Finding Nemu

April 27, 2015 § Leave a comment

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A monk asked Joshu, “Has a dog Buddha-nature or not?”

Joshu answered, “Mu!”


During a sesshin, or formal training period in a monastery, a Zen teacher may ask a student, “Show me Mu!” The desired response will be immediate, spontaneous and not one of mere conceptualization. It will be an expression of the student’s true nature. In this question the teacher is asking the student to reveal his or her true self.

It is curious that to pass a Zen koan, get that prize job or win someone’s heart that the key to success is to just be yourself. Even more curious is that following this advice is difficult and so often accompanied by fear. The Buddhist might interpret this fear as a response to the vague, unconscious knowledge that the true essence of things is constant change where nothing is fixed. It’s as if we’ve been asked to cross an agitated river that is churning with deep rapid water without so much as a raft or log to carry us.

Fear of uncertainty is what motivates us to create the illusion of stability in our lives. We imagine our home and family to be a rock upon which we can build. We amass money and goods to secure us against hard times. But as we see from the recent earthquake in Nepal, at any given moment the ground can shift beneath our feet and all can be lost.

When our inner ground suddenly shifts we can be thrown into great turmoil. It is then that we may seek some spiritual practice to regain our stability. Paradoxically, the true spiritual path isn’t one of trying to secure stability in a constantly changing world but to learn how to hold onto that world as lightly as possible.

In the movie, Finding Nemo, an overprotective clownfish named Marlin searched for his lost son, Nemo. Marlin sought to reestablish the life he knew but in trying to rescue Nemo he learned to take chances and to let go of his overprotective ways so that his son could learn to take care of himself. Marlin learnt to be comfortable with uncertainty.

When a Zen student takes up a koan like Mu, the student is told that a great ball of doubt must consume him or her. Like a hot coal caught in the throat that cannot be spit out, this doubt is to be directed to everything held dear. The teacher assists by rejecting any answer that is not a direct expression of the student’s true essence. Without this doubt, the student would continue to cling to some notion of a right or wrong answer, thus creating yet another illusion of stability that prevents the recognition of Mu.

When in due course life knocks us down and takes away what we hold precious, we have a choice to make.  We can endure the suffering of standing on shifting ground or we can fall back into our clinging and addictive ways. It takes great strength to face life’s challenges and endure suffering. It takes great strength to forgive our selves when we stumble on the path. Yet hard times are our best opportunity to strengthen the awareness and penetrate deeply into Mu, the self of no self.


Blind Men Crossing the Bridge, a visual koan.

April 12, 2015 § Leave a comment

Hakuin Ekaku's painting titled, "Blind Men Crossing the Bridge".

Hakuin Ekaku’s painting titled, “Blind Men Crossing the Bridge”.

Hakuin Ekaku (1685–1769) is known for having revitalized the Rinzai school of Zen through his use of the koan system. A koan is a story or question that is meant to take the Zen student beyond mere intellectual discrimination and dualistic reasoning. The question, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” is an example of a koan Master Hakuin created after finding that many of his students were having trouble with the koan “Mu”. Mu, or Joshu’s Dog, is the first koan in the book, The Gateless Gate.

Hakuin Ekaku is also known for his many works of art including the above shown “Blind Men Crossing the Bridge,” a scene he painted on more than one occasion. This painting is one of three with three monks on the bridge.  Others had as little as one monk, or as many as nine.

“Blind Men Crossing the Bridge” is typically described as a representation of trying to cross over into enlightenment but considering Hakuin’s deep interest in the koan system, it may also be interpreted as the Zen student’s struggle with the koan. The grasping and clawing at the air is a symbol of intense effort. The blindness represents ignorance of one’s true nature. The bridge itself may be said to represent the koan. Yet if we make these simple comparisons and go no further we would miss the meaning imbued in the bridge that ends in mid-air. To understand this meaning, the mind of the student must be revealed.

The mind of the beginner student is just like our own in that it interprets the world conceptually and in dualistic terms. Put simply, things are either a or not-a. They are either here or there. They are now or then, big or small, hot or cold, etc. In the physical world this conceptual orientation can be quite successful in dealing with most things in life and in resolving many of our daily problems. With it we can drive to work each day or land a spacecraft on a comet. Yet the usefulness of the conceptual mind in dealing with these things masks its limitations.

The koan unmasks the limitations of conceptual, dualistic thinking. It does this not with a simple presentation of something nonsensical but with a statement or question that invites the student to go beyond conceptual thought.

In Koan 40 of The Gateless Gate, for example, Hyakujo places a water vase on the ground and asks his monks, “Who can say what this is without calling its name?” This question invites a non-conceptual response and the chief monk responds with, “No one can call it a wooden shoe.”

If, at this point in hearing the koan you examine your inner state, it will likely be found to be the same as that of any beginner Zen student. Hyakujo’s question and the chief monk’s response will have left your mind blank. If you then try to figure out the “correct” response, you will have missed the mark and fallen back into conceptualizing.

In Hakuin’s “Blind Men Crossing the Bridge,” the exact moment the mind becomes blank is the point where the bridge ends in mid-air. There, the limits of conceptual thinking have been reached and the Zen student must realize a new way of being to continue on his or her way.

Koan 40 ends with Isan, the cooking monk, tipping over the vase with his foot and leaving the room. Through direct action, he reveals himself while showing how the conceptual mind sometimes prevents our seeing the obvious or, so to speak, the bridge that continues past the point where it appears to end in mid-air.

Hakuin does not paint the bridge continuing on to the other side because to do so would be just another conceptualization. Instead, he leaves the painting blank for us to use as a visual koan to still our conceptual mind and discover our formless, true nature.

Do not think bad, do not think not-bad

April 6, 2015 § Leave a comment

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When a child grows up with low self-esteem, she may go through life feeling “bad”. If her up-bringing involved punishment then a fear of punishment and anger may be superimposed over the feeling of badness. If a trauma is then added to the mix, a fear of being attacked or of dying may then cover the fear of punishment. These coverings do not replace the original low self-esteem but merely mask the feelings it engenders; feeling that may, over time, develop into self-hatred.

Some may be familiar with Sharon Salzberg questioning the Dalai Lama on self-hatred. For his part, the Dalai Lama could not understand the idea of self-hatred because he could not fathom how anyone could hate his or her Buddha nature. His response raises the question of whether a proliferation of low self-esteem and self-hatred exists in the West that does not exist in the East. If this is the case, should not we in the West be careful when taking up spiritual practices that are designed for the Eastern psychology?

In The Gateless Gate, Koan 23, the sixth patriarch asks “When you do not think good and when you do not think not-good, what is your true self?”

The intent of the question is to have the student of Zen realize a non-dualistic state beyond notions of good and bad. However, a person with low self-esteem may inadvertently take this koan as a directive to reject all thought of his or her own goodness. Such a misguided approach would be detrimental to the mental health of anyone filled with self-hatred. Their mental health depends on the practice of self-compassion, not self-negation.

Perhaps, for the Western mind, Koan 23 might be better phrased as, “When you do not think bad and when you do not think not-bad, what is your true self?” This phrasing does not alter the essential nature of the koan and may help those with low self-esteem, as it does not encourage a denial of self-worth while the koan is explored.

One might argue that the teachings of the Patriarchs and past Buddhas do not need tampering as they have lead many to enlightenment. Yet we in the West have to consider that our psychology is not identical to the East’s. We also need to consider that even the Ways of Old are known to be dangerous when used by the wrong person.

Not all Eastern practices need to be rewoven for the Western mind. But if you find that a particular practice has become detrimental to your happiness and mental health perhaps you should consider that although you might be the “right person”, you have chosen the “wrong method”.

Where Am I?

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