Mu Part 3 – My Struggle With Mu
If you feel you have made no progress with Mu, let me say something about my own long struggle with this gateway koan. I model this extra-long post on the book, The Book of Mu, edited by JamesFord and Melissa Blacker. I highly recommend this collection of commentaries on the koan Mu by Zen teachers both ancient and modern. I particularly recommend the wonderful essay written by Rachel Mansfield-Howlett. There, in very personal terms, she reports on her own experience with Mu and the moment at which she suddenly grasped its truth. It is a unique account of how this koan works its magic on a whole-hearted practitioner.
My own experience was different in important ways. In my case, before ever hearing of Mu, I had what is called a “spontaneous kensho” or sudden awakening to the true nature of life, despite having no teacher and only very limited experience with Zen meditation. As you will see, this proved to be a mixed blessing.
It happened during finals week of my senior year in college. At that time I was facing a decision that made me so anxious that I was incapable of deciding anything. The question was whether I should marry my college sweetheart despite shared awareness of problems in our relationship. This question was plaguing me as I sat in a study hall of our student union trying to write an essay on James Joyce’s Ulysses that was due the next day. Failure to complete that paper would prevent my graduation. My anxiety over whether to marry had prevented me from writing a single word up to that point.
During finals week our student union had a “chill room” where one could take a break from cramming and listen to soothing acoustic guitar music. I entered when a local guitarist was just starting his set by tuning his instrument, fretting to produce the same tone from two neighboring strings.
The third time he plucked two strings (tum-tum), the whole universe suddenly dissolved into the most beautiful light I have ever seen. The radiance was infinite, and I was that light. That is the best I can do to describe it in one sentence. After only seconds, the whole room was restored. The guitarist was already a few bars into his piece.
I walked outside into the crisp night air to consider what had just happened to me. Like many other people who experience a kensho, I was convinced that I had had the most vivid insight into reality that a person can have. It left me more certain about my own true nature than any other experience in my life. Two things were clear to me without reasoning. First, I knew that human joy and suffering would continue forever, and second, that this was as it should be.
Many people regard the first point as simple (if gloomy) common sense. Yet, at that moment, it contained a sense of eternity that brought tears of indistinguishable joy and sorrow to my eyes. Yoked as it was to the second point, I found the combination startling, sublime, and liberating. I knew then that my life had changed and there was no going back. Whatever was to come was fine – I would even say “perfect” in a sense that I had never understood before.
I returned to my desk and wrote my term paper in a blaze of clarity that I knew to be good. We were married in a quick civil ceremony a few days later. Though the marriage ultimately failed with time, we emerged in amicable relations and with a daughter, now grown, who delights us both. We named her Faith.
This may sound like a happy ending, but it was only the beginning of a long and demanding apprenticeship in Zen. Because I had no teacher, I soon transformed my experience into a philosophical view that became a barrier to further development. I thought that I had seen the Alpha and the Omega, just as the person in Plato’s myth of the cave emerges from a dimly-lit cave to see the sun directly and suddenly realizes that this was his true home.
Accordingly, I was convinced that, unless I could somehow get back to my moment of clarity, I was condemned to live in a dimly-lit world. I was so attached to my brief glimpse of emptiness that I failed to remember that the person in the cave finally realizes that he must reenter the cave and live out his days being that light for others. This is exactly what the Buddha understood when he knew he must leave the place of his enlightenment to share his light in Varanasi.
This attachment hobbled me in another way that is critical here. I soon sought out a Japanese Zen Master who listened to my story with a nodding smile. He then insisted that I needed to round out my understanding by working on the koan Mu. He said that I had learned that form is emptiness but not that emptiness is form, a formulation that I had no way of appreciating at the time.
I nodded back in agreement but internally I was incensed. No one could tell me that my realization was incomplete. (Such conceit is well known in Zen.) Koan work struck me as daubing more colors on a painting that is already perfect. I was so attached to my little kensho that I distrusted the whole koan process. I could only practice with Mu mechanically because I was so half-hearted. Sadly, I continued in this way for fifteen years! I spent repeated meditation retreats hoping for another world-swallowing “Cosmic Wow” experience. Though I experienced lesser versions of the original flash, I was not satisfied.
Luckily, repeated meditation retreats also brought repeated episodes of deep samadhi. Slowly, without noting it, I began to realize that my samadhi bore some kinship to my kensho. This became my unspoken (genjo) koan within the koan Mu.
Over those years I received verbal suggestions from teachers who clearly saw that I was handicapped by my fascination with philosophical questions. To help me, they made suggestions in the form of “turning words” – words that are suddenly seen in a different light by a student on the cusp of change. I am grateful for their compassion, which jogged me out of my "dogmatic slumbers" (Kant). If you are “stuck” in Mu as I once was, I will requite my teachers’ grandmotherly kindness by passing on these verbal suggestions to you.
The first came toward the end of a weeklong retreat when I was in such deep samadhi that the teacher’s words in the interview room sounded as if they came from another planet. In that interview he advised me to silently repeat to myself while sitting, “From the top of my head to the soles of my feet, nothing but Mu.”
This plunged me into conflict because it seemed to ask me to completely “internalize” Mu, which I then firmly believed was “also outside” in the world around me. This seeming philosophical quibble suddenly assumed vast personal importance. Samadhi has this effect, causing your subconscious to bring the source of your resistance to the fore. From a Zen point of view, any question that manifests your resistance to awakening is of paramount importance to you.
My mental turmoil with this question was a bit like having swallowed Mumon’s red-hot iron ball and being unable to puke it up. Ultimately, and without any intervening reasoning, I suddenly felt what I’ll describe as a release into certainty. At that moment, I spontaneously said to myself, “There is no inside or outside of Mu – or of me!”
I urge you to study the notion that there is no inside or outside in Zen; it is a notion that will serve you well in further koan work. Still, do not expect such a conceptual proposition to be accepted as an answer to Mu. Again, you must show this “no inside or outside” of Mu, not say it!
The breakthrough came from another set of turning words uttered by my teacher when my mind and body were completely unified in a feeling that there was no barrier between mind and body.
It was time for the afternoon lecture by Maezumi Roshi. It was a sweltering day and Roshi’s voice – always soft-spoken – was almost completely drowned out by the drone of a single electric fan. Nevertheless, I suddenly heard his concluding remarks quite clearly. They were the last four lines of Hakuin’s Song of Zazen:
Truly, is anything missing now?
Nirvana is right here before your eyes
This very place is the Pure Land,
This very body, the Buddha.
I suddenly knew how to demonstrate my understanding with my body. You must wholeheartedly reach this insight for yourself. Never give up. I remember walking to the interview room via stepping-stones set in the lawn outside. I felt like I was stepping from one mountain peak to another. And I was.
This blog collects the poorly edited ramblings of urban zen students, finding the teacher underfoot. We will type until someone tells us to stop. We hope you learn from our mistakes
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