Joshu’s Mu

Trees shed thousands, millions of seeds, yet only one or two sprout and, in their turn, go on to become a tree. A teisho is like this. It is sowing seeds. Some of the seeds may not sprout for years. Most of them will just pass you by. It may well take some time, but perhaps one day a seed will sprout and you will suddenly turn around and say, “Ah, now I see what he was getting at.”

You should not try to understand what I say. Understanding is a natural process of the mind; it is rather like digesting food. One digests knowledge, information and experience and this is what we call understanding. Philosophy means just that (or at least it used to mean that): struggling to find an integrated, meaningful and worthwhile understanding of how we know what we know and how much reliance we can place on what we know, as well as an understanding of reality and our place in the world. The problem with understanding is that we try to take it with us into the transcendent, to go beyond, when we are attempting to come to terms with the inconceivable. Then it is a hindrance: even an obstruction.

What is said in a teisho should be seen as a challenge, an attempt to bring you to the edge, to make you realize there is something beyond what you habitually feel that you know. What is ‘beyond’ is what is most worthwhile. But each of us must realize it for ourselves. It cannot be given to us by another.

Words are in their way small miracles, but that which performs the miracle of speech is a much greater miracle yet. Koans are about that miracle, or rather they are not about it but are its full manifestation.

Koan 1 of the Mumonkan.

A monk once asked Joshu, “Does a dog have Buddha nature?” Joshu answered “Mu.”

All our practice, indeed all spiritual practice, is summed up, contained in, Joshu’s Mu. NO! not the no, the opposite to yes, but the NO that cuts off Buddha’s feet and makes the mountains move. Some of you are working on “Who am I?” In exactly the same way, all spiritual practice is in that one question, “Who?” The only answer to which lies in front of your nose. What is spiritual practice? What are we doing when we engage in a spiritual practice? We are not looking for special states of mind, for peace, compassion, sublimity, or awakening. We must not believe for a moment that Joshu’s Mu is any kind of technique, a way by which we can manipulate reality to our advantage. Our practice is like a prayer, but again we must understand that we use the word “prayer” not in the way that most people look upon it: a way of persuading, cajoling, demanding, pleading with, some power to change the inevitable. Our practice is like a prayer of supplication, a prayer by which we open ourselves to what is beyond any rosy picture or Utopian dream.

What is Joshu’s Mu? Does a dog have Buddha nature? First you must enter into the monk’s question, because, if you are seriously practicing Zen, his question is your question. What am I? What does it mean when I say, “I am?” How can we stop taking “I am” for granted? Indeed, how can we stop taking our whole life for granted? This is the basis of koan practice: no longer to use ready-made, second-hand ideas and thoughts. The monk was in agony, unless you see that you too are in agony you are wasting your time. Don’t be afraid of the truth. The monk desperately wanted an answer to questions that, if we are at all awake, are the questions we all have, and he turned to Joshu for help. What a waste of time!

I always ask people why they are practicing. Sometimes people say, “I want to see if I can break out. I want to see if I can get out of this rat race, this feeling that I’ve seen it all before.” This wish to break out leads people to believe that spiritual practice requires some kind of enthusiasm, excitement or emotional high. But to break out is to examine everything as closely as though your life depends on it, and then to examine the process of examining. What is anything? We are so convinced that we know what we mean when we say that ‘something is’ — that the room is here, that the garden is there, that the house is there — we are so convinced of this that we go beyond it, we ignore the significance of this conviction.

Hui Neng said, “From the beginning, not a thing is.” You must see this kind of phrase, as well as a phrase like “true self is no self,” as a kind of medicine you take to cure you of the sickness of taking things for granted. Buddha said that his teaching was a raft; then he asked, “When you cross over, do you carry the raft on your head?” We must not look at what Hui Neng says as a teaching, as something that we learn and absorb and take as our own. It is a challenge. Otherwise it is sheer poison that can lead you into the darkest confusion We can no more say that from the beginning not a thing is than we can say that true self is no self, until we know for ourselves their truth; but when we know their truth; we must then forget them.

This is the beauty of Mu. Mu is so austere, its like a mouth full of dust, we cannot grasp it or take it for granted. It leaves no residue. It leaves nothing behind. You just cannot understand what Joshu is saying.. This is why we always say at the beginning of sesshin, “You have not come here to understand.” When we try to understand we try to build an edifice, a conceptual house in which to live, a structure of ideas that we can be sure of. You have heard so often that people believe they can grasp reality in thoughts and words, that they can understand themselves through psychology and the world through philosophy or science. But still you do it. You believe that it is possible; not in any overt, conscious way, but as a tacit assumption. Even though you may consider yourself to be anything but an intellectual, you still have your own metaphysics. But if you’ve really worked on yourself, you will see that every idea that you grasp is empty. When you look at it closely it somehow melts. Even the ideas that one felt were so important, one sees they have no substance to them. They are but “flowers of the air” as the Lankavatara sutra would say. Mu is a solvent, like an acid, that dissolves ideas.

When we first start the practice, our struggle is to just hold on to Mu, just to keep it in mind, just to stay with it. And when we’ve done that for a while we begin to wonder, “What is the point of this kind of practice?” and this is when a deeper kind of practice can begin to take over. But one really must face that question, “What is the point of this kind of practice?” because the switch from just holding on to Mu, to looking into Mu, is radical. It is the difference between working on Mu from the outside––holding on to MU––and struggling to work on MU from the inside. Mu means to be totally undefined, completely unlocated, completely without borders or limits, indeed, with nothing to hold on to. It’s like when we chant from the Prajnaparamita, “and so the Bodhisattva, holding to nothing whatever.” But we must be careful because we must not make something of nothing, nor is our practice simply “slipping away.” A line from a poem by the English poet John Keats says, “Fade far away, dissolve and quite forget;” this is not what practice is about. You do not have to dissolve; you do not go into a special state, some trancelike state; your ideas must fade, dissolve, not you. And this is only possible in your light, in the light of your awareness; what is important is the clarity and intensity of your light. That is to say the degree to which you are committed, the sincerity and honesty of your practice. We sometimes ask, “Are you?” and if one can be com¬pletely innocent, completely unsophisticated, naïve, in response to that question, one gets a taste of what we mean when we say that the ideas must dissolve.

Zen has a saying, “When thoughts of the world are strong, then thoughts of the dharma are weak; when thoughts of the dharma are strong, then thoughts of the world are weak.” Thoughts of the world are so strong because we take things for granted; moreover, we think they are so important that our very life depends upon them. One of the key words that holds it all in place is the word “is.” This is why we warn you that the question, “What ‘is’ Mu?” or “Who ‘are’ you?” is a trap. Mu means no “is,” or rather no fixed, permanent and absolute “is.” Dogen speaks of “uji,” being-time. He says everything is time: every ‘is’ is flowing. The zendo is time, the cushion is time, the house is time. There is a koan, called a preliminary koan, and it says, “Standing on the bridge and lo, the stream no longer flows, it is the bridge that flows.” Because we take everything for granted with the concrete base of “is,” we see the world as something static. The world is like a stage on which a play of our life is being enacted. We believe that in the background is the stage, the scenery; all is fixed, unmoving, static; while in the foreground is my life. I move through the world, my life is like a stream flowing while the banks of the stream remain stable. But Dogen says the banks are also flowing. The stage, the scenery, are part of the play. This is not that everything is becoming, we are not saying that at all; there is no becoming. When I am silent it seems that nothing is happening, but everything is happening. Nothing ever stops happening. Everything is happening. What is happening may not be what I want to happen, but it happens nevertheless. To see into this is a way of melting down this carapace, this shell, of what we call existence.

In another koan, Hyakujo goes out with Baso, and, while they are out, some wild geese fly overhead, and Baso says to Hyakujo, “Hyakujo, where are they?” And Hyakujo says, “They have flown away.” Baso grabs Hyakujo by the nose and twists his nose. Why? Why does Baso twist Hyakujo’s nose? We believe that things come and go, that I come and go. Because we believe in this notion of time as a stream that is flowing, things appear and disappear. But there is no birth, no death, there is no appearing and disappearing. As Hakuin says, “In coming and going we never leave home.” This is why we say that there is no becoming.

There are no things to appear, and no things to discover over there. You put them ‘over there.’ For example, if you look at your body, you can put it ‘over there,’ in which case you say “I have a body.” But when you don’t say, “I have a body,” then the body dissolves. One is left simply with what one calls in retrospect, sensations, pains perhaps, because you are ‘inside,’ so to say. Not inside the body, but inside the pain or the sensations: you feel them. You are aware as the body, not aware of it. But when Hui Neng says, “From the beginning, not a thing is,” he is neither inside nor outside. Mu is beyond inside and outside. The meaning of the words ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ drops away; there is no connection between what you are and anything that you can say to express what you are. No connection at all. When you really see into yourself, then all that you’ve known, understood, realized, just melts like a cloud. Joshu’s Mu means just that: it is not a state of mind.

Our practice must become more subtle. We should not believe that as a consequence of practice we are going to know more or understand more. By subtle, I mean more transparent, that you see through ideas and not with ideas. Someone said it is like throwing a slate into a deep clear pool. If you have ever done that you know the fascination of seeing it sink deeper and deeper. We sometimes liken it to experiencing a piece of music. One can listen to a piece of music many times and at the end one can say, “I think I am beginning to see what that music is about.” Then you listen to it a few more times and then say, “Ah! Now I see what it is about!” There is no end to practice. As Hakuin said, “Practice is like the sea, the further you go the deeper it gets.” You mustn’t look upon practice as some kind of race that you are running, as some kind of marathon that you have undertaken, that one day you will run across the finishing line and win.

When I first heard this I was filled with despair because, above all I wanted closure, wanted a finality, wanted a stop. Our belief in a stop, in a finality, our lusting after closure gives us the impetus for taking things for granted. Our belief in gaining and getting and having and achieving is the manifestation of this need for closure, and of course the ultimate in closure is death. We are in that situation of wanting to find rest and peace, and yet knowing that the last thing that we really want is rest and peace, because to gain rest and peace we must get outside time. Time knows no rest. We get outside time by thoughts and names, by, if you like, abstraction. So we are able to have this stage on which to put on our play, this ability to get outside time, but when we get outside time we get outside life.

There is a fairy story called The Midas Touch, about a king who wanted wealth, and a wise man came and said “Yes, I can give you wealth. Everything you touch will turn to gold,” and the whole world froze solid as a consequence. When we give workshops we often say that Zen is like a smorgasbord, take your pick. This is after we have introduced all the possibilities that Zen practice can give: satisfying curiosity, less physical stress, less psychological stress, more concentration power, creativity, and then we say choose, but choose well because perhaps you will get what you want, but won’t want what you get. King Midas got what he wanted, but then he didn’t want what he got. For everything to turn to gold means that you achieve what you want, but what is it you want? Joshu’s Mu is the opposite to the Midas Touch. There are two ways of being rich; one is to earn or gain a lot of money, the other way is to let go of all unnecessary desires. A man with a million dollars who wants two million dollars is a poor man; a man with nothing who wants nothing is rich. When we talk in terms of riches and poverty, we always think in terms of money, but money is just a symbol of our ability to grasp, our ability to take things for granted.

When your practice becomes more subtle, your life will become richer. But if you are struggling constantly to grasp, to get, to achieve, then naturally your life will become poorer, you will be like a person with a million dollars that wants two million dollars. You know the koan about the monk Seizei, who said to the master “I am poor and destitute. I beg you, give me sustenance.” He had a million and he wanted two. And the master pointed this out to him and said, “Seizei!” “Yes sir.” “There, you’ve drunk the finest wine in China and still you say that you are poor.” But to see into that requires subtlety, deli¬cacy. You must work with a feather touch. Of course, when we are on sesshin, and after we have sat for several hours, then our practice begins to get very dry and difficult; we can only stay present by using great effort, we can even lose the whole question, we are in a kind of daze, and then we wonder, how can we have a subtle practice in the midst of this?

Our practice becomes more subtle when we no longer try to get through, past or over the dry periods. By not wanting another experience, something else, something different. Simply because the practice is uncomfortable does not mean that it is a bad practice. Practice requires immense humility, and humility leads to patience; but we say to ourselves, surely something else should be possible now, something else should come; we are always fidgeting for this something else, so we are not able to be one with the moment, and being one with the moment is what I mean by being subtle.

Mu is not an alternative viewpoint. Joshu’s Mu is beyond all description. As Hakuin says, “beyond exultation.” Mu is life. That we want magic and miracles is because echoes of Mu resonate through us. Mumon says, “Hundreds of flowers in the spring, the cool breeze in summer, the moon in autumn, snow in winter.” What more do you want

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2 Responses to Joshu’s Mu

  1. Paul says:

    Thank you very much for the direction towards more subtle practice, which I encountered this morning after returning to the cushion following a hiatus. My practice, since first encountering Zen some years ago while posted to an office in Tokyo, has been sporadic, but in some ways consistent — as (for example) since the beginning I’ve kept your little book, “An Invitation To Practice Zen,” at the altar beside my home sitting space (which is in San Francisco now), and have come to love its simple explanation and instructions. Having just found and enjoyed your website, I shall today endeavor to “see through ideas and not with ideas.” I turned 60 recently, and have acquired in retirement (from a law career) the hobby of foraging for wild mushrooms. It occurs to me that, just as the ancient mycelium may any day — sometimes overnight! — send forth new fruit from under the oak duff in response to a late or unexpected rain, the detritus of my mundane working years no doubt contains seeds of possibility that “dharma drops” such as those you are sprinkling in your blog may cause to germinate. But of course a person won’t find the new ‘shrooms unless he checks his spots regularly…

  2. André Martel says:

    Many thanks Albert.

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