Monday, October 03, 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?

Stay with me.

Mushin refers to the spirit or heart that is empty of foolish notions. It does not mean without heart altogether. When a person is empty of judgements and of distinctions of good or bad, that person is a person of mushin.

So, what do I mean by unnecessary thinking? Currently we are in the midst of a fierce 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 re-enter that earlier paradox, in one respect mushin is like satori, enlightenment. To strive for mushin is a contradiction because to strive for something is to think about gaining it. I’m giving you a great gap here. Can you bridge it?

I have a good friend who has a speech impediment. She needs to occasionally inhale. Ethel—which is not her real name—babbles constantly about anything and everything. She chatters whether or not anyone else is listening or whether or not she has anything real to say. Apparently she 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 consider. Hui-neng was not illustrating the denial of all existence. He was attempting to portray the delusion of attachment.

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, “Do not 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 cannot 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 is not a cop-out on the part of Zen. It is the basis of being.

As Suzuki states, we must not be carried away by anything outward or conventional. This is a world of negations, but to understand it leads to absolute affirmation. Zen is nihilism only to those who do not comprehend that.

Roshi 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.

One more story from the early Zen writings.

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 have given you something, or nothing.


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