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Lions Roar : November 2009
SHAMBHALA SUN NOVEMBER 2009 66 how well, and how long, have their life-forms survived? That question almost qualifies as a koan. Koans are capsules of thought, psychic knots that resist unraveling. In some buddhist sects, students are assigned phrases or situations to meditate upon, to focus the mind and free it from the bear-trap of reason. For example: 1. “A man is sitting atop a hundred-foot pole. how does he get off it?” 2. “A wheel maker makes two wheels, each with fifty spokes. suppose you cut out the hubs. Would there still be wheels?” 3. “On a windy day, two monks are arguing about a fluttering banner. The first says, “The banner is moving, not the wind.” The second says, “The wind is moving, not the banner.” Who is right? 4. “Two hands clap and there is a sound; what is the sound of one hand?” 5. “What is the straight within the bent?” 6. “pull a five-story pagoda out of a teapot.” Inexhaustible, koans are intended for live practice between master and student, with illumination as a goal, not interpretation, because, as an old saying goes: “It’s easy to confuse the pointing finger with the moon.” As zen teacher Norman Fischer explains: “This practice consists of living with and sitting with phrases, until they become very large and very strange, and reveal themselves to us. That is to say, through them we are revealed to ourselves.” There’s no right answer to these puzzles designed to focus the mind, and I sometimes dwell on koans while waiting in the dark for first light. This morning, I’ve been thinking a little about mu, though I appreciate it’s not something understood by occasional thought. Mu, which translates inadequately as nothingness, often appears in buddhist practice, and sometimes in this venerable koan: “What is mu?” As I sit under a coliseum of stars, awaiting the dawn, mu is the everythingness of everything fed by and in time with the every- thingness of everything else, except that its particles are too small to be captured in the net of words like “every” or “thing” or “net,” which, like life-forms and galaxies, are only temporary clumps of the stridently irrational mu, a mutable, ultimately manic, mute, munificent force that strings us together as it does the farthest stars. And I am only using the unwieldy symbol of “force” be- cause we are the sort of beings who do, to communicate the shred of universe we homestead and can perceive, when of course there is no force, no we, no universe, not even mu-mesons; only these molecules, this energy pooling here for a short while as Diane, and never again in the same way. I once read of a zen master who became enlightened like this: “When I heard the temple bell ring, suddenly there was no bell and no I, just sound.” Imagine no distinction between yourself and the bell, the sound and the universe. sometimes when I’m swimming, the waves don’t feel separate, the water’s history and my history melt together, and I sense my particles breaking apart and scat- Shambhala Sun Audio: Diane Ackerman talks about the connection between spirituality and nature at www.shambhalasun.com.