Being Met by the Reality Called Mu

Joan Halifax
Of Koans

R. H. Blythe said that Zen is poetry. What does he mean by poetry? Certainly he did not use the word
poetry in the sense of what we commonly call verse. Rather, he meant that the essence of Zen, like the
world of poetry, comes from the spontaneous, natural, unfabricated energy of meeting reality directly. This
quality of immediacy is in our every day practice, and is also reflected in the so-called literary body that we
call koans.
The mystery of koans and their poetic veracity comes about because they are non-discursive, based in life,
full of allusions, and nonlinear. They invite us not to use the thinking mind but to allow the thinking mind to
drop away by being absorbed completely into the koan body so that a genuine experience of intimacy can
present itself. Practicing with a koan is like a muscle that moves us into the reality, something that gathers us
up and releases into the present.
The experience of absorption into this poem-like case is similar and dissimilar to what we experience in
meditation practice, of being with the present moment as it is. Usually this “as it isness” is free of a medium.
However, in the case of koan practice, the koan is dropped into the midst of this “as it isness”, and let’s
the truth of things as they are shine through the matrix of its body. Using a jewel-like koan, a bright fragment
of a past reality, as a source and a place, an inspiration and a guide in the immediacy of one’s very practice,
can be a way for us to be engulfed by truth; we are a kind of hook, line and sinker that is swallowed by the
whole fish of life.
In the practice of koans, we are energized by a poetic economy as we use just this one scrap of reality, a
small sharp broken lens through which the present shines. At first, we place the story in the foreground of
our mind and then allow it to drop into the background of our awareness, an invisible blade wheel that cuts
away the superflous. It is through this splinter of a past reality that we have
the experience of moving away from our habitual response to our life, to a moment to moment
experience where “life as it is” and the koan and our mind are unified. In this experience of unification, we
are met by the present through being absorbed or cut through by something that is out of our patterned way
of discerning and thinking, moving us beyond the need to define and defend.
All of Buddhist practice is about realizing fundamentally one thing. We use different means to
actualize this one thing. That fundamental thing is to be completely present and open to things as they are,
unfabricated reality, this one most precious thing. Our practice invites us to rest in a natural state of mind not
being charged by concepts which can obscure our experience, nor directed by mental formations taking
us away from this moment. When we are fully with unfabricated reality, our practice, our very life is
completely absorbed by the immensity of the immediate.
Because most of us are conditioned to react to the world around us, to fall into our habitual patterns of
thought or emotion, we often find it difficult to just sit, to be in this experience of awareness free of the need
to choose, an awareness that is without an object. Often our mental habits carry us back, again and again,
to the same territories of reactivity and objectification, thus giving strength to the continuation of our suffering.
In practicing with a koan, we use something that is of us and not quite of us to absorb ourselves completely
into or be absorbed completely by things as they are. What a strange and wonderful strategy.
Thus, this practice can lead us to the experience of choiceless awareness, moment to moment awareness,
an awareness that feels all beings and things as not separate from us. Often enough our practice is not so
strong and attention falters. We can use a stronger upaya, a more magnetizing skillful means wherein we
actually come to the experience of what it is to be completely in this immediacy, to be completely
present. This is when the practice with a koan can seize reality, like a mysterious magnet that grabs our
world with the force of its drawing power. This present moment, like a koan, is a small door that opens onto all
of life as it is, an intimate portal that includes the infinite. It is a gateway that allows us not to fall into
habitual mental patterns but to move into the experience of the Ultimate, of profound nonduality.
This is why we practice with a koan.
It takes a lot of humility to allow ourselves to do koan practice. It also takes a spirit that is hungry for
submission. As practitioners, we come together in sesshin and submit completely to a schedule, or we
come together in a day of zazen and practice letting go to structure, teacher, sangha, the dropping away of “I.”
It is this practice of surrender which is fundamental to working with these small stories, these mentally
recorded and transmitted moments between practitioners that happened 1000 years ago. Without
submitting to the koan as the ancients did, letting ourselves be turned and turned by it as the ancients
were turned, we cannot realize anything from the practice but so-called interesting ideas. Koan practice is 
not about ideas or understanding anything. It is not about mimicking the ancestors gestures or aping their
understanding. It is about being the ancestors and buddhas, being mu, katz, and the cries of geese; and as
well being that small irritating tail of the buffalo which can’t quite get through the window.
Like our zazen, which is based in the experience of not being general but engaging in the particularities of life,
practicing with a koan engages details in a subjective nondual process. This is not so different than putting
our shoes neatly by the temple door, this quality of the minding of particularities. This practice with details is
essential in our lives, for it is the basis of richness, inclusivity, and intimacy. Koan practice calls us to
embed ourselves in attending to the fine details of our moment to moment life, or to be embedded by life as it
is, letting each element of the story be the truth. In this way, we allow ourselves to be instructed by and
unified with each detail, as we discover that we are not separate from any being or thing, any twist of story or
exchange, or the gap of the pronouncement of mu, no, not this, that sends us down a kind of rabbithole to our
home ground.
Koan practice is not a quietistic or passive practice. It requires engagement and vividness of attention. When I
was doing koan practice with my first teacher, Seung Sahn, sometimes I would be pressed hard by a koan. I 
remember moments of struggle, turning the koan around and around, then letting it turn me. It was an
active experience and, in fact, it is one of the ways, though not necessarily the way, that we are called
upon to approach our life, to be grabbed by the moment, grabbed by the koan, the irresolvable
question, to be engaged in the practice not quietistically but with a sense of openness, vividness
and non-sleepiness. We bring this quality into our everyday life, not turning away from life but being fully
absorbed by life as it is, moment after moment.
With Roshi Bernie Glassman, koan practice softened into another quality. The encounter was quieter, more
nonverbal, more on my side than his. I had to let go into the case, like entering a strange but friendly room,
where I was completely at home, even though I knew no one. The practice always took me to Not Knowing,
Glassman’s First Tenet, which is a way to express the mind that is free of concepts, or at least not dominated
by them.
Sadly, sometimes we think we have to solve life, and we hear inside ourselves the phrase: My life is a koan.
After some years with my first teacher, I came to realize that the point is not to solve the problem but to be
informed by the spirit of the question. If one is looking for a solution, an outcome: the right relationship,
practice, teacher - a perfect world – disappointment will surely follow. That’s not what life is about. That’s
not what this practice is about. This practice is not about being in an ideal or idea; it cannot be about
trying to get anything or anywhere. Maybe through the friction of the koan, the habit skins begin to drop off, or
maybe the habit skins are the very richness that gives life to life. Which ever, a koan can show us what we
are wearing and what is underneath. That is why the first koan in the Mumonkan is so
demanding and precious. There is No solution.
Of Mu
One of the most beloved masters in early China was Joshu, admired for his economy and spirit. Zen Master
Joshu was born in 778 CE and became a monk when he was 18 years of age. He stayed with his teacher
Nansen for 40 years. When Nansen died, Joshu grieved for some years, and then, at the age of 60, after his grief
had worn through, he said “I think I’m going to wander around for a while.” He spent the next 20 years
traveling about China, visiting various Zen teachers and letting them check his mind. He was checking their
minds too.
At the age of 80 he thought, “It’s time to settle down now,” and he became the head of a small temple,
where students would come and go, and he would have quiet, pointed interactions with those who met 
him. It was said that a kind of light shown around his mouth, he was so direct, purified, simple, non-greedy
about his own mind and his own practice. Modest and having submitted for so long, he became who he really
was. He died at the age of 120, and thus he had the advantage, once he had settled down at the age of 80,
to have another 40 years of discovery, enjoying peculiar and unmediated interactions with those who
found their way to his modest temple.
The most well-known koan associated with Joshu is the first koan in the Mumonkan:
A monk asks Joshu, “Does a dog have Buddha nature?”
Joshu replied, “Mu.” (or no, or it has not, or it does not)
Putting aside the dog question, what the monk seems to be saying is “I don’t have Buddha nature.” In the koan
and in our experience, that’s what most of us feel. We believe that we don’t have this potential for awakening,
that our mind is not that of the Buddha’s, and we regard ourselves a little doggishly, not feeling adequate
to meet the moment.
Working with the koan, we are this monk who is trying to figure out the question about buddha nature, saying,
“I can’t access my own awakened nature. I can’t perceive the awakened nature of others.” Imagine 
being this monk and going to Joshu and saying, “Does a dog have Buddha nature?” And Joshu sits there and
says, “mu” or no. What you and I are really asking is, “Who am I? Who am I, really?”
In another way, the monk is asking Joshu, “How can I be free from mental constructions, from the habit
formations that create suffering, not only in my life but engender suffering in others?” The monk is struggling.
We struggle; we struggle with our lives; we struggle with mu. Joshu is not saying “turn away from or face
our struggle.” He is uses this powerful word, “mu” or no, inviting us into the body of positive negation so that
the whole universe is revealed in its illustrious truth, as it is, not in the delusional descriptions and ideas that
have made our world much smaller than it actually is.
Instead of life and mu becoming a field of impossibility, mu and life become a field of great possibility. Mu, or
no, is a way for the mind to clear itself of all constructions, toreset itself to not knowing, to
openness, to zero, as one Zen teacher suggested. Can we feel that right now? A thought arises; the self
follows the thought and suddenly feels, “I am right. This is how it is.” Then we recall that the practice is
mu or “no.” We trap the thought in the space of mu, and suddenly it is free. The mind re-sets itself to its
place of origin. Allow the mental formation, the thought formation to liberate itself naturally, in its own 
time as it will and let the mind re-set itself to its beginning point, to “our original dwelling place.”
“Mu” is not about negation. It is about liberation; liberation from ideas, ideals, ideologies. In the
commentary on this koan, the Zen Master Mumon said it is imperative for the practice of Zen that you pass
through the barriers established by the ancestral teachers. Robert Aitken Roshi reminds us that a barrier
is a checkpoint at a frontier. It’s a place where you check your mind, in the two senses of the word. Check
as in examine, and check as in something you would do with your coat; ie, leave it at the door.
Our barriers are those things that we bump up against, that turn us around and cause us to say, “Who am I in
this?” “Who am I really?” These are the barriers of the ancestors. What this means is that they all went
through it too. The Buddha went through it. Mumon went through it. Joshu went through it. Dogen went
through it. Gandhi went through it. The Dalai Lama,Thich Nhat Hanh are still going through it. You and I
are up against the wall too.
What the barriers are saying to us is to be more involved with our life, all of our life, as it is. Don’t let
your thoughts stop you. Relinquish this ideal that doesn’t relate to reality. It is a stepping into and being
stepped into reality by reality. This is essential for our  practice. Not having some kind of goal out there but to
actualize the quality of courage that the ancestors and the great teachers actualized by meeting the barrier
head-on in this field of life.
In Chinese Zen, in Japanese Zen and more and more in Western Zen, the emphasis is on intimacy. One teacher
asked, “What is your laboratory for intimacy?” Maybe it’s a personal relationship, although many personal
relationships evolve to being non--intimate. It takes courage to stay present. It takes courage to live in a
community – liking and disliking, loving and feeling negatively toward each other, and to stay in it until we
move beyond our projections or retrieve them, take responsibility for them, and finally to let them go, like
an old suitcase filled with sand. Sangha, this deep identification with a group of individuals with whom
you live and practice and you suddenly realize that it is one body, one heart, one mind. Eventually you realize
that this whole world, this whole universe is one single thing, just this moment. How could I objectify this one
or that one? Why can’t I come into the realization of pervasive subjectivity, or inter-subjectivity, as it is
called sometimes? All of this is the miracle of Mu when we paint the whole world Mu.
The practice with koans is a vigorous, active, engaged practice that asks us to not be separate from any
element of the story, not to be separate from any element of life. When we realize “mu,” when we
realize this very simple thing, the key word “no,” it opens our lives for us, reality for us if we let it consume
us. One can do the same thing with the breath. One can do the same thing in a relationship with a teacher.
One can do the same thing by sitting still a long time and then stepping into the early morning and seeing
white mist floating above the dark ground.
For some, the world has become real because a small pebble hits the bamboo body or the eye is filled with a
vision of peach blossoms. There are many ways for this experience of unification to open for us. In essence, the
opening has to be sufficiently deep and thorough that we can actualize it in the details in our everyday life.
The practice of koans, as is the practice of all of Zen is in its particularities, in the very fine details of our
moment to moment existence. Mu gathers the details into a singular net of emptiness.
In the Mumonkon, there are verses by various Zen Masters which are glosses on koans. The last verse
goes, “A dog has no Buddha nature.” Then the old teacher says, “Kind compassion. Deep as the sea.
Those who pursue words and chase sayings bury the heart.” This teacher is saying, 1000 years ago, “Please
be it. Open your hands to the world. Open your heart to the world. Open your heart to your own suffering.
Be it completely. Don’t talk about it. Be it. And if you feel rough (which all of us do at times) work it, be
worked by it, apply yourself. Don’t beat up yourself.
This is your barrier. This is your maturation point. Kind compassion, feeling all things as one’s own body and
heart. This is your chance and my chance now to apply the basic energy of the bodhisattvas in our own life, to
pass through the fire and to be a braver person for having seen deeply into the nature of suffering, taking
responsibility for the suffering in my own life and that which I have created and to vow to change it, to
liberate it and then in fact, to liberate it. Do not pursue words and bury the heart. Just meet this reality that is
called Mu.”



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