Getting to Mu (2005)

This article was written for publication in BREATHE Magazine, Mar/Apr, 2005

by Judyth O. Weaver

At our first meeting, the abbot of Shofukuji, img001mumon.jpga 300-year-old Zen monastery in Kobe, asked me about myself. I was 26, I told Yamada Mumon Roshi that I had been a dancer in the U.S., that I’d come to Japan to study traditional dance, and I came to him because I wanted to experience Zen more fully. Mumon Roshi laughed. “Now you will be learning the highest form of dance,” he said. “Movementless dance!”

Mumon Roshi understood how seriously I longed for deep spiritual training. Open-minded and generous, he granted me permission to study at Shofukuji alongside the 30 monks he supervised. Japanese monastic tradition discourages men and women from meditating together, but Mumon Roshi allowed me to participate fully. I worked with the monks and sat with them in the zendo, the monastery’s large meditation hall, where each monk slept on a tatami mat that was also his study space. My bedroom was a woodshed I’d cleaned out at small, nearby temple with a nun in residence.

A few of the monks were upset that the Roshi had allowed a women to enter their sanctuary. They let me know I was the lowest and least welcome person there, assigning me a meditating space as far from them as possible, next to the zendo’s open door. When it rained, I got wet; when it snowed I was the one sprinkled with white; and when the bell rang for us to get in line to see the Roshi, I had to run further than anyone else. I put my hair up and kept my eyes down, followed instructions, responded to the bells that marked the schedule of meditation, meals and chores, stayed consistent, and tried not to upset the balance.

As a girl, I’d burned with questions. My mother died when I was three; that loss and the shadow of an abusive stepmother threw me into turmoil early and led me to ask Who am I? Why am I here? Why am I suffering so much? When I was 15, I discovered yoga, meditation, and the works of eastern sages who seemed to have a welcome message of self-acceptance. I found some peace, but the answers, and the self-acceptance, I sought still eluded me. I hoped to find them at Shofukuji.

Mumon Roshi gave me instructions on how to sit sussokan-breathing properly and focusing on counting my breaths, quieting the chatter in my mind. I concentrated on my breathing every day from 4 a.m. until 9:30 p.m., with brief breaks for meals and chores. I learned how to chop wood, clean rigorously, garden, and cook “Zen cuisine.” Sometimes I sewed and patched the monks’ very worn robes.

Unlike the monks, I wasn’t given a koan, an unanswerable question that the student tries to answer. The essence of the koan is to help one break through the restraints of ordinary logic. While the monks went several times a day to sanzen, a private audience with the Roshi where they attempted to answer their koans, I sat motionless for long, painful hours, counting my breaths.

After six months, I went to Mumon Roshi in frustration and despair. “I just can’t do this!” I said. “I can’t concentrate deeply enough, the way you tell me to.” He decided it was time for me to have my own koan: “A monk asked Joshu, ‘Does a dog have Buddha nature?’ Joshu answered ‘Mu’ (No).” I had heard this famous koan many times, but receiving it as the focus of my meditation was a different experience. I thought, “This is a question?” Mumon Roshi told me I must become one with Mu. I must die the great death (of the ego, of the self, of ordinary identity) using Mu as my sword, in order to get at the truest answer to the question Who am I?

Mu became the focus of my life. I tried to concentrate on it mentally, physically, emotionally-constantly. I sat Mu. I walked Mu. I ate Mu. I breathed Mu in and out. I slept Mu, and in the morning at the first moment of awakening, out came Mu. I had planted a vine of little hyotan gourds on a trellis outside my hut. One day, getting up from my meditation cushion, I went outside and carved the Japanese character for Mu in each of the gourds.

Over and over, at each sanzen, I waited in line Mu, rang the bell to announce my coming Mu, and bowed Mu. I sat before the Roshi Mu, trying to voice Mu, show Mu, be Mu. But I wasn’t. When I came with a reasonable answer for my koan, the Roshi’s response was: “That is a reason. Zen is not a reason!” And he rang the small bell that signaled dismissal. When I offered some philosophic sort of answer, he said, “That is philosophy. Zen is not philosophy! You must become Mu! Nothing but Mu.” And he rang the bell.

All the while, wonderful things were happening despite my lack of success with Mu. The one-pointedness of this practice cleared clutter from my being. I was learning to take one moment, one thing, at a time-to keep my mind clear until it needed to be engaged, and then engage fully. All my life, I’d tried to be what other people wanted me to be. At last, I was becoming comfortable with the essential me, with my true identity. I’d never worked so hard, or been so happy.

And yet, I was desperate about Mu. Time after time, I faced my teacher. Time after time, I experienced deeply and fully my insecurities, my avoidances, my not-being-able-to-do-anything-right fears, my fears of doing anything so fully I would lose myself. I grew more frustrated with the resistances that prevented me from fully embracing Mu, more determined to break them down, and eventually, angrier and angrier that I couldn’t.

Finally, I gave up. I gave up trying, I gave up resisting, I gave up anger. I was at the end of all my thoughts, ideas, possibilities. And that was it: I just was.

I went into sanzen and I WAS. I could feel that the look in my eyes was different. I was different. I didn’t have any answers; I didn’t care. I wasn’t going anywhere; there wasn’t anywhere to go. It didn’t matter to me whether or not I answered this koan. It didn’t matter who I was; I just was. I was fully there.

I took a breath and let out my “Mu.” I was Mu.

Mumon Roshi looked up at me from his lowered gaze and our eyes met. Before he rang the dismissing bell, he gave me my next koan.