The Book of Mu - Foreword

Essential Writings on Zen’s Most Important Koan

Foreword: The Great Koan, Your Dog
by John Tarrant

A koan brings about a change of heart—its value is to transform the mind.

The problem we are trying to solve with a koan is this:

The mind we work with every day evolved to flee saber tooth tigers, hunt mammoths, not kill each other too often, share food, gossip, make babies and develop theories of the universe. To manage all this, the mind makes hypotheses, wondering, “Is that a stick on the path or is it a snake?” or “Is that boy or girl hot?” or “Do I have egg on my face?“ or “What will the cancer biopsy numbers be when they come in?”

So we wander along, having thoughts, believing them, acting on them, dealing with the results we get.We scheme and plot, fear and want, trying to wrestle our states of mind into a comfortable shape. People think, “I want not to be crazy when I see my mother,” or “I don’t want to feel jealous, or afraid,” and it’s hard work and painful to be always two inches to the left of where we want to be. Adjusting our states of mind is a gymnastic workout that never ends. Our minds are still in beta and we live at some distance from our actual lives.

Koans take account of the confusion and cross-purposes that are a feature of the mind.They lead us to rest in our uncertainty, including what’s happening now and what we want to flee.

Koans offer the possibility that you could free the mind in one jump, without passing through stages or any pretense at logical steps. In the territory that koans open up, we live down a level, before explanations occur, beneath the ground that fear is based on, before the wanting and the scrambling around for advantage, before there is a handle on the problem, before we were alienated from the world.

A koan doesn’t hide or even manage fear or despair or rage or anything that appears in your mind. Instead, with a koan you might stop finding fault with what your mind presents, stop assuming you already know what your thoughts and feelings are about and how they need to be handled. At some stage my thoughts stopped being compelling and I found a joy in what was advancing toward me. Everyone thinks you need a patch of earth to stand on or you will fall down. Your patch of earth might be someone’s approval or a certain amount of money. When the koan opens, you don’t need somewhere to stand, or a handle on your experience.

The kindness of a koan consists mainly in taking away what you are sure of about yourself. This isn’t a sinister trick, and though I found it disorienting it was more relieving than painful. Taking away is the first gift of a koan.

Among the thousands of koans in the curriculum, the koan Mu (as it’s known in Japanese), or Wu (Chinese), or No (English) has been used for about 1200 years. It is popular as a first koan, the koan that stands for all koans, the exemplar and representative, confusing, irritating, mysterious, beautiful, and freeing, a gateway into the isness of life, where things are exactly what they are and have not yet become problems. It begins by looking at the question of whether we are alienated or whether we participate fully in life. It comes from a long dialogue with an ancient, twinkly, Chinese grandmaster called Zhaozhou. Here is the full version from The Book of Serenity, as translated by Joan Sutherland and me:

A monk asked Zhaozhou, “Does a dog have buddha nature or not?”
“Yes,” replied Zhaozhou,
“Then why did it jump into that bag of fur?”
“It knew what it was doing and that’s why it dogged.”
Another time a monk asked Zhaozhou,“Does a dog have buddha nature or not?”
“No.”
“All beings have buddha nature. Why doesn’t a dog have it?”
“Because it’s beginning to awaken in the world of ignorance.”

Teachers usually offer the student the one word “No” or “Mu.” There is a long history to this tactic and it was how I first encountered the koan, reading about it in books. It offered a completely different way of approaching the world, something that, given the confused state of my mind at that time, seemed worth trying. I took the koan up by myself without a teacher and made all the beginner’s errors, treating the koan more or less as a gadget. I tried to discover the use of it, the way a huntergatherer would deal with a toaster found by the trail—pulling on the cord, banging it on the ground, using it as a mirror. “This gadget doesn’t seem to be working,” I said to myself, scheming and plotting. The other error I made was to treat myself as a gadget that had to be tuned to receive the koan—more scheming and plotting.

Eventually, I can’t really say why, things changed. I allowed myself to spend all my time with the koan even while I did other things. Especially I allowed myself to persevere without quite knowing why. This meant enlarging my idea of koan work and enlarging my idea of what a “me” was. I stopped identifying with what my mind was telling me, including what it was telling me about meditation. At any given moment, no matter what I was doing, or how busy or tormented my mind appeared to be, I didn’t have to think that the koan wasn’t present.

When the koan started to change me, there was a figure/ground reversal. I no longer had to remember the koan because that process had become autonomous. In the way that a poet learns a craft and then finds that the poem appears beneath or before the level of volition, the koan showed up without being summoned. I still remember how difficulties disappeared, and I sat in the darkness and became as large as the night with the rain raining through my body. The kindness of the universe seemed to have no limit. And in some sense that moment is still going on.

I like the koan being about a dog. It addresses the question of whether we can actually change, whether we defeat ourselves, and the way we often rule ourselves out. I live with a border collie puppy and in the morning she is complete in the world, and amazingly kinetic. Her heart beats quickly, and she hurtles toward me on her big paddy paws— she is now grown enough that occasionally when she leaps and I’m sitting on the floor she descends from above, a surprise, flailing and excited. There is no flaw in her universe. The koan is about me, about my buddha nature in any state I happen to be in. If I think life is hard, that thought is the dog with buddha nature, and peace is exactly inside that thought when it jumps on me. Then the apparent difficulty of life suddenly isn’t a difficulty.

The second thing this koan is good for is as a navigation aid in territory without maps. Once the gates in the mind start to open, the koan is pretty much all you have for navigation. The koan helps you to walk through the dim and bright paths that you have never walked before.You don’t have to return to knowing things and assessing your value and skill, and working off the nice map you bought along the way. When you feel as if you are in a dark passage or not getting anywhere, all that is necessary is not to believe those thoughts about being lost in twisty passages. The koan is a nice substitute for wrestling around with your fears.

And if you do resort to your maps, you will find that they are temporary, you don’t quite believe in them, and the world itself is more interesting than your explanations of it.

Everyone is new to this koan since everyone is new to this moment. You can drop everything you think you know about this koan and everything you are eager to tell others that you have already learned.Then the koan can find the space to meet you.

Lots of people from lots of cultures have been changed by this koan and I find that an encouraging thought. While it is exhilarating to step off the cliff of everything that has already convinced you, it can also be frightening. It can be consoling to know that lots of other people, who like ourselves have no special aptitudes, have found that this koan saved their lives.

With all the difficulties and absurdities of the koan path my own reaction has been gratitude to the ancient teachers who invented this way of changing my mind. They found a way to talk down through the centuries, a language that helps unshape what I see so that I can see that it is the first day of the world. That is an unforgettable gift.

Koans are a great treasure of civilization and their beauty is just beginning to be understood in the west. After an initial promising start in the West, koans came to be considered esoteric and by a couple of decades ago were being neglected as a method. One of the decisions I made at that time was to teach only koans and nothing but koans and to develop new ways of teaching them, ways that might fit Western culture. Along those lines, the teachers in this book are opening many possibilities for us. The koan Mu or No is the quarter horse of Zen practice— resilient, durable, and adaptable. It’s been used so often, in so many countries and eras, that there are many different and contradictory ways to encounter it. It is a mysterious guide, a hidden friend, a vial of ancient light, a rodent that undermines the foundations. The Book of Mu gathers different ways to accompany this great koan so you can try it for yourself and find what works for you.

I can tell that James Ford and Melissa Blacker have written a good book because word has gotten around and people are already asking me for the manuscript. When you read this book, a practice will leap out at you, and an impulse will rise out of your own heart to meet it. If you follow that practice with all your heart, or even with sort of most of your heart, and listen to how it’s going and adapt what you do, and follow some more, this koan will change your life.You will come to your own, unique understanding of freedom. You might get enlightened. That’s what this book is for—to give you a practice that works.
 

Pacific Zen Institute
Santa Rosa, California

 

How to cite this document:
© James Ishmael Ford and Melissa Myozen Blacker, The Book of Mu (Wisdom Publications, 2011)

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