November 25, 2017 § Leave a comment
A monk asked Joshu, “Has a dog Buddha nature?”
Joshu replied, “Mu!”
Writings and talks on the koan “Joshu’s Dog” often invite us to place ourselves in the sandals of the monk who asked the question, “Has a dog Buddha nature or not?” Some go on to suggest that the monk is really asking if he, himself, has Buddha nature.
A core belief of Buddhism is that every sentient being has Buddha nature. In the previous post I suggested that core beliefs form the cornerstone of the self. If you take one away, the self begins to fall apart. If the monk is questioning his core belief we may suppose that he is at a crossroads or even in crisis. Perhaps he has failed to realize his own essence, so is now wondering if he has any Buddha nature at all. Instead of assuring him on this matter Joshu unhesitatingly says, “Mu!” which means “no” or “no thing” in Chinese.
Putting ourselves in the monk’s position might be easier if we consider that he’s really asking about his own worth or value. This is a question that we can all identify with because we have all asked it on multiple occasions. Yet when it is asked of Joshu he does not say we are good, he does not say we are bad. Following the Zen statement that “One should not discuss a dream,” he says ‘no thing’ and in doing so invites us to go beyond good and bad.
How we view our selves, as worthy or unworthy, is a core value of a self that is, after all, just a collection of thought that we have falsely identified as our true nature. Of this Zen Master Hakuin Ekaku wrote,
“Although it is nothing but dreamlike, illusory fancied thoughts, it can block the Great Matter of seeing into one’s own nature more effectively than an army of a hundred thousand demons. Sometimes it is called illusory thoughts, sometimes the root of birth and death, sometimes the passions, sometimes a demon. It is one thing with many names, but if you examine it closely you will find that what it comes down to is one concept: that the self is real.”
When we believe the self is real we get caught up in whether a dog has Buddha nature or not, which is the Zen equivalent of asking, “Why do I feel so bad?” The question is meaningless because it is arises out of a false identification of the “I” with the feeling state called “bad.” It’s dung on a stick. The answer, however, isn’t meaningless because mu asserts that you are neither good nor bad. You are ‘no thing’. Not as in nothingness, the opposite of existence, but as That which comprehends all thought but is never itself thinkable.
In koan introspection, realizing that you are mu, no thing or no self requires the development of great doubt. Doubt that your concept of self is what you truly are, not doubt in your ability to realize this. So each time you find yourself believing that you are good or not good, worthy or unworthy, you cut through this belief with the sword of mu. If you don’t believe you can because you are too weak, cut through that belief with the sword of mu. When you drop the sword, pick it up again. Keep cutting until you have cut your way through the forest of thought. “Then,” as Mumon said in his comment on the koan, “your previous lesser knowledge disappears.” The self you believed was you is no longer seen to be real.
When you’ve reached the point where the self is seen as just a collection of thought, you automatically ask, “What am I?” You are but you are not thought or feeling. You cannot think or feel your way to an answer so the mind pauses. At this point the light of awareness may now turn back upon itself to know itself as mu. But if you say instead that you are this or that, “If you say yes or no, you lose your own Buddha-nature.”
September 26, 2017 § Leave a comment
The title of this post comes from Mumon’s comment on the koan “MU” in which he states that if you cannot pass through the barrier Mu then you are like a ghost clinging to bushes and grasses. The bushes and grasses he refers to are whatever we cling to that verifies our existence. They are our social standing, religious beliefs, money, habitual thoughts, various ideas and whatever else we use to establish a personal identity. That personal identity is the steady state self discussed in the last three posts. In the context of Mumon’s commentary, it is the ghost. It is therefore ironic that the loss of one’s personal supports is felt to be the death of self when this self is a ghost!
The steady state self has also been compared to a bubble floating on the ocean. As individuals we identify with our bubbles and fear their bursting. Yet when it does suddenly burst there arises the opportunity to realize one’s true identity as the ocean. This is why Tibetan Buddhists consider the moment of physical death to be so auspicious. It provides one last opportunity to realize our true nature, if it has not already been realized in the life just ending.
Of course, we do not wish to wait until we die before attaining enlightenment so we practice meditation to purify ourselves. That means eliminating attachment to whatever supports our personal identity and “completely exhausting,” as stated in Mumon’s comment, “the ways of ordinary mind.”
It may seem contrary to Mumon’s directions but one way of exhausting the ways of ordinary mind is to use its ability to think abstractly to make things simpler. An example of this is collecting all the things that go into making a personal identity and calling them ‘bushes and grasses’. Calling the self a steady state system is another example that, if done correctly, severs attachment to the self and it’s possessions. But while doing this we must not forget that these are just abstractions. As with pure science, when a more inclusive way of thinking comes along we must be willing to drop the old expression for the new. Otherwise we have just replaced one ghost with another.
One way to discover the inclusivity of a line of thought is to test it. Does it expand your understanding of Buddhist literature and make your meditation smoother? Does it help you throw away wrong knowledge and mistaken understanding? If so, it is a useful tool but remember that no matter how abstract your thinking becomes it can only take you so far. If you want heaven to tremble and the earth to quake you must go beyond thinking.
Mu, as a word, is the ultimate abstraction. It is the ultimate thought that includes within it all the philosophy and scriptures that have ever been written or ever will be written. It takes the one who uses it all the way to the highest reaches of human thought where he or she may touch the lowest level of Christ or Buddha consciousness (i.e., your true nature). It is so abstract that it even includes itself or, put another way, negates itself so that thought is left behind altogether.
Putting it in his most abstract terms Mumon wrote, “Do not construe Mu as nothingness and do not conceive it in terms of existence or non-existence.” It is, “All manifest, actual and alive.” And Life is never an abstraction.
A dog! Buddha nature!
All manifest, actual and alive.
But with the slightest touch of yes and no
Dead your body, lost your soul.
August 28, 2017 § 2 Comments
Steady state systems must continually renew their states to remain relatively unchanged through time. The reason for this is simple. Everything changes. There is nothing you can find in this world that does not change into something else over time. So for any state to remain relatively stable it must continuously counteract the changes taking place within and around it. This implies that there must be an underlying blueprint that determines the state to which a system will return. With the steady state systems that we identify as our individual selves, the blueprint is the self-image.
A self-image defines the boundaries of the self. It is the ego proper that says, “I am this and no other.” The ego can be quite persistent in rebuilding itself when its boundaries are transgressed. We’ve all had the experience of berating ourselves far too much over some faux pas or having some minor slight bother us throughout the day. These annoyances are the result of the ego trying to regain its self-image or steady state.
Self-images are maintained mostly by habit and repetitious thinking. In a previous post the idea of ‘loop thinking’ was introduced. By this was meant that the mind tends to think the same thoughts and reproduce the same feeling over and over again. As we go through the day we may catch ourselves thinking the same thoughts but do we realize that our viewpoints and attitudes are also just repeating thoughts? Do we realize that by thinking the same thoughts everyday that we feel the same feelings everyday? Or that the self’s sense of continuity is just a by-product of continuously thinking that you are ‘this, this, this but not that?’
A variation of loop thinking is storytelling. Storytelling involves the self’s relationship to others and the world and can be told in word or in deed. When done in word they are often told internally to paint our selves as heroes, victims or villains. When done in deed they manifest through our roles as parents, teachers, Christians, Americans, etc. Storytelling is loop thinking with an official end point but with the provision that the story can be retold again and again.
To maintain a steady state, the self must impose its self-image upon the true nature of an individual and a corresponding supplementary image on the present moment. Put in other words, a person will see the world in a way that supports his or her steady state. For example, if optimism is a fundamental part of your makeup then you’ll view the world as a hopeful place. Anything that contradicts that view will be considered an anomaly or just outright dismissed. It simply isn’t possible for the self to maintain a steady state without simultaneously maintaining a worldview that supports that state.
Before studying the self we don’t usually see that we are thinking the same thoughts or feeling the same feelings over and over again. We don’t see that we are clinging to a concept of what we and the world are as a way of continuing our own story. Nor do we see this as essentially a mechanical process operating to maintain a steady state system. We see it as our own self and any disruption to it as a threat to the self.
If, after studying the self for a while, we start to suspect that it is not truly who we are then we can start to let go. As Zen Master Dogen said, “To study the self is to forget the self.” And to forget means to let go. And that’s our practice. When repetitious thoughts echo that we’re not worthy, unreliable or incompetent, we let those thoughts go. When a story arises framing us as a victim, villain or hero, we let it go. All attempts to define us as something and keep us believing that we are that something, are let go and forgotten.
We sit, no longer a good person or a bad person. Not worthy or unworthy. Not a parent, not a teacher, not even a Buddhist. We are nothing. No one at all. Empty. “Sitting,” as Dogen said, “is itself the true form of the self.”
Yet in letting go, nothing is negated. Things still arise and fall but the self no longer seeks to change them into its own image. Instead, everything is just as it is.
To paraphrase the Diamond Sutra, the self is a bubble on a wave in an ocean that does not really exist. It is a steady state system connected to other systems in a vast ocean of systems. It does not truly exist, yet the ocean still heaves and thrills.
July 30, 2017 § Leave a comment
Zuigan called out to himself every day, “Master.”
Then he answered himself, “Yes, sir.”
And after that he added, “Become sober.”
Again he answered, “yes, sir.”
“And after that,” he continued, “do not be deceived by others.”
“Yes, sir. Yes, sir.” he answered.
(The Gateless Gate)
Attention turns of late to the matter of the self or ego. It has occurred to me that the self may be thought of as a steady state system; meaning that it is a psychological system that actively maintains itself, as is, so that it remains relatively unchanged over time.
Koan 12 illustrates one way the self maintains itself that we might call ‘inner speak’. Inner speak is an inner conversation or debate held with an internalized position or idea that manifests in the mind as an imaginary figure. In the koan the imaginary figure is the ‘Master’ that Zuigan converses with daily.
It is fairly clear that Zuigan knows that he is talking to himself. In your and my inner speak, however, we often feel as if we are talking to a real person. In his comment on the koan Mumon describes this confusion as a ‘puppet show’. This seems a good comparison for his time because anyone watching a puppet show often forgets that the puppets aren’t real people. Someone else is pulling the strings and, though it doesn’t seem like it, in inner speak that person is the self.
Mumon also uses the imagery of masks to describe inner speak. He writes that Zuigan, “uses one mask to call ‘Master’ and another that answers the master. Another mask says ‘Sober up’ and another, ‘Do not be cheated by others.’ ”
Interweaving imagery of puppets and masks may be a little confusing but so is inner speak. In conversation with ourselves we often don masks that reflect our position. If we feel put upon, for example, we wear the mask of victim. If we are cheated, we may put on an angry face. I imagine inner speak as wearing a puppet on one hand, while holding a mask over the face with the other!
Masks and puppets are all a part of the dynamic of maintaining a steady state self but is this all we really are? In his poem at the end of the koan Mumon writes:
Some Zen students do not realize the true man in a mask
Because they recognize ego-soul.
Ego-soul is the seed of birth and death,
And foolish people call it the true man.
The self, or ego-soul, is not who you or I truly am and clinging to it, as Mumon said, “is a mistake.” It is a mistake because in identifying with the ego-soul we forget our true nature and become subject to the ego-soul’s on-going birth and death. Not just in a different physical form, but the moment to moment dying and rebirth of the self as it loses its steady state and tries to regain it through inner speak. Liberation comes from realizing that our true nature is emptiness.
“Fellows of the way,” said Master Huizhao, “a true Buddha has no form, and the true dharma has no marks. From your mind’s illusions, marks and appearances are created. What you get is a wild fox’s spirit, which is the view of those outside the way, and not of a true Buddha.”
Master Huizhao could just as easily have said ‘masks’ as marks. Yet his message is clear. The ego-self is just a system of thinking trying to preserve itself. Our true nature has no form.
June 16, 2017 § Leave a comment
Hoen said: “The past and future Buddhas, both are his servants. Who is he?”
Mumon’s comment: If you realize clearly who he is, it is as if you met your own father on a busy street. There is no need to ask anyone whether or not your recognition is true.
Do not fight with another’s bow and arrow.
Do not ride another’s horse.
Do not discuss another’s faults.
Do not interfere with another’s work.
“The Gateless Gate” (Koan 45)
Most come to the path with the question, “Who am I?” Hoen asks, “Who is he?”
To the Buddhist there is no permanent self. What others call a permanent self is actually an ever-changing collection of feelings, perceptions and thoughts associated with a physical body. Out of this aggregate comes a concept of self that is presumed to be permanent but which is, in fact, constantly in flux.
The self is just an endless line of passing stages given names like child, adult, husband, wife, happy, sad, etc. Underneath these there is no self but that no self is not nothingness. It is the innermost essence of all sentient beings.
In meditation you study self to drop self and in doing so come to know your true essence. When studying self you ask, “Who am I?” But when the self is dropped and your essence revealed, it is seen as the ‘other’. The question then becomes, “Who is the other? Who is he? Who is she?”
It is through their actions that others are known.
In the documentary “Possibilities” the great jazz musician, Herbie Hancock, said, “A master wants you to reveal yourself.” Herbie Hancock wasn’t suggesting that he was a master. He was merely saying that when he encouraged musicians to show their talent, and he showed his, that something of greater value arose than if he just told them what to play. In the true sense of the koan, Herbie Hancock was asking the question, “Who is he?” It wasn’t the ego he wanted to know but the musician and he could only know that by how the person played.
You might imagine that Herbie Hancock wouldn’t be impressed by a musician playing in another’s style. In the words of the koan, that musician would have been riding another’s horse or fighting with another’s bow and arrow. You might also imagine that he wouldn’t point out faults or interfere with another’s playing if it truly came from the heart. Whether a true expression was feast or famine, Hancock’s idea was to turn it into something of value.
That is how to approach koan 45, if not life in general. Take your inner recognition and find a way to express it that is your own. Take each moment and turn it into something of value. And in each encounter with others, seek to do the same. It is the expression that is all-important.
May 6, 2017 § Leave a comment
An oak tree in the garden stands on its own. It doesn’t seek a teacher to tell it where it must go or how to get there. An oak tree in the garden knows there are no enlightened ones and no enlightenment.
An oak tree in the garden doesn’t think this is what it must do or this is what it must achieve. It knows there is nothing to do and nothing to achieve. An oak tree in the garden knows there is no delusion and no realization.
An oak tree in the garden knows the fallen rain rising up through its roots. Yet it does not feel lack or something missing when, reaching its leaves, the rain returns to the sky. Within the oak things arise and fall yet all the while the oak remains unaffected. The oak tree in the garden is forever unborn and undying.
An oak tree in the garden actualizes itself exactly as it is in every moment. In delusion and realization, life and death, buddhas and living beings. It does not need to think about this. It does not need words to describe it. The heart’s message cannot be delivered in words.