In the Introduction to this series, I said that physical action is integral to Zen koan training. I chose today’s koan because it uniquely illustrates why Zen favors a physical, “embodied” response to koans rather than a response based on words. Here is a compressed version of today’s koan:
A great Chinese Master was asked to nominate an abbot for a new temple then under construction. He arranged a contest between his temple’s head monk and its head cook to see who would get the post. The Master, pointing to the water pitcher by his cushion, challenged them, “Do not call this a water pitcher. What will you call it?” The head monk answered, “It can’t be called a wooden sandal”. In his turn, the head cook walked up and kicked over the pitcher, spilling its contents. The Master laughed and said, “The head monk loses!”
In those days a head monk was often more of an administrator, while the job of head cook was usually entrusted to someone who showed spiritual promise. Why is that? In making decisions, an administrator can easily get lost in worldly concerns about the future of the temple. In contrast, head cooks make quick, intuitive decisions in handling food with their own hands. As discussed previously, cooks are more “intimate” with their own true nature because their mind and bodies are constantly united in the present moment by their actions in the kitchen.
Bearing this in mind, can you see why the head monk’s presentation was lacking? While avoiding the words “water pitcher”, the head monk merely said it was not something else. This may have been a desperate attempt to mimic the Indian Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna, who held that negating a proposition is more truthful than asserting it.
Nagarjuna’s position was that any positive description remains incomplete because it fails to illuminate the nature of the word “is” in the proposition. In the positive proposition, “That is a water pitcher”, we have left out any description of what constitutes its “is-ness”. We cannot describe the immediate presence of something beyond saying “it is” (here and now).
The fact that the water pitcher is impermanent is also left out; a pitcher in shards is no longer a pitcher. Provisionally, we call it a pitcher, but we can’t say of anything that “this is that” forever. If we leave aside any reference to Nagarjuna, the head monk’s answer is even more unconvincing.
Again, the head monk was attempting to say something about water and pitchers (though in a negative form) rather than showing their nature. In contrast, the head monk, without words – and with one poke of his foot – directly presented the nature of human beings, water, and containers. In the case of humans he presented our unconquerable spirit; in the case of water he presented the flowing nature of water; and in the case of containers he showed the limits of containing.
I will repeat here a paragraph from the Introduction to this series: “Think about it: if it is only your conceptual mind that is being expressed (i.e. you are only expressing propositions about life), your whole being (i.e. your truth in the present moment) is not being expressed… In Zen, mind and body are one, and the fundamental point (the true nature of life) cannot be expressed by saying with words, but only by showing the union of body and mind in this moment.”
Embodiment in physical action is Zen’s answer to the notorious “mind-body problem” of Western philosophy. That “problem” is the still unresolved question of whether physical reality and mental reality consist of fundamentally different “substances”. The idea that they are different is called “dualism”, and goes back to at least Plato and Aristotle. Dualism inevitably results in spooky metaphysics, as shown by the supposed “problem” of free will.
Dualism still survives in the currently fashionable philosophical question of “how the brain becomes the mind”. With Zen, the “problem” of dualism simply disappears. When mind and body are united in action, they are one and the question of “different substances” drops away and we are suddenly beyond mind and/or body! The question of substances doesn’t fundamentally arise during action, but only afterward. I personally believe that neuroscience will ultimately lead to a rethinking of mental causation that can include this ancient insight of Zen.
When a student becomes desperate enough to show the action in the koan with their own body, they often do so tentatively because they are afraid of making fools of themselves. This will not do. The teacher will urge the student to continue working with the koan and come back when they are “more intimate” with it. This may simply mean that their presentation was half-hearted when it needed to be whole-hearted.
I once heard a student complain to the teacher that this physical mode of presentation made her feel she was being forced to “fake it”, as in the game of charades. The teacher simply replied with a formula borrowed from Alcoholics Anonymous: “Yes! You have to fake it until you make it!” There is something profoundly true about our practice in that statement. In the end, enlightenment comes down to “whole-heartedness”.
So how will you demonstrate your whole-hearted understanding of the water pitcher? Clearly, a philosophical discussion of the kind I have just offered cannot be considered “whole-hearted”, “intimate”, or “alive”! You must find a presentation that is. And don’t worry about appearing foolish – our practice consists of completely realizing human foolishness!
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.
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.
The Koan Mu – Part One
This week’s koan is quite short: A monk once asked Master Joshu, “Has a dog Buddha Nature or not?” Joshu said, “Mu! (“No!”or “Not!”).
This koan is short but definitely not straightforward. The monk’s question and Joshu’s answer may strike you as irrelevant to our daily lives, and therefore of little interest. If so, you may be surprised to learn that this is the most celebrated koan among the thousands that make up the vast koan literature. It has been used for centuries to introduce students to koan work, and even constitutes a kind of entrance test for koan practice.
Because of its importance, we will devote three installments to this koan. This first installment will give you a roadmap of the inner workings of this koan. The second installment will bear down on the importance of meditation in resolving this koan. The third installment will identify some implications of Mu that are meant to help you with koan work after Mu.
As to “inner workings”, this koan is based on a bait and switch maneuver. As we shall see, the koan is not really about whether dogs have a certain property. Rather, it is about the relationship between you and Mu. By resolving for yourself what Mu is, you are given a chance to glimpse your own true nature for the first time. Because this koan is really about the voiced syllable Mu, American and Japanese teachers alike refer to this koan simply as “Mu” or “Muji”.
Mu is the first koan in “The Gateless Barrier, a 13th century koan collection by the Chinese Master Wumen (jap. “Mumon”). Mumon called this koan “the barrier of our sect”, giving the impression that beginners must “break through” this barrier before they can truly be called Zen practitioners. However, since the name “Wumen”, or “Mumon”, means “Gateless”, we are on notice that we are able to pass this barrier through an open gate. Accordingly, many teachers prefer to call Mumon’s collection “The Gateless Gate”.
To track the bait and switch concealed in this koan, we need to understand its Buddhist terminology. “Buddha Nature” is the ultimate nature of reality as realized by the historical Buddha upon awakening. In his enlightenment under the tree, Buddha realized that all “sentient” (living) beings will ultimately realize that they themselves are Buddha and have always been so. Dogs are living beings, so Buddhist doctrine would seem to be clear; dogs “have” Buddha Nature. (“Have” is in quotes because Buddha Nature is not a property of a living thing; a living thing is Buddha Nature.)
Joshu’s reply of “Mu!” (chi.“Wu”, meaning “no” or “not”) is therefore surprising. Students may be tempted to think that their job is to decide whether Joshu’s answer was right or wrong and provide justification for their decision. However, as soon as the student begins to argue for a yes or no answer to the monk’s question, the teacher indicates that they are missing the point of the koan. Instead, the teacher tells the student to ignore the monk’s question and just meditate on the question, “What is Mu?” In subsequent meetings, the teacher simply asks the student, “And so, what is Mu?”
After the teacher substitutes “What is Mu?” for the monk’s question, the student often tries to define Mu in words. The student may offer an answer based on the their own hazy ideas about Buddhism, such as, “Mu is everything and everywhere”.
To this, the teacher might say, “Yes that is true, but you need to show me this Mu directly, not tell me about it”. Flummoxed after attempts to define Mu in words, the student may humbly confess they are at an impasse and ask the teacher how they should proceed. This is fine. For Zen, going forward with something – anything – is always better than being stuck! The teacher’s reply to this request is always: “Just become one with Mu”. Though unclear, this advice is a pearl beyond price.
The admonition to become one with Mu, together with the abandonment of any attempt to define Mu in words, forces the student look inward. Rather than relying on knowledge in the form of words and concepts, the students must look to their own most primitive feelings, instincts and unexamined assumptions in search of an answer.
You may have noticed that last week’s Introduction also called for us “to become one” with the koan. In that case, it was a distant temple bell; in this case it is Joshu’s “Mu”.
As I will explain in Part Two, people who “pass” Mu vary from those who have a “tip of the tongue taste” of enlightenment to those who have a deeper experience of Zen enlightenment. This depends on the effort you invest in the koan. So for now, just meditate steadfastly on Mu by whispering to yourself with each exhale, “Muuuuuuu”.
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