weeds and grasses

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If you’ve read much Zen literature, or even studied some koans, you’ve probably seen or heard references to “weeds and grasses” – sometimes together, sometimes separately. These terms are often-used pointers to stuff that’s beside the point, stuff that’s extraneous to what is here and now, stuff apart from Just This.

Here’s an example of one use of the phrase, from the verse to Case 23 in the Hekiganroku, the Blue Cliff Record. These are the first two lines of that verse:

On the lone summit of Myô Peak, grasses grow thickly.
It is obtained clearly – but with whom could it be shared?

One commentator on the first line writes:

“Lone” means just one, adding more poetic flavor to the entire line. On Myô Peak, that is, in the world of absolute equality and the world where there is no opposition [i.e., the Essential World], there shouldn’t be any grass at all. But the verse says it’s growing in profusion. The ugly weeds growing on the peak are the grass of intellectual concepts.

We won’t go into the guts of this koan; it needs more time and focus than we have this evening. Suffice to say now that the line is about extraneous matter cluttering up what would otherwise be the sparkling transparency of Essential Nature, of the unobstructed experience of the here-and-now, of Just This.

If you think about it, we see weeds and grasses all over the place in the conduct of our daily lives.

  • Someone points out the beauty of a flower, and someone else starts to explain why the petals vary in color or that it will soon need watering or that it has no fragrance. Or even just says, “How beautiful this is!”
  • Someone weeps at a piano performance, and someone else begins to talk about the artist’s wonderful technique.
  • Someone describes the glories of a transcendent yet personal experience, and someone else tries to say what it might or might not have meant.

These add-on comments are the weeds and grasses we’re talking about. They may be illuminating or otherwise apropos, but they aren’t much more than entertaining (or infuriating, as the case may be). In fact, they are probably most infuriating when they come from within oneself.

Say you’re sitting on your cushion or in your chair, and you notice that it’s been a particularly deep and glorious sit. Or, you start fidgeting and fretting that it must be time for the bell to ring. Or you imagine yourself to be at the top of Myô Peak, right in the thick of Essential Nature; everything else has gone, and it’s just … well, it’s just nothing. The moment you speak internally and characterize your experience, you’ve begun wandering through weeds and grasses. You’ve left the clarity and immediacy of the here-and-now, and you’ve returned to the populated realm of the mental.

Now, this doesn’t have to be all bad. If you’re standing with a friend in the garden, and you both notice the beauty of the flower, why not turn to each other and smile at its beauty. And if you start to weep at a piano performance, why not touch the hand of your companion – or even the stranger sitting next to you – and share your emotion. This is community, isn’t it? It’s recognition – between you and someone else or between you and you. Yes it is, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

The point is not to think that these kinds of responses are necessary to what is happening, what is True, in that moment of experience. The experience would be just what it is, even if you said or did nothing. Even if you went without any interior commentary. That wouldn’t be as satisfying to your individual self, but the experience itself would be no different.

No one wants to deny humans the gift of self-reflection, or of sharing an experience with another, or of lending your perspective to another person’s sharing. Just know that the sharing is its own experience; it lives in its own right.

Don’t let yourself wander into weeds and grasses and thus obscure the clarity of immediate experience. And if you do find yourself knee-deep in weeds and grasses, see them for what they are. But don’t get stuck there. There’s Reality beyond the weedpatch.

Thank you.