Monday, September 26, 2016


This talk is difficult to give, and it will probably be even more arduous to listen to because it is about nothing. I hope you will listen, absorb, and not form any judgments or opinions. 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 branded a Nihilist. The sort of people who claimed individuals were Nihilists charged those individuals with having no societal values. Furthermore, they 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.

I don’t know if Nihilists who escaped being roasted were forced to wear a large letter “N,” the way European Jews had to wear the letter “J” in the 1930’s and 1940’s. It wouldn’t surprise me.

To many people outside of Zen, Zen smacks of nihilism. To many people inside Zen, but not entirely “there” yet, Zen may seem nihilistic. It’s true that Zen abounds with “non” phrases such as no-mind, non-action, non-attachment, non-being, non-ego, and so on. These things tend to mess up one’s mind. 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—yes, mess up your mind—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 would not be suckered into that. He did not say “yes,” nor did he say “no.” His answer was “Mu.”

That gave the monk something to consider.

Mu is usually the first koan given a Rinzai novice by a master. Think of it. What is mu? What is nothing?

Working on mu can shatter a person. 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 thought through, analyzed, or reasoned. It must be grasped intuitively.

Believe me, when one grasps mu, the entirety of existence opens like the petals of a flower.

I may be sorry for bringing up mushin, but I will 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 that person is stone-cold cataleptic.

          That is not mushin. Mushin is freedom from unnecessary thinking.

          And here we have another of those wonderfully puzzling 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?


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