The Koan Mu: Part Two
If your meditation on the koan Mu in the past week did not result in any meaningful insight, take heart. Any energy devoted to meditation is not lost. As one of my teachers put it, “Don’t worry, it’s money in the bank!” – i.e. not only is such energy saved; it generates compound interest over time.
In Part One I said that meditation plays an important role in koan work. I must now add that long and deep meditation is absolutely necessary for koan work. People who are not meditators are welcome here, since I believe that the koan literature is one of humanity’s great cultural treasures. The fact remains, however, that without meditation any insight gained remains only hypothetical and can easily be discarded.
For koan work to be transformational, it must result in conviction, not mere opinion. As to what is required for opinion to become conviction, I offer one of the few Buddhist technical terms I have used thus far: samadhi.
Samadhi is sometimes translated as “concentration” or “one-pointedness”, implying a kind of effortful focus on one thing. That meaning is justified by the fact that the meditation needed to reach a state of samadhi typically begins by focusing attention on an image or sound. After a short period, however, an experienced meditator enters into what Westerners might call a “trance”, implying a state similar to that produced by hypnotism or drugs. This connotation wrongly delegitimizes any insights gained from the meditation process.
“Unification” might be a better translation for “samadhi” because in samadhi, the meditator experiences a dropping away of our common-sense dualism of subject and object. It is a state in which the meditator and the object of initial focus merge into a unity that is felt rather then thought. As one of my teachers colorfully put it, “I not only become the tree I am looking at, I can also feel every leaf”.
Of course, such a statement makes no sense in common sense terms. In the common sense view set by our language, “subjects” (i.e. “persons” who have private or ”inner” mental lives) perceive “objects” (i.e. sense “things” separate from or ”outside of” themselves). Because our language separates “you” and “things”, it is impossible to speak of you becoming the thing you are looking at.
Feeling at one with an “external object” is called “mystical” in our normal discourse. For hardheaded “realists”, that term means that such experiences are to be ignored. Still, it is noteworthy that even in our normal discourse “mystical” is also a term for something deeply desirable, as in “the moon was mystical last night”. When hardheaded realists dismiss mystical experiences as distractions they are denying what neuroscience is revealing: that our emotions help constitute our sense of reality. For that reason alone, we should take feelings of unification in samadhi seriously in our accounts of consciousness and “reality”.
Now, samadhi is not yet enlightenment. Rather, it is a necessary precursor to enlightenment. When one experiences samadhi in meditation many, many times over a course of years, one begins to “see” that samadhi is not an unnatural or delusional state of consciousness, but a natural and integral basis of our everyday consciousness.
With luck and the proper training, we then go on to realize that samadhi is the gateless gate between form (conceptual thought) and emptiness (our bare awareness before we categorize and judge “things”). I prefer to call this bare awareness “openness” or “readiness”. Once we realize that samadhi is the fluid connection that turns “empty” openness into the “form” of conceptual thought and language, we have achieved some measure of what Buddhists call “realization”.
The “realization” I refer to is not a philosophical understanding, which is always a rear-view mirror view of reality. Rather, it is the unification of mind and body in the present moment. That present moment cannot be captured in words except as “the remembered present” (e.g. “I am cold” summarizes my experience of the preceding moments). In particular, “being in the present moment” has qualities beyond conceptualization. (If you doubt this, just try to fully capture all the feelings of being you “right now” in words!)
Mumon admonishes us to work on Mu as if “you have swallowed a red-hot iron ball that you can not vomit up”. His admonition convinces many beginners that they will never succeed in koan practice. In fact, however, many beginners are able to “pass Mu” during their first or second long meditation retreat. What is the reason for this seeming contradiction?
At the conclusion of Part One, I said that one’s initial experience of realization can come in varying degrees depending on the amount of effort you put into it. Accordingly, those who “pass Mu” early on often have only a “tip of the tongue taste” of realization. Teachers warn us that we must work for years to enlarge this “pinhole opening” until the old habits responsible for our suffering are brought under reasonable control.
As to working with Mu in the coming week, just ask yourself again, as in the bell koan, “How can l wholeheartedly embody Joshu’s calm but steadfast No?” Having posed this question to yourself, find your answer in samadhi.
“A Course on Koans” is the delusion-riddled work of Chris Kufu (“Wind in the Void”) Wilson, who began practicing Zen in 1967. He regards Taizan Maezumi, Robert Aitken, and David Weinstein as his root teachers. Each of them pecked at his shell until he “completed” the never-ending koan curriculum of the Harada-Yasutani lineage.
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