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The World a Gateway

Comentaries on the Mumonkan by Albert Low

Chapter 1 ---Joshu's Mu!

A monk once asked Joshu, "Does a dog have the Buddha-Nature?"
Joshu answered, "Mu!"

Mumon's Comment

To practice Zen you must pass the barriers set up by the patriarchs. To know the subtlety of true awakening you must let go of your ordinary, habitual ways of thought. If you do not pass these barriers and do not let go of habitual ways of thought, you are like a ghost clinging to grasses and weeds. Now, what is the barrier of the patriarchs? It is simply "Mu!" "Mu!" is the main gate of Zen and this is why it is called the "Gateless Barrier of the Zen tradition."

If you pass through not only will you see Joshu face to face but you will also go hand in hand with the whole line of masters and be in intimate communion with them, seeing everything with the same eyes and hearing everything with the same ears. How wonderful! Who would not want to pass this barrier?

Arouse your entire body with its three hundred and sixty bones and its eighty four thousand pores; summon up a great mass of doubt and pour it into this question day and night without ceasing. Question it day and night.

Do not take it as nothingness, or as a relative no of "yes and no," "is and is not." It is like swallowing a red hot iron ball; you try to spit it out but cannot.

All the delusive and useless knowledge that you have collected up to the present -- throw it away. After a period of time this striving will come to fruition naturally, spontaneously giving way to a condition of internal and external unity. You will know this, but for yourself only, like a dumb person who has had a dream.

Then suddenly it will all give way in an explosion and you will astonish the heavens and shake the earth. It will be as if you have seized the great sword of Kan-u. If you meet the Buddha you kill the Buddha ; when you meet the patriarchs and masters you will kill the patriarchs and masters. On the brink of life and death you have the Great Freedom. In the four modes of existence of the six rebirths you enjoy a samadhi of innocent delight

Once more how are you concentrate on this "Mu"? Every ounce of energy you have must be expended on it; and if you do not give up on the way another Lamp of the Law will be lit.

Mumon's verse

The dog! Buddha-Nature!

The perfect manifestation, the command of truth.

If for a moment you fall into relativity,

You are dead as a doornail.


To work on this koan one must be the monk asking the question. So we must be sure we know what kind of question he is asking? Is it about doctrine? Does the monk want to confirm that indeed the dog does have the Buddha Nature? Buddhist teaching is that all beings are Buddha. Is the monk concerned about the dog, or about Buddhist theories about dogs? Mumon worked on this koan for six years. He would hit his head against a pillar in the zendo, (meditation hall) when he felt drowsy or his mind was wandered too much. He and thousands upon thousands of others have struggled and wept for long hours trying to resolve the koan. It is hardly likely that he or they would have worked so hard for just a theory.

In a way this is a tragic koan calling up, as it does, the anguish of humanity’s most haunting questions. Is there life after death? Is there a meaning to my life? " Am I all alone in a world that cares nothing for me?" Therefore each of us must be the monk because, at heart each of us already is the monk. We all have this feeling of vulnerability in the face of sickness, old age and death, a feeling of fundamental insecurity which, though it may be buried under work, hidden by projects and goals, ignored in the rush of existence, is never absent. In a way the whole human race is blessed and cursed at the same time. We all hunger for our true home and this hunger, if we heed it, can lead us there, but only across the desert of confusion, doubt and dismay; this is the curse, because the first thing we encounter on our way home is our own insecurity. If, however, someone is unable to heed the call, is not aware of a longing for perfection, a yearning for unconditional love, a conviction of something, some other way of being, some happiness or peace that passes all understanding, and if that person is not prepared to pay the price of wandering in the desert of insecurity and anguish, then Zen is not for him or her.

Most often, before I give this or any other breakthrough koan to students, I have them spend some time asking themselves, "What is my fundamental question, what is of utmost concern to me?" Sometimes I say, "Imagine you have the wisest person possible in front of you, Buddha, Jesus, even God, and you have but one question you can ask. What would your question be?" Sometimes they ask, "What is the meaning of my life?" or "What is a good life?" or, more often, "Why must I and others suffer so much?" or "What is death and why do I have to die?" But I press them and say, "Is this really your question?" Very often, after some prompting they will say, "No, but it is the nearest I can get to what is the real question." What T S Eliot calls the overwhelming question, cannot really be put into words, it is an ache tinged with dread, a bewilderment mixed with a feeling of the injustice of the situation, a wishing, a longing, an "I don’t know what."

We have to see the monk as wandering in the wilderness of doubt and confusion. He hears of a Zen master reputed to be wise and compassionate, and decides to visit him. All the monk’s yearning and fears come to the surface. As a human being he is vulnerable, fragile, facing certain death at an uncertain time, threatened with sickness, and inexorably going toward old age. He has been told that all beings are Buddha, they are whole and complete, but this has no reality for him. He decides to ask the Zen master for reassurance; this will give him something to hold on to, something secure in the stormy ocean of insecurity. And so he asks whether a dog has Buddha-Nature. A dog at that time was at about the level of a rat in our own time. It was the lowest of the low. The implication is that if a dog has Buddha-Nature then I too must have Buddha-Nature. If it has Buddha-Nature then I am saved, I have a life saver to support me in the storms of life.

And Joshu says, "No!"

This koan has a counterpart in Koan no. 29 in a collection called the Hekiganroku. A monk asks a Zen master Daizui, "At the time of the great conflagration does ‘it’ go too?" Buddhist cosmology says that at the end of an eon the world is destroyed by a great conflagration and the monk is asking whether, at this time, "it," Buddha-Nature or true nature is also destroyed. The master says, "Yes! It goes too." The monk doesn’t quite know what to say and stammers, still hoping, "So it will go with the rest?" And the master, without mercy, agrees, "It will be gone with the rest." Again one has to imagine the monk anxiously asking this question; better still one must be the monk anxiously asking this question. Does anything survive death? Is anything permanent, indestructible? We are told a human being is Buddha-Nature, or, if one prefers, a spirit. At the time of the great conflagration, at the time of Armageddon, the Buddha-Nature, the spirit, does it go too?

The master says yes! it goes too, it will go with the rest.

Most people have bouts of anxiety or depression. Some also have had an all too fleeting taste of what it means to be whole and complete, and, when faced with the confusion, conflicts and complexities of life, they have a sense of the unreality, even of the absurdity of the human condition that goes far beyond anxiety. Because of the anxiety, the unreality, the absurdity, so it is said, we all need something or someone on whom we can rely. Once upon a time it was the priest, nowadays it is the doctor or psychiatrist, or even Ann Landers. We look for someone we feel can give support, succor, and spiritual nourishment in these times of dread. The monk felt Joshu was such a one. Joshu was over eighty at the time, and from about age of eighteen had worked on himself under the guidance of Nansen, and then after Nansen’s death went on pilgrimage for twenty long years. He was one of the great masters of the time. No wonder the monk turned to him, full of hope and expectation.

But then Joshu says, "Mu!"

I remember a similar occasion when I was a younger man. Troubled by the fear of death, feeling the meaningless of my life, desperate for some help, I went to see a priest who was recommended to me by the family doctor. I told my fears and longings to the priest and he advised me, "Young man, you are trying to find the impossible. My advice to you is to look after your wife and family, forget all about all this, get yourself a television, and live without all this worry about things no human being can ever understand. This is the sort of thing you should leave to the saints." I was crushed.

Was Joshu as lost as this priest?

Here is the bite of the koan, the contradiction. The practice of Zen is the practice of wisdom and compassion. With wisdom come responsiveness, flexibility, and sensitivity to the situation. With compassion come the need and ability to share with others in their suffering, to wish ardently to find some way to relieve others of their burden. Not only this, but Buddhist teaching is that all beings are Buddha. Thus on both accounts, as a wise and compassionate man, and as one well versed in Buddhist doctrine, why does Joshu say "No!"? This answer is like snatching a crust of bread from the grasp of a starving man. The monk, like a blind man, is feeling his way along the edge of a precipice of insecurity and Joshu whirls him around and throws him to the ground after depriving him of his last means of support. Why does Joshu do this? Why does a wise, compassionate, and knowledgeable man take away the last hope of a monk in distress?

The same question must be asked of Daizui. He must have known that Buddhist doctrine specifically states that "it" cannot be destroyed, even by the great conflagration. Furthermore in the verse about that Etcho wrote about this latter koan it is said,

Blocked by a double barrier,

The monk asked from the heart of the kalpa fire.

That the monk asked "from the heart of the kalpa fire" means he was burning in the fires of purgatory. Out of this burning came the question, "Is there something above, beyond, outside of this terrible anxiety, something that cannot be burned up in the fires of purgatory?" Why did Daizui not soothe him, not give him balm?

Mumon points to the answer when, in his commentary he warns that you must cut off ordinary ways of thought, because if you don’t "then you will be like a ghost clinging to grasses and weeds." A ghost is without substance, the grasses and weeds are worn out phrases and beliefs. Beliefs in God, in Buddha, in an afterlife, in a heaven or pure land, as well as in nothing, annihilation, nothing after death, are just and only that, beliefs. The belief that we need something to hold on to when the going gets rough is itself a belief and untrue. The belief that we can ignore these questions, that we can simply get on with the business of living is also untrue. It is precisely because we cling to something, even if that something is negation, that the going does get rough. By clinging to the weeds, by building up idols with words and phrases, we turn our back on our own true nature that is not dependent on affirmation, belief, or the blessings of any master or priest. This is why Mumon says that after you have seen into your true nature, "If you meet the Buddha, you kill the Buddha; when you meet the patriarchs and masters, you will kill the patriarchs and masters. To kill is to purge one’s mind of Buddha, of Jesus, of any and all kinds of saviors. Mumon goes on, "On the brink of life and death you have the great freedom." Notice that where formerly great anxiety burned now all is at peace.

Mu is the main gate of Zen, it is the royal entrance, and yet, as Mumon says, it is the barrier of the patriarchs. Our conscious mind turns everything upside down. In place of untrammeled freedom, the mind makes a frozen wasteland; instead of immutability, the mind creates great agitation; whereas each one of us is reality itself, the mind confers this reality upon illusions and makes of us ghosts in the weeds. Consciousness is a stage on which the drama of life and death is enacted, but it is also a barrier to the truth. But we can pass through this barrier, we can walk through the wall of the mind. We need not be deterred by the "trespassers will be prosecuted" notices that litter the mind. And when we do pass through we are one with the intelligence that is Buddha, Joshu, the patriarchs, and the long line of masters. This means we are one also with the intelligence that is the poor, miserable dog slinking along, muddy, moth-eaten, and lost.

But to do this we must work with all our hearts and with all our soul. As Mumon tells us, we must work with the entire body, "with its three hundred and sixty bones and its eighty four thousand pores." We must "summon up a great mass of doubt and pour it into this question day and night without ceasing. Question it day and night." One does this anyway. One is always questioning in this way. We are always filled with a great mass of doubt. We call it stress or confusion or worry, but, fundamentally, we are always face to face with this one overwhelming question. The trouble is that we try to respond to the question in a wrong way. We look to success, or to the love of another, to possessions, to knowledge, to goodness to resolve our insecurity. We look outside ourselves. We look for something. Every desire we have is the desire for oneness, for wholeness. The problem is we try to pin oneness down, we try to make something of it and we suffer the frustration of failure.

Hakuin says in his famous Chant in praise of Zazen" "If we turn inward and prove our true Nature/That true self is no-self our own self is no-self." This is seeing into Mu! seeing our original face before our parents were born. True self is no self. To see this is to pass the barrier of the patriarchs.

Basho says in one of his haiku:

No one walks along this path

This autumn evening.

When working with Mu! one must ask who is this no-one? What is this no-self? But heed Mumon’s warning: "Do not take it as nothingness, nor as a relative no of ‘yes and no,’ ‘is and is not.’" It is not negation. It is "like swallowing a red hot iron ball; you try to spit it out but cannot." Hakuin too says something similar when he describes it is as a rat in a bamboo tube that cannot go forward, cannot go back, but cannot stay where it is.’ One is damned if one does, damned if one doesn’t, forever caught in the primordial double bind. We try to use all our previous strategies and methods. We try to cheat, seduce; we get angry, indulge in self-pity. We try to use logic, reason, we read scriptures, we attend seminars. We fret and fume. But, as Mumon declares we must eventually throw away all the delusive and useless knowledge that we have collected up to the present. Then after a period of time, this striving will come to fruition naturally, spontaneously giving way to a condition of internal and external unity.

Those who have not practiced with koans do not understand this striving. They think that the striving is to attain something. At first, of course, it is. To attain something, to be something, to know something are the principle strategies we use when faced with the primordial double bind. But this is only at first. When at last we have exhausted all the resources of our being and have let go of all the delusive and useless knowledge, then the striving is quite different. It is more of a yearning to be at one with a beloved, a yearning that finally becomes its own consummation.

"Suddenly," as Mumon describes, "it will all give way in an explosion and you will astonish the heavens and shake the earth." How can one describe such an explosion. What joy, what relief. One way of getting a feel for this is as follows. Suppose you are going on a journey and you have looked forward to it for a whole year. The night before you cannot sleep because of excitement. You are all ready. Packed. Waiting for the taxi. And then someone asks, "Do you have your tickets?" Tickets, where are the tickets? They are not in your purse. They are not in your pocket. Where are the tickets? You run into the bedroom. Did you leave them on the table? No they are not there. The taxi sounds its horn. But where are the tickets? They must be in the living room. You run into the living room. No, they are not there. Oh! what have you done with them? Again the taxi. You feel like weeping in desperation. You’ll be late for the plane. Perhaps, who knows, they won’t let you on without tickets. You run back into the bedroom again, no not there. Back into the living room. Search through your purse. Empty your pockets. The taxi driver comes in. "Are you ready?" You hate the taxi driver. "I can’t find the tickets! I’ve lost the tickets! Oh! what will I do?" The taxi driver strides over to the small table and picks up the novel that you are taking on the plane with you. Pulls out an envelope. "Is this what you are looking for?" Wow! the tickets, the lovely tickets. Oh what a wonderful taxi driver, what a wonderful world, what a wonderful moment! In that explosion of finding, the world is turned upside down. What joy, what relief. But the tickets were never lost. They were always there, waiting patiently until you stopped running around and picked up the book.

At last I’ve broken Unmon’s barrier,

There’s exit everywhere - East, West, North, South,

In at morning, out at evening neither host nor guest.

My every step stirs up a little breeze.

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