The current conceit would have it that in Zen koan introspection is something that Rinzai people do, but not Soto. Of course there is an element of truth in this assertion. In Japan where for some good and a fair amount of ill Buddhism is divided into denominations with much stricter demarcations than is true on the continent modern Soto has lost, actually it has suppressed koan introspection as part of its offerings of spiritual disciplines.
But, this has not always been so. The great founder of Soto in Japan Eihei Dogen was clearly more than familiar with the discipline, and it can be argued someone unfamiliar with the discipline is going to have a hard time understanding his writings. Actually, I do argue that.
And if this is so it shouldn’t be the surprising Dogen’s Chinese Soto master the Caodong (translated as Soto in Japanese) monastic and abbot Tiantong Rujing who transmitted his dharma to Dogen would have a word or two of advice for those of us who engage in koan introspection. This is something that we who care about the deep ways of heart and mind and particularly how it might manifest within the schools of Zen might profitably attend to.
My old friend the dharma dragon Dosho Port has recently been dabbling in translation of some key Zen documents, and after consulting with some eminent scholars in the field has given us a taste of what master Rujing has to say to us who have taken up the Mu koan.
Going up to the hall [Rujing said]:
How can you deal with a heart nen that’s divided and flying away? Zhaozhou’s dog: “Buddhanature?” “Mu.” Only the word mu – an iron broom. Sweeping, confusion swirls around, swirling the confusions around, sweeping. Turning, sweeping, turning. In the place you cannot sweep, do your utmost to sweep. Day and night, backbone straight, continuously without stopping. Bold and powerful, do not let up. Suddenly, sweeping shatters the great empty sky. 10,000 distinctions and a thousand differences are exhausted with thorough-going opening.
Let me add in a couple of comments.
First, of course, the word Mu and what that’s all about. The story behind it is pretty simple. A student of the way comes to the master Zhaozhou Congshen and asks, “Does a dog have Buddha nature?” Of course we can assume he already knows that according to the tradition, of course, dog’s have Buddha nature, as does everything in this world of differentiation, without differentiation. And, we also can fairly assume even in the eighth century when this encounter takes place people are filled with doubt and even self-doubt. He’s asking, among other things, “Do I have Buddha nature?” To which the master responds, “Mu” or maybe its “Wu,” whatever, it means no. Not. Negative. Hardly. You get the drift.
Of course anyone who cares to dig into the matter knows the master is asked this question on at least one other occasion where he says, “Yes.”
So, what are we to make of this? To what are we being pointed? Well, this is the actual project of Zen itself. And with that the whole koan enterprise emerges. Rather lovely. Totally annoying.
What is Mu, really? What, we can ask, is Zen? And, of course, along the way, who am I? And, what about that dog?
Or, a bit more simply, what is Mu?
And with this we get various pointers toward our own hearts, toward our own deepest reality.
Among them Rujing’s delightful comments. So, to help just a little, a couple of asides about Port Roshi’s translation. We might take the term “nen” as a “moment,” although maybe its meant to be even more brief in its existence. Faster than a snap of a finger. Faster than a flash of lightning. Passing, passing…
Let mu be that broom. You think you know? Let mu sweep that knowing away. You think you don’t know. Again, let the broom mu sweep that away.
The rest? Well, its as plain as the nose on your face.
Just open your heart. Just open your mind. Just open your mouth. Thorough going opening.