Tuesday, August 05, 2008


What do I mean by unnecessary thinking? Currently we are in the midst of a normal summer heat wave. Being social animals we might comment on the heat to one another. But to think to yourself, “Wow! It’s really hot,” is unnecessary thinking. Certainly the days and the nights are hot. The heat is here and you are here. Still, there’s no need or benefit to remind yourself about it.

Mushin—freedom from unnecessary thinking—applies to everyday life. It means action without analysis. If you sneeze, you don’t think, “I’m sneezing.” You sneeze. You perceive that you sneeze, but you don’t labor the perception by thinking about it.

To return to that earlier paradox, in one respect mushin is like enlightenment. To strive for mushin is a contradiction because to strive for something is to think about gaining it.

I have a good friend who has a speech impediment. She needs to occasionally inhale. Ethel—which isn’t her real name—babbles constantly about anything and everything. She chatters whether or not anyone is listening or whether or not she has anything real to say.

Apparently Ethel is able to speak without thinking, but I don’t think she experiences mushin.

To return to nihilism, which is the denial of all existence, recall the verse composed by Hui-neng, Sixth Patriarch of Zen in China:

“The Bodhi (that is, true wisdom) is not like the tree,

“There is no bright mirror.

“There is nothing from the first,

“So where can the dust collect?”

This was in response to a verse that read:

“This body is the Bodhi tree,

“The spirit is like a bright mirror;

“Be sure to keep it clean,

“And do not let dust collect on it.”

Hui-neng’s response is a classic verse in Zen, and people who do not understand Zen point it out as a prime example of Zen’s belief in nothingness. But Hui-neng wasn’t illustrating the denial of all existence. He was attempting to portray the delusion of attachment.

“The Bodhi (that is, true wisdom) is not like the tree,

“There is no bright mirror.

“There is nothing from the first,

“So where can the dust collect?”

The delusion of attachment.

D.T. Suzuki mentions a monk who asked a master to show him the truth of Buddhism.

The master answered, “There is nothing, absolutely nothing.”

To the same question another master might say, “Don’t expect to get something out of nothing.”

Another master might answer, “There is nothing to explain in words.”

The point of Zen is to seize the center of life, which can’t be done through reasoning. Therefore, Zen presents one negation after another, a succession that is intended to strip away our normal way of thinking and force us to be instinctive.

This isn’t a cop-out on the part of Zen. It is the basis of being.

Zen Master Nansen was asked by a monk if there was anything he could not talk about.

“Yes,” said the master. It is neither mind, nor matter, not Buddha.”

The monk said, “You have already talked about it.”

Nansen answered, “I have already said too much.” And he walked away.

When a monk asked a master about the frame of mind a person should discipline himself in the truth, the reply was, “There is no mind to frame. There is no truth in which to be disciplined.”

The monk said, “Well, then why do we monks gather to study Zen and discipline ourselves?”

Nansen answered, “This monastery does not have a bit of space, so where could there be a gathering of monks?”

The monk shook his head in despair. “I don’t understand you.”

Nansen said, “I don’t understand myself.”

And I don’t know if I’ve given you something, or nothing.


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