Tuesday, August 05, 2008


This talk is difficult to give, and it will probably be even harder to listen to, because it’s long-winded and it’s about nothing.

The concept of nothing is very important in Zen.

When I was in high school I had an English teacher who referred to any word over two syllables long as a fifty-cent word.

Nihilism is a fifty-cent word. It first came into use during the Middle Ages when it was used to describe Christian heretics. Back then if you held opinions that differed from accepted dogma, it followed that you believed in nothing, and you were called a Nihilist.

The sort of people who labeled other individuals as Nihilists accused those individuals as having no values. Furthermore, the labelers punished nihilists for believing nothing could be known or communicated.

Think of that. Not believing in the god of the times made one a prime candidate for burning at the stake.

Since then, things have improved. Or, at least, changed.

Today many people outside of Zen believe Zen smacks of nihilism. Even to many people inside Zen, Zen may seem nihilistic because it swarms with “non” phrases such as no-mind, non-action, non-attachment, non-being, non-ego, and so on.

But these concepts are not negative notions.

I said not negative.

Remember high school math, where you were taught two negatives make a positive? By my saying these “non” concepts are not negative I don’t mean they are positive. In Zen thinking they are neither positive nor negative.

Nor are they nihilistic.

Their aim—as well as the aim of all Zen masters and teachers—is to rattle your mental cage—to get you to grasp intuitively instead of depending on rationalization.

Any student of Zen is aware of the word mu. Mu means nothing.

Let me say that differently. Mu does not mean nothing. Mu means nothing. Do you understand the distinction?

According to legend, Zen master Joshu was asked by a monk if a dog has Buddha nature. Because everything has Buddha nature, the monk probably wanted to engage in a philosophical debate. Joshu wouldn’t be suckered into that. He didn’t say “yes,” he didn’t say “no.”

He said, “Mu.”


That gave the monk something to think about.

Mu is usually the first koan given a Rinzai novice by a master.

What is mu?

What is nothing?

Working on mu can shatter a novice. When he or she is certain what mu is, the master will challenge the person to describe the color of mu, or the taste of mu, or the smell of mu. As a koan, mu is not intended to be analyzed or reasoned. It has to be grasped intuitively.

I may regret bringing up mushin, but I’ll mention it because it relates to mu and to nothing.

The Japanese word mushin translates literally as "without mind." In Zen, mushin refers to the complete cutting off of thought. To Western eyes absence of thought can be threatening because that is synonymous with unconsciousness. Picture it. The only time a person doesn’t think is when they are down for the count.

But that’s isn’t mushin.

Mushin is freedom from unnecessary thinking.

And here we have another of those wonderful Zen paradoxes. If mushin, without mind, is a beneficial feature of Zen, who or what is it that is enlightened?

That is, if there is nothing, what is there to realize true self?

Stay with me.

Mushin refers to the spirit that’s empty of frivolous notions. It doesn’t mean without spirit altogether. When a person is empty of judgments and of distinctions of good or bad, that person is a person of mushin.


Blogger Mike said...

"...to grasp intuitively instead of depending on rationalization." Yet, rationally speaking, this post about "nothing" is REALLY about something! Zen breaks down...

Thursday, August 07, 2008 5:39:00 AM  

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