Koan commentary by Kanja Roshi

On the stark beauty of Mu

A small syllable of great powerWe are living on a platform that has been artfully shaped by our own narrative. Continuously, we tell stories and visualize scenarios to make it feel more solid, safe, and known. But it often feels quite unsteady, as if the winds of the world shake it, so we hold on to stories that are meant to strengthen and solidify it. But some of us will at some point feel a deep need to listen to something other than the voices that try to convince us about the immutable Me-ness of that platform.
If we ask a Zen instructor for advice, we are told to just sit still and listen to our breath instead of all the stories. We sit down on our platform and after some initial struggle, the breathing becomes the main focus and we sense a space within and in between the inhalation and exhalation. In the midst of that space we notice a faint sound, but at first we cannot hear it clearly. We keep listening after the sound and we ask: What is it? And with that question we fully turn our attention to it and we realize that it is not just coming from a space within but actually from everywhere: it is in the depths and heights of oceans and the skies. After some time, the shape of that sound becomes more penetrating, like one clear syllable echoing from within infinity.

A student asked Joshu, “Does the dog have Buddha-nature or not?” Joshu answered: “Mu.”

Mu turns up as the first case in a koan collection called the Mumonkan in Japanese and The Gateless Barrier in English. The word koan means “precedential court case.” Koans are stories that are often built on dialogues and when they are used in zazen the person who practices with koans often works with the commentaries and verses that accompany them. According to some scholars, the first story about a dog and Buddha-nature appears in China over 1000 years ago. In “Joshu’s Mu,” as in so many koans used in Zen practice, there’s a dialogue between a less experienced Zen practitioner and a more experienced Zen practitioner.

So what is this “Buddha-nature” that a dog might or might not have? It is an expression for the awake nature that is free from misconceptions about a separate self, the always-present mind that we awaken to when we let go of the notion of a solid and separate self. It is the unhindered true nature of life itself, being itself, which becomes naturally obvious to us when we let go of knowing and not-knowing and enter the mind of unknowing. Does a dog have that nature? How could it not have that nature if it is unhindered and always present? Unknowing here doesn’t mean the opposite of common knowledge, intellectual or scientific knowledge. It is something else entirely: the mind that cuts through and swallows up both knowing and not-knowing. When Mu becomes fully yours there’s no division between the one that calls and the one that answers: you call Mu and Mu calls you. “Unknowing space” becomes visible and you experience a great freedom, because even though things, feelings, thoughts, and everything else comes and goes as usual, your experience now shows that the unhindered, unknowing space is always present.

The late Robert Aitken-roshi calls Mu an arcanum. This is a Latin word that means something like “secret of secrets” or a secret remedy. In the everyday use of the word Mu in Japanese, it means “does not have” or simply “not” or “no.” But if Mu is a secret, it is an open secret.

Mumon, the master who compiled the Mumonkan, once wrote the following verse:

Mu! Mu! Mu! Mu! Mu! Mu! Mu! Mu! Mu! Mu!
Mu! Mu! Mu! Mu! Mu! Mu! Mu! Mu! Mu! Mu!

In another version of the koan Joshu answered “Yes” instead of “No.” Zen teachers say that Joshu’s answer, be it no or yes or neither-yes-nor-no or both-yes-and-no, is “a direct presentation.” The great power of this small syllable comes from this alive directness. Its power comes from your engagement in this very moment. That it is a dog is not important; it could be a crow, a worm, a cow, a tick, or anything else. Mumon’s verse for this koan in our version of the Mumonkan goes:

Dog, Buddha nature—the full presentation of the whole; with a bit of “has” or “has not,” body is lost, life is lost.

When we have made the decision to pick up Mu, calling out Mu, and listening to Mu, there’s no use getting entangled in questions “about” Mu. They will just create new platforms that we hang on to. It’s like any relationship: if you keep creating too many questions (and answers) about the person and the relationship in your own mind, the actual relationship gets covered up and the real person is pushed aside. If we want to get to know someone or something intimately we need to encounter it directly. Then we need to care deeply about it: being passionate about communicating and giving it our attention without letting our preconceptions stand in the way. And when we acknowledge that real knowing is a kind of passionate unknowing, our relationship will be a true one.

Traditionally in Chinese and Korean Zen, the most common way of practice with a koan was to take up a so called huatou, or wato in Japanese, which literally means something like “word head.” A wato is what is left when all unnecessary words are stripped away and nothing is there but “the fundamental cry of one syllable.” Mu is such a syllable, a core word, a fundamental call that we can practice with early on but also for the rest of our lives. In Japan, teachers in the Rinzai tradition of Zen started to use so-called koan curricula for practice. These are systems of many koans that people work with in various Zen traditions even now. In our tradition we more or less follow the Harada–Yasutani koan curriculum. But the first step in koan practice is always a wato like “(What is) Mu?” or “What (is it)?” Or “Who (am I)?” “Who (am I)?” is not originally from the Zen tradition, but it is a natural existential inquiry that can be used as a wato. When a teacher has determined that someone has “opened to” Mu or another wato thoroughly enough, the teacher will give them subsequent koans to practice with.

There’s a risk of becoming very goal-oriented when we start practicing with watos, and some of the traditional Zen teachings can sometimes become confirmations of our feeling of inadequacy. We ask ourselves (and the teacher): I don’t get it, so what is wrong with me? Why can’t I be successful in this practice? Growing up in a society that promotes personal success and the reaching of individual goals rather than seeing value in the process as a whole, people cannot help but approach practice with a mind set on success versus failure, and sometimes get very frustrated when it takes time to open up to the wato. Sitting with Mu, Who, or What will bring you face to face with existence itself, with life, death, and impermanence. It is not about goals, success, or failure, and that is a great challenge but also great freedom. A wato like Mu will carry you beyond all speculations, to a place where there’s no use for small talk or niceties, where talent and smartness won’t help and where the ordinary way of approaching things doesn’t work. We must enter a world of unknowing, which can be very disconcerting.

In some Asian cultures, in spiritual practice or education one uses shaming as a device to motivate people. Someone said that in Tibet, for example, this works quite well because people in general are very relaxed. But here, in our Western–Lutheran culture, there’s a conditioning coming from notions of sin and guilt so that we react negatively when we hear such traditional Zen expressions as: “You are useless rice bags, good for nothing—just do it!” That style doesn’t work well in our culture because we take it too personally. What in Japan is called “words without flavor” we might interpret as negative or punishing. Another example is: “Why do you wander from this to that, stop searching for something—just Mu!” We might hear it as an accusation, even though it is just an energetic expression meant to inspire.

Zen practice can seem harsh and intense, at least from what you read in books about traditional Chinese and Japanese temple training. The energetic expressions are easy to misunderstand, sometimes because the translations are not good enough, or because the cultural context is misunderstood. Some translated expressions become more one-dimensional than they were in the original language. When I met Japanese people in Japan, I experienced that they integrate softness and sharpness in a subtle way; it’s a culture where falling cherry blossoms and swords meet, and it’s sometimes hard for us to really grasp the essence of that. We might see contradictions where there are none, and when we encounter Zen and hear or read expressions like “Be like an iron wall,” or “Cut off your delusions with the sword of Mu,” we don’t know how to interpret them and they can make us anxious in a negative way. My own experience is that if you are already full of energy and have reached a deeper level of concentration, strong words as well as quite hard strikes from the kyosaku can work as an inspiration. But in times of more sensitive mind states, they can be counterproductive.

Compared to how it was when I started my Zen practice at the Rochester Zen Center in the mid-1980s, we do things differently and the approach is less intense. We use the kyosaku less, and the fact that more people practice shikantaza now than before also affects the general atmosphere. Maybe the way to express it is that people’s practice is still intense, but it is a quieter intensity, more like a glowing coals than a blazing fire, and glowing coals do sometimes catch fire and a blazing fire produces burning coals. What I want to say here is that it doesn’t have to be either/or; sometimes it is one way and sometimes another, but we do not aim for creating an intense atmosphere by pressure from the outside. Instead we try to let things happen more naturally, even though some kind of intensity is needed.

The Zen teacher James Ford writes that his teacher told him, “Awakening is always an accident,” and says himself: “If awakening is an accident, a wato can make us more accident-prone.”

Zen practice is not about achievement, but rather about losing or letting go. This can sometimes become a tricky contradiction: we are told that there’s nothing to achieve, but at the same time it is said that we must pass through a wato to be able to work on subsequent koans.

Here we have to develop trust in ourselves, the practice, and the guidance from our teachers. It might seem like there’s one set way of moving through practice, but it isn’t so. And practice isn’t a quick-fix but a lifelong relationship. It can be difficult when other people seem to move much more quickly than us in practice, but it’s not helpful to question that with a “Why?” because we will never know why, and that kind of question just becomes a hindrance. If we play football on a field with others, our playing will not be meaningful if we focus on thinking about why others run faster or kick harder. On the surface of things, it seems like the best way is to be fast or kick hard, but this is a superficial way of looking at it, especially when it comes to spiritual practice or other areas of life that go beyond common rules.

But to develop fully we always need to do it thoroughly, deeply, and passionately. If we just do a little bit of practice now and then, or do it without real engagement, it won’t transform us in any significant way. Everyone’s practice–process in Zen is a mixture of effort and flow, and for some the effort comes first and the flow later, for some the flow comes first and the effort later, and for some it seems like it’s a lot of effort for a very long time and there’s not much flow. And mixed in with effort and flow are periods where not much at all goes on, when everything is very ordinary, but the thing is to stick with it whatever goes on. People are different, depending on many factors—call it karma if you like, or bio-psycho-social conditioning, or maybe a combination. Our conditioning is what brought us face to face with Mu or other practices. For me personally, the encounter with my first wato, Who?, was crucial. Even though the breath practice I did for two years before I picked up Who had a deep impact on my life, that small syllable shocked me in a fundamental way. The platform I was living from started to shiver and creak and with time I realized it actually had a diving board built into it.

Lastly, I will give you my own comments on the first seven sentences of Zen Master Mumon’s comment on Joshu’s Mu in the Mumonkan:

For the practice of Zen it is imperative that you pass through the barrier set up by the Ancestral Teachers.

Can you see that it is a diving board? Then use it!

For subtle realization it is of the utmost importance that you cut off the mind road.

To dive, you have to jump off the diving board!

If you do not pass the barrier of the ancestors, if you do not cut off the mind road, then you are a ghost clinging to bushes and grasses.

If you do not use the diving board to jump, it is useless.

What is the barrier of the Ancestral Teachers? It is just this one word Mu—the one barrier of our faith.

Oh Mu, oh Mu, oh Mu.

We call it the Gateless Barrier of the Zen tradition.

It is here, now, in the midst of our life.

When you pass through this barrier, you will not only interview Joshu intimately. You will walk hand in hand with all the Ancestral Teachers in the successive generations of our lineage—the hair of your eyebrows entangled with theirs, seeing with the same eyes, hearing with the same ears.

Hello, my name is Joshu and all I have to say is Mu!

Won’t that be fulfilling? Is there anyone who would not want to pass this barrier?


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Roshi Kanja OdlandKoan commentary by Roshi Kanja Odland

Kanja Roshi is a Dharma Heir of Roshi Kjolhede and a teacher at Zenbuddhistiska Samfundet (Zen Buddhist Society), with includes Zen centers in Sweden, Finland, Scotland, and Germany.