Wu-men says that ancestral teachers have set up this barrier, this barrier of Mu. It in fact is we ourselves who set up the barrier, and our practice is coming to understand the nature of the barrier, how it was set up and what we mean for it to disappear, the barrier which Chau-Chou tends to illustrate in this dialogue about a monk who asks about a dog, Buddha nature. Are they the same? Are they opposite? How do you put them together? It’s a barrier constructed out of a contrast between holy and profane, ordinary and transcendent, daily life and the life of the Buddha. All of these are arranged in a polarity, in a contradiction of the mind and the monk, and that dichotomy, that opposition, is itself the barrier.
I have talked about the way we construct barriers out of our curative fantasies, because those are our personal stories that bring us to practice and define what we each individually imagine is lacking or needs to be transformed or needs to be eliminated. What do we imagine our cure, our enlightenment will look like or feel like? How will we be different? What about who we are when we disappear? What about who we are when we are transformed into something else?
These are all our personal versions of a dog and Buddha. We have to come to understand how the very things that we call aspirations are themselves bricks in the barrier that we’re here to bring down. It is called the Gateless Barrier because from the beginning these distinctions are empty, they are our own creation. Yet they feel very real, and we invest them with enormous emotional energy because this barrier has two sides. In a sense we erect this barrier to keep at bay our anxiety, our uncertainty, our fear, our longing, our vulnerability. We create a barrier as if it would provide meaning and structure and definition to our lives. And only after a long time do we get any sense about what we have cut ourselves off from by setting up this wall of self-protection. To keep ourselves safe, we lock ourselves in a cage, and only then belatedly realize we’re no longer free.
Wu-men’s instructions how to practice with Mu are interesting in that they reflect the style that says, essentially, throw yourself into the contradiction, throw yourself into the dilemma. Turn Mu into a question that needs to be solved. Traditionally the teacher would ask you, what is Mu, and you’d have to go in there, week after week, and try to present an answer: What is it? What is it? And every week the bell would ring and you’d be thrown out. Go deeper. Go deeper.
The whole setting up of Mu in terms of question and answer is just like setting up a dichotomy between dog and Buddha nature. It’s a whole other kind of split that you’re brought into the middle of. How did Mu become a question that needs an answer? You can say that this is a particular kind of strategy, a skillful means that has an analogy I thought about the other day, with the old Marxist strategy of heightening the contradictions. If you feel like there is class struggle, you don’t try to ameliorate it, you try to push it to its limits so it will break in revolution. There’s a certain strategy like that in one way of working with this koan, where the student thinks it’s a problem that needs to be solved, so we’ll go with that and we’ll push it to its limit, and if you think there’s a problem, give me an answer and you keep pushing and pushing and pushing looking for an answer until the whole problem and solution break apart.
You might describe a contrast in the Soto way of approaching Mu as more of a model of let’s create the ideal socialist community where the problem no longer exists and we can live out the answer. We’ll live out the answer where our daily practice of zazen, our daily life as a monk, provides the very answer the monk thinks he’s missing. Zazen is not the means towards enlightenment, it’s the expression of enlightenment. So the monk does not need to achieve enlightenment, he needs to practice enlightenment, and the practice of enlightenment is immediately available every time you sit down on your cushion. In fact you can’t miss it. It’s there every time manifesting itself. Can you see it? Can you feel it? It’s right there.
It’s an opposite kind of strategy, or temperament, to deal with this ingrained psychological sense that brings everybody to practice thinking that something is missing. One curative fantasy associated with Mu has to do with the whole idea of passing Mu as a kind of once and for all “get out of jail free card.” We think that we’re going to get something at the end of this, even though Wu-men very specifically says, don’t think in terms of have or have not. People intend to ignore that little piece, and they want to come away thinking, now I’ve got it. And the passing of a koan becomes something you’ve got.
This of course just sets up the same problem all over again at a new level because what you’ve got is this usually momentary experience of OK-ness or inclusiveness, with nothing missing, but that becomes identified with a certain state of consciousness that now you want to hold onto. And when you’re trying to hold onto any state of consciousness, then the whole world becomes your enemy. Everything is intruding and impinging and ruining your buzz. You’re trying to stay in this great state, and there’s noise, and there’s people, and there’s stuff, and there’s problems. And you get this whole new dichotomy, which is between this state that you think you’ve got and you want to hold to, and the rest of life, which is ruining it. So you have to start all over again, and that’s the thing with Mu. We have to practice with it and pass it, or pass into it or with it or through it over and over and over again, endlessly.
There’s a way in which working through Mu manifests best as forgetting about it entirely. You’re just living your life, and it’s a seamless engagement with what’s the next thing. You’re not dividing your life into the good parts and the bad parts and the problems and the solutions. You’re just talking about your life. Well, for most of us, we don’t stay on that track. We can’t stay on that track all the time. We will get derailed by pain, whether physical or emotional, loss, whether physical or emotional, by desire, and all these things set up new dichotomies of things that we want to get rid of, things we want to hold onto, new versions of dog and Buddha nature where we suddenly have a contrast, the world of gout and the world without gout. Does gout have Buddha nature? That’s the nitty gritty of our practice. How do we face the very things that we wish we could get rid of in our life? What does it mean to stay one with those?
Mu, as I practice with it, means drawing this big circle that contains everything. Nothing is outside of Mu. We practice watching where we have drawn some line, where we have drawn a boundary. What have we consciously or unconsciously placed outside the circle of our acceptance? What does it mean to notice that barrier, that edge, and then bring things back in? The edge itself has to be included in the circle. That was Joko’s great teaching: the edge of anxiety or anger that signals that something is not it. That edge itself, you have to bring into the circle. That’s our dog, my pet emotion that’s getting out of hand, that’s gotten off the leash. I don’t know what to do with it. How do I bring that back into the circle?
Wu-men’s admonishments are very fierce, and he really wants you to throw yourself into Mu and through concentration put everything into Mu, just bring our whole consciousness filled with this syllable so that Mu goes out and fills the whole world, absorbs everything. You get to oneness through concentration on one point. We tend to do it from the other direction. I say look in the mirror. Everything in the mirror is you, not just your face, but the whole room and world behind you is in the mirror. How do you look into that? Whatever shows up, saying “That’s me.” That’s Mu.