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Monday, September 19, 2011

Mindfulness and Mu

One of the things about Buddhism many people criticize is the lack of rationality present in its thought, particularly with Zen koans and the nondualism present across much of Buddhism as it spread to the east of India. The idea that things only appear distinct, as well as the idea of meditation involving letting go of all thought can perplex Westerners and even did myself for a while before I looked at it from a different angle. Buddhist meditation and mindfulness are neither making yourself insensitive to the world around you or becoming hyper vigilant of everything in your surroundings, but finding a healthy medium between those two positions of non intervention and excessive intervention.

A way to understand mindfulness is through the character Mu, depicted above. It is used as an answer to certain koans (riddles for meditative purposes). In the context of the riddle it answers, a student asks the elder whether a dog has Buddha nature or not. The monk simply answers with this single syllable. What is the significance, one might ask? Many interpret it to mean that asking whether one specific thing has Buddha nature is pointless, since all things are Buddha nature in that they can lead to enlightenment. This has pertinence to Buddhists, but to non Buddhists, it seems irrelevant, since they may not believe in enlightenment or Buddha nature as some potentiality of all beings. The answer isn’t saying that a dog doesn’t have Buddha nature ultimately, since it is part of samsara and the cycle of rebirth, even if it doesn’t have the consciousness to work towards enlightenment or nirvana as a human does. Another interpretation related to this is that the polarizing nature of answering yes or no misses the point that in varying perspectives, right and wrong also vary. This reflects that such analytical thinking can sometimes miss the bigger point in trying to find a specific answer. The use of the mu character here, therefore, is not a “no” to the question at hand, but the question as a whole. A more Western response might be “The question is irrelevant”. I think an alternative interpretation here might be that the elder didn’t say anything, but answered with silence, which does occur with other koans, from what I recall. In that sense, there is an indirect answer to the question with an indirect solution of saying that there is no conclusive answer to this. Even if the answer was ultimately true, a person of a conventional mindset may nonetheless not understand it because their mind is not oriented in the proper sense of Buddhist thinking. Mindfulness relates to mu as an answer in that sometimes you shouldn’t try to analyze things, but just experience them as they are.

A related use of the mu character that is more relevant to mindfulness explicitly is munen musou, translated as “no thought, no mind,” It’s not literally clearing the mind of all thought, but concentrating the mind and eliminating distractions and thoughts that draw you away from stillness and being mindful of things. In that sense, having no thought and no mind is the essence of mindfulness in that you must attain this amount of focus and yet do it freely instead of through deliberate effort. If you try, like the monk previously with understanding Buddha nature, to analyze or scrutinize a concept, you can find out certain answers, but then cloud your mind further with complexities of the answer you discovered. Perhaps you conclude that a dog doesn’t have Buddha nature, which may lead to you treating animals less than humanely because you don’t regard them as possessing the potential to become enlightened in their own sense. Figuring out such an answer may actually hinder your progress instead of advance it. People may object that this seems to claim, at face value, that we should stop thinking entirely and cleanse our mind fully to reach enlightenment. This is the same problem of interpretation regarding Buddhist positions on desire (which I’ll visit next week, hopefully) in that it mistakenly sees Buddhism as anti-desire and anti-thought fundamentally. This is not the case in either. You accept your thoughts and desires, but not let them run wild, but tame them with a sharp and focused mind.

A two pronged example is the intertwined terms of mushotoku and muichimotsu. They are translated as “no goal” and “holding nothing” respectively. The idea of mushotoku is to let events progress as they will and not be attached to them in terms of your fulfillment and practice. It would initially seem to imply that you aren’t supposed to have goals at all, but again, this jumps to an exaggerated conclusion. One can have goals in mind, but you should not view them as ultimate ends, but tentative in that they can be adjusted to circumstances commonly out of your control. If I thought going to grad school was the only way to get a good job, for example, I’d be missing out on other opportunities to build up my resume; for example, this blog. Muichimotsu is almost more complicated than even mushotoku in the implications from a Western perspective. It certainly isn’t claiming we shouldn’t have any possessions whatsoever. The distinction would be between complete poverty and not being attached to things as ends in themselves. Both of these ideas imply that we don’t have to absolutely abandon all our goals or possessions in order to be happy and fulfilled; we merely have to let go of our myopic expectations of how things ought to go and be satisfied and content with how things actually go as well as understanding that the impermanence of things does not mean we can’t possess things and appreciate them nonetheless.

Mindfulness as a Buddhist ideal is also misunderstood at times. When we normally think of the term, it gives an impression of unflinching focus on something or a sort of heightened sense that we must maintain at all times. But neither of these is fully the case. There is a notion of focus on things, but not so much that we ignore everything else related to something we focus on. Enlightenment as a goal, or moral virtue, for example, can be good goals to have, but we cannot neglect being compassionate to other people. Being a monastic doesn’t suggest you should completely shut yourself off from society, it merely means you take vows that place a limit on yourself so that you can practice with less distractions than if you were a layperson in the world that can often mislead people with less than moderate dispositions. And the heightened sense of awareness is a goal, albeit it’s not something you gain all at once, but through practice, particularly meditation, either through a focus on some physical practice, such as zazen (sitting meditation) or through a mental construct, such as the koan riddles, amongst other possibilities. I wish I could talk in detail about these varied forms of meditation or even just those found in Zen, my favorite form of Buddhism, but I thought it would help to give more relatable ideas from Zen that could inspire people to contemplate mindfulness and cultivate it as well through meditation of one form or another. Even just reminding yourself daily in some sense is a form of meditation. Mindfulness can be found as you walk to work, as you do your job throughout the day, as you eat dinner. That is the ease with which one can find insight, and yet the difficulty in the same context. Until next time, Namaste and aloha. 


  1. I stumbled into your blog this morning and have a few thoughts on your post, above.

    What do you think of enlightenment as a byproduct rather than the goal? The tension between monasticism and charity toward others seems irreconcilable so long as transcendence is understood as impersonal.

    One of the problems I have long has with Eastern thought is the postulation of the infinite as impersonal; and I wonder if framing the infinite this way is the result of mistaking a semantic limitation for an actual limitation. To put it another way, have you ever considered the possibility that the infinite is *meta*personal? In other words, more personal than personal, or personal in a way that transcends personhood as we conceive of it rationally? The concept is suggestive of transcendence of the subject-object dichotomy in a way that encompasses both identity and difference--a rational paradox, but then that should not trouble a Buddhist. :)

    If the infinite is conceived of as personal, then embracing the infinite becomes a matter of, not denying the personal universe, but instead communing with it to the point that some intensity of union is experienced.

    This view works for me, and avoids the tension described above between the impulse to withdraw and the impulse to embrace.

    In my own spiritual life, I worship a Goddess; and by worship I mean "seen communion with," not "kowtow to." I have found that, as time has gone by, by coming into Her presence and experiencing Her fellowship, She has changed me, raising my consciousness, transforming me. I did not seek enlightenment; I sought Her, and enlightenment--bit by bit--is coming as a by-product. Not that I care all that much, because "enlightenment" describes a personal attribute or possession, and in my spiritual walk this is the opposite of the way things are best perceived. For me, it's not about being enlightened, but about being with Her. But simply be being with Her, I am transformed.

  2. I don't think Buddhism implies denying either the personal in the sense of the universe as a product of our perception in part or the personal in the sense of interactions with other humans. Monastics are not by nature hermits separate from human society, but would tend to engage them in some sense, even if it might only be through begging, which as a practice varies by country and denomination.

    Enlightenment could be spontaneous, but as a byproduct it might create some tension except in cases which are prominent where even if one achieves enlightenment, the technical goal overall is to help others achieve enlightenment as well. Personal enlightenment could be one goal, but overall enlightenment of the world might be the higher goal to strive for. I don't see what other goal could seemingly exist in Buddhism except to aid oneself and others in achieving enlightenment, if you claim that enlightenment would primarily be a byproduct and something of a means instead of the end itself.

    If your goal is not enlightenment, but communion with the divine, the argument is that you're missing the forest for the trees. The experience with the divine may feel good for a significant amount of time, but the ultimate truth would be in Buddhism that you're missing the point and clinging to something outside yourself as the source of ultimacy and truth instead of seeking it within yourself. Clinging to the Goddess or God or pantheon of gods and goddesses all reach the same conclusion to me, attachment to the divine as the source of your meaning and value. Intensity of union seems to me to be focusing on your personal experience of unity with something outside yourself as the source of truth, which seems to miss the point for satisfying your own craving for personal interaction on a permanent or infinite scale, which is unrealistic from a Buddhist perspective.

    As a humanist of the secular variety, I don't think I'm in contradiction with Buddhist values to say that humanity is the source of value, more particularly the individual, since meaning of life is not the same as meaning in life, which I'll talk about this weekend in another WDAD installment.

    I wouldn't call the thing I seek out in enlightenment as the infinite, but ultimacy and significance. And it isn't purely impersonal, but it isn't so personal as to become excessive either. It isn't a matter of an either/or dichotomy of phrasing the ultimate as impersonal/personal without any nuance between them, since I wouldn't deny that there is a personal aspect to our search for truth, but I wouldn't focus entirely on that either.

    There's more I can say, but this probably answers a great deal of your questions.