Thursday, October 27, 2011


by Scott Bradley

I think I've got a pretty good grasp of the meaning of Moo! I presently live in close proximity to a couple of young steers, so I have the opportunity to study it first hand. It can mean any number of things, depending on circumstances. It can mean, Where's Mama Cow!?, when she and her new calf are removed to another pasture. It can mean, The water line is broken again! Or it can mean, There's a black bear in the apple tree! But it mostly just means, I am a (dumb) cow.

The meaning of Mu, however, still escapes me. Robert Aitken speaks a lot about Mu, for it seems that his particular wing of Rinzai Zen has chosen the Mu koan as its central focus. The koan is basically this: A monk asks the master, "Does a dog have the Buddha nature?" The master replies, "No" (Mu). That's it.

I dedicated Chen Jen to a friend's two dogs because when I asked them if they had the Buddha nature, they responded with a simple "Arf!" I figured this was a sure sign that they had pierced through to the very marrow of the matter. But this is a dog's answer, not a human one, and does not actually wrestle with the meaning of Mu.

Alan Watts, not the best authority on these things, but one most beloved, wrote that the Mu becomes an issue here because, according to orthodox Buddhism, a dog does have the Buddha nature. So, why did he say, "No"?

Mu means 'no', but it can also mean 'nothing', or even 'nothingness' — or so I have been led to understand. Zennists largely take it as nothingness and make that the object of their reflection. (Personally, I prefer "Arf!" But then my nick-name is Scottie-dog, or Dog, for short.)

Like all things Zennish, however, nothingness should not be taken to mean...nothingness. The 'answer' does not resolve to one word, or many. In any case, nothingness is a concept in opposition to another, and the point is to go beyond relative and mutually generating concepts. It is much like the debate over Being and Non-being; whether or not there really is any such a distinction, the point is to go where all distinctions vanish.

As a concept, I am no fan of nothingness. It is much too knowing, much too final. I prefer 'emptiness'. The difference, as I see it, is that emptiness does not dismiss anything. Instead, it both affirms and denies; it speaks to the beyond-ness of Reality. A rock may be empty of meaning but it is still a rock. A person may be empty of a fixed-identity, but she is still a person.

And if she is not? Well, what's the point of the discussion?

You can check out Scott's other miscellaneous writings here.

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