A Belated Preface
Now that we have discussed a few koans, I feel I should be clearer about the intentions shaping this blog. If this were a book, my objectives for the book would customarily be outlined in a preface that preceded the Introduction. The reason there was no such preface is that the issues I want to raise now would have made little sense until we had worked through several koans with the approach I am using.
To my knowledge, no other published introduction to koan practice takes the approach I take here. What I want to disclose in this belated preface are the ways in which my treatment of koans may transgress some longstanding taboos of the Zen tradition. What follows is a technical discussion directed to Zen practitioners who understand the Buddhist scruples involved.
Do I Transgress?
The word “transgress” may seem a little overblown but it is part of Zen rhetoric in dialogues between Zen Masters in which one Master will take a position and then ask, “Do I transgress?” This means, “Is the position I just took in accord with the Dharma or not?” Unless the other Master can then expose an error by “one-upping” the first Master’s position, the first Master wins the playful “Dharma combat” by which Masters hone their skill in expressing the Dharma in words or actions.
Here are some ways in which my approach may transgress Zen Buddhist norms. Again, this discussion is meant for my sisters and brothers in the Dharma familiar with those norms.
First of all, my blog provides an overview of how koan training proceeds over time. I have said that teachers will, over a series of interviews, tell the student to “become one” or “become more intimate” with the koan in question. The teacher provides no explanation of why these admonitions are critical, leaving students to decide how to understand these phrases. This is a process that can take the student weeks, months, or years to resolve.
By saying in my Introduction that the teacher wants the student to “show rather say” the point of a koan, I am providing an overview that short-circuits the traditional Zen learning process. Others have commented that Japanese koan training resembles the apprenticeship process in Japanese arts and crafts, including the martial arts. There, the Master demonstrates silently and the apprentice imitates. Whatever explanations the Master provides come in pithy comments on the apprentice’s performance. The process is not designed to bolster self-esteem. Rather, it is intended to get the apprentice to try even harder to master the ineffable aspects of the art or craft.
In contrast, by providing an overview of koan training, I have provided a conceptual description that Zen teachers in both Asia and the West never provide to their students. Instead, they expect students to piece together the dynamics of koan work for themselves over time.
Secondly, I risk transgressing traditional norms by flatly stating that the appropriate way to demonstrate the point of a koan is not through conceptual explanations, but through action or words that are gestures demonstrating awareness of that point. Again, this clue on how to proceed short-circuits the traditional learning process in which students must discover this stratagem for themselves by trial and error.
Even worse, with each koan I discuss, I point toward a range of actions that might embody the point of the koan. My goal in doing this, figuratively speaking, is to lead my readers to water hoping they will drink. By this I mean that I don’t want to give them “the answer” to any given koan. Instead, I try to point them in the right direction by leading them to the water’s edge.
Zen absolutely prohibits sharing the traditional “answer” to a koan with a student who has not yet completed their work on it. This restriction is amply justified by the fear that a black-market trade in koan “answers” will thwart their effectiveness in Zen training, where koans are used to create an uncomfortable but desirable existential crisis that can push students to reach a new understanding of their lives. I risk transgressing because, in pointing readers in the right direction, I may be depriving them of the frustration necessary for a crisis powerful enough to trigger a deep awakening.
Finally, I should disclose another motivation that shapes this blog. I retain a keen interest in Western philosophy, which I believe is undergoing a major tectonic shift. I also take a keen interest in neuroscience, which is increasingly resetting the agenda for Western philosophy. I further believe that koan practice has revolutionary implications for philosophy that will be validated by future neuroscientific research.
These interests also appear to transgress the norms of Zen Buddhism. After all, the koan literature is replete with stories of Buddhist scholars who abandoned their philosophical debates in favor of Zen’s tacit path to awakening. Indeed, many modern commentators have framed Zen as anti-philosophy, or perhaps more accurately as “un-philosophy”. My own view is that Western philosophy has always offered the un-philosophy of skepticism. I believe a proper understanding of Zen can lead to a shakeup of philosophy even more profound than those made by Hume or Wittgenstein.
So Why Do I Risk Transgressing?
The main reason I take the risks just described is because I regard the koan literature as one of the great cultural treasures of the world. I regard it as fully equivalent in value to our classical Greek and Roman cultural legacy. The koan literature is not just a cultural treasure of East Asia, it is the rightful inheritance of all peoples.
I take the unorthodox view that broad access to the koan literature has been overly restricted because of its use in the formal training of Zen Buddhist monks, nuns, and lay people. I therefore try to make this cultural gem accessible to everyone, whether or not they will ever practice Buddhism.
This puts me in a position similar to proponents of secular Mindfulness, who critics accuse of peddling mere stress reduction without spiritual implications. In contrast, I believe that secular Mindfulness leads a small percentage of practitioners to want to go deeper. This is how some people find their way to Buddhism.
It is my hope that the access I provide to people curious about Zen koans will lead some percentage of them to embark on the koan path by finding a sangha and a teacher who can help them.
Finally, I believe the approach I take in this blog is in furtherance of my vows to save all beings and my vow to “not spare the Dharma assets”, that is, to generously share the treasures of the Zen koan way.
My brother and sisters in Dharma will have to judge whether my efforts transgress, and if so, whether they can be forgiven.
Bring Me Your Mind – Part 2
In Part 1 I described this koan as asking us why Huike was enlightened by Bodhidharma’s comment, “There, I have pacified it for you”. I said this koan arouses negative feelings in us because those same words do not have any life-changing effect on us. I framed the koan in this way because I thought it was helpful to spell out how we find the motivation to struggle with this (or with any other) koan.
Now, however, I need to make clear that the question of motivation is secondary to the student’s primary task, which is to find a way of demonstrating to the teacher that they understand the deep meaning of the exchange between Bodhidharma and Huike. Again, such a demonstration must take the form of showing rather than saying what was understood by Huike.
In Part 1, I added that I would explain how showing rather than saying applied to this koan, despite the fact that Huike was awakened by something Bodhidharma said, not something he did.
I said there that sometimes the words Masters employ are called “turning words”. These are words that are more like an action than a transfer of information. They are like a rough shaking to awaken someone from deep sleep. The mark of a great Master is the ability to see when a student only needs a little bonk on the head to awaken. In Huike’s case, the bonk came when Bodhidharma affirmed that Huike would never find his mind, and so there was nothing to pacify, and all such efforts were a waste of energy. With that sudden understanding, Huike set down his heavy mental baggage, removing the burden he had carried for so long.
In Part 1, I also said I would provide some suggestions to help you find an acceptable response. One such clue comes from a scroll discovered at the start of the twentieth century in the Dunhuang caves on the Silk Road that carried trade from China to the West. These caves housed a complex of Buddhist temples from the fourth through the fourteenth centuries. These were a repository for Buddhist scrolls and art, some of which survived untouched in walled-off niches.
One of the texts recovered from the caves is called ATreatise on the Ceasing of Notions. It is made up of conversations between a Chan Master and a disciple. One of their exchanges was probably meant to help the student understand our present koan:
[The student] suddenly rose and asked, “What is called the heart? And how is the heart pacified?
The Master answered, “You should not assume a heart, then there is no need to pacify it. That is called pacifying the heart.”
If you truly understand this Master’s answer, you will see why Huike was liberated. If not, let me expand a little on that answer. First of all, the heart referred to here is the heart-mind represented by a single character as discussed in Part 1. By saying, “You should not assume a heart-mind”, the Master is saying that though we usually assume that the heart or mind is a “thing”, it is not. A “thing” is an object, something that people can “oversee”, “handle”, or manipulate. The heart-mind is not something that can be overseen and handled because it is unlimited. For instance, we cannot exhaustively list all of its elements.
This view of the heart-mind is supported by a story with which most experienced Zen students are familiar. It is the story of the first meeting between Hui Neng and Nanyue, a student who traveled a long way to study under him. Hui Neng is credited with completing the establishment of Zen in China five generations after Bodhidharma.
As the story goes, Hui Neng saw Nanyue coming up the mountain to his temple. When the latter got close enough, Hui Neng called out to him, “What is it that comes thus?!” Without hesitating, Nanyue called back, “To call it 'a thing' is to miss the point!” Hui Neng immediately saw his promise and took him in.
Now, among other things, Nanyue was saying that a person is not a thing. If so, then what is a person? We conventionally identify a person as an individual heart-mind in a particular body. But what is a heart-mind? Can we truly say it is limited to a body separate from everything else, or might that one body extend to encompass the universe in every direction as Dogen Zenji proposed?
There is one thing we can say about the heart-mind: it is ceaseless activity. And what kind of activity is that? As discussed in Part 1, introspection through vipassana meditation reveals it to be a relentless roving of attention. The nature of the heart-mind is endless searching for something, ranging over everything helpful or harmful in the world. It will never stop, and when you realize it will never stop and that this is just the way we are, you realize that there is nothing for you to do but watch its acrobatics with a certain distance and, yes, amusement. At that point you realize that your restless heart-mind is not a threat to you. That is, it is not a threat to you if you are content to let it be, and as long as you don’t believe in it’s rambling, contradictory, commentary. As the Master in the Dunhuang text said, at that point there is no need to pacify it, and that state is called pacifying the heart.
So how should you demonstrate your understanding to the teacher? You must directly “point out” your heart-mind by showing this relentless searching, as if hoping to find something you believe you have lost. Have fun coming up with your own way of directly presenting this absurd heart-mind that causes us so much trouble.
Bring Me Your Mind
This week’s koan involves Bodhidharma, the legendary Buddhist sage who came to China from South Asia and is credited with establishing the Zen school there around the year 500.
Bodhidharma criticized early Chinese Buddhist sects for writing commentaries on sutras rather than devoting themselves to meditation. For that reason, the older Chinese sects called the new school “the meditation sect”, since Chan (ch.) and Zen (jap.) mean “meditation”.
Here is a simplified form of our koan: Huike (pron. "Hway-Kuh), a promising Chinese disciple, begged Bodhidharma to help him find peace of mind. The Master replied, “Bring me your mind and I will put it to rest”. Huike said, “I have searched and searched for my mind and cannot find it”. The Master replied, “There, I have pacified it for you!” On hearing these words, Huike suddenly had an insight that liberated him from his mental suffering.
On hearing this story for the first time, Zen students have no idea why Bodhidharma’s concluding words had such a powerful impact on Huike. They cannot fail to notice that hearing those same words has no such liberating effect for them. Negative emotions arise, including feelings of inferiority (“I am not smart enough”), envy of other students who “get” this koan, and frustration (“Damn it, why don’t I get it?!”)
Such frustration is a blessing in disguise; it means that the koan has its hooks in you. As Mumon says about another koan, “A hook is lowered into the water – the greedy will be caught!” The greed here is a delusional craving to “win the contest” they believe the koan poses. Eventually, students who are honest with themselves will realize that the koan has become “existential” for them and that they must persevere until they resolve the distress caused by the koan. This distress is unpleasant, but like labor before childbirth, is necessary for the birth of awakening.
During interviews about pacifying the mind, teachers will ask the student to express the point of this koan. As I cannot say often enough, teachers will manage to make clear that they want you to express this point by showing it rather than explaining it.
Why do teachers insist on this? According to tradition, this guidance comes directly from Bodhidharma himself, in the form of a fourfold definition of Zen:
A special mind-to-mind transmission of enlightenment
Without dependence on the written word,
Directly pointing to the heart-mind,
Realizing one’s own nature and Buddhahood.
Modern scholars believe this terse summary comes from a later Chinese Master, not Bodhidharma. No matter, since this succinct definition of our practice has been cited by teachers ever since. Let’s parse this definition to see where the insistence on showing rather than telling comes from.
The first line refers to a “special mind-to-mind transmission”. This is not some spooky “paranormal” process; it simply means that awakening is an intuitive understanding between Master and disciple. This is an understanding in which both see the truth about our nature.
Despite all their efforts to define “truth” in words or symbolic logic, Western philosophers have failed to capture the "self-evident" nature of truth in which a person surveys a scene and directly sees what is. This instantaneous, wordless process can rightly be called “intuition”.
The second line says this wordless process is not only valid, it is only way to reach enlightenment. Awakening does not come from reading sutras and deducing a truth dependent on those words alone, but by seeing something directly without the mediation of words.
This second line is not to be underestimated; it is the pivot upon which the whole verse depends. (In Part 2, I will explain why – sometimes – words, including Bodhidharma’s final statement here, can trigger enlightenment. Such words are called “turning words” and I hope to clarify how such words operate in an entirely different way from our ordinary use of language, a way that accords with the admonition of the second line.)
But what do I mean by, “seeing something directly”? The third and fourth lines tell us exactly what we must do to directly (i.e. wordlessly) discover our true nature. The third line says we do this by “directly pointing to the heart-mind”.
“Pointing” is the crucial word here. Western philosophy recognizes a class of words called “indexicals”. The terms I, you, here, there, now, then, this, and that, are indexicals. That means that what they refer to is completely dependent on the context or situation – i.e. on the objects or people that are present there and then. The word “index” comes from the Latin verb “to indicate”. “Indicating” is defined as “pointing” or “pointing out”, and is why we call our first finger the index finger.
And what is it that we are to “point out”? It is our heart-mind. I hyphenate this word because Chinese and Japanese use the same character for both “heart” and “mind”. This is supported by the ancient Western use of “heart” to represent the mind as the “seat of judgment”. It is also in keeping with current neuroscience, which is showing that the supposedly “rational” mind is inextricably bound to the irrational emotions that we attribute to the heart.
And how are we to point out this heart-mind? It is not with our index finger. Yet in the realm of the heart-mind, we have something that is the full equivalent of an index finger. It is our attention, which ceaselessly points our minds towards this or that “thing”.
Thus, turning our attention to our heart-mind means watching how our minds work. Buddhism calls this mindfulness or vipassana. And what do we see when we watch our minds like a bird watcher?
1) We see that it is impossible to pin our minds down. This is impermanence.
2) We see that every object of our attention comes with an emotional reaction that teeters between pleasant and unpleasant. This is suffering in the Buddhist sense – i.e. even when the reaction is pleasant, that pleasure is impermanent, and we will suffer its loss.
3) We see that our attention ranges over the entire universe, and that everything that we can ever experience is already potentially “inside” our minds. This means that we cannot distinguish between what is “inside” or “outside” our minds. This in turn means that there is no permanent “self” apart from the universe. This is the absence or emptiness of self.
Thus, watching our heart-minds reveals impermanence, suffering, and the emptiness of self. Buddhists call these “The Three Marks of Existence”.
Now, what has all this to do with our koan about pacifying the mind? Well, it has everything to do with understanding why Bodhidharma’s “There, I have pacified it for you” liberated Huike. You must come to see for yourself why this is so. In Part 2, I will offer some suggestions that will hopefully help you in this regard.
In the meantime, I urge you to verify Buddha’s statements about the threefold nature of heart-mind. Please watch your mind at work for the next week to settle whether you can accept them, even provisionally, for now.
The historical Buddha told his listeners that they should reject his assertions if they could not verify them in their own experience. As the first empiricist, the first pragmatist, and the first psychologist, the Buddha rarely gets the credit he deserves for introducing a prototype of the scientific method for the study of mind!
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”.
“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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