The Most Interesting Koan

At Home in the World

Rachel Mansfield-Howlett

This commentary first appeared in The Book of Mu: Essential Writings on Zen’s Most Important Koan

The Case: A traveler of the Way once asked Chao-chou, “Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?” Chao-chou said, “Mu.”

The koan “No” or “Mu” is a good, big initiation koan that transforms your idea of who you are and your relationship to everything around you. It’s been used for about a thousand years to help people find out about their own light.

The setup for the koan “No” is that a student asks, “Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?” and the teacher says, “No.”

What I take from the question about the dog is this, when you begin a quest you’re often just groping in the dark. The questioner, along with you and me, doesn’t even know what to ask, or what to explore, or how to get a grip on what is primarily important, and that such cluelessness is traditional and even, necessary.

So, there’s no such thing as a bad question. With any true journey, it’s not so much about the quality of the question, as the sincerity of the person who asks. There is a saying, “What is Buddha?” and the response is, “The heart of the one who asks is Buddha.”  The sincerity of just asking this question opens something, allows a possibility that wasn’t there before and moves us closer in.

Other famous koans like Yunmen’s, “Everyday is a Good Day” or Linji’s, “There is Nothing I Dislike” are examples of other koans that radically change your perceptions. But even these big koans may seem more approachable because they have a surface level of meaning.  “No” doesn’t have much of a handle. It’s features are not very graspable; it’s a difficult koan to both enter and to navigate through. That of course is its strength, that it is not amenable to our usual artifices and strategies. “No” involves a process of working with your mind, without a map telling you how to go about doing that.

Zhaozhou’s koan takes away what you think. He doesn’t value your opinions and you might find that you don’t either, which is good because they are a weight to carry around. There are two versions of this koan and the question, “Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?” Later on the same teacher responds with a different answer when asked, “Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?” He answers, “Yes.” In one case the response is “Yes” and in the other “No.” “No” is more famous because it goes against what the sutras say, and if you are of a mind to believe the sutras, that just makes it more interesting. But if you were to work with “Yes” it would be just as effective. “Does a dog have Buddha nature?” “Yes!” “Does a dog have Buddha nature?”“No!” You can tell that Zhaozhou doesn’t care about your views?

I was also compelled towards the koan “No” because it had a reputation of being a koan that would defeat you. I got hooked on the challenge and I was lucky too in having a teacher who would stay the course with me.

I was drawn to the “Koan Way” because I thought it operated outside the known ways of doing things. It seemed to be connected with a knowledge contained inside the immediacy of life. I found the koan path also touched an area of my life I had a hard time reaching into by intention—the place of trust, intuition and creativity. The laughter coming out of the teacher’s interview room also told me that this path included a deep sense of play and an interchange which encouraged a view I subscribed to—and which was echoed in the wonderful stories of the old Zen teachers’ antics I grew up on—that life was better described in the ridiculous than the tragic.

There is a koan towards the end of the curriculum that says:

At midnight before the moon rises
don’t be surprised if, without recognizing it,
you meet a face familiar from the past

It’s a passage that offers us an intriguing sense of a remembrance of awakening while still being submerged in delusion. You meet something true but can’t quite make it out. That’s how I felt at the beginning of my koan work. I experienced this recognition and it seemed I could touch it if only I could discover how.

Working with No

When I undertook this koan I read the commentary on “No” and the injunction to sit as if “your hair were on fire!” or as a hot ball of fire that you could not spit or swallow. This was dramatic, and somewhat entertaining, but I didn’t understand how I could go about meditating like this.

Perhaps my teacher understood and trusted the innate quality of Buddha nature; in any event, he offered me a different kind of encouragement, which was: to follow my nose! I had no inkling of what this would entail but I later found it to be powerful advice I am still grateful for. It also mirrored my own understanding of what might be possible if I approached the practice in the skin I was in rather trying to adopt someone else’s method or practice. And, it also called up that aspect of remembering the way, that intriguing sense that it was something I had known for a long time, a promise that was barely on the edge of my consciousness.

When I began teaching koans, one of the most interesting and beautiful things was immediately obvious – each person’s path looks different and holds its own wisdom. An artist’s mind is different from an engineer’s. The discovery of wisdom through those eyes is quite different, surprising, and appropriate to its own way. This is very important to realize from the get go because it interrupts any thoughts you might have about “gaining” or the tendency to compare your practice with another’s – to neither’s benefit.

Field Effects

At first I worked with “No” in a wide field, allowing the koan to enter in whatever way it would, not holding on too tightly to anything. I basically just threw myself at the koan and little phrases or bit of songs would come to me, unbidden. I took these things as being part of the field of the koan and I remember meditating with these fragments as they arose and trying to not know or explain too much about anything: “neither lost nor saved” “not this or that” “nothing lost or gained” were phrases that just appeared. In my life, a sense of not overrating my condition and opinions started to show its influence.

Cutting Through
The slash and burn meditation technique has its adherents, and although it’s hard to get all the way using this technique, I have to admit that it had its value in the early days of working with “No.” I held a lot of opinions and judgments about the way things were supposed to be and the weed-whacking approach was helpful in cutting through some of them. The way it works is this: whatever isn’t the koan is out, not worthy of any consideration whatsoever. It’s just “No” on every station, all night, all day 24-7, no variation. If another thought, feeling or sensation enters, you just put it aside and come back to “No.” It’s an intense concentration practice,  revealing a kind of bright certainty and this practice developed my ability to sit through and not be too distracted by things. In my life, I noticed I felt released from the social pressure of having to respond to certain situations in the refelxive way I always had. It was if a new brain circuitry was forming.

Over time, I saw that there’s not much need to suppress thoughts and feelings, because they’re just things arising in a very large field that is filled with many other things, too. And naturally, without having to engineer it, they become less compelling; your attention isn’t captured so much by them, and they grow quieter on their own. Thoughts and feelings are welcome, but now they’re like travelers to whom you offer hospitality but not permission to build a fire on the living room rug. You no longer take these visitors at face value; you question and wonder.

Sitting Through
Where’s your koan when you’re tired and sleepy in the afternoon? It’s just tired sleepy “No.” I found if I continued to sit through, my tiredness would actually show me the way through and the koan would be gently waiting for me on the other side. This allowed me to see the ephemeral nature of conditioned states. I felt the freedom of coming unhooked from my condition; what was happening in my mind was just something happening in my mind.

I realized I often refrained from life if it contained uncomfortable or unpleasant states, and I saw that I didn’t have to hold back any more. It’s cool not to hold your life hostage to your comfort and to be willing to meet whatever comes. The idea of what a bad state was began to blur and I was more willing to live in the middle of life rather than just in the margins, in the areas I used to call good.

Eventually we just start to accept. Not only do we not dislike our circumstances, we do not dislike our own states of mind, which is the key thing. We begin to think, “Fortunately, I don’t get it yet.” “Fortunately, my life is thus.” And if we forgive life for not being what we told it to be, or expected, or wished, or longed for it to be, we forgive ourselves for not being what we might have been also. The dissonant gap between the way we thought things should be and the way things are, narrows. Then we can be what we and all things are, which is boundless.

Show Me

During the private interview with the teacher, two words sometimes strike fear into a student’s heart. That’s when the teacher says, “show me.” This is an invitation to present the koan without words or explanation. During one encounter with the teacher I made an attempt to explain my understanding of “No” instead of just presenting the koan and was told, “Don’t try and make the room safe for your presentation.” This helped me to be more willing to take risks, to act directly without thought and to allow something unstructured to occur.

The presentation can also be understood as asking where in the body the wisdom of the koan resides. Folks sometimes balk at this phase of koan work and see it as a kind of pantomiming of the koan. That’s not it for me. There is a possibility of awakening in the moment of presentation if we really give ourselves over to it. There’s a koan that is traditionally presented as just falling down. Between the time you are standing and the moment when you hit the ground, there’s an opportunity for the wisdom of the koan to make itself known. It’s a response that can come through us when we’re able to get out of the way. Time inside the interview room is like no other, the teacher holds open the possibility that awakening can happen in any moment, including this one.

Including Everything That Happens

After the period of clearing away I wasn’t as plagued by the imposition of my thoughts onto the meditation and I became more interested in including what was happening into the meditation, instead of excluding them. Whatever arises that’s it, that’s “No” too, that’s an expression of the koan.  

I worked with this as an image of a giant bowl in which all of my experiences could reside, whatever happened was included in the “No” bowl. It became a container in which many things were allowed without my needing to form an opinion or judgment about them. What arises from this kind of practice is not merely an accumulation of experiences but a generous openness about where the gate is. It’s always right here right now, with this thought, with this feeling, with this person in front of me, with this event in my life, with this age, with this pain or hurt or joy or sorrow, with this condition of the world.

There is an openhandness that allows and includes all of life, all of ourselves, not only those aspects which we feel are worthy of being placed on the altar.

The clarity comes from seeing the moment of awakening embodied in different circumstances, from hearing it in different voices, it’s not so insistent on the path looking a particular way. Because the field of practice is always just this life, there isn’t a distinction between what is practice and what is not. Life is the palette of practice.

Zhaozhou’s koan is gesturing toward embracing your current state. I think this koan is very deeply about the ways we reject experience as not being correct or appropriate. And if you are making a fundamental judgment that this moment isn’t right, you have a tendency to harden around that thought. Ideas can’t get in or out and it’s a static situation. But if you go into the heart of that refusal, it becomes a gate in which life can enter in and we can pass through. Go towards the frightening thing, and you find that it holds a blessing. It’s a recognition that thoughts are just thoughts and the koan rises to explode them.

Part of freedom is about not thinking, “It’s not here.” When you stop thinking, “It’s not here,” you start noticing all the ways it is here. And the more you notice how much it’s here, the more what the old teachers speak about as accumulated karma—the stacked up disappointments of your life—starts falling from you.

I became a fan of this technique; it’s rich, and it especially encourages the integration process, moving the practice on the cushion into our lives. I experienced the light going both ways—the wisdom of the koan shining into my life and my life informing the koan.

Leaving the Realm of the Known

This is the land where mountains aren’t mountains and rivers aren’t rivers and things get strange, but it’s ok. I was so far into the process at this point that I didn’t mind if things were beginning to lose their usual associations. There was a truth to this experience and that was all that mattered. I could see that moving towards authenticity held its own freedom and I was game for whatever was in store. An old koan speaks to this place:

Blossoms on a withered tree, a spring beyond the ages,
Riding backwards on a jade elephant, chasing the dragon deer.
As a young person I worked at a beautiful landmark nursery in Sonoma, California for many years and developed a great love of big trees. We used the trees that grew there as directional devices for how to get around the nursery. A sprawling giant weeping willow centered the nursery; we dubbed an avenue of Japanese maples and ginkgos “Shady Lane”; the “South End” held a tall row of brilliant yellow poplars; and there were many trees throughout the nursery that had grown through their pots to become full size trees yet still held the square of roots where their pots had once been. This became one of the significant places in my dream life and showed the role trees play in my life.

I had a dream during this time with “No” where all of the trees in the nursery had been cut down. Where my beloved friends once stood, there was a vast hillside of stumps. Yet, just over the rise of the hill, I could see a magnificent long vista that I had never known was there because the trees had obscured my view. I was awed by what I saw; the sky was vivid with brilliant streaks of orange, yellow, and pink. Through my tears, I saw something that I had never imagined before. I understood this dream as leaving the familiar place beside the hearth to encounter something new.

Periods of Drought

There are times when the practice suddenly feels dry, the meditation is uninspired, our knees hurt, we’ve run out of ways to entertain ourselves, there’s an obnoxious fly droning somewhere, and it isn’t funny anymore. I learned to walk through these desert places, and even to welcome them. I realized that dry places are way stations where we have exhausted the known and are waiting for the new. There is a patience and kindness with ourselves that develops when we’re willing to wait through like this. We can’t know what timeframe is appropriate, and it doesn’t matter anyhow, our life is always happening right here while we’re hoping for something else to happen. If I just sat not wanting very much to happen, little things would open up, and I found that just being given this task of sitting can itself be a form of grace.

Giving up or Giving in
At the end of a year’s intensive work with “No”, I remember finishing winter sesshin and standing pensively in the dining hall looking out onto the magnificent redwoods steeped in mist on the last morning of retreat. I felt I had given it my all and it wasn’t enough; my responses to the koan hadn’t been accepted by the teacher. I was at an utter loss. I remember vividly the feeling of having spent every ounce I had. It seemed there was nothing for it but to give up the possibility of getting through this koan and to continue the practice without hope. I don’t know whether this is an essential step but it seemed to be for me. I gave up thoughts of achieving, acquiring, or wishing for something different than what I had, and this turned out to be the key for the next phase of practice.

At Home in the World

After I had given up, I just kept going and I started having small but real experiences in which the separation between me and the things around me lessened. At other times, I would become whatever I was looking at, a rock, a shirt, a face. Everything seemed to happen without me needing to do anything about it. The walls met each other perfectly. There were many experiences like that.

Then, at a retreat, I was following along in the walking meditation line outside the main meditation hall in the parking area. The person in front of me was wearing a black silk shirt and I became interested in the finish of the cloth. The thought crossed my mind, “This is a regal procession.” And that was it. The redwood branches parted in front of my eyes to reveal a whitish, granular, particulate quality to the light which seemed to be everywhere. It was akin to seeing between the atoms. There was no past, present, future – no me, no nothing. I don’t know how long it lasted, but before I returned all together, I requested a phrase. I received two words “No Other.” That was all. The experience seemed to come about as an accident and I’m not sure that the details of the experience are the point. I thought of some of the things other people had said, like “From now on I won’t doubt the words of a famous old teacher” or “After all there’s not much to the Dharma.” And for me, “No other” was the only expression. I experienced this as a deep familiarity and kinship with life. It was impossible to feel alone or apart, and the questions I had about what use this life was and what my place in it was, seemed to fall away. Why it all is became less important than the marvel of that it is. Then the blue of the sky seemed to come to my aid, my stubbed toe was helpful, the yellow of the hills. 

After that, I could answer the teacher’s questions, and the teacher finally passed me on “No.”