The Mu Koan and How Some Zennists Just Wanna Have Fun

The Mu Koan and How Some Zennists Just Wanna Have Fun June 11, 2017

downloadI’m going to roll back into the “mu koan” here.

One thing I’m not going to do is try to convince any nonkoan Soto practitioners that koan training is in line with Soto Zen or that contemporary Soto Zen and Dogen’s Zen are only indirectly related. I renounce these topics! They are among my favorite topics, to be sure, but let’s look at the data. It seems that I wrote about a thousand posts about these two themes in the earlier incarnation of this blog with the 100% predictable result that those who already agreed continue to agree and those that didn’t continued not too.

So in the new life of this Wild Fox Zen blog, let’s move on!

Working with the mu koan is a really wonderful practice, you see, and it’s possible to dig into it just like Tigger, digging his sweeping. I first took it up with the delightful Zen teacher, Harada Tangen Roshi, in 1991. I’d been practicing just-sitting Zen for about fourteen years at the time I wandered into Bukkokuji. First time I saw Tangen Roshi, I was standing around the dinner table with the other monks, silently, of course, eyes cast down, hands in shashu, looking like this (really looking a lot like this, although I peeked up):


Tangen Roshi energetically slid open the sliding door and walked to his place with such presence that my first impression was that he was thoroughly tickled just to be walking across the the dining hall. After a short time, a couple weeks, I think, he offered me the mu koan and I took it up. One thing about the mu koan that you should know, especially if you’ve been practicing just-sitting Zen for a while, is that it is provocative. (I can hear some mu students hollering “Amen.”)

It’s likely that it’ll stir shit (aka, gold) up and your practice will deepen rapidly (Zen consumer warning: we tend not to get the latter without the former). And those are just a couple reasons why you really need to be working with a teacher that you trust.

If you do throw yourself into mu, and as Wumen puts it, “Be skillful for a long, long time,” sooner or later it will break open. “Naturally, you’ll succeed, breaking inside and outside,” says Wumen. Some of those with the nonkoan Soto persuasion call this something special and that working on the mu koan is a gaining idea to get some special experience. Special, special, special.

Well, as I was saying, if you throw yourself into it as if your hair were on fire, you might even get a taste of reality and if you call reality something special, then bring it on – for all living beings!

But in my enthusiasm, I’ve forgotten to explain what the mu koan is. It is this:

A monk asked Zhàozhōu, ”Even a little dog has the Buddha Nature, no?”

Zhou said, ”No.

That’s it. And what a fuss it has created across the ages and within the lives of practitioners. Probably more people have tasted reality through playing with this koan, and particularly just this one word mu, than any other way. Really. What does mu mean? Yes, it means “no,” “not,” “negation” and functions grammatically like “non” in English. A new student around here who was raised in China for a while, says “without” is the best translation. David Hinton (see below) likes “absence.”

How should you work with it? First, like I said, find a teacher. Then know the instructions will, I hope, be insufficient and you’ll have to get creative. Whatever you do, don’t just take my word for the power of mu.

How about some instruction from Zen master Rujing who was (clearing throat) Dogen’s teacher. You can find another working of this from James Myo-un Ford Roshi here.

Here’s the full short text of what he said and then I’ll comment.

“The one word mu – an iron broom. Sweeping, the delusion swirls around. Swirling the delusions 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 breaks open the great empty sky. Ten thousand distinctions, a thousand differences are exhausted with thorough-going opening.”

This is my translation. If you want to see others, try Cleary in No Barrier, p. 3, and Heine, in Like Cats and Dogs, p. 64-65.

So let’s walk through this. The “iron broom” is now a martial art practice where the practitioner bends the knees so that the legs form the broom and the spine the broom handle. I don’t know if that was true in Rujing‘s day, but in any case, Rujing seems to be suggesting an embodied practice of dancing with mu. Be the broom. Be “without.”

Indeed, and again I don’t know if this was in Rujing’s mind or not, but the character for 無 developed from the character for a woman dancing and as the character morphed, cattails and fire where added (see the “Absence” chapter of David Hinton’s wonderful book, Hunger Mountain for more)

This dancing with cattails and fire will be provocative. Delusions will get stirred up and yet away we dance, like waltzing Matilda, go waltzing Matilda with me (see below for me adding a James Ford-ish touch with a music video at the end). And then there’s this diligence part. Keep it up. Let go of checking Facebook every time you get a twitch. Focus. It might be a while. But sooner or later, reality will be you.

So here’s to doing our practice – and living our lives in this one beautiful and terrifying world – taking care and uplifting each other.

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