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The Zen Koan "MU"

Pointing at MU (Nothing)

The Light of Consciousness The historical meaning of the Japanese word koan is roughly "the place where the truth is declared." In Zen, a koan is a paradox or problem that is insoluble by means of discursive thought. Most koans are the sayings of the great Zen masters of the past, who used them on their students to open their minds to the truth of Zen.

The striking characteristic of almost all koans is the illogical, absurd sense of the words or action. The masters' answers to their students' questions are confusing and make us wonder what relation they actually have to the questions.

It's important to understand that the Zen masters' remarks have nothing to do with conceptual or analytical observations within the usual confines of a logical dualism. They are instead an expression of a tremendous experience of such an all-embracing universality, that it cannot be contained within the bounds of space and time or represented within the limitations of words.

The Zen practitioner's key to dealing with a koan is to have acquired the same utterly clear state of consciousness as that from which the koan was issued and which is unattainable through logical analysis. The profound truth that lay hidden in the koan will only become evident once the mind of the student is ripe enough to be completely in tune with the mind of the master who gave the koan.

Let us turn now to the koan, MU. This koan is possibly the most famous of all and is the one most often used by the leading Zen masters of today: Because of this, the Chinese/Japanese character for MU is sometimes displayed in the dojo or teaching space where Zen students gather. The character MU is composed of three strokes.

  • The first stroke is across.
  • The second stroke is down, through a clockwise loop,
    curves across to the right, and then back up.
  • The third stroke is a quick downward left-to-right diagonal.
Joshu (A.D. 778-897) was a famous Chinese Zen Master who lived in Joshu, the province from which he took his name. One day a troubled monk approached him, intending to ask the Master for guidance. A dog walked by. The monk asked Joshu, "Has that dog a Buddha-nature or not?" The monk had barely completed his question when Joshu shouted: "MU!"

The character for MU literally means "nothing." Joshu's answer was quite simply "Nothing," which was not to say that a dog lacks Buddha-nature. Naturally, both Joshu and the monk knew that Buddha-nature is inherent in all creatures without exception, which is why Joshu's "MU" should never be interpreted as a denial of this fact.

The only purpose of his response was to break the monk of rational thinking in trying to understand the truth of Zen and to get him to aspire to a higher understanding of reality beyond affirmation and negation, in which all contradictions disappear on their own. Joshu's "MU" is neither a yes nor a no. It is an answer that surpasses the opposition of yes and no and directly points to Buddha-nature, to the reality beyond yes and no.

Those who believe they can solve the koan MU through deductive reasoning will only spin their wheels and not gain an inch on MU. Clinging to words and expressions and attempting to interpret and understand MU intellectually is like trying to hit the moon with a stick, or trying to relieve an itch on your foot by scratching your shoe. The old masters said, "Attempting to solve MU by rational means is like attempting to break through an iron wall with your fist."

What, then, is the deeper meaning of Joshu's "MU"? Master Daito Kokushi (1280 - 1348) gave us the key when he emphasized to his students: "Not one of the 1700 koans of Zen has any other purpose make us see our Original Face."

Seeing your Original Face doesn't require any effort but it does require you to turn your attention and look in the opposite direction to which we're all accustomed. And the good news is, that just by holding your attention there -- long enough, with a completely open mind -- the awesome and liberating understanding will break through. Are you willing to give it a try?

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Pointing at MU (Nothing)

Point at something nearby and look You are observing a 'thing'. In other words, at this range it has form, color, opacity ...

Now point at something else. The floor, for example. Observe that it too, at this range, is a 'thing'.

Point at your shoe. Another 'thing'.

Point at your torso -- yet another 'thing'. At this range it too has form, color, opacity ...

We now come to the most important part -- turning your attention round 180 degrees and looking back at the place you are looking out of. Point back at the place where others see your face. (Actually do this.) You are now pointing at the one place that is no distance from you.

What do you see?

Are you pointing at another thing now? Going by present evidence, not by memory or imagination, is there any color, shape, opacity or 'thingness' here? Do you see your face here? Do you see eyes or cheeks or chin here?

Put aside assumptions and expectations and look as if for the first time. Only you are in a position to see what you are at center, since you alone are your side of your pointing finger. Don't rely on what you think is there. Rely on looking.

Here is my experience. Where others see my face, I see nothing. There is my pointing finger with the room beyond it, but here where it's pointing is nothing -- no face, no eyes, no cheeks, no teeth. I am looking out of space, clearness, transparency, emptiness, MU. In fact, I am this space, this clearness.

In this spacious emptiness is now presented my finger, the scene beyond, various tickles and itches, passing thoughts and feelings.

Keep pointing at -- and looking at -- the place where others see your face. Be curious and attentive. What is the nature of this place you have assumed is solid, head-shaped, human? Rely directly on your present experience, not on thinking. Don't assume you know and therefore needn't look. Don't take other people's view of you from several metres as reliable evidence for what you are at center. Have an open mind and take a fresh look at yourself.

You are now seeing who you really are. 'But I see nothing!' you may object. Yes, I see nothing too. But this is a very special nothing. For a start it's awake -- awake to itself as no-thing. (It's not an unconscious nothing, unaware of itself, dead.)

It's also a no-thing that is awake to what it contains -- which is everything, from your pointing finger to the stars in the night sky. This empty space is room for the universe. You are that space and all it embraces. But you may find that seeing your no-thingness isn't 'wow' experience. That's alright. It doesn't have to be dramatic. We are simply paying attention to what is given. Or not given.

We are not trying to generate mystical feelings or get high. That may or may not happen. In fact, exciting mystical experiences can sometimes confuse the issue, diverting us from the simplicity and truth at center into those attractive states of body and mind.

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A seeing friend once shared with me a letter he received from an American friend who is the Zen abbot of a temple in Japan.

"Last night," the abbot wrote, "I was visited by a man I didn't know very well and he noticed a calligraphic scroll I had hanging, with only the character for 'MU' (nothingness) on it. He asked, 'Toler san, have you ever entered the world of MU?' I said, 'Yes. Many times.' He then asked, 'How can you do it? At what times do you do it?' I said, 'Oh, you can do it anytime.' He asked, 'How?' So I led him through the pointing exercise. When I came to the question, 'Now, what do you see at the place where your finger is pointing?' he said, 'Nothing.' I said, 'Well, that's MU, isn't it?' He thought about that for about ten seconds, then suddenly laughed loudly and clapped his hands and said, 'I've been pondering that for years, and you showed me in a minute!' and thanked me profusely."

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I'll close this page by quoting several great mystics to help us consider the value and meaning of our central MU or no-thingness. These people are worth listening to because their lives revolved around being awake to their innermost being. They awoke to who they really were and lived from this truth, this wonder, sometimes in the face of great resistance from society. Their words will, I hope, encourage you to value the plain no-thingness, the transparent awakeness that is our true nature.

    Loosing and dropping off body and mind, your Original Face is clear before you. ~ Zazen-Gi

    He that beholds his own Face -- his light is greater than the light of the creatures. Though he die, his sight is everlasting, because his sight is the sight of the Creator. ~ Rumi

    In this kind of seeing, one only sees that no shape is there.
    ~ The Secret of the Golden Flower

    All that has form, sound, colour, may be classed under the heading -- 'thing' ... But a man can attain to formlessness and vanquish death. And with that which is in possession of the eternal, how can mere things compare? ~ Chuang-Tzu

    It is a great joy to realise that the Fundamental Nature is qualityless. ~ Gampora

    When all things are reduced to naught in you then you shall see God. ~ Meister Eckhart

    You are like a mirage in the desert, which the thirsty man thinks is water; but when he comes up to it he finds it is nothing. And where he thought it was, there he finds God. Similarly, if you were to examine yourself, you would find it to be nothing, and instead you would find God. That is to say, you would find God instead of yourself, and there would be nothing left of you but a name without a form. ~ Al-Alawi


Wolfgang Kopp in Free Yourself of Everything: Radical Guidance in the Spirit of Zen and Christian Mysticism.
Richard Lang, in, Seeing Who You Really Are: A Modern Guide to Your True Identity.

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