nonduality, in contrast to simple monism, embraces phenomenal duality as an expression of ontological monism, revealing the identity of the phenomenal and the noumenal, the transcendent and the immanent, fullness and emptiness, and so forth. From a nondual perspective, anything is everything. Thus, with its “unadorned simplicity, artlessness, objectiveness and purity” (Brinker, 1985/1987, p.21), Zen art invites us to awaken right here, right now.

Nature figures prominently in Zen art, whether visual or literary. As both the backdrop and expression of life itself, at once totally ordinary and totally mysterious, nature can be a powerful awakener. Though we tend to speak of the human and natural worlds as separate, as soon as we try to draw the line we find it cannot be done. As Suzuki (2015) writes:

Man is, after all, part of Nature itself. First of all, Man himself is not Man-made but Nature-made, just as anything we regard as of Nature. If so, what is Man-made? There is nothing in Man that does not belong in Nature. All things Man-made of whatever sort must be considered Nature-made and not Man-made. (p.116)

The deeper we go into ourselves, the deeper we go into nature. The deeper we go into nature, the deeper we go into ourselves.

This attunement to nature reflects Zen’s Taoist roots. Taoism uses the concept of the Tao “to describe the process. . . through which all things arise and pass away” (Hinton, 2009, P. xiii), witnessing a flow between being and nonbeing, reflected at all levels in the cycles of nature:

“Being is simply the empirical universe, the ten-thousand living and nonliving things is constant transformation; and nonbeing is the generative void from which this ever-changing realm of being perpetually arises. . . [The Tao] can be understood as a kind of generative process through which all things arise and pass away as nonbeing burgeons forth into the great transformation of being. This is simply an ontological description of natural process.

Recognition of the essential unity of being and nonbeing is essential to Buddhism as well as Taoism, though Taoism expressly engages nature’s dynamism as a path to recognizing this. Zen follows suit, using natural subjects in its art and poetry to evoke a recognition of emptiness.

In a haiku of Basho, for instance, we feel a pervasive stillness and silence suddenly broken by a single sound:

The old pond.

A frog jumps —

Plop! (trans. R.H. Blyth in Sato, 1983, p.154)

We can read this poem symbolically and literally. On the one hand, the image is what it is: a frog jumping into a pond and making a sound. The act of memorializing the event in a poem puts a frame around it, inviting us to experience it. At the surface level, it hardly impresses: a frog jumps into a pond — so what? This, of course, is our default attitude toward most phenomena. We barely notice the world around us, tending to fixate on what we deem important, which does not often include simple events in the natural world with no bearing on our agenda, like a frog jumping in a pond, a bird chirping outside the window, or a beam of sunlight hitting the floor. As easy as it is to miss these events, we could just as easily miss this poem, moving on before we have a chance to register its impact. However, if we sit for even a short moment to fully receive this image, it has a tremendous effect. The simplicity and the looking themselves amplify the event: the silence is somehow more silent, and the sound that breaks it is somehow louder than real life. This is the power that Zen art can have to deepen our way of seeing.

We may also read this poem at a symbolic level. The “old pond” represents the void, the pure, pregnant emptiness from which all things manifest. The frog jumps in, breaking the silent stillness: a phenomenon manifesting from the emptiness, begetting others. We hear the sound and presumably any other creature in the vicinity does as well. We can imagine ripples spreading across the surface of the water. A poet notes the event. Readers for generations ponder it. This single event comes to represent all events. Though we might not have noticed the silence before the frog jumped in, we retroactively notice it the moment we hear the sound, and it comes back with greater force as soon as the sound subsides. Thus, we come to emptiness by the grace of form and find the two are inseparable.

Going a step further, we find again that the scene is just what it is: a frog jumping into water. But now we see it fully, experiencing it in all its depth. The symbolism isn’t really symbolic. It is what it is, in its suchness, and we are able to experience it fully, which means to experience everything fully. The whole process calls to mind the famous saying, attributed to Qingyuan Weixin:

Before I had studied Zen for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains, and waters as waters. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and waters are not waters. But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest. For it’s just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and waters once again as waters. (Watts, 1951, p.126).

First, a frog jumps into a pond — an insignificant event. Later, we pay attention and see the deeper meaning the image suggests. Finally, we move all the way through, fully present, fully experiencing the fleeting moment, which is everything.

The same principle applies in other forms of Zen artistic expression. Japanese gardens, for instance, also invite us to view nature in a particular way, to see what we otherwise might miss, and to experience the identity of being and emptiness. John Nelson (2015) writes: “Altering the perspective of the visitor through the positioning of rocks, vegetation, or topography is one of the techniques that turns a small pond into an ocean or a rock into a cosmic mountain” (p.5). Some of the key techniques of Japanese garden design, detailed in manuals like the 11th century Sakuteiki, include miniaturization (where small objects like rocks suggest larger ones like mountains), hide-and-reveal (where elements are arranged to keep the viewer’s focus close), borrowed scenery (incorporating landscape features beyond the bounds of the garden itself through an open line of view), and asymmetry (mimicking nature’s order). This art deftly blends the natural and the artificial to alter a person’s way of seeing and suggest nature at other levels. At its most impactful, this sleight-of-hand can trick a person into a deeper realization about the nature of reality.

Dry gardens (karesansui) offer a particularly interesting example of this sleight-of-hand, using only stones to evoke the presence of water. “In a karesansui garden,” writes Nelson (2015), “the absence of water actually calls attention to forms that evoke and stabilize its presence” (p.6). By suggestively channeling our attention, the pebbles of a dry garden, raked into wavelike patterns and punctuated by islands of rock, may evoke the inner essence of water. As in Basho’s poem, the intensity of the framing can make us see something we might otherwise miss. While we might brush off an experience of real water as ordinary, not giving it a second thought, seeing it evoked in stone can force us to contemplate its nature more deeply. Symbolically, stones suggesting islands in the ocean may appear as forms arising from the void. Just as the sound of Basho’s frog makes us suddenly aware of silence, the stones punctuating the negative space of a dry garden draw our attention to emptiness.

The arrangement of a dry garden may evoke all these impressions and more. Nonaka (2008) suggests that, rather than depicting one particular scene, the “stones remain vaguely and obliquely allusive” (p.7). While some interpret the dry garden at Ryoan-ji, for example, to be “a bird’s-eye view of the ocean dotted with islands”, others see “a mother tiger and cubs crossing the sea”. Nonaka suggests that, in Zen spirit, “the stones may symbolize nothing more than an invitation to contemplate the landscape and its possible meanings.” In any case, dry gardens ride the line between nature and artifice, ambiguity and directness, creatively harnessing mental projection to help us see through projection altogether.

Beyond these formal elements, we may find spiritual power in the stones themselves, reflecting the animist influence of both Taoism, which sees the universe permeated by vital force (qi), and Japan’s native Shintoism, where sacred boulders called iwakura possess spirits and act as portals to the spirit world. In the animist view, stones are vital, sentient beings and not just expedient tools to express abstract ideas about form and emptiness. The Sakuteiki tells us that, in landscape design, we must act “according to the will or desire of the stones” (p.5). This animistic streak is striking in the context of Buddhism, which sees phenomena as the projections of mind. If all objects are nothing but projections, lacking inherent reality, how can they possess a will? In Zen, however, nothing is ever “this” or “that”. In contrast to some forms of Buddhism, rather than seeking escape from the illusory world, Zen seeks a fuller contact with it by seeing the self-nature in all: if a touch of animism helps, so be it.

Zen’s animism is nevertheless a Buddhist one, where natural objects possess not only sentience, but Buddha-nature as well. We are told that the Chinese Buddhist scholar Dao-sheng (ca. 360–434) was expelled from his community for advocating the heretical idea of a universal Buddha-nature and that during his exile, alone in the desert, he conversed with stones. After the translation into Chinese of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, in which the Buddha himself espouses the idea of a universal Buddha-nature, Dao-sheng was vindicated and allowed to return to his community. His story inspired the following mondo:

Ungan once asked a monk, “Where have you been?”
The monk answered, “We have been talking together on the rock.”
The master asked, “Did the rock nod, or not?”

The monk did not reply, whereupon the master remarked, “The rock has been nodding indeed even before you began to talk.” (Suzuki, 2015, p.128)

We can find many of the themes discussed so far expressed in suiseki, the art of stone appreciation. These include the power of framing and suggestion, appreciation of the ordinary, harnessing projection to point directly to the mind, and the spiritual power of stones. The practice of suiseki involves collecting stones and displaying them on specially-crafted wooden bases (daiso). Prized for their inherent qualities, the stones are never polished and rarely altered (the only permitted alteration being a single cut to fit the base). The practitioner collects stones from nature, choosing those that speak to their intuition. To the uninitiated, the stones may appear ordinary — and of course they are. But suiseki, like haiku or garden design, invites us to see what we would ordinarily overlook, and thus to experience the ordinary in an extraordinary way.

Suiseki continues the older Chinese tradition of scholar rocks, dating to the Tang Dynasty. According to Robert Mowry (1997), scholar rocks reflect the Taoist appreciation of nature and its processes, and we can see these rocks “as symbols of the passage of time, as they have been shaped over millions of years by wind, water, and other natural forces” (p. 13). Unlike the understated suiseki of later periods, early scholar rocks “were often fantastically shaped, with deep folds and hollows, pass-through holes, highly eroded surfaces, convoluted forms, and soaring vertical lines” (Covello & Yishimura, 2011, p.15), suggesting the transformative action of the elements. Scholar rocks of this kind made their way to Japan as early as the 7th century C.E., where they were popular for centuries. With the rise of Zen in the Kamakura period (1183–1333 C.E.), the aesthetic changed. Zen’s “emphasis on austerity, concentrated meditation, intuitive insight, the experience of absolute ‘nothingness’, and direct communion with nature” favored stones that were “subtle, profoundly quiet, serene, austere, and unpretentious” (p.17).

In Zen practice, Suiseki may be used as meditation objects, helping us “cultivate a sense of mindfulness, and to awaken the mind to the truth of Zen” (Loori, 1996, p.2). “When we gaze at a suiseki,” writes Loori, “we are not only looking at a stone, but we are also looking at the universe. We are seeing the vastness of space and the interconnectedness of all things”. As in a Japanese garden, a suiseki stone may appear as a miniaturized mountain, while at the same time remaining obviously what it is, and may ultimately lead us to a deeper insight into the nature of reality. As in Basho’s haiku, our experience depends on our ability to stop and look, and the act of displaying the stone on a base invites us to do just that. If nobody bothered to display the stone this way, would we bother to look?

As both a spiritual practice and an art, suiseki is subtle. Contemporary suiseki master Masahiro Nakajima (1948–2018), though deeply influenced by the spirit of Zen, did not formally practice. According to Nakajima, whether one meditates or not, “the most important thing for suiseki. . . how to develop spirituality” (Whittaker, 2016). He continues: “What we are doing is not just for looks, or for showing the stone. Just like any art, your spirit is inside, in the deep background of stone.” Like a karesansui garden, a suiseki may evoke a beautiful landscape, or remain more opaque to interpretation, while transmitting a deeper spiritual message. In an interview, Nakajima points to a stone and explains: “The more I’m getting old, I realize that. . . suiseki is not just style, not just beautiful physical appearance. This one has no beautiful appearance, but shows the spirit of Zen. . . It’s very quiet. Very humble. Very modest.”


Any act of attention, followed to its limit, will bring us to the heart of experience itself. Until then, the mind abides in objects. The Mother (2002) says: “The mind explains one thing by another, this other which needs to be explained is explained by another still. . . and if you continue in this way you can go all round the universe and return to the starting point without having explained anything at all” (p.25). Zen shows how we can put an end to this tail-chasing by realizing the simple truth: “there is”. A deep enough contact reveals the Buddha, the Tao, the self-nature, or the “True Man of No Title” — the innermost essence of subject, object, and the perception itself. Even those elements of mind that seem to obscure realization, like projection, concepts, and solid forms can serve as awakeners in the hands of Zen. Like a rock skipping across the surface of water, the mind may fly from perception to symbol to insight and back to perception, without clinging to a single thing. The art we have discussed, from Basho’s haiku to suiseki, can deepen our experience of this beginningless-endless process of non-abiding by inviting us to simply notice.


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As an alchemical adept and archetypal astrologer, Alex Stein has dedicated his life to exploring the mysteries of the universe and the human mind. His journey began as a classical musician, where he developed a deep appreciation for the arts as windows into consciousness.

As a scholar, Alex’s research encompasses a wide range of topics, including Tantra, Hermeticism, esoteric science, and psychedelics. His passion for direct experience and radical transformation led him to become an advanced practitioner of tantra under the guidance of the renowned teacher Raja Choudhury.

In addition to his scholarly pursuits, Alex is also a compassionate counselor, guiding individuals through the process of spiritual awakening. He utilizes his extensive knowledge and experience to help others navigate the complexities of personal transformation and achieve a deeper understanding of themselves and the world around them.

Currently, Alex is a doctoral candidate in East-West Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS). His research focuses on the mind and its relationship to reality, as well as the development of a new kind of thinking for the new millennium. Through his studies, Alex aims to contribute to the evolution of human consciousness and help others unlock their full potential.

With his unique blend of skills and experience, Alex Stein is a visionary thinker and practitioner who is dedicated to exploring the depths of human potential and the mysteries of the cosmos.



Alex Stein