**First and Last**
I’m touched there’s many people here tonight. This will be the last time we’ll meet like this, so why not go back to the beginning. Let’s look at the first koan of the koan curriculum. A monk asks Joshu: Does a dog have Buddha nature? Joshu: NO.
When you meditate you follow your breathing. For the first couple of years it can be so fine to follow breathing in the belly. Then to follow the breath behind the navel, where it’s more subtle. After that you can concentrate on the area of your upper lip and the outside of your nostrils. The breath gets softer and the mind becomes more serviceable, so that when something passes, you can notice it passing. And then you notice there’s an absence of the something that was there. It’s not nothing, it’s just awareness. In yoga this is called nirodha (it’s also the third of the ‘noble’ truths). Feeling nirodha, we can relate to our own moods differently. In Zen they call this “the taste that turns your around.” When your breath gets quieter, the mind gets quieter. When you’re stirred up your breath is course, your breathing is a bit labored. But as your mind gets settled your breath gets quieter. When you get distracted your breath gets course again so you can find it. Thank you breath. The course breath makes it easier to feel.
The first koan is MU which means NO. This is how you might work with stillness, with your problems. When you have a problem, it’s a problem because you are reading an old map. You can feel this old map in your breath, in your body. By allowing yourself the space to be as you are, you discover a basic sanity that lies below the outdated maps you’ve been applying to experience. The hardest path is not to come up with shiny new maps, but to shift ways of looking so we’re not looking at the map all the time. The hardest path is into our own hearts and bodies. What shuts down the heart more than anything is not letting ourselves have our own experience. Too often we judge it, criticize it, try to make it different from what it is. We often imagine there is something wrong with us if we feel angry, needy and dependent, lonely, confused, sad, or scared. We become afraid to show others who we really are. We can’t allow ourselves to have the experience.
The koan shows us that it is possible to be unconditional with yourself. To trust yourself. Our minds have supposedly evolved from looking out for approaching beasts, finding small berries to feed our families, continually thinking about where our next meals are coming from, gossiping, making babies, creating stories about why the sun comes up each morning. Our mind still uses many of these strategies. How fast is that car moving? Can I turn left here? Is that a potential mate? Do you like me? We believe in our thoughts, act on them, deal with their consequences. The mind is always stitching us to ourselves.
Koan practice shifts this old framework. Koans are designed to change the way we interact. In the curriculum of koans (there are thousands), the first one is MU (Japanese), WU (Chinese), NO (English), and it’s been used for 1200 years.
A monk asks Joshu: Does a dog have Buddha nature? Joshu: NO. This koan destroyed me. Tonight we’re going to keep company with NO. We’re going to breath NO inside and outside so you and NO aren’t different. When you go to the bank machine and get groceries, keep NO in all your activities. When you are calm, drop NO into the pool. NO doesn’t mean no. NO is deeper than yes and no. It’s a no that doesn’t judge you, it’s an unconditional no. For people who are hard on themselves, sitting and breathing practices are good because the breath doesn’t judge you. If judgment comes up, if you get distracted by that, NO is an invitation to challenge judgment. You don’t need to manipulate your mind to get the right answer. You don’t need to change yourself to get the koan. Just be patient and be yourself. Bring the koan in and challenge yourself.
Koans will stay with you, like the sky. They’ll follow you around, always be overhead, change you when you least expect it. Koans are stories of fundamental human paradoxes. They point out the gap between the way we want to live and the way we are living now. Usually when we have trouble we get advice or take the stairs to the penthouse and fix things from there. The koan offers another way to open to your life.
Every time you see someone, you always see them through language. There’s an image behind the image. We can never leave language but we can interrupt it. NO makes the mind more serviceable. The koan gets between the image and the image. And the best way to get between is to be a dog.
This MU/NO is about being unconditional with yourself. When something arises you have to meet it at its level. This is the Zen understanding of practice and emptiness. The koan approach to emptiness is that it’s a loss of our assessment of ourselves, the situation, others. Of whether someone can do something for me. What’s in it for me?
The best way to work with your breath is to go to a warm beach under an orange umbrella and look at the ocean. Let the waves come in and out. In order to nurture/mature your practice, act like you’re on the beach, let the sensation waves come and go. It’s the same when you work with NO. You get relaxed enough to let NO come in and out. Whatever state arises, let NO interact before the map is introduced.
1. Don’t chase after the koan. Let the NO come to you. Like when you hear the rain coming, or watching shadows on the wall. Let NO come into you.
2. Whatever states come, let the koan interact with them. Let NO interact with your frustrations and also your boredom. If you work with NO, let NO interact with your depression. If your koan is “Oak tree in the garden,” let Oak tree be your walking and your eating. If you koan is “original face,” let your interactions with your family be “original face,” your friends too. If your koan is “plum blossoms,” let plum blossoms interact with your emotions.
3. Meet the koan, meet NO, before you are a self.
Joshu lived from 778 to 897 C. E. and is often said to be the greatest Ch’an master of the Tang Dynasty. Over ten percent of the cases in the classic koan collections Blue Cliff Record and Gateless Concern concern him. He always had the most ordinary responses. Student: What’s the meaning of practice? Joshu: Oak tree in the garden. The best thing about practicing in the natural world is that it does most of the teaching. You just have to point to it. Oak tree in the garden. How are you like that oak tree? Stop thinking and you’ll see. We studied this koan at a recent retreat, and the most touching moment came when a young man said that he’s woken up every day of his life with dread, but on the last morning of the retreat, he just woke up.
Joshu had an awakening experience when he was fourty, and continued to study with his teacher Nansen, then travelled throughout China, visiting famous Ch’an masters in order to polish his understanding. At age 80 he settled down at Kuan-yin Temple in northern China, where he taught a small group of monks until his death 40 years later.
Here is the full koan. A monk asked Zhaozhou, “Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?” “Yes,” replied Zhaozhou. “Then why did it jump into that bag of fur?” “It knew what it was doing and that’s why it dogged.” Another time a monk asked Zhaozhou, “Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?” “No.” “All beings have Buddha nature. Why doesn’t a dog have it?” “Because it’s beginning to awaken in the world of ignorance.”
We all try to have solid ground beneath our feet. The solid ground is usually someone’s approval, or the right kind of mirroring, or money. When MU begins to open, you don’t need this patch of ground. The gentleness of NO as a koan is that it’s pulling the ground away. No, no, no. It’s a navigational tool for a landscape in which your GPS systems don’t work. If you say, “This is ridiculous, I’m not getting anywhere, I don’t like koans, this MU/NO is not for me – I said this to myself also – then don’t believe those thoughts. Old masters have found a way to talk to me through a sentence that has fallen through people’s lives for centuries.
Norman Fischer: It doesn’t make much difference whether you are practicing with whatever’s in front of you; or whether you are using a literal phrase, like “Who is this?” or “What is love?” that may have arisen from the issues of your life; or whether you are using something classical in Zen, like Zhaozho’s “mu” or “cypress tree in the courtyard.” The more you sit with the phrase, and maintain your sitting with it through your activity (because, like phrases, which are more than phrases, sitting is more than literal sitting), the more your practice can be continuous and the more will be revealed.
I remember many years ago when I was living with Bernie Glassman, we’d often practice koans in the Greyston bakery, which was at that time the main project of Bernie’s Zen Center. The bakery was a crazy place; we had more business than we could handle, and it was always a special time for breakneck effort: Halloween cookies, Christmas cakes, Thanksgiving pies, Valentine’s Day cookies. It was always something.??We were working very hard from morning till night. Bernie is tireless and expects that everyone else will be tireless too. And we were not professional bakers; in fact, we didn’t know how to bake and we were learning as we went along. So it was exhausting work, going very quickly all the time, trying to fill rush orders, to do things right, and of course making many mistakes and having constantly to do things over again. In the middle of all this, Bernie would open up shop for dokusan, a traditional Zen interview in which the teacher examines the student’s understanding of his or her koan. He’d sit in his manager’s office at his desk while you—in your baker’s whites, covered with flour—sat in the outer room on a chair taking a few moments to quickly come back into touch with your koan, which had to be right there at your fingertips, easily brought back into consciousness. When Bernie rang the bell rang you’d go in and respond to your koan and he would respond back and then he’d ring the bell and you’d go back downstairs to the assembly line as the next person came in. Such things are possible.”
We begin our spiritual lives because we want things to be different. We want to stop sabotaging ourselves and our relationships. The more we practice, the less we want to change. The deeper we go into practice the more resistance there is to practice. We need something else, apart from our reasonable cover stories, to help us when we think we know who we are. That’s why we have koans. They don’t engage the intellect, you need to see that your thoughts are not so interesting. The mind produces more garbage than your household.
We are learning to be unconditional with ourselves. In most cultures dogs are low on the respect chain. Unappreciated. NO is very much about the way we depreciate and reject our experience. Refusing to reject your experience is the key that unlocks the gate. Go to the frightening thing and sit sweetly with it. And when your refusal comes up say NO. NO is a key. In psychotherapy we learn how to track our judgemental mind. In Buddhism we can go a step further. We see that every judgement and criticism has a point of reference they depend on. The point of reference is what makes a problem a problem.
If you think you start to understand, NO/MU remind you that with the great questions of your life you don’t have a clue. And like the fact that you are headed towards your death, they are inescapable. You have to work with them. The great strength of this tradition is that it looks like it’s heading towards the light, but really it’s doing something in the dark for your bruised heart.
Allowing love to enter your life tangles you up in thorns and weeds and habits. That’s why we try to avoid it. You’ll see that you have a lot of bad habits, and then you can have some compassion for your human condition. When you are kinder to yourself and refuse old habits, you’ll find more kindness for others. Take away the screen between yourself and the world. You are on the other side of the door you thought was closed. It’s not.
This koan is intended to open the gates of understanding for us. There are so many things we pretend to care about. Pretending obscures a deeper love for our lives. Forgive yourself. Accept yourself as you are. You don’t have to be a different kind of person. We have so many ideas of what a happy person is. Like the Dalai Lama. MU means you can be you, here and now, with your eyes open. Your life is not a series of mistakes anymore. When we say NO we are refusing and opening at the same time. We say NO to the corporate state and love what’s in front of us. We can create a life that is more fearless. Then love can overthrow the corporate state of criticism. It depends on us. We are the peacemakers. We are the people we’ve been waiting for.