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.


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