MU: The Zen Koan as a Love Letter

MU: The Zen Koan as a Love Letter November 2, 2021



Mu: A Love Letter

Tom Wardle

Empty Moon Zen

The Gateless Gate, Case One: Zhaozhou’s Dog

A student of the way asked Zhaozhou (Joshu), “Has the dog Buddha nature or not?”
Zhaozhou said, “Mu.”

The Verse

 Dog, Buddha nature—
The full presentation of the whole;
With a bit of “has” or “has not”
Body is lost, life is lost

I am really excited to be giving this talk today and I have been inspired by the many in our community who have taken up koan practice recently. It’s a wonderful thing. It excites me because koan are one of the dearest things in the world to me, and I have found them profoundly useful.

We usually translate koan as “public case,” and this unique literature originated around the 6th century in China, when it became a common practice to record meaningful exchanges between teachers and students. These would be posted in public places, often on the doors of monasteries, so that others could see them and perhaps learn from them as well, a practice that is very similar to what was normative throughout European history whereby cathedral doors served as public notice boards. “Public case” is a fairly literal translation, but etymologically, the word koan means “the place where the truth is.” Koan as a literary genre are unique to and definitive of Zen. You won’t find anything like them anywhere else in the world, and they are so important to the Zen school that Hakuin once said “Zen is the unfinished koan.”

I love koan, and sometimes hate them, because of the way they challenge us. They bring us right up against the places where we’re stuck, our blind spots, the things that we are missing, and in that way they’re incredibly hard. It takes a lot of grit to engage in koan practice because it tends to be failing and failing and failing again. And just in case you think that we teachers have some sort special knack for them, I want to tell you now that every single one of us have very sore bottoms from all of the times we’ve fallen down in koan work. It is just part of this path, so don’t take it too seriously.

I like to think of koan as invitations, invitations to become intimate with the Dharma, intimate with the world, intimate with myself, and also with the cast of crazy characters who make up our lineage. That’s one of the most fun pieces of koan study, the relationships you start to develop with these ancient worthies and the ways that you get to taste not only their wisdom but their experiences. A koan invites us to stand here, in this place, and look: what can you see about awakening from here? Where’s the awakened life, how does it function in this place and in this moment? By experiencing it there, you may find you can carry it over into your own life, and that’s where koan become most useful.

I have experienced koan to radically change not only how I see myself and the world, but how I live in it and how I relate to others, how I relate to myself and my own thoughts. It’s been a great antidote to this tendency I have to try to get through life being clever.

There’s this wonderful exchange at the start of a movie where two strangers sitting next to each other on an airplane start talking to each other. After a little back and forth, one of them says something about how the other guy is the most interesting single-serving friend he’s ever met, and then immediately starts to explain what he means by single-serving friend. The other guy cuts him off and says Oh no I get it. It’s very clever… So, how’s that working out for you? Being clever?”

The honest answer to that question for me is “not very well.” Part of the appeal of cleverness is that it’s a comfortable position. You’re implicitly above everyone and everything else. There’s a lot of superiority in it, but it’s an inherently twisted way of relating to the world, and if I’m honest with you, it’s an act of self protection. It puts things at a safe distance, but the problem there is that I’m not actually in my life, I’m not intimate. This experience of the world at a remove, the world in third person, is exactly what koan challenge us to breakdown.

Being clever, like all defense mechanisms, is built upon stories about what and how things are, but the stories I have about things aren’t the things themselves. One of the things that koan can do for us is to help us find out what’s going on behind our stories, behind our ideas and thoughts. What is real? What is essentially true?

I’m very curious about, and maybe a little afraid of, that world without my stories, without my baggage and without my bullshit. Luckily, the koan Mu points right at this.

So what is mu? Linguistically, mu is a particle in Chinese and can mean no, nothing, not, nothingness, un-, is not, has not, or not any. David Hinton likes to translate it as “absence,” so the point is that it’s not a thing but a kind of universal negation that pulls the rug out from underneath whatever preceded it. It doesn’t have any inherent meaning unto itself, and in this exchange it certainly does not mean that dogs do not have Buddha nature. So I ask you, is this monk really asking about the dog, or is he asking about something else? Is he perhaps shyly, meekly, asking about himself? What about you? What do you want to ask about? What is your heart’s deepest longing, and how will you ask?

So how do we practice with this mu? Or with any koan, for that matter? The best advice might be “don’t.” Ruth Fuller Sasaki, one of the earliest koan students in the West, said this: “Proficiency in meditation is the basic ground for koan study. During the practice of meditation, the koan is handled. To say that it is used as a subject of meditation is to state the fact incorrectly. The koan is taken over by the prepared instrument (the student) and when a fusion of instrument and device takes place, the state of consciousness is achieved which it is the intent of the koan to illumine, and in this instant, the koan is resolved. This experience may take place during formal meditation practice, it may as well be under any condition and at any time of the day or night.” I love the way she seems to suggest keeping company with the koan. I sometimes imagine it as a companion throughout my day, or I wrap myself in a koan like a blanket while I’m sitting. I also like to swish a koan around in my mouth and garglewith it like mouthwash.

Fuller Sasaki also implies that we need to carry it off the cushion, and I think this is absolutely critical because awakening that stays on that cushion isn’t good to anybody. I might even go so far as to suggest it’s not real awakening. To actually mean anything, our awakening must be able to do something in this world, and that’s part of the difficulty of koan practice. You can’t answer a koan, you have to present it. That’s the challenge. Be it. Be every single part of it, every character in it, through and through. What do you notice?

Hakuin admonishes us to “Bore steadily into our koan whether we are in a quiet place or a noisy one, whether moving or standing or sitting or lying down. Bore into it from the sides, from the front and back, when breathing in and breathing out, sleeping and waking, steadily becoming one with mu, and then continue to bore in.”

This is hard work, but you can do it. And, of course, things happen. We get distracted by a thought, by an itch, by wondering when the period will end, or how much longer until lunch, and when will this silly guy stop talking… And none of that is a problem. I would encourage you to make all of it a reminder of your practice, a reminder of mu. Let all of those thoughts and sounds and sensations remind you to come back to mu. Our grandfather in the dharma, Robert Aitken, advises us to just “begin again, noticing and remembering, noticing and remembering. Gradually you become big with mu. All things become big with mu. Fantasies, plans, and sensations become absorbed in mu. My breath breathes mu; the whole universe breathes mu.”

Ultimately, you need to make each koan your own, find your own way through the iron barrier, the entangling vines, the gateless gate that is our very lives. Remember that for more than 1000 years, mu has been useful to countless students of the way for opening their hearts. It is not an obstacle or an adversary, but a powerful ally in our lives. And don’t worry, my friends, you cannot do it wrong. In fact, you don’t have to do anything at all. You don’t have to manufacture effort or doubt or faith, you don’t have to solve a riddle here, and you don’t have to find an answer. Just keep company with this koan, just keep company with mu. You cannot fail at this. The Dharma is everywhere. It is all around us and through and through. You are a part of it; it is you, and you are invited along with all beings. After all, “This very land is the Lotus Land, this very body the Buddha.”

And if you stick with it, whatever comes, if you truly befriend mu, something will happen, but hold your expectations loosely. Often you’ll hear people talk about their experiences of realization as something vivid and intense. A good friend of mine described hers as a wall coming down all at once that changed everything; for Robert Aitken, there really wasn’t anything at all. He just kind of started to be able to answer koan one day. For me it was more of a long soft rain that soaked me to the bone until I realized I was wet. Upon an experience of awakening, Zhaozhou himself declared “Suddenly I was ruined and homeless.” It’ll come as it comes, no need to manufacture anything, no need to push, no need to clench. Make it your own. Keep company with mu and see what it has to show you.

I think it might also be helpful to talk a little bit about that great teacher who gave us Mu, Zhaozhou, whom Dogen referred to as “The Old Buddha.” Zhaozhou literally means “visitation land,” and comes from the name of the place that this particular monk settled, a common naming practice in China. It was actually a small rural temple dedicated to Guanyin, Kannon in Japanese, the East-Asian presentation of the bodhisattva of compassion. Zhaozhou lived from 778 to 897, about 120 years. Maybe. And his life is an incredible example for all of us. He ordained as a child and had his first major awakening at the age of 18. Nonetheless, he stayed with his teacher Nanchuan, who you might already know from the famous koan about killing a cat, for 40 years. When Nanchuan died, Zhaozhou traveled for another 20 years, studying with as many others teachers as he could and declaring “If I meet a seven year old child who can teach me, I will become an ardent disciple of that child.” It wasn’t until he was 80 years old that he finally settled down at that little temple and began to teach. I can’t help but be aware of the fact that I am delivering this talk at half that age, so I will try to be very careful…

I’d like to share the story of Zhaozhou’s first awakening experience at 18, actually a koan itself, case 19 in the Gateless Gate, because I find it so deeply moving and it has much to offer us here: Zhaozhou asked, “ What is the way?” Nanchuan said, “Ordinary mind is the way.”Zhaozhou asked, “Should I try to direct myself toward it?” Nanchuan said “If you try to direct yourself, you betray your own practice.” Let me repeat that: if you try to direct yourself, you betray your own practice. Zhaozhou asked, “How can I know the way if I don’t direct myself?” Nanchuan said, “The way is not subject to knowing or not knowing. Knowing is delusion; not knowing is blankness. If you truly reach the genuine way, you will find it as vast and boundless as outer space. How can this be discussed at the level of affirmation and negation?” And with those words Zhaozhou had his first major awakening.

The poet David Hinton offers us a slightly different translation of that final part of the exchange that I think is worth sharing: “This way that never sets out for somewhere else isn’t something you can understand and it isn’t something you can not understand. Understanding is delusion, and not understanding is pure forgetfulness.”

In this simple exchange, we find a beautiful pointer toward awakening and exceptionally good advice for how to practice with koan.

I’ll leave you with one final thought from grandfather Aitken, who points out that “mu connects us to countless Zen practitioners across time and geography. When you join that stream, you’ve joined hands with countless pilgrims past, present, and future.” So when the road is hard, which it sometimes is, maybe remember that and perhaps you will find it as comforting as I do.

Thank you.

The calligraphy of Mu used to illustrate this talk is by Torei Enji

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