Are there questions which have no answers? Can we formulate some sort of idea for which there can never be an understanding? I’m not speaking of nonsense. That is easy. We can ask nonsense questions like, “how long is forever”. And “forever” isn’t an answer. We can say nonsense things like, “that which lies within is without”. And pretending it contains some deep insight into reality doesn’t make it so.

Then again, Zen masters have been asking students nonsense questions for a thousand years. What is the sound of one hand clapping? Nonsense. And when asked questions about the Truth, they yell something like “not even a hair’s width separates them”. More nonsense. And yet monks have been reaching enlightenment for those same thousand years. Is it these seemingly random statements, these maddeningly impossible questions, which are nonsense? Or is it ourselves, full of our own built-up nonsense, who cannot understand the Truth?

When the student asks, “does a dog have the Buddha nature”, the master shouts “Mu”, which is Chinese for nothing. Its not a yes. And its not really a no. We might expect, as the monk surely did, Master Joshu (who is attributed to saying all this) would reply “yes”. After all, Buddhism teaches that all beings can evolve to attain enlightenment, that they posses this Buddha nature. A dog certainly fits into the category of all beings. But the regurgitation of doctrine has never enlightened any monks, much less dogs. Therefore, mu.

So what does Joshu mean? What does he want us to see? Is there some arcane Buddhist knowledge hidden in some ancient, dusty scroll that would unlock the mystery if only we could read it? All this mu nonsense forces the monk (and us) to look at something beyond doctrine, beyond the accumulation of teachings and scriptures. Even if such a wonderful scroll existed, it would have more value to a museum than to our understanding. Better to burn it for heat in the winter. The now warm monk might understand in that very moment (since that sort of thing always seems to happen to monks). So through mu, or really any of the other koans, we are forced to come to an understanding of enlightenment, not as a collection of memorized words and ideas, but as a real experience which lies somewhere just outside of our comprehension. It is something which we must see for ourselves, even though the Master points the way. Its not really nonsense at all then, is it?

I don’t claim to understand it all myself. Mu is just mu. And so I have a question with no answer – how do I find enlightenment? And there’s an idea I can’t understand – the Buddha nature. I’m not so much different from the dog.

January 28, 2007 • Posted in: Philosophy

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