The wu or mu gong-an (koan) is arguably the most important teaching in Zen.
It’s important enough that it kicks of Wumen’s gong-an collection The Gateless Gate, and it’s usually the first gong-an that Rinzai students have to “pass” in their practice. The gong-an goes something like this:
A monk asked Zhaozhou, “Does a dog have Buddha-nature?”
Zhaozhou simply replied, “Wu.”
So, what’s the big deal? How could such a simple Q&A cement it’s place in Zen history for hundreds of years? For one thing, wu basically means no, none, or not, so on the surface it seems like Zhaozhou is saying, “No, dogs don’t have Buddha-nature.” That’s controversial, because the Buddha-nature doctrine says that all beings have Buddha-nature—dogs too. All beings have the seed of enlightenment, and are fundamentally already Awake beneath all of the confusion. Just like how the sky is always clear above the clouds.
I can imagine that the monk was a bit taken aback.
Zhaozhou was a respected teacher who seemed to be challenging one of the principle teachings in Mahayana Buddhism. Of course, Zhaozhou wasn’t known for being conventional. He once worse his sandals like a hat after hearing that another teacher killed a cat, and the teacher said, “That dude could’ve saved that cats life.”
This gong-an is important not because of Zhaozhou’s reply, but because of the monk who asked the question. Authentic Zen teachers have to have “pure empathy,” they have to be able to clearly “see” other people’s states of mind. Without that trait, they’re just parrots passing along doctrines, rituals and the Path without the Buddha Heart.
Zhaozhou saw that this monk was coming to him with baggage in his mind, and that he was either trying to seek confirmation that it was okay to carry all that shit, or to toot his own horn. Zhaozhou saw inauthenticity in the monk. He wasn’t having any of that.
So he threw a fastball and said, “No, dogs don’t have Buddha-nature.” This ripped the rug out from under the monk, it made him doubt himself and his understanding. It might’ve even shattered that fake peace of mind he’d been clinging to until that point.
It’s easy to spot people’s states of mind by looking at the words they choose, because words come from our current field-of-view.
The monk asked about “having.” Zhaozhou gave a straightforward answer to that, “No, a dog doesn’t have Buddha-nature.” Then, hopefully the monk took some time to go on retreat and focus on the issue until he saw that dogs are Buddha-nature.
Does an ice sculpture have water? No, it is water. The mind freezes it into forms which come and go. Without interference from heat, cold, or inclines—water is still. What practice points toward is basically the original nature of water, water before it was moved and changed by conditions.
The monk was living in a frozen world, as most of us are. Zhaozhou was inviting him to let it thaw, and then let it settle into stillness and clarity. To settle to such a point that even “Buddha-nature” is just an idea, a wave ripped up by an errant breeze.
When we work with wu now, we usually use the huatou, “What is wu?”
We ask it over and over throughout the day, and especially while sitting. Wumen compares it to choking on a hot iron ball that you can’t swallow or spit out. Sounds great, right? Haha. It’s actually quite invigorating and turns all of our worldly concerns to dust.
And when you do swallow it, you see that it was nothing. Then you and Zhaozhou can share a laugh by the fireside.
Working wu is not about cultivating altered states of consciousness. A lot of meditators use the methods the same way we would any psychoactive drug, but that’s not the point. The point is to let, “What is wu?” alleviate your burdens. It redirects the monkey mind to something else, disrupting the circling samsaric madness that we take as “normal” life.
I imagine the monk returning to Zhaozhou and asking, “What is wu?” and then Zhaozhou hits him with a stick. That moment of no convolution, no motive, no beliefs of disbeliefs, that’s wu. It’s emptiness condensed into a simple word.
In my own practice, wu helped me a lot when it came to overcoming anxiety.
Two winters ago, I suffered from months long panic attacks. I was a fucking mess. I thought I was having heart attacks. The only way I could find some ease was by doing brisk walking meditation around my kitchen. I’d walk and walk in circles until the feeling passed.
After weeks of this, I went out into the snow, without even a shirt on, and screamed across the snowy field. What I screamed was, “No!” Then, wherever my mind wandered, whichever thought or feeling it tried to rest on, I thought, “No,” until there was nothing but spaciousness. Then I laughed, and that was the end of it.
When the phobias came back a few months later, I did the same thing, and they were immediately quelled. A year later, caring for my grandma who has Alzheimer’s, did the same thing and the raw hypochondria hasn’t come back since.
“No” is one of the most powerful, revolutionary words in our language. It derails everything, good and bad, and places us back at square none.
The trick is to stay there.
Anshi is the pen-name for a Buddhist writer. If you know who Anshi is, please don’t tell anyone since these posts often have sensitive autobiographical info in them. Anshi is a Mahayana Buddhist priest at the Bodhisattva Process.
Editor: Dana Gornall