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Buddhadharma : Spring 2011
77 spring 2 01 1 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly Reviews In modern Zen practice, disciples are asked to present their own interpretation of Mu. In a fascinating scene in “Land of the Disappearing Buddha,” a segment on Japanese Buddhism in the still-popular Long Search series on world religions pro- duced by the BBC in the seventies, the bemused British narra- tor observes a Zen master and a student during a dokusan, or private interview. The young trainee seems to connect when he responds to the koan by roaring the word “Mu.” But Yamada Mumon, then the famous roshi at Daitokuji, one of the major Rinzai temples in Kyoto, calmly dismisses him with a com- ment to the effect that the answer must come from deep within and not be pronounced by the lips alone. The master then rings the bell, signaling that the time is up and he’s ready to interview the next student waiting in line. Even though in the film it seemed like the disciple was screaming not just “Mu,” but “Muuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu” (using “u” eighteen times for emphasis as suggested in the essay “Give Yourself Away to Mu” by Gerry Shishin Wick), he nevertheless failed to communicate an appropriate form of expression reflecting an authentic understanding of Zen. Because Mu represents an all-encompassing spiritual experi- ence that must be lived in each moment, it cannot be acquired in any conventional sense but it also should not be considered an object of study, as is pointed out by nearly all the contribu- tors to this volume. “After thirty years of American Soto Zen practice, I finally caught up with Mu on a trip to Japan—or maybe Mu finally caught up with me,” Grace Schireson explains in “Becoming Mu.” As Jan Chozen Bays writes in “Always at Home,” we must be “able to let go and let Mu work on us. This happens when Mu penetrates every breath, every footstep, every blink, every touch, every sound. Raindrops falling—Mu, Mu, Mu. Crows calling—Mu, Mu, Mu. Hands pick up Mu and spoon Mu into Mu.” The Book of Mu is divided into four parts. The introduc- tory section provides historical background as well as Robert Aitken’s translation of The Gateless Gate’s prose and poetic commentary. This is followed by translations of Dahui, the Chinese master who first advocated the “head-word” (Ch. huatou, Jp. wat, Kr. hwadu) method of concentrating on Mu without intellect; Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen in Japan, who commented extensively on the case; and Hakuin, the leader of Rinzai Zen in the Edo period, who devised a system for studying koans still used today. The third section con- sists of commentaries by “founding teachers in the West,” all prominent figures who represent lineages and training tradi- tions originating in Japan, China, Korea, and Vietnam. The final part, which comprises nearly two-thirds of the book, presents essays by contemporary Western teachers as well as two from Japanese Zen masters. Although most of the remarks refer to The Gateless Gate’s exegesis, there is con- sistently fresh material that illuminates the practice of sitting with the Mu koan. One of the highlights for me is John Tarrant’s “No. Nay. Never. Nyet. Iie,” which outlines “Strategies for working with the koan.” Its six strategies are: finding the koan by eliminat- ing distractions; seeing that any part of the case contains the whole; accepting your various mental states; relaxing or not trying too hard to solve the koan; minding your own busi- ness by staying focused on the case; and timing, or remaining patient while the process of working with the case gradually unfolds. This discussion is rather brief, and I wish the author had fleshed out the typology and sequence in more detail. I found the essays that make comparisons with Western lit- erature and thought particularly intriguing. Joan Sutherland’s “Unromancing No” cites a poem by Neruda on the importance of maintaining silence while concentrating on nothingness, which is a way that the word Mu is sometimes translated in East Asian Buddhist and Daoist philosophy. Susan Murphy, in “A Thousand Miles the Same Mood,” discusses a Celtic fairy tale about a girl who keeps watch over an apparently dead body which comes to life as a result of her attention, as well as a comment by Rilke on the need for maintaining a coura- geous attitude in the face of inexplicable experiences. In John Ishmael Ford’s “On the Utter, Complete, Total Ordinariness of Mu,” there is an interesting mention of the mystical Gospel of Thomas, in which Jesus highlights the role of a concrete object such as a stone or piece of wood in enabling concentration. The essay concludes with an improvised poem that begins, “It is just this pebble. / It is just this breath. / It is just this Mu...” The historical section of this book is useful, but there is one basic drawback: it pays too much attention to one particular version of the koan while overlooking another important ver- sion from the classical period. Although the introduction does mention briefly the other main version of the case, in which there are both Mu and U (“Yes”) responses with a fuller dia- logue for each (it is also referred to in Tarrant’s foreword), this rendition is not analyzed in any depth. In general, the Soto approach to interpreting the Mu–U version of the koan—ini- tially used by Dogen’s ancestor in China, Hongzhi, who was a contemporary of Dahui’s and compiler of the collection of cases that became The Book of Serenity—receives relatively little attention. Since the double-answer version has been included in many traditional Chinese and Japanese Zen collections used by both the Rinzai and Soto schools, its history and text should neither be excluded from the discussion nor be seen in a polar- ized, sectarian way. For most of its history, the double-answer version was cited almost as frequently as the one-answer ver- sion that has become so much better known today. In the classical period there were also many variations on the