Mu and Its Implications

David Loy

Zen Buddhism Today
v.3 (1985.09)
pp. 108-124

Institute for Zen Studies
Kyoto, Japan


Mu and Its Implications

     As the title suggests, this paper divides into two parts. First I present my understanding of what happens when a Zen student works on "Jōshu's Mu", which is usually the first kōan assigned to those who wish to realize their true nature. This is followed by some philosophical reflections on the implications of this process, some of which have not been much noticed.



     As long as I am this or that, or have this or that, I am not all things and I have not all things. Become pure till you neither are nor have either this or that; then you are omnipresent and, being neither this nor that, are all things.

-- Eckhart[1]


     Here we can see that solipsism coincides with pure realism, if it is strictly thought out. The I of solipsism shrinks to an extensionless point and what remains is the reality co-ordinate with it. last I see that I too belong with the rest of the world, and so on the one side nothing is left over, and on the other side, as unique, the world. In this way idealism leads to realism if it is strictly thought out.

-- Wittgenstein[2]


     To learn the Buddhist way is to learn about oneself. To learn about oneself is to forget oneself. To forget oneself is to perceive oneself as all things. To realize this is to cast off the body and mind of self and others.

-- Dōgen[3]


     "Jōshu's Mu" is, of course, the first kōan of the Mumonkan. It is perhaps the best known of all kōans and the main case is one of the shortest:

A monk in all seriousness asked Jōshu, "Does a dog have Buddha-nature, or not?" Jōshu, retorted: "Mu!"



Mu and Its Implications

The kōan point -- the problem of the kōan -- is: What is "Mu"? The monk of the story seems to have heard that, according to Mahāyāna philosophy, all sentient beings have (or, as Dōgen would put it, are) Buddha-nature, but he could not understand how a mange-ridden, half-starved mongrel could he said to have the same nature as the Buddha. Literally, mu, like the original Chinese wu, is by itself a negative particle. Within ancient Chinese cosmology, wu sometimes refers to the Void from which the universe originated. But it is a mistake to take Jōshu's cryptic answer as denying the Buddha-nature of a dog, or as making any conceptual statement about Buddha-nature or the origin of the universe or anything else. The value of this dialogue as a kōan is that, once this point is understood, little room is left for speculation, there is really nothing left for the conceptualizing mind to grasp onto.

     The old way of working on this kōan must have been very frustrating: the Zen master pressed the student for the correct answer, while rejecting all his attempts. Eventually the student would run out of replies, and then he might be encouraged simply to repeat the sound "Muuuu..." over and over again. Nowadays the process is usually shortened. Students are informed at the beginning that all conceptual answers are unsatisfactory, and they are instructed to treat "Mu" as a kind of mantram, to be repeated internally in coordination with exhalations of the breath. The thought, or rather sound, of "Mu" is used to chop off all other thoughts. In his commentary on this kōan, Yasutani Hakuun-rōshi, a contemporary Zen master elaborates:

...Let all of you become one mass of doubt and questioning. Concentrate on and penetrate fully into Mu. To penetrate into Mu means to achieve absolute unity with it. How can you achieve this unity? By holding to Mu tenaciously day and night! Do not separate yourself from it under any circumstances! Focus your mind on it constantly.... You must not, in other words, think of Mu as a problem involving the existence or non-existence of Buddha-nature. Then what do you do? You stop speculating and concentrate wholly on Mu -- just Mu!

     ...At first you will not be able to pour yourself wholeheartedly into Mu. It will escape you quickly because your mind will start to wander. You will have to concentrate harder -- just "Mu! Mu! Mu!" Again it will elude you. Once more you attempt to focus on it and again you fail. This is the usual pattern in the early stages of practice....

Absolute unity with Mu, unthinking absorption in Mu -- this is ripeness. Upon your attainment to this stage of purity, both inside and outside naturally fuse.... When you fully absorb yourself in Mu, the external and



Mu and Its Implications

internal merge into a single unity.[4]

Notice what is not encouraged here: one should not cultivate a blankness of mind, in which no thoughts arise, nor should one try to push thoughts away, which divides you into two -- that which is pushing the thoughts away, and the thoughts which are pushed away. Instead, the principle is to concentrate on one thing -- in this case, "Muuu..." -- in order to become one with it.

     What distinguishes this from, say, an Indian mantram is the seeking quality which is generated by the need to solve the kōan. Usually, although not always, it is emphasized that "great doubt" is necessary. "Great doubt" here refers to the state of perplexity which becomes so intense that it is experienced both physically and mentally, and which functions to block conceptualizing.

When working on Zen, the most important thing is to generate the I chin ("doubt sensation"). What is this doubt-sensation? For instance: Where did I come from before my birth, and where shall I go after my death? Since one does not know the answer, to either question, a strong feeling of "doubt" arises in the mind. Stick this "doubt-mass" onto your forehead (and keep it there) all the time until you can neither drive it away nor put it down, even if you want to. Then suddenly you will discover that the doubt-mass has been crushed, that you have broken it to pieces.[5]

It would be interesting to compare this "great doubt" with the Cartesian doubt that stands at the beginning of modern Western philosophy. Briefly, the main difference seems to be that Cartesian doubt is something that the self has, whereas the "great doubt" becomes something that the self is: the self becomes so preoccupied with its kōan that it forgets itself in its puzzlement. So Cartesian doubt has the effect of reifying the sense-of-self, but the "great doubt" leads to the evaporation of that sense of self.

     At the beginning of Zen practice, there are many distracting thoughts and it is difficult to focus on "Mu", but if the student perseveres then the stream of inner-dialogue eventually weakens as "Mu" grows stronger. The sense of self is slowly attenuated as the mental phenomena that sustain it -- desires and expectations, ideas about oneself, etc. -- fade away. Eventually meditation deepens to become samādhi, when "both inside and outside naturally fuse" because there is no longer an awareness of duality, of an "I" that is reciting "Muuu..." There is only "Muuu...": This stage is sometimes described by saying that now " 'mu' is doing 'mu' ": without the attendant sense of an "I", it is just "mu" that sits, "mu" that stands up and walks, "mu" that eats. If one perseveres, there sometimes arises the sensation of hanging over a precipice and dangling by a single thread. "Except for occasional feelings of uneasiness and despair, it is



Mu and Its Implications

like death itself." (Hakuin).[6] The solution is to let go by throwing oneself completely into "mu":

Bravely let go
On the edge of the cliff.
Throw yourself into the abyss
With decision and courage.
You only revive after death.[7]

Kenshō 見性 ("seeing inner nature"), the first stage (or glimpse) of enlightenment, occurs when the student does "let go" of himself. "All of a sudden he finds his mind and body wiped out of existence together with the kōan. This is what is known as letting go your hold'." (Hakuin)[8] Dōgen described it by saying that one's body and mind drop away, and thereafter there is an empty, fallen-away, body and mind. Here the Zen master may help by cutting the last thread: an unexpected action, such as a blow or a shout or even a few quiet words, may startle the student into "letting go". Many of the classical Zen stories tell of how a student was enlightened by such an action. What happens in such cases is that the shock of the unexpected noise or pain causes it to penetrate to the very core of the student's being -- in other words, it is experienced nondually. For example, when Unmon broke his ankle, he was enlightened because he forgot himself and everything else as his universe collapsed into one excruciating but empty pain.

With enlightenment you see the world as Buddha-nature, but this does not mean that all becomes as radiant as a halo. Rather, each thing just as it is takes on an entirely new significance or worth. Miraculously, everything is radically transformed though remaining just as it is.


One way to describe the difference between before and after is that previously experience was (or seemed to be) dualistic: there is the duality between subject and object, between oneself and the external world. With kenshō that duality is realized to be delusive: my consciousness and the world are not separate from each other. As Dōgen put it, "I came to realize clearly that mind is no other than mountains, rivers, and the great wide earth, the sun and the moon and the stars. "[10] This is the point of the Mahāyāna equation between saṁsāra and nirvāṇa: the difference between them is whether we experience the world dualistically or nondualistically.

     Because this issue of nonduality is so central, some more elaboration is needed here. Our usual understanding of experience is that there are two things which epistemologically "balance" each other: the external world of objectively-existing



Mu and Its Implications

material objects, and an ego-consciousness that is perceiving it. The evaporation of that supposedly-discrete ego-consciousness, by "forgetting oneself" in working on "Mu", leads to a new realization of what consciousness is. The consciousness which was previously understood to be "in here", looking at the external world "out there", is no longer separate from the world. Instead of thee go which sees something else as external to itself, the nondual "self-luminous" nature of the world stands revealed.

     An interesting problem arises when someone who has had this nondual experience wants to describe it in language. Language is perhaps unavoidably dualistic: subject is differentiated from predicate/attribute, something is designated which then does something. So in order to express nonduality this duality must be somehow denied. Two obvious alternatives suggest themselves: one can say that there is no subject, or that there is only subject. The nondual experience can be described by negating the subject (no self: consciousness is nothing other than what is experienced) or by denying the object (all phenomena are nothing other than a manifestation of consciousness itself). The first alternative is Buddhism, the second is Advaita Vedānta. To say that there is no self, or that everything is the Self, turns out to be the same: neither description is more or less correct than the other.[11]

     All this may seem suspiciously simple, but it does link together many elements from the different Asian traditions that emphasize the nonduality of subject and object. Nondual perception is perception without conceptual super impositions (vikalpa), prapañca, adhyāsa in which case perception is unmediated (nirvikalpa) and "self-luminous" (svayaṁprakāśa) -- that is, "self-aware" because there is no need for another consciousness to be aware of it. To say that the world is māyā as both Advaita and Mahāyāna do, then describes the fact that these self-luminous phenomena seem to exist externally as objects.[12]

     Nondual action seems to be what is being described in the Taoist wei-wu-wei (imui 為無為 ),the paradoxical "action of nonaction". This refers not to passivity, as it has often been understood, but to action in which there is no duality between the self and the action. When I am completely one with an action, without the superimposition of an intention interfering, then, in place of the sense of self, there is an awareness of that which does not change. It is significant that this paradox is also found in both Mahāyāna Buddhism and the Bhagavad-gītā, where we find: "He who in action sees no-action, and in no-action action, he is the man of understanding among men...though he engages in action, yet he acts not at all."[13]



Mu and Its Implications

     There is also nondual thinking. This is something not often discussed, because thinking is usually understood to be the problem, the delusion which mediates to cause our sense of duality. But the Mahāyāna distinction between vijñāna (consciousness) and prajñā (wisdom) supports the idea that there is also a thinking in which there is no duality between thinker and thought. This is creativity, and explains why creativity is intrinsically mysterious: "I" do not create the thoughts, but they "spring up" (the pra- of prajñā) by themselves. Because of the close connection between thinking and samādhi, we shall return to this issue shortly.

     In conclusion to this section, it must be emphasized that the kenshō experience -- the first "taste" of nonduality -- is not the end but only the true beginning of Zen practice. It has been said that to experience kenshō is not usually very difficult, but to integrate that experience fully into one's daily life is a challenge that takes lifetimes. Except in the very deepest (and rarest) of cases, impure karmic tendencies persist and they eventually return after any enlightenment experience, along with the sense of duality, although that has been weakened by the realization that such duality is indeed delusive. According to Mahāyāna teachings, reality has two sides, form and emptiness. Usually we experience phenomena only dualistically, but kenshō reveals the "essential world" of empty oneness. Rather than just alternating from one to the other, the challenge is to realize and manifest their "interpenetration". One way to express this is that nonduality must be fully "brought into" the apparently dualistic world of our day-to-day activities.



     If the above account of the "Mu" process is correct, then there are a number of implications which are philosophically quite interesting. This section will discuss some of them.

     1. It is difficult to make sense out of the "Mu" process unless we presuppose that the result -- nondual experience -- is not something newly created, but is the true nature of all our experience at all times. It is hardly tenable to claim that in working on "Mu" my individual mind learns how to merge with objects. It only makes sense the other way around: this nondual way of experiencing merely reveals the true nature of phenomena, and my sense of being a separate consciousness was always (as all schools of Buddhism emphasize) just a delusion. So there never was a self, just a sense-of-self. (Here it is significant that both Saṁkhya-Yoga and Advaita Vedānta agree with Buddhism that liberation only



Mu and Its Implications

occurs from the "empirical" point of view: neither the puruṣa nor the ātman was ever really in bondage.) But what is the difference between a self and a sense-of-self? A self is an existing "thing", but a sense-of-self must be more dynamic: a process, constituted by certain recurring ways of thinking, which are not random but structured in a coherent, self-supporting way. In other words, it is the way certain recurring thoughts (here "thoughts" means mental phenomena generally, including emotions, desires, memories, etc.) interact that generates the sense of an "I". The recurrence and persistence of such thoughts creates, as it were, a "mental bubble" which is superimposed upon sense-experience, filtering and interpreting it. This has the effect of dividing experience into an "I" that seems to be inside the bubble and an "external world" which is outside it. This has the effect of dividing experience into an "I" that seems to be inside the bubble and an "external world" which is outside it.

     This is important for understanding what happens when we do Zazen: I am able to become one with "Mu" only by cutting off this proliferating chain of interlocking thoughts. To explain this, let us back up for a moment. What exactly is the "sickness" that we are "treating" with Zazen, and how does the "medicine" of Zazen work? That is clearly the heart of the issue, but the answers usually given tend to be vague and not very helpful. Often the problem is simply labelled -- and I did it too in the first part of this paper -- "conceptualizing", but what does that term refer to? Or we are told that the problem is "clinging to thoughts", but doesn't that presuppose the self that we want to analyze away: who is doing the clinging? So can we explain the problem without contradicting ourselves? The Yogācāra perspective helps somewhat: there is no "grasper" apart from the "grasping", and grasping here refers to some tendency of the mind to fixate itself. But how can a thought fixate itself, if, as we know, every thought that arises also passes away? The answer, it seems to me, is that the problem is not the discrete "thought-element" (Jap. nen, Ch. nien 念) itself, but rather the tendency to link up each thought with the next thought, making them into a chain, by not letting go of one until there is another to fixate upon. Each thought in itself is complete and whole and "empty" (śūnya), because it manifests itself spontaneously without the need for an ego-self to think it. But the unenlightened mind misses this because (to borrow the analogy of a modern Advaitin, Ramana Maharshi) it is like a worm that will not let go of one leaf until it has another to hold onto. The problem is that we are afraid to let go and fall into the Void -- which, as Ōbaku (Ch. Huang-po 黃檗) said, is not really a void but the dharmakāya itself.

     Perhaps an otherwise-enigmatic passage in the Diamond Sūtra is making the



Mu and Its Implications

same point:

Therefore then, Subhūti, a bodhisattva should produce an unsupported thought, a thought which is nowhere supported, which is not supported (apratiṣṭhiti) by forms, sounds, smells, tastes, touchables, or objects of mind.[14]

An "unsupported thought" is tathatā: "Just that thought" a Zen master might say. It is just such an unsupported thought that the "Mu" process produces: "Mu!" The relation between this and zazen is clarified by the Sixth Patriarch in the Platform Sūtra:

In the exercise of our thinking faculty, let the past be dead. If we allow our thoughts, past, present and future, to link up in a series, we put ourselves under restraint. On the other hand, if we never let our mind attach to anything, we shall gain liberation.[15]

Baso (Ma-tsu, 馬祖) describes how thoughts are experienced after enlightenment, as a result of Zen practice:

So with former thoughts, later thoughts, and thoughts in between: the thoughts follow one another without being linked together. Each one is absolutely tranquil.[16]

Baso's last point shows us that we have another instance of the wei-wu-wei paradox: completely to be just one, nondual thought is to transcend thinking in the usual sense. "One thought is thoughtless thought" because it is a thought without the sense of a thinker. The thinker is the ego-consciousness which is supposedly doing the thinking -- that is, linking the thoughts together. Without the delusive sense of such a thinker, the thought is experienced as empty, and such thinking is tranquil. Our minds are agitated, not because thoughts arise, but because of the restless need to find always one more thought to fixate upon.

     Why is there always this need to link thoughts together, to create yet one more? The answer, I think, is in the fact that the sense-of-self is not a thing but a process. In itself, the self is a nothing, and this is experienced as a lack; so the "self" is always trying to get ahead of itself, to project itself onto the next thought, etc. This constant thrust into the future is the sense-of-self. "Conceptualizing" and "reasoning" refer to this tendency. For that process to stop is to realize the true, empty nature of this thought.[17]

     2. When I die to myself -- forget myself -- and fall into the Void, I am reborn in the realization that all phenomena arise spontaneously from that ground -- including thoughts. Does this mean that there is a role for philosophy with in Zen Buddhism? If thoughts too come, not from my mind, but from "the Mind" -- if thoughts also are nondual -- then the true nature of thinking must be



Mu and Its Implications

radically different from our usual conceptual thinking, just as the true nature of empty phenomena is radically different from our usual dualistic way of perceiving them as material objects. If conceptual thinking veils the nonduality of perceptions, perhaps the converse is also true: when the thought-forming activity of the mind is preoccupied with a dualistic system of representation and intention, then something fundamental about the true nature of thought is also obscured. This would seem to leave the door open for some kind of philosophy, although certainly very different from the usual Western tradition. Perhaps the later philosophy of Martin Heidegger (after the Kehre, "turning") is a move in this direction. In fact, this gives us a valuable perspective on his later approach, which is concerned not with constructing a philosophical system but rather remaining in "the draft of thinking" by thinking ever more deeply:

I have left an earlier standpoint, not in order to exchange it for another one, but because even the former standpoint was merely a way-station along a way. The lasting element in thinking is the way.[18]

     Perhaps some philosophical questions can even function as kōans, and are susceptible to the same kind of ürsprungliche answer: one which springs up by itself (pra-jñā) to transform our perspective: "If the answer could be given it would consist in a transformation of thinking, not a prepositional statement about a matter at stake."[19]

     But there seems to be something unavoidably dualistic about all philosophy. There is still a big difference between the nondual arising of an empty thought and the labor of philosophy, which must link those objectified thoughts into a logically satisfying pattern. Zen makes a distinction between "living words" and "dead words", and the same difference applies to thoughts. The thinking of Zen is found in the mondō or dharma-combat, in the challenge of a question and a spontaneous, unmediated response to it. But in philosophy all such words and thoughts become dead. They lose their original vitality as they become frozen into counters to be structured into arguments and systems, and evaluated as right or wrong in representing a reality thus objectified. Even worse, the once-living thoughts become further reduced to pawns in our ego-games of academic prestige and professional advancement.

     In contrast, Heidegger praises Socrates as "the purest thinker of the West" because

All through his life and right into his death, Socrates did nothing else than place himself into this draft [of thinking], this current and maintain himself in it.... That is why he wrote nothing. For anyone who begins to write out of thoughtfulness must inevitably be like those people who run to seek



Mu and Its Implications

refuge from any draft too strong for them.[20]

Isn't this why Socrates also insisted that he knew nothing (according to Plato),for those sucked into the draft of nondual thinking, as Socrates seems to have been, must not cling to anything that arises. "Not knowing is very deep," said Master Lo-han, precipitating Wȇn-i's awakening.[21]

     3. A third implication of the "Mu" process deals with the debate between Zen and Pure Land Buddhism. Usually a dichotomy is perceived between the jiriki or "self-dependence" of Zen and the tariki "other-dependence" of Pure Land devotion to Amida. (There is an Indian parallel in the Viśiṣtādvaita debate, among the successors of Rāmānuja, between the "cat school" and the "monkey school": can we simply rely upon God, who will save us as a mother cat carries her kittens, or must we ourselves make effort, like the baby monkey that must cling to its mother's chest?) But if becoming one with "Mu" leads to the realization that experience is actually nondual -- that the bifurcation between self and other is a delusion -- then such a dichotomy between Zen and Pure Land is untenable and there can be no real distinction between "self-dependence" and "other-dependence". The Zen student who is determined that he will break through to kenshō by himself is just as deluded as the Pure Land devotee who surrenders himself to the mercy of someone else.

     The Pure Land Buddhist must realize that Amida is nothing other than another name for his (or her) own true nondual nature, and the Zen student must realize that one's own efforts can never cause kenshō to happen. The point of Zen-practice is to forget yourself and in so doing to let the body-mind fall away. This is not something that the self (or rather sense-of-self) can dualistically do; instead, the self must "let go" and be wiped out of existence. The Tibetan teacher Chögyam Trungpa put it well: enlightenment is always an accident, but meditation makes you accident prone. Then, as Kūkai 空海 said, I enter into the Buddha and the Buddha enters into me.

     Such "letting go" is the "middle way" between self-effort and mere faith in another. It requires both faith and effort: faith, because there must be complete confidence in that Void into which I let myself fall; and effort, because "letting-go" does not come naturally for most of us, and so there is the paradox that we must work at it -- as in the repetition of "Mu" or the nembutsu 念仏. Pure Land faith emphasizes the first, whereas Zen emphasizes the second. In this regard, there is something mysterious about Zen practice. When I sit, sometimes there is the sense that it is not "I" that am working to realize something, but vice-versa: it is "essential nature" that is working to manifest itself through me, and it just wants "me" to "let go" and "get out of the way"



Mu and Its Implications

so it can spring forth. Of course, this second description is as dualistic and unsatisfactory as the former, but the point is that neither description is better or worse than the other. The effort that occurs should not be identified as either mine or another's: we might say that the effort Amida exerts to liberate me is none other than my own efforts to realize my true nature.

     But that is not quite right either. Effort is dualistic -- one part pushing another -- so it doesn't seem correct to say that Amida, our nondual nature, struggles. This suggests another way to understand the relation between effort and "letting go": that the amount of effort which is necessary will correspond to how strong one's sense of duality is. When the sense of duality is strong, then there is strong attachment, and more effort is needed to overcome those attachments. "Effort" here does not mean the same thing as "practice" -- for example, zazen or nembutsu recitation. Practice is always necessary, but in later stages such practice does not seem so effortful because one's sense of duality is less. From this perspective, the "monkey school" is vindicated.

     Whether or not this tentative suggestion is correct -- and whether or not it contributes to resolving the debate between Zen and Pure Land -- "letting go" is what is necessary, and this requires both effort and faith. This explains why Dōgen can emphasize reliance on the Buddha, and why faith for Shinran is a self-surrender so complete that it becomes a moment of pure egolessness. Perhaps one may emphasize either pole -- and this is also one way to understand the difference within Zen between Rinzai and Sōtō -- but both are necessary.

     4. The fourth implication is not much more than a speculation because I do not know enough about Dōgen to be more definite on this point. One significant problem in understanding Dōgen is why, when his own profound enlightenment experience was obviously so important for him, he became so critical of the concepts of kenshō and satori (enlightenment). Instead, Dōgen stressed the continuity between practice and enlightenment, but what he meant by this is not always clear, at least to me. There seem to be a cluster of related ideas here. Certainly there is something potentially dangerous about the attitude that wants to attain kenshō, for then the tendency is to make zazen into a means to that end. If zazen is only a means, one misses its true, nondual nature -- which is nothing other than the true nature that one is seeking to realize. Just as winter does not become spring, so, from the essential point of view, zazen does not lead to kenshō. Every moment is complete and whole in itself, and should not be understood only in relation to (and thus devalued for the sake of) another. And, if my true nature and all phenomena have always been nondual, then there is really nothing to attain. Of course, as long as I still feel separate from others,



Mu and Its Implications

there is something to realize, but the difference is that the latter quest is less likely to be self-defeating.

     My suggestion is that an understanding of the "Mu" process may give us another perspective on Dōgen's attitude toward practice and enlightenment. In concentrating on "Mu", I enter into a state of samādhi where I forget myself and become "Mu"; but such nondual samādhi does not happen only with "Mu". This is what does (or can) happen also in shikan-taza, the "just sitting" of the Sōtō school. In shikan-taza, as I understand it, one does nothing: pure awareness is cultivated by letting the mind settle itself, which is what happens if it does not fixate on this or that. The effect of this, for the advanced student, is also nondual: because "I" do nothing, the "I" temporarily evaporates. In the case of "Mu" samādhi, there is no longer any duality between me and "Mu"; in the case of shikan-taza, there is no longer any duality between my consciousness and my whole environment: I am the sounds, etc., which arise and pass away freely if there is no clinging to them.[22] If this is so, then one meaning of "practice and enlightenment are not two stages "[23] is that both involve experiencing nondually. Of course, there is still also a difference between practice and enlightenment. The importance of enlightenment is that one continues to experience nondually when one is not doing zazen. And the advantage of "Mu" over shikan-taza is that, because there is something to concentrate on, it is easier to stop the mind from wandering, and thus one is more likely to come to kenshō.

     5. If my description of the "Mu" process is correct, then neither Zen practice nor Zen enlightenment are unique to Zen. There are unmistakable parallels between "Mu" and the Auṁ of the Upaniṣads, the nirvikalpa-samādhi of Yoga and later Vedānta, the hesychasm "Jesus prayer" of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and the "one-syllable prayer" recommended in The Cloud of Unknowing. Because the techniques are similar -- this is especially clear in The Cloud of Unknowing which goes into great detail -- one must extrapolate and consider whether the results are also the same. I think that this too is difficult to deny: I have already argued that the "all-Self" of Vedānta is phenomenologically equivalent to the "no-self" of Buddhism, and even the apparently-dualistic kaivalya (liberation) of Saṁkhya-Yoga can be viewed as an attempt to describe the nondual experience.[24] Nor need theism be excluded here. I am acquainted with several qualified Zen teachers who also happen to be Christian clergy. Some of their students (many of them Christian, but doing pure Zen practice) have described their kenshō as "experiencing God." This does not necessarily mean that the two traditions are being confused. Rather, it should make us consider what is the origin of the concept of God. The Cloud of Unknowing speaks of



Mu and Its Implications

the spiritual goal as directly experiencing "the naked being of God", and Eckhart, despite his constant reference to God, seems closer to Zen than to traditional Christianity. Was "God" too originally an attempt to describe what I have called the nondual experience of our essential nature? Perhaps the concept of God can be "demythologized" in such a way.

     Such comparisons are sometimes questioned by saying that the mystical experience will always be modified by its cultural and linguistic context. But if working on "Mu" involves "letting go" of all such superimpositions, that will not be true for a genuinely nondual experience. Then it is not that experience itself, but its description and manifestation ("personalization") within society, that will differ widely in different cultures and times.

     What does seem unique about Zen is two things. First, in Zen, at its best, there is a minimum of the "excess baggage" -- ritual, doctrines, etc. -- which, more often than not, serves to abort or derail the spiritual quest. A spiritual "school" can no more dispense with all language and philosophy than the rest of society can, and this is dangerous, because language tends to dualize: something is described. But in Zen a new "minimalist" and paradoxical (self-negating) language was developed to minimize this problem. I am a Zen student rather than a Vedantin or a Christian because to me the Zen path seems the purest and the simplest (not easiest!) one, the least distorted by extraneous forms. But I see the difference as a matter of degree rather than kind. That is why Zen has been able to "reproduce" the nondual experience in each generation and keep the tradition alive, whereas Christianity has not -- which is why Christian clergy must turn to Zen to revitalize their own religion.

     The other unique thing about Zen is that it is the most "world-affirming" of all the great illuminative traditions. Certainly this is connected with the "phenomenalistic" tendencies of Chinese and Japanese culture, although which is cause and which effect here is unclear. Zen is nondual in this sense too, whereas most of Indian and Semitic religious thought has been "world-negating", devaluing this world for the sake of something else deemed to be other than it: God, Brahman, puruṣa, etc. Then the spiritual quest tends to become a kind of escapism, usually tinged with pessimism regarding the fate of the phenomenal world. The result of this attitude is all to evident in the poverty of contemporary India and the various crises -- economic, nuclear, ecological, spiritual -- now threatening Western and hence world civilization. This brings us to our last "implication."

     6. Perhaps it is fitting to conclude by returning to the theme of this year's symposium: "The Significance of Samādhi in the Contemporary World." That



Mu and Its Implications

it is a world in grave crisis no one can doubt. The cumulative effects of science and technology, which one would hope to be liberating, must rather fill us with deep apprehension. For the first time, man has the power to destroy himself as a species, and, because our spiritual development has by no means kept up with our technological development, there is a good chance that we may actually do so.

     From a Zen perspective, what is most striking about the present world situation is the parallel between it and the perennial individual situation. It is becoming clear that the fundamental problem is the relationship between mankind as a whole and our global environment. It is because of his alienation from the earth that mankind is destroying it. Philosophically, this is what Heidegger identified and criticized as "humanism." But this is nothing other than the individual situation written large: besides the problem of the individual ego, there is now the problem of a "species-ego." In both cases the problem is a delusive sense of duality between oneself (whether individual or collective) and the world one is "in." "The same dualism that reduces things to objects for consciousness is at work in the humanism that reduces nature to raw material for humankind."[25]

     If we look for the historical roots of this larger problem, we must go back to ancient Greece and the Bible. In classical Greece an especially dualistic way of experiencing the world was nurtured by the Platonic split between the ever-changing, hence dualistic senses and reason their master, this led to Western science and technology. The moral justification for transforming the world was provided, unintentionally by the Old Testament: God created the world and placed man in it. When God eventually disappeared, this trinity became a duality, and there was nothing to stop us from befouling our own nest. This shows the intimate relation between our present materialism and dualistic religion, in which "spirit" is understood to be other than the world. What should now be clear is that such dualistic religion cannot work. If "spirit" is anything other than the true nature of this world, then the world -- our home -- is devalued, and we too insofar as we are of it.

     Zen "phenomenalism" -- form is empty, but emptiness is none other than form -- is as different from such dualistic religion as can be. It points to another "way of being" which would resolve the problem. This is not to say that Zen will, or even can. Zen practice evolved to deal with the problem of the individual ego, and the threat of man's "species-ego" seems to place us in a very different situation. We cannot assume that the traditional East-Asian forms of Zen by themselves are adequate for dealing with this new social problem.



Mu and Its Implications

Unfortunately, mankind cannot collectively "forget" itself in Dōgen's sense. How to proceed here is unclear; we must find new ways. Western Buddhists are now struggling with the problem of how best to integrate personal practice and collective social action. It seems that we must work on both levels. What is undeniable is that the individual "forgetting of self", leading to the nondual way of experiencing the world, is a necessary component, and nothing is better for this than Zen practice.

     But the present world crisis is also a crisis for Zen. Zen is still alive in Japan, but barely. My teacher has said that, in another generation, Japanese Zen students in search of a good teacher may need to go to the West! Perhaps, like Tibetan Buddhism, Zen is transplanting to the West just in time to save itself from stagnation at home. But there is no guarantee that the transplant operation will be a success. The present state of American Zen is hardly encouraging. The recent troubles in major American Zen centers show, among other things, that some traditional Asian forms (for example, monastic Zen) do not work in the United States. The task for the immediate future is to distinguish what is "Zen" from what is "Japanese" (and "Chinese"), although carefully in order to distinguish the baby from the bath-water. It may be that many things now considered part of Zen cannot and need not be transplanted to the West. It may even be that what does finally survive will look little like present Japanese Zen, and does not even retain the name -- which should not bother any true Zen student! That will not matter, as long as what does survive is able to inspire people to practice, to lead them to the nondual experience through "forgetting oneself", and to the personalization of that experience in their daily lives.





[1] This passage is quoted in The Gospel According to Zen, ed. Robert Sohl and Audrey Carr (New York: New American Library, 1970), 93. They give as sources the Eckhart translations by C. deB. Evans and R. B. Blakney. [back to text]

[2] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Notebooks 1914-1916, ed. and trans. by G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell, 1961). The dates of these notes are 2.9.16 and 15.10.16. [back to text]

[3] Dōgen-Zenji, Shōbōgenzō, Vol. I. trans. Kōsen Nishiyama and John Stevens (Daihokkaikaku Press), 1. For "perceive oneself as", Waddell and Abe (The Eastern Buddhist, New Series, Vol. 2. October 1971, p. 134) have "to be confirmed by", but the basic point express is, I believe, the same. [back to text]

[4] From "Yasutani's Commentary on Mu", in Philip Kapleau, ed., The Three Pillars of Zen (Tokyo: Weatherhill, 1966), 79-80. [back to text]

[5] From the "Discourses of Master Po Shan", in The Practice of Zen, trans. and ed. by Garma C. C. Chang (New York: Harper and Row), 94. [back to text]

[6] In D. T. Suzuki, Zen Buddhism, ed. William Barrett (New York: Anchor, 1956),



Mu and Its Implications

148. [back to text]

[7] Po Shan, 103. [back to text]

[8] In Suzuki, 148. [back to text]

[9] Yasutani, 80. [back to text]

[10] In Kapleau, 205. [back to text]

[11] Elsewhere I have argued that even the "radical dualism" of Saṁkhya-Yoga maybe viewed as an attempt to describe the nondual experience: "Enlightenment in Buddhism and Advaita Vedānta: Are Nirvāṇa and Moksha the Same?" International Philosophical Quarterly 22, 1, (1982) and "How Many Nondualities Are There?" Journal of Indian Philosophy 11, 4, (1983). Briefly, this is because the puruṣa-prakṛti dualism is very different from the more "common-sense" mind-body dualism of Descartes. In contrast to Descartes' concept of mind, the puruṣa is so enervated of any function that it ceases to "be" anything, and it can be allowed to shrink to absolute nothingness (śūnyatā) with no real loss. [back to text]

[12] However, it is questionable whether such perception -- without a subject that has it and without an object that one is aware of -- can even be called "perception". Perhaps this explains the usual emphasis on the need to "transcend perception." On my account, it is the true, nondual nature of perception that "transcends perception" as usually understood. The role of the sense-organs is the complicating factor, to be discussed in "Nondual Perception'", forthcoming. [back to text]

[13] Bhagavad-gītā, IV 18, 20. Radhakrishnan's translation, in Radhakrishnan and Moore, ed., Sourcebook of Indian Philosophy (Princeton University Press, 1957), 117. For a discussion of the wei-wu-wei paradox, see "Wei-wu-wei: Nondual Action", Philosophy East and West, 35, 1, (1985). [back to text]

[14] Edward Conze, trans. and ed., Selected Sayings from the Perfection of Wisdom (Boulder: Prajñā Press, 1978) 90. [back to text]

[15] Sutra Spoken by the Sixth Patriarch on the High Seat of "The Treasure of the Law", trans. Wong Mou-lam, (Hong Kong: Hong Kong Buddhist Book Distributor, no date), 35. [back to text]

[16] Quoted in Alan Watts, The Way of Zen (Penguin, 1962), 102 fn. Compare: "The True is thus the Bacchanalian revel in which no member [i.e., no thought] is not drunk; yet because each member collapses as soon as he drops out, the revel is just as much transparent and simple repose." (from Hegel's Preface to The Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford University Press, 1977, no. 47, p. 27). [back to text]

[17] The difference between Mahāyāna and Advaita Vedānta on this point is that Mahāyāna, as we have seen, encourages the arising of an "unsupported thought", whereas Advaita (e.g., Ramana Maharshi) understands unchangeable Reality as that whose true nature is known only when one is out of contact with all objects and thoughts. This is consistent with the general relation between Mahāyāna and Advaita: Mahāyāna emphasizes realizing the emptiness of phenomena, whereas Advaita distinguishes sharply between such phenomena and "empty" (nirguna) Brahman, hence devaluing phenomena more than Mahāyāna does. [back to text]

[18] Martin Heidegger, "A Dialogue on Language", trans. Peter D. Hertz, in On the Way to Language (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), 12. [back to text]

[19] Martin Heidegger, "The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking", trans. Joan



Mu and Its Implications

Stambaugh, in Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), 373.

In a conversation during the Symposium, Prof. Oberhammer mentioned that yogic meditation was introduced into Advaitic practice quite late, and prior to that the main advaitic practice was reflection upon a mahāvākya ("great saying") such as tat tvam asi ("that thou art"). If this led to the unmediated realization of Brahman, it suggests that such mahāvākyas may have functioned in a way similar to Zen kōans. [back to text]

[20] Martin Heidegger, "What Calls for Thinking?", ibid., 358. [back to text]

[21] What happens if we take the idea of "living thoughts" quite literally? If, as Yogācāra and Advaita insist, everything is Mind, then perhaps thoughts exist as much(or as little: all phenomena as empty) as anything else. Thoughts certainly have power, or energy: the "external world" is objectified by their interaction with sense-perceptions (which become, on this account, another kind of thought). The doctrine of karma becomes comprehensible: our thoughts about things (especially our intentions toward them) actually change those things for us, and we must live with the consequences.

     My discussion of "nondual thoughts", in denying any role to an ego-consciousness which is linking them together, also seems to deny the possibility of any relationship at all between thoughts, in which case mental experience could only be a chaos. That is part of a more general problem that is central to Mahāyāna philosophy: how something can be both conditioned (pratītya-samutpāda) and unconditioned (tathatā). Because this issue is complicated, I can only refer those interested to another paper which addresses it. "The Paradox of Causality in Madhyamika", International Philosophical Quarterly 25,1 (1985). [back to text]

[22] This accords with the Waddell and Abe translation of the ambiguous phrase ono-ono aikakuchi subekinari 「おのおの、あひ覚知すべきなり」 in the Bendōwa, as "the one sitting in zazen and things should perceive each other." ("Dōgen's Bendōwa", in The Eastern Buddhist, New Series, 4. 1, 135-6.) [back to text]

[23] Bendōwa, ibid., 144. [back to text]

[24] See note 11. above. [back to text]

[25] Michael E. Zimmerman, "Towards a Heideggerian Ethos for Radical Environmentalism, Environmental Ethics, 5. 2, (1983), 112. [back to text]