Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, and even on the Mount, nothing. – St. John of the Cross
A monk asked Chao-chou, ‘has the dog buddha nature or not?’
Chao-chou said, ‘Mu.’
Mu is a hammer to strike the earth and a scream to rend the sky. It is an open palm, a thunderclap, and a bank of foaming clouds. Most of all, it is simply Mu. Simple, direct, and profound, Mu invites the student to fully experience their own existence. It is not something that can be expressed through familiar territories. Instead, it distorts and undermines our own certain foundations.
Although it means “no,” or “negation,” Mu resists all of our attempts at easy definition. Once taken on by a student, the intellect scrabbles for a foothold. Generating this tension we arrive at the Great Barrier. The teacher will not let us pass without a reply, and we throw ourselves headlong into Mu’s great ocean. The teacher, understanding what we are attempting to do, summarily rejects all of our answers.
The monk in the koan is ourselves, always grasping at an authoritative interpretation of reality. Mu only flows through our fingers like sand. We strain for an answer, the understanding examining the question from every angle, drawing up vast schematics. The mind seeks its limits in scripture, philosophy, and previous experience, dredging up former skeletons from their graves.
In our practice, we bring a mountain of speculation, hoping to set our lives upon a new system, and fashion a new set of chains to bind ourselves.
In a sense the unlimited assemblage is the impossible. It takes courage and stubbornness not to go slack. Everything invites one to drop the substance for the shadow, to forsake the open and impersonal movement of thought for the isolated opinion. – Georges Bataille
The more the intellect attempts to ground Mu, the more it finds uncertain purchase. The student has reached a point where they cannot proceed. The trail veers off in uncertain directions. We lift our gaze and look upward. The answer stares us in the eyes, and reaches out its hand to touch our own.
The Mu koan is an embodiment of Zen practice. It doesn’t dwell in bounded concepts but in its very incomprehensibility. Rather than giving the student a system to assimilate, it draws the seeker deeper into their own lives. There is no fixed abode, and like life, Mu admits of unparalleled inventiveness. Rather than parroting old responses, Mu asks us to display a new understanding, rooted in the newness of each moment of experience. Free from our concepts, we are pulled into each new moment divested of the past.
Eihei Dogen expressed this understanding in one of his discourses on practice-realization. He indicates this using startlingly direct language.
It is not in the realm of ordinary people or sages. Thus it can neither be measured by the intellect of those who are wise, nor guessed at by the wisdom of those who have knowledge. Neither can it be discussed by the intellect of those who are beyond wise, nor can it be arrived at by the wisdom of those who have knowledge beyond knowledge. Rather it is buddha ancestors’ practice-realization, skin, flesh, bones, marrow, eyeball, fist, top of the head, nostril, staff, whisk, leaping away from making.
Mu explicates itself atop mountains, deep in the earth, and everywhere. It is bound up in all our responses to the questions of life. The ideas of past and future cannot encapsulate the moment as it swells outward in all directions. The complex situations of life cannot be done justice by discursive thought. Mu gestures us towards what Dae Gak has called “the power of possibility in the unknown” :
The nature of all existence is change. This does not mean change into the familiar, but in spite of the familiar into the unknown. This is the heart essence of Mu practice. This is the bone of these Mu ashes left by JoJu for us to investigate, to manifest again and again, and make vibrant and brand new, alive.
As we throw ourselves headlong into Mu, we notice the question becoming more transparent, until that question arises to embrace everything that is. It is this ambiguity that we carry with us throughout our lives, always unresolved, incessantly questioning, beating like a heart.
Bring this question forward, until doubt infects your whole being, and Mu runs through the veins and arteries of the world.