A Path Unknown To Any Vulture

Turning away and touching are both wrong, for it is like a massive fire.
– Dongshan

One crack and all knowledge is dissolved.
The struggle is over.
I follow the ancient Way, not lapsing into doubt.
Dignified bearing and conduct
that is beyond sound and form;
no trace remains of my passing.
Those who have mastered the Way
call this unsurpassable activity.
– from “Xiangyan’s Great Enlightenment”

Coming to Zen is to come to a basic unknowing. There are no texts that structure the kind of insight Zen offers. It is a rupture that evades thought, indicating the place at which the practitioner and the rest of existence co-occur. Zen brings the entrails of time and space squirming into the light.

It is interesting and highly symbolic that becoming a monk is known as “home-leaving.” To take up Zen is to leave home in more ways than one. It is not only leaving one’s family and former life. We also leave our projections behind. What is constitutes itself instantly as “a path unknown to any vulture.” There is a depth to that path that cannot be known or understood through theory. Instead, we forsake theorizing to begin our own unique inquiry.

When they seek the source of this practice, the student is often thrown into a more confusing position than before. Confronting the behavior of experienced Zen monks, and the lack of belief system, easy answers do not materialize. No respite is offered. We are told to simply sit in position, breathe, and follow the room exhaling in tandem.

These sitting periods compound our questions. Zen deals with these questions in surprising ways. It does not deny their importance for the spiritual seeker. Rather, it sees them as superficial and incomplete. Zen does not succumb to grand theories. Its questions arc interminably with no explanation of existence as a guarantee. Many metaphysics amount to a story we have provided for ourselves, and little more.

Gazing into our thought for long enough gradually reveals our ignorance. The Koan is one of Zen’s most important tools in helping to show us this. Since the mind hungers for explanation and security, the koan seems confusing on the surface. Continued practice, however, reveals their depth and breadth.

The Koan may display some of Zen’s insights in action, or present us with a situation to which we are asked to respond. They grab us and our base assumptions by the throat. Many Zen koans that I have read place emphasis on one’s present, concrete reality. That moment is a source of freedom, explanation, or experience. These koans are directing our attention to that moment:

Yuezhou Qianfeng was once asked by a monastic, ‘Bhagavans in the ten directions have one path to the gate of nirvana. I wonder, what is the path?’
Yuezhou drew a line with his staff and said, ‘It’s right here.’

Discussions such as these are attempting to approach the student in way that does not appeal to reductionist, idealistic thinking. Masters try to show us this in experiential ways. Rather than getting entrenched in a discussion on gradations or paths, Yuezhou hits the student with a physical, embodied answer. This is displayed in Zen literature frequently. An example of this, from Cultivating the Empty Field, utilizes a gorgeous description of natural detail:

A person of the Way fundamentally does not dwell anywhere. The white clouds are fascinated with the green mountain’s foundation. The bright moon cherishes being carried along with the flowing water. The clouds part and the mountain appears. The moon sets and the water is cool. Each bit of autumn contains vast interpenetration without bounds. (41-42)

The present that Zen teachers want us to appreciate is not capable of being fully understood. Beneath our opinions is something immense, which can be intuited through examination. Unknowing is explicitly demonstrated in Shitou’sAsk the Pillar”:

Shitou was once asked by a monastic, ‘What is the significance of Bodhidharma’s coming from India?’
Shitou said, ‘Ask the pillar.’
The monastic said, ‘I don’t understand it.’
Shitou said, ‘I don’t understand it either.’

Integral to this understanding is what has been referred to as suchness. Suchness does not designate a stable entity that we close ourselves around.  It reflects our intuition into a more consistent effort. Zen teacher Taigen Dan Leighton elaborates on how this word describes an adjustable, engaged practice:

Known in Sanskrit as tathata, this suchness is described in Indian Buddhism as ultimate truth, reality, the source, or the unattainable. Experientially, this suchness might imply the direct apprehension of the immediate present reality, harking back to early Buddhist mindfulness practices of bare attention. So, in varying contexts suchness may refer to our clear perception of reality, or else to the nature of that reality itself. (9)

No codification can hold us at this point. Suchness is to practice at the precipice, existing in transformation. As described in a line of the Four Great Vows: Dharma gates are countless, I vow to wake to them. Dharma gates demonstrate the truth, allowing us to awaken in every lineament of the entire world.

A grove of trees invites us in. They speak in melodies, in the thrum of sun and wind, and the throb of blood in universal channels. This time we brim with compassion for all things. Reality fills itself in a newly imagined flood, each act merely a beginning. Our center dissipates throughout the universe and we come once more to unknowing. For when we really begin to question, all dividing lines begin to crack. Thoughts, opinions, and beliefs become like gossamer strands.

As streams of fluid chaos, we navigate what we are in every sensation. Zen takes hold of this movement, and everything flourishes without our understanding.

A Hammer to Strike the Earth, A Scream to Rend the Sky

Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, and even on the Mount, nothing.   – St. John of the Cross 

A monk asked Chao-chou, ‘has the dog buddha nature or not?’
Chao-chou said, ‘Mu.’

Mu is a hammer to strike the earth and a scream to rend the sky.  It is an open palm, a thunderclap, and a bank of foaming clouds.  Most of all, it is simply MuSimple, direct, and profound, Mu invites the student to fully experience their own existence.  It is not something that can be expressed through familiar territories.  Instead, it distorts and undermines our own certain foundations.

Although it means “no,” or “negation,” Mu resists all of our attempts at easy definition.  Once taken on by a student, the intellect scrabbles for a foothold.  Generating this tension we arrive at the Great Barrier.  The teacher will not let us pass without a reply, and we throw ourselves headlong into Mu’s great ocean. The teacher, understanding what we are attempting to do, summarily rejects all of our answers.

The monk in the koan is ourselves, always grasping at an authoritative interpretation of reality.  Mu only flows through our fingers like sand.  We strain for an answer, the understanding examining the question from every angle, drawing up vast schematics.   The mind seeks its limits in scripture, philosophy, and previous experience, dredging up former skeletons from their graves.

In our practice, we bring a mountain of speculation, hoping to set our lives upon a new system, and fashion a new set of chains to bind ourselves.

In a sense the unlimited assemblage is the impossible.  It takes courage and stubbornness not to go slack.  Everything invites one to drop the substance for the shadow, to forsake the open and impersonal movement of thought for the isolated opinion.  – Georges Bataille

The more the intellect attempts to ground Mu, the more it finds uncertain purchase.  The student has reached a point where they cannot proceed.  The trail veers off in uncertain directions.  We lift our gaze and look upward.  The answer stares us in the eyes, and reaches out its hand to touch our own.

The Mu koan is an embodiment of Zen practice. It doesn’t dwell in bounded concepts but in its very incomprehensibility.  Rather than giving the student a system to assimilate, it draws the seeker deeper into their own lives.  There is no fixed abode, and like life, Mu admits of unparalleled inventiveness.  Rather than parroting old responses, Mu asks us to display a new understanding, rooted in the newness of each moment of experience.  Free from our concepts, we are pulled into each new moment divested of the past.

Eihei Dogen expressed this understanding in one of his discourses on practice-realization. He indicates this using startlingly direct language.

It is not in the realm of ordinary people or sages.  Thus it can neither be measured by the intellect of those who are wise, nor guessed at by the wisdom of those who have knowledge.  Neither can it be discussed by the intellect of those who are beyond wise, nor can it be arrived at by the wisdom of those who have knowledge beyond knowledge.  Rather it is buddha ancestors’ practice-realization, skin, flesh, bones, marrow, eyeball, fist, top of the head, nostril, staff, whisk, leaping away from making.

Mu explicates itself atop mountains, deep in the earth, and everywhere.  It is bound up in all our responses to the questions of life.  The ideas of past and future cannot encapsulate the moment as it swells outward in all directions.  The complex situations of life cannot be done justice by discursive thought.  Mu gestures us towards what Dae Gak has called “the power of possibility in the unknown” :

The nature of all existence is change.  This does not mean change into the familiar, but in spite of the familiar into the unknown.  This is the heart essence of Mu practice.  This is the bone of these Mu ashes left by JoJu for us to investigate, to manifest again and again, and make vibrant and brand new, alive.

As we throw ourselves headlong into Mu, we notice the question becoming more transparent, until that question arises to embrace everything that is.  It is this ambiguity that we carry with us throughout our lives, always unresolved, incessantly questioning, beating like a heart.

Bring this question forward, until doubt infects your whole being, and Mu runs through the veins and arteries of the world.