Reflections on Mu: More than a Cow Sound (Week 7)

What is “mu”?

Spelled like a Greek letter found in calculus equations and often heard on Old McDonald’s farm, mu – like Transformers – is much more than meets the eye (and ears). More accurately, it is much less too! In Japanese, mu means “no” or “nothing” but even this explanation falls far short of what mu really is.

What do I mean by this? Well, to share my perspective of mu I first must describe my evening. Mu is experienced not understood, so really this is the only way I can tell this story.

After hours of coding and meetings at work today, I joined my boss at his weekly Zen meditation group on the other side of Quezon City. This was my first time ever formally practicing Zen meditation and I had no idea of what to expect. I was introduced to Jay, who helps run the Zen meditation studio, and he taught me the basics of meditation and its origin. At this studio, the evening would consist of three sessions of “sitting,” each followed by a “walk,” then a reading of prayers and a “koan” (lesson/story) which would present some aspect of dharma.

As I tried to create a list of all these things to remember, we moved into the main room where the sitting had already begun. A sitting is literally sitting (often cross-legged or lotus) on a zafu (cushion) with eyes open and gaze set downward for 25 minutes (at least in this group) while focusing on breathing in and out. By doing so, we hope to empty the mind of judgment: feelings, senses, images, ideas all come and go with our breath. They tiptoe into our minds as we breathe in and they are passed along with blessings as we exhale. It is okay for things to enter our minds as long as we do not react nor get attached. Accept the flow of stimuli like a beach submits to crashing waves but let the waters recede – your breath is the tide.

Keeping the eyes open and cast downward is critical to achieving this nonjudgmental state. As humans, especially taught under the Western style of analytical and rational thinking, we constantly divide the world into parts. For a lot of us, we have been taught to understand the world in dichotomies. When our eyes are open, we see the real world. When our eyes are closed, we see the imaginary world. Zen meditation tries to reconcile these unnaturally divided worlds back into one. The eyes are open so that we do not receive the stimuli of the imaginary world (e.g., images, dreams) but they are cast downward to avoid focusing on the many stimuli of the real world (e.g., details of the room you are sitting in or the window to outside). Our downcast eyes are our guide to find one world instead of two and our breathing keeps us grounded in our meditation.
After sitting for what simultaneously feels like forever and no time at all, we get up and slowly walk in-line around the room before bowing and returning to our sit. Admittedly, I missed to ask what the significance of the walk is, but I will likely return next week to learn. Halfway through our three repetitions of the sitting and walking, I was led into another room with the teacher because I am new to the practice. She explained to me the significance of Zen meditation and after paying my respects, I returned to the sit.

After the third cycle of walking, our teacher returned to the main room and led us into prayer and the evening’s koan on “vast emptiness.” This was my first introduction to mu. In her story, she told us of a teacher and student walking through a garden. The teacher stopped and asked his student, “what do you see in this flower?” pointing to a flower on a nearby bush. The student examined the flower with all her might trying to describe what she saw in words. “But what do you see?” her teacher persisted over and over again. Still, the student used words.

Mu cannot be reduced to words. Language is limiting. It confines reality and truth to clunky, manmade sounds with no real meaning. To cite the famous cliché, “A rose by any other name is just as sweet.” Words mean only what we assign to them and things beyond our understanding cannot possibly be captured by words. So, when the student continued to use words, she was met with the same “but what do you see?” And herein lies the concept of mu – or at least whatever tainted shred of it can be understood in words. Mu is not understood, it is experienced. The more we try to understand mu with our Western, analytical thinking the farther we are from the truth. Like printed words on paper, the more labels and rationales we try to stamp onto mu the harder it is to see under the ink.

Vast emptiness. The oxymoron above all others. Mu is the nothingness that is everything. And that is why we cannot explain it. How do you explain a paradox which cannot be confined to words? You can’t. You can only experience it. The flower is the flower and it is me and you because we are all one and the same in mu. The same fibers of wholly nothingness that makes up the entire universe. The flower is not just red with five petals and a tall stem. I am not just the young Japanese-American man sitting cross-legged in a Zen studio trying to grasp the wisdom of the teacher. And you are not just you reading this lengthy and clumsily-worded blog post. We are not physical beings with spirits, but spiritual beings with physical bodies. We are all extensions, versions, projections of the same oneness that is the universe. This is mu. Using any more words would just be stamping more ink on top of the simple truth. Abandon what you think you know and what you think you know about knowing. Abandon thinking! You can only experience mu in the absence of thinking about it because mu is vast nothingness!

A few years ago, I was a devout Christian. I went to church first at the age of sixteen and within a year had grown deeply in faith, experienced several “come to God” moments, been Baptized and Confirmed. I even gave testimony to the congregation and led a sermon a few weeks before coming to college. I have since taken a step back from Christianity, but the underlying principles, spirituality, and desire for truth remain. I believe that many religions and practices are attempts to explain the same thing. A thing beyond words yet still confined to them, much like mu. I share this part of my religious past because in August 2015 when I was sixteen years old, just having received my driver’s license, I drove out to the beach to watch the sunrise. I live within a 25-minute drive of the Virginia Beach Oceanfront but this day I chose to go to the slightly further away Sandbridge Beach on the other side of VB. I remember being 15 minutes away and seeing the first shimmers of dawn spill over the horizon and faintly color the sky. I was terrified that I would arrive too late. Being my first sunrise, I did not know that the sun does not break the horizon until quite a while after first-light.

At the beach, I parked my car on a side street and ran out onto the sand, thankful that the sun had been patient with me. I dropped my stuff and dove into the chilling waves, drifting through a sea of red and blue. Then, suddenly I looked up and in that moment the sun cracked open bright like an egg yolk spilling out over a frying pan, light shimmering on the waves like the egg sizzles. The light enveloped the water and me with it. The waves’ chilling current near my feet flirted with the sun-kissed warmth of the ocean’s surface. The night’s darkness still hiding in the blue fused with the golden wash of the new day. And there I was caught between it all – floating in the comfortably lukewarm and glittering space between these two worlds. Water and air engulfing my body as if I were part of the ocean and sky. My mind was truthfully empty. The horizon before me was vast. I was not between two worlds, I was one with it all. And I didn’t try to think or understand. I experienced mu.

When this happened, I was only about four months into exploring Christianity and had not connected the dots yet (my “coming to God” moment would not happen until November). But reflecting on this experience a year later, the past me would say I saw a glimpse of what that “thing” is which none of us seem to be able to put into words. The Holy Spirit, mu, whatever you call that indescribable yet universal sensation of getting just an inch closer to the truth. Zen teachers call this moment “kensho.” Like seeing a glimpse of the printed word mu under layered smudges of ink – it is a breakthrough, but there is still such an unfathomable amount left underneath. It is experienced, not understood. This is why we keep our eyes downcast and our breath steady – to not past judgment, but rather just experience the world.

Now, I can go on and on offering my beginner and likely incorrect attempts at explanations of mu, but the point is that I had a very pleasant experience learning from a new practice and it led me to reflect on my past in new ways. I deeply encourage you to try new things if you have not already while you are abroad this summer as well. Staying comfortable in a deep-set routine rarely provides the opportunities for growth that expanding your comfort zone can offer.

All the best and until next time,

My first sunrise

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The golden light with my older brother

Almost four years later, meditating before the sit