The Actual Realisation of Emptiness

This is a retreat report on the Western Chan Fellowship retreat called ‘Shattering the Great Doubt,’ held at Maenllwyd, in September 2014. The retreat was a nine day silent meditation retreat in the Chan (Zen) tradition of koan study. The focus of one’s meditations is a self-selected koan from one of the classic collections. In addition to the long periods of silent meditation, there are daily talks by the teacher, and occasional one to one ‘interviews’ with the teacher (dokusan), usually about once every two days. One hopes to break through to Enlightenment, an experience variously described in the literature of zen as ‘the falling away of body and mind,’ or ‘seeing the nature,’ or ‘the realisation of emptiness.’

The first evening, before the rule of silence takes effect, each of us says why we have come. To simplify, simplify, simplify, I said. I did not want elaborate conundrums. I wanted to strip things down to as little as possible. When the koans were offered on the second day, there was the perfect one for my purpose: “Ordinary Mind is the Way” (Mumonkan, Koan 19). It continues: “If you try for it you will become separated from it.” And, “The Way is not a matter of knowing or not knowing.” It was an instruction manual in how to simplify.

The koan in full goes like this:

I had a new agenda to work on in meditation: get out of the way; be in the present; add nothing; have no expectations. But it did not work because I began finding out shocking things about myself. Simon’s next talk pushed me further into the pretentions and complacency of my sense of self. I realised I was only interested in other people if they had something to offer me. I realised that even my caring for dying friends was contaminated by bits of ego, and limited by my other priorities. The koan was right. If I was seeking some satisfaction or sense of goodness from the encounter with a friend, then we would, “become separated” from the Way. I recalled many instances of feeling sadly separated when I had wanted to feel intimate and open with someone. I found ludicrous examples of pride wherever I looked. Even my relationship with the sense of mystical bliss, The Mystery itself, was selfish: I wanted it when it suited me, and for it to go back in its box and wait for me at other times. It should not disrupt my pleasant, busy lifestyle.

In the next interview, a day later, as I reported these dreadful findings to Simon, he said, “You have got plenty of time for yourself, not much for others. It is controlling. Is there a fear of letting others in? The Mystery might take you anywhere.” I wanted to get rid of myself, shoot the greedy little selfish so and so. “Just relax,” said Simon. “Soften. Open to the Mystery.”

I did now realise how ridiculous and insubstantial all my cherished bits of pride and ambition and complacency were. I let go of them. Then the last piece too, had to go: the affection I had for my pride, the attachment to my idea of myself. All of these ideas I had about myself were flimflam. All my favourite beliefs, my specialist knowledge, my attainments, my hopes, my doubts, the life-story I repeat, they are all flimflam. They are unreal. They are bits of invention, imagined fantasy productions. Let them go. Open yourself to what you don’t know.

With this insight, I could now proceed with my simplifying agenda in meditation: get out of the way; be in the present; add nothing; have no expectations. The following morning, Thursday, in that beautiful first hour of meditation, I did it. I monitored my mind for any trace of the things Nansen warns me about in the koan; any trace of seeking; any trace of knowing; any lack of trust. Instead of having ideas about The Mystery (that it would deepen and be more blissful and explode into enlightenment) I just examined it. It has absolutely no concern for my absurd hopes and fears and ambitions and pride in attainment, I realised. None whatsoever. And why should it? The whole lot is absurdly trivial. And not really there. Not there at all. The universe flows on. Thousands of generations of creatures grow and die. Their wanting and attachments and ego concerns are all empty imaginings. It’s not just that they are self-serving – we all know that when we think about it – but that they are not there, and nor are the people constructed of them, such as me. Flimflam. Not there. I’m not really there. I feel like a root and nothing growing from it but an awareness of space. It is a jolt. I am not now thinking empty, I am really not there. It is a vivid and dramatic experience and emptiness is the right word for it, a word that has for years been elusive and ultimately incomprehensible to me. It is now clear to me how to be with my dying friends. By letting go. Death is empty too. All that cloudy stuff of wishing it away, clinging, protesting – that stuff is not real. It is empty. What dies is the body. All the highly valued personality that we are so profoundly attached to was never there in the first place. Life is the value. But what it is, I have no idea. There is a great Mystery but nothing for a self to seek or attain. There is the ordinary sublime to wonder at, but our reactions are neither here nor there and we can’t know anything about it. I sit through the beautiful morning service and as others eat their breakfasts I do many prostrations of gratitude to the Buddha.

Simon’s next talk was on, “All our world of experience is created by the mind. There is nothing that is not produced by the mind.” Wonderful. He manages to explain these abstruse ideas in very down-to-earth terms and make them perfectly clear. He guides my practice and I can feel the profound changes happening within me.

At the end of the day I had the opportunity for an interview. I had seen empty, Simon implied, but not entirely emptied myself out. You are dying, he insisted. What do you feel about that? I was stumped for the moment. Tired now, hours after the morning’s elation, my sense of an empty self was not secure. Keep practicing, he said.

The next morning, Friday, with new energy and the wonderful clarity of the dawn sit, I pushed on with my stripping down, simplifying, and letting go. I had to loosen control, receive rather than transmit, and be wu wei, empty of ulterior purpose. I monitored my mind clear of self-concern and the last vestiges of wanting, to just accept the experience of the present, with no expectations.

I saw how it corrupts to have any views or intentions, even well-meaning ones (in caring for my dying friends, for example, or in any kind of loving relationship). I was now convinced that my selfish little bits of wanting were standing in my way and really needed to be rid of them. I followed the guidance of Nansen in the koan, watching out for seeking, knowing, and doubt. It was surprisingly easy. Everything opened up. It was “vast and boundless like outer space”, as the koan said. As I emptied, the whole universe emptied, and there was no centre. The root I had yesterday was gone and there was no viewing position for me at all. Vast undifferentiated emptiness. It is not just a bigger version of the oceanic sense of spaciousness one gets in a clear meditation but a completely different experience, very distinct and vivid. Not that the world outside had gone, or that my body had really disappeared, of course, but that there was no bit of me in the way. How extraordinarily straightforward it was. The mechanism was simple: root out all the deluded flimflam of the seeking, wanting ego… and there is nothing but the boundless Mystery. Later, outside, the world shines, fully itself in perfection, pristine. You’d have thought that to make the world perfect all those bloody people with their half-baked beliefs and violent reactions would have to be emptied out, but no, it’s nice little me who has to be emptied. How extraordinary. I can answer the question Simon challenged me with. The proper attitude to my death is to go through it without wanting anything to be different, because I can see how futile that is, and any wanting at all gets in the way, ruining your joy in the present, closing you down to one needy issue. Acceptance. I should start now, because as Simon has pointed out with relish, I’ve already started dying.

Simon quoted Master Shengyen distinguishing between Contemplating Emptiness and the actual Realisation of Emptiness. He thought my Thursday experience was Contemplating Emptiness. As we talked, he acknowledged that the complete emptiness of Friday was the actual Realisation of Emptiness. Keep practicing, he said.

I am deeply grateful to Simon for his teaching. I have the greatest possible respect for him. The koan retreat at the Maenllwyd is a rare and beautiful experience, beyond all valuing. If only people knew what an amazing resource it is! It is a national treasure. I think it is the perfect way of doing these things and I would not want to go to any other kind of sangha. I love the place, and I love the flexible, helpful, but brilliantly focused spotlight of the teaching. And I am grateful to Simon for transmitting the magnificent Buddha dharma of compassion and wisdom passed down through all the teachers from Shakyamuni all the way to Masters Shengyen and John Crook, and transmitting it with humanity and humility.

In a Shoreham garden by Samuel Palmer with grateful acknowledgement to the Victoria & Albert museum.

Is this life or is this death?

A koan is a teaching tool to challenge you to solve the insoluble. It is a most ingenious Chinese invention in the history of Zen education. It is not entirely silly. You can solve the insoluble, but you do not get a ‘solution’ that is transferable to other people as a gobbet of knowledge. And you do not get an ‘answer’ that is in the form predicted by the question. What you get instead is a series of insights about the assumptions built into your thinking, your language and your perceptions. And you somehow mysteriously come to a sense of satisfaction with the meaning even though you have no ‘answer.’

As an example, take koan number 55 from the Blue Cliff Record:  

One day Dogo, accompanied by his disciple Zengen, went to visit a family in which a funeral was to take place, in order to express sympathy. Zengen touched the coffin and said, “Tell me please, is this life or is this death?”

Dogo said, “I would not tell you whether it is life or it is death.”

Zengen said, “Why don’t you tell me?”

Dogo said, “No, I would not tell you.”

On their way home Zengen said, “Please be kind enough to tell me. If not I’ll hit you.”

Dogo said, “Strike me if you like, but I would not tell you.”

Zengen struck Dogo.

Blue Cliff Record Case #55

Your task, on a koan retreat, or in your practice at home, is to meditate upon the koan. At the heart of it is the burning question, “Is this life or is this death?” Can you resolve the disciple Zengen’s anxiety?

In your meditation the question becomes an examination of your own sense of life, which includes your own sense of your dying.

You carry the koan around with you in your mind in daily life and apply it like a measuring instrument to all that you encounter: chicken tikka – Is this life or is this death?” Dead leaves, fading flowers, flourishing mosquitos – Is this life or is this death?”   In the end you have to make your own peace with the conundrum, in your own way.

I start my notes like this: The question is about life and death; all life and death, not a specific corpse; and it challenges me to investigate the life and death in me. I start by feeling the life in my belly, as I breathe, in my meditation. It is consciousness, whatever that is. I feel it, or, at least, I am conscious of it. Is it inside me or outside? Is it generated by my biology, or by the environment that makes the food, the air, water and sunlight? Impossible to tell. Is there a “life force,” and is it inner, or universal? Impossible to tell.

It is life; or it is some inspiration in the universe that keeps life going and is beginningless and endless. My life is short, I know, so why does “life” feel beginningless and endless? I have a striking insight: it is not personal. It is not “my” life. It is greater than me, and indifferent to me, in a benignly neglectful way. In that sense “my life” is empty. The “myness” of it is an illusion; my sense of being in charge of it is empty flimflam, a fantasy of self reassurance. There is life, and I am hitching a ride on it for a short while.

‘What is my “Original Face” from the time before my father and mother were born?’ (that is another koan) – and, I add, as I think about it, ‘What is my Original Face after my grandson will be dead?’ It is a universal life, the possession of no one. To name it would suggest that it is a great thing, and that it could be worshipped, but that would be inappropriate.  It is not an it. It does not give a damn for me, and it is wonderful. What is it?


No doer of the deeds is found;

No one who ever reaps their fruits.

Empty phenomena roll on,

This only is the correct view.

No god or Brahma can be called

The maker of this wheel of life.

Empty phenomena roll on

Dependent on conditions all.

Buddhagosa, 5th century.


My death would not be a personal thing either, I reflected. There is a great impersonal living process going on, irrespective of anyone’s opinions or desires, and we are all grist to the mill. The universe churns out life, all of which ages, decays, transforms, dies and is recycled. Like my life, my death is also “empty” of myness. It is quite unconcerned with notions of deserving, justice or care. “Death is just the end of the assumption that there is someone who owns Life” (Unmani Liza Hyde). “Empty phenomena roll on.”

On retreat in Normandy I had another insight, feeling for the first time the full force of the phrase, “The life and death of each moment.” It began when I tried to recreate in my mind the pleasure of being hailed by Mathilde, daughter of my friends. She appeared in a garden, to my surprise, and called out, running towards me. I was delighted to see her again. Can one keep hold of a special moment like that? Can we recreate it? Can we sustain its life in nostalgia’s aspic? No. It lives gloriously, and then it is gone.


Greeting Mathilde!

Can I keep the moment

like dew in the fridge?


A second insight came quickly: if one is living vividly in the present moment the potential for experiences of great joy and fullness is all over the place, all the time. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “M’installant dans le moment présent, je sais que c’est un moment merveilleux.”

Mathilde may be specially wonderful, but, in fact, watching any old bee nosing in any old flower is beautiful, as generous a gift as the universe has to offer, and available at this time of year all over the place. When one is completely clear in Ordinary Mind and focused on the present marvellous moment, all moments are vivid bliss. But time moves on. You can’t hold any of them. They die, all of them. You have to move on to the birth of the next.

What an incredible waste of life it is that we miss so many of these gorgeous, vivid experiences all around us all the time! They are born in their fullness and then fade as our attention shifts to the next.

What do I mean by “born”?  The same flowers are here in the garden today as were here yesterday, a little older, but to a quick glance, the same. The trees are the same. Some things have relatively stable continuity over time, relatively much longer than flowers or even trees, – so how is glancing at them the “birth” of them? Do I give birth to Rouen cathedral by looking at it?

Yes. It is the noticing. Instants are born in one’s consciousness. There is no continuity in the mind’s vivid perceptions, in full attentiveness. It is in constant motion. It flows without stopping. It is time. The noticing is not a copy of yesterday’s noticing of the same flower, the same tree, the same cathedral, and cannot be so. The perceptions flare and die, flare and die, flare and die, moment by moment, each one the distillation of the whole universe, and all its life, in this second. This second is the only bit of time that is alive, and it is already dying.

The great mystic William Blake saw it:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour.

The continuities are reassuring constructs in the background. They are a notional framework, but they are not where we live. We live and die each moment, in our beady looking, riveted on a close-up; or listening, note by delicious note. Tasting. Touching. That is how we are alive in the present. We live where our attention is fully focused. “Eternity” and “Infinity” are concentrated there. The relationship is best expressed by Blake again: “Eternity is in love with the productions of time.”

In the following morning’s service we chanted The Heart Sutra. I was struck by how lines of text are like our journey through time. They remain the same through a thousand years as ink printed on paper, but when your eye travels along the lines, and you voice them, your mind flares with the imagined fullness of a word or phrase. It leaps into an idea and its implications and then attention smoothly moves on, echoing or resonating with the idea and adding to it the next one. The silent symbols spring into life and speak their meanings.

You lose attention for a bit, distracted, or recalling an earlier phrase, and miss half a sentence, which lies there dead, as you pass by without bringing it to life. According to how focused you are in the moments of your reading, the words leap into life briefly and then fade and die as you move through the space-time continuum of the text.


Phrase by phrase

The Heart Sutra

bursts into life


There is a physical landscape of short-lived or long-lived stable things, a mix of continuities, through which one moves, carried by time: flowers, trees, cathedrals, and the culture of historic texts. But one lives in the mind’s awareness. Living moments flare in one’s perceptions, fade and die, flaring and dying. Is this life or is this death?”  

I would not tell you.

I would not tell you, but my answer to myself is this. It is. Life and death. Each of them separately. Both of them together. Neither of them. It’s impossible to tell them apart. The words are nonsense. But I am content.






George Marsh 1652 words May 2017

Photographs: Tom Moulson



Joshu’s Mu – Meaninglessness that Makes Sense

      Traditional koan study under a fierce Japanese Roshi is tough. “…each session had its own special terror. Novice monks were repeatedly whacked with a kyosaku that looked more like a long baseball bat. Monitors patrolled the room menacingly, taunting and poking with the stick to see if your attention would wander from Mu. But zendo drama paled in comparison to meeting Mu in the dokusan room. “What is it?” Roshi would roar, inches from your face. Periods of zazen were a quest to find something essential, something that would make the utterly exposed humiliation of dokusan less devastating… sometimes your best answer, wrought from hours of painful sitting, just made him shake his head as if to say, “My God, just how dull are you?”…Presenting my understanding to Roshi would result in his hair-raising roar: “You have explained the meaning, but now SHOW ME!”” (Grace Schireson in The Book of MU  p283).

People who have a natural flair for living in the moment and delighting in ‘What Is’ do not need this koan, but seekers after meaning, and neurotics like me, desperate to work out how things hang together and what they are for, do need it. As an academic I concluded quite early on that the study of literature and philosophy was not going to satisfy my need for meaning. Knowledge of ideas would not bring me to feel at home in the world – I would need some form of experiential realisation. The greatest challenge was my reading about the holocaust – life and death and meaning in extremis. It posed the ultimate question, and not one that a bookish answer would ever settle.

Logotherapy came out of Auschwitz with Viktor Frankl, who concluded that meaning was going to be found outside oneself, by giving oneself to something greater. Bruno Bettelheim came out with a psychology of healing stories. Primo Levi came out with the bleak conclusion that we are either The Saved or The Drowned (though he wrote about exceptional people later). A balanced academic synthesis of this learning would be nowhere near good enough for me. It was not reason that would answer. William Blake had written something stunning about the status of Reason which I always found fertile: “Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy. Energy is Eternal Delight” (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell). I sought the Energy.

I had some experiences of what Blake calls the Energy and I thought of them as sort-of religious experiences, though I was not a believer. I mean those times when you forget yourself in a transcendent absorption in watching dragonflies mating, or a disappearing speck of skylark filling heaven and earth with song, or a lake so still you dare not breathe for fear of disturbing it, times when the numinous is glimpsed in things and the world is made fresh. To quote Blake again, “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite,” and in my experiences of those times out of time, that is how it felt, infinite. It was difficult however to interpret or theorise these glimpses and make meaning. What was the numinous? What does “infinite” mean? How to conceive of it? A sort of god? The experience is blissful and perfect. Is it a glimpse of ‘love’ running through the creation? A personified god was absurd to me. Perhaps it was best described by what the Buddhists called the Buddha Nature and progressive theologians called the Ground of Being which could be found in all things, or at least in some things, at least in wonderful things. But what about in Auschwitz?

Joshu’s MU has enormous prestige in the canon of Zen history and Zen  literature due to the stunning claims made for it since Mumon, the editor who put it first among Zen koans in 1228, called it the Gateless Gate, “the one barrier of our faith”. He wrote, in what is surely the best literary blurb in history: “Make your whole body a mass of doubt, and with your three hundred and sixty bones and joints and your eighty-four thousand hair follicles concentrate on this one word “Mu”. Day and night keep digging into it. Don’t consider it to be nothingness. Don’t think in terms of “has” or “has not.” It is like swallowing a red-hot iron ball. You try to vomit it out, but you can’t….Gradually you purify yourself, eliminating mistaken knowledge and attitudes… You are like a mute person who has had a dream….Suddenly Mu breaks open…At the very cliff edge of birth-and-death, you find the Great Freedom….you enjoy a samadhi of frolic and play.” (trans. Robert Aitken, quoted in The Book of MU, p19).

Joshu’s Mu is a snatch of dialogue. A monk asked Joshu, “Has a dog the Buddha Nature?” Joshu answered, “Mu.” (trans. Sekida 1977). That’s it. But this apparently daft bit of dialogue is reputed to be transformative and generations of brilliant adepts and teachers swear to its great power to drive one on to enlightenment, so those of us seriously studying Zen have to take it on trust that it is worth sweating blood to understand it. First, a few footnotes. Joshu was a Chinese master of the ninth century called Zhaozhou Congshen, and the Chinese word he used was “Wu,” not “Mu”. His editor in 1228 was Wumen but the Japanese call him Mumon. We use the Japanese forms of these names and of Mu by convention because it is largely through Japanese translators that Zen has reached the West.

Chinese has no words for Yes or No. Have you got any money? Got. Can you give me some? Not give. “Wu”, like the modern Chinese expression meiyou, means, “not have.” Has a dog the Buddha Nature? Not have. By extension, Wu – or Mu – has a range of negative meanings, including “Nothing,” and “Without.” Sekida (1977) takes the Mu in this koan to mean Nothing. The triple-named Americans in The Book of Mu seem to have chosen to read it as No. Joshu’s Mu is familiarly known in American Zen as ‘the No koan.’ Some footnoters tell us that dogs would have been thought of as low, dirty creatures, but I don’t think that the status gap makes much difference for the purposes of our koan.

There is an earlier version of this koan in which Joshu answers, “Yes,” to one monk and, “No,” to a second monk; and there is an even earlier version in which an unnamed Master says, “Yes,” when asked, “Does a dog have Buddha Nature?”  but, “No,” when he is asked, “Do you have Buddha Nature?” But never mind the scholarly background, the stripped-down version that Mumon gives us in 1228 in The Gateless Gate is wonderfully essential and leaves no escape. Has a dog the Buddha Nature? Not have. Nothing. Without. No.

The Buddha Nature is the Essence, the Ground of Being, the numinous, the transcendent. In religious language it is the divine, but the phenomenon does not have to be described in religious terms and one could call it the life force or a mystery or use Blake’s term, Energy. It is called by some Tang teachers The Unborn, and by others One Mind or the Absolute. No doubt it substantially overlaps with what some people in a different tradition call God. I am struggling with the language here, as people have through history. Associations with words like ‘divine’ and ‘God’ take us in a dangerous direction, but it’s clear that the question about having the Buddha Nature is absolutely fundamental. What is sacred? What is ‘God’? Is there a spiritual dimension to life? Spiritual is another unsatisfactory quasi-religious word, but it is the known English shorthand for what I’d rather call awareness, though that is a bit flat. We’ll use the koan’s phrase Buddha Nature.

The Buddha taught that all sentient beings have the Buddha Nature. Everything has the Buddha Nature. So my first responses contemplating this koan were to wonder what Joshu was playing at, contradicting what we all know to be true: we have felt the presence of the Buddha Nature and we have found it deep in ourselves in the great silence of meditation. We would have difficulty defining it. And we don’t mind if you call it something Christian or Atheist or Hindu or poetic. But there is something more than inanimate material, something mysterious and creatively fertile and wonderful in us and around us and in all things, surely… isn’t there? And it is not about a dog, is it, although the dog is a charming character in this story. It’s about me. Do I have the Buddha Nature? Not have. Nothing. No,  says Joshu, echoing the story of the originator of Zen, Bodhidharma, who told the Emperor Wu, when asked what the first principle of the ‘holy teachings’ was: “Nothing holy.

I have been told many times that you cannot solve a koan rationally, that koans are designed to frustrate your rational habits of thought and put enormous pressure on you, until, as Mumon says, “Gradually you purify yourself, eliminating mistaken knowledge and attitudes… Suddenly Mu breaks open…At the very cliff edge of birth-and-death, you find the Great Freedom.” Nevertheless, I must start by clearing the way with some logic. What if Joshu had said, “Yes”?  I ask myself. The answer would imply that the dog has an identifiable element called the Buddha Nature. Then you have the universe immediately split between the sacred and the profane, the ultimate dualism. The dog is a dog, but some special part of it is the Buddha Nature and therefore the other part is the dirty ordinary part without Buddha Nature. The extraordinary element  is distinguished from the ordinary. If I have a Buddha Nature, my Buddha Nature then becomes something a bit like a soul, a special numinous spirit. The Buddha’s most astonishing teaching was that there is no soul. There is no permanent unchanging Self, in people or in things. People and things are interconnecting processes, but the Buddha denied that there is any central unconditioned permanent command centre or moral centre or ‘spirit’ or identifiable core. This is Buddhism as the science of the mind. The term in Buddhism for this idea is anatta. “An Atman, or Soul, or Self, is nowhere to be found in reality, and it is foolish to believe that there is such a thing.” (Rahula, 1959, What the Buddha Taught). So, though the Buddha teaches and we all suspect that there is some numinous quality to the universe, if we define it as a Buddha Nature that is a possession of the dog, or a part of me, then we are dangerously close to asserting a soul, and of splitting everything in the universe into the sacred and the profane, when the special characteristic of experiences of the Energy is that everything is a perfect unity. What Blake calls, “the infinite, which was hid,” is all of a piece. The mystical vision, as reported by people in all cultures who have had these experiences, does not consist of selected highlights from Reality, particularly exalted and pure things, lit in a golden glow, but a vivid perception that ordinary reality is a great oneness. We cannot go down the route of believing in a Buddha Nature that is a special possession of the dog, or a special spirit in me. In fact, splitting the creation into parts that are holy and then the not-holy, the Buddha Nature and the rest, the soul and the body, the elect and the damned, the pure and the polluted, the Good and the Evil, is exceedingly dangerous, and at the end of that road lies genocide, and every kind of atrocity. That’s where Auschwitz originates. Thank you for the warning, Joshu. Not have. Nothing. No.

I also worked on Mu by meditating, trying to reach Mu by not thinking, by getting in touch with the great silence. I am in love with it and I try to write poetry about it and think of images for it and I talk to myself about it and I come up with ideas: that it is a calm energy, a vast oceanic sense of potential, of coiled-spring vibrancy, of blissful peace… Alright, that is not really a useful definition of any kind, it is just taking an attitude. I try again. It is a buoyant emptiness. Hmm. Shodo Harada in The Book of Mu is on the same track (p124): “Buddha Nature is pure human nature… It has no colour yet it has light and a life energy that brings wonder. It is energy that has no form yet has the ability to make all things happen…” In quantum mechanics there is apparently a creative vacuum which is the basis of all sub-atomic reality, an emptiness out of which every particle is created and back into which it is annihilated. Is that what Joshu means by Nothing? Has a dog the Buddha Nature? Nothing. The answer is beginning to look to me like an assertion about the creative Ground of Being out of which every reality springs, the Emptiness of the Heart Sutra perhaps. The Buddha Nature is Nothing, or Emptiness, says Joshu, if Mu means Nothingness, and I know Emptiness because I am contact with it in meditation. I struggle to define it but I feel that there is something wonderful and that it has a mysterious energy and unity and creative potential. I begin to build up my ideas about Emptiness, known in Buddhist theory as sunyata, and to read about it and study it. I am on the track of Mu. I love my Void. The frustrating thing is that the brilliant Zen giants of the past will not endorse my poetic ideas about energy and coiled-spring and buoyant oceanic space. Huang Po, published in 858, writes entirely in negations: “This Mind [his term for it is One Mind] which is without beginning, is unborn and indestructible. It is not green nor yellow, and has neither form nor appearance. It does not belong to the category of things which exist or do not exist, nor can it be thought of in terms of new or old. It is neither long nor short, big nor small, for it transcends all limits, measures, names, traces and comparisons. It is that which you see before you – begin to reason about it and you at once fall into error. It is like the boundless void which cannot be fathomed or measured. The One Mind alone is Buddha, and there is no distinction between the Buddha and sentient things, but that sentient beings are attached to forms and so seek externally for Buddhahood. By their very seeking they lose it, for that is using the Buddha to seek for the Buddha and using mind to grasp Mind.” (trans. Blofeld, 1968)

On retreat in Wales I tried to articulate my own sense of the Nothingness as quiet energy and blissful unity and so on and David Loy told me that Nagarjuna said that to say anything at all about sunyata was to seize a snake by the tail. Having any conception of it at all was a terrible error. Huang Po had perhaps been saying something similar. I learned that Nagarjuna was a linguistic philosopher and great sceptic in the second century of our era engaged in deconstructing all metaphysical claims made by the schools of thought flourishing around him. He maintained that you could not say anything about ultimate realities. To say that they existed, or did not exist, or both existed and did not exist, or neither existed nor did not exist, were equally meaningless because they were either self-referential bits of language, or tautologies, or could be reduced ad absurdum. Nothingness, therefore, was not a lovely Void place, or hidden dimension, with special transcendent and numinous qualities creating reality. It was the absence of the fixed characteristics in things assumed in our deceptive uses of language, which we imagine are real because we have names for them and the names don’t change. It was quite impossible to say anything at all about them, rather as Huang Po had defined by negatives: it’s not this, not that, not anything, but that does not mean that it does not exist. In fact, Nagarjuna goes further. It is only because all things are empty of fixed essences that change is possible, and hence life is possible. So emptiness is not a great nihilistic nothing, but the necessary condition for life. Nagarjuna has a nice word for all the hypostasized abstractions we have which delude us into thinking they represent real identities: drishti, which means rubbish.

On another meditation retreat I met an Estonian academic, a follower of Linnart Mäll, a great modern scholar of Buddhist scriptures. He gave me a copy of a Linnart Mäll collection of essays, including essays on sunyata. Mäll had a new interpretation. Sunyata, he said, should be translated ‘zero.’ “Zero in Buddhism,” he writes, “does not mean the absence of something or negation of something but overcoming (or, rather, ignoring) the opposition between a positive statement and a negative statement, ‘+’ and ‘-‘. It means all interconnections are seen as indefinable.” (Mäll, 2003) Sunyata is the neutralisation of opposites. Mäll quotes a Russian, Stcherbatsky: “Every composite thing contains nothing real over and above the parts of which it is composed.” (Mäll, 2003). The conclusion one draws from this is that although we have a noun for the composite thing that fools us into thinking it has a fixed identity, the noun is drishti, rubbish. The dog has nothing specially ‘doggy’ and unchanging in addition to the sum of its parts functioning together in the environment. Apart from its noun ‘dog.’ In my meditation I discovered that what we might call ‘the zero attitude’ was wonderfully liberating: don’t add anything; don’t take anything away. Focus on what you experience and don’t add anything. Be zero. “You purify yourself, eliminating mistaken knowledge and attitudes,” Mumon had written, so this was all part of the desacralising process.

I realised that the idea I had constructed of the lovely Great Silence, the emptiness out of which all is created, the love flowing through the universe and so on was all a reification of Nothingness into a beautiful Somethingness, and that I was ascribing qualities to it, and that it was becoming a new and improved Buddha Nature and Joshu was still there muttering, “Not have Buddha Nature,” at me. “No.” I had reified Emptiness into something full. Not have. No, said Joshu. Nothing holy, said Bodhidharma.

This koan is uncompromising, and leaves you no room for your favourite ideas at all. Joshu has you trapped. He dismantles all conceptualisations. I was exceedingly reluctant to give up my sense of the Buddha Nature, the Essence, the special sense of Life in the universe, the Absolute, its quiet subtle energy and gentle numinous power, its peace and love – I felt I knew it from experience. But the attempt to find its identity and define it had to be abandoned. I was in love with my conception of Emptiness but Huang Po and Nagarjuna and Mäll and Joshu and Bodhidharma were chorusing, “No!” Joshu was wagging his finger at me. I came to Buddhism looking for a beautiful inspiration to give meaning and focus to my life and they were all saying, “No!”

I went back to the koan again. The problem was the word “have”. You cannot separate out the Buddha Nature as a property of the dog, or of me. If there is a Buddha Nature it is inseparable from the dog, or from anything else. Either the dog is Buddha Nature, all of the dog is Buddha nature, or it is not. What can Buddha Nature add to the dog? If it means any speck more than the natural processes of life then it is a “soul” or some such idea and you have another snake by the tail. And when you look at it like that, then the two things mean the same and the whole question is meaningless. To say that everything is Buddha Nature or that everything is not Buddha Nature ultimately becomes a tautology: everything is everything. Any generalisation you make about “Everything” is meaningless – or, rather, it is taking an emotional attitude. To say that everything is Buddha Nature expresses your reverence. To say that nothing is Buddha Nature expresses your dry cynicism. Neither of them has any objective meaning. If you cannot separate out the Buddha Nature from everything, then you are left with the tautology, and you must not separate it out or you end up with Auschwitz. Joshu steers you away from all hierarchical or dualist systems of thought. Forget about Plato and Descartes and theologies of good and evil. You cannot separate the Buddha Nature from the dog.

There are two levels here, of course. In our ordinary lives, using the constructs of language, we make distinctions all the time, we separate out ideas about qualities, abstract them, and very useful they are too. But each named distinction is a construct of our language, and does not refer to a fixed separable identity in reality. Distinctions are convenient and functional for everyday tasks, but they do not tell us which part of the dog is holy.

I watched dogs playing, and children playing. They play and explore and then follow a new drive and act in response to what they find. ‘Buddha Nature’ would be a pompous idea imposed upon them if it meant any more than What Is. Nothing special must be attributed to one part of the creation to label it more or less than what all of it, interwoven and interconnected in thousands of ways, just is. Joshu was forcing me to give up my own conceptualisation of Buddha Nature, which meant all notions of holiness or the sacred or a life force. All such inherited human cultural ideas had to be ditched. The very idea of myself was a reification due to a grammatical trick of language. I sit down, I eat, I laugh, I love you, all of these statements imply that there is an “I” which is separable from the sitting, the eating, the laughing, the loving, just because we have got a first person pronoun. Perhaps the Blake phrase would come in handy here too: The sense of self is the bound or outward circumference of my Energy, the defining edge where activities are communicable.

What is the need for a Buddha Nature anyway, gilding the lily of What I Am, my animal reality? It is meaningless. You cannot separate it out and you cannot say anything about it and you cannot find it apart from everything that is, and so it is meaningless. I had now arrived at the dead end of logic. There was nothing more that reasoning about the koan could do. Now I had to follow Mumon’s instructions and live it every hour of every day, swallow it as a red hot iron ball, and redouble the purifying of myself, eliminating mistaken knowledge and attitudes.

Joshu had blocked off all avenues and left me in the existential place: face to face with What Is, with no conceptual comfort blanket, with nothing holy, with no tenable ideas at all, and no way of interpreting What Is to make meaning, without finding him there wagging his finger and saying, “No.” How was I to make meaning, or choose a meaning, or understand life, with him there all the time saying, “No”? Not only is the koan meaningless, it teaches something more: things are meaningless. There is no meaning to be found, – at least, not in ideas about the sacred. Joshu was brutally uncompromising. He left no escape. There was nothing there except what you could find for yourself. You are responsible for your response. You face things without authoritative reassurances. No dogma. No belief system. No theology. Nothing to hold onto. You have to be self-motivating and accept what you find, with no supportive ideology, and certainly no fantasy about the comforts of religion. As Barry Magid puts it, “Why are we alive? We are alive! … Why do fish swim? They are fish! Why does the bear shit in the woods?” (p257)

Life in the world is a miraculous mystery, the universe is astonishing, we have not the foggiest idea what it all means, or why we are here, so our only task is to be aware, and fully experience the wonder of it all.

But carrying around Joshu’s “Not have Buddha Nature” and Bodhidharma’s “Nothing holy” in my mind, muttering them to myself, proved to be amusing and delightful. I found a new pleasure in confronting a flowering tree, or a dog, or a child, or the sea, and giggling about nothing holy. It was ironic, paradoxical, and absurd. Nothing holy threw me back into an appreciation of the reality of how things are. If I don’t have to think anything about things, but just meet them as they are, they are liberated and express themselves brilliantly. It was a cleansing of the doors of perception. We see the world through a veil of preoccupations, concerns, plans, judgements and interpretations. Clear away all that drishti and see it fresh, without adding anything, without putting any names or characteristics or definitions or judgements on it, and there is a vivid, beautiful suchness to be found in the zero attitude. There is the infinite, in everything: there it is! It has been lurking there all along! –  and to call it nothing holy is hilarious, and true, or not true, it does not matter, and it amounts to the same thing either way. The dog comes alive again in all its glory, not a puzzle but a dog! I go back to meditating on the breath. What could be more glorious, blissful and extraordinary than being an aware animal, breathing, in this world? Don’t add anything.  Whether I am finding the Buddha Nature or not is irrelevant and meaningless. Joshu’s Mu has proved to be the most positive No in history! It stymies my mind and throws me into direct experience.

But, is it a philosophical dead end? Is meaninglessness a terrible form of nihilism? Buddhism is sometimes accused of emphasising suffering and being pessimistic and miserable. If Nothingness – the Void, sunyata – is reified into something holy, is not that nihilism at its worst? Nagarjuna corrects us: “Whoever makes a philosophical view out of ‘emptiness’ is indeed lost.” It is a misreading of sunyata to think that Buddhism worships Nothingness.

At this point Joshu pops up again, saying to me, No! Not have. This is not an idea, not a philosophy, not an assertion about reality and not an assertion about Nothingness. There is no Nothingness. There is no reason at all to suppose that your existential response to that will be misery and despair and amoral cynicism. On the contrary, it will very likely be a sense of liberation, joy, belonging, and deep gratitude. Buddhism is about happiness. Paradoxically, Joshu’s big bald No! is life-affirming, reassuring and beautiful. It brings your awareness into focus with unobstructed clarity. Joshu denying holiness points you back at the wonder of what is. The No is a big Yes, but you don’t need to plump for either Yes or No. You are free of such judgements.

Mu has become a matter of living vividly in the present, with nothing between me and the suchness of things, and it is a great delight. It was not a barrier after all, but a Gateless Gate. It was right under my nose all along. So Joshu’s liberating No! to everything has put to rest my anxious search for meaning. I don’t need that anymore because it is clear (“We are alive!”). I am deeply grateful to Joshu. He takes you to a place where theology and philosophy and reasoning become meaningless but where you fall through a hole and find the Energy, a completely fulfilling acceptance of life, a place where the questions don’t matter anymore. Having no ideas about things liberates all things to teach you, and they very kindly do. It is necessary to give up conceptualising, and then to throw oneself wholeheartedly into awareness, to discover that the universe is love. The creation is sacred and glorious. Perhaps these are just attitudes I adopt, because everything is also just ordinary, which is another attitude. And having reached this point I took the next step, which was to give the heart. I surrendered wholeheartedly to the ordinary-sacred, the bog-sacred world. I gave it love, and took it for love and it was love, bog-sacred love. Joshu has not proved that there is no Buddha Nature, not at all – my conclusion is that everything is Buddha Nature and wonderful, but, as Laozi implied, that is for lack of a better word: “Compelled to consider it, I call it Great” (trans. Feng and English, 1973).

Meaninglessness is not without sense. Defining the ways in which you cannot define the Buddha Nature or the Energy or whatever you call it is not quite meaningless in itself but demarcates what is meaningless at the heart of assertions about reality. It tells us what we know that we cannot know. The irreducible nuclear core of meaninglessness in language and analysis does, in spite of its absurdity, lead to a valid and vivid conclusion: give up the big questions about meaning and experience the suchness with full awareness. The meaninglessness is a necessary recognition of paradox and contradiction: reality is made up of all possible opposite qualities all inseparably tangled and intertwined – not just the qualities of this koan, the sacred and the mundane, inextricably bound together, but all such oppositions. Trying to disentangle the qualities and to generalise about them or choose between them is futile. The meaninglessness is amusingly instructive, a form of creative paradox that sends us off in a more fruitful direction. We come to the end of where language can clarify, and go off into a different form of direct experience, and that is a liberating breakthrough. Mu breaks open, as Mumon said.

But to return to the beginning, and the most difficult question, does this help me understand Auschwitz? It does not help me at all to imagine how people could perpetrate such crimes, though I am convinced that it is the tyranny of dualistic thinking that makes it possible for people to categorise groups of other people as not sacred and rationalise for themselves the brutalities. What it does do, because very brave people have demonstrated that they can do it, is to show the magnificent attitude to take to the inescapable reality of death and impermanence. Etty Hillesum in her transit camp on the way to Auschwitz came to this compassionate attitude. “Every atom of hate we add to this world makes it still more inhospitable,” she wrote. “We ourselves forfeit our greatest assets by our feelings of being persecuted, humiliated and oppressed. By our own hatred.”  She addresses the questions Joshu’s Mu addresses: “What they are after now is our total destruction. I accept it. Living and dying, sorrow and joy, the blisters on my feet and the jasmine behind the house, the persecution, the unspeakable horrors – I accept it as one mighty whole. Life is meaningful even in its meaninglessness, provided you make room in your life for everything, and accept life as one indivisible whole. But as soon as you try to exclude certain parts of life, refusing to accept them and arrogantly opting for this and not that part of life, yes, then it does become meaningless because it is no longer a whole.” (Hillesum 1996). Etty knew she would be murdered. That is a starker version of what confronts us all: time is limited and life is precious. The insouciant attitude is what Mumon said at the beginning: “…enjoy a samadhi of frolic and play.” Chinese master Linji put it with characteristic force: “Enter hell as if strolling in a pleasure garden.” The courageous Etty Hillesum writes, “The misery here is quite terrible; and yet, late at night when the day has slunk away into the depths behind me, I often walk with a spring in my step along the barbed wire. And then time and again, it soars straight from my heart – I can’t help it, that’s just the way it is, like some elementary force – the feeling that life is glorious and magnificent” (ibid p.294). “We have to rid ourselves of all preconceptions, of all slogans, of all sense of security, find the courage to let go of everything, every standard, every conventional bulwark. Only then will life become infinitely rich and overflowing, even in the suffering it deals out to us” (ibid p.170). “You know,” she writes to her friend, as she is waiting for the next transport of cattle-trucks, “If you don’t have the inner strength while you’re here to understand that all outer appearances are a passing show, as nothing beside the great splendour inside us – then things can look very black here indeed” (ibid p.326).

Joshu has kindly given us the means to enlightened awareness. The koan is a “kind of technology, a hack for the mind,” as John Tarrant calls it (The Book of Mu p269). How daft is it to worry about whether a fresh green leaf is holy or unholy? This is the ultimate extension of the Buddha’s teaching about anatta: the end of all attempts to isolate a “soul”, or a “spirit”, or a fixed identity, in leaf or dog, man or woman. It is a liberating transformation of perception.

George Marsh





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Feng, Gia-Fu and English, Jane, 1973, London, Tao Te Ching, Wildwood House

Ford, James Ishmael and Blacker, Melissa Myozen, 2011, Boston, The Book of Mu, Wisdom Publications

Hillesum, Etty, 1996, New York, Etty Hillesum: An Interrupted Life, and Letters from Westerbork, Holt

Mäll, Linnart, 2003, Tartu, Studies in the Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita and Other Essays, Centre for Oriental Studies University of Tartu

Rahula, Walpola, 1959, 1990, London, What the Buddha Taught, Wisdom Books paperback edition

Sekida, Katsuki, 1977, New York, Two Zen Classics, Weatherhill