Student: “Does a dog have Buddha Nature?”
“Mu” is translated as “no” or “nothing.”
Does a dog have Buddha Nature? Yes, everyone and everything is Buddha Nature. But does the dog that the student speaks of have the kind of Buddha Nature she has in mind? Absolutely not.
We can practice Mu for a lifetime and it alone will lead us straight to Nirvana. Practicing Mu in Zazen is a more physical, thorough way of practicing Neti Neti in our waking life. Mu is a drill, a mop, a towel, a broom. It searches, finds and cleans the debris which stands in the way of our true nature. It is not an answer but a tool to mop up the question.
Every Zen student works on Mu in their own way, according to their own inner experience and capability, in the same way that every student practicing self-inquiry goes about it in different ways at different periods of practice. The result is not an answer but an apparent clarity that is achieved through inner work.
In Zen, we tend to practice Mu in a downward motion, into the belly and out through the bottom. The hara, or tan dien, is the brain in our navels from which our normal way of being arises. It has its own beliefs and functioning based on our percieved individuality which arise unconsciously and shoot up the branches of the body, heart and mind, creating our perceived reality through emotion and then thoughts. When we drill down with Mu or “nothing” we find, perhaps, our strongest foe in the form of unnamed fear and unnamed anxiety. This is that universal saddness of separation or loss of wholeness which we’ve learned since taking birth in the seemingly physical body. It is the raw root of fear, yet unattached to reasons or justifications further up the branches of our body. It is the existential fear of separation we drill, see, mop and clean with our practice of Mu. It is the process of becoming fearless, in Buddhist terms.
We were on a golf trip in Ireland a couple of years ago and afterwards headed on a tour through the little towns of Ireland on our way to Dublin. We stopped at Kylemore Abbey, an old abbey run by a contemplative order of Benedictine nuns. I struck up a brief conversation with one of the nuns near the desk by the front door of the convent building about something meaningless that I’ve since forgotten. But our eyes met for a moment and the power of her piercing gaze was something I will remember for the rest of my life.
Ramana Maharshi wrote little, but did conceive of a diagram of our hearts. It goes inwards from our normal sense of who we are to the “inner chamber” of our hearts and at the threshold of inner and outer heart is, interestingly enough, the ‘mirror.’ This mirror is difficult to see behind but it is like a projector screen which takes us, in Taoist terms, from 0 to 1 (self), 2 (other) and then the myriad things without us ever seeing the trick it has played upon us or getting to know life behind the projector. Mu, Neti neti, and Who Am I? are identical tools to the instructions in The Cloud Of Unknowing, a Christian contemplative manual written during the middle ages:
“Such a one is the word “God” or the word “love.” Choose which one you prefer, or any other according to your liking–the word of one syllable that you like best…. With this word you are to beat upon this cloud and this darkness above you. With this word you are to strike down every kind of thought under the cloud of forgetting; so that if any thought should press upon you and ask you what you would have, answer it with no other word but with this one.”
That nun’s gaze saw down through my eyeballs, down to the heart chamber, back through the mirror and into who I was – what we both are. It was the result of the correct practice of Mu and, in that moment, the only correct answer to that koan.