I begin sesshin with this first case of Mu, even though I’m sure most of you are now thoroughly familiar with it and for some of you it’s even in danger of becoming a cliche to return to this same story again and again. And yet we return to it, particularly in sesshin, because Mu represents a traditional way of focusing in on and engaging what is most fundamental about our practice. And even if we are not practicing in a koan school, so you’re not sitting with, reciting to yourself, the koan, the word Mu, as you sit the way Wu-men describes, we still have to engage with the underlying point of this koan, the underlying problem that it presents us with.
Mu is the first koan in a collection called The Gateless Barrier in Aitken’s translation, also called The Gateless Gate. The title itself, like Mu, presents the basic problem that we all experience one way or another, and that is of there being some barrier, some separation, some split in ourselves that we come to practice to deal with. Mu is basically a story in which you’re presented with a has or has not, a dichotomy of a pair of opposites, a dog and Buddha nature, the most mundane with the most seemingly transcendent. How do we deal with those opposites? How do we find a way to reconcile them? Practicing Mu, just sitting with Muuuuuuu, Muuuuuuuu, unifies opposites into one syllable. You generate this experience of one sound, one word, that everything goes into.
Ironically Mu in Chinese literally means “no,” but it’s the no of no distinctions, no opposites, no this versus that. Just this. In my opening remarks last night I spoke about how our most basic practice is to say Yes to everything, just one thing after another in sesshin and in life. That Yes is the same as Chau-chou’s No. They’re not opposites.
To make a story like this alive, or to make your practice alive, you have to honestly explore for yourself the splits and the barriers that exist in your self. A koan presents you with a metaphor, a metaphorical barrier that you can use as a container for your personal barriers. It’s a way of focusing on and really feeling in your body where you are split. It doesn’t do much good to solve a koan about dogs and Buddha nature if you are still deeply engaged with the problem of have and have not in your own life. Am I smart enough? Am I healthy enough? Am I young enough? Am I enlightened enough? Does he have it and I don’t? What is it, anyway? With all of this we’re carrying around some version of have and have not that plagues us, and we tend not to fuss about an abstraction like Buddha nature, but we may take very seriously something like health. Do I have my health or not? What would it mean to dissolve the “or not” of that kind of question?
What does it mean to simply, fully, live your life as it is, regardless of your own state or condition? So much of what we ordinarily get stuck doing in practice is trying to create some state of mind to replace the usual worry or anxiety or busy-ness that’s going on in our head and create some sense of peace or equanimity or quiet, and say Ah - that’s how I want to feel. I want to practice so I can get into that place and stay there. If you do that, you’ve just created your own version of dog and Buddha nature. Most of the time I’m just going around like a dog, sniffing and barking, but I want to be like the Buddha. I want to get myself in a quiet, serene place, not go around sniffing butts. But whatever it is, I’m preoccupied with my dog version. So we can’t really practice if secretly we’re practicing with some kind of split like that, where we’re turning practice into a fancy version of self-improvement or even self-hate, where we try to take what we don’t like about ourselves, split it off, and say, I’m going to use this practice to never feel fake or use that stuff again.
Mu is a container for the whole thing. Saying Yes in sesshin is creating a container for the whole thing. But it works only if you’re really honest about your personal agenda, what I’ve called your secret practice, what you’re really doing here and trying to get away with. Sesshin is designed to have people make explicit to themselves and to the teacher, sometimes to everybody in the group, what they’re really up to, what we really think we’re doing here. It’s one of the basic questions I ask everyone in dokusan: What are you doing here? How honestly can you answer that? Don’t try to tell me, Save all beings, or some crap like that.
These kinds of splits occur at every level, moment to moment, as we go through sesshin. They happen, I think, in their most obvious mundane way as we sit and we wait for the bell to ring, or we sit and we sit thinking about what we’re going to do in the break, or we sit and we think about what we’re going to do when sesshin ends. It’s amazing to me how much time we plan coming to sesshin and then how much time we spend thinking about what we’re going to do when it’s over. It’s a very simple practice, in a way, to just notice how much your thoughts are taking you out of “right now” and into “what’s next,” how much we avoid the experience we’re actually having, whether it’s a physical discomfort or thoughts that don’t go away, or just boredom.
Part of us is endlessly saying, This isn’t it! I want to get to the real thing next. Over and over again we hear the cliche, This is it! Be just this moment! And all of us say, well, maybe not this moment. There’s a different kind of moment that I really want to be one with. Sesshin is about not picking and choosing, about really saying, This is it! This is me! to every kind of moment that arises, the good moments and the bad moments, until we wear out our capacity to make that distinction. It’s just this. Now the next thing. Then the next. And the next.
Mu is a way of just staying present with whatever is happening right now. The problem with that method of practice is that sometimes you can use it to generate samadhi or a kind of concentration or even a blissed-out frame of mind, and then you say, This is it! This is how I want to feel, and all that other stuff is dog. Right? Or maybe you’ve done koans in practice for a while and you’ve had some kind of state where you say, Wow! I’ve got it! This is it! As soon as you say I’ve got it! you’ve found something else to hold on to and you’ve created a dualism out of it. You’ve achieved some state and you compare it to the whole rest of your mind and life, and you say, well, This is my life, I want to stay here and I don’t want that other thing any more. It’s a real problem, or even sickness in practice, that we can get good at it. We can use it to generate little oases of calmness or bliss that we want to move into permanently. And we don’t realize that our very accomplishment is just creating a whole other This versus That, the big white line down the middle of our life.
I don’t begrudge anybody feeling calm or blissful in the course of their practice. More power to you. But the metier of your practice is really not how well you stay in those states but what you do all the other times, how you handle yourself during the pain or discomfort or boredom or dealing with the person sitting next to you who is fidgeting or a schedule that you don’t particularly like, whether you’re really able to experience that non-separation in the face of all the things we come here to get rid of. The bad periods are the ones where real growth happens, the ones where you just have to let go and be one with the very thing you have no interest in being one with.
This basic practice is the same, whether you call it saying No to all distinctions or saying Yes to every moment just as it arises. Hopefully it also involves being really honest with yourselves about how much you don’t want to do it.