Explain Mu so a baby can understand.
Traditional Zen koan
One of my Facebook friends John Lee Pendall of the Tattooed Buddha posted this wonderful picture today. Very inside Zen joke. Silly. And, well, it opens some questions.
Ultimately it asks how do we confront the hurt of our lives? Specially, what do you say to that person who is facing tragedy, or even more simply, some personal sadness? And, it turns to those of us who walk the Zen way and say, to us, you, you, how do you respond to that person who is suffering?
And with that I took the picture as a small challenge to reflect just a little on the nature of Zen’s deepest teachings, and what they can mean for us as we live our lives. Lives, I probably don’t need to underscore, that are profoundly marked by hurts small and large. And, yes, well into the mix, joys small and large. The questions that Zen respond to, that mess of our lives, our experience of dissatisfaction, of dis-ease, that everything is somehow off balance, turn on that phrase “form is emptiness, emptiness is form.”
And. If the fundamental teaching of the Zen way is in fact that line from the Heart Sutra, “form is emptiness, emptiness is form,” then understanding it should in fact help us on our way. Of course, the bare words, well, they do come across pretty abstract. For a start one needs to have an understanding of the Buddhist terms “form” and “emptiness.”
Form is the world we normally encounter. I am here typing. You are there reading the screen. Cats. Dogs. Lice. Stars. All are distinct. All are following trajectories born of events and decisions that have been playing out since the Big Bang. And within that somehow in some small but discrete moment of time each of us burst forth into the cosmos. All the various moments of the universe coalescing into distinct perspectives. I call it “me.”
And, of course, there are many forms of “me.” As of this moment on our little globe we can be sure there are at least seven point six billion as I write these words. And, probably more. Without going too far into the weeds, I suspect we can at the very least count any animal that can recognize itself in a mirror. More than that, I myself am pretty sure. And, I find it hard to believe ours is the only planet in this cosmos that sustains creatures that can see and hear and understand something of the universe from a perspective it understands as “me.” So, both the aware and self aware, and, frankly, our cousins, the inanimate. All of it. All of us. Form.
But, there’s something else. And that’s the way everything is connected. A delusion of our perception is that we’re isolated. And we read it any number of ways. But, one particularly distinctive way is to think the “me” thing is somehow permanent. I think we can call it special, and precious, and amazing. But, it is not permanent. It emerges within he play of causalities, it arises like an eddy in a stream. It exists only so long as the conditions that create it continue. At some point they change and the “me” disappears.But. But. The flow continues. Not as an essence of some sort. Not as a spirit disconnected from the stuff of the universe. But, as the stuff itself. It can appropriately be called by any number of names. One makes a lot of sense. Pleroma, or fullness is a lovely term from the ancient gnostics, if a bit laden. But, Buddhists tend to like emptiness. Sort of a corrective for making it an essence. Just the connections. Essence.
Now these two things can be seen as pretty accurate descriptions of the way things are. And, like with the picture the words have little emotional content. How is that phrase “form is emptiness, emptiness is form” supposed to comfort anyone? Well. The words don’t. But, they point.
What Zen invites us into is our own experience.
So, in the Zen tradition we have a discipline called koan introspection. It is a practice that invites us to our most intimate experience. The “first koan” for many koan schools, including the one in which I practice is Mu. There’s a small story attached to it. If you want more on it, go here, or, here. But, here’s the secret. Mu is a placeholder that invites us to stand in that place where we let go of the words, the ideas, and simply stand present to what is.
Here in the collapsing of our ideas we find our intimacy with both what is called “form” and what is called “emptiness.” Why this can happen, I am not prepared to say. But, I suspect the investigations of neurology and evolutionary psychology may some day show the mechanisms, if not the actual experience. A cookbook is not the making of the cake. And, the proof, as we know, rests in the eating.
Mu like all koans are very human devices that can be abused, and over the many years have been, but are at heart very practical. They point. They invite. And, then they wait. Once we’ve stood in that place and have tasted the cake for ourselves we are invited to continue to dig into the deep matter.
So, we’re invited to consider how do we respond to that person in grief. From the place of our experience as people who’ve walked the Zen way, who’ve been invited into that place where form and emptiness collapse, and where we are free. Early on in koan practice, once we’ve noticed what we really are, and we begin to explore the many facets of that reality, we’re invited to “explain Mu so a child can understand.”
It’s as obvious as the nose on your face, if, at least, you’ve opened your heart, opened your mind, opened your heart mind.
There’s the baby. There’s your hurt friend.
Explain your heart.
St Francis is said to have said “Proclaim the gospel, the good news at all times.” And then, I’ve been told, added in, “If necessary, use words.”
Express the solace of the real.