Mediocrity, Extraordinary, and Normality

Dear, 

Haven’t received your letter for a long time, I think you are back to normal. “Back to normal”, I said, not in the mediocre sense, but “normal is how a mind sees Tao”. Alas! Few sentient beings can return to normal because they are either too mediocre, too unusual, or too extraordinary. 

A mediocre person is one who is swept away by life like a lost soul who surrenders himself to the river of karma. 

An abnormal person is one who has been thrown on the shore of life by the storms of life, lying dead waiting for the tide to return to the river. 

And extraordinary people want to reach up high, fly away from the painful reality of life, want to spread their wings to fly, far beyond the world, until the day after the wings are tired, the worn strength will fall back to wind, karma. 

Sentient beings are usually one of the three above, or are all three masters of them, so how can they return to normal? 

My dear, I know that you used to be an mediocre person, then sometimes abnormal, and now (since you met the Tao) you have had more extraordinary dreams. 

You thought you could struggle out of the past. You thought you could look forward to a future on the land of peace. And you wonder to yourself, “when will I be at peace” or affirmatively “I must achieve peace”. But in that way, you have inadvertently lost your own eternal peace, which I call the normality, what is or has been that way forever. My dear, why do you keep abandoning your eternal peace in pursuit of what is to be or a distant ideal peace? 

One Zen master said: 

“As the body is in the sea, stop looking for water.

As one already walks in the forest, why search for trees?” 

The ordinary is the suffering, impermanent and non-self that you are always in. Just because you long for the extraordinary – the mediocrity, the egoless, or some other distant peace – you have forgotten the priceless normality. It’s like an absent-minded person holding a lamp looking for it, looking for it forever, but never finding it, but in fact the lamp is already in his hand and hasn’t left for half a minute. 

Returning to normal is not about reciprocity, but you just need to let go of the extraordinary prospect, just let go once and definitely, that’s it. But letting go to return to the ordinary, not surrendering to the mediocrity, means how do you not get swept up in the stream of karma. 

You probably remember the koan “fish” that I gave you before. Why aren’t fish swept away by the current? Why aren’t fish thrown ashore? Why don’t fish turn into dragons to fly to the clouds? Just because the fish knows how to swim, swimming in its own eternal normal water. 

Do you think the enlightened person is out of the ordinary? No, they just go beyond the mediocrity, the abnormality, and the extraordinary. 

Enlightenment just means returning to normal, which is often described as “enlightenment into one’s own nature”. 

A Zen master confirmed: Enlightened people are “unaffected by karma” and not “untouched by karma”. The change of cause and effect is the normal thing, it is what is born with self and is one with the self. 

So the enlightened ones are in the cause and effect but not affected by cause and effect, that is, they live leisurely in that river of cause and effect without ever being swept away by cause and effect, and of course in that absolute mystery they are one with the river – and knowing it as what it is, they are “out of it”, out of the drift (samsara) of the river of karma. That is also the meaning of the Buddha’s transcendent statement: “Do not stop, do not step towards the Tathagata to escape the flood”. If you have read the Vajra Sutra, you should understand the word “escape” in this dialectic way: “Escape without escaping should be called escape”. 

If not, then escaping is just the great dream of mankind. That great dream has dominated most of their activities, has manifested magic in all the ups and downs, crises, divisions, battles… 

Oh freedom! You are the prison that binds people. Oh, the land of peace! You are the battlefield filled with smoke and fire.

“Wake up, stop!” That roar of the lion once awakened Angulimala in the dream of an extraordinary dreamer. There can be no other freedom, no more happiness than the eternal ordinary. So there is only one way out, I will open for you: 

“Freedom is indifference in bondage

Happiness is being at ease in suffering” 

Yes, that’s right, joy and sorrow, gain and loss, more and less, good and bad… is the nature of the ordinary. If you just leave it for a moment and hesitate to choose, it’s all broken! But why can’t people afford the ordinary? The Buddha replied: It is because of greed, hatred, and delusion. 

Mediocre living is a manifestation of delusion. Abnormal living is a manifestation of anger. Extraordinary living is a manifestation of greed. And where there is delusion, there is greed and hatred. Where there is anger, there is greed. Where there is greed, there is anger and delusion. Greed, Hatred, and Delusion are illusions that are unpredictable, constantly changing. They are coincidental origin on the co-existence of dependent origination, is suffering superimposed on suffering, is knowledge that obscures knowledge. Therefore, dependent origination, suffering, and knowledge have been distorted and lost their normality. Since then, people have lived in the illusory world of the mediocre, the abnormal, and the extraordinary. These are the operating processes of ignorance, craving, the twelve causes and conditions, change of attachment, and karma of reincarnation. 

Getting rid of the process of ignorance and craving is therefore not to fly into the supernatural, illusory world, but to strip off all disguises branded as self to stay innocent in the original nature of the self. 

Zen master Yongjia Xuanjue once said:

“Stop gathering knowledge, the free shaman has nothing todo 

Not extirpating false thoughts nor seeking truth

The true nature of ignorance is Buddha’s nature

Illusory, empty body is Dhamma body” 

To stop learning and practice non-doing is to return to normal, to jump in the middle of the stream of fate without fear, and strangely there we meet our self in the ambiguous dharma world, truly “overcomes without competing” as Lao Tzu taught. But how many people recite Amitabha Buddha, hope for Buddha Land. It was foolish of these extraordinary people to leave the mortal realm to seek the far-off fantasy, because they did not know that Amitabha is the self-nature, and the mortal realm is the original mind. 

The Buddha taught: “An ordinary mind, an ordinary world” – a peaceful mind or a pure mind is an ordinary mind – “the ordinary mind sees Tao”. 

So the ordinary mind, the ordinary world, is the Nirvana Pure Land, not to look far away. That’s why ancient virtue once said: 

“Birds singing and chirping are meditative wisdom

Morning dew and leaves falling are awakening”

Such is the soul of an ordinary person, how wise and poetic! 

In a state of innocence, mindfulness and awareness, that ordinary person can smile when he discovers: 

Three realms of delusion are pure in mind

A life of birth and death is an ordinary sight 

Rose buds bloom at sunrise

Gentle heels grace the earth, the dream is over.

I rest my pen, wishes you often in ordinary. 

Thầy. 

(Translated from “Collection of Thầy’s letters” by Venerable Monk Vien Minh – trungtamhotong.org

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