Mu my New Best Friend.
Michael D. Breen
For years, almost thirty, I have sought, chased, craved for a response to my koan “Mu”. No I am not the first one, thousands, have sought what at times could be cynically passed up as a miasma, an illusion or another promised non existent spiritual treasure.
The koan Mu has been for me the basis of my spiritual practise, my Zen meditation since 1986. The koan, is a kind of Zen spiritual exercise or gymnastic or maze whence you become clearer about your true nature or move some way towards enlightenment. The often quoted “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” is a koan. So is “Who listens, who hears?” The koan Mu arises in the story where a monk asked Master Chao-chou, “Does a dog have Buddha nature?” The reply was, “Mu”. So students of Zen are recommended to cut their teeth and their file aged dentures on that koan, Mu. Students are advised to sink into the koan, to become one with it, not to think too much about it but to let work on the meditator.
What often happens or has happened to this student is that I project onto Mu my fears, my wonky framework while Mu attends and lets me listen to me.
But now there is a change. In a Zen talk by my former teacher John Tarrant Roshi, I was struck by his so simple description of love as “hanging out with” a person with whom you are intimate. When I applied this to my koan Mu new possibilities opened up and I was infused with a sense of relief.
Before I describe the relief let me describe my former self- imposed strictures. My psyche had inferred Mu was a job for the “big boys”, a prize for the purest of heart, mind and rock solid willpower. In other words, the breakfast of champion saints. Eye, there’s rub, saints! Knowing one is many, many times distracted from the koan I realized the job was gently to bring the wandering ox, the consciousness, back to the path of meditation and not to bother about progress. But I always felt there were better meditators than me.
From early Catholic training and training for the Jesuit priesthood I was happy to see part of myself as an ox and quite an errant deviant ox at that. What I did not see until John Roshi’s talk was that in trying to train the ox I was struggling with myself. That was my struggle, my agon.
And I had never thought of hanging out with an ox; I was superior to the bestial side, I just had to keep that part in check.
Meditation often took on the dread of a chore. It was something like a bitter uncomfortable tonic or the punishing regime of an elite athlete. It was like a penance or the ritual of a sacrament where the form must be enacted scrupulously if grace were to flow. Where did that come from? In short the Irish clergy imported this kind of Catholic Christianity into Australia in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Basically the Irish are fun loving, live for the day Zorba like people. But under British rule the Irish had to close their houses of priestly training and go elsewhere. Mostly they trained in France where the spiritual/religious climate had been blighted by Jansenism. Jansenists like Augustine and their Manichean fourteenth century dualistic forebears held that the body and animal drives were a baser part of the person and needed to be treated with penance and asceticism to allow the soul, the good bit, to flourish.
So one had to war against the lower baser nature throughout life if one were to be saved. Meanwhile, hell forever awaited the slackers. The Irish clergy colonized a lot of Australia and other places with their French learned muscular Christianity. That spiritual wrestle was taught to us as late as the 1950s and 1960s. For many of us this strength through spiritual agon followed on seamlessly from school where we had to strive and progress.
Struggling with a lesser self had become part of my modus vivendi. So much so that I did not recognize it until recently that it was still operating. Unlike the Buddhist embrace of all of ourselves as one, I lived with a civil war which spilled over into interpersonal wars from time to time. The desires to improve implied a lesser and better self and a worse one like Jansenism. A more enlightened spirituality would suggest that by being genuinely aware of our actions and thoughts enables more ability to live with them or to manage them than the search and destroy method. And I suppose that the struggle will not be projected off on to the spiritual director or Roshi in teaching sessions or
An emaciated Buddha hears the lute player and singing girls.
Sala Kaew Sculpture Park Nong Khai ThailandBuddha lived through six years of fasting and severe hardships in the forest of Uruvela with his five companions. This emaciated Buddha figure appears in some temples and paintings. Then one evening while meditating he heard young girls playing lutes and singing. He mused, "When the strings of the lute are loose, its sound won't carry. When the strings are too tight, it breaks. When the strings are neither too loose nor too tight, the music is beautiful. I'm pulling my strings too tightly. I cannot find the Way to Truth living a life of luxury or with my body so weak." The Buddha was then ministered to by a young woman who fed him nurturing milk. The reaction of his companions is telling. They were disgusted by their master’s laxness and went their own way. As masochistic fundamentalists are wont to do. Their Jansenist equivalents were the notorious Nuns of Port Royal whose strictures and arrogance led to their suppression and the destruction of their buildings
To be able to hang out with Mu is comforting. There is also more space for the feminine and compassionate bodhisattva Quan Yin whose name means, "Observing the Sounds (or Cries) of the World". I feel so much more with Mu, who or which is now more like a mate, a go-anywhere companion not just a special exercise on my meditation cushion. Does this always mean that the mate is in good form? Or that we always get on well? Of course not.
Does this sound a bit casual? Is it presumptuous or lacking in respect for Mu? Or are those questions just the vestiges of a servile spirituality? Maybe these questions are koans in themselves, meanwhile I will be happy to hang out with Mu.