On the Koan Path

Mystery, part 2

At a sesshin (Zen meditation retreat) in 2003, I asked the teacher to give me a koan. He recited: “A monk asked Zhaozhou in all earnestness, does a dog have buddha-nature. Zhaozhou said, 'MU'.”

And then the teacher asked me: “What is Mu?” I happened to have read something about that little story. I knew that Zhaozhou was a Chinese master who lived in the seven and eight hundreds. I knew that “Mu” was a Japanese word that meant “no,” or “not have.” I also knew that the Buddha had been very clear that all sentient beings, including dogs, do have buddha nature, and that Zhaozhou knew that very well. So there’s this tempting intellectual puzzle: why would Zhaozhou say “no”?

I said, “Mu is no.”

The teacher said, “Right. Sit with that,” and he rang his little hand bell, which meant, this interview is over.

In a subsequent interview I said, “But a dog does have Buddha nature.”

The teacher said, “Right. Sit with that.” And rang his bell.

Each time I came in, he’d say, “What is Mu?” I tried out every answer I could think of. In between I sat with Mu.

“Mu is nothing – nothingness,” I said.

He said, “Right. Sit with that.” And rang his bell.

I sat, and felt the expansiveness of this negation. Next time I went in, he said “What is Mu?”

I said, “Mu is everything, the whole universe.”

He said, “Right. Sit with that.” And rang his bell.

I sat, and felt the mystery of the whole universe. Next time I went in, he said “What is Mu?”

I said, “Mu is beyond comprehension.”

This time he said. “Good.” And then, “Sit with that.”

He was reaching for his bell, and I blurted, “how can I sit with what I can’t comprehend?”

He said, “Sit with that.” And rang his bell.

I sat, and felt my frustration. I was aware that the great 13th-century master Mumon had spent 6 years sitting with Mu – and that spending years on Mu was normal. Next time I went in, he said, “What is Mu?

I said, “I don’t know.”

He said, “No. You don’t. Sit with not knowing.” And rang his bell.

I had read about this Mu koan -- about dissolving into Mu. I sat and imagined myself dissolving into Mu. Next time I went in, he said, “What is Mu?”

I said, “I have dissolved into Mu. There is no separation between me and Mu.”

He said, “Separation. Nonseparation. You have been reading Zen books.” And rang his bell.

Next time I went in, instead of “What is Mu?” he said, “Show me Mu.” And something happened. Nothing very much, but after that, the questions changed. Show me Mu when you are in the shower. Explain Mu to a six-month-old baby? Where is Mu when you are -- you are married? Yes – where is Mu when you are having an argument with your spouse? Show me Mu in powdered form.

The first koan – which might be Mu, as it was for me, or might be, “Who hears?” or might be, “Show me your face as it was before your parents were born” – typically takes a while: months or years. After that first one, at least in my school, the others tend to come more quickly.

The retreat ended. Back in Albuquerque, at Thursday morning practice, I told that teacher about the Tucson retreat. He presented me with some further one-liner koans. Stop the sound of the distant temple bell. Make Mt. Fuji take three steps.

In 2004, with my ministerial internship over, I was still visiting various teachers before deciding which one to settle down with. Ruben Habito, in Dallas, had been recommended. I flew out there to have a retreat with him. Ruben asked me what Mu was. Then he asked me the origin of Mu – and he didn’t mean where the word came from, or the origin of the story about Zhaozhou and the dog. Then he asked me a version of the most well-known koan of all. “What is the sound of one hand?” (Not: “one hand clapping” – just, “what is the sound of one hand?”) Probably you, too, can see that “clapping” is superfluous.

And then: Count the number of stars in the heavens. Go straight on a narrow mountain road that has ninety-nine curves. There were some that seemed to be quotations of nonsense poetry, followed by, “Show me that!” For example: "'In a well that has not been dug, water is rippling from a spring that does not flow.' Show me that.”

After about a hundred of these one-liner koans, come the anecdote koans from published collections, the Gateless Gate, the Blue Cliff Record, the Book of Serenity. These tell a little encounter story – one of the masters of the Tang dynasty encountering a student monk, or encountering another master.

I memorized each story in turn. During retreats, when it was time to see Ruben one-on-one, I recited the story and waited for his question.
“A monk came to Zhaozhou and said, ‘I have just arrived here.
I beg you, master, give me instruction.
Zhaozhou said, ‘have you had your breakfast?’
The monk said, ‘I have.’
Zhaozhou said, ‘Then wash your bowls.’”
Ruben would ask, “what is ‘wash your bowls,’?” But no explanation would do. The invitation of the koan was to embody it, not explain it. Be it, inhabit it.

Another time I recited:
“When Great Master Mazu was walking with Baizhang, he saw wild ducks flying by.
The Great Master said, ‘What is that?’
Baizhang said, ‘It is a wild duck.’
The Great Master said, ‘Where did it go?’
Baizhang said, ‘It has flown away.’
The Great Master twisted Baizhang’s nose.
Baizhang cried out in pain.
The Great Master said, “How did it ever fly away?’”
Ruben said, “Mazu asked, ‘What is that?’ How do you answer?"

I said, “It is a wild duck.”

Ding-a-ling-a-ling. Come back next time and try again.

No copying. And no explaining.
“A koan is a kind of technology, a hack for the mind. It strips our opinions and views away. It surprises you by transcending the terms on which you took it up. It draws you into a different way of seeing and experiencing the world.” (John Tarrant, teacher at Pacific Zen Center)
The real koan, every Zen teacher will occasionally remind you, is your life. “Show me Mu” is just the warm up for “show me YOU.”

Show the world YOU on the subway, preparing dinner, on the phone, answering an email, brushing your teeth, arguing with your teenager. No copying. No explaining. Just YOU.

Over the course of about 10 years, I worked through some 600 or so koans. Some of them I got stuck on for a while, and had to go back to see Ruben 4, 5, 6 times on the same koan before he would advance me to the next one.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Mystery"
See also
Part 1: Road to Not Knowing
Part 3: Most Intimate

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