Great Faith, Great Doubt, Great Determination: On Mu

This is a teisho I gave on June 7, 2020.

A monk asked Chao-chou, “Has the dog Buddha nature or not?”

Chao-chou said, “Mu.”

Mumonkan, Case 1

Chao-chou’s Dog, or Mu, is Zen’s most famous koan.  It’s the first koan a student normally receives; the first koan in The Gateless Gate, which is the first collection of koans one normally encounters.  In fact, Mu is said to be the first koan given to Wumen himself, the 13th century Rinzai Zen master who compiled the whole collection.

Even if the monk in this koan was a relatively new student of The Way at the time he asked Chao-chou his question about the Temple dog, he already would have known the doctrinal answer to his question; the correct conceptual response.  Yes, of course, the dog has Buddha nature.

Wumen is said to have sat with this koan—sat with Mu—for six years before penetrating it.  Even today, older teachers I know tell me about students who have sat with this koan even longer.

The monk in this story isn’t really asking about the dog, of course.  He’s asking about himself.  He’s asking, “Do I have Buddha nature?”

Why?  Why did this monk ask a question to which he already had an answer?  Why did Chao-chou answer “Mu,” which means “no”?  Why did Wumen himself, and countless students after him, labor over this koan for years before passing through it?

It’s simple.  The monk in the koan, and Wumen, and these many students of The Way realized at this point in their journeys that, although they “got it” conceptually, they still didn’t really get it.  They could recite the canonical answer, but it didn’t satisfy.  They knew, or at least could sense, that cognitive knowing—belief in a proposition—wasn’t really knowing.

They doubted what they supposedly knew.

This admission may seem like a sort of undoing; like the opposite of progress.  In truth, it’s a huge step in right direction.  This doubt is an opening.

Another 13th century Rinzai master (Gaofeng Yuanmiao) famously said that the “three essentials” of Zen practice are great faith, great doubt, and great fury.  Great fury often gets translated in a watered down way, as “great determination,” but I like great fury much better.

Depending upon who and where one is at this particular moment, maybe an existential question like “Do I have Buhha nature?” doesn’t have much urgency.  In this part of the world, many of us live quite comfortable lives—a fact that is all the more apparent during this triple public health, economic, and racial justice crisis.  Maybe you’re not very concerned about whether you have Buddha nature or not, let alone with whether you’ll ever realize it.  But, you’re here, and I assume you’re not here for the coffee social following the service.  Zen isn’t particularly known for that.  Maybe you’re just becoming a bit more curious about why other people seem concerned with these questions, and why you don’t.  What am I missing as I think nothing is missing?

Most of us are lost in our narratives much of the time; lost in inner chatter that we mistake as reality, but which is really just a thin veneer that separates us from the deeper reality of our lives, of who we are. Zen bids us to penetrate this veneer.

If we begin to notice our everyday condition, even just a bit: that’s a speck of doubt; a nascent question.  Even if our questions begin tepidly, skeptically, perhaps even arrogantly— more as an expression of self-satisfied, or blasé knowing, rather than genuine, humble curiosity and not knowing—great doubt is bound to blossom eventually, if we sit with that speck of doubt long enough.  Early in Zen practice—and “early” may mean years and years—our job is just to sit with our doubt.  To welcome it.

Great faith simply means developing unwavering trust in our own experience.  Not to separate from our experience.  Particularly our questions.  Our doubt.  Our not knowing.

We need to abide with the doubt.  Let it grow.

Our impulse is just the opposite.  We usually rush to fill in the blanks.  To fill in our not knowing with pseudo-knowing.  We must resist that impulse with great determination.  Great fury!

Your determination may start as an act of will, but great determination ultimately is not an act of will.  It’s a force of nature that overtakes you.

Many people these days come to Zen practice seeking stress or anxiety reduction, or mindfulness-as-self-improvement, or self-mastery.  Our practice may deliver these things, but it offers so much more.  The mind and heart that seeks these things is not the mind and heart of a genuine—or at least not a mature—student of The Way.

In his commentary on Mu, Robert Aitken, the contemporary teacher who produced the translation of The Gateless Gate I prefer, quotes his own teacher, Yamada Kōun Roshi, who said:

“Make your whole body a mass of doubt, and with your three hundred and sixty bones and joints and your eighty-four thousand hair follicles concentrate on this one word `Mu.’”

What is Mu?  Yamada Roshi and Aitken continue:

“Don’t consider it to be nothingness.  Don’t think in terms of `has’ or `has not.’”  Mu is not nothingness or somethingness.  Fixed notions of “nothing” bar you from true intimacy. . . . “Has” and “has not,” like self and other, arise with the concept of human skin as some kind of armor.  Actually, your skin is as porous as the universe.

What is it to sit with Mu, to become intimate with Mu?  Yamada Roshi and Aitkin answer:

“It is like swallowing a red-hot iron ball.  You try to vomit it out, but can’t.”  Sitting there, big with Mu, letting Mu breath Mu, you are completely caught up in your zazen.  This is the red-hot iron ball you can neither swallow nor spit out.

That is Great Doubt!  Great faith in one’s experience!  That is practicing with Great Fury!

The mind and heart of a genuine student of The Way will not settle for less than the whole shebang.  Zen practice is not about seeking bigger and better ideas about myself, my life, or the universe.  It’s not about becoming a shinier, or more perfect, or more masterful self.  A calmer or less anxious self.  These are just ways to continue seeking safety in stories about ourselves and the universe.  To thicken our armor.  To separate from our experience, to avoid life, rather than stepping into the vastness.  Into the void.  Without a rope.

The word religion is thought to come from the Latin, religare, “to bind,” as with a rope.  To secure ourselves.

This is Zen’s great jest.  It playfully declares that the truth is just the opposite; that true security comes from discovering we’re cosmically untethered.  Zen coaxes us toward the realization that there is no rope, and no post to which we could bind ourselves.

Not even a ripcord to pull.

Withholding.  Protecting.  Grasping.  These are the behaviors that get us into trouble, time and again. That prevent all possibility of genuine intimacy with the world, with others, and with oneself.

Seeking bigger and better versions of myself, my life, or the universe; striving to become a shinier, more perfect, more masterful, calmer, less anxious or more secure self.  These are just ways the ego—that blank-filling part of oneself—tries to find a way to be present at its own funeral, as the Tibetan crazy wisdom teacher, Chogyam Trungpa, was fond of saying.

Trungpa Rinpoche also said something very quotable about stepping into the void:  Giving yourself completely to your practice is like jumping out of an airplane without a parachute.  It’s terrifying, of course.  But we already know the bad news:  We have no parachute.  When we truly give in to our practice, when we truly let go of our impulse to know, and all the subtle ways it continues to try to contain us, we discover the good news:  Although we have no parachute, there is no ground.

To practice with Great Faith, Great Doubt and Great Determination, to really sit with Mu, is to let whatever doubt you now experience about who and what you are and how you’re approaching life—whether that doubt is a mountain or a micron—snowball.  That doubt might start as a single snowflake.  Maybe there’s not yet much energy behind you’re not knowing.  Fine, sit with that.  Whatever hint of curiosity and doubt brought you to Zen practice, whatever keeps you on the cushion:  Stay with that.

Sitting with that genuinely, resisting the impulse to pivot away from doubt, to fill in blanks:  Well, that snowflake of doubt tends to build into a snowball of Great Doubt.  Stay with your experience and see where it leads you.

The not knowing with which we begin is not ultimately replaced by the sort of knowing we expect to find.  Great determination won’t lead you to more satisfying cognitive answers to whatever questions you once had.  Doubt won’t be replaced with tidy answers; it will be transformed and transfigured.  You will discover what Master Dizang meant when he said “not knowing is most intimate.”

In Zen’s Ten Oxherding Pictures, the Ox is a metaphor for Buddha nature; the true source.  A Buddha is simply one who is awakened to this source, and who knows oneself as a manifestation of this source.

The eighth Oxherding picture, which is the crescendo moment in (though not exactly the apex of) spiritual practice, is titled “Forget Both Self and Ox.”  This is the verse that accompanies it:

Whip and line and you and the ox, all gone to emptiness,

Into a blue sky for words too vast.

Can a snowflake survive the fire of a flamepit?

Attain this, truly be one with the masters of the past.

Wise old Chao-chou forces the monk in this koan to sit with his question.  “Does the dog have Buddha nature?” the monk asks.  “Who, or what, is asking?” Chao-chou responds.

Can a snowflake survive the fire of a flamepit?

Can you become a red-hot snowball of doubt?