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The Koan Mu
a teisho by John Tarrant, Roshi
October 18th 1997
Originally published in: California Diamond Sangha (CDS) Newsletter newsletter, Summer 1998.
All copyrights to this document belong to John Tarrant, California Diamond Sangha, Santa Rosa, Cal., USA
On the first day of a great seven-day retreat it's common to speak of a great koan, particularly the koan that is the first gate for many people -- the koan 'Mu'. It connects to a story that took place in China more than a thousand years ago:
That's the whole story. 'Mu' in Japanese or 'wu' in Chinese, means 'has not,' 'without,' 'doesn't,' 'no.' So the story can be taken in many ways: Does all of life have an underlying basis? Does my life have a meaning? Are we humans linked with the nobility of all of life? And the answer too can be taken in many ways. Perhaps the most useful of these is to consider that Zhaozhou is refusing to answer the student directly, but offering it back to him and to us as a kind of jewel box, a vessel that will hold our own great question, a question that we can resolve only by living with it in close companionship, living our way through it, as Rilke would say, perhaps over many years. In this manner we don't try to work out the koan the way we would work out a software glitch or a problem with a bookkeeping system. If we are asking about the purpose of life, the answer will be interesting only insofar as it is useful and will be useful only when it throws us onto our own resources, and into an awareness of our own participation in the fate of living creatures.
Over the centuries there have been many different instructions on how to use this koan, so students are free to experiment. One tradition is to work with the koan at first as a concentration meditation. In this style, you take up that one word 'Mu' and match it to your breathing, and go very, very deep with it -- the way you would with any other concentration meditation. In your heart and mind there is just 'Mu', until everything is 'Mu' around you and inside you. This is also what we can do with any great issue in our lives, any great question that cannot be answered in simple fashion by an internet search. So before we think, "Well, I understand all about 'Mu,'" we might consider the great question of our lives that we don't have a clue about. That's also 'Mu.' Before we think, "I don't understand anything about 'Mu,'" we might consider all those great questions that we have somehow lived our way through. Those, too, are 'Mu.' If we try the meditation in this way, it has a compelling quality. Wherever we turn, we cannot escape it. If we're far along in meditation, if we're at the beginning of meditation, it surrounds us.
If we truly go into the meditation using a koan in this way, our lives will begin to purify, and opinions and habits and prejudices will fall away. This is a great part of the joy of spiritual work. There is a sweetness to the beginner's mind part of meditation because we do grow bored with our own nonsense and to realize that we don't have to carry it around any more is a relief. For the moment of meditation, we are not tormented any more by the characteristic flux of the heart and mind -- the way we grasp this and refuse or avoid that.
Zen can also be fierce. In order to allow people to go deep, we need a strong container. So at first we sit still with a sense of being on a warrior path. And if we're going to walk the warrior path, the fundamental thing to remember is that the path is our path and belongs to no one else. And we must walk our path and no one else's. An old Korean teacher used to say, "Don't check anybody else's mind or heart." A favorite preoccupation of meditators is improving other people, and this temptation is particularly seductive when we're in pain. Sometimes when people are hurting in some part of their lives, they flee the pain and use its energy to project onto and castigate other people. One of the great lessons of meditation is that the only thing I can work on is my own path. As for others, perhaps the whole situation will soften if I change, perhaps not. Meanwhile our meditation practice is as uniquely our own as our DNA signature. In the most profound sense I can have nothing to say about your path except to share what I have seen to work and to offer encouragement. And it's good to remember that it's possible to offer love and encouragement and compassion wherever anybody is in their path.
Spiritual striving often brings out a stingy, carping awareness. People come into interview and say things like, "Penelope won't sit still and she's distracting me." I'll say something like, "Oh, I'm not very good at sitting still either," which happens to be true. Actually the person who is not sitting still is the person who is saying that Penelope is not sitting still. Then Penelope who has been accused of not sitting still or being selfish or whatever it is, comes into the interview room and she is having a great retreat, her meditation is really deep, and she is beginning to have an awakening. She's full of compassion and is concerned about the complainer: "Is he alright? He doesn't look so good. I don't want to interfere but let me know if I can help." We miss our own lives if we're focussed on changing others. In this context, our opinion of other people is always a projection. I am never right about what other people need, and cannot really know. To accept our uncertainty is one of the treasures of meditation and frees us to follow our unique path.
So we dodge the distractions, we attend and attend and attend and go deep. Sometimes meditation is simple and concentration is enough, but then sometimes the concentration seems to wear out, like a shoe. It might be that everything gets tangled and we can't find the koan or it might be that an emotion tears at us and won't let go. Then we've come to the end of what we're good at, we have come to the end of thinking and feeling the way everyone around us does. Although we're working at concentration, not enough is coming back from the universe -- we're trying too hard and our trying has become a barrier to meeting the world. We are lost and search parties will be unable to find us.
At such a moment we discover that even in our good meditation, in a subtle way we are trying to be somewhere other than we are, to be someone other than who we are. And this sense of struggle, though it may be small, is experienced as a blockage, a barrier. We find that our effort is partly authentic and partly not. So we have to widen our meditation and then I think it's fair to speak of the heart quality of meditation, of the path of love. That heart quality is the crucial thing and balances the wisdom. And there are different ways to get to the heart.
If we really go as deep as we can into whatever gate, whatever difficulty or hard question there is in our lives, into whatever koan we've taken up, the heart quality will eventually open along with the light. This is puzzling at first and some never attempt it because the great strength of the Zen tradition does not at first seem to lie in the heart, but in the light. But it is true that if we allow the heart in, our wisdom is deeper. There is no way to escape this, it is a truth of the psyche. Allowing love to enter also complicates things which is why some of us try very hard to avoid it. Our demons appear and sometimes they're very strong, but at least they are our demons and not some grey despair that is an avoidance of demons. They're ours, and we must know them as ours, and somehow have compassion for the human condition in the midst of that. And if we're kind to what is rising in ourselves, perhaps we will be kind to others, and that would be a blessing because we can always do with a little more kindness in the world. And with the arrival of love, wisdom comes too. The meditation takes away the veil between our sense of self and of the world. We are no longer alienated, no longer separated from the trees and the birds and the land and each other.
The wisdom of Zen really leads into that kindness and the kindness of Zen leads into that wisdom. Attention itself is a kind of love. This is one of the deepest things that we can let life happen, that it is safe to just go deep and anything at all is allowed to come up. Any fear, loathing, greed or ennui. We find the worst things about ourselves and we see that this, too, is human. It's not alien to us. Then we find that the best things about being human are also not alien to us.
And the path will be full of generosity and sweetness. So if somebody receives a gift, an honor, a promotion, it is easy to praise and encourage them, and say, "Oh, congratulations. How wonderful!" And we'll have joy for each other in our achievements. And then we'll find that our joy for each other is itself the world of 'Mu.' The world of 'Mu' is everywhere, and has returned to us. It's not out there, it's here. It's no other place in the universe. If I truly enter my own meditation it is vast. That vastness itself teaches us what it wants of us; it teaches us how to live and how to love.