MU–A Mediation for Lent, Day 8

A monk once asked master Chao-chou, “Does a dog have Buddha-nature or not?” Chao-chou said, “MU.”—Buddhist koan

After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about a parable.  He said to them: “Are you so dull?”—Mark 7:17-18

Can it be that the early spring, the Lenten anticipation of a bright green world, and the shaking off of winter’s grey dullness can prepare our minds for a new way of knowing, a way that knows with questions rather than just answers? Why do you ask?

Much of Buddhist teaching comes to us in the form of koans, a Japanese word which means”the p_-stilllace where truth is declared.” In one of the most famous Buddhist koans, the monk asks, “Does a dog have a Buddha nature or not?” Now, if you know anything about Buddhism, the answer to this question might have seemed obvious. Buddhism teaches that sentient beings, those with consciousness, have the ability to become fully aware of the universe and themselves, and thus awaken their Buddha-nature: enlightenment. Dogs are obviously conscious beings and therefore, have a Buddha-nature that needs to be awakened.

But Chao-chou is a Zen master, so he is the essence of cool and only has a one-word answer: “MU.” The meaning of “MU” has been debated by theologians for a couple of millennia, but it seems to be this: “Un-ask the question.”

It’s kind of like when Jesus and his disciples stop for lunch and they start peppering him with questions about one of his sayings: “Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.” In a culture that believed eating a cheeseburger or pulled pork or fried catfish was sinful or that believed that simply touching a woman who is menstruating made a man unholy, the very idea that impurity comes from within was not only shocking, but most probably blasphemous, since all of that came from the Bible and the Bible, as everyone knows, is the Word of God, and thus absolutely true.

So, his disciples, thumbing their little scrolls of Leviticus, said, “Um, Jesus. Why are you telling people that they can eat anything? Isn’t that unscriptural?”

“Why are you so freaking dumb?” was his sweet loving Jesus answer. He might have said, “Un-ask the question.”

What both Chao-chou and Jesus are saying is that you have to go back and ask better questions, no matter what your question is. You cannot find truth by looking it up in a book, no matter how holy the people who wrote that book were. You can only find truth by asking truth questions and then asking truth better questions. As your questions get better, you get closer to truth, especially truth about yourself.

The monk needed to realize that he was not so smart as he thought he was and Jesus’ disciples needed to realize that they weren’t so holy as they thought they were. They all needed to realize that nothing is as obvious as it appears, nor is certainty even certain.

So rather than asking, as we did last week, “Is doubt good?” should we not rather ask, “Is doubt doubt?” And that’s only the first question. Because the answer is MU.

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